Thursday October 27th, 2016 - The New York Philharmonic's concertmaster, Frank Huang (above), dazzled the audience at Geffen Hall tonight with his playing of Bruch's first violin concerto; the highly enjoyable program also featured works by Bartók and Dvořák; Pablo Heras-Casado was on the podium.
Béla Bartók's Dance Suite opened the evening. These delightful dancing miniatures display the composer's signature inventiveness in terms of colour and rhythm whilst providing numerous opportunities for individual players to shine: it's a wonder they are not programmed more often. Maestro Heras-Casado seemed to have the lilt and sweep of the music in his blood, and the orchestra gave a vibrant performance every dance-step of the way.
Written in 1923, the suite is listed as being in six movements, though they seem - with a brief pause here or there - to flow into one another. A droll bassoon theme starts things off; the horns sound and the string players tap their bows on their instruments. Big energy develops, only to subside. Lovely passage for violins and harp, the clarinet interjects, and a merry jogging sets forth. Ear-tingling combinations - oboe and bass clarinet, flute and harp - keep cropping up, as do the piano and celesta. A wind choir leads into a high violin passage (Sheryl Staples, tonight's concertmaster) and when things turn dreamy, Cynthia Phelps' viola mingles with the harp. Big brass plunges in, and the music takes on a bouncing swagger.
This suite made an outstanding impression. I do regret that I cannot name the individual players of the various solo wind passages; tonight more than ever I wished these sections of the orchestra were on risers so we could watch them as they play. I did get a glimpse of Liang Wang, who played the numerous Bartok solo phrases with his customary clarity and warmth...wonderful!
Mr. Huang then appeared for the Bruch. We are accustomed to seeing him as a somewhat reserved figure in his role of concertmaster; stepping into soloist mode, Mr. Huang becomes very animated, bending and swaying as the music impels him. His passionate performance was captivating both to hear and to watch.
A recording of the Bruch #1 was the first non-operatic CD I ever bought - paired with the Barber concerto, and played by Anne Akiko Myers. The Bruch was thus familiar to me well before I ever ventured to listen to the Tchaikovsky, Sibelius, or Beethoven concerti; and this evening's performance - my first time experiencing it live - reminded me of what a great piece it is.
From the concerto's initial rising solo passage, Mr. Huang's tone was most alluring: lustrous at all dynamic levels, and displaying a sensuous quality which he allowed to permeate the music in just the right measure, at just the right moments. A sentimental melody gives way to a filigree of rising trills, and a blend with horn is simply gorgeous. Rising and descending scales from the violin develop into a sweeping orchestral passage. A two-part cadenza and the poignant melody that follows found Mr. Huang at his most persuasive. Excellent!
The Prelude has flowed directly into the Adagio, making a very long 'play' for the soloist, and causing the composer to wonder if he ought not refer to the whole work a fantasy rather than a concerto. He was persuaded otherwise by the great violinist Joseph Joachim.
In the concluding Allegro energico, Mr. Huang took up the familiar dancelike theme with a nice gypsy swing; decorative threads of coloratura were un-spooled by the violinist with elegant virtuosity, his tone ever-lovely and his articulation showing effortless clarity. The audience, one of the most attentive in recent memory, were clearly much taken with Mr. Huang's performance: vociferous bravos filled the hall from the moment the concerto ended, and at his solo bow the whole house stood up and cheered whilst his colleagues onstage joined enthusiastically in the ovation.
Following the interval, Maestro Haras-Casado (above) and the players treated us to an outstanding performance of the Dvořák 7th. This familiar work seemed fresh and vital this evening, with plenty of expert solo playing along the way - though the horns were running hot-and-cold throughout. The big, yearning theme of the first movement was especially pleasing to hear tonight, as was the woodwind chorale over plucking strings in the Adagio. Things turn blithe in the folk-dance flavor of the Scherzo, but the composer turns more pensive again as the Finale commences. The rise of a Slavonic march, and the taking up of a new, lyrical theme, led onward to the symphony's optimistic conclusion.