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Need a Gala? Tchaikovsky Is a Go-To Guy
Steve Smith | The New York Times | 2 January 2011

For much of the music world the new year arrives to the opulent sounds of Johann Strauss, whose perfectly formed Viennese dance elaborations fuse nostalgia with a vibrancy and optimism suited to forging ahead. You could search long and hard without finding music better suited to the occasion; for proof look to the New York Philharmonic, where a restless shuffling of the New Year's Eve playlist in recent seasons has offered its share of hits and misses but still hasn't yielded a better alternative.

Granted, this probably mattered not at all to concertgoers at Avery Fisher Hall on Friday night or to the much larger audience that tuned in for a live telecast on PBS. Here the equation for success was simple: Lang Lang, the Chinese piano superstar, and "Auld Lang Syne," the inevitable sing-along encore, equaled a full house.

With those elements in place, the orchestra and its music director, Alan Gilbert, probably could have performed pretty much anything. What they offered was a program of staple works by Tchaikovsky: the Polonaise from the opera "Eugene Onegin"; the Piano Concerto No. 1, a specialty of Mr. Lang's; and the complete Act II from the ballet "The Nutcracker."

If that last selection made the event seem better suited to Christmas than to New Year's Eve, complaining seemed petty in the face of playing so robust, accomplished and stylish. From the opening bars of the Polonaise you were confronted with the Philharmonic that Mr. Gilbert has worked toward since his start: a brilliant organization in which individual virtuosity and ensemble unanimity are a given, resulting in music enlivened without need for excess or distortion.

At first it seemed as if Mr. Gilbert's philosophy had rubbed off on Mr. Lang, whose excitable calisthenics have overshadowed his undeniable intelligence and skill. The grandiose opening of the Tchaikovsky concerto is ripe for overemphatic clangor; instead Mr. Lang played with an almost prim decorum and restraint. But you knew it couldn't last. By the first of several unaccompanied spots in the movement Mr. Lang was dramatizing notes stabbed by his right hand with left-hand fist pumps. Gentler passages were adorned with fluttering gestures more suited for teaching a butterfly how to land on a petal.

Such mannerisms could be forgiven so long as the music didn't suffer; mostly it didn't, though Mr. Lang's Gatling-gun octaves verged on overkill. (The audience's roar at the end of the movement indicated that this was a minority view.)

"Because I can," Mr. Lang's playing said during the second movement's brisk Prestissimo, and you had to agree: he could. However you felt about what came before, you were swept up in the finale's exultant brio.

The concert's second half brought some of Tchaikovsky's most familiar and beloved creations. And no matter how often you might have heard "The Nutcracker" before, even recently, you could marvel anew at Tchaikovsky's ingenious orchestration and generous heart in a lithe, vibrant account that never threatened to grow cloying.