Thursday February 23rd, 2017 - An array of stars from the classical music firmament were on hand to celebrate the 50th birthday of The New York Philharmonic's Music Director Alan Gilbert. Click on the above photo to enlarge.
"Life begins at 50!"...at least it did for me: the life I'd always hoped to live, here in New York City with my beloved, with everything I enjoy - music, dance, art, food, a nearby park - at my fingertips, and good friends to share things with. Alan Gilbert's tenure as Music Director coincides with my own embrace of The Philharmonic. I would go once in a while during the Mehta-Boulez-Masur-Maazel years, but in recent seasons I have rarely missed a program; I have become an admirer of several of the orchestra's musicians, and of Alan's leadership. He'll soon be embarking on a new phase of his career, and so it was truly pleasing to be there tonight, joining with the stellar party guests onstage to salute the Maestro.
The first half of the evening was devoted to music of the Three Bs: Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms. After welcoming speeches, Alan Gilbert strode out to a warm greeting from the packed house. Paolo Bordignon was at the harpsichord as Pamela Frank and Frank Huang took up the opening Vivace of Bach's Concerto for Two Violins in D minor, BWV 1043, playing with festive vitality. Pamela Frank was then joined by Joshua Bell for the Largo ma non tanto, and how beautifully their timbres blended: deeply satisfying music-making. I'd hoped Alan Gilbert might play tonight, but the third movement of the Bach brought forth Lisa Batiashvili and Mr. Huang in the vivacious Allegro.
I think this was the first time I have heard this piece outside of its ballet setting: Balanchine's masterpiece CONCERTO BAROCCO is frequently given across the Plaza. Throughout tonight's concert rendering, the choreography danced in my head.
Phenomenal back-to-back performances by two of the world's great pianists followed: Emanuel Ax cast a magic spell over the music of Brahms: the Andante from the 2nd piano concerto. How gently Mr. Ax caressed this music, and how poignant was the sound of Carter Brey's cello in his long solo passage. The cello returns near the end of the movement as Mr. Ax plays a series of delicate trills.
Yefim Bronfman then took command of the Steinway in a thrillingly virtuosic Allegro con brio from Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 3. With some wonderful interjections from the Philharmonic's wind soloists along the way, the pianist brought both passion and nuance to his playing. As his spectacular rendering of the cadenza drew to its close on a series of gossamer trills, the orchestra re-entered creating an exquisite sense of quietude.
Joshua Bell's fiery playing and unbridled physicality evoked the audience's rousing ovation for his performance of the Allegro energico from Max Bruch's first violin concerto. Moments later, a very different aspect of Mr. Bell's artistry was gorgeously evidenced as he joined Renée Fleming for Richard Strauss's "Morgen!"; the warmth of the soprano's voice and the silken serenity of Mr. Bell's phrasing created a tranquil atmosphere, like basking in sunlight on some distant seashore.
Ms. Fleming then gave one of her trademark arias, "Marietta's Lied" from Erich Korngold's DIE TOTE STADT; the song's romance and mystery were conveyed by the soprano in the high-rising arcs of the vocal line over a dreamlike orchestration that features harp, piano, and celesta. The music becomes passionate; then the singer speaks a couple of lines, as she tries to recall the words of the second verse. Once again the haunting melody is sung, followed by an evocative postlude. Intoxicating moments.
Lisa Batiashvili offered "Goin’ Home", the 'spiritual' that was drawn from the principal theme of the Largo of Antonin Dvořák's New World symphony, arranged by Fritz Kreisler, and adapted by T. Batiashvili. This was played with rich emotion and lovely tone by the comely Ms. Batiashvili; the only problem is that the song is quite brief, leaving us craving more Batiashvili.
Gershwin's An American in Paris, a favorite work of Alan Gilbert's, was the closing work of the evening; not my cup of tea, but of course superbly played.
Frock watch: being a party night, the women of the Philharmonic did not all wear regulation black; Cynthia Phelps looked radiant in a "gamorous" slit-skirt emerald green number. Pamela Frank wore a black gown shot with silver, and be-jeweled shoes which would have made Cinderella envious. Lisa Batiashvili, ever the picture of elegance, wore a sleek, satiny gun-mental creation with a hint of Grecian style. And Renée Fleming looked every inch the diva in vermilion with a long golden shawl.
Renée led us in singing 'Happy Birthday, Dear Alan' with the standing audience saluting the conductor and everyone singing full-voice. Maestro Gilbert basked in the embraces of the great musicians who had gathered to honor him; then they all seemed to be heading off together to continue the party into the wee hours as Alan waved goodbye to the crowd.