New York Philharmonic, Thursday, June 3, 2010, 7:30 PM
conducted by Sir Andrew Davis
Berlioz: Overture to “Les Franc-Juges”
Chausson: “Poème de l’Amour et de la Mer”
Susan Graham, mezzo-soprano
Saint-Saëns: Symphony #3 in C Minor, op. 78 (“Organ” Symphony)
Kent Tritle, organist
I think of myself as a “cheerleader” for the arts, classical music in particular. I like to convey as much enthusiasm to others as I have for the performing arts. As a reviewer of classical music, it’s not like I am convincing people either to attend or not to attend any specific event, due to the limited span of most concerts. A Broadway run might be for months or years, but a recital is usually only once, orchestra concerts are repeated about four times, then gone. What follows, however, is a rare “bad” review, though there are two bright spots, which I will include!
Perhaps it was fatigue after their spectacular presentation of Ligeti’s daunting opera “Le Grand Macabre” the previous week, but the playing by the New York Philharmonic was not up to international standards of excellence. Ensemble was sloppy, and the overall sound was loud and louder. Balances were off and a flutist made a very audible blunder. I know rehearsal time is limited, but Sir Andrew Davis obviously chose this program of French romanticism with care, and it deserved a stronger point of view and rendition, and lots more subtlety.
The Berlioz overture, from a youthful operatic flop (first of many for Berlioz), mercilessly exposed the lack of togetherness of the strings. One understands why Berlioz’ contemporaries thought his composing was incoherent, bordering on madness. The scoring abounds in unusual touches (and themes) that would find their ultimate fulfillment in his “Symphonie fantastique.” Berlioz had the last laugh however, as his textbook on orchestration is still the bedrock of instruction at the Paris Conservatoire. Fermatas and other pauses in the music simply “stopped” instead of creating the aura of mystery and expectation that they need.
The Chausson “Poème de l’Amour et de la Mer” is an extended song/aria with orchestral accompaniment. It is set to the deeply pessimistic, overwrought poetry of Maurice Bouchor, a friend of Chausson unremembered today except for the composer’s devotional setting of many of his poems. Susan Graham has made a specialty of French art song (and contemporary American art song) and was a persuasive, heartfelt interpreter, despite her use of the music. The presence of the music stand subtracted from her ability to “reach” directly out to the audience. Why wasn’t this unusual rarely performed piece memorized? The last time the Philharmonic did it was in 1982, with Shirley Verrett as soloist. Graham had the melting warm tones required, though her legato wasn’t seamless enough, and the orchestra didn’t shimmer enough. People often say that Chausson’s music suffers from “Wagnerism” in its thick orchestration, but transparency needs to be teased out of the score to make it sound “French.”
Saint-Saëns “Organ” Symphony (a nickname he did not like), is certainly a potboiler, and a pot of boiling water doesn’t have much order, just heat. If you like loud playing, this was the rendition for you, and the tumultuous applause at the end showed how popular and indestructible the piece really is. Kent Tritle, a magnificent organist and musician, did his best with the unfortunate electronic organ in Avery Fisher Hall, even managing to make it sound rich and full, though one missed the Cavaillé-Coll reeds so essential to the French romantic organ sound. Also, there isn’t enough reverb in the hall, so chords that ought to have “halo” after their release just died flat. The rapt slow central section was beautifully done.
Sir Andrew Davis was the last person to have conducted the S-S, in 2003, and he is obviously devoted to the piece, but a clear interpretive view wasn’t revealed, only volume and a certain visceral drive to the finish. One wonders what a Boulez could do with the same program.
© 2010 by Frank Daykin, for Innovative Music Programs