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March 2017

New York Philharmonic and Yo-Yo Ma Perform Salonen's Cello Concerto

At the end of a momentous week at the NY Philharmonic, it felt only right to stop by David Geffen Hall on Saturday night for the orchestra's final concert before leaving on their European tour this week. Indeed, the first half of the program almost felt like an homage to incoming NY Phil President and CEO Deborah Borda, who's spent the past 17 years leading the LA Phil to new heights of artistic and financial success. (Borda attended the series' opening concert last Wednesday.)

John Adams, who has been the LA Phil's Creative Chair since 2009, wrote The Chairman Dances (1985) in anticipation of (and not, as you might expect, drawn from) his groundbreaking 1987 opera Nixon in ChinaSubtitled "Foxtrot for Orchestra," it's bright and cheery music is interjected with periods of tension, just like the complex characters it portrays: Chairman Mao and his wife, Madame Mao. The audience cheered wildly at the end, a reaction still somewhat surprising for music that's barely 30 years old. 

The main event was the NY premiere of Esa-Pekka Salonen's Cello Concerto, written for and performed by Yo-Yo Ma. Salonen, who spent 17 years as the LA Phil's music director, left that post in 2009 to spend more time composing; he remains L.A.'s Conductor Laureate, as well as the NY Phil's Composer-in-Residence. Salonen, who has written concertos for Piano (2007), Violin (2009), and alto sax (!) (1980), apparently agreed to write one for Yo-Yo after a post-concert bender. "I know that we had agreed on something,” Salonen told the Times. “But I wasn’t sure on what."

Salonen spent nearly two years writing the 25 minute work, saying he wanted to push Yo-Yo to the outer limits of his seemingly-limitless ability. "When a musician is at the end of their physical capabilities," Salonen told us from the stage, "that frees them up to do something really magical."

Yo-Yo, who incredibly is now 61, playfully objected when he first saw the music.

"Why was Esa-Pekka angry at me?" Yo-Yo said. "What does he have against the cello? Why are you torturing me with impossible things? You know I can’t do that, you know it’s too fast.”

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Greenwich Village Orchestra Performs Beethoven's 9th at Washington Irving High School

DSC06503When Beethoven premiered his Symphony No. 9 in Vienna's Karntnertör Theater in the spring of 1824, it wasn't the clean, polished experience one might expect of the most revered symphony ever written. The performers were a mixed bag of players from the house orchestra, the Vienna Music Society (a.k.a., Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde), and various amateurs. The chorus was all-volunteer. And, with only two full rehearsals, the performance was reportedly spotty, even sloppy at times. It didn't help that Beethoven - who was by then totally deaf - conducted the performance; beforehand, the theater's Kapellmeister instructed the orchestra to ignore Beethoven's wild, out-of-sync gestures.  

Nevertheless, the audience - which numbered just shy of a thousand - responded to this monumental, ground-breaking work with rapturous applause and multiple standing ovations. The greatness of Beethoven's achievement could not be ignored, regardless of the circumstances. (A repeat performance on a sunny Sunday afternoon two weeks later was less successful, playing to a half-empty house.)

In that sense, the performance of Beethoven's 9th this past Sunday afternoon by the all-volunteer Greenwich Village Orchestra at Washington Irving High School was probably the most authentic I've ever heard. Sure, I've heard plenty of polished performances of the 9th by professional orchestras in some of the greatest concert halls in the world. But, I've never heard one more vital, filled with the same struggle and hard-won victory as that Vienna premiere 193 years ago. 

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A New Day at the NY Phil

Photo: Chad Batka, The New York Times

Not that long ago, things looked pretty grim at the New York Philharmonic. Last January, music director Alan Gilbert - whose up-and-down eight year tenure comes to a close this season - was replaced with the relatively unknown Dutch conductor Jaap Van Zweden. This January, an exodus of top execs began when Ed Yim, director of artistic planning, left to become the executive director of the American Composers Orchestra. It ended three weeks later with the announced departure of president Matthew Van Besien, who is leaving to head up a university performing arts center. And this on top of the tenuous plans surrounding the long-overdue renovation of David Geffen Hall, which will displace the Philharmonic for two seasons starting in 2019 - assuming they can raise the $500 million they still need without a full-time development director. Sheesh.

Then, out of nowhere, came today's surprise announcement: Deborah Borda, who was the NY Phil's executive director from 1991-1999, will be returning to the post this September as President and CEO. In the intervening 17 years, Borda has turned the LA Philharmonic from a second-tier American orchestra to one of the most progressive, well-run orchestras in the world. Here are a few tidbits:

  • She grew the LAPhil's endowment five-fold to $287 milllion, supporting an annual operating budget of $120
    million, largest of any orchestra in the world
  • She helped realize the construction of Frank Gehry's Walt Disney Concert Hall, by far the best concert hall in the U.S., and one of the finest in the world
  • She successfully replaced longtime music director Esa-Pekka Salonen in 2009 with Gustavo Dudamel, arguably the most sought-after conductor in the world

In the process, Borda has become the leading orchestra executive in the United States, and one of the most highly respected performing arts administrators in the world, something I learned firsthand when I attended the League of American Orchestras Essentials of Orchestra Management program more than a decade ago. To say she was a "good get" for the NY Phil is an understatement. (You can read the rest of her long list of accomplishments here.)

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