A Grand Orchestra Turns 150

The distinguished New York Philharmonic capitalizes on its illustrious musical history

THE 150th anniversary of the New York Philharmonic, which gave its first subscription concert of the season last Thursday, comes after a spate of recent anniversaries. In the past few years there have been major centennial celebrations at Carnegie Hall and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and a seemingly endless bicentennial tribute to Mozart. In the era of declining arts funding and a shrinking, recession-conscious audience, anniversaries are a staple technique for reinvigorating public interest and shor ing up the endowments and trusts which keep American musical life alive.

If the New York Philharmonic had been founded in 1840, instead of 1842, its 150th birthday might have generated more excitement. As it is, the orchestra must work hard to make this desperately needed anniversary season seem unique despite the jaded "not-another-birthday" attitude among some of its notoriously fickle and critical audience.

Despite a lackluster opening gala concert with soprano Kathleen Battle, broadcast live on public television last Wednesday, there were some very positive signs at the first regular concert the following evening. First, and impossible to ignore, was the controversial addition of scallop-shaped sound reflectors on the walls above the orchestra. They were added to help the musicians hear one another, and thus improve the group's ensemble playing. Their presence was a tangible admission by the orchestra's ma nagement that the major acoustical redesign of the hall in 1976 did not fix all the problems.

Although the double-row of rounded baffles is visually jarring within Avery Fisher Hall's severe, linear auditorium, on first hearing they are apparently effective. Along with Music Director Kurt Masur's repositioning of the lower strings, and his work on the ensemble's technical discipline, the acoustical additions seem to help the orchestra create a tighter, more-focused sound.

The selection of three early romantic, but classically refined symphonies may have been intended to demonstrate the Philharmonic's growing technical precision and comfort with this repertoire. Two popular and often-heard symphonies (Beethoven's "Fifth Symphony" and Schubert's "Unfinished" Symphony) shared the program with the little-known "Symphony No. 1 in G Minor" by Etienne-Nicholas Mehul, a French composer popular in the early 19th century for his operas.

Although the exact composition date of Mehul's symphony isn't known, the three works on the program were most likely written within 15 years of each other (Beethoven c. 1808, Mehul c. 1809, and Schubert 1822). Their juxtaposition demonstrated three very different compositional responses to the disintegrating paradigm of classical order established by Mozart and Haydn decades earlier.

The Mehul is an uneasy work, with Mozartian melodic shapes and compact, expressive gestures struggling with a forward rushing, sturm-und-drang romantic energy. Theatrical moments, especially the mysterious pizzicato opening of the third movement, punctuate the predictable progress of the score. The Schubert is a more idiosyncratic work, with distinctive, graceful melodic shapes set in relief against furious rejoinders.

Masur's leadership of all three scores succeeded with foreground detail. Balances were carefully calculated, interesting inner lines exposed, and quirky off-beat accents emphasized, especially in the Beethoven. Except for a brief moment of chaos in the complex texture of Mehul's opening Allegro, Masur led a tight, well-controlled ensemble.

Although Masur has a remarkable and sophisticated ability to relax musical tension, he is not as effective in building it and sustaining it over long periods. Transitions from climaxes and decrescendos are masterfully controlled, but a larger sense of sweep and drama is lacking. And, while Masur's repositioning of the strings has certainly improved the richness and depth of the full orchestra's sound, they still produce a generically "loud and brassy" fortissimo which dulls the effect of their climaxes.

Thursday evening's performance was, nonetheless, greeted enthusiastically, which must be encouraging to an orchestra that has just gone through a major artistic change (Masur replaced Zubin Mehta in 1991) and a major management change (Deborah Borda was appointed in 1991 as the new managing director).

In a city where the musical intelligentsia flock to the opera house, the Philharmonic must struggle for attention and loyalty. Thursday's program revealed several new initiatives. The Philharmonic is not only creating sensible, thought-provoking programs (such as the inclusion of Mehul), it is also capitalizing on its illustrious history. Works given their world or American premiere by the Philharmonic have been singled out for inclusion. A major commissioning campaign has begun as well, and 13 of the 36

new scores will be performed this season. More pre-concert lectures and several week-long mini-festivals have been slated (due mostly to Borda's leadership).

Along with all this, audiences can look forward to Masur's increasingly personal stamp on the orchestra. Physically and musically, he is a commanding presence, and he seems to have passed the first - but all important - test in New York's musical life: winning audience affection. Critics have, for the most part, taken a wait- and-see attitude; praise for his interpretations of Bruckner is fairly common as is admiration for (partially) taming the Philharmonic's unruly brass section. And, so far, he has no t been dismissed as wanting in any particular skill or repertoire.

The slow climb uphill from what many believe was the group's nadir under Zubin Mehta will take time. No matter how artificial it is to highlight birthdays in units of 50 or 100 years, the 150th anniversary of the Philharmonic may be the catalyst for much-craved positive change.

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