There was a palpable sense of excitement before the start of last night’s concert in a fully packed National Concert Hall. Heavily advertised and long since sold-out, the performance of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra (NYPO) under the baton of Alan Gilbert with soloist, celebrated mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato, was billed as the highlight of the International season this year. And our expectations were not disappointed.

Joyce DiDonato © Simon Pauly
Joyce DiDonato
© Simon Pauly

Ravel dominated the programming, occupying central positions in both halves. Opening with Nyx by Finnish composer Esa-Pekka Salonen made for a daring pairing with Ravel’s Shéhérazade given the former’s length (20 mins), its esoteric harmonization and the audience’s impatience to hear the golden voice of DiDonato. There was more than just a whiff of Ravel in Nyx’s impulsive darts of colour and character and to that extent the pairing with the latter’s Shéhérazade made sense. The waltz was the theme which united Ravel’s Valses nobles et sentimentales and Richard Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier Suite in the second half.

Recently appointed Composer-in-Residence at the NYPO Salonen explained in the programme notes regarding the first piece that “Nyx is a shadowy figure in Greek mythology” and while he emphatically denies that he is not “trying to describe this mythical goddess in any precise way musically” the mercurial changes of mood and texture of the music have much the same quality of this elusive goddess. Disappointingly, there was more than just a fleeting moment of tuning volatility in the horns’ opening section of this work, though this was swept away in the lush, fulsome sounds of the strings which followed. Gilbert, bobbing around on the podium with flamboyant gestures, revelled in the aural possibilities of Salonen’s work, drawing from the orchestra shadowy apocalyptic drum beats, ominous pizzicato and antiphonal banshee wailing on the strings.

Despite Ravel’s intention to produce an opera based on The Arabian Nights, the allure of the exoticism of the East proved fertile ground for the composer, resulting in this song cycle Shéhérazade. Comprising of three songs, the first recounts an imaginary voyage to the East (Asia); the second, a sensual portrayal of a woman listening to her lover playing the flute, while the third, the indifference of the loved one. From the opening rising triple repetition of “Asie”, DiDonato’s voice thrilled with emotional intensity, demonstrating a fine control both in the lower registers and the upper reaches. As the music’s character shifted constantly, so too did DiDonato; at times, languidly, sensually lingering on “Je voudrais m’attarder” at other moments, exploding in passion (“Je voudrais voir mourir d’amour ou bien de haine”).

Gilbert played his part too, conjuring up a subtle palette of sound from the orchestra, though at times, the balance was not always successfully achieved especially when DiDonato sang in the lower register. In “La Flûte enchantée” DiDonato’s voice seemed to caress each note as she sang of her lover’s flute, while “L’Indifférent” was sung with an effortless, languorous, sultry tone. There was an exquisite control of dynamics (ppp) on the word “entre” - a delicately seductive invitation if ever there was one. With singing as glorious as this, I wanted it to last for a 1001 nights more.

After some charming banter from soloist and conductor, a delectable Morgen by Strauss was sung as a much appreciated encore. Here special mention goes to leader of the orchestra Sheryl Staples, who provided a melting counterpoint to the soloist’s line.

Valses nobles et sentimentales by Ravel were up next post interval. Gilbert managed to capture their will-o-the-wisp charm with a daintiness that was quite impressive given the large forces of the NYPO and a Gallic pertness, which was most alluring. The allusive harmonies of Valse no. 2 contrasted well with the cheeky flutes of the subsequent one, while the big, jazzy climax of no. 7, whittled away to the shimmering harmonies of the final waltz.

Moving away from the subtlety of Ravel, the NYPO finished up with the rollicking Der Rosenkavalier Suite. Passion, humour and seduction have a central role in this suite and Gilbert brought out these elements with gusto. Under his demonstrative style, the string section throbbed with passion in the lush opening section with the horns riotously blaring their part. The delicate sections were most sensitively delineated with a shimmering pianissimo, before the elemental fury of the Baron Ochs’ blazed forth. The waltzes possessed a lilting, seductive charm and indeed the whole interpretation of this opulent suite allowed the NYPO to revel in the theatrical

Two encores (another waltz, this time by Tchaikovsky and a jazz brass band number) concluded a most delightful evening.

****1