Combining Forces to Revive the Soul of New Orleans

Posted on October 29th, 2005 in Review | Tags: benefit, katrina, new orleans, new york philharmonic, new york times, quartet

Music is the soul of society, the heart of culture. So, at least, it was variously pronounced by the likes of Itzhak Perlman and Beverly Sills in the course of an evening devoted to bringing it back. “Bringing Back the Music” was the title of the New York Philharmonic’s joint benefit concert with and for the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra on Friday night at Avery Fisher Hall. New Orleans, of course, was the intended destination of this particular return: orchestral music in other American cities will have to continue to fend for itself.

If more concerts were like Friday’s, orchestras might not be perceived as struggling in any city. It was notable, in fact, that an event planned on such short notice — in around four weeks — succeeded so well in its conception and presentation. This all-American program reflected a kind of thoughtfulness that is not always so evident in concerts planned with longer lead time.

Many of the selections and the performers had special relevance to the city of New Orleans. Randy Newman, whose mother was from New Orleans, offered a particularly touching set, including the apt “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today,” achingly sung by Audra McDonald. Leonard Slatkin, who was music adviser to the New Orleans Philharmonic (as it was then known) in the late 1970’s, conducted the end of Aaron Copland’s third symphony; and Wynton Marsalis, the city’s famous musical son, offered a set with a quartet of other jazz musicians.

The speed with which this was drawn together may have created a sense of spontaneity that made it livelier than the average orchestra concert. Another contributing factor, clear from the performers mentioned above, was the fact that what was offered wasn’t all orchestral music. This was appropriate — New Orleans’s musical soul is not solely in the classical tradition — and also got the juices flowing in the audience. Classical music may have drawn them together, but while the response to excerpts from the Barber Violin Concerto (with Mr. Perlman) or Copland’s “Tender Land” Suite was warm, the reception for Mr. Marsalis, Mr. Newman and Ms. McDonald was ecstatic. This kind of energy is what classical music really needs, perhaps even more than the $300,000 that had already been raised to help the Louisiana Philharmonic by the beginning of the concert.

To open the evening, the combined orchestras, 150 musicians strong, unleashed upon the evening a sonic gumbo bearing the approximate form of George Gershwin’s “Cuban Overture,” stirred by Lorin Maazel, newly arrived from Japan, and looking and sounding a little tired. But there was no trace of lag, jet or otherwise, in John Adams’s “Short Ride in a Fast Machine,” with which James Conlon opened the second half. The fourth conductor of the evening was Carlos Miguel Prieto, the Louisiana orchestra’s music director designate, beaming from ear to ear and sounding serious, even overawed.

All well and good. But the orchestral offerings sounded almost sluggish in comparison with the musical heart of the evening: Mr. Newman, with a hoarse but moving delivery, and even more Ms. McDonald, who in everything from Bernstein’s “Somewhere” to a sassy rendition of Arlen and Harburg’s “Ain’t It the Truth” showed the meaning of stylistic idioms, musical virtuosity and, most important, meaningful communication.

Bringing Back the Music Avery Fisher Hall

by Anne Midgette
Source: New York Times

Wynton playing at Avery Fisher Hall
Wynton playing at Avery Fisher Hall (copyright: AP photo/Tina Fineberg)

Wynton playing at Avery Fisher Hall
Wynton playing at Avery Fisher Hall (copyright: Hiroyuki Ito/New York Times)