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Saturday, February 7, 2015

Concert Review: Once the Hammer Dropped

David Zinman conducts the New York Philharmonic.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
New York Philharmonic Artist in Residence Lisa Batiashvili.
Photo by Chris Lee © 2015 The New York Philharmonic.
It began with the blow of a hammer.

"It," in this case was Thursday night's New York Philharmonic concert at Avery Fisher Hall, the first of three this week. The hammer-blow marked the start of the first work on the program: Iscariot, a 13-minute tone poem by outgoing composer-in-residence Christopher Rouse, a 1989 work that was receiving its first Philharmonic performance. David Zinman was this week's guest conductor, in a program that also featured 20th century compositions by Samuel Barber and Sergei Rachmaninoff.

The hammer-blow, struck with a mighty wooden mallet by percussionist Daniel Druckman (and augmented by a bass drum struck at the same time) shook the audience. The brutal, explosive sound gave way to strings, cued by Mr. Zinman as he launched the first of the nine strophic sections that make up this work. This first segment proved to be soothing after the sonic attack, a shifting, chromatic carpet of sound that changed colors and moved at a slow, stately pace.


According to Mr. Rouse, Iscariot (written in 1989) is despite its New Testament-inspired title, not a religious work per se. However, the music is heavily ritualized, switching off between the string figurations and a series of rising wind figures. Divided into nine segments, each is announced with percussion: the hammer, the bass drum, the snare, a suspended cymbal. These announcements added to the ritualized feeling, augmented by Mr. Zinman's uniformly slow, solemn tempo. The work ended with one last blow of the hammer, leaving some of the audience too stunned to applaud.

However, they found their hands again for the next work: the Violin Concerto of composer Samuel Barber with guest violinist (and this season's artist-in-residence) Lisa Batiashvili .  This is a lyric and yet fearlessly modern 20th century work from a composer remembered chiefly for the Adagio for Strings, and Ms. Batiashvili was an excellent advocate for it. 

Ms. Batiashvili played with a tone and attack that was as bright as her concert sheath, which was a particularly violent shade of orange. Guided by Mr. Zinman, the complex orchestral accompaniment was dense and clustered under the solo line, supporting the violin and occasionally bursting into its own flights of lyricism. In the slow movement, she was supported by intricate detail from the woodwinds and supporting violins, rounded out at the lower end by the cellos. The fast finale was an exercise in pure virtuosity for this soloist, supported by Mr. Zinman and the orchestra playing with clarity and drive.

The Symphony No. 2 in E Minor remains the most popular and most frequently programmed of Rachmaninoff's three symphonies, although it is not as frequently as his works for piano and orchestra. It is a massive work, conceived on a grand Romantic scale. Mr. Zinman created a swelling, dark-toned crescendo in the slow opening, expanding the thematic material (as often with Rachmaninoff, based on Russian Orthodox church music) before launching into the proper Sonata Allegro that carries the movement to its logical close. The dance movement followed, a tripartite structure that ignores the rules of a traditional scherzo. Here, Mr. Zinman was free with his rhythm, adding rubato to notes and indulging in odd rests and pauses, sometimes in the middle of a phrase.

The emotional payoff of this work is in its famous slow movement, with one of Rachmaninoff's loveliest tunes being passed around the orchestra before being sung in a grand chorale. There were strong contributions here from the principal horn and clarinet. The conductor leaped right into the finale, a traditional sonata form at last. This last movement is expansive and ambitious enough to be its own symphony, with Rachmaninoff contrasting ideas from what came before with his own final sonata theme. This roof-raising finale was complesx yet engaging, played with muscle and grace by the vast orchestral force.
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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.