Among all the performing arts, none are better able to impart a sense of occasion than symphony orchestras. Each New Year's Day, the entire world marks the new year by watching the Vienna Philharmonic play The Blue Danube and other waltzes. When the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, Leonard Bernstein recruited orchestra players from both sides of the Iron Curtain for an epic performance of Beethoven's Ninth. And when North Korea wanted to demonstrate their diplomatic and cultural bona fides to the west, they invited the New York Philharmonic to perform in Pyongyang.
So it was with great anticipation that I took my seat in Avery Fisher Hall last night for the opening night concert of the NY Phil's 172nd season. The stage was covered in velvet drapes, lit up in varying shades of violet. The crowd was mostly dressed in black tie while Alan Gilbert and the orchestra wore white tie and tails. Television cameras throughout the hall recorded the concert for Live from Lincoln Center (which, sadly, wasn't broadcast live, but strangely taped to air on New Year's Eve). Even the Empire State Building was lit up in the Phil's colors.
To level set: this wasn't the concert to go to if you were looking to have your buttons pushed, or be challenged in new and exciting ways. Bookended by a pair Ravel's Spanish-flavored warhorses for orchestra (Alborado del graciosos and Bolero), the program was meant to be crowd pleasing, and largely succeeded. They continued the Spanish theme with three tangos from Astor Piazzola's La serie del Angel, played here by superstar cellist Yo-Yo Ma, in new arrangements by Octavio Brunetti.
The one outlier last night was Osvaldo Golijov's vibrant, multicultural cello concerto, Azul, which Golijov wrote for Ma in 2006 after listening to the BSO from the lawn at Tanglewood. Golijov—who is still fighting his way out of the plagiarism and missed-deadline controversies of 2011—here offered a stark reminder of his all-encompassing musical imagination, incorporating a vast array of musical styles: East, West, quiet, loud, whirling ecstasy, and contemplative stasis.
Ma, who played from memory, was joined by longtime collaborators Michael Ward-Bergeman on hyper-accordion—a sort of synth-powered accordion—and percussionists Jamey Haddad and Cyro Baptista, who created an Eden of sound while using everything from indigenous African and Latin American percussion instruments to bird whistles, swinging plastic tubes, and tambourines.
The piece ended with Ma pulling a lyrical passage from his Strad with all the passion and tenderness for which he's become so well known. That gave way to a series of decays in the brass and strings, their sound growing increasingly atonal and chaotic, eventually fading away with the (fabricated) wind.
Golijov, who was in the hall for the performance, received a well-deserved ovation along with the soloists. With any hope, the reports of Golijov's creative blocks are overblown, and we'll be hearing more from him soon.