New World Order
David Geffen Hall, Lincoln Center
09/22/2016 - & September 23*, 24, 2016
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 35
Antonín Dvorák: Symphony No. 9 in E minor, Op. 95
Lisa Batiashvili (violin)
New York Philharmonic, Alan Gilbert (conductor)
“The violin is no longer played; it is pulled, torn, drubbed.”
This concert actually should have been given at Carnegie Hall, since Tchaikovsky had journeyed all the way from Russia (in the age before the airplane) in order to conduct the first ever music at the new auditorium and then only led his Marche Solennelle during the first half of the event, before giving the podium over to another maestro. The “New World” Symphony was premiered at Carnegie two years later by the then resident orchestra the New York Philharmonic. The story that the “Goin’ Home” movement (the Largo) was repeated at the insistence of the audience is apparently apocryphal.
Leaving his marriage after just nine weeks, the sexually confused Tchaikovsky sank into a depression that, fifteen years later, would cause him to resolve his neuroses by committing suicide. After a consoling stipend from his patroness Nadezhda von Meck, however, he blossomed out of the darkness and composed not only Eugene Onegin but also the majestic Symphony No. 4 and the quixotic Violin Concerto. It is his wildest creation, one whose opening theme is not only never developed but makes no further appearances during the piece and caused most fiddlers of his time to run the other way (it took four years to mount the premiere).
Lisa Batiashvili, the best violinist from Georgia since Charlie Daniels (yes I know that he was actually born in North Carolina), is considered a master of this work. The powerful opening of this piece is a challenge to the soloist and should be answered with the beauty of poetry. However, this violinist hit most of the notes but never achieved the proper poetic atmosphere. She neither pulled, tore nor drubbed.
The orchestra was at its best during the more quiet passages, but Ms. Batiashvili seemed to playing by rote, never rising to emotional consolation or even turbulence. During these tender sections, Maestro Gilbert had his ensemble on their best collective behavior, but this soloist, alas, never exhibited a transformative effect (or affect for that matter). This was a very disappointing performance.
New York loves Dvorák: there are two statues of him in Manhattan, although one of them looks oddly like wrestler Paul Olaffsen who was known as “The Swedish Angel” (and suffered severely from acromegaly). There is even a bust of Gustav Mahler in the foyer at David Geffen, significant for our purposes today because Mahler was a major proponent of the operas of Dvorák in Vienna. I have personally heard this orchestra under Boulez and then the three “M’s”: Mehta, Masur and Maazel (I was aware of Bernstein and Mitropoulos but did not have access to New York in those faraway days) and can state unequivocally that Alan Gilbert should be principally remembered for bringing this ensemble back up to snuff.
This “New World” Symphony is a fine example. Here Gilbert began with great expectations until a major horn flub in the very first page caused him to keep his baton high in the air for over thirty seconds. I assume that he was contemplating starting over, which he did not do, but continued on to deliver a very fine performance. In the Largo we heard the poetry that had been conspicuously absent in the Tchaikovsky and experienced it in a very concentrated and emotional form. I had to pinch myself to remember that this was the local band and left the hall with a spring in my step. Here’s hoping that they can keep up this level of play after Gilbert leaves.
Now perhaps entering its final season before the renovation of David Geffen Hall begins, the Philharmonic has an Augean stables to clean for its 2017-18, 2018-19, 2019-20 and, possibly, 2020-21 venues. Choices include the Koch Theater just across the plaza, where 50 million dollars have already been spent but not a single penny to ameliorate the poor acoustics suffered for years by the now defunct New York City Opera, Carnegie Hall on a rotation basis, the Metropolitan Opera House on Sundays and for weekday matinees, Brooklyn Academy, the New Jersey PAC center across the bridge, Alice Tully Hall for smaller ensembles, the Park Avenue Armory or the Church of St. John the Divine for those who love echoes and other funhouse effects, parks and other outdoor venues with questionable emanations of sound, and various suburban auditoria inaccessible to many of the regular audience members. Whatever the logistics there will be many angry customers who will take their animosity out on music director designate Jaap van Zweden during the diaspora. At some point the orchestra will be playing “Goin’ Home” for real. Should be halcyon days for critics!