New York Philharmonic thrills Hill Auditorium with Mozart and Brahms
photo by Chris Lee
If New York Philharmonic Music Director Alan Gilbert weren’t such a terrific conductor, you would swear he had missed his calling, as a dancer.
On the podium at Hill Auditorium Saturday evening to lead the NY Phil in the first of two weekend concerts presented by the University Musical Society, Gilbert was a model of uplift, grace and dancing inside the music. And, in a program of Mozart and Brahms that could have been business as usual, those qualities translated into playing that made the repertoire - the Overture to Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro;” his “Linz” Symphony; and Brahms’ monumental Symphony No. 1 in c minor - anything but routine, and anything but dull.
The Mozart selections could, for example, sail along on charm, and that they did, but with oh, so much more to engross the listener. In the “Figaro” overture, the tempo was swift, alert, but the playing was never hurried: the music seemed to unfurl by itself, unforced but winging by, with time for a listener to appreciate all the little undercurrents and inner voices.
In the “Linz” Symphony, the playing was characterful, lithe, buoyant and beautifully shaped dynamically, on both a small and large scale. In the opening movement, the strings offered a soulful, tender treatment of the sinuous line, and the music’s internal balances - of question and answer, short phrase and long - were elegant without being fussy. Again, as in the overture, the momentum never stalled, with little details - an exclamation from the violins, for example - pushing the line forward. A deceptive cadence in the Andante, and the entrance into and out of it, became an alluring focal point; the movement’s danciness seemed to find fruition in the minuet that followed, witty and full of swing (and lots of rubato in the trio section). The Presto finale zipped along, light of foot, the strings playing with tone so bright it was as if the sun was glinting off the polish of the instruments.
The tone and temper changed radically post-intermission, when the orchestra returned for the Brahms Symphony No. 1 in c minor. It’s a work that can, on occasion, feel as long as the number of years (somewhere between 14 and 21, depending on how and who is counting them) it took Brahms to complete it. But the reading the Phil delivered Saturday was taut, tension-filled, absorbing from first notes to last.
The orchestra, Brahmsian in size, played with dark-hued, plush sound, but clarity never was sacrificed to mass: motives surged to the foreground and then receded, still vital, to background; inner voices contributed to a grand edifice. And the inner movements - the Andante and the Allegretto - were beautifully paced, the Allegretto flowing along on a current buoyed by the pizzing of the cellos. The finale built, serene and dramatic, to a magnificent close. As Gilbert called on players to stand for bows, the audience responded by standing itself and adding cheers for those he singled out - like concertmaster Glenn Dicterow, Principal Horn Philip Myers and Principal Oboe Liang Wang, among others - as well as entire sections.
To end the evening with a little lighter Brahms, the orchestra offered the 6th Hungarian Dance, played with elan, lots of wit and clicking of heels. They’re back at Hill this (Sunday) afternoon, for another program - Mussorgsky, Bloch and Tchaikovsky - that also promises rich rewards.
The New York Philharmonic performs again at Hill Auditorium on Sunday at 2 p.m. For details, see the UMS website.