The New York Philharmonic blasted into town for two concerts this week as part of the San Francisco Symphony's Centennial Season programming, which includes a special series inviting the elite American Orchestras to perform music they've commissioned, as well as rep that best represents their strengths over two consecutive nights. Judging by these performances, the New Yorkers can boast of having no equals at at least three things (and Philly ain't gonna top this when they hit town next month, so it's a done deal):
  1. They're the best-dressed musicians in the country (especially the women). 
  2. They can play faster and louder than anyone else.
  3. Their brass section can kick your brass section's ass, no problem.
Ass-kickers extraordinaire
Starting off Sunday night with a boisterous, rowdy version of Dvorak's Carnival Overture, which served notice they came to play, the next piece was for me the main event of the entire visit- Yefim Bronfman as the soloist for Magnus Lindberg's Piano Concerto No. 2. The orchestra just premiered the new commission earlier this month and though its garnered some decidedly mixed reviews, I found it to be hugely entertaining in its back-and-forth pull between sounding like a lost Rachmaninoff concerto and the most sinister of 1950's sci-fi movie soundtracks. The Beast With a Million Fingers turned out to be Bronfman, who keeps upping the ante with every performance he's made here in the past few years, and if the material wasn't as brilliant as what he performed during his finger-busting recital in Berkeley last October, his playing exceeded even that incredible performance
Bronfman. Photo by Jennifer Taylor for the New York Times.
Fima- you amaze me. The orchestra kept up with him as he plowed, pulled and pulverized his way through Lindberg's almost maniacally dense score, at times the two were so interwoven it was difficult to distinguish who was following whom in a most thrilling way, especially when the piece hit the periphery of jazz.
Conductor Alan Gilbert began Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony with a loud urgency and never let up, taking the warhorse on an unusually high-spirited gallop (hey, Tchaikovsky deserves that groaner). It became apparent pretty early on that this brass section is really something special, especially in the Andantino of the second movement, where they created a burnished warmth as unique as it was inviting. It also became apparent that Principal Timpani Markus Rhoten is one of the best there is, his playing is full of incredible nuance. The Tchaik 4 turned out to be a canny choice, because it gave the principals of every section a chance to shine in a big way, and each rose to the occasion, with special notice due Mindy Kaufman on piccolo, Robert Langevin on flute, and Mark Nuccio's clarinet. The finale contained the most astonishingly loud brass playing I've ever heard and the audience ate it up with a tremendous ovation. I only wish I could hear this section perform some Wagner instead. An encore of Bernstein's "Lonely Town" was a classy way to end the show.
The first night raised my expectations for the second, because what was on the program didn't seem nearly as enticing. It began promisingly, and just as energetically as the first, with Berlioz's Le Corsaire taken at a breakneck pace that was as much fun to watch being played as it was to hear. Unfortunately after that it took a very long time for the night to regain the excitement of that opener. 
Concertmaster Glenn Dicterow, a fine musician, brought what he could to Bartok's First Violin Concerto, but there's a good reason it's a rarity- it's boring, and all of Dicterow's lyricism and nuance couldn't breathe much life into it. It wasn't that much better after the intermission with Debussy's La Mer, which Gilbert led with a light fluidity that became so delicate the impressionistic piece ultimately didn't leave much of one, it's twenty-five odd minute length soon seemed like an overlong series of ripples.
However, the night ended with a bang as Gilbert almost literally wrestled every last bit of oomph out of Ravel's La Valse. I can't understand why many classical music enthusiasts see Ravel as a second-rate composer- for my money he's on par with Berlioz in the top tier of French composers.  For an encore they performed Charbrier's "España," and then Gilbert let the brass take center stage for a gumbo blast medley of dixieland/New Orleans/Creole to close it out that had many in the audience shakin' it.

I'm going to skip the upcoming Philly visit because I'm not a fan of Dutoit. So having heard all the visitors I'm going to hear, I have to say that while New York sounds about as good as an orchestra possibly can, and has myriad strengths, aside from that killer brass section they lack a distinct identity that makes one say "Yeah, that's gotta be New York." If it were a contest, I'd have to say Boston took the series, with Cleveland coming in second.