A week ago Saturday brought to a close the New York Philharmonic season as far as my attendance is concerned. It’s been a pretty disappointing first year for symphony concerts here in the Northeast in my opinion. Good-and-occasionally-very-good-but-not-great performances of Strauss, Mahler, Bruckner, and Beethoven (James Ehnes excepted!) from the NYPO, the bullet-riddled corpse of Schumann 4 in Philly, and a respectable but ultimately unspectacular Rachmaninov 2 from the band on the Jersey side left me wondering just when the Phil was going to bring the pain and fucking represent as their reputation suggested they should have been doing all along. I got my wish thanks to John Storgards and the genius that is Sibelius.
I didn’t think it was going to get there at first. The concert started with Robert Schumann’s Genoveva Overture, a work which I somehow missed in my formative years despite my love for the man’s orchestral music. This performance, not unlike the aforementioned performance of the 4th in Philly, really struggled to gain momentum and energy throughout. It picked up noticeably near the end, and the last minute or so was a small preview of what was to come when the orchestra was in peak form. They really played the piss out of the overtly excited conclusion to the overture.
There was a substitution on the program for the second work, six songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn. The Phil’s artist-in-residence this year, Eric Owens, took ill. The cavalry showed up in the form of Michelle DeYoung, one of the great Mahler singers on Earth (especially for the 4th movement of the 3rd Symphony…nobody does it better that’s alive). The selection of songs was pretty strange, as all but the 5th song, “St. Anthony’s Sermon to the Fishes” had some militaristic business coursing through it (“Sentinel’s Nightsong”, “The Drummer Boy”, “Reveille”, etc. were all on the show). DeYoung got lost in the textures quite a lot from my vantage point, and it was difficult to pick out what she was saying if you were looking to keep an eye on the supertitles and follow along.
Fortunately, I don’t give a shit. I just sat and listened, and for whatever balance problems existed between band and soloist, they more than made up for it in execution, color, and fucking flair. It was the best the band has sounded since I’ve been here, a well-oiled machine of drumrolls and fanfares, and with more character than I’ve ever heard in the songs. It was incredibly satisfying for those of us who just stared into space or listened with our eyes closed. And that was just the beginning…
After the break, where we checked out whatever weird party situation was in the lobby and decided it was utter nonsense, the band returned and laid fucking siege to Sibelius 2. Storgards’ approach was quite a bit more measured than I’m accustomed to, with less forward momentum and more lingering on the spot. I suspect the degree of difficulty for this type of interpretation is very high since Sibelius is unparalleled in the forward momentum and energy departments. It presumably requires playing of such quality and character, along with precise balances and rhythmic execution, such that lingering on the spot becomes an appealing option. Somehow, they pulled it off.
The brass, in particular, crushed it. They were abrasive when it counted, mysterious when it needed it, and resplendent when it all came to a head at the end. There were many, many highlights, but I must say that I can’t imagine the finale sounding better than that at any time, to include the future times. It simmered with intensity until it started a rolling boil of intensity, at which point, after the recapitulation, the liquid that was boiling showed itself to be oil and transmogrified into a God damned jet plane that destroyed everything in its path with devastating force. By the time the chorale came around, the tears were flowing, and the chorale sealed the victory for all time.
I don’t give many standing ovations, either because I’m a dick or because I don’t just want to give them away for nothing. It rankles me a bit that pretty much every symphony concert ends with three curtain calls now, because a curtain call has essentially ceased to have meaning in that context. This concert was the first I’ve been to since the Bruckner 9 in Chicago in which a standing O was justified and the only acceptable option. It goes near the top of the list of best concerts I’ve ever attended. Here’s hoping Storgards shows his face again soon.