“Opening Night” at the New York Philharmonic is a gala affair, although it’s rarely the actual opening night of the season. The gala isn’t as gaudy as the one that takes place across the plaza at the Metropolitan Opera, but it’s an auspicious occasion nonetheless, filmed for broadcast on public television and usually featuring a soloist with the appropriate star wattage. This year, Alan Gilbert assembled a programme with a Spanish inflection to its language and with Yo-Yo Ma at its core. Ma reprised Osvaldo Golijov’s Azul and premièred a suite of new arrangements of Astor Piazzolla’s La serie del Ángel. Two of Maurice Ravel’s Iberian works bookended the evening, which naturally entailed yet another hearing of the Boléro (which, incidentally, also makes it onto the programme for the Philadelphia Orchestra’s gala opening of the Carnegie Hall season next week).

Alan Gilbert and Yo-Yo Ma in performance with the New York Philharmonic © Chris Lee
Alan Gilbert and Yo-Yo Ma in performance with the New York Philharmonic
© Chris Lee

Azul was originally written for Ma and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and premièred in 2006 at Tanglewood. Since then, it has undergone several revisions of concept and score, although the required forces have stayed the same. An amplified cello takes the solo role in front of an orchestra lacking some of its woodwinds but adding a hyper-accordion, and partly shares the spotlight with a pair of featured percussionists, also amplified. They employ a battery taken from a variety of ethnic or folkloric traditions, including the West African djembe, the South American caxixi, the South Indian kanjira, the Peruvian cajón, and, intriguingly, the goat’s nail, a rattle made of strung-together toenail clippings that can be found in Cuba and elsewhere in Latin America. Azul was conceived as Golijov lay on the grass at Tanglewood, although in his alterations Golijov has incorporated further aspects of a Pablo Neruda poem, “The Heights of Macchu Picchu”, and has suggested that the whole piece should recall a Baroque adagio. With its multicultural layering, it seems an apt enough work for Ma, perhaps even an homage to his efforts with the United Nations, and his own Silk Road Project.

Certainly on this occasion, with vigorous, shimmering accompaniment from Gilbert, Ma showed the piece to be his own. The four movements (and two codas) begin with the deep, static chords of “Paz Sulfúrica”, which slowly pull apart into halos, close dissonance, and echoes. For a long time – too long, whatever the correlation with the upward-gazing imagery – this music steadfastly refuses to go anywhere, before summarily collapsing in a welter of metallic scales and an outburst of percussion. “Silencio” adds a throbbing quality to the stillness, along with birdsong (an effect not unlike one in Mason Bates’s Alternative Energies, heard with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall last season). “Transit” turns into a long cadenza (effectively a jam) for cello and percussion. The sky of the opening movement turns into the stars of the last, as spacey sounds lead to a whirring down from on high. Golijov’s patchwork technique of composition still allows Ma and his team to craft an endearing narrative over the piece’s half-hour span, despite an almost total lack of momentum at times and a style that focuses largely on painting the colour wheel in sound waves. Pretty as the views were, I longed for something more rigorous to hold onto, despite the brilliant virtuosity and insatiable adaptability of percussionists Jamey Haddad and Cyro Baptista. Nevertheless, Ma and Gilbert are certainly right to insist that new works need repeated hearing – and this was surely the occasion on which to do it.

Ma was also on stage for three tangos from Piazzolla’s La serie del Ángel, heard in the world première of new arrangements by Argentinian tango pianist Octavio Brunetti. Piazzolla’s “New Tango” style was based on the classic tango rhythms, but also incorporated jazz and more classical forms. Brunetti has taken three pieces and orchestrated them for solo cello, strings, piano (Eric Huebner) and accordion (Michael Ward-Bergeman, playing with some style). Stravinsky’s influence of Piazzolla, refracted through Nadia Boulanger, was clear enough in “Milonga del Ángel,” a kind of late-night Petrushka in miniature. “La muerte del Ángel” gained great energy in its outer fugal sections, while “Resurrección del Ángel” swooned to a manic close.

Stravinsky seemed also to hover over the first of the Ravel works, the orchestrated version of Alborada del gracioso (the bassoon solo could have come straight from the Rite of Spring). These are not the deepest of Ravel’s colours, but this Chopinesque scherzo benefited from a particularly wide dynamic range and the Philharmonic’s talent for bright hues. As for Boléro, I tend to agree with Ravel’s own assessment before its premiere: “Unfortunately, it contains no music”. As an experiment in volume and orchestration, it benefits from a radical approach lacking here. The projected light show, composed of bright colours presumably for the benefit of the television audience, only took attention away from a decent, if hardly sultry, orchestral performance.