The famed orchestra, founded in 1842, is one of the world's oldest, and is the oldest in the United States. On the podium was Alan Gilbert, their conductor since 2009, and they performed a wide variety of repertoire that included the European premiere of a newly commissioned work, and featured violinist Joshua Bell and pianist Emanuel Ax as soloists.
Though the orchestra included standard ticket-sellers by Mozart and Tchaikovsky (his Symphony No. 6 “Pathetique”), these two evenings were nevertheless distinctly American; not only by including two works by US natives, Leonard Bernstein and Christopher Rouse, but by the general sound and polished energy of the orchestra and its young American conductor.
Listening to the orchestra that hails from my hometown was a nostalgic experience for me. Just newly graduated from conservatory, I was hired to sing with the NY Philharmonic Chorus as my first musical job in New York. I was extremely lucky to have sung under the batons of both Pierre Boulez and Bernstein in my first year with the Philharmonic. Those experiences shaped the way I viewed my musical career and the way I now write about musical performance.
The May 3 evening program was more in line with what I was taught as good programming: a wide mix of styles, with only one “chestnut” (a typically overplayed classic). A lesser-known solo violin piece, Bernstein's 1954 “Serenade,” sparked curiosity, as many of his works are neglected. This one, affectionately played by Bell throughout, had five sections, each with a title dedicated to Greek personages in Plato's “Symposium.” Of the five, only “Phaedrus” and “Socrates” evoked the kind of harmonic and rhythmic interest to catch our attention. The rest seemed to wander off in plaintive cogitation that suggested the kind of philosophical conundrums the ancients had proposed to Plato. These elegiac stretches alternated with jazz-inflected moments that recalled Bernstein's other persona, that of a Broadway show composer. Overall, “Serenade” struggled to find a compositional identity.
Christopher Rouse's “Prospero's Rooms” painted a mysterious picture in a free-form symphonic poem that revealed that Rouse, who is the Philharmonic's composer-in-residence, is also an astute orchestrator. This piece was inspired by Edgar Allan Poe's short story “The Masque of the Red Death,” and Rouse uses low woodwinds and exotic percussion for eerie effect: The “red death” was the plague that killed millions in prior centuries. The “masque” is an evening ball at the palace (containing seven rooms, each painted a different color) of Prince Prospero, who attempts to shield his guests from the plague. The piece is highly descriptive, but it's helpful to read the program notes in order to make sense of it.
Half of the May 4 evening had me yawning, despite Ax's sparkling rendition of a Mozart concerto, because of deadly sameness: Two large works by Mozart, back-to-back (Symphony No. 36 and Piano Concerto No. 25), both in the same key and both unfortunately formulaic to the point of boredom. They are less-inspired examples of Wolfgang's prodigious output. He wrote so much and so easily; composing for him was like cooking the evening meal. The symphony is called “Linz,” but despite its reference to the classic beauty that is the city of Linz (Austria), the four movements gave us no beautiful melodies to speak of. The same arguments can be made for the concerto, even though it was a sturdy vehicle for Ax to offer an admirable execution of the repertoire on which he's built his career.
The pièce de résistance was Mussorgsky's mighty “Pictures at an Exhibition” using a huge orchestra, which is the only way to succeed in the sonically challenged Haliç hall. Maestro Gilbert and the orchestra pulled out all the stops here for a monumental performance of a great piece. I'm sure Dr. Eczacıbaşı was listening.
CSO Cello Quartet at Pera Museum
Another example of innovative programming came to town with the CSO Cello Quartet -- four cellists from Ankara's Presidential Symphony Orchestra. Their concert at the Pera Museum on April 27 filled the museum, whose walls are covered with famous Ottoman paintings, with delicious sound and astounding arrangements of music from Bach to the Beatles.
Onur Şenler, İbrahim Aydoğdu, Köklü Yiğit Tan and Yaz Irmak played music by Rossini, Bach, Gershwin, Mendelssohn, Shostakovich, Monti, Fauré, Brubeck, Steffen, Bregovic, and Ellington. Now that's what I call a wide-ranged program. Their chief arranger is Şenler himself, and his scores for this quartet are brilliant. He even took one original 12-cello arrangement (from the Berlin Philharmonic) of “Michelle” by the Beatles' John Lennon, and managed to reduce it successfully to four.
In Ellington's “It Don't Mean a Thing” and a mélange of Gershwin's melodies from “Porgy and Bess,” “Rhapsody in Blue,” “I Got Rhythm” and “S'wonderful” they swung and crooned, leaned artfully into the heartbreaking moments and maximized the syncopation with jaunty pizzicato, special effects and finger snapping. In the classics, their way with Mendelssohn's “Nocturne” was sonorous, and their version of Bach's “Aria” was a winner because of their informed stylistic approach -- they played it like a consort of viols.
In Brubeck's “Blue Rondo à la Turk” their speed got away with them, sacrificing accuracy, but they used demon speed to their advantage in Monti's sizzling “Csardas” as their finale. With the audience screaming on their feet, the quartet obliged with an unforgettable treatment of Ennio Morricone's music from the film “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.” This concert was “Good, Better and the Best.”