sun 14/07/2024

DiDonato, NYPO, Gilbert, Barbican | reviews, news & interviews

DiDonato, NYPO, Gilbert, Barbican

DiDonato, NYPO, Gilbert, Barbican

Sensual colours and spirited waltzes from the New York orchestra

Joyce DiDonato, Alan Gilbert and the NYPO at the BarbicanBoth images by Chris Lee

Visits by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra are always an adrenaline boost for musical life in London, and yesterday evening was no exception. The first concert in their brief residency took in Finnish, French and German music (plus one Russian piece – the big Swan Lake waltz for an encore), all presented with a distinctly American accent. This is an orchestra that trades in big sounds, delivered with clarity and confidence.

It is a seductive combination, and while subtleties were often overlooked, they were rarely lamented for long, as the sheer joy of the music-making swept you along.

Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Nyx opened the concert, the UK premiere of a work written in 2010. Although it was a co-commission between a group of European and American venues and broadcasters, it was clearly written with the New York Philharmonic sound in mind. Salonen wrote in the programme that he was seeking a complex contrapuntal style that maintained clarity of texture. He achieved the clarity, though any aspirations to counterpoint seemed like a distant memory. Salonen is a master of orchestration, and he puts every section of the orchestra to excellent and idiomatic use. The clarity comes through his ability to separate the timbres of each instrumental family, combining them in ways that ensure their identity is retained.

Concertante parts for the solo clarinet (Anthony McGill) and horn (Philip Myers) were delivered with effortless virtuosity, despite technical demands well beyond anything in the standard repertoire. But what could have been an effective showcase for this fine orchestra was hobbled by Salonen’s insistence on repeatedly drawing the music into long, tonal melodic lines in the strings. That’s not his forte, especially since the focus on melody prevents him from exploring the complex orchestral textures that usually make his music so exciting.

NYPO and Alan Gilbert at the Barbican

But everything came together for the solo number, Joyce DiDonato singing Ravel’s Shéhérazade. She is the perfect partner for this orchestra, with a voice that projects effortlessly at any dynamic, mingling and blending with the woodwind and string colours, but never disappearing into them. DiDonato does not have a conventionally beautiful tone, but she makes up for that in the flexibility and expressiveness of her singing. She also has excellent diction, putting the text at the forefront of the performance. The orchestral playing here was excellent, Ravel’s full spectrum of tone colours projected in dazzling clarity.

The second half was dominated by waltzes. Ravel’s lucid orchestral colours continued in Valses nobles et sentimentales, but with the tempos moved up a gear. Alan Gilbert took care in defining the rhythmic profiles here, ensuring that attacks were emphatic enough to drive the music, but without the waltz figures ever becoming too insistent. So too in the 1944 arrangement, putatively by conductor Artur Rodziński, of a suite from Richard Strauss's Der Rosenkavaliera continuous assemblage of the orchestral sections, mostly waltzes, from the opera. It's brutally done, splicing the sections together with abrupt jump cuts rather than smooth fades. Even so, Gilbert was able to maintain (or perhaps impose) a sense of coherence, allowing each waltz to effortlessly spiral out of the last.

There was some excellent orchestral playing: the horn section had been on top form all evening, and here got the chance to really shine: the whoops in the Prelude were just fantastic. The woodwind solos were also presented with character and conviction. But the highlights here were the tuttis, the orchestra in full swing in each of the grand waltzes. Some nuances were passed over: the sighing staccato figure in the flutes and piccolos always sounded too fast, and the last-act trio, here played by the front desks of the strings, was lacking in allure. But, given the sheer joie de vivre of each ensuing waltz, it was hard not to feel that Gilbert and his New York players had fully captured the spirit of the opera.

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