Friday, June 17, 2005

Fire and ice

The New York Philharmonic concert would've been great enough even without the Natalie Portman sighting. It featured two of my favorite pieces: Sibelius' Violin Concerto and Stravinsky's Firebird Suite, both of which I first fell in love with while lying on the floor of a darkened music classroom, listening to big speakers booming out recordings of them during summer camp (CTY at Dickinson College with the Hijlehs).

I made it to the box office of Avery Fisher Hall just 10 minutes before showtime, but they still had single seats left as far up as the third row of the orchestra. This was my first time being in the hall, and while I know people still complain about the acoustics sometimes, the latter-day reflective devices that they installed all around the stage, which I thought were attractive to look at as well, probably improved the sound a good deal.

I was a bit confused when the orchestra started playing Paul Dukas' The Sorcerer's Apprentice, because that wasn't in the printed program. I was also confused because the guy on the podium did not look old enough to be Lorin Maazel. Luckily, the guy next to me was in the know: Turns out Maazel got sick earlier this week, and David Robertson, music director designate of the St. Louis Symphony, had to fill in, changing two of the program's pieces in the process.

As a result, you could've called the program "Fire and Ice" with two rich, powerful pieces employing all of the orchestra's color and fire as bookends (Apprentice and Firebird) to the icy coolness of the Sibelius concerto and his Swan of Tuonela with solo part for English horn.

Gil Shaham, who's probably one of the 10 best violinists playing today, was soloist on the concerto. (Interesting parallel: Shaham was born in the U.S., but moved to Israel for part of his life; Portman was born in Israel, but then moved to the U.S.) He really seemed to be enjoying himself up there, smiling and sawing away. I love the way the piece opens: the soft, shimmering strings like a snowy Finnish landscape awaiting the icy sunrays of the solo part, sliding in over top, introducing the earnest but passionate first theme. Shaham got a standing ovation at the end, and the audience wouldn't let him leave until he played an encore: a gavotte in rondo form by Bach.

The Firebird was also great. One of the movements really packs an opening punch, which often shakes people out of their chairs and takes you a bit by surprise even if you're familiar with the piece. My favorite movement is the last one, which builds so simply to finish in such triumphant, swooping form.

The Philharmonic will be performing the same program later this morning (quick turnaround, right?) and Saturday night.

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