Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 6 and Penderecki’s Concerto No. 2 for Cello and Orchestra

The New York Philharmonic on Thursday, November 20.

After the small ensemble finished one of Bach’s oft-performed Brandenburg concertos, Sean turned and wryly murmured in my ear, “With a couple more rehearsals, they might have had it.” I stifled a giggle and gave him a mock-reproving frown, but I knew what he meant. The featured violas were dragging, and the tuning was off; the ensemble simply never felt like a cohesive whole. Ironically, the rarely performed Penderecki cello concert that followed was practically perfect: taut and energetic and immaculately synchronized.

One could blame the violists for the disappointing Brandenburg (Violists are the butt of many an orchestral joke. For example, how do you get two violists to play in unison? Answer: Shoot one of them.), but I suspect the main problem is that all the musicians “know” that concerto. They’ve played it countless times and most likely take it for granted that they can play it well again without too much effort. The Penderecki, on the other hand, is unfamiliar and obviously difficult and thus justifies extensive rehearsal time. It’s not an unusual scenario: Too often it’s the relatively easy, familiar pieces that trip you up.

Alisa Weilerstein soloed on the Penderecki. Sean and I previously heard her play Elgar’s famous cello concerto, a lush, romantic extravaganza, and though the Penderecki is far less lush, more eerie and anguished and “modern,” her passionate, unrestrained style works equally well on the later work. Weilerstein found the lyricism, the through-lines, in Penderecki’s raw solo.

It’s an interesting piece, one I hadn’t heard before. The orchestration is fascinating, particularly in the wildly diverse use of percussion. (According to the program notes, the concerto features timpani, triangle tree, suspended cymbals, bongos, tom-toms, Rototoms, tambourine, snare drum, tenor drum, temple blocks, guiro, tam-tams, gong, crotales, chimes, xylophone, and orchestra bells). The strings have a recurring motif in which they gradually diverge from a unison pitch, creating a chilling, unearthly sound. Not for nothing did Stanley Kubrick choose some of Penderecki’s music for the score of The Shining: The man can make a glissando and a few well-timed drumbeats freeze the blood.

Both Sean and I were exhausted (I always forget how busy the week before vacation can be), so we didn’t stick around past intermission for Beethoven’s fifth symphony (god knows there will be other opportunities), but the Penderecki was worth hanging around Manhattan for a few extra hours after leaving work. It was exciting, it was different, and (ahem) it was very well performed.

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