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Sunday, October 12, 2014

Concert Review: Meet the Residents

Christopher Rouse and Lisa Biatashvili at the New York Philharmonic. 
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Lisa Batiashvili and friend.
Photo courtesy the Berlin Philharmonic.
The residency program, an announced affiliation with an artist or composer is a key component of schedule-building for large orchestras. At the New York Philharmonic, resources are deep enough to allow the orchestra to have both an artist-in residence (this year, violionist Lisa Batiashvili) and a composer-in-residence (for the past three years, Christopher Rouse). This week's program, heard on Saturday night at Avery Fisher Hall allowed listeners to experience both.



The concert began with Thunderstuck, a new work by Mr. Rouse in its first performances. This ten-minute "curtain-raiser" pays tribute to the classic rock of the 1960s and '70s, with thick textures of brass and a hugely complicated arrangement for strings and percussion. The perpetual presence of a drum kit and the chordal writing for wind and brass shifted repeatedly in direction, suggesting (at different times) the early progressive albums of the horn-driven rock band Chicago and the James Bond scores of John Barry.


Under the baton of Alan Gilbert (who mercifully did not pick up the microphone to address the audience this week) Thunderstuck veered in and out of the drummer's groove, with unexpected solos for orchestra bells and glockenspiel, and soft modal sections that reminded one of Miles Davis' Kind of Blue--specifically the first bars of "So What." The work was brief, jazzy and unexpectedly genial, a welcome surprise from a composer known for burly compositions that sometimes test the patience of his audience.

Mr. Gilbert and his players then jumped 200+ years back in time for Franz Josef Haydn's Drumroll Symphony. Number 103 in his vast output, this the second-to-last of the twelve works Haydn composed for the London impresario Johann Peter Salomon. Like Thunderstuck, this work opens with percussion, in this case a deep roll on the timpani that serves as the start of the slow introduction. This was played with solemn majesty by the Philharmonic forces before the first movement careened into its fast middle section.

The Brahms Violin Concerto part of the standard repertory of any virtuoso soloist, offering far more than an opportunity for flash and bravura display. Its three movements are a compelling journey through the composer’s process of integrating the complex solo part with (and occasionally against) the orchestra. 

For Lisa Batiashvili, this piece holds no terrors. Indeed, she played with hearty, song-like tone, biting cleanly into the cadenzas of the massive first movement and smoothly moving in and put of the orchestra’s lane of traffic. The pace was kept steady (and perhaps a touch too slow) by Mr. Gilbert. Orchestra and soloist played with warmth and rich, textured tone, but the kinetic energy and drive of this massive formal construction simply did not materialize.

Slow tempos also bedeviled the central movement. Mr. Gilbert clearly reveled in the small pleasures of the movement, and Ms. Batiashvili responded with song-like lines, but the overall result was a feeling of lassitude. The finale, with Ms. Batiashvili’s bow leading the charge, was an improvement, though the overall performance would have benefited from a more fiery approach.

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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.