A symphony orchestra on tour is a contradiction in terms: An orchestra’s distinction comes from the interplay of performance quality and the acoustics of its own hall. This did not, of course, deter a capacity crowd at UCLA’s Royce Hall from rubbing its collective ears in wonderment as the touring New York Philharmonic — in town for the first time since 1986 — assaulted the rafters in a delivery of audible pain and ecstasy in equal measure.
Any orchestra sounds good in Royce Hall, more vivid and aggressive than at the overlarge and acoustically woolly Music Center downtown. Even so, an orchestra that comes into town in the morning, wastes precious minutes (according to executive director Deborah Borda) trying to find the stage door, and gets no more than a quickie afternoon sound check to determine the particularities of a hall for that night’s concert — to calibrate the loudness of loud, for example — can’t be expected to offer anything like its at-home qualities.
Thrilling as some of the New Yorkers’ performance acrobatics may have been — best demonstrated, in fact, in the encore, a smidgen of Tchaikovsky’s String Serenade — the sound at Royce on Saturday night consisted mostly of huge blasts from a skillful brass section overpowering winds, strings, even percussion. The orchestra’s Avery Fisher Hall remains problematic (even after an endless series of remakes), but the orchestral balances there are better than they could ever be on tour.
The New York Philharmonic is the country’s oldest and best-known orchestra — and its most peculiar. Never endowed with the golden tone of, say, its Boston or Philadelphia competitors in their glory days, it has always been some kind of machine, superbly functional at various times in its leadership history, wheezy and leaky at others. Under conductor, Kurt Masur, the machine roars and purrs at Mach 4; since it did not do this under his predecessor Zubin Mehta, Masur appears to many to be some kind of savior and a finer interpretive musician than he actually is.
In an image-enhancing program consisting of two knockout Fifth symphonies, Masur’s Beethoven sounded merely correct, his Shostakovich full of grandiose noise but lacking in cumulative strength. Overall, the playing never shook itself loose from the “if it’s Saturday, this must be the Fifth Symphony in L.A.” routine — until, that is, the very end. Then, four of the Philharmonic’s brass players, way back against the upstage wall, took up a wing-ding version of the old ragtime standard “Good n’ Plenty,” with Masur beaming approval from the sidelines. Then, and only then, did handsome Royce Hall live up to its renown as a place for live music.