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Love Is a Manny-Splendid Thing

New York
Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center
04/28/2010 -  & April 29, 30*, 2011
Claude Debussy: Estampes: Pagodes
Olivier Messiaen: Couleurs de la Cité Céleste
Gustav Mahler: Symphony No. 5

Emanuel Ax (Pianist)
New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Alan Gilbert (Music Director and Conductor)

E. Ax (© Gulbenkian Musica)

While Alan Gilbert is trying his best to drag and shove New York Philharmonic audiences into the 21st Century, the Avery Fisher Hall lobby this week had regressed to a Late Baroque version of Twitter. Post-it messages, used by J.S. Bach to announce rehearsals, were stuck onto a bulletin board, all with the single theme of announcing love and adoration for Emanuel Ax.

Like a North Korean election, not a single disparaging vote could be found. But unlike Great or Dear Leaders, Emanuel Ax, celebrating the 100th time he has appeared with the Phil, was worthy of such adulation. Not only his personality, not only his artistry, not only his loyalty to New York and the New York Philharmonic, but something more unusual, which he showed this week.

This was simply that Mr. Ax, in his middle age, realized that he too had a responsibility to his own century, and that his genius was meant to embrace the creative minds of his inspired colleagues.

Thus, he was scheduled to play the complete Debussy Estampes, as solo, and Messiaen’s Colors of the Celestial City (a quote from the Book of Revelations) with part of the orchestra.

Only one of the three Estampes was performed. As Mr. Gilbert pointed out in his delightful talk before the concert, the two artists realized that the Buddhist “Pagodas” had much in common with Messiaen’s Catholic reverence for the New Testament, The evidence was in the listening. Debussy had learned about Asian music three years before this composition, so his “Pagodas” are filled with more ancient modal sections than ersatz Asian themes. Mr. Ax played it not with reverence but with his trademark of communicative lyricism.

This led to an inevitable Messiaen, which also embraced Plainsong–and, more Asian then “Pagodas”–embraced xylophone, marimba, tubular bells and gongs. The three trombones added the weight–but the bass trombone was a reverberation of the Tibetan and Bhutanese monks who can reach easily down to a low A or G below low C.

Mr. Ax played the piano role as though born to the task, not as soloist but part of the resonant percussion consort.

A. Gilbert (© Chris Lee)

The second half needs an introduction.

I always felt that, if some pre-Islamic Djinn had offered me three wishes, I would ask for the following. I would wish to conduct the last movement of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony with (in alphabetical order), the Chicago Symphony, the New York Philharmonic and the Vienna Philharmonic.

Then again, a decent Djinn might demur. After all, the conductor of that final chorale is equivalent to God, and this would be apostasy. So I would respectfully inform the Djinn that I don’t see the Allegro giocoso movement as religious. Rather I have always pictured it as 17 minutes of foreplay, with an ejaculation that would make Tristan sound like a prayer to abstinence.

Mr. Gilbert didn’t need a Djinn to make it sound good. He not only showed rare physical energy on the dais, but injected the work with a vitality, a joy, and all the color and counterpoint to make this Mahler to be one of the triumphs of any century.

CODA: Other concerts this week precluded attendance at the opening night, but reportedly Mr. Ax was made an “honorary member of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra." Undoubtedly this was an honor for him, but with his continuous playing, we all feel even more honored.

Harry Rolnick



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