On May 6, 2023 the New York Philharmonic performed at the newly renovated Geffen Hall at Lincoln Center. The performance included three 20th century compositions from disparate cultures soundly displayed which were: Shostakovich–violin concerto #1, George Walker – Sinfonia #1, and Respighi – Feste Romane, conducted by Gianandrea Noseda with violinist Leonidas Kavakos
In 1962, when Lincoln Center was making its debut as America’s premiere cultural performance center, along with the new Metropolitan Opera House, Vivian Beaumont Theatre and home for the New York City Ballet; the new home for New York’s finest orchestra founded in 1842, named Philharmonic Hall, was housing a rehearsal with the inimitable Music Director of The Cleveland Orchestra, George Szell. The uncompromising maestro gave the downbeat of the program that they intended to play. The orchestra sounded a few measures, when Szell abruptly stopped the musicians, turned to the few bigwigs in the house responsible for building the structure where they were presently seated, and is reported to have said to them:” Tear the place down and start over again. The hall is an insult to music.”
One can merely the imagine the horror of those recipients of that professional assessment from so unimpeachable an authority, yet they muddled on with the premieres and received the critical disparagement of the musicians, who could not HEAR one another on stage, and audiences who could do so only sporadically depending on the seating location. And so, a series of acoustic renovations began over the decades with nominal improvement at best, until curiously, as a rare benefit from the recent plague in which we all experienced suffering in varying degree, this most recent renovation, funded by David Geffen, and because performances there had to be shut down, it gave construction ample time to be completed in little more than a year, The New York Philharmonic players can finally actually share what they’re playing with one another with the results that Maestro Szell had wished for in the first place.
Consequently, the sheer joy and delight that my discerning companion and I experienced at the concert led by Gianandrea Noseda as Guest Conductor, and Soloist Leonidas Kavakos, violinist extraordinaire was unanimously cheered by a capacity crowd of some 2700 patrons that stood and provided ovations that were spontaneous, full throated, and duly reflected by the orchestra itself regarding the soloist in the Shostakovich (1906-1975) Violin Concerto #1.
Mr. Kavakos, a still relatively young native of Athens, could not have made his city’s founding goddess prouder with the innate wisdom, technical dazzle, immeasurable concentration, and sheer physical stamina it took to provide as clear a rendition of the beleaguered Soviet composer’s 1948 first foray with that instrument in a concerto with full orchestra. The work is in 4 movements: Nocturne: Moderato, Scherzo: Allegro, Passacaglia: Andante (replete with a breathtaking cadenza) and Burlesque: Allegro con brio- Presto. The work was premiered both in Leningrad and later New York with David Oistrakh, but not until 1953,’55 respectively. Shostakovich dedicated it to that foremost Soviet violinist who collectively thought it wiser to wait until the demise of Stalin to allow this challenging music to emerge. Mr. Kavakos seemed to be competing with Oistrakh’s ghost, in an appropriate manner, and this listener could not help but imagine how pleased the composer and first proponent of the piece would be at hearing how alive this masterpiece remains. The audience could not have been more thrilled!
Such was the sustained ovation upon completion of the concerto for several minutes that an encore was all but demanded in the hall. We were rewarded by the violinist gifting us with one of the truest tests of a string player’s art: a movement from Bach’s Partita #1. I was once privileged to attend a solo recital of Nathan Milstein’s in Chicago’s Orchestra Hall where the esteemed Russian émigré played all the Partitas. It remains indelible in my memory. Last evening evoked such standards and sensitivity out of the Athenian’s Stradivarius. On the far right of the stage, Maestro Noseda sat on a stool provided for him to simply sit, and be rapt in meditation, if not prayer, listening to his colleague’s encore. And then came Intermission.
The music of George Walker (1922-2018) was a revelation to me. I’ve been shamefully ignorant of this first African American composer to have won the Pulitzer Prize (1994) until this concert. His Sinfonia #1 from 1984 is in two movements. It was clearly the work of an uncompromising artist who did not receive due recognition until late in his 96 years. My ears detected a keener influence in the music of Charles Ives more than say William Grant Still, or even Duke Ellington with whom he shared the birthplace of D.C. It did not surprise me upon hearing this challenging piece of unquestioned integrity that Maestro Noseda has embarked on recording with the National Symphony Orchestra of Washington D.C., of which he’s been Music director now for six years and has just renewed his contract, the complete symphonic oeuvre of George Walker, an American Original, and musician of genius.
So, after the rigors of the great Dimitri, and the austere George, the auditorium’s residents were delighted with the sonic imagery of Ottorino Respighi’s (1879-1936) third tone poem of the Eternal City: Feste Romane (1928) I said to my companion just before the downbeat, “Get ready for LOUD.”
My prediction rivaled that of Nostradamus. The four movements: Games at the Circus Maximus, The Jubilee, The October Festival, and The Epiphany was the perfect final test of the evening as to how well balanced, and proportional the sounds from the lowest note to the top of their respective compass the musical celebration of that famed metropolis reverberated in the truly acoustically sound structure.
I’ve heard and witnessed my share of some of the greatest conductors of the past 60 years or so, from Bernstein, von Karajan, Solti, Davis, Barenboim, and the crippled in more ways than one, Levine. It is my opinion, joining with the most discerning musical judges worldwide, that Gianandrea Noseda deserves such a ranking. Hé’s meticulous as he is of boundless energy and this home orchestra, the oldest of our nation, played for him with unmistakable respect and ardor. All of which was reflected by the audience’s unbridled affection. My concert companion and I were most fortunate to attend, hear, observe, and rejoice in the now acoustically renown David Geffen Hall!