UMS/SMTD/NY Phil: The Combo Spells Contentment

By SUSAN ISAACS NISBETT

(Ann Arbor, Oct. 12, 2015)

The abbreviations resemble an alphabet salad, but the NY Philharmonic’s residency, presented by the University Musical Society, in conjunction with the U-M School of Music & Dance, had a letter for everyone this past weekend.

I only caught a fraction of the events, which included concerts, master classes galore, lectures, and an appearance by Music Director Alan Gilbert and the NY Phil’s brass at the U-M homecoming game. But I loved what I heard, and the good vibes of the weekend augur well for the two Philharmonic residency installments to come in 2017-18 and 2019-20 seasons.

There were lots of young people in the hall for Thursday evening’s kickoff concert, when you could have assumed that colleagues from the SMTD would show up to cheer the eight SMTD students playing with NY Phil principals in the Mendelssohn Octet and the Mozart C Minor Serenade for Winds, K. 388. That free concert, which drew only a medium-size audience to Rackham Auditorium, was a winner – for both its spirit of collaboration and for polished playing of these two iconic works.

But Friday’s Hill Auditorium crowd, there to hear the Phil in the first of three “Big House” concerts, also seemed to have downshifted in age. Silver hair did not dominate in the hall, and if the audience was younger, the repertoire also had a youthful vitality about it.

We’re not just talking about the “Victors” encore – for which Music Director Gilbert donned the white gloves and mandatory Michigan cap he would wear to conduct the Michigan Marching Band in Saturday’s landmark halftime show (first time ever for a symphony orchestra members to join a college band on the gridiron). First on the bill was the newly minted “Vivo,” by former NY Phil composer-in-residence Magnus Lindberg, premiered just two nights earlier at the Phil’s glittering Carnegie Hall opening-night gala.

As the title indicates, “Vivo” is lively, an 8-minute slip of an overture in which chords pile up in successive, little waves – but never quite reach shore till the very end. It’s the building, the expectation of resolution, and the withholding that that make us stay tuned – as well as shimmering sonorities and progressions that reference Ravel’s “Daphnis and Chloe,” which was also on the Carnegie bill and to which Lindberg wanted “Vivo” to relate.

But if the orchestra’s energy and focus in “Vivo,” just about the newest thing in its rep, was high, it flagged not in the well-worn, well-loved Beethoven staples that followed: the first piano concerto and the Symphony No. 7.

For the concerto, pianist Inon Barnatan and the orchestra seemed of one mind: play light, precise and buoyantly, ride the air currents in the outer movements, let seamless lyricism flourish in the central Largo, keep the sound free but controlled. It was exalted playing, and it was riveting.

The same could be said for much of the Symphony No. 7. The winds and brass and lower strings were particular marvels, and Gilbert’s attention to detail, and his ability to make those details sing out, kept the ear firmly anchored in the music. I found the first two movements more satisfying than the last two (the finale was on the mega-traffic-ticket side of speedy, with the ear struggling to get all the details as they flew by). Of the four movements, the second was the real knockout — for beautiful details, for finely calibrated dynamics and tonal sensitivity, for heart as well as intellect.

I had to miss Saturday’s Hill Auditorium concert, with Esa-Pekka Salonen’s “L.A. Variations” and R. Strauss’ “Ein Heldenleben.” But I returned on Sunday for some major Brando and Bernstein, with the NY Phil live on stage to play Bernstein’s only original film score as we watched Brando (and an incredible supporting cast) in the still totally compelling 1954 “On the Waterfront” on the Big Screen overhead.

There was a superb, standing-room-only pre-concert talk beforehand, offered by U-M musicologist Mark Clague, U-M film specialist Caryl Flinn and conductor (and distinguished film-score composer) David Newman. And the event that followed was wonderful beyond expectations.

Maybe lowest on the tally of what made this great was the company of some 3,000 fellow patrons to react, sometimes audibly, to the film. Film-going is a social event, and Sunday brought that home.

Beyond that, there was the thrill of seeing, yet again, how this film holds up, and of seeing it on a really big screen. We had the rare opportunity to appreciate the Bernstein score as live music and to see how much it contributes to the cinematic experience in a way you really can’t when it’s part of the soundtrack. The whole, in short, was way more than the sum of its parts, and the parts themselves were potent. After the concert, the NY Phil members may have been boarding buses to return to Detroit Metro Airport and on to New York, but those of us exiting Hill were still very much “On the Waterfront” and in the zone.

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