NY Phil Opens Carnegie Season Amid Hall Strife

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Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic opened a new Carnegie Hall season Oct. 7, 2015. (© Chris Lee)
‘Vivo,’ a new work by Magnus Lindberg, was the downbeat of the New York Philharmonic’s 2015-16 season.
(Carnegie Hall concert photos © Chris Lee)
By George Loomis

NEW YORK — Conflict in Carnegie Hall’s boardroom had no apparent impact on the quality of the music-making as the hall opened its 125th season on Oct. 7 with a gala concert featuring the New York Philharmonic. Pianist Evgeny Kissin, who masterminds the hall’s Perspectives series this season, appeared as soloist.

Gilbert led a celebratory evening, Carnegie's board troubles aside.
Gilbert led a celebratory evening, Carnegie’s board troubles aside.

The concert took place in the wake of news reports on Sept. 17 that Carnegie board chairman Ronald O. Perelman had declined to stand for reelection. On Oct. 8, Mercedes Bass, a Carnegie Hall trustee for 29 years and currently vice chairman of the Metropolitan Opera, was elected acting chairman, a post she will hold until a permanent chairman is named. A new governance committee has been created to oversee board stewardship issues, including those Perelman raised about potential conflicts of interest involving the board and lack of transparency regarding performance costs. These concerns brought Carnegie’s popular executive and artistic director, Clive Gillinson, into the fray.

The Philharmonic’s presence was in keeping with Carnegie’s practice of opening the season with a major orchestra, though usually one from further afield; last year the honors went to the Berlin Philharmonic and Simon Rattle. By choosing the New York Philharmonic this time, America’s most celebrated concert hall was bound to evoke memories of the orchestra’s long association with it, including the aborted 2003 proposal for the Philharmonic to return to Carnegie, which was its home prior to the move to Lincoln Center in the early 1960s.

In lieu of that plan, the orchestra will renovate (once again) its Lincoln Center home, now known as David Geffen Hall. One can only hope that the renovated hall will find the orchestra sounding as good as it did — thanks to Carnegie’s excellent acoustics — during Wednesday’s opening program, which consisted of works by Magnus Lindberg, Tchaikovsky, and Ravel and was led by its music director, Alan Gilbert.

Lindberg is a Gilbert favorite. (© Sara Vuorjoki)
Magnus Lindberg (Saara Vuorjoki/Music Finland)

Gilbert’s tenure as the Philharmonic’s music director began in 2009 with a Lindberg commission on the program, and Carnegie’s opening night found the conductor at the helm for the composer’s latest creation. Vivo, commissioned by Carnegie Hall and heard in its world premiere, packed a great deal into its six-minute running time. It begins with a fanfare-like passage initiated by solo trumpet that soon involves other brass instruments and comes together in a kind of tone cluster. This invigorating beginning leads to something even more enveloping as strings join in, participating in a climax of considerable grandeur about midway through. Afterwards, the piece largely maintains the dense scoring and high energy level thus established. Although Lindberg’s harmonic style is often quite modernist, potential tonal harshness is mitigated by the piece’s strong Romantic aura and thrust.

Carnegie Hall
Pianist Kissin takes a bow after some astonishing playing in the Tchaikovsky.

The lavishness of Vivo served as apt preparation for the expansive, captivating reading of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor, Op. 23, which followed. Kissin offered some astonishing playing. He placed the opening chords sonorously yet deliberately, and afterwards often showed an aptitude for stretching phrases in a compelling way while maintaining structural clarity.

Repeatedly, the pianist found ways to combine beguiling tone with interesting interpretive ideas. The lyrical opening theme of the second movement, for instance, was at once tonally brilliant and deeply communicative. The force and speed of Kissin’s octaves in the development section of the first movement were almost frightening. Gilbert and the orchestra gave him excellent support, starting with an unusually commanding statement of the opening horn theme. Here and there, big tutti statements had a slightly raucous quality, perhaps the result of Gilbert’s underestimation of Carnegie’s acoustics.

As an encore, Kissin played Tchaikovsky’s lushly melodic Meditation in D major, Op. 72, no. 5 (not to be confused with Tchaikovsky’s Meditation for violin).

Carnegie Hall
Following some rousing Ravel at the gala concert, it was time to party.

The program concluded strongly with Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé Suite No. 2. At first, the delicacy of Ravel’s writing stood in sharp contrast to the assertive virtuosity that had previously dominated the concert. Gilbert brought out many details in an alluring way, and Robert Langevin gracefully delivered the work’s copious passages for solo flute. However, the suite takes the form of a big crescendo. And the buildup and climax of the concluding “Danse générale,” with its relentless march-like rhythm, turned out to be as stunning and virtuosic as just about anything that preceded it. The orchestra was in brilliant form.

The concert, which started early, ended well before nine, thereby facilitating an appropriate starting time for the gala dinner that followed, held on the Carnegie Hall roof. No doubt the Perelman situation dominated conversation at many tables. As for the program itself, it nicely balanced competing interests inherent in a pre-dinner gala concert. Musical purists could enjoy a world premiere by an important composer. Those especially looking forward to the dinner could feast on a warhorse piano concerto first. And the high level of performance, as well as the early conclusion, could only please both factions.

George Loomis writes regularly for the International New York Times and is a New York correspondent for Opera magazine.