They are calling it “A Philharmonic Festival”. They are also calling it “The Bach Variations”. Both labels may require something of a stretch.
The New York Philharmonic’s month-long mid-season venture embraces events at Lincoln Center and a nearby church plus lesser activities at the 92nd Street Y. Some offerings suggest business as usual – relatively modest business at that. The resident music-director, Alan Gilbert, leads only a stellar B-Minor Mass. Otherwise guests man his podium.
Although one can appreciate some nods in the direction of authentic performance practice, the ensemble instruments remain modern, and the musicians value their vibratos. In April, András Schiff will play two Bach concertos on a piano rather than a harpsichord (nothing sacred here). And, as if to deter Baroque monopoly or monotony, the management has added a little Mendelssohn here, a little Schumann there.
The primary protagonist at the opening on Wednesday was Masaaki Suzuki, who brought along his Bach Collegium Japan; also his son, the organist Masato Suzuki. They joined forces with the Yale Schola Cantorum and five generally lightweight soloists: Sherezade Panthaki (an occasionally shrill soprano), Joélle Harvey (a sweeter soprano), Iestyn Davies (a deft countertenor), Nicholas Phan (an urgent lyric tenor) and Tyler Duncan (a reticent baritone).
Everyone worked hard to overcome adversity. But Avery Fisher Hall, capacity 2,738, is simply too big for sonic intimacy, and the acoustical mush is pernicious.
One could appreciate Masaaki Suzuki’s dedication to his cause. One could relish two Magnificats in D – the precocious one written by Mendelssohn when he was 13 and the precious one written by Bach in his maturity. One could savour the agitation of Bach’s Singet dem Herrn juxtaposed with Mendelssohn’s serene Christus.
One also could be disconcerted by adult sopranos impersonating boy sopranos, and tending to sing flat. One could regret lapses in contrapuntal precision, exacerbated perhaps by Suzuki’s proclivity for speed. One could question old-fashioned “sewing-machine” manners that impeded expressive expansion.
The modest audience shrank as the concert progressed. Those who stayed clapped meekly. It was another one of those nights.