Symphonic sensation Joshua Bell helped ring in the New Year at the New York Philharmonic’s first performance of 2016. The world-renowned violinist’s rousing contribution was the highlight of Saturday’s program, which ended far more enjoyably than it began.
Under the baton of conductor Alan Gilbert, Gotham’s premier orchestra delivered consistently and well throughout the evening, although its material was uneven. Finnish composer Jean Sibelius’s the Swan of Tuonela (1900) soared . . . about as much as would an actual swan. As the title suggests, this piece was quiet and gentle, although lacking the grace and definable structure of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. So, the blame for the languor of this work falls on Sibelius, not on Cygnus columbianus.
For about ten minutes, this swan barely flapped its wings or paddled its submerged feet. The Philharmonic, likewise, sat there almost imperceptibly, neither making waves nor sinking beneath them. This, once again, was no reflection on the talent of those on stage, but on the composer’s unexciting vision in this particular selection.
Even fewer sparks flew during Sibelius’s Symphony No. 4 in A minor (1910–11). This rather dull affair meandered for a fidget-inducing and eventually nap-inspiring 36 minutes. Just before this piece, Gilbert grabbed a hand-held microphone and warned the audience that it was “a tough nut to crack.” He admitted that, during rehearsals, the Fourth left many of his musicians “bewildered.”
Before this latest set of performances, the New York Philharmonic last played this symphony in October 1987. After hearing it, it’s hardly a mystery that this composition stayed safely locked in Lincoln Center’s attic for almost 30 years.
Rather than rise to crescendos or taper off conclusively, each of its four movements just sort of stopped. Gilbert asked the audience to visualize the setting from whence this work came: “a desolate, Nordic, featureless landscape.” By the time the Fourth mercifully sputtered to a halt, the audience looked ready to escape the Finnish tundra for an intermission on the balcony of David Geffen Hall, where temperatures hovered in the comparatively balmy 40s.
Incidentally, after 42 years, the former Avery Fisher Hall became David Geffen Hall last September, following the entertainment mogul’s $100 million gift to Lincoln Center. Goodnight, and thank you, Mr. Fisher.
Interestingly enough, Sibelius composed the Fourth after his wife prevailed upon him to move out of Helsinki and away from his drinking buddies. They were only too willing to provide him frequent excuses to put down his sheet music and pick up his shot glass. Artist Akseli Gallen-Kalella captured Sibelius (above, far right) and his friends in inebriated stasis in the 1894 painting Symposium (The Problem).
#share#The Philharmonic more than redeemed the evening in its second half.
Joshua Bell earned every moment in the spotlight with his breathtaking dominance of the violin. More than anything else, he played with incredible finesse. Bell, a youthful-looking 48 year old, is an exceptionally enthusiastic and elegant performer. Standing in an all-black outfit from head to toe, he bobbed and wove with tremendous physicality as he played, often locking eyes with Gilbert, who conducted with his bare hands and without a baton. The two appeared almost to dance beside each other as Mendelssohn’s beautiful and moving Violin Concerto unfolded. Bell coaxed unbelievably light notes from his violin. In this often-muscular piece’s gentler moments, Bell presented what seemed to be the sound of one strand of a spider’s web responding to a barely perceptible breeze. And Mendelssohn’s beloved 1844 masterpiece was precisely the right composition to let Bell and his instrument shine.
After his bravura appearance, an unusually loud standing ovation, and three well-earned curtain calls, Bell exited, stage right.
The Philharmonic concluded by returning to Sibelius, this time with sanguine results: an invigorating reading of Finlandia, arguably his most admired work. Often mistaken for the Finnish national anthem, this piece from 1899–1900 nonetheless evokes patriotic sentiments among the Finns. This lively and powerful work ran about ten minutes but could have stretched to 15 or 18 with no loss of audience appreciation. Having just launched a year-long celebration of Sibelius’s oeuvre, 150 years since his birth, it was reassuring to see the New York Philharmonic conclude a Sibelius-rich Saturday evening on such a positive and appealing note.