The New York Philharmonic gives an annual Fourth of July concert, and this year the orchestra gave it three times. I attended on July 3. As usual, the concert was conducted by a Brit, Bramwell Tovey. He is one suave and talented Brit, too. I have always called him “your genial host,” for he talks charmingly to the audience: twitting latecomers, riffing on Kim Kardashian, etc. He has the verbal facility you expect from our cousins. I was shocked to hear him say “For you and I . . .”
The concert began with Three Dance Episodes from Bernstein’s On the Town. I have often wondered why someone who could write so brilliantly in this idiom would ever have bothered with classical music. Tovey and the Philharmonic were really good in the dance episodes, really swingin’. They were not merely fun, they were excellent. I had the feeling they had actually rehearsed.
Now, the Philharmonic is supposed to be good in New Yorky music. But I have to ask: Why should Chinese-born young people who join the Philharmonic be better in this music than Chinese-born young people who join other orchestras? Traditions linger, somehow.
Tracy Dahl, a coloratura soprano from Canada, took the stage to sing “Glitter and Be Gay,” the glittery and gay aria from Bernstein’s Candide. She gave it the old college try. Her heart was in the right place, and so were the notes, mainly. Her E flat had no vibrato, but it was bang on pitch.
Even suaver than Tovey is Gershwin’s Promenade, or “Walking the Dog,” the next piece on the program. The orchestra played it nicely, and this was especially true of Pascual Martínez Forteza, the principal clarinet. “Walking the Dog” gives the clarinet a delicious part.
Tracy Dahl returned for four songs by Gershwin, in which she was superb—both tasteful and heartfelt, both formal and informal, if you know what I mean. Every inflection was right. The arrangements were done by Tovey himself, who also played the piano. In “They Can’t Take That Away from Me,” the singer sings, “The way you sip your tea . . .” Here, Tovey tinkled a bit of “Tea for Two.” As he did so, he gave the audience sort of a proud look. His arrangement for the verse of “Fascinating Rhythm” sounded like Carmina Burana, so help me. Weird but effective.
As a pianist, Tovey may not threaten André Previn’s reputation; he was sometimes stiff and jabbing. But he was creditable. Besides, Previn doesn’t always play like Previn either.
The second half of the program featured ensembles from West Point, as well as the Philharmonic. We heard big-band music and marches. We also heard some patriotic and pro-military statements spoken by the West Pointers. I wasn’t sure this would fly in Manhattan, but it seemed to. The evening ended with John Philip Sousa’s masterpiece, The Stars and Stripes Forever. Let me quote Bernstein, in a humble and discerning mode: “I would give five years of my life to have written that piece.”
It was a long night, but a wonderful one, and this was thanks largely to the manifold talents of Tovey—and also to those of Sousa, Gershwin, Bernstein, et al.
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