Sunday, June 28, 2015

Music Review—The New York Philharmonic's Finale(s)

New York Philharmonic
Performances June 10-13, 17-24, 2015
Various locations, New York, NY

Honegger—Jeanne d'arc au bucher/Joan of Arc at the Stake (Alpha DVD)

Cotillard (center) in Joan of Arc at the Stake (photo: Chris Lee)
The New York Philharmonic ended its current season with indoor and outdoor finales: an overdue Avery Fisher Hall hearing of Arthur Honegger's emotive oratorio Joan of Arc at the Stake with a powerful Marion Cotillard was followed by 50th anniversary celebrations of the orchestra's city parks concerts (with a final indoor concert on Staten Island).

Cotillard was the main draw for the Honegger concert, and she did not disappoint, finding expressivity and subtlety in the title speaking role of the French teenager condemned to death for heresy in 1431. But Honegger's vibrant oratorio, sensitively played by the Philharmonic under music director Alan Gilbert, is the real deal: unafraid to combine high and low, sacred and profane, secular and liturgical in his majestic setting of Paul Claudel's poetic text, Honegger provides heroic musical moments for two choruses, soloists, speakers and orchestral players. 

It's too bad that this unimpeachable work was so clunkily directed by Côme de Bellescize, who takes what Honegger's music so slyly, even sarcastically alludes to—the jury as sheep, the judge a pig, the secretary an ass—then adds cartoonish costumes and a leaden way of unnecessarily literalizing everything to make a far from ideal staging of this eloquent masterpiece. 

To better experience Cotillard's sublime portrayal in Honegger's towering oratorio, track down the new
DVD on the Alpha label (right) of a 2012 Barcelona performance: his emotional music and her brave, fearless portrayal shine through far more than in Bellescize's trendy staging. And the close-ups of Cotillard's tear-filled face at the finale are far more satisfying than straining to watch her standing behind the orchestra at the rear of the Avery Fisher stage during the climax.

A few days later in Central Park, Charles Dutoit conducted a program of French music and Stravinsky’s Petrushka ballet. The mood was festive right from the opener, Hector Berlioz's Roman Carnival Overture, while Camille Saint-Saëns' Third Violin Concerto had Renaud Capuçon as the triumphant soloist. After intermission, Petrushka and Ravel's La Valse were played to appreciative applause, even if it was nearly impossible to hear the subtleties of Stravinsky outdoors.

But that quibble couldn't ruin a beautiful night, capped as it was by a rousing fireworks display.

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