Akiko & NSO

featuring Akiko Suwanai, violin, and Dorian Wilson, conductor

It’s been a while since I’ve been in our local concert hall, I feel, and others told me so this evening as I found my seat (and three others a few rows back for a few first-timers I dragged along with me).

I also realized that (if I am not mistaken) this will be the last time I am in that hall until the New York Philharmonic’s concerts mid-March, but that’s not to say there’s absolutely nothing going on. You’ll see.

As part host/tour guide of the concert hall for the evening, I didn’t listen to the pre-concert lecture, and usually wouldn’t, except that tonight there was one thing I’d like to have heard, but it might not have been mentioned anyway, and that’s what, if any, logic there was behind the program this evening. It was as follows:

  1. John Adams’ The Chairman Dances, subtitled ‘Foxtrot for Orchestra’
  2. Saint-Saëns’ third violin concerto (with Suwanai)
  3. Prokofiev’s fifth symphony

As much as I’ve been enjoying Glass’ Einstein on the Beach in the past year or two, it only today occurred to me that I should probably finally check out some of Adams’ work. The first piece on the program I thought actually came from his opera Nixon in China, but it turns out it was an ‘outtake,’ sort of material derived from that stage work around the time of its composition.

One can’t miss the ‘minimalist’ modern elements. There’s lots of percussion, regular rhythm and long static passages, in contrast with Glass’ ‘music with repetitive structures’ or whatever he said. Hearing the piece through the ears of my first-time visitors a few rows back, I wonder if the idea came through cleanly and clearly enough, that this was a whirring, chugging engine of sorts, with its intricate parts and clicks and rhythms. Could it have been crisper and tighter? I feel like it could have, but while it was well played, it was definitely, by far, the weakest offering of the evening. I say that with no specific criticism, more to say that what came after was truly superb. I was surprised, then, afterward, when one of my companions for the evening expressed how much she enjoyed it. Of the three, I certainly wouldn’t have expected it to be the standout.

Next, after some standard seat shuffling, was Saint-Saëns. I’d never heard of Suwanai, and until today, (probably) hadn’t heard the Saint-Saëns concerto live or otherwise. I had a listen to it this afternoon, and it is certainly a sumptuous, spot-on Romantic-era work, in three movements, with everything you could ask for in a concerto. I’ll take Suwanai, Wilson, the NSO and Saint-Saëns over anyone playing Tchaikovsky anytime, anywhere. The concerto itself is bold and emotive without being whiny or affected, just rich enough to enjoy without being what tires me very quickly in Tchaikovsky.

That aside, Suwanai was fantastic, absolutely superb, technically, expressively… from the heady opening entrance at the very top of the work, to the quiet, eerie harmonics toward the end of the second movement to the festive final movement, her playing was sublime, and Wilson and the NSO were in top form. This must be the most familiar idiom for any orchestra to play in, and they did it justice.

The real gem, though, the reason I bought a ticket, was for the Prokofiev. It’s a historical symphony, easily Prokofiev’s greatest, one of the greatest of the 20th century, a spectacular work, and I must say now looking back, that my previous live experience with this work (which I won’t link) was slightly underwhelming for reasons I just couldn’t put my finger on at the time.

Tonight, however, was another story. Maybe I didn’t understand the choice of Adams, and maybe I’d have preferred the Schoenberg to the Saint-Saëns (which really truly was magnificent), but here, here I feel is where we touch on memorable greatness. I’ve said before that when an orchestra or a performer or a conductor can do something with a performance that makes you reconsider it, in a new light, as perhaps one of the greatest towering achievements in its form, then something magical has happened.

I already have a great degree of respect and admiration for the Prokofiev, as a significant 20th century piece, but… Gergiev, Ozawa, Celibidache, take your pick. Nothing on Dorian Wilson and the NSO tonight, and I mean it. It was a white-knuckled, fasten-your-seatbelts ride that reminds us that Prokofiev had in mind man’s “pure and noble spirit” at a critical time in history, but also that life can be harsh and violent and chest-pounding, cheeky, ironic, but in the big scheme of things, it’s incredible.

I’ve never heard a climax in this work like that reached in the final bars of the first movement. The second movement is the toccata-like scherzo, with a playful, mischievous air, but overall just so much personality, or maybe so many personalities. There are turns and curves and whispers, winks, a rib in the elbow here and there. This movement is so full of color and energy and detail, and it was handled immaculately.

Dorian Wilson, whose name I couldn’t recall until I looked at the program at dinner, was just a superb conductor. I was shocked I hadn’t had any impression of him. He’s one of the people who gives the audience the impression that he’s not just waving his hands and pointing and giving cues but actually reaching into the air, into the space, and shaping and coaxing the music as it flies by so it’s precisely as it should be when it reaches our ears. His conducting is tactile, precise. He conducted the Prokofiev like he wrote it. The third and fourth movements were also spectacular, and when we know we’re reaching the end, with the brass and the ‘wrong notes’ in the string quartet and all the rest, a heart rate monitor would quickly have shown the impact the music was having. It was absolutely thrilling.

Not only did Wilson superbly present the Prokofiev, clearly in possession of an insightful vision of the work, the NSO played wonderfully, and I feel like this might be one of their most memorable performances in recent years. It was really just wonderful.

I could go on about what an interesting program this was overall, and how really excellent it was for first timers to come and hear a concerto, symphony, and a more modern piece, although I’d have taken something orchestral from Ravel, Debussy, or Messiaen (or if not French [or Russian], then like… one of the Brahms or Beethoven overtures probably). Overall though, it was a fantastic concert to be the last I’ll attend for nearly two months (quite the stretch for me). That being said, I’ll be right across the courtyard tomorrow night for something else quite exciting, so do look out for that. See you soon.


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