One Big Symphony
October 15, 2012
The Philharmonic’s 171st season is a wide- ranging journey. Paul J. Pelkonen reveals many of the musical landmarks.
Ask Alan Gilbert what he’s looking forward to in the coming New York Philharmonic season, and the Orchestra’s Music Director responds, “We try to create programs with only those works we are looking forward to presenting. I really can’t single out any work or composer. I feel there are a lot of highlights.”
Each year the Philharmonic builds a ten-month subscription season from those highlights. Drawing from centuries of classic, innovative, and modern works, the Philharmonic schedule is the ultimate in long-form composition: a massive symphony of sound that opens in mid-September and runs through June of the following year.
At the helm is Mr. Gilbert, who is starting his fourth full season as Music Director. This year sees the continuation of some familiar threads: the CONTACT! new-music series, the next installment of the survey of works by Carl Nielsen, and a third collaboration with director-designer Doug Fitch. But this is also a year of transition at Avery Fisher Hall, with new faces in key artistic roles.
In choosing Emanuel Ax as The Mary and James G. Wallach Artist-in-Residence, the Philharmonic is acting on its dedication to both classics and thought-provoking newer works. The genial pianist will bring his elegant style to a Bach concerto on a program that also includes one by Schoenberg — not to mention his beloved interpretation of Mozart, which he will also take on the Philharmonic’s EUROPE / SPRING 2013 tour. His intimate connection with these players will also enrich chamber performances, such as the co-presentation with Lincoln Center’s White Light Festival of a program built around Schoenberg’s chamber-sized reduction of Das Lied von der Erde — the penultimate completed work by former Philharmonic Music Director Gustav Mahler.
The other new arrival is Christopher Rouse, the American composer and educator who is now the Orchestra’s Marie-Josée Kravis Composer-in-Residence. In addition to the world premiere of Prospero’s Rooms (a Philharmonic commission), audiences will hear Mr. Rouse’s Phantasmata as well as Seeing, a thoroughly modern piano concerto featuring Mr. Ax, with whom the Philharmonic premiered the work in 1999.
On September 19 Alan Gilbert opens the season with a set of four subscription concerts one week before the traditional first-night gala. The soloist, pianist Leif Ove Andsnes, is performing works by Beethoven and György Kurtág before leaving the stage to Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, a 20th-century classic. For the formal Gala, on September 27, Itzhak Perlman plays a set of violin favorites by Rimsky-Korsakov and Tchaikovsky, Massenet and Sarasate, as well as by John Williams; that concert also features Respighi’s Fountains of Rome and Pines of Rome, picturesque 20th-century tone paintings that place the spotlight squarely on the New York Philharmonic’s brass.
In March, The Bach Variations: A Philharmonic Festival is a month-long, in-depth exploration of the Baroque master’s output through the prism of no fewer than four conductors. The varied musical offerings include Baroque specialist Masaaki Suzuki’s vocal music program of Bach and Mendelssohn, whose own efforts in the 19th century sparked interest in Bach’s music; the Mass in B minor, led by Alan Gilbert; Bernard Labadie’s program that pairs two of the composer’s Orchestral Suites with two violin concertos featuring soloist Isabelle Faust; and Hungarian pianist András Schiff’s combination of Bach, Mendelssohn, and Schumann that marks his Philharmonic debut as conductor and return as pianist. The non-orchestral Bach is on tap as well, with Carter Brey’s recital at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church featuring the six Bach Suites for Solo Cello, and events presented in the collaboration with 92nd Street Y including recitals and a symposium with Mr. Gilbert.
Earlier, in November, Philharmonic Music Director Emeritus Kurt Masur will have two programs comprising three of Brahms’s four symphonies and the Double Concerto, with Philharmonic Concertmaster Glenn Dicterow and Principal Cello Carter Brey as soloists. The Orchestra’s traversal of Brahms continues in January–February with the remaining symphony and concertos, led by former Music Director Lorin Maazel, Andris Nelsons, and, of course, Alan Gilbert. But while other guests also have their moments — such as when David Robertson leads the U.S. Premiere of Tristan Murail’s Piano Concerto, with Pierre-Laurent Aimard as soloist — Mr. Gilbert’s spring highlights include Bernstein’s Serenade with Joshua Bell on an all-American program that also features the Rouse premiere and Ives’s Fourth Symphony; Emanuel Ax’s gorgeous Mozart; and another massive Bruckner symphony — the underrated Third.
The season ends with June Journey: Gilbert’s Playlist, four weeks consisting of choice repertory cuts — a microcosm of a Gilbert season. The Music Director says that the “Playlist” idea sprang from the works, not the other way around: “We were trying to come up with an array of pieces that was varied and also created a complete picture for the last segment of the season,” he explains. “We juggled the list — changing, mixing, matching — and it became clear that we were considering the period as a self-contained unit.” The first week features 20th-century “third stream” works that fuse the ideas of jazz with classical music with the second round of performances of Wynton Marsalis’s Swing Symphony by the Philharmonic and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra along with compositions by Stravinsky, Shostakovich, and Copland.
Then follow concert performances of Dallapiccola’s politically edgy, 1950 opera Il Prigioniero (The Prisoner), a dark, Dostoyevskian tale of a wrongfully imprisoned man facing oppression in the form of a Grand Inquisitor. It is paired with Lisa Batiashvili’s take on the First Violin Concerto by Prokofiev, a composer who knew something about oppression and censorship. Week Three puts the focus on Wagner, with Mr. Gilbert’s A Ring Journey, a Ring remix that seeks to tell the story as pure music, without the distraction of singers or scenery. It is paired with Rouse’s aforementioned Seeing, featuring Mr. Ax.
The Playlist ends where the season began, with Stravinsky: the rare The Fairy’s Kiss and Petrushka, the story of a love-struck puppet who meets his fate. This orchestral puppet show will feature actual puppets, directed and designed by Doug Fitch, the theatrical genius behind the Orchestra’s productions of Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre and Janácˇek’s The Cunning Little Vixen. This time a ballerina will join the mix, with New York City Ballet principal dancer Sara Mearns performing on the same stage as the Philharmonic players.
The 2012–13 season holds challenges for conductor, musicians, and audience, and Mr. Gilbert has learned to treat these challenges equally. “Everything is hard,” he says. “Or, to put it another way, nothing is easy. Even music that sounds simple to the listener poses challenges.”
Paul J. Pelkonen is the writer of Superconductor, a daily classical music blog based in Brooklyn, New York.