When is an opening not an opening? The Philharmonic promises a “Gala Opening” on September 27. Alan Gilbert conducts, Itzhak Perlman fiddles, tickets cost double the normal rate, and bonbons, including the theme from Schindler’s List, are sandwiched between Respighi’s greatest hits.
On Thursday, however, the orchestra offered a more serious, more conventional event heralded as the “Season Opening”. The label may have been disconcerting but, thank Gilbert and goodness, the concert was not.
The quasi-festivities began with a Philharmonic premiere, György Kurtág’s …quasi una fantasia …completed in 1988. The Hungarian composer has packed all manner of otherworldly pointillism into 11 minutes of deceptively simple conversation. A piquant chamber ensemble is spread throughout the hall, with only the conductor, flanked by piano and timpani, onstage to face the audience and distant players. Tensions fall and rise, in that order, as intricately calibrated mini-themes bounce and echo in spatial exploration. Taut and delicate, the piece flatters both effect and affect.
Leif Ove Andsnes, who manned Kurtág’s keyboard and even made downward scales sound mysterious, returned for Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto (a vehicle for Yefim Bronfman only four months ago). Impetuosity personified, Andsnes stressed speed and bravado where others – older others, in most cases – strive for nobility and grandeur. Still, the Norwegian virtuoso made a persuasive argument for Beethoven as muscular hero rather than subtle poet, and he did sigh with introspective ardour in the Largo. Gilbert and the orchestra served as consistently worthy partners.
Then they turned, with astonishing flair, to the savagery of Le Sacre du printemps (1913). First ventured locally in 1925 – under none less than Wilhelm Furtwängler – the score retains much of its historic shock-appeal. Several subscribers walked out after the “Dance of the Earth”. Gilbert paid masterly attention to Stravinsky's cataclysmic climaxes, jagged rhythms, thumping compulsions and hysterical dynamics without slighting thematic focus or dramatic transition in the process. His trusty ensemble made the massive challenge sound easy, even natural.
It was, in all, an auspicious opening. Or, as the case might be, pre-opening.