Although this past weekend in NYC was dominated by a visiting Austrian orchestra, the NY Phil made some musical fireworks of their own Saturday night under Sakari Oramo, whom I last saw conducting Strauss and Stravinsky in Stockholm.
The Phil marked Sibelius' upcoming 150th birthday with The Oceanides (1914), a tone poem originally commissioned by a summer festival in Norfolk, Connecticut. Sibelius traveled to the U.S. for the first time to conduct the premiere, shacking up in a suite at the Essex House on Central Park South while rehearsing at Carnegie Hall (who knew?) It's a shame that this piece, with its unique American pedigree, is so rarely performed on these shores: it packs a world of impressionistic color and swell into its 10 minutes. Numerous comparisons have been to Debussy's La Mer, written nine years earlier, but The Oceanides is grander, nobler, stamped with Sibelius' by-then masterful command of the orchestra. (He would go on to write the 5th Symphony a few months later.)
No matter what he did, there was no way that Frank Peter Zimmerman's rendition of Sibelius' Violin Concerto would top the miraculous performance Anne-Sophie Mutter gave with the Danish National Symphony Orchestra last month, both in Copenhagen and at Carnegie Hall. But, while Zimmerman wasn't as articulate or penetrating as Mutter, his performance was perfectly legit. The real issue was with the Phil, who, compared with the DNSO, seemed almost sullen in their approach, as if they'd rather be almost anywhere else. It also didn't help that the music never seemed to project beyond the Avery Fisher David Geffen stage, though we can all rest easy now that Lincoln Center has finally committed to renovating the hall in 2019. Or is it 2020?
In one of life's little irony's, the Phil performed Brahms' 2nd symphony at almost precisely the same time as the Vienna Phil was playing it down the street. But, while the Viennese bowed to Daniele Gatti's idiosyncratically slow tempi (however ill-advised), the NY Phil seemed to be more-or-less on autopilot with Oramo, who couldn't seem to get a rise out of the orchestra despite his fervent gesticulations. Looking around the orchestra, I didn't see one player make eye contact with Oramo, who conducted without once looking at the score.
For the most part, the Phil sounded fine: after all, they've played Brahms many, many times, most recently in 2012 under former music director Kurt Masur. But, things started to fall apart in the Allegro finale, when the horns came in all sputtering and uneven. Ugh: how long is the Phil going to continue fielding a substandard horn section? Fortunately, the winds, trumpets and trombones picked up the slack over the final two minutes with near-flawless execution.
Despite the stiff competition from Vienna, the hall was almost completely full, partly due to the presence of several large school groups in the rear of the orchestra. The kids' enthusiasm was infectious, applauding in between movements and cheering loudly at the end of each work. Not such a bad way to spend a Saturday night in NYC.
More pics on the photo page.