New York Philharmonic: Glinka and Rachmaninoff
In the aftermath of Halloween and Hurricane Sandy, this past Thursday the New York Philharmonic gave one of its weirdest concerts in many a moon, full or otherwise.
The first odd thing that must have struck audiences as conductor Charles Dutoit held up his baton to commence the performance was the paucity of paying customers: with bus and train lines still in widespread disrepair, the house was barely half-full.
An examination of the program then revealed another curiosity. Because the orchestra had not been able to get together and rehearse during the week, the first half of the program had been completely changed. Instead of Debussy’s "The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian: Symphonic Fragments" and Rachmaninoff’s "Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini," the orchestra had substituted a Glinka overture and Rachmaninoff’s "Third Piano Concerto," pieces with which the players were more familiar.
Stranger still, these two pieces were the ones that the orchestra most notably botched. And as much as I love this extraordinary group, I don’t think that work is too strong. As each piece played, the string players gazed stiffly at their score sheets, never looking up to the conductor or even towards their peers.
The result was haphazard entrances and disengaged playing. Only the brass section seemed to have any idea of where or when they were supposed to be coming in.
The Glinka "Overture to Ruslan and Ludmila" was perfunctory, and the Rachmaninoff was wildly disjointed.
This spoiled a very impressive performance by the soloist in the Rachmaninoff piece, young virtuoso Nikolai Lugansky. Tasked with playing this notoriously difficult romantic showpiece at the last minute, Lugansky built in strength as he went on. I confess that when he began playing I wondered if he had the fingers for it as he started softly and at first seemed to be struggling to play over the struggling but loud orchestra.
Yet, as Lugansky continued, he played with more and more impressive force, speed and dexterity. He also showed a restraint that one might not find in a more technically dazzling player like Lang Lang.
In the end, as Lugansky finished, it was easy to see why the small crowd was standing and cheering for him. Presented with a formidable challenge, he had acquitted himself not only bravely but also capably.
But this was not the most peculiar aspect of the night. That was the orchestra’s performance after the intermission. Having bumbled their way through the concert’s first half, they came out and dazzled in a performance of Edward Elgar’s "Enigma Variations."
All too often this piece is played as one long, schmaltzy symphonic fantasia. This is not, though, what the piece is or should be: a delicate set of personality portraits with a grand Edwardian finale. And that’s what Dutoit gloriously led the ensemble through.
It was a reminder of what a great and underestimated composer Elgar is, and how superior the Philharmonic can be -- even, at times, when it has not rehearsed.
That said, it’s a lot more to be liked and admired in the calmer times when it has.