There is always a warm sense of familiarity when the soloist of the night is also one of the principal members of the orchestra; and that was quite apparent tonight when Carter Brey, principal cellist of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, delivered a stellar performance of Schumann’s Cello Concerto with Alan Gilbert conducting. The frequent subtle smiles passed between principal members during pieces, and the familiar manner in which Brey communicated with both Gilbert and concertmaster Frank Huang during his solo, revealed that there was an established connection between them all. This culminated in a delectable performance which featured not only the Schumann concerto but also masterpieces by Brahms, who would tonight have been celebrating his 183rd birthday.

Alan Gilbert © Chris Lee
Alan Gilbert
© Chris Lee

The night started off strongly with Brahms’ Tragic Overture. This piece is the rather serious twin of Brahms’ cheerier sounding Academic Festival Overture, though there are still lighter moments. Gilbert led an impressive performance that had a strong drive from the outset. The overarching rhythmic motif was treated with precision, and accents were universally played with gusto by the strings and woodwinds. I found the contrast between it and the second theme very beautiful, with worthy renditions of the latter’s sweeping melodies from the woodwinds and staccatos, played crisply despite the softened dynamics. The surging finish of the overture elicited a sense of empowered confidence, with the fanfaring of the brass, the hammering of the timpani, and the running passages from the strings section making life’s problems seem at once small and surmountable – a tribute to the orchestra’s mastery.

Schumann’s Cello Concerto in A minor is a relatively short one as far as concertos are concerned, with a running time of about 25 minutes. However, as is typical of Schumann, there was no shortage of dramatic and emotive material, which was exquisitely reproduced  by Brey’s Guadagnini. His tone was rich and powerful, and not once drowned out by the orchestra. I was fortunate enough to be seated with a clear view of Brey, and found watching him mesmerising. His performance exemplified the ‘one-ness’ with an instrument that many of us aspiring musicians hope to achieve. Having performed the same concerto only the week before in New York, he didn’t seem at all fatigued of the work but rather still treated it with much affection. Particularly enjoyable was the duet with his associate principal Eileen Moon in the second movement, marked Langsam, revealing their tender musical connection that I felt privileged to witness.

The second half of the night was dedicated to Brahms’ Symphony no. 2 in D major, and again it was well executed. With the pastoral landscape that opens the first movement, the orchestra led us into a journey through the many facets of this work. The second theme of this opening movement played by the violas and cellos was especially enjoyable and provided a fresh contrast before returning to its first theme. This was then followed by the second movement which had a weighty passion as the music turned into a minor key. In contrast, the third movement showcased a playful oboe solo, before a bright fourth movement which irresistibly drew us into its exciting and propelling momentum.

With such an exquisite performance, it certainly was a treat to have the New York Philharmonic gracing the Davies Hall stage, and I am left sincerely hoping that it won’t be too long until they visit again.