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Monday, June 9, 2014

Concert Review: With a Bang, Then a Whisper

The first-ever NY PHIL BIENNIAL ends.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Alan Gilbert (inset) and the New York Philharmonic ended the first-ever
NY PHIL BIENNIAL on Saturday night.
Inset photo by Chris Lee. Owl image © 2014 The New York Philharmonic.
The first ever NY PHIL BIENNAL ended Saturday night with the last of three consecutive concerts by the New York Philharmonic at Avery Fisher Hall. Saturday's concert was led by music director Alan Gilbert, who took the stage with microphone in hand to announce the end of the festival and to thank his orchestra musicians for learning all these new pieces and playing them at a high level.

Mr. Gilbert also spoke of the American Composers Orchestra's EarShot program, which offered young composers the chance to get their works heard as interpreted by the Philharmonic. He revealed that of six EarShot finalists, three works were picked to be played in these concerts. And the program started with the last of these: Bismuth by Max Grafe.

Subtitled Variations for Orchestra, this proved to be a set of six variations on a theme consisting of a cluster of tones and a blast of percussive energy. The first three variations gradually slowed the pace, culminating in a central Arioso with hints of Wagner's famous chromatic Tristan chord. The process then moved in mirror image, with the final three variations increasing in speed, volume and orchestral power until the opening sound-cluster re-asserted itself.

Next, the orchestra was thinned out and joined by the violinist Midori for the second Philharmonic performance of Hungarian composer Peter Eötvös' 2012 Violin Concerto No. 2, better known by the colorful title DoReMi. The work started with three percussionists playing quietly as Midori made whisper-soft, tiny melodic cries come from her instrument. These sparse materials proved to be the seeds of what would come, vine-like, creeping growths built around the first three notes of the C major scale.

Simple ideas led to complicated ones as the concerto moved through its three contiguous movements. The violin solo served as a kind of narrator, deke-ing and diving with the percussion, strings and woodwinds. A prominent part for violist Rebecca Young allowed the Philharmonic principal player to hold her own with Midori, but the complexity of Mr. Eötvös' music forced all of the musicians onstage to execute at a high level.

The concert concluded with the second Philharmonic performance of the Fourth Symphony by composer-in-residence Christopher Rouse. This was a mysterious, two-movement work with a compact inscrutability that recalled the late orchestral works of Jean Sibelius. The first movement (marked Felice) wove complex interlocking melodic lines among the woodwinds, strings and tuned percussion, creating a lively and energetic movement that surprised the assembled audience.

In the second, pulsing basses, deep woodwinds (contrabassoon and contrabass clarinet) and the throaty roar of the tuba opened a low-frequency dirge, dark and droning.. The music was slow but had an inexorable power, rolling majestically on a wave of sound. Throughout, Mr. Rouse inserted quotes (a friend spotted Bartók, I noticed the beginning of Wagner's Magic Fire Music), mysterious allusions to a phantom programmatic meaning. The work ended with a whispered, funereal thud on the bass-drum, a powerful conclusion to a major new symphony.
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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.