This morning the New York Philharmonic had an open (dress) rehearsal of this week’s subscription program: Selections from Die Meistersinger and the Prelude and “Libestod” from Tristan und Isolde of Wagner, then after intermission the Saint-Saëns Piano Concerto No. 2 with André Watts, followed by de Falla’s “Three Cornerned Hat” Suites 1 and 2. Now there’s a crowd-pleasing program! A member of the orchestra had arranged for me to sit in the Philharmonic’s box, where I introduced myself to Xian Zhang, the orchestra’s associate conductor. It turned out we know people in common, and she was very kind to let me watch her scores, in which she was marking details of the conductor’s performance. (Note to students: the Associate Conductor’s job is to be ready to fill in should the scheduled conductor not be able to go on, so she needs to know the details of what he’s doing. And writing in those details is a great learning experience in and of itself.)
Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos conducted. I’m not usually that much of a Wagner guy, but the combination of his conducting and the orchestra’s playing the Meistersinger and Tristan excerpts grabbed me the way I had been wishing the Philadelphia’s Beethoven would last night. Frühbeck de Burgos drew a deeply warm and richly expressive sound from the orchestra. It was music making that breathed and sighed, and it’s humanity got me. (Every orchestral musician I know who’s played under this wonderful old-school elder statesman of a conductor has loved it. I heard that from a Boston Symphony friend last summer, and heard the same this morning from Carter Brey, the Philharmonic’s principal cellist.)
Watts was effortlessly virtuosic, as usual, including not only brilliant passagework but also lyricism and, well, pizzazz. The rehearsal started with working through the last two movements, and then a run-through of the whole piece, save for the opening piano solo (darn!). It was during the run through that Watts really caught fire. An incredible electricity seemed to fill the hall.
The Falla was great, showy orchestral fun. The Philharmonic is a phenomenal orchestra, and having headr them twice, Boston three times, and Philadelphia and Cleveland each once in recent months, there’s no doubt in my mind the Philharmonic has the top brass section of these four of the “big five” orchestras. These Philharmonic guys just never make a mistake. How they do it, I have no idea—in the other orchestras there was always a slight mishap of some sort.
The Philharmonic strings played with a richness and expressiveness, especially in the Wagner, that was the best of the orchestras I’ve heard, too. While the Cleveland strings are the most uncannily precise I’ve ever heard, each section so unified it is as if just one instrument is playing (as the Philadelphia woodwinds seemed last night), at this point I’d say the orchestra I’ve most enjoyed is the Philharmonic. (And I’m not saying that just because at least one Philharmonic member is following this blog!)
It seems as no one has ever been happy with the Avery Fisher Hall acoustics, and I believe there are plans afoot to redo the hall again; the Philharmonic even tried to move back to Carnegie Hall a year or two ago but the deal fell through. Both times I’ve been to hear them play this fall, I’ve been in a box seat towards the front of the hall on the stage right (audience left) side, and from there the sound is terrific.