Paying Tribute To a Local Legend

07.06.07
Bramwell Tovey
New York Sun

By Jay Nordlinger

So, the Fourth of July at the New York Philharmonic — they played an American concert, of course, conducted by Bramwell Tovey. Mr. Tovey, in his supersmooth and amusing remarks from the podium, made much of being a Brit, conducting this concert. "The Empire strikes back!" he said.

By the way, isn't "Bramwell Tovey" a name simply made for putting "Sir" in front of?

This concert was played twice, on Tuesday and Wednesday, and I attended on Tuesday. The evening began with a statement by Zarin Mehta, the Philharmonic's executive director. He paid tribute to Beverly Sills, who had passed on the night before. Then, the orchestra played Bernstein's "Candide" overture, without a conductor, to celebrate the cherished soprano. The overture was mistake-filled, out of tune, clunky, heavy — more "The Ride of the Valkyries" than the "Candide" overture, really. But one recognizes that the quality of the playing was not of supreme importance here.

Then the orchestra played a new piece, by the youngish American composer Kevin Puts. The Philharmonic's program notes told us how to pronounce his name: like the second word in "he puts the book on the table." When he first mentioned the name, Mr. Tovey said "putz." Uh-oh. But he got it right thereafter.

Mr. Puts wrote his piece, "Two Mountain Scenes," for the Philharmonic's summer residency in Vail. It is indeed mountainy, particularly in its first "scene," marked Maestoso (of course).

In a program note of his own, Mr. Puts wrote about "the weight of modernity," ghastly burden. He said, "You just know if you write anything that could be considered ‘sentimental,' ‘melodic,' etc., the critics are going to slam you, so it's scary every time I have a piece played, from a certain angle."

This reminded me of something the composer Lee Hoiby once told me: "Every time I wrote a major triad, I felt the hot breath of the composition police on my neck." Good for Mr. Puts for going his own way. His piece follows in an American tradition, established by Alan Hovhaness and others. (The late Hovhaness wrote "The Mysterious Mountain.") That Maestoso scene is expansive, lush, grand. (Shouldn't it be rocky, as in the mountains around Vail?)

The second scene, Furioso, is slightly squirmy, cacophonous, and furious indeed. It also becomes cinematic, John Williams-like — which is no putdown, from me. The last portion of the scene sounds like the good guys on the march.

Incidentally, would you know this piece had anything to do with mountains, if you weren't told? Of course not. But so it is with all "program music," music meant to depict something. (I'm sorry to break the news ... )

Mr. Tovey and the Philharmonic gave the piece a fine reading, even if the trumpets — which feature prominently in the piece — were a little overbright and glaring.

The concert continued with Bernstein's Symphonic Dances from "West Side Story," before which Mr. Tovey made some particularly enjoyable remarks. In the Dances, orchestra members are required to shout out "Mambo!" twice. Mr. Tovey recounted how a London orchestra did this (unidiomatically). Hilarious.

I'm afraid that the playing of the piece was subpar. It was — as in the "Candide" overture—clunky, overaggressive , ham-handed. Many sections of the piece should have been slyer and cooler — more insinuating, more stylish. The Dances are a mixture of Broadway and the concert hall, and the orchestra leaned too far toward Broadway, vulgarly.

I might mention, too, that their snapping was as off as their pizzicatos can be.

Some individuals stood out: I think of the oboist, Liang Wang, and the flutist, Mindy Kaufman. But the "West Side Story" Dances should have been better from Leonard Bernstein's orchestra.

After intermission, it was "Porgy and Bess: A Symphonic Picture for Orchestra," put together by Robert Russell Bennett in the early 1940s. The very first measures were tight and thrilling. But the playing was not so good thereafter, much of it antiseptic and elevatorish. I felt slightly sorry for Mr. Tovey, in that the Philharmonic's music director, Lorin Maazel, is the best Gershwin conductor in the world (along with André Previn). But Mr. Tovey was not incompetent — he never is, in my experience.

The program ended with two Sousa marches, starting with "The Liberty Bell." This was exceptionally well played. The march had a certain jolly dignity. And Mr. Tovey judged every page superbly. He knew to let the march sort of play itself, which not every conductor does.

"The Stars and Stripes Forever" was good too. (It better have been!) Mr. Tovey had the piccolos stand, when doing their special thing, and he had the brass stand, at the end. By the way, what was the most endearing thing Leonard Bernstein ever said? For me, it was, "I'd give five years of my life to have written ‘The Stars and Stripes Forever.'" That is a comment of judgment and humility.

Mr. Tovey et al. gave us an encore, another Sousa march: "The Washington Post." As previously, the audience clapped along, in time.

I'm of two minds about this practice: On one hand, the clapping covers up a lot of the playing, and that is a shame (when the playing is admirable). On the other hand, the audience likes to participate (and Mr. Tovey, for one, encourages it). Oh, well.

And I must say that, during "The Stars and Stripes Forever," I spotted an audience member up front waving a small American flag. The things you see in New York ...