Concluding their three-concert series at Carnegie Hall, Gustavo Dudamel and the Vienna Philharmonic played a program of Charles Ives’ Second Symphony and Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony at Carnegie Hall this Sunday afternoon which met with very different fortunes.

Gustavo Dudamel conducts the Vienna Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall © Chris Lee
Gustavo Dudamel conducts the Vienna Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall
© Chris Lee

Ives’ Second Symphony, completed in 1902 but not performed until 1951, consists of five movements amalgamating an impressive range of musical styles and influences. From Brucknerian tremolandi and Wagnerian harmony to outright quotations of passages from Bach, Beethoven and Brahms, the symphony is as much an eclectic potpourri as an American classic.

Conducting without a score, Dudamel energetically led the orchestra as it traversed through centuries of music history. The Vienna Philharmonic’s lush sound was well-suited to this symphony, and the strings especially shone throughout the first movement, where the oboe solo was equally laudable.

The Allegro featured several memorable moments, from a lilting flute duo to a deliberately bathetic percussion crescendo. Dotted rhythms abound in the score, and Dudamel’s sharp conducting ensured a crisp rhythmic uniformity across the orchestra. Of special note was the startling effect produced by the two upper trombones playing two accented fortississimo notes amidst the orchestras piano backdrop in the last measure.

The Adagio cantabile featured a flute-cello duo and a quotation from Tristan und Isolde, both of which were executed very well. The fourth movement continued in this lush and harmonically rich style, going attacca into the rapid finale. As the counterpoint became increasingly complicated and instruments began to split up into multiple divisi groups, some of the musical lines were overshadowed by others, but these stretches of contrapuntal complexity were counterbalanced effectively with more chamber-like moments. The coda was as “pungently” ironic as the program note promised, escalating to an exhilarating climax but ending unexpectedly on a grating eleven-note dissonance instead.

A beloved concert staple, Tchaikovsky's “Fate” Symphony is at once programmatic and not; as the composer wrote to his former student Sergei Taneyev, “Of course my symphony is programmatic, but this program is such that it cannot be formulated in words.” But what remains germane to an understanding of the music is the fate motif that introduces the symphony and interjects itself back into the symphony at several junctures, most notably as a rude interruption in the final movement.

The VPO got off to a slightly rocky start with the horns fracking notes in the third measure, but the terrifyingly loud tutti entrance of the orchestra compensated. As the strings played the first theme, the trademark lush Viennese sound shone, but this music demands a more angular and bare timbre to suit its jagged melodies. Nonetheless, the chamber-like pianissimo back-and-forth dialogues between the timpani, strings and woodwinds interspersed throughout the movement. Given the frequent return of the fate motif at crucial junctures, it is of paramount importance to weigh each one properly and place it at the correct dynamic level, and this control was not exercised to the fullest extent; at times, the motif seemed perfunctory while at other times it was too loud altogether. A frenetic cascade of sound brought the movement to a close, but the audible rearticulation of the low brass on the last chord made the sound falter.

The second movement is usually remembered for its opening oboe solo and the lush string accompaniment and following theme, but in this performance, the closing bassoon solo proved to be more memorable. The bassoonist accentuated the contours of the melody and applied appropriate dynamics to the phrase where the oboist hadn’t, and as such this iteration of the melody resonated more.

The third movement can be very difficult to pull off cleanly due to the extremely rapid pizzicati in all sections of the strings, but the orchestra managed decently. Far more impressive was the brilliant piccolo solo, which dazzled the audience with its virtuosic figurations.

The finale held together well in spite of fluctuations in the tempi. The movement was off to a brisk start but invariably slowed down when the strings' rhythms underwent diminution, creating an unintentional tempo shift. The famous moment when the fate motif enters was executed with the appropriate gravity and volume, but the preceding tempo shakiness detracted from the dramatic power of the moment. The exhilarating rush to the final peroration was amply energetic, but the accelerando was unbalanced, with the tempo increasing exponentially quickly in the very last bars. Additionally, the low brass’ non-staggered breathing again caused the inertia of the final chord to waver, the performance ending strongly, but not as rousingly as it could have with a coordinated finish. 

***11