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Sasha Cooke; Alan Gilbert & New York Philharmonic

ON OCTOBER 1, Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic presented a concert of two major works of Brahms and the world premiere on a vocal concerto by Marc Neikrug. The concert opened with a stirring rendition of Brahms’ Tragic Overture, Op. 81. The orchestra was in top form as Gilbert led in a tightly focused, emotionally deep performance. The orchestral sound was vibrant and expansive.

Marc Neikrug’s Canta-Concerto (2014), his third New York Philharmonic commission, received its world premiere. Canta-Concerto is a concerto for mezzo-soprano and orchestra. Citing Reinhold Glière’s infrequently performed Concerto for Coloratura Soprano and Orchestra as the only known precedent for such a work, Neikrug created a four-movement concerto in which the singer enunciates a text consisting of imaginary words and also vocal phonemes, related in each movement to the texture of the orchestral music. Sasha Cooke was the soloist, and gave the music a warm utterance. Sadly, the character of the individual movements, while varied in tempo was all too uniform. Neikrug seemed to employ the orchestra primarily as a background texture to the singer, not as a partner in dialogue. At varying tempos, the music remained highly static. The overall effect was like that of looking at a revolving prism: one observed many beautiful colors, but soon got the idea and is ready to move on to something else. Essentially, in Canta-Concerto Neikrug gave us twenty-five minutes of this effect, which was about twenty minutes more of it than the most listeners needed. Only in the final minutes of the fourth movement did there seem to be a new direction developing, but this impulse arrived too late and delivered too little.

The final work on the concert was Brahms’ Second Piano Concerto. Again the orchestra played magnificently, particularly principal cellist Carter Brey and principal horn Philip Myers. Gilbert’s interpretation drew attention to the close ties this work has with Brahms’ chamber music in its intimacy, yet retained great power in the tutti sections. Many have commented on how difficult this concerto is for the pianist. As Gilbert suggested, the work is really more of a symphony with piano, and calls for a high degree of integration between the piano and the orchestra. Yet, the piano part is technically demanding and not at all easy to play. Emanuel Ax gave a solidly competent performance as soloist.  —Arlo McKinnon 

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