Sunday, November 16, 2008

New York Philharmonic overpowers voices in Bernstein celebration

The New York Philharmonic, under its music director designate Alan Gilbert, partied a little too hard during second half of its concert on Friday night at Carnegie Hall, overpowering some of the featured soloists and chorus with too much sound. As a result, the program lost momentum. That was too bad, because the concert, which contained instrumental-only pieces in the first half, had potential to become a really fun gala in honor of Leonard Bernstein. The mood was remedied with a couple of exuberant encores, and the audience went home with a smile.

The concert was held of the exact day 65 years ago when Bernstein made a stunning conducting debut as a last minute replacement for Bruno Walter. The success of that performance helped to launch Bernstein’s career as an international star in the world of classical music. That historic event provided the context for the Philharmonic’s all-Bernstein concert.

The performance began with Bernstein’s Symphonic Suite from the film “On the Waterfront.” The orchestra evocatively conveyed the cinematic breadth of this work, which included plaintive themes, pulsating rhythms, tension-driving accelerandos, and massive clusters of tones. From the midst of the harshness emerged a lyrical melody for the violins and then the cellos. The piece ended with a crushing, demonstrative chord, which elicited enthusiastic applause from the audience.

Next on the program the orchestra performed Bernstein’s Serenade (after Plato’s “Symposium”) for Violin, String Orchestra, Harp, and Percussion. Bernstein wrote this work between 1955 and 1957 after becoming inspired by reading Plato. He suggested that this music in this piece reflects a dialogue on the topic of love.

Glenn Dicterow, the orchestra’s concertmaster, was the featured soloist for the Serenade, and the sweet sound from his violin was pleasant but he did not play with enough conviction to engage the audience. The five movements in this work contain a lot of variety, especially the last one, which depicts a group of drunkards who interrupt the serious mood. Yet the orchestra didn't create a commotion; so the piece came off flat.

After intermission, the orchestra played the “West Side Story” Concert Suites No. 1 and No. 2 with soprano Ana María Martínez, tenor Paul Groves, and the New York Choral Artists as featured singers. These selections from the beloved musical should have been the highlight of the evening, but only Groves could consistently project his voice to be heard above the volume of the orchestra. The orchestra often overpowered Martínez when she was in her lower register. Whenever the orchestra increased its volume, it washed over the chorus as well. That weakened the overall effect of the music.

As if to get the audience pumped up, the orchestra played the Overture to “Candide” as an encore without Gilbert at the podium. Gilbert then came out to direct as second encore, an exuberant “Mambo” from “West Side Story.”

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