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Saturday, January 8, 2011

Concert Review: From Revelations to Genesis

A projected image from In Seven Days. 
Image © 2008 by Tal Rosner and Thomas Ades
Friday night at the New York Philharmonic featured the third New York performance of In Seven Days, a 2008 concerto by British composer Thomas Ades. The composer played the solo piano part, against a background of digitally projected images evoking the creation of the world and the Book of Genesis.

Mr. Ades is one of the more popular composers to emerge in the past 20 years, a writer of well-received operas and orchestral works. With this concerto, he reaches back a century to the experimentation of Alexander Scriabin, the mysticism-obsessed Russian composer who pushed the orchestra and the piano in strange, new directions.

The piano part of this work is technically demanding, even more so because it does not have the bravura trilling or flashy excesses of a Rachmaninoff or Prokofiev concerto. Working both ends of the keyboard, Mr. Ades made his piano growl, squeal, and sing with a fearless application of considerable technique. With no cadenzas to speak of, the soloist takes the role of narrator, chronicling the creation of the world against a sophisticated orchestral background.

In Seven Days is presented as a "Concerto for Piano and Moving Image" so mention must be made of the wide-screen visuals playing behind the band. Again, this invites the Scriabin comparision: that composer pioneered the use of a "color organ" to project multi-hued light in concordance with various keys and tonalities. (This practice was a predecessor of modern rock concert lighting.) The images here, created by video artist Tal Rosner, consisted of computer-driven collages, where everyday objects animated and transformed to depict Mr. Ades' cosmic vision of creation.

This backdrop was provided under the expert leadership of Alan Gilbert. Whether it was minimalist string figures in the opening bars, the woodwinds' depiction of birds and beasts, or a gigantic fugal section that resounded with the wonders of the natural world, the orchestra never failed to impress. The work is curiously Mahlerian, and with its seven sections and epic sweep, one cannot help but think of that composer's Third Symphony. However, the whole of Mr. Ades' work is shorter than the Third's first movement.

The first half of the concert continued the Philharmonic's ongoing Mahler celebration with a moving reading of the Kindertotenlieder ("Songs on the Death of Children") sung by baritone Thomas Hampson. These five settings of poems by Friedrich Rückert are among the most powerful orchestral songs ever written. Mr. Hampson interpreted them with appropriate gravitas and his rich, baritone voice, darkened now since moving into singing Wagner. And yet, he found the humanity in each one of these sad little songs. The orchestral accompaniment (featuring the superlative horn playing of Philip Myers and the oboe of Liang Wang) stretched each of these personal tragedies to an epic scale.

The concert opened with a succinct performance of Mozart's G Minor Symphony, under the baton of Mr. Gilbert. The Philharmonic music director brought out the individual voices within the symphony, presenting hidden aspects of Mozart's music within the context of a very familiar work. Mr. Gilbert's transparent orchestral textures are to be admired, and his willingness to engage in interpretation of a repertory staple shows vision where one expects mere time-beating.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.