The New York Philharmonic began the New Year with a rapturous program. In his introduction to the audience, music director Alan Gilbert called the evening, “a concert of joy”. The performance was dedicated to the victims of the recent attack at the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris. The concert sprang to life, opening with Ravel’s divinely orchestrated Valses nobles et sentimentales, overflowing with a grand cheerfulness that promises to provide a satisfying musical experience. It isn’t long before the mood evolves into the title-appointed sentimentality that grounds the piece. The sound becomes reflective and textural, played with exquisite balance between the winds and strings. The concert hall is pollenated with tones of seduction and romance, spun together in an elegant waltz. The performance was absolutely entrancing.

Anthony McGill © David Finlayson
Anthony McGill
© David Finlayson

The orchestra slimmed down to a chamber size, and the stage was set for Nielsen’s Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra, Op.57. This performance, with soloist Anthony McGill, marks the conclusion of The Nielsen Project, an endeavor to perform and record Nielsen’s six symphonies and three concertos. McGill, Principal Clarinet for the New York Philharmonic, is the total package. Stylish, passionate and limitlessly fluent on the clarinet, McGill galvanized the concerto into motion, breathing life into every note. The fast passages bubbled through the air with electrifying speed. Every phrase was shaped to perfection and punctuated in a way that propelled the piece forward, leading each section on to the next. There was action, movement and emotion behind every line, culminating in what is perhaps the most entertaining performance by a soloist I have yet seen. McGill is a virtuoso for the 21st century, with a fresh and unique voice that should leave its mark on classical music.

The small orchestra (consisting of two bassoons, two horns, snare drum, and strings) was an interesting and suitable counterpart to the solo clarinet. The group never dominated or drowned the soloist. Instead, the orchestra seemed to be in a wonderful coexistence with the clarinet. There are moments of curious and captivating dialogue between the solo clarinet and the lone snare drum, as well as frenzied moments of confusion and tension with the strings. This concerto thrived on interactions. Bassoon and snare drum sounded like characters, friend or foe, encountered by the soloist on his strange emotional journey. There’s a real sense of humanity in this piece, juxtaposing a searing, heartfelt solo voice with a mysterious and fascinating accompaniment. The music spun itself forward into one final pianissimo note that was suspended in the air like a thread.

The second half of the concert featured selections from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, a timeless crowd-pleaser. After the Nielsen concerto, Swan Lake felt like an explosion of melody. The suite, assembled by Tchaikovsky’s publishers, is sort of a “Greatest Hits” compilation that includes a lot of the famous dances without any of the connective tissue needed by the original ballet. Gilbert conducted with grace and charm, skating the baton above the orchestra that blossomed with the signature Russian sound of high reeds dancing atop a foundation of low brass and strings. Endlessly tuneful and flavorful, the dances would crescendo into a toe-tapping fullness before dropping down to moments of solo harp and violin that were pure beauty.

There’s something about this music, perhaps the well-known themes, brilliant color, or sizzling energy, that brings smiles to the audience as well as the musicians. And, typically, when the orchestra enjoys the music, so do I. This concert was a magnificent way to christen the New Year and glorify it with music.

****1