While the Berliner Philharmoniker’s Friday night performance at Carnegie Hall followed the tried-and-true overture-concerto-symphony schema, the repertoire filling those slots was anything but ordinary. A stop on their first US tour since Chief Conductor Kirill Petrenko took the helm in 2019, Friday’s concert was one of rewarding discovery, with novel programming choices benefiting from sterling performances and inspired musicality. 

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Kirill Petrenko and the Berliner Philharmoniker
© Chris Lee

Andrew Norman’s 2008 essay Unstuck made for an attention-grabbing opener. The title refers to breaking free from the scorn of writer’s block which he had struggled with at the time, specifically alluding to a line from Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. An electric burst of energy opened the work, further enhanced by a colorful percussion battery. Yet for all its energy, matters would wane to veritable stasis, or an idea would be repeated, seemingly trapped in an infinite loop, depicting the composer’s ailment in musical terms. At the end, the work faded away in the highest possible register of the cellos. An impressive display of orchestral virtuosity in its 10-minute duration, and the composer – currently on faculty at Juilliard – was on hand to be recognized.

The ensemble scaled back to modest proportions for Mozart’s Violin Concerto no. 1 in B flat major, a remarkably polished work from when the composer was just 17. Noah Bendix-Balgley, one of the Philharmoniker’s three rotating concertmasters, featured as soloist, and presented his own cadenzas in all three movements – tastefully done, while also putting his individual stamp on the work. The orchestral introduction was given with buoyant clarity, and Bendix-Balgley entered with a tone elegant and deftly-judged, in harmonious balance with his colleagues.

The central Adagio was a look inward, perhaps anticipating the sublime slow movements of Mozart’s later works, and boasted an almost operatic, flowing lyricism. Instead of the more customary Rondo, the finale is cast in sonata form for a weightier conception, yet its effervescence sparkled to the finish line, with confident, self-assured playing from the soloist. As an encore, Bendix-Balgley offered a pair of klezmer tunes, a style of which he is an accomplished authority – music of great fun, and punctuated by spoken interjections.

The latter half was devoted to another Viennese composer who, like Mozart before him, entered the musical world as a legendary Wunderkind. His Symphony in F sharp major was completed in 1952, by which point Korngold had long since settled in America and was established as one of Hollywood’s leading composers. Densely scored and 50 minutes long, it’s a lavish, opulent, work, dedicated to the memory of Franklin D Roosevelt. Sumptuous as it may be, Petrenko and the Berliners clearly believe in its merits and made a remarkably strong case for it. 

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The Berliner Philharmoniker
© Chris Lee

An angular theme opened, strikingly modernist for generally such a staunch Romantic. More lyrical material was to be had, with a solo passage for flute particularly memorable in one of the quieter moments. But textures were generally lush, brimming with Technicolor extravagance. Nonetheless, Petrenko guided with clear-cut clarity, certainly growing into his role as chief conductor as evidenced by the orchestra’s nuanced response.

Relentless, rapid triplets marked the Scherzo, leading to a big-boned Hollywood-esque theme. Perhaps looking back to his Austrian symphonic forebears – Schubert and Bruckner in particular – a Trio was interjected for a lyrical, languid contrast. The influence of Bruckner was even more apparent in the Adagio, hauntingly beautiful in its solemn procession, majestically tragic. A searing solo from concertmaster Daishin Kashimoto built to a massive climax replete with crashing cymbals. At first invoking the angular theme of the beginning, the finale was largely a jubilant affair with its bright orchestrations and rhythmic vitality, leading to a duly triumphant ending.