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Seen and Heard International Concert Review


Dvořák, Barber, Dutilleux, Haydn: Carter Brey, cello, New York Philharmonic, Alan Gilbert, conductor, Avery Fisher Hall, New York City, 4 June, 2005 (BH)



Dvořák: The Noon Witch (Polednice), Op. 108 (1895)

Barber: Cello Concerto, Op. 22 (1945/ ca. 1947-50)

Dutilleux: Mystčre de l’instant (Mystery of the Moment) for Strings, Cimbalom, and Percussion (1985-89)

Haydn: Symphony No. 90 in C major, Hob.I: 90 (1788)



It is hard to believe that this fetching and dramatic Dvořák had never been performed by the New York Philharmonic until these concerts, so bravo to Alan Gilbert for remedying this situation.  Ditto for the Dutilleux, but since it’s only been around since 1985, it is not so implausible that it, too, was receiving its first performances at these concerts.  The Dvořák has a bit of a grisly story by poet Karel Jaromir Erben, in which a disobedient child is threatened by her parents, before the Noon Witch appears to finish the job.  Before the witch can act, however, the mother accidentally falls on her child, killing her, and the husband returns to find his wife fainted with the dead child pressed to her.  The piece was one of four that the composer finished in a single year.  From an ominous opening, Dvořák creates a short but compelling evocation of the event, leading to a searing, tragic conclusion.  But even without the programmatic aspect, this is some of the composer’s most likeable music, and Gilbert and the orchestra gave it all the authority it deserves.



Although new to me, Barber’s Cello Concerto is a major work, with a similar mix of lyricism and dazzle that is not unlike his Violin Concerto, written just four years earlier.  Used sparingly, the large orchestra opens the first movement before the cello enters in a conversational mode, followed by a gently passionate second movement, and a Molto allegro with syncopations that could be by Bernstein.  The Philharmonic’s outstanding principal cellist, Carter Brey (and playing from memory), seemed to relish the chance to dig into this work’s romantic streak. 



The unusual Dutilleux is scored for strings, cimbalom and percussion, and I couldn’t help but note other similarities to Bartok’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, such as in its eerie, ethereal opening.  Dutilleux asks for glissandi, showers of pizzicati, and muted strings, often interrupted by the tangy cimbalom, and extracts many unusual colors from the ensemble.  Its ten brief episodes are intended to be independent from each other, and program annotator James Keller describes Dutilleux’s inspiration:



“Around eleven o’clock, when there was still a little daylight left, I was very intrigued by a succession of bird calls.  They weren’t nocturnal birds and each one was singing a distinct song; there were about a hundred of them and they were coming closer and closer.  Each one had its own timbre, and also a rhythm that was totally unorganized.  This was what made it so captivating, and this lack of organization captivated me.  Since then I’ve never heard the phenomenon again.”



I did not know this Haydn, and apparently few in the audience did, either, since most of us were hoodwinked by the composer’s fun and games, as well as Mr. Gilbert’s hilarious demonstration of why humor in the concert hall is almost always welcome.  I’ve rarely seen the Philharmonic’s musicians smile as broadly as in this piece, and their playing had a comparable sunny glow.  The final movement has not one, but two false endings, and as the orchestra came to a stop for the first, Gilbert dropped his arms to his sides as if to say, This is the end of the piece.  As the audience began applauding, Gilbert slowly, smilingly turned around to quiet them, and with index finger raised, continued on.  When the musicians reached what seemed to be the end for a second time, the audience again laughingly chimed in, before Mr. Gilbert turned around and smiled, placing his fingers to his lips.  As the piece finally reached its real, actual, indubitable final chord, Gilbert put down his baton and turned to face the audience, which roared in delight.



Bruce Hodges






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