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Ravel, Bernstein and Tchaikovsky

The New York Philharmonic at the Avery Fisher Hall at the Lincoln Centre, New York, present RAVEL, BERNSTEIN and TCHAIKOVSKY.

I attended an 11 am Friday morning concert. It was the second performance of the first program of the season, conducted by Alan Gilbert, the Music Director of the New York Philharmonic.

The program began with a short work by Maurice Ravel: Alborada del gracioso (Dawn Song of the Jester). Written originally as a piano solo in 1904-05 as part of a five movement piano suite called MIROIRS. The Alborada del gracioso was the fourth movement and Sergei Diaghilev utilised it as part of a ballet on Spanish themes for the Ballets Russes – it was a composite score that also included pieces by Louis Aubert, Gabriel Faure, and Emmanuel Charbrier. Diaghilev went on to commission Ravel to create an orchestral version. It is a lively Spanish flavoured work of some humour and brevity – only 7 minutes long. It has none of the mystery of the famous BOLERO (1928). This was my first live concert in The Avery Fisher Hall and I found the sound good. The Hall is due for a major renovation (maybe, 2017) to not only update the interior and the facilities, but attempt to re-configure the acoustic sound which has always had mixed reviews.

The second part of the first half of the concert was a happy coincidence for me, because of the pleasure of hearing the Symphonic Dances from West Side Story by Leonard Bernstein, which he had assembled in 1961. It had premiered at Carnegie Hall on the 13th February, 1961, in a pension fund gala concert titled “A Valentine for Leonard Bernstein” by the New York Philharmonic conducted by Lukas Foss. The musical WEST SIDE STORY had premiered in 1957. The “DANCES” are made up of nine sections that Bernstein re-ordered into an uninterrupted sequence (two of the most popular song’s from the musical: “Somewhere” and “Maria” appear in the middle Ch-Cha sequence.) The orchestra members give the shout out of “Mambo” in the middle presto dance. It was great to be present in the Avery Fisher Hall listening to the popular Bernstein score of WEST SIDE STORY in this guise, remembering all the passionate performances I have watched of Mr Bernstein, as a kid, on television, from this Hall. His presence was definitely beside and all around me. The black and white TV images of the active conducting of “Lenny” were coming to me in a kind of spectral 3D visitation, closing my eyes, visualising, and listening.

After the interval the 2013-2014 Mary and James G. Wallach Artist-in-Residence at the New York Philharmonic, Yefim Bronfman, was the piano soloist for Pyotr IIyich Tchaikovsky, Piano Concerto No.1 in B-flat minor, Op 23. The work was composed in 1874, revised in 1876 and again in 1889, which brought the piece into the form in which it is nearly always heard today – as it was this day. It was dedicated to the German conductor and pianist Hans von Bulow and was unveiled for the first time as part of his up coming American tour. Through this quirk of history “This ultra-familiar emblem of “the Russian style” received its premiere in Boston, played by a German pianist on an American Chickering piano…” !

Of course, this is a very famous work and one that is very familiar to me. From the rousing, ‘romantic’ tune of the first movement that has had the ability to indelibly impress itself into my memory, right through the whole concerto, one hears Tchaikovsky’s passion with such clarity, accumulating layers from other times/performances, that it seemed to be over too soon – a familiar source of joy, that one wishes to indulge and not give away to silence, too soon, reluctantly moved into memory and the past. Only applause for the gift is left to be given.

The program notes talking of Yefim Bronfman quote author Philip Roth who was once completely knocked out by the musicianship of Mr Bronfman:

When he’s finished, I thought, they’ll have to throw [the instrument] out. He crushes it. He doesn’t let that piano conceal a thing. Whatever’s in there is going to come out, and come out with its hands in the air.

 I echo that observation. The passionate vehemence of Mr Bronfman’s playing and the extraordinary concentration is a spell binding dynamic to watch and one unconsciously holds one’s breath during the playing – relaxing and recovering when he does, girding one’s energy for the next aural “assault’. One is emotionally wrung through with this playing. The sound resultant is palpably electric and muscular and cannot be ignored – one’s solar plexus are sore from that unconscious defensive hold that one has made as those fingers come down onto the key board. The relationship with the orchestra, led by Mr Gilbert, is sparked each from the other in simpatico and Tchaikovsky lives vibrant and triumphant in the joint craft and art.

It was just before one o’clock on a sunny early afternoon when I tumbled out into the Lincoln Centre heading for the subway downtown floating on a cloud of great satisfaction. What a way to begin a day. Begun with the New York Philharmonic, Alan Gilbert, Yefin Bronfman, Ravel, Bernstein and Tchaikovsky. And all for a Rush Ticket that cost me only $16. How lucky life can sometimes be.