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Friday, January 15, 2010

Report from NY: The Phil takes on Berg Op 6

Alban Berg's Three Pieces for Orchestra Opus 6 (1923) was on the schedule for the NY Philharmonic's open public rehearsal on Thursday morning January 14th.

I didn't want to miss it, since the Berg piece is not often heard in public, and seeing a complex score put together by an able and skilled conductor working with a world-class orchestra was sure to be a sensation - if not a learning experience.

After paying my $16 and waiting my turn in line to be frisked by NY City policemen, I made my way up into the 70s decorum, cavernous-but-cozy, Avery Fisher Hall. I sat myself down amongst the swarm of grey haired seniors (a cohort of which I proudly consider myself a full-fledged member), and pulled a 35 year-old xeroxed copy of the Berg study score from my overflowing backpack - trying my best not to expose dirty underwear in the process.

As I had expected, the Berg was the first item on the morning's 9:45 AM rehearsal schedule - although the actual concerts would feature this piece last. It is scored for a large orchestra, and it is probably standard protocol and common courtesy not to force all of the musicians to wait around. The other works on the program were for smaller forces, and I was less interested in hearing them anyway. Everyone in the orchestra had to be back on stage dressed in formal concert attire later tonight (which will be the 14,937th concert in the history of the NY Philharmonic).

Berg's piece is not all that long, but it has a ton of notes. Some would say that it is "over-orchestrated" and I'd agree with that assessment. The late Michael Steinberg once described it as “Mahler’s Eleventh” Symphony.

Although I've known the piece from various recordings over the years, this particular piece by Berg has always seemed to me as a bit "messy." It's very hard to hear what's going on inside, since there are so many layers of sound.

How would the new NY Philharmonic music director shape it, bring it to life, and rehearse all of those notes in short order? I'd soon find out.

Maestro Alan Gilbert came out on stage, and got down to business right away. He played through all three movements without stopping or making a comment (although comments were hard to heard from the back of the hall).

After plowing through the piece, which was not 100% ready for prime time, he went back to individual movements and worked on a selection of difficult spots.
Out of the sonic totality, I remember a very distinctive sounding clarinet solo, and I later learned that the NY Phil has been quietly trying out a selection of guest clarinets. The retirement of Stanley Drucker last year created a vacancy that has not yet been filled.

The brass section too has a difficult part, particularly at rehearsal number 150 of the third movement. When Gilbert wanted to rehearse just that section, the brass players asked for a running start. Brass players are like that.

Gilbert is very professional. He conducts with a clear beat. At times he would sing a line back to the musicians to exemplify what he was looking for. What else can you ask for?

In the end I was favorably impressed with the performance, but my initial impression about the over-orchestration of Berg's Opus 6 remains. It my be my aging ears, but the work lacks color. It has great textures, but all of those rich sounds cancel each other out. You can hardly hear some of the secondary lines, and much of the music recedes into the background. Berg revised his piece in 1929, probably with orchestration in mind.

A few minutes into the rehearsal of the Berg, an elderly gentleman sitting close to me began to snore with a vengeance. He was out like a light, and his companions had difficulty getting him to wake. Most others around me seemed ambivalent about the Berg too. Some young international tourists were busy snapping photos on their cameras and checking messages on their iPhones.

After the NY performances (1/14, 1/15 and 1/16), Gilbert and his band will take the Berg on tour to nine cities in Europe. They will give 13 performances over 15 days "hitting" Barcelona, Zaragoza, Madrid, Zurich, Frankfurt, Cologne, Dortmund, London, and Paris along the way. By the end of the tour, the Berg should be fully rehearsed.

Also going long on the European road show will be the piece "EXPO" by the NY Philharmonic Composer-in-Residence: Magnus Lindberg. "EXPO" was premiered in September by the orchestra for their grand opening night. I saw it on a nationally-televised broadcast on PBS, and was favorably impressed with the piece.

After hearing the Berg, I had taken in enough. My ears were full. I didn't stay to hear the Haydn or Schubert, or even John Adams' "The Wound-Dresser."

Besides, I had a bus to catch.