A Mediterranean Cruise

07.03.08
Bramwell Tovey
The New York Times

By Allan Kozinn

In the second installment of this year’s Summertime Classics series at Avery Fisher Hall on Tuesday, the New York Philharmonic offered a program that was meant as a tour of the Mediterranean, with music from Spain, Italy and France. For good measure it also included a Russian evocation of Spain and an Italian work that takes place in Algiers. Bramwell Tovey, who has made these concerts his calling card in the last few seasons, performed his customary dual role as conductor and master of ceremonies, making amusing observations about the music and briefly interviewing the evening’s soloist, the violinist James Ehnes.

It would be easy to complain about the lightness of these programs, or to argue that the amount of time given over to chat could probably have more usefully accommodated another piece of music. But work for work this wasn’t a bad program. The thinnest of the offerings was the curtain raiser, Rossini’s “Italiana in Algeri” Overture. It is mostly twaddle — dippy melodies, boilerplate woodwind figures and parades of crashing cymbals — but it had the great virtue of not being attached to the rest of the opera, and the orchestra gave it a suitably ebullient reading.

The rest of the first half was devoted to the nearly vanished world of 19th-century violin dazzlers. The three works Mr. Ehnes played — Sarasate’s “Zigeunerweisen,” Saint-Saëns’s Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso and, as an encore, Paganini’s “Moto Perpetuo” — aren’t heard in concert as often as they were only a few decades ago. This is partly, no doubt, because violinists prefer to use their concerto dates to make bigger, grander statements. But it’s also because the intensely emotional and overtly showy style of these works has gone out of fashion.

Mr. Ehnes, untroubled by that, gave a magnificent demonstration of what this music has to offer. In the Sarasate especially he moved easily between a textured, throaty tone and a rich, carefully shaped singing line. The Saint-Saëns shared with parts of the Sarasate an almost vocal quality, and all three works — but particularly the Paganini — invite a violinist to unleash his inner speed demon, which Mr. Ehnes did with clarity and precision.

Mr. Tovey opened the second half of the program with a full-throttle account of Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Capriccio Espagnol,” in which Sheryl Staples’s zesty rendering of the solo violin writing was a highlight. Also included were a sumptuous performance of the Intermezzo from Mascagni’s “Cavalleria Rusticana,” and three dances from Falla’s “Three-Cornered Hat,” the program’s one disappointment. Mr. Tovey and the orchestra conveyed every bit of the music’s splashy coloration but hardly any of its spirit. When even the fiery, flamenco-tinged “Miller’s Dance” is rhythmically stiff, you know you’re in trouble.