The first performance by the New York Philharmonic, then The Philharmonic Society, took place at 8 p.m. on December 7, 1852, a date that will live in American musical…famy? On Wednesday evening, Gary Parr, the orchestra’s chairman, offered a detailed description of that 19th Century night, wondrous in its period contrasts: horse-drawn carriages for cars, cobbles for asphalt, benches for seats, candles for lights, musicians for ushers, Canal Street for uptown, Beethoven’s 5th for new music.
He painted this poetic portrait for the crowds at Avery Fisher who had come to the New York Philharmonic’s 15,000th concert—a milestone to which no other American orchestra has even come close. Typically, the orchestra makes little noise over such landmark concerts, and Wednesday evening’s concert was barely an exception, save for a few short speeches before the music—replete of course with banal invocations of Bernstein, Toscanini and Masur, who was up in the balcony; there was something very high school graduation about it all, down to a Credit Suisse representative as the commencement speaker—and a few minutes spent taking a commemorative 360° photograph.
Music director Alan Gilbert and Co. didn’t even conceive a special program for the evening: no Leonard Bernstein songs, in honor of the orchestra’s most famous helmer; no Mahler (who was once music director), no “New World Symphony” (which the orchestra commissioned), no broad survey of American music. Gilbert, in his first season on the job, even ceded the rostrum for this historic occasion (but not the lectern) because the Philharmonic is still in the midst of its “The Russian Stravinsky” festival. This wasn’t a nostalgic night about the orchestra’s past. Banners and program-wraps aside, it was, like every other night at Avery Fisher, about well-performed classical music.
In general, the Stravinsky on hand Wednesday evening was difficult: not to listen to, but to play! Each instrument wound through its own contrapuntal melody, rife with copious notes, that complexly interlocked with every other. To pull it off requires, obviously, tremendous discipline, practiced and professional, that the Philharmonic supplied in spades. But through conductor Valery Gergiev, the music also took on a roaring rawness, perched perfectly in that hallowed space between technical perfection and emotional expression.
Nowhere was this clearer than in the nightcapping rendition of Petrushka, the ballet music whose score was composed in 1911, sandwiched between Igor’s best known works: The Firebird and The Rite of Spring. The orchestra sounded rich and thick—and they better have, for that size! After intermission, the musicians looked like they’d doubled in number; there was even a piano in the back somewhere, obscured from those of us in orchestra seats. (A commonly performed revised-version from 1947 misguidedly reduces this splendid orchestration.)
The piece is a stunning tonal fantasy—playful, impassioned, and urgent. The opening passages, sylvan sonicscapes, evoke unobserved woodland critters going about their scampering. (In the actual story, these are strolling St. Petersburgers.) But by the end, the piece sounds like it’s forging new paths through outerspace, dodging meteors. In between, jazzy interludes augur the work of great composers later in the century: George Gershwin! Nino Rota! Uh, Danny Elfman!
The night began with Symphony in C (1938-1940), a work of scurrying melodies and oomphing, bassy brass lines interlocking into a tricky arabesque. (Listen here.) Stravinsky’s wife, mother, and eldest daughter all died of tuberculosis while he worked on the piece, and as such it possesses a dark overtone, though less bombastic Sturm und Drang like its Romantic forebears than dark clouds on a spring day. (Gergiev kept the melodrama in check with his fluttering fingers.) It sounds more anxious than despairing, more neurotic—more 20th Century, particularly as the piece goes on.
Stravinsky, in fact, serves better than any of his contemporaries as a sort of bridge between the emotionalism of the 19th Century and the atonal formalism of the 20th, and which is still in vogue to this day. The Symphony in C has a modern sound laid within a traditional shape: it has a brash opening movement, a pastoral second, a regal third, a boisterous fourth. But it sounds like it was written by a Romantic with schizophrenia: it’s classical beauty through a madman’s eye. The third movement could accompany a royal feast, perhaps, but only one as seen in a peasant’s nightmare! Stravinsky is the Picasso of music.
The night ended with Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra, a sort of concerto with a prominent, pulsing rhythm that comically alternates harsh, haunting passages with childlike plinking, and (again) jazzy Gershwinlike transitions. Denis Matsuev made his Philharmonic debut as the pianist, who took an already playful part and relished it, frequently crossing his hands and clanging the keyboard. He sounded like a puppy at the end of a long lead, being as cute and as crazy as he could while allowing the leash-bearer (the orchestra) to keep up. The audience lapped it up, and so he treated us to an encore, complementing the previous piece’s tinklings with Anatoly Lyadov’s “Music Box”. It was a diversion from the Stravinsky, but no one seemed to mind.