NY Philharmonic Does Summer Right, But with a Tightened Belt

07/20/2010 2:33 PM |

Andrey Boreyko in Queens
  • Andrey Boreyko in Queens

The New York Philharmonic is still doing summer right—at least, they’re trying to. Unlike the Metropolitan Opera, set to perform a stripped down concert on Pier 1 in Brooklyn Bridge Park tonight, the city’s hometown orchestra appeared on the south end of Prospect Park’s long meadow on Friday night for roughly an hour’s worth of starlit classical, performing for a crowd of thousands of wine-besotted Brooklyn picnickers. A few conspicuous budget-saving measures were taken, but where the Met has tucked tail and fled in the face of recession, the Philharmonic made an as valiant-as-possible effort to keep a grand city-tradition going as it was.

The night still ended with fireworks: after all, that seems to be what draws the crowds, though it felt like the display was cut short. This was the night’s reigning theme: the same, but less. For one, the concert felt a lot shorter than in years past, more like half an evening’s worth of music divided by an intermission; by the time the break came, it was like an eleven o’clock lunch: you didn’t need it. How could you have drunk enough wine by then to need a portapotty?

Also, music director Alan Gilbert was nowhere to be found. Last year, we commended the incoming Gilbert on leading the Parks concerts; his predecessor, Lorin Maazel, was often criticized for failing to engage with the city, and the Gilbert era was supposed to mark a change, towards which helming the Parks Concerts would be a first step. I suppose, at the end of his first year, he considers the problem to have been solved already. (Or, he’s too busy making YouTube videos?)

In his stead was Andrey Boreyko; accordingly, the night began and ended (twice!) with a little taste of Moscow-on-the-Hudson, serendipitously timed to coincide roughly with the release of Salt and the revelation of spies in our midst. This is shaping up to be the summer of Russia in New York!

First off was Tchaikovsky’s Polonaise from Eugene Onegin (listen here), a boisterous dance piece whose bluster got lost in the humidity. The evening ended with an unannounced encore, a short piece from the same composer’s Sleeping Beauty ballet, to which some in the crowd sang along softly with the lyrics from the Disney cartoon.

Last year, the public voted for an encore by text message; this year, such techno-savvy democracy was scrapped, presumably in the name of saving money. After all, ballots don’t count themselves. Or, at least, the computer programs that count them don’t design themselves? (If one group’s budget didn’t seem down, it was the NYPD’s; cops, weaving through the maze of blankets, were more visible than in any recent year.)

Before this bookending Tchaikovsky, the Phil took on selections—no time for the whole thing; get in, get out!—from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, which was steeped in the rich Russian romanticism that the opening Polonaise sorely lacked: mysterious melodies teetering on the edge of dissonance; bouncy dances soured by minor-key modulation; jingly jaunts; regal, curdled themes raked over stern rhythms. It was alternately eerie, kingly, dulcet, all the time infused with an aching beauty from the lush orchestrations and rich performance.

But did it swing? If you’re going to do a little Romeo and Juliet, why not do the American iteration as well—a little Tony and Maria, eh? Before intermission, the orchestra performed the Symphonic Dances from West Side Story.

The week before last, a member of the orchestra currently performing the Bernstein et al. musical on Broadway wrote an op-ed in the Times; he argued that the musical’s orchestrations were so important to the music that if the producers replaced them with synthesizers, the show would do better to close. This parks concert drove that argument home: with a lush “Somewhere” so Badalamentian it felt like the park had fallen through a wormhole into Twin Peaks; with a big, brassy “Mambo” (hear it from Dudamel) complete with orchestra participation: “Mam-BO!” (The audience had to supply its own finger snaps for the “Pas de Deux”.)

Of course, it only makes sense: if the modern New York Philharmonic can’t kick ass with the music of its spiritual godfather, what good would it be? Honestly, I never heard West Side Story sound so full.

Or, at the same time, so awful. The sound at these parks concerts has never earned bragging rights, but Friday’s concert’s was the worst I’ve heard at a parks concert in all my (handful of) years attending them. The Bernstein provided a rollicking good time: it just sounded like it was coming from a YouTube video, played from a laptop that was smothered by a pillow. After all, good speakers and microphones ain’t cheap.

Hear an excerpt (of the piece, not from Friday!) of the Prokofiev: