A strange thing happened at the New York Philharmonic last night. Right at the start of Ravel's Bolero, as the snare drum entered with its soft, relentless beat, four policemen glided down the far left aisle and took up positions close to the stage. They stood still throughout the seventeen-minute crescendo, keeping their eyes fixed on the front rows. The possibility that something unexpected or even violent was about to happen added a tingling new sensation to Ravel's already sensational piece. But nothing did happen; no one was dragged off in cuffs. What it was all about, I don't know. I had previously noticed that one gentleman in that section seemed to have a boisterous personality; he stood up to applaud each item on the program, including the Wolfgang Rihm work, which almost no one else in the hall found exciting. He even gave a one-man ovation to the players as they filed out for the second half. Did his neighbors find his enthusiasm so alarming that they alerted the police? Was he a Rest Is Noise reader, acting on my incitements to inappropriate applause? Was MTT's posse in the house, ready to start a Hot 97-style beef? Were the guys from the 20th Precinct just looking to unwind? I prefer to savor the mystery of it all.
I had trouble deciding where to go last night — the Philharmonic affair or Anthony de Mare's recital at Zankel. Since I've Zankled quite a bit this season, I thought I should lend Maazel's merry band an ear. The Rihm thing, Two Other Movements, turned out to be a strange, grand, haunting creation. Prof. Dr. Rihm is hard to classify these days; he is a "difficult" German composer, ja, but he does not toe the Euromodern party line. He writes in the grip of palpably strong emotion, indulges long, songful phrasing, and gives glimpses of tonality everywhere — broken Hindemith chorales, occluded Debussy progressions, shrapnel from an explosion at the Parsifal factory. The strongest twentieth-century presence is, interestingly, late Sibelius. Like the Master's Tapiola, the piece unfolds in one continuous arc, gathering to a black storm at the center and then subsiding toward silence. (The "two movements" are elided.) The gloomy coda is perhaps too protracted, but the final upward-spiraling string phrases have the "sense of an ending" that only a master composer can produce. Take note of the Ensemble Intercontemporain's upcoming performance of Rihm's huge instrumental cycle Jagden und Formen, on May 25.
The Philharmonic gave a committed reading. Beautiful soft trumpet solo. Maestro Maazel was on good behavior throughout; perhaps the police were there to prevent him from doing weird things to Bolero. Lisa Batashvili was a dazzling and vivid soloist in Chausson's Poème and Saint-Saëns' Introduction and Rondo capriccioso. The pro-forma Haydn opener, Symphony No. 95, was several notches above a snooze, dark-toned and agile. There are more promising Philharmonic concerts coming up, especially Messiaen's final masterpiece Éclairs sur l'Au-Delà, under Kent Nagano. Also, in an effort to reach new audiences, the Philharmonic has named Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Chad Smith (upper left) as its new artistic administrator. Wait, no — they've named Los Angeles Philharmonic administrator Chad Smith. Sorry for the confusion. Given the LAPhil's remarkable programming in the last couple of years, this is good news, I think.
Afterward, on the 66th St. subway platform, concertgoers were treated to a new Lincoln Center institution, Well-Prepared Saxophone Man. He's a top-notch player who times his performances to the end of each concert at Lincoln Center, and goes to the trouble of playing a bit of what you've just heard. Sometimes the choices are a stretch — Rosenkavalier doesn't sound so good on the sax — but Bolero, with its big sax solos, is a natural. W-PSM even worked in portions of the Bolero rhythm beneath the melody. I love the post-concert music-nerd subway ride. It's wonderfully strange to be sitting in a car full of people who've listened to, say, Katya Kabanova. Everyone instantly puts his or her affectless subway mask on, which seems a shame. We ought to be prattling gaily about the tempos.