Hometown Boys Make Good (and a Few Waves)
Foxes at the Philharmonic
Although Avery Fisher Hall has endured many transformations since its debut in 1962, no one who saw it in June will ever forget it as a sumptuous avatar of the natural world—with giant sunflowers hovering over the orchestra, a forest bursting with trees, vines, and bushes, and pools swarming with the crawling and flying creatures who co-exist with the animals and humans of Janacek’s 1924 operatic masterpiece, The Cunning Little Vixen. This is a simply gorgeous work performed all too rarely; in the Philharmonic’s production an outstanding cast (led by the very foxy Isabelle Bayrakdarian and Marie Lenormand) enacted the story, which remains as fresh as the cheeky costumes and sets by Giants Are Small.
Vixen had a long gestation. When 200-odd drawings by Czech artist Stanislaw Lolek were turned into a newspaper serial in 1920, Janacek read and enjoyed it. Two years later, inspired by it, he began writing and composing his opera, making many changes to the original story along the way. But his libretto provides one inspiration that was his alone: he changed the serial’s comic ending—it’s his own bittersweet finale that touches you indelibly; partly because of its affecting music and partly because of the little frog who sings its last words. Irresistible! Together, they create a perfect expression of nature’s power to maintain the circle of life.
Seeing Alan Gilbert on a leafy podium surrounded by hopping kids and cavorting adults in animal costumes (often only inches away), you realize that he’s truly unflappable. Serene, actually. Otherwise, he could not possibly have wrangled the huge forces needed for Vixen. Gilbert speaks often of trust between performers. But trust can go only so far in such a complicated work: although the orchestra and chorus in Vixen were in front of him (his back was to the audience), most of the soloists (including those agile kids) were in back of him, facing the audience—and no monitors to cue the singers were visible.
Increasingly curious about what was keeping it all together, I finally noticed a lone, agitated arm in the front row above a music stand with a copy of the score. Turns out there were monitors, cunningly placed in the shrubbery for the cast’s view only, and the lone arm belonged to Assistant Conductor Daniel Boico, whose glance raced between the score, the monitors, the singers (occasionally cued with his left hand) and Gilbert’s own cues and beat, giving new meaning to the phrase “watching his back.” This was trust in spades!
The only caveat that comes to mind is that while theatricality (especially at the sensory level that Gilbert and his colleagues have in mind), a broad-spectrum repertoire, and a sense of Event will appeal to a broad spectrum of music-lovers, the realities of mounting an opera requiring three dozen singers, forty choristers, and a hefty orchestra to produce Janacek’s lush score, also leave very little space on stage for them to perform. Perhaps in future years, theatricality can reign uncompromised with fully produced programs requiring a smaller orchestra, or cast, or chorus? The creative partnerships Gilbert is forging promise solutions will be found for every problem.
The Philharmonic understands the urgent need to create new audiences; to that end, Gilbert describes a “palpable sense of Event, with a capital “E”, in which orchestra and audience join together to create a powerful collective experience. Gilbert and the Philharmonic’s President, Zarin Mehta, also use the word “theatrical” frequently. It’s something that needs to be included in the audience-orchestra equation. Since nothing succeeds like success, it’s likely that more Events will be in the orchestra’s future. What else are they planning? For the young at heart, CONTACT!, at the Met Museum; after the lusty cheers for the rock-’em, sock-em (R)evolution series at the Lincoln Center Festival, they will definitely include contemporary sounds. And Gilbert has more ambitious plans for the orchestra, from using its first-chair virtuosi as soloists and for chamber music, to creating more “theatrical” evenings like Vixen and last season’s Grand Macabre.
One of the sure signs of a Music Director’s confidence is the range of repertoire he tackles and conquers fearlessly. Gilbert has done this for two seasons, and – the ultimate test – also hired strong guest conductors, like Esa-Pekka Salonen, David Robertson, and Zubin Mehta. Only someone who knows he has nothing to fear is likely to go that route. (Salonen’s version of Ligeti’s Clocks and Clouds was a landmark; I heard three performances, and each was better than the one before it.)
But there’s one problem that never goes away, that even the Philharmonic needs to address: the lure of short-term financing (which led to the canceling of this year’s free concerts in the parks) rules everywhere, and the Philharmonic is no exception. While the orchestra is diligent about using its resources for extensive outreach in and out of Avery Fisher Hall, and Alan Gilbert’s new post at Juilliard as director of the conducting program assures collaboration with Juilliard’s gifted performers (and the built-in audience that comes with the territory), the only solution to the problem of creating new long-term audiences is to make sure that music is once again taught in every public school on a regular basis. Because it has all but disappeared, it would take a preternaturally generous and far-sighted patron to step up to the plate and underwrite a city-wide K-12 music curriculum, ensuring that every child would be exposed not only to music, but to the basics of its history and achievers. By all means, include with it all the newest electronic wizardry. But include the old tunes, too. If you think that an earwig like “This is the symphony that Schubert wrote and never finished” ever goes away, you’re wrong!
P.S. Vixen is available on the iTunes Pass on August 16. If you missed the concerts, tune in. And check in to explore what’s next: new york philharmonic