On Wednesday night, I was delighted to have the opportunity to attend a New York Philharmonic concert at Lincoln Center. For those of you who have never seen an elite orchestra play live, it is an experience worth having (In addition to NYP, I’ve seen the Boston Symphony Orchestra and LA Philharmonic). Even though you can now get high-quality sound recordings of every piece imaginable from some of the best musicians in the world, there is something magical about seeing the sound emerge live from a hundred instruments working in congress. For me, the most amazing part of seeing an orchestra is watching the strings – I see the bows go up and down in perfect unison, and it makes me think, “Wow, each one of those players is sublimating his impulse to be a soloist in order to be part of something bigger.” It seems as if not every one of those violinists is necessary (since after the first violin, the loudness you get from each additional violin falls off at an exponential rate), but they are necessary for the piece to be played as it was meant to be heard.
The first piece in the program was a well-known one – Tchaikovsky’s “Romeo and Juliet.” I didn’t recognize it at first, but the main melody – which was repeated several times, in slightly different ways – has been played in countless cartoons and commercials. The melody is a symbol of romance. While I enjoyed the piece, it definitely was a safe choice on the part of Alan Gilbert, the conductor and newest music director of the Philharmonic. After this introduction, the piano was moved onto the stage, and Evgeny Kissin emerged from the wings, to much whooping (yes, whooping – even among the old coots in the audience) and applause. Kissin, who is Russian-born, is considered one of the world’s best classical pianists. I had heard his name before the concert, but what I did not know is that he was also a prodigy. He is now 40, but he’s been performing since he was 6, and he’s been internationally famous since the age of 12! Much like Michael Jackson and other child stars, he comes across as a little awkward, and I read that he still lives with his mother and piano teacher. His normal socialization is kind of a necessary casualty of his gift to the musical world…but he seems happy, so it’s fine.
The first piece he played on was a Scriabin piano concerto. Personally, I wasn’t crazy about the piece. I’m sure it was played impeccably, but it was a bit too “modern” for my taste. And at the intermission, I started to ponder, “What exactly makes a ‘great’ classical pianist? What is it about Kissin that sells out shows around the world, year after year?”
But then came the Grieg Piano Concerto. Grieg’s only piano concerto – inspired by Schumann’s – it’s a pretty famous piece in the classical world. Kissin’s rendition of the fast solo piano part in the Allegro movement was breathtaking. And then the adagio – a movement that featured the strings prominently – was incredibly moving. By the end of that piece, we were all on our feet. I already knew that the orchestra was great, but that piece convinced me that Kissin deserved his status. The piano really is like an extension of his body; Evgeny looks so comfortable up on that stage, and when his fingers hit the keys, music just seems to spill out. His technical proficiency is amazing, but even more amazing is the way his fingers seem to sing. Kissin also has an astounding memory for music – he did four encores at the end of the performance (2 Grieg pieces, 2 Scriabins – all lesser-known than those included in the program), and I heard that he once did thirteen!
Seeing an orchestra performance really transports you to the past. You feel as if you were in Mozart’s time, hearing this music for the very first time. Partly because of this old-timey feel, attendance at these concerts gets worse as time goes on. Thankfully, with a music director like Alan Gilbert, and guest pianists like Evgeny Kissin, the New York Philharmonic is giving people reasons to show up.