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Review: Assistant Conductor, Joshua Gersen, Keeps the Music Playing at the NY Phil

By Christopher Johnson, Contributing Writer, February 13, 2017

Poor old Taneyev—he just can’t catch a break! Here he goes and spends seven years writing his magnum opus, a three-act opera based on Aeschylus’s Oresteia, and the poor thing gets cut to ribbons and never really makes it, even in Russia, and he waits 128 years for the New York Philharmonic to play the concert overture he spun off from it, and then the conductor gets sick the very day of the concert and the piece gets axed, and never mind that the whole point of the exercise was to use the grand finale of the Philharmonic’s three-week-long Beloved Friend—Tchaikovsky and His World: A Philharmonic Festival to contextualize two of Tchaikovsky’s best-known program-pieces by showing them against a third by a younger contemporary who studied with Tchaikovsky and subsequently became his most trusted musical advisor.

In the event, the Philharmonic’s assistant conductor Joshua Gersen took over on short notice and got a standing ovation for what sounded like exciting performances of Francesca da Rimini, which he had never conducted, and the Sixth Symphony, which he had never led all the way through. I heard the final concert in the run, when Gersen shared duties with a somewhat recovered Semyon Bychkov, who had conceived the festival and conducted all the orchestral programs until he fell ill. Without the Taneyev, it was a short program, and an obvious one.

Gersen’s account of Francesca was dramatic, precise, and very powerful, especially in the shattering final pages. The beginning of the middle section, in which poor Francesca tells her story, was something else again—tender, hesitant, almost conversational at the beginning, thanks to principal clarinetist Anthony McGill’s exquisitely-characterized solo and Gersen’s delicacy in following him. Gersen is definitely someone to watch.

Bychkov is a well-known quantity in these parts, so his work needs no general description, and it would be pointless to hold him to specifics, given the circumstances. He was plainly still under the weather, and you could tell by the end of a vigorous and sometimes very beautiful performance that it had cost him. That’s a shame, because Bychkov has been working on a theory that the piece was “not about an acceptance of death,” as is commonly thought, “but a protest against it,” and it would have been good to hear him make his case at peak vigor. As it was, the opening movement was a little underpowered, the offbeat waltz was unusually suave, the march was exciting rather than shocking, and the finale subsided into darkness in much the usual way. It was hard to hear resistance, let alone rage, in any of this. A good part of the audience certainly missed it: there was a burst of happy applause before the final note had died, and a second round before Bychkov finally lowered his hands.

What was truly striking about the evening is how good the Philharmonic’s strings sounded—full, rich, and smooth in the lyrical passages in Francesca and in the famous second theme of the symphony’s opening movement, but awesomely dark and deep when the atmosphere required it. The very beginning of the symphony, with divided basses and violas giving rise to Judith LeClair’s smoky bassoon, was a sound I may never forget, and the cellos were magnificent in everything they did. The Philharmonic has never been famous for its strings, but that could change.

The orchestra’s Leon Levy Digital Archives continues to offer fascinating background material, including a score of Francesca as performed by Mahler, with his cuts, and a score of the symphony marked by Bernstein, with marginal comments on Tchaikovsky’s methods and materials (“Apotheosis of the Appogiatura!”) that are well worth reading.

But back to poor old Sergei Ivanovich. Make the old boy happy—and give yourself a treat—by checking out his Oresteia overture: you can’t do better than Neeme Järvi’s recording, which also includes a terrific performance of Taneyev’s Fourth Symphony. There are excellent program-notes on the overture here and here. The underlying opera is staggering, especially in a 1965 recording by the Belorussian State Bolshoi Theatre of Opera and Ballet, conducted by Tatiana Kolomiysteva, still available both for streaming and for purchase. Admittedly, this is an abridged version, but it’s got the juice; if you want as close to the complete original as we’re likely to get, try Leon Botstein’s recent performance from Bard. Either way, you will want to know what these people are going on about, and you can be sure to do that only by parallel use of the vocal score and the English translation appended to Anastasia Belina’s brilliant, highly readable PhD thesis at the University of Leeds, beginning on page 251. I find all this stuff out so you don’t have to. You’re welcome.

There’s some great “new” music here. (Lookin’ at you, Met.)

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Beloved Friend—Tchaikovsky and His World: A Philharmonic Festival, The New York Philharmonic in concert February 9-11, 2017 at David Geffen Hall. Conductors Joshua Gersen and Semyon Bychkov.

TCHAIKOVSKY Francesca da Rimini, Fantasy after Dante, Op. 32

Joshua Gersen, conductor

TCHAIKOVSKY Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Op. 74 (“Pathétique”)

Semyon Bychkov, conductor


Cover: Joshua Gersen conducting the New York Philharmonic; photo: Chris Lee.


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