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Back to the ‘New World,’ With a Looser Approach

10.09.08
Marin Alsop
The New York Times

Marin Alsop conducting the New York Philharmonic at Avery Fisher Hall on Tuesday. The pianist Rafal Blechacz also performed.

Of all the educational projects the New York Philharmonic could undertake, an examination of the genesis and music of Dvorak's "New World" Symphony might not seem particularly topical or fresh. This staple holds a special pride of place for the Philharmonic, which gave the premiere at Carnegie Hall in 1893. In February the orchestra took the "New World" to Pyongyang for its historic concert in North Korea. That Dvorak, who composed it while living in New York City in the early 1890s, was inspired by African-American spirituals and tales of American Indian life would seem a very familiar story.

But the box office tells all. The Philharmonic's Friday night Inside the Music event, devoted to the Dvorak symphony, is sold out. The actor Alec Baldwin will narrate a multimedia exploration of the work, and the author and educator Joseph Horowitz, who has tirelessly promoted Dvorak as a visionary who emboldened American composers to embrace their indigenous folk music, will lecture, followed by a performance of the symphony conducted by Marin Alsop.

Always welcome as a guest at the Philharmonic, Ms. Alsop, the music director of the Baltimore Symphony, took the podium on Tuesday night at Avery Fisher Hall to conduct this Dvorak work on a subscription program. The concert also offered the Philharmonic debut of a gifted young Polish pianist, Rafal Blechacz, in Chopin's Piano Concerto No. 2, and Ms. Alsop's arresting account of Bartok's Suite from "The Wooden Prince."

Like Kurt Masur before him, Lorin Maazel has staked a claim to the "New World" Symphony. He conducts it brilliantly. But the slightly looser, more spontaneous account Ms. Alsop drew from the Philharmonic was a fresh change from the enforced excellence Mr. Maazel delivers. The musicians played vibrantly and seemed relaxed, as if a hip substitute teacher had taken over for their taskmaster.

The slight-framed, 23-year-old Mr. Blechacz, who triumphed at the Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw in 2005, gave a graceful, thoughtful and poetic performance of the Chopin concerto, distinguished by liquid passage work and delicate runs, especially in the elegantly embellished phrases of the dreamy slow movement. His playing may lack a little power. Still, he brought incisive articulation and sparkling clarity to the virtuosic flights of the first movement and the spiraling figurations of the finale, with its touch of a mazurka.

Ms. Alsop gave a blazing, visceral account of Bartok's wildly inventive suite. The ballet depicts the story of a wandering prince who carves a wooden puppet of himself to entrance a princess confined to a castle by a fairy. In the prologue, with its eerie high-pitched strings and trolling bass lines, Ms. Alsop captured the mix of the primordial and the cosmic. The brook Bartok evokes at one crucial point is not some lapping stream but a torrent of currents with lashing swirls of glissandos and weighty harmonies in the low woodwinds that will suck you under if you dare wade in.

The last time the Philharmonic had played "The Wooden Prince" was 21 years ago. How about Bartok's ballets for an Inside the Music program?