I was sitting on a bench outside of Lincoln Center the evening of Wednesday, November 14th 2007. I had just purchased an egg sandwich from Starbucks along with one of their seasonal beverages, the Peppermint Mocha. (I highly recommend it.) As I was consuming my victuals, I couldn't help but notice Martha Argerich stroll slowly by with a male companion, admiring the sight of Lincoln Center at night. After a while the pair was joined by Charles Dutoit, and the three perambulated through the unseasonably warm November evening, speaking in French about who knows what.
Argerich and Dutoit had been in town with the Verbier Festival Orchestra, which was performing its last two concerts of an entire tour around the world in Avery Fisher Hall. I had planned to go not only to see my favorite pianist perform the Prokofiev Concerto No.3, but also to see some of my peers play in a great orchestra. Every year my school hosts the New York Verbier auditions, where many flock from around the country to try their luck at this orchestra of young professionals. My school is well-represented in the orchestra itself, perhaps because there is an emphasis on orchestral playing at my college, and also perhaps because the familiarity of the surroundings makes it a less stressful audition than traveling from across the country to play for ten or so minutes.
So Thursday November 15th comes, the day I'd been waiting for; the performance of Argerich with Verbier at Avery Fisher. The program was to the point: no formal overtures or orchestral rhapsodies to open the program or give it the traditional three-piece structure, but simply a piano concerto and a symphony.
The concert began with Argerich performing the Prokofiev Third Piano Concerto. Her entrance on the stage was much more graceful than that of the orchestra's, which still hadn't found a comfortable rhythm in which to walk on stage, bow, and tune. Being that about a quarter of the orchestra is American, it was no surprise that walking on as an orchestra at once, as opposed to sitting on stage and waiting for the concert to begin, was not very natural to a lot of the players. It gave them a very endearing and youthful character though, perhaps the only point in the concert where one might mistake this ensemble for being made up entirely of (mostly) awkward college students.
The orchestra accompanied brilliantly with Argerich at the fore, playing the most difficult passages in piano literature just as easily as I saw her taking an evening stroll. As always, she was rhythmically sure and produced a sonorous, mystical color from the keyboard. The audience roared enthusiastically at the end and applauded for an encore, which she so graciously gave, before retreating into her dressing room after about ten calls to bow.
After intermission, the audience was treated to a seminal work in the symphonic repertoire, Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique. Not enough praise can be given to this orchestra's handling of the piece, which was superb. Dutoit's conducting was interesting to watch; I'll have to ask my friends in the orchestra how they felt about playing under his baton.
The first movement began with a sparkling ascending line in the harp, which was probably the loudest and clearest harp playing I've heard in any orchestra. The strings played as one great unit; they were perfectly matched in articulations and sound, although their personality was hard to pinpoint. They didn't have an overwhelmingly warm tone nor a bright quality to their playing. Perhaps this was a result of their being from so many different countries and schools of musical thought, or this could even be the new wave of sound from the up-and-coming generation of orchestral professionals. The woodwinds were particularly impressive. The English horn solo in the Pastoral movement was as chilling as it was beautiful, played with a rich vibrato and great musical ideas. The Witch's Sabbath dance, featuring the E-flat clarinet and bassoons, was out of this world. I mean, that girl really played that clarinet. The percussion sounded loud, rich, and full, and played right on cue with absolutely everything. And the brass! Wow. Although the players unfortunately just sat for most of the concert, when their cues came, they were right on. I can't express how brilliantly they played the French anthem in the middle of the symphony; even the musical idea of irony came across as their sound soared literally over the entire orchestra, something that even certain professional orchestras cannot achieve. The Dies Irae theme in the last movement was especially exciting as well. Their tone was dark, ominous, and their musical intentions were unmistakable. The entire performance of the Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique was the best I'd heard in a long time.
The audience was so appreciative that it clapped between every movement and forced the most likely tired orchestra musicians to perform two encores. To me, this is what orchestral playing is about. It is quite easy to become jaded as a musician in New York (or perhaps anywhere), particularly when you've landed a job that doesn't leave much room for creative growth. Even the greatest musicians can fall into the trap of orchestral playing, and so it seems a great idea to foster a sense of excitement in collaboration early on for young musicians. Verbier is quite a prestigious orchestra, but not just because they accept talented young players into the orchestra; they just eminate prestige. Everything they do they obviously care about, focusing intensely not only on expressing musical ideas, but learning how to play as a great ensemble. I think a few professional orchestra could take a cue from this fantastic symphony.