NY Phil goes 'lite' on Beethoven and Strauss

By Raymond Beegle

BEETHOVEN Symphony No. 4 • Andrew NORMAN Split, for Piano and Orchestra • R. STRAUSS Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche
New York Philharmonic, James Gaffigan, Conductor; Jeffrey Kahane, Piano.  David Geffen Hall, 12/11/2015

The New York Philharmonic is a hundred seventy-three years old, and has a life expectancy stretching into the infinite future. Like all living organisms, the cellular structure changes. Old cells are discarded, and new ones take their place, but the essential personality, the soul of the organism, remains essentially the same. Furtwängler described the orchestra ninety years ago, as “chillingly virtuosic.” Perhaps the chill has abated, while virtuosity remains in glorious evidence, but as I have learned from five decades of concert attendance, this formidable ensemble has a personality in its own right, no matter who stands on the podium. It takes a great leader, like Toscanini, or Bruno Walter, and in later years, Kubelik and Masur, to set his own imprint on the contours of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. Last night was a reminder of this, as from the opening measures of Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony it was not clear who was the horse and who was the rider. Conductor James Gaffigan, making his debut this week, is an attractive man with an athletic body, who, once the downbeat was given, began to dance to the accompaniment of the orchestra. The musicians, having played the work countless times, seemed not to need –or very much heed - all his gymnastic movements. The tempos he indicated were inordinately brisk: The solemn adagio of the first movement was closer to andante, and the subsequent allegro so fast that the notes could not be sufficiently articulated. There was no allowance for rubato, which diminished much of the charm and character of incidental solo lines. The stately second movement, also marked adagio was chivvied along at a waltz tempo, so that the effect that made Berlioz exclaim “…it must have been written by an archangel” was completely obliterated. Gaffigan mentioned onstage that the Fourth Symphony was “light,” in contrast with the Third and the Fifth, making it a good bedfellow with the other light pieces on the program. It is true that the orchestration is lighter than the neighboring symphonies, but it is far from the truth to dismiss this jubilant work as “light.”

The “light” entertainment, Split, for piano and orchestra was written for pianist Jeffrey Kahane. In a program note the composer tells us “His playing has so much clarity, wit, vigor and soul, and I’m trying to write music that lets Jeff be Jeff in the best possible way.” It made me wonder if Beethoven, who wrote his violin Concerto for Franz Clement, would have considered writing a program note saying “I’m trying to write music that lets Franz be Franz in the best possible way. ” My guess is that he wouldn’t because he knew Franz Clement didn’t need a spokesman. Nor did Beethoven’s concerto need an explanation. American composer Andrew Norman however, provided an explanatory passage for this evening’s premiere: “…the pianist is a protagonist who’s been pranked, and must find his way out of a musical labyrinth.” This remark is arguably as vague as the work itself. Split seemed to this listener a 25-minute succession of restless fragmented phrases in the style of John Corigliano, punctuated by the beat of a variety of drums, virtually bereft melodic material. The pianist opened the piece with a seemingly random series of notes, and then launched into a dazzling volley of scales and arpeggios, which were, for the most part, smothered by heavy orchestration. The reaction in the house was mixed. Some individuals responded heartily, with the whistles and hoops one hears when a celebrity appears on a talk show; others sat stone faced waiting for the commotion to pass. One can’t help but be skeptical of the enthusiasts however, as they were unaware that they should not applaud between the movements of Beethoven’s symphony.

 Richard Strauss’ tone poem, the highlight of the evening, was played with buoyancy and lustrous tone by an orchestra relieved to be back on the solid ground of music from our great tradition. Once again the New York Philharmonic seemed not much to need the assistance of James Gaffigan who, after he gave the downbeat of Till Eulenspiegel, proceeded to pantomime the merry pranks of that little German vagabond.

Raymond Beegle reviews classical music and opera for the New York Observer and Fanfare Magazine. For many years he was Contributing Editor of Opera Quarterly, the Classic Record Collector (UK), and also appeared on The Today Show (NBC) and Good Morning America (CBS). As an accompanist, he has collaborated with Zinka Milanov and Licia Albanese.  Currently Mr. Beegle serves on the faculty of Manhattan School of Music in New York City.