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Blazing Fingers, Balletic Feet

New York
Isaac Stern Auditorium Carnegie Hall
07/30/2019 -  
Manuel de Falla: Selections from The Three-Cornered Hat
Gabriela Montero: Piano Concerto No. 1 “Latin” (World Premiere)
Igor Stravinsky: Pétrouchka (1947 version)

Gabriela Montero (Pianist)
NYO2, with 12 Fellows of the New World Symphony, America’s Orchestral Academy, Carlos Miguel Prieto (Conductor)

C. M. Prieto

Andalusian melody is the only music continuously and abundantly used by foreign composers.
Manuel de Falla
The Russians, like the Spaniards, all have a few drops of Gypsy in them.
Spanish Nationalist composer Felipe Pedrell (1841-1922)

The faces of musicians, conductor and pianist-composer were unfamiliar to Carnegie Hall listeners last night. But the music they played–familiar, exotic and new–was infectious, rhythmic, sometimes maddeningly balletic.

The young musicians, dressed in festive red and white, were NYO2, created three years ago by Carnegie Hall’s Weill Institute. Their purpose is to bring together America’s “outstanding American instrumentalists ages 14-17”. They spend their summers with the National Youth Orchestra, with professional orchestras and–last night–with a dozen professional musicians from Michael Tilson Thomas’ New World Symphony.

The lamentably un-familiar face on the podium was that of Carlos Miguel Prieto, the 2019 Musical America “Conductor of the Year.” Yes, he has made a few appearances here–but none with the New York Philharmonic. Not yet. He must come. (Thus the 11th Commandment.)

As for Gabriela Montero...that was the dazzlement of the evening. More on her later.

Yes, all three works were dance music–though only the most accomplished dancers would execute it. The starting works were five pieces from Manuel de Falla’s ballet The Three-Cornered Hat. And no matter how joyful de Falla’s sounds might be, no matter how exuberantly conducted by Mr. Prieto, the first few minutes hardly got off the ground after the kettledrum fanfare, the horns, castanets and Olé! from the orchestra.

One had to applaud the solos here–bassoon, cor anglais, clarinet, a fine brass section–but the string section of NYO2 were moribund. The program listed almost 50 string players. The result was inevitably bulky, de Falla’s Andalusian fandango, the seguidilla, the other fearfully sensuous dances relished by the composer were dragged down by orchestral dimensions that should be confined to more professional orchestra.

True, by the time the de Falla was finished, one could forgive the execution. The composer was far too good, and Mr. Prieto was far too accomplished to let musical idiosyncrasies get in the way.

However, one must make a heartfelt plea. Which is, “Pleeeese, Mr. Prieto, when next you come to New York, let us hear the complete work, with singer, orchestra, perhaps even dancers.”

The final work showed a far improved orchestra–or perhaps Stravinsky’s 1947 version of Pétrouchka simply had a less blazoning ensemble and more solos. Whatever it was, Mr. Prieto gave a volition to the ballet which never stopped. The dances here were not from a single country. They were from the fantasia of Stravinsky’s imagination, and the conductor let them make their unworldly way to that final two-trumpet dialogue.

G. Montero (© Shelley Mosman)

The centerpiece was devoted to Venezuelan-born Gabriela Montero. And devotion is the right word. Let’s forget her work as an Ambassador to Amnesty International, her work with the Human Rights Foundation for her country or birth, her numerous awards as artist and activist.

Or her delightful speech, her Beethoven-style “Happy Birthday” encore or the flag of Venezuela, bringing the audience to its feet.

And let’s again forgive New York for not offering her either recitals or guest appearances until this appearance.

Last night, she wore a mantilla so colorful, Yuja Wang would have resembled an abject mendicant. The subtitle of her world premiere Piano Concerto was “Latin”, but it should have been “Whirlwind”. Yes, Ms. Montero had a deceivingly quiet whole-tone introduction, and some meditation in the second movement. Otherwise, over a breathtaking and breathless 30 minutes, Ms. Montero never once took her fingers off the keyboard.

It was riproaring stuff, and–were it not for the Latin rhythms–one might have mistaken it for a series of Prokofiev toccatas. The first movement was titled “Mambo”, but so much was going on in the piano, that mambo rhythms were rarely to be heard. It was like a bacchanalian orgy for 88 keys.

The Andante Moderato started and ended with a Chopin-like meditation, reverted to a more late romantic yearning section with some lovely melodies. This was not 21st Century music, but it was earnest, deeply inspired music.

The finale Allegro Venezolano brought together both dizzying toccata fingers and a highlighted melody. Not Ms. Montero’s own, but (in her words), “the Venezuelan pajarillo”. I have no idea what a pajarillo might be. But I do know that Ms. Montero’s handling of this folk-like theme, the momentary witchcraft moments and blazing light made this Piano Concerto into an incandescent event.

Harry Rolnick



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