In Tel Aviv, Philadelphia Orchestra triumphs over ‘Age of Anxiety’
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Concert review

In Tel Aviv, Philadelphia Orchestra triumphs over ‘Age of Anxiety’

One of the US’s ‘big five’ puts on a thrilling and inspiring performance of Bernstein and Tchaikovsky, defying BDS – and with Palestinian children in the audience

The Philadelphia Orchestra, with conductor Yannick Nezet-Seguin, after performing at the Bronfman Auditorium in Tel Aviv on June 4, 2018. (Maxim Reider/courtesy)
The Philadelphia Orchestra, with conductor Yannick Nezet-Seguin, after performing at the Bronfman Auditorium in Tel Aviv on June 4, 2018. (Maxim Reider/courtesy)

This visit by the Philadelphia Orchestra was hotly anticipated — by Israelis, flattered and delighted to have one of the United States’ storied “Big Five” again on their shores after so many years; and by BDSers, whose anticipation was of a more hostile and disruptive order (mid-concert heckling, prior to this tour – a dreadful practice roughly equivalent to drawing a mustache on the Mona Lisa).

In the end, it is the former camp whose aspirations were met, and how. This concert at the Bronfman Auditorium in Tel Aviv, one of three the orchestra is giving in Israel with its Music Director Yannick Nezet-Seguin (alongside various smaller events), was, put simply, thrilling.

Put less simply, there were moments that were so potent in their evocation of what great music can evoke, so powerful a reminder of what society is on this planet to do, to be, that one wished this concert — certainly the first half — could somehow be bottled and freshly uncorked for kids in every school, in every town in this country.

That first half comprised Leonard Bernstein’s Second Symphony, subtitled, not inappropriately for the times in which we live, “The Age Of Anxiety”. Bernstein was never one to shy away from the cosmic — his Third Symphony is the “Kaddish” — and in this work he was seemingly questing for something new, trying to suggest some unthought-of way forward for, originally, a post-World War Two era, later the Cold War (the piece was composed in the late 1940s and revised just a few years after the Cuban Missile Crisis).

The Philadelphia Orchestra, with conductor Yannick Nezet-Seguin, performing at the Bronfman Auditorium in Tel Aviv on June 4, 2018. (Maxim Reider/courtesy)

Given concerns swirling around Iran and North Korea today, 2018 would seem to offer an unnerving parallel. New ways forward would be rather welcome right now.

Yet I’d never previously found this piece entirely successful in those aspirations and I think that is because the approach has often been to think of it either as a regular symphony, where the piano part can feel grafted-on, or as a concerto, where the piano has felt not virtuosic enough.

Yet this performance itself offered something new.

Under Nezet-Seguin’s detailed control, the work felt as anatomized as a great science experiment – every texture weighted, calibrated and carefully fitted-in to play its precise part. Dark-hued strings gave way to distantly echoing percussion, and an underlying romantic sweep was kept in bounds for Bernstein’s more modernist explorations. Similarly, a sense of “the now” was rooted in dimly perceptible, ritualistic, to my ears Jewish, refrains. The whole thing suddenly felt like an echo chamber for the history of a civilization and its struggles, for balance.

Around all this, Jean-Yves Thibaudet’s fingers danced at the piano, technically astonishing and yet with an iron discipline — themes were touched in beautifully but he never wallowed, never clung on. This celebrated artist has never been more impressive.

The Philadelphia Orchestra, with pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet, performing at the Bronfman Auditorium in Tel Aviv on June 4, 2018. (Maxim Reider/courtesy)

Throughout this work — known, remember, as one of Bernstein’s more problematic — one could hear a pin drop. At the end, the audience exploded into heartfelt rhythmic clapping. As well they might; it was a performance to remind one of the aspirations of Israeli (indeed, any) society. God knows, no society always succeeds, but the aspirations are there and, Bernstein — himself a key figure in Israeli cultural history — seems to suggest, the struggle is always hard, it always takes discipline and control and memory and prophesy and love and pain. But the struggle itself is all.

The Philadelphia Orchestra, with conductor Yannick Nezet-Seguin, performing at the Bronfman Auditorium in Tel Aviv on June 4, 2018. (Maxim Reider/courtesy)

After the interval, the orchestra offered what in most concerts would be the main event, an excellent performance of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony. Here the musicians were able to show off in a more traditional way their glorious command of colors and dynamics. Their inspirational conductor, who has transformed this orchestra in recent years, was nevertheless not afraid to take risks. He pushed the lyrical second movement to emotional extremes (slightly at the expense of pace); elsewhere he elicited pulsing, softer-than-soft pizzicato from the strings as though taking a stethoscope to Tchaikovsky.

Players and conductor seemed to appreciate their reception, and wide smiles greeted the rare, and prolonged, standing ovation at the concert’s end. As for the politics, I heard there were a group of Palestinian children in the hall that night. Both they, and their Israeli neighbors, would have engaged with something special, something lasting and something to inspire us all. It’s called art.

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