Opening night at the New York Philharmonic is an event: the press is feted on the rooftop pool deck of the Empire Hotel, plied with free booze and god’s-eye views overlooking Lincoln Center and beyond; female members of the orchestra wear colorful gowns instead of the usual black; everyone stands for the National Anthem. This year, it was a particularly Spanish-inflected event, with the orchestra bookending the work of two South American composers with pieces by Ravel, spotlighting Yo Yo Ma on cello.
The concert began with Ravel’s Alborada del gracioso, a light and jazzy pops-like piece with a melancholic oboe-dominated middle, still a fun way to kick off the season. (Though Ravel was French, he flirted often with a Spanish style.) The Philharmonic then played for the first time Osvaldo Golijov’s gorgeous and glorious five-year-old piece Azul; it begins with droning chords over which a cello and accordion enter, its dolorous influences pitched somewhere between Ives’s Unanswered Question and the second movement of Beethoven’s Seventh. But the highlight is the cello cadenza laid over peculiar percussion instruments, more complexly rhythmic than most new music but still not necessarily Latin-inflected. Golijov’s roots may be in Argentina, but not his music’s aren’t.
Astor Piazzolla’s La series del Angel suite from the early 60s, however, had more stereotypically sultry flair (as arranged for the Phil on commission by Argentine Octavio Brunetti), beginning with a loungy, torchy Jobim-esque groove that went into something faster, practically begging for castanets; the piece travels between opposite ends of the cliches of passion, from fiery to full of longing. (Its accordion parts, performed by Michael Ward-Bergeman, were particularly beautiful.)
The night ended with Bolero, which I heard the Philharmonic perform once before, several years ago. I went to the bar after, where one of the old-timer regulars told me, “Oh, I hate Bolero! It’s just the same fucking thing over and over again for 17 minutes.” Which, he’s not wrong, but it’s an awfully pretty melody that gets repeated, its rat-a-tat snare infectious, and the way the orchestra passes around the main theme, slowly developing it, is charming, and displays symphonic patience—as much a virtue here as anywhere else. The piece follows an easy narrative that reveals the typical classical-music form in an easy-to-understand way. No wonder it’s so popular.
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Listen to Bolero with Leonard Bernstein conducting the New York Philharmonic: