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Thursday, April 18, 2013

Concert Review: In the Shadow of Death

The New York Philharmonic premieres Prospero’s Rooms.
by Ellen Fishbein
Alan Gilbert leads the New York Philharmonic.
Photo by Chris Lee © 2013 The New York Philharmonic
Alan Gilbert began Wednesday night's New York Philharmonic concert with a program change.

"The New York Philharmonic and I were discussing dedicating a piece to Sir Colin Davis. Then, we heard about the senseless massacre in Boston." The evening began with Nimrod from Elgar's Enigma Variations. The short work was dedicated to both the late conductor and to the victims of the bombing at the Boston Marathon. Mr. Gilbert held a reverent moment of silence at the end, as the impact of these events was felt, not heard.

That moment of silence created an appropriate solemnity for the next piece: the world premiere of New York Philharmonic composer-in-residence Christopher Rouse's Prospero's Rooms. The inspiration for this work comes not from Shakespeare's The Tempest but from Edgar Allen Poe's classic short story The Masque of the Red Death.

In Poe's story, Prince Prospero attempts to spare his friends and courtiers from a plague (the titular Red Death) by holding a six-month bacchanal at his palace. No one is allowed to wear red. Nonetheless, a mysterious red-cloaked figure appears, killing all those within the castle. The story progresses through six monochromatic chambers (blue, purple, green, orange, white and violet). The last is the killing ground: black-walled, with blood-red windows.

Given this choice of source material, a listener might expect this work to be a series of cleverly interwoven but monochromatic musical gestures. But Prospero's Rooms is much more. Woodwinds sparkle over majestic strings. Moving, neo-Romantic figures cling to the ear. The progression through the rooms is more than just a musical setting of the attendanthues: Rouse depicts the guests’ gossip and jollity as well as their fear.

Throughout the piece, Poe’s symbolic clock tolls, perhaps the only predictable aspect of Mr. Rouse's score. At the end, when a momentary silence introduces what must be the last room, the composer springs his final surprise: a furious, syncopated body interacting with an ethereal upper register. The climax is explosive (but coherent), creating an ending that is at once repellent and attractive in its hostile beauty.

Next, Mr. Gilbert welcomed violinist Joshua Bell to the stage for Leonard Bernstein's Serenade (after Plato's Symposium). The first two movements featured Mr. Bell's angelic, unpretentious legato. Mr. Bell mastered the humor and vivacity of the following Presto, smiling as he played with a relaxed approach that seemed almost improvisatory.  The last movement, (based on the speeches of Socrates and his drunken admirer) was a pleasure. The spirit of the Greek philosophers was apparent in the warm collegial bond established between player, orchestra and conductor.

If anyone can make Charles Ives' Fourth Symphony sound carefree, it is Mr. Gilbert. The conductor worked with an ease that seemed contagious. He drew a laugh from the audience when he came to the abrupt end of the Allegretto as if he planned to stop and start again. The complexity of Ives' writing for huge orchesta (and two conductors) fazed neither Mr. Gilbert nor assistant conductor Case Scaglione. Mr. Scaglione's purposeful podium style presented a visually striking contrast to Mr. Gilbert's. The final, unearthly Largo featured the New York Choral Consortium (making their Philharmonic debut) and ended an evening that proved emotionally and intellectually satisfying.

Ellen Fishbein studies economics at Fordham University and loves opera, orchestral music, and entrepreneurial ventures. She runs Precision Editing NJ, a new agency working to help small businesses stand out.

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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.