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ARCHIVE: Israel Philharmonic (March 2014)

Originally published 3/28/2014

I went to hear the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra at Jones Hall tonight. If you have never included the IPO in your list of the world’s best orchestras, you might want to reconsider. Performing with Principal Guest Conductor Gianandrea Noseda, the orchestra’s Houston stop fell between Carnegie Hall (a week ago), and the Kennedy Center (in three days). Fauré’s Pelléas et Mélisande Suite, Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite and Daphnis et Chloé Suite No. 2, and Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique filled out an evening lasting two hours and 20 minutes. A minor complaint would be that the all-French program served up too many suites. Also, there was no featured soloist, a bit unusual for Houston audiences. To begin, the orchestra performed both the Star-Spangled Banner and Hatikvah, Israel’s national anthem. Both were sensitively and expressively played renditions, setting the stage for what was to follow. The first piece, Pelléas et Mélisande, is best-known for its Sicilienne. The prominent flute solo had countless colors and beautifully turned phrases. Mother Goose had several oboe solos, again presented with a wide range of colors and expression. For the first two works, the strings played a blended and supportive role, although several cello solos and a few violin and viola solos were prominent and beautifully played. In the last movement, The Enchanted Garden, the orchestra produced a crescendo of extraordinary richness and grandeur. Since most of the preceding movements were small-scale, even miniature, this finale was particularly moving.

Daphnis et Chloé is Ravel’s masterpiece and a marvel of orchestration. His orchestral colors and uneven dance rhythms were novel in 1912 and still fascinate today. While Ravel borrowed more than a few ideas from Debussy, including a Pan and nymph(s) and flute solos from Afternoon of a Faun, it sounds totally original. The virtuosity, flexibility and sensitivity of the IPO made this the perfect vehicle. Lush string section solos led the opening crescendo (day-break), and as wind instruments were added they supported and blended into the texture. Flute solos, traded off throughout the section, were seamless. The 5/4 Bacchanale was quite brisk and cohesive. It was totally together, not in the clinical and transparent way we often hear, but with a unanimity that can happen only when every member of the ensemble is on the same emotional page and performing with a single heart and soul. This was a recurring hallmark of this concert.

Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique was shocking when written in 1840 and in some ways remains so today. Its “program,” written by the composer, includes sex, drugs, murder, death by guillotine, a witches’ Sabbath, and the Dies Irae from masses for the dead. It was first performed almost 175 years ago in predominantly Roman Catholic France and has unsettled audiences ever since. Hector was ahead of his time- it took until the 1960’s for the rest of the world to catch up. The IPO made musical sense of this erratic, erotic, and hypnotic piece. I loved the violins’ rapid sextuplets in the upper part of the bow in the first movement, and burnished tone and flexible yet unified phrasing in the second movement waltz. I also admired the English horn and oboe solos echoing each other, and a long lyrical passage in the violas and celli in the third movement. Much of that movement echoes parts of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, including the key of F-major, thunder rolls in the timpani, and that melody. The March to the Scaffold was conducted a bit too fast to capture the pomp of the military band and the horror of the approaching scaffold, yet the bassoons and tubas still managed to bring off their deliberately awkward passages. (I detected a few smiles in the cellos where their pizzicatos depicted the “hero’s” head plopping into a basket.) The fourth and fifth movements were great fun and gave the wonderful brass section a chance to let loose.

It should be mentioned that the make-up of this orchestra was not typical. There were many older musicians, proving that there is no substitute for experience. Watching, you would never be able to claim that younger players are more energetic, enthusiastic, or technically proficient. On the first stand of second violins, a younger player sat next to an older violinist with white hair. You could not tell who was having a better time. The principal bass was another white-haired gentleman who played some of the most energetic and resonant pizzicatos you would ever want to hear. He moved his right hand quickly up and down the fingerboard to produce differing tone colors, with never a delay in execution. This is an orchestra of virtuosos, and any member of this great orchestra could stand before it and perform a solo. But when it comes time to play together, they do just that. There are no better musicians than the ones who put the music first.

There was a subtle reminder in the hall that this orchestra does not travel without controversy. On each side of the front row sat security guards facing the audience. This, in the event of any disturbance. Those of us who live in relative peace and security should not take for granted the gift of performing or listening to great music.

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