On Saturday night, I headed to Carnegie Hall to see Trey Anastasio, lead singer and guitarist of Phish, perform with the New York Philharmonic. But that—more on that later—was a sort of a tangent to the orchestra’s main event, which occurs four nights later. The Philharmonic’s opening-night gala will be on September 16, when they play for the first time with Alan Gilbert officially at the helm as music director—a starry affair with Renee Fleming, who will sing Messiaen’s Poèmes pour Mì. on a concert that also includes a EXPO, a premiere by composer-in-residence Magnus Lindberg, and Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique.
It’s customary for orchestras to welcome new music directors with a fair amount of hoopla. Gilbert is no exception, and it doesn’t hurt that he’s young and doesn’t mind digging into the full spectrum of duties required by the modern-day music director of a symphony orchestra. Gilbert also has an especially strong connection to the Philharmonic; he grew up in the city, and his parents have both been violinists in the orchestra (his father retired in 2001, and his mother, Yoko Takebe, still plays in the Phil). The orchestra’s first international tour under Gilbert will be to Asia this October—a nice connection for Gilbert, since his mother is Japanese.
Wednesday night at the Philharmonic will be the kind of event that’s impossible to avoid if you have even the slightest interest in the arts. A certain number of exalted New Yorkers will attend the concert in person, of course, but you’ll also be able to watch it on TV on Live from Lincoln Center, and which will be simulcast on the soon-to-be-late-lamented WXQR radio (whose programming will move to WNYC at FM 105.9 on October 8, the same day the Philharmonic departs for Asia). For those that miss the Wednesday the 16th broadcast, this concert will also air for SundayArts September 20th at noon. In what is seemingly becoming de rigueur, at least in the warmer months, the Philharmonic’s opening night will also be broadcast live onto plaza in front of Fisher Hall. And, as in previous years, you can wait in line Wednesday morning in front of Avery Fisher Hall, for free tickets to the orchestra’s 9:45 a.m. rehearsal for that night’s concert.
Now, back to Trey Anastasio and the Philharmonic, which on Saturday was led by guest conductor Asher Fisch. You may have seen last week’s New York magazine, in which Rebecca Milzoff spoke to Anastasio about his upcoming Carnegie concert. The headline was “Trey Anastasio trades jam-band superstardom for the New York Philharmonic”; Milzoff pointed out in the article that Anastasio understood that whatever fame he has gotten from his band might not count for much with a typical Philharmonic audience. Actually, I don’t think he had to worry too much about that on Saturday. The minute Anastasio came onstage, the hall erupted in a group yelp. There were isolated shouts like “We love you, Trey!” When the concertmaster made her separate entrance to tune the orchestra, someone gave a loud “YOW!” as she bowed, and she looked quizzically into the balcony. There were actually groups of men who had come to the concert together, mostly in their twenties and thirties, something I have not seen at any orchestra concert that I can recall. (The line for the men’s room was LONGER than the line for the women’s room.) I sat next to a guy who drank bottled water and ate cashews throughout the concert, bobbing his head to the music and checking his cell phone periodically for messages. This is no way reflected him NOT enjoying the concert—on the contrary. He, and other members of the audience, clapped freely whenever the strain of a well-loved song began. They frequently stood up en masse at the end of songs. At intermission, people took photos of the hall with their phones; one man stared at Carnegie’s white-and-gold stage and balconies and said in hushed tones, “This place is CRAZY.” The guy in front of me said to his friend after one of the numbers, “I still don’t get what a conductor DOES. I’ve been watching him, and I swear, I don’t think he’s doing anything.” At intermission, people socialized in Carnegie’s side corridors, seemingly oblivious to the framed pages of scores by everyone from Antonin Dvorak and William Grant Still to Morton Gould and Ellen Taaffe Zwilich. I could be wrong, but my sense looking around was that there was just about no crossover from a typical New York Phil audience.
As for the two-hour concert itself—a performance of the full-length work Time Turns Elastic, plus eleven orchestrated songs—Trey Anastasio proved that he can combine classical and rock in a way that doesn’t totally ruin either one. (This is not analogous when Paul McCartney decided to write Liverpool Oratorio; it’s more like if McCartney decided to take the Sgt. Peppers album and have all of it orchestrated, with himself on vocals and guitar and the London Philharmonic as back-up band.) In any case, it was an unusual musical set-up—Anastasio standing in the usual soloist spot, with no sheet music, looking at the conductor for timing, sometimes going off on his own, soloist-style, closing his eyes or looking up at the ceiling. From my vantage point, if you watched Anastasio’s fingers on the guitar, and looked just behind him to the cello section, they were completely in sync. Some of the music—orchestrated mostly by Don Hart, and some by Anastasio—came off especially well, like an intricately layered bit for string quartet plus guitar, or a sort of hoe-down/Copland effect in “Guyute Orchestral.” Often the simplest songs worked best, like the opener, “First Tube,” with its melancholy minor-key melody that repeated over and over, giving lots of opportunity for development and variation. His guitar work is beyond impressive.
Trey Anastasio is not the only rock performer these days to be performing with and writing for classical orchestras. But he is possibly the best-known to be doing so, and I am interested in seeing what he comes up with next. I do think in any case that it is only a matter of time before amplified guitar becomes a much more common presence on stages of concert orchestras.
Photo of Alan Gilbert by Chris Lee