So many inspiring conclusions to take away from the New York Philharmonic’s phantasmagorically majestic performance this past evening in Prospect Park. In the year of the Metoo movement, that the orchestra would choose a centerpiece celebrating a mythic heroine who disarms a psychotic dictator using only her wits spoke volumes.
As does the organization’s long-running Very Young Composers mentorship and advocacy program. Two of those individuals were represented on the bill, each a young African-American woman and a native Brooklynite. And in what’s been a challengingly transitional interregnum between music directors, the choice of James Gaffigan to lead the ensemble through some stunningly fresh, meticulously articulated, relevatory interpretations of material they’ve probably played dozens of times before paid mighty dividends.
At a concert pitched to pull a family audience, local city council representative Brad Lander’s commentary on the ongoing anguish of families being broken up by the ongoing extremist clampdown on immigrants was the night’s most overtly political moment. A polyglot crowd echoed their fervent, familial solidarity, then the orchestra spoke to how triumphantly this scenario could actually play out.
They foreshadowed the suspense and splendor of their romp through Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherezade with an arguably even more carnivalesque stampede through the Bacchanale from Saint-Saens’ opera Samson and Delilah. Even if its creepy chromatics aren’t much more than Hollywood hijaz, those Arabic inflections were another crushingly relevant reference point.
If the program’s two brief, kinetic works by young composers Jordan Millar and Camryn Cowan are any indication, the blues are as much alive in Brooklyn as they were during the Harlem Renaissance, a most welcome meme throughout the New York City public schools this year and a vivid theme for these two gradeschoolers. Each compose’s piece put simple, emphatic blues hooks front and center in lieu of expansive harmony or flourishes, the former with a neat, cold stop midway through and some unexpected, Mozartean lustre afterward.
The orchestra made it to the concert’s midway point with three jaunty, frequently coy excerpts from Leonard Bernstein’s score to On the Town. The Philharmonic’s pretty-much-annual tour of the New York City parks system, from the Bronx to Staten Island, always feature a little bit of everything, including what in another century would have been called “pops” material from outside the classical canon. But as with the rest of the program, Gaffigan didn’t deviate from the game plan or phone these in, airing out the composer’s exchanges of voicings with a painterly charm.
And as much as the park programming is standard repertoire, the Philharmonic never picks tired or cheesy material. Over the last few years, we’ve been treated to plenty of Stravinsky – notably a conflagration of The Firebird in Central Park a couple years back – as well as a similarly colorful tour of Respighi’s Pines of Rome a little before then. Considering both the political subtext and the stunning attention to detail from both Gaffigan and the orchestra, this could have been the best of all of them since the turn of the decade.
Getting to witness it from the best seat in the house – about the equivalent of row L at their Lincoln Center home – no doubt colored this perception. Looking out into the wide swath of greenery in front of them, it must be tempting for everyone onstage to want to play loud, but Gaffigan mined the entirety of the sonic spectrum in keeping with the composer’s top-to-bottom orchestration. When there was suspense, it was relentless; when there was menace, it was a carnival of potentially dead souls; when there were dreamy interludes, they had a celestial vastness.
And the solos, tantalizingly brief as they were, were mesmerizing. Concertmaster Frank Huang spun joyously expert filigrees and flickers, up to an almost shocking cadenza in the final movement where he dug in so hard it seemed that he might break a violin string. Similar effects – especially bassoonist Judith LeClair’s silken, mutedly bittersweet solo – further underscored a triumphant narrative mirroring both the angst and transgressive victories in so many of the world’s ongoing struggles and rebellions.
The Philharmonic’s 2018 tour of the boroughs concludes on Sunday, June 17 indoors at 3 PM at the Snug Harbor Cultural Center in Staten Island.