The Westsider, New York City
August 3-9, 1995
Gisèle Ben-Dor Earns Accolades as a Conductor Totally in Charge
Last week an abbreviated Mostly Mozart festival and the 31st season of free summer concerts by the New York Philharmonic in the city's parks opened on the same night. This reporter opted for the Philharmonic, not only because Mostly Mozart on this occasion was mostly familiar (including today's most overexposed pianist, Alicia de Larrocha), but also because America's oldest orchestra was being conducted for the first scheduled time by Gisèle Ben-Dor, a young lady who created quite a stir two years ago when she made an unscheduled and unrehearsed debut as a last-minute replacement for the ailing Kurt Masur.
Ben-Dor's formidable curriculum vitae was included in Joan Lindstrom's extensive article on her which appeared in the July 20 issue, and I urge you to read it. At any rate, she more than lived up to her credentials as well as the hoopla preceding her. Like Masur I was under the weather for her debut so her July 25 concert was a first for me, and a mightily impressive first at that.
The Philharmonic program, on paper, could have been dismissed as a typical summer pops concert, and indeed the music was basically Muzak for the out-of-doors set. But Ben-Dor obviously didn't hear this program like that. Everything she did made the pieces sound as fresh and exciting as when we first encountered them. Right from the opening ebullient measures of the three dances from "On the Town" by her onetime mentor Leonard Bernstein, we recognized a musician totally in charge of every page and every player.
Ben-Dor exudes charismatic authority that can only come from total preparedness and a deeply abiding love for each score. At the risk of seeming chauvinistic, I must note that unlike most female conductors, whose arms too often beat up and down the same way, her hands work independently of each other, dividing beat, expression and cues evenly. She therefore leaves absolutely no doubt as to what she wants, and what she wanted from the orchestra is what she got.
Suffice it to say I've never heard a more winning performance of Mendelssohn's "Italian" Symphony - pulsating yet full of resilient grace and flexibility. Too bad Ben-Dor didn't elect to play the entire "Three Cornered Hat" ballet of Manuel De Falla, since the second suite of three dances performed was of true 12-year-old Fundador vintage. Not even Fernando Arbos' legendary recording had more appeal.
A Quibble of Choice
One could quibble over Ben-Dor's choice of what to play as the concluding Suite from Richard Strauss' "Der Rosenkavalier." Supposedly the one heard July 25 had the imprimatur of the composer, but so far no one has owned up to concocting this clumsy, disjointed potpourri. Why the much better suite arranged by Antal Dorati (which most definitely met with Strauss' approval) is hardly ever played is truly baffling. Be that as it may, Ben-Dor, through her perfect control of rubato, instrumental balance and color, made such a gorgeous silk purse out of this sow's ear, it became manifest that she should conduct the entire opera as soon as possible.
As is customary at these summer events, various city dignitaries were on hand to make welcoming speeches and, in the case of Mayor Giuliani, stay for at least half the concert. The usual Grucci fireworks went off at the conclusion, but they weren't any more impressive than the fireworks that exuded from the Carlos Moseley Pavilion Stage that night.