Art of the Score: New York Philharmonic plays "Manhattan"
"Breaking the Waves" at Opera Philadelphia

New York Philharmonic Opens 175th Season with Corigliano, Gershwin, and Dvořák

The New York Philharmonic officially opened it's 175th season Wednesday night with a concert which, while not exactly boundary-pushing, served as a reminder of the rich legacy of this oldest of American orchestras. Beforehand, the Phil played this video emphasizing the orchestra's identity as a uniquely New York institution, with NYC-entric performances throughout the season such as last week's Manhattan. (There was also brief mention of the Phil's "New World Initiative" - named after Dvořák's 9th symphony, which the Phil commissioned back in 1893 - but at the moment it consists of little more than an open calendar of performances by NYC-based musicians.)

As noted by Philharmonic president Matthew Van Besien, this season is also Alan Gilbert's eighth and last as music director. During his time in NYC, Gilbert may not have displayed the most magnetic podium presence, but he has done more to promote new music and innovative programming at the Phil than any director since Bernstein or Boulez. Gilbert's final season is no different, as he leads seven World, U.S., and New York Premieres, as well as music by LigetiJohn Adams, and Esa-Pekka Salonen. Gilbert will close the season with a concert that explores how music and musicians can effect positive change and harmony in the world.

Gala concerts aren't meant to challenge their well-heeled audience, but there was one relatively new work on this concert: John Corigliano's STOMP, originally written in 2010 for solo violin. It was typical of the new music played on most concert programs: short, playful, mostly melodic. The "stomp" in the title refers to Corigliano's instruction to the players to tap or stomp on certain beats, much like you'll find in country or jazz music. Or, any music, really. 

DSC02921The highlight of the program was Gershwin's Concerto in F for Piano, which Gershwin premiered with the NY Symphony (which later merged with the Philharmonic) back in 1925. This was Gershwin's first crack at true orchestral writing, which, unlike Rhapsody In Blue, features some challenging, almost primitive harmonies, in addition to his familiar Broadway showstoppers. Here, the soloist was the versatile pianist and composer Aaron Diehl, who at 29 has already made a name for himself in the jazz world, and is currently preparing to tour with a large ensemble playing the music of Gershwin and Jelly Roll Morton. Still, the transition from jazz player to concert pianist is not an obvious one, and this was apparently Diehl's first attempt at performing with an orchestra in concert. He nailed it, playing with power and precision, as well as deep tenderness. Most importantly, he let the music swing and syncopate, just as Gershwin intended. The crowd gave him a standing ovation, but not long enough to solicit what probably would have been a fascinating encore. Again, gala concert.


The concert ended with Dvořák's "New World" symphony, which apparently we'll be hearing throughout the season thanks to the aforementioned New World Initiative. After hearing this symphony performed dozens of times over the past two decades, it was difficult to find anything novel in this performance, other than the pride of knowing that this warhorse of the repertoire was written right here in NYC, for this orchestra.

New York Philharmonic
Instead, I found myself focusing on the performers and the degree to which they were engaged with the music. One very bright example is Frank Huang, who since replacing Glenn Dicterow as concertmaster last season, has injected his performances with intense feeling and passion; even when he's not playing, you can see him listening intently to the music around him, nodding his head in time. Sadly, Huang's enthusiasm doesn't seem to have caught on with his surrounding string players, who sawed away on their violins like they were still in Suzuki class.

As the Philharmonics of Europe remind us each time they come to town, that level of intensity - from the first chair players all the way to the back - is the difference between good orchestras and great ones. In this 175th season, there's nothing I want more than to be able to say with pride as I look up from my seat in the soon-to-be-renovated Geffen Hall: this is the New York Philharmonic. Let's go.

More pics on the photo page.