Carnegie Hall opened its 125th anniversary season with the help of one of the world’s greatest living composers, one of the world’s greatest performers, and one of the world’s greatest orchestras. The musicians of the New York Philharmonic, under the direction of Maestro Alan Gilbert, who only a few weeks ago re-christened their own space David Geffen Hall, returned to the stage they once called home. Having graced the stage at the inaugural concert back in 1891, the Philharmonic took this opportunity in anticipation of their own multi-year renovation project to reassert their friendship with the world-renowned concert venue.

Evgeny Kissin © Felix Broede | EMI
Evgeny Kissin
© Felix Broede | EMI
To commence the program, the Philharmonic featured Magnus Lindberg’s concert overture Vivo. This world première signaled the first of Carnegie Hall’s 125 Commissions Project, which aims to do exactly as the title suggests: commission 125 new works over the next five years. Composers, known and unknown, from across the globe will have a chance to realize their works by some of the world's best performing arts ensembles. Consequently, Lindberg's Vivo could not have been a more perfect kick-off to both the concert and the project. The composer begins with a brass chorale woven in slippery harmony, bombastically entering the spotlight before a fugitive motif bounces through various sections of the orchestra. Back and forth from the winds to the strings, the musicians engage in a spirited juggle until the harp finally intercepts the motif. The orchestra builds to a climax in cut-time where the quasi-chorale dislodges and restructures repeatedly until it finally collectively resolves to a major triad. The piece is a digression from Lindberg’s boundary-pushing, experimental oeuvre, but its energetic majesty served as a spectacular red carpet for the evening.

If there were a single crowd-pleasing work of the classical repertoire, it must be Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto no. 1 in B flat minor. It makes the overly sentimental swoon and even the most unsuspecting listener jolts when the famous opening tune bursts forth from the stage. The concerto has a special relationship with the Carnegie Hall, however, as it was performed during the Hall’s opening week under the baton of the great Russian composer himself. Pianist Evgeny Kissin joined the Philharmonic for a seemingly effortless performance of a work that is branded in his soul.

The best part about Mr Kissin is that he draws the full tone out of every note on his instrument, and it is especially apparent when he plays swift scales and arpeggios. Suddenly, these grand, swooping gestures become 14 or 16 individual notes that the listener can appreciate one by one. Embracing each hammered tone before moving delicately to the next, listening to him perform is like leisurely strolling through an art gallery. In reality the moments endure for less than half a second, but it is truly time-altering phenomenon. Mr Kissin also has an affectual sense of drastically changing character, and it enhances Tchaikovsky's theatrical style of composition, which transports the concerto to one of the composer's own ballets. The insatiable audience begged Kissin for an encore, and he responded not with something virtuosic, like a Liszt Transcendental Etude, but rather with Tchaikovsky’s simple Méditation (Op.72 no. 5), appropriately selected to allow the Hall a moment to reflect on its 125 years.

Maestro Gilbert concluded the program by showcasing the musicians of the New York Philharmonic in Ravel’s early modern ballet music, Daphnis et Chloé Suite no. 2. Special praise should be given to the flute and clarinet sections of the Philharmonic who slyly glided through devilish arpeggiated flourishes signaling the day break, and to the Philharmonic’s new concertmaster, Frank Huang, who was given the opportunity to highlight his most lyrical phrasing. Virgil Thompson once described Leonard Bernstein’s conducting as “shadow-boxing”, and by the same convention, Maestro Gilbert’s matured, batonless style can be described as feathery karate-chopping, a style that most perfectly drew out the blurry, legato atmospheres of Ravel-ian language.

Carnegie Hall will be a go-to venue for "new music" lovers for the next five years, and a toast is in order: to the next 124 new works and the artists who interpret them!