Friday, January 1, 2016

New York Philharmonic New Year’s Eve Gala, December 31, 2015: “La Vie Parisienne”

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

For New Year’s Eve PBS had on a gala benefit concert by the New York Philharmonic under its current music director, Alan Gilbert, that was supposed to be a salute to “La Vie Parisienne.” Gilbert made a speech at the beginning of the concert that this theme had been decided on before the horrific Islamic State attacks on Paris in November, but those events had added “poignancy” to the program. The program included only one brief work by one of the three people I consider France’s greatest composers — Berlioz, Debussy and Ravel — Ravel’s “Pavane for a Dead Princess,” which for the occasion was played by both pianist and orchestra. Ravel wrote the piece in 1900 for piano solo and orchestrated it in 1910, and in the 1930’s it was turned into a pop song called “The Lamp Is Low.” Both Benny Goodman and Red Norvo recorded “The Lamp Is Low,” and for Norvo’s version the young arranger Eddie Sauter drenched it in Ravelian harmonies and orchestral colors, in a sense returning it to its source. For last night’s performance the New York Philharmonic played Ravel’s orchestral score but invited pianist Makoto Ozone to improvise along with them, though most of his contributions were discreet obbligati to Ravel’s orchestral score and only towards the end did the orchestra stop and allow Ozone to improvise a cadenza, which he did quite tastefully and in the spirit of Ravel’s original. Not surprisingly, the piece was the most beautiful music heard all night! The program opened with the overture to Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld — a piece that, like Rossini’s William Tell overture, includes a strain just about everyone knows (in William Tell it’s the “Lone Ranger” theme and in Offenbach’s it’s his famous can-can), but the strain just about everyone knows doesn’t occur until the very end of the piece. Gilbert proved himself more at home in the slower, more lyrical earlier sections than in the famous can-can, and here and throughout the program there was a particularly good (as well as particularly handsome!) Black man in the orchestra’s clarinet section taking all the solos for his instrument. After the overture mezzo-soprano Susan Graham — whose voice was considerably better than the material she was given to sing with it — did an aria called “Ah, quel diné” from Offenbach’s operetta La Périchole (which is actually about the invasion of Peru by the Spaniards in the 1500’s, and came in carrying a glass of champagne (or at least some prop substitute thereof). She tried to make herself sound drunk because apparently the character in the operetta singing the aria is supposed to be drunk.

After that there was the centerpiece of the program — a truly awful version of Saint-Saëns’ Carnival of the Animals featuring Nathan Lane as narrator. Saint-Saëns wrote Carnival as an instrumental suite (and, interestingly, thought the results so poor he never allowed the piece to be published during his lifetime) but in 1947 Columbia Records hired Ogden Nash to write a humorous narration in verse for a record they were preparing (and which they probably issued on their yellow label, indicating that these were records for children) in the manner of Prokofieff’s Peter and the Wolf. Unfortunately, last night’s performance featured a newly written narration by Laurence O’Keefe and Neil Benjamin, in which Saint-Saëns’ “animals” were turned into various human “types” lurking around New York City. This could have been good satire — indeed, in 1964 Allan Sherman did something very similar with Peter and the Wolf when, hired to perform with the Boston “Pops,” he rewrote it as Peter and the Commissar, a satire on dumb, insensitive bureaucracies in general and the Soviet system in particular. Alas, the gulf between Sherman and the O’Keefe/Benjamin team as satirists is about the size of the one between Chaplin and the latest movie or TV “comic” who thinks he can get laughs by dropping his drawers. Lane did the best, and he’s enough of a professional that he was able to get the horrifically unfunny O’Keefe/Benjamin lines out of his mouth and act like he thought they were the most hilarious words in the world, and Gilbert filled in with a quite moving and transparent performance of the score’s strictly musical parts. But overall the piece was an absolutely disgusting misfire and the New York Philharmonic and PBS should have been ashamed of themselves for putting it on the air! I was amused, however, not only that the orchestra was using reduced personnel and including the composer’s parts for two pianos (Saint-Saëns originally wrote the piece for piano duo and, like Ravel, only later orchestrated it), played by Israeli pianist Ivan Barnatan and Japanese pianist Makoto Ozone. I was amused that Ozone and Barnatan were both playing, not from printed scores, but from images of the score on a tablet computer (though afterwards in the Ravel Ozone played from paper), and they were playing two different brands of piano: one a Steinway, one a Yamaha.

Afterwards came the Ravel piece — the first selection in the second set — and then a couple of songs sung by Susan Graham, one called “C’est Ça la Vie, C’est Ça l’Amour” by expatriate Cuban composer Moïses Simons (by being a Cuban and writing a song in France — with French lyrics — he was essentially reversing the process begun with Sebastian Yradier’s “Habañera,” a piece written in and about Cuba and transposed to Spain for French composer Bizet’s opera Carmen). Ironically, the song turned out to be an ironic and joking retelling of the story of Carmen, complete with a bullfighter and a few passes by the mezzo. After that she did the great Édith Piaf hit “La Vie en Rose” — two choruses, the first in French and the second in English, which was nice — which was better than the Simons piece (the Simons really needed a singer like Josephine Baker or Eartha Kitt, with a stronger sense of how to phrase pop music and a heavier vibrato in the voice to suggest world-weariness) but still lacking the wrenching power of Piaf’s own version or the marvelous musicianship of Louis Armstrong, who recorded what I think is the best version of the English lyric: though his voice is weird to imagine in this role, his sense of phrasing and overall musicianship are excellent and it’s no surprise to me that he’s still the winner and champion for singing “La Vie en Rose” in English. The program closed in a rather embarrassing way; Gilbert and the orchestra were supposed to play a suite from Gaîté Parisienne, the ballet arranged from Offenbach’s music by Moritz Rosenthal in the 20th century, but with a ruthless commitment to keeping the program under 90 minutes they pulled the plug on the orchestra right after they’d played the ballet’s overture, and so the second movement of the suite just became backdrop for the closing credit roll and the rest wasn’t heard at all: a tacky ending to a tacky show. At least the last time the New York Philharmonic decided to commemorate French music on New Year’s Eve, they played substantial music like Debussy’s La Mer and Ravel’s Bolero — and this year they could have had Susan Graham do Berlioz’ song cycle Les Nuits d’Été (which would have suited her voice magnificently) instead of operetta and pop schlock!