by Margaret Croyden

Evenings at the Philharmonic

Photo of Margaret Croyden
Margaret Croyden is a theater reviewer and essayist for the New York Theatre Wire.
The New York Philharmonic
Avery Fisher Hall,
Lincoln Center
Comments by Margaret Croyden October 10, 20004

As everyone may know by now, my column on this Web page, "Croyden's Corner" is devoted mainly to theater reviewing. But as the new season has not yet begun, I have been drawn to other forms of art that are, in many ways, a theatrical experience. And music is my first example. Admittedly I am not a music critic and I am not trying to become one. This piece is not, in the formal sense, a critique but a report on a personal appreciation of two great evenings at the New York Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra now under the direction of Lorin Mazel. On the program was the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto with Lang Lang as soloist, and the following week an all Prokofiev program.

Let's start with Lang Lang. A phenomenal performer--no doubt about that--he virtually eats up the piano all in one bite. Completely sure of himself, almost smiling with pleasure at his own playing, he is thoroughly and personally involved with what seems to be the love of his life--the piano. His is no quiet playing: he responds to the instrument as a man bewitched by his slave and who has conquered his slave as well and is the personification of one who would sacrifice everything for his love--the piano. And with it all, he is intent on establishing a real relationship with the orchestra members and conductor as well. His body and facial expressions tell us that a private conversation, a special communion, is taking place with each player and with the conductor, and at times with the audience as well. True, his facial expressions are distracting and sometimes over the mark so that one's concentration is too much on the artist rather than on the music. On the other hand, the entire evening is a kind of intimate love feast that becomes theatrically compelling, and establishess a mood whereby one can escape from the ugliness all around us--the politics, the wars, the lies, and the idiotic television pundits--to the world of art where the loveliness of life is projected and the intent of the genius-composer is realized. And that is the secret of great artists--their ability to uncover and express the ineffable that wipes out the mundane, the ordinary, and the vulgar. And Lang Lang is this kind of artist. Watching him is simply a great experience of joy-- a rare and beautiful thing in a world that has gone crazy. When he plays again, don't you dare miss him.

Into this atmosphere looms the imposing figure of Lorin Mazel the conductor, the most important ingredient so to speak that makes the evening a truly dramatic event. Tall, trim, agile, a man who radiates energy, sexuality, forcefullnes and the commanding ability to command--he must lead over 100 brilliant players to disclose the secrets of the composer. The criticism not long ago from a "New York Times" writer that the Philharmonic was losing it because it did not include enough to attract the young is just so much balderdash. Let the "Times" worry about their hip hop contingent, as it surely does. (It has reinvented itself with an eye to the hip hop to the exclusion of worthier stories). As for the Philharmonic, it has never sounded better. Besides Mr. Mazel has included in the repertory many new and contemporary works.

Now for the all Prokofiev program. Not only did Mr. Mazel and orchestra perform selections of the famous "Romeo and Juliet" ballet score and the First Violin Concerto, but the brilliant Symphony No. 5. I will admit the concerto was uninvolving because I thought the violinist Sayaka Shoji had too soft a touch but then again, the work is so complicated that it was hard to judge. But the symphony in the second half of the program was superb. Once again Mazel was crisp, sure, and so lively, he almost seemed to fly off the stage. To watch the dozens of violins in perfect rhythm--fingers and bows all going exactly in time-- all watching their leader, all producing the sweetest sounds, was indeed a theatrical experience--meant not only for the ears but for the eyes as well. What a scene to see more than a hundred artists, all dressed in black, all intent on one job, all involved with one thing--playing under the command of a man who has the strength, endurance, and vitality to stand there for over two hours using his physical prowess as well as his secret knowledge and temperament to produce intensely satisfying, beautiful music.

I cannot say for sure when I have been more involved in a performance as I have in these evenings with the Philharmonic. But I will say for sure that people in the audience on both occasions were overwhelmed and could not refrain from shouting, standing, and applauding. And I must confess, I was one of them. [Croyden]

Margaret Croyden's most recent book is "Conversations With Peter Brook, 1970-2000" published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

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