New York Philharmonic with Joyce DiDonato at the National Concert Hall, April 17th 2015
When the New York Philharmonic Orchestra rolls into town, expectations are inevitably high, with more than 150 years of critical and public acclaim behind them. Bringing their polished sound to Dublin for the first time in nearly two decades, and to a sold out house, they set out to meet those expectations. With a programme that makes full use of the large orchestral force they can assemble, and a brace of works from Maurice Ravel, along with one of Richard Strauss characteristic bombastic works, the selection promised much in the way of high drama.
First up though comes the Irish premiere of Finnish composer Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Nyx. Richly textured, with layers of interlocking sound, Salonen’s work is tense at times, the resonant lows of the bass underscored by an impressive rumble from the percussion. Conductor Alan Gilbert marshals the forces before him with a demeanour that manages to be at once both restrained and dramatic. From the speculative sounding pizzicato of the celli and bass to the crack of percussion calling to mind a cinematic chase scene, the orchestra’s sound is never less than resonant, the swiftly shifting textures smooth and controlled.
That smooth control is shown to good effect in the second work of the evening, with mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato taking centre stage for Ravel’s Schéhérazade. Though possessed of a rich vocal tone, DiDonato’s approach in the first of the three songs is restrained. Though the orchestra’s sound is well balanced, the exotic evocations of Ravel’s work are somewhat muted. La Flute Enchantée fares better, with the magnificently moustachioed Robert Langevin providing the beautifully clear flute lines – DiDonato finds a more confident tone, balancing warmth with a welcome intensity to her voice.
Charming her audience with a cúpla focail, DiDonato, née Flaherty, closes out the opening half with an encore in the form of Richard Strauss’ Morgen!; the strong, clean vibrato of violinist Sheryl Staples matched beautifully to the DiDonato’s clear tones, the orchestra’s unobtrusive backing working to give her voice the space it needs.
Ravel’s Valses Nobles et Sentimentales sees Gilbert adopt a livelier approach, physical and dramatic. Though warm and balanced throughout, and always technically adept, the orchestra’s take on Ravel’s collection of waltzes never quite comes to life.
The same couldn’t be said for the final work of the evening. From the opening fanfare to each dramatic sweep of the strings, Richard Strauss Der Rosenkavalier Suite is given the full epic treatment. Working with a rich palette of orchestral textures, it’s a work that allows the sheer artistry of the orchestra to shine through. Ranging from the brash and the bold, to the intimately tender, Gilbert and the orchestra work to bring each of Strauss’ sounds to life.
Being the house band of one of the cultural capitals of the world carries with it some serious expectations – that the New York Philharmonic Orchestra has held that status for more than 170 years now is, on tonight’s evidence, probably no accident.
Esa-Pekka Salonen – Nyx
Ravel – Schéhérazade
Ravel – Valses Nobles et Sentimentales
R. Strauss – Der Rosenkavalier Suite