The New York Philharmonic Orchestra holds open rehearsals, generally on the morning of the first concert of a series. I have been able to see this week’s concert twice in the one day. (The rehearsal tickets are only $ 15). This week the orchestra is conducted by Christoph Von Dohnanyi and Nikolaj Znaider plays the Sibelius Violin Concerto.
I had the idea, maybe a false memory, that Mr. Von Dohnanyi would look emaciated but he does not. He is solidly built and has white hair. He beats the time very clearly with large movements using a long baton. New York Philharmonic rehearsals which I attended last year under Lorin Maazel and David Robertson proceeded pretty much as run throughs of the whole concert. Mr. Von Dohnanyi seems a more demanding taskmaster and called for many repeats some of which involved stopping the orchestra before the end of a movement.
The concert began with a relatively new work by Harrison Birtwistle called Night’s Black Bird, first performed in August 2004. It lasts only about 12 minutes. It follows upon a longer work called The Shadow of Night. Both are inspired by works of John Dowland; the title of Night’s Black Bird comes from the text of Dowland’s song “Flow my Tears”. The piece opens with dying chords which resemble the beginning of Britten’s Midsummer Night’s Dream but in the bass rather than treble. Bird calls are heard against the orchestral background; the program note says the Black Bird of the title is “only one in a whole aviary, with the high woodwinds (most prominently the piccolo, flute, and E flat clarinet,) adding their calls.” At the concert itself when I was closer to the orchestra I heard more of the layered texture of the orchestral back ground and liked it better. There is a real difference in what is heard in different places in Avery Fisher Hall. There is a large percussion section with all kinds of gongs and cymbals, but they are not over used, and the work ends with the unusual scraping sound of two guiros. The guiro is a South American instrument.
On the Philharmonic’s podcast Mr. Birtwistle spoke about the Dowland songs which inspired his piece. He admires the lyrical quality of Dowland: a quality which he said had been lost in nineteenth century music. Dowland’s In Darkeness let me Dwell was playing in the background and illustrated his point well. However, I didn’t find Night’s Black Bird a lyrical work. The orchestral sound rises to crescendos twice and the bird calls are often staccato.
Nikolaj Znaider is a marvelous violinist and his performance of the Sibelius concerto was thrilling. He plays the Guarnerius “del Gesu” 1741 violin which he explains on the podcast was used by Fritz Kreisler for 15 years. He likes to think that the wood of the instrument contains a memory of Kreisler’s playing. Whatever the likelihood of this, the combination of the instrument and the player’s skill and musicality produced a beautiful sound.
The concert ended with Bethhoven’s fifth symphony. The program quotes a Wittgensteinian remark of Schumann: “Let us be silent about this work!” So apart from the comment that the playing was excellent and from my seat I heard all sections of the orchestra distinctly and enjoyed the precision of the playing, I will.