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Friday, June 29, 2012

Concert Review: Tribute to an Enigma

The Philharmonic pays homage to Henri Dutilleux.
by Paul Pelkonen
Yo-Yo Ma. Photo by Chris Lee © 2012 New York Philharmonic
On Tuesday night, the New York Philharmonic presented a special one-off concert celebrating the music of Henri Dutilleux, the 96-year old French composer who is the first ever recipient of the Marie-Josée Prize for New Music. As an added attraction, the concert featured an appearance by international cello star Yo-Yo Ma.

In a compositional career spanning six decades, Mr. Dutilleux's output has been sparse. There are two symphonies, a couple of concertos, some piano music, and Métaboles, a set of five etudes for orchestra that feature the different sections of a full symphonic ensemble. Although this composer's works eschew atonality for a musical aesthetic all their own, Mr. Dutilleux remains an under-played enigma among important modern composers.

That enigmatic quality might come from the fearsome technical difficulty of Métaboles, the piece which opened ths program. New Yorkers last heard it (led by Mr. Gilbert) in 2010). This music is like mercury: quick-moving and constantly changing shape. Each section focuses on a different section of the orchestra, exploring the composer's concept of "interior evolution" betwen the inter-connected movements.

Henri Dutilleux.
This work places heavy demands on the players and an audience that seemed largely there to hear Yo-Yo Ma. Listeners were not sure what to make of the complicated, spiky writing for woodwinds in the opening movement, nor the turning, ever-evolving lines played by the strings. The percussion were also featured, with complex figures for a vast battery of instruments evoking the Asiatic ideas of Olivier Messiaen.

In the final section of Métaboles, it was the task of Alan Gilbert to bring all these sections together in a coherent way, finding the groove between the steep hills and valleys of sound. He brought the work to a powerful conclusion.

This seemed to leave the audience stunned. They were applauding, but only politely. When the conductor came out for his second bow, he held his hand up to his ear, indicating that the praise for such a difficult performance should be much louder. And it was.

The orchestra then cleared the stage for the Míro String Quartet, performing Ainsi la Nuit, a seven-sectioned chamber work. Playing in front of a newly erected acoustic panel, the Quartet's skill made the four chamber musicians sound like a vast orchestra, as if horns, winds and percussion were playing silently in the work's rests.

Like Métaboles, this piece consists of interconnected sections played without pause. The quartet players dueled fiercely with Dutilleux's challenging turns of phrase, conquering difficult solo runs and working together to make a huge sound come from just four instruments.

The Míro players achieved a stunning effect in the final movement, Temps suspendu. Driving towards its climax, they appeared to slow down as they played even faster, creating the "suspended time" effect that the composer sought. This was an inspiring performance, and if you looked up, you'd've seen Mr. Gilbert and principal players of the Philharmonic watching attentively from a box in the second tier.

The orchestra came back downstairs for Tout un monde lointain..., a cello concerto that the composer correlated with the poetry of Charles Baudelaire. To emphasize that connection (and to give the audience guide-posts through the five continuous movements) Mr. Gilbert invited Marie Josée to appear on stage and recite the lines from Baudelaire that Mr. Dutilleux had inserted into the score.

Poetic quotations aside, Mr. Ma's performance in this athletic concerto was impressive indeed, drawing multiple voices from his cello and weaving in and out of the complicated orchestral flow. At one point, he and Mr. Gilbert brought the music to an ecstatic height, only to drop down again and begin the long climb that marks the start of the fifth movement.
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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.