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Saturday, May 14, 2016

Concert Review: The North Remembers

John Storgårds debuts with the New York Philharmonic.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Flying Finn: The conductor John Storgårds takes aim.
Photo © 2016 by Heiki Tuuli.
Dec. 8, 2015 marked the 150th birthday of  Finnish composer Jean Sibelius. Since orchestral concert schedules do not always match up with the vagaries of the calendar, the New York Philharmonic has chosen the Spring of 2016 to celebrate the life and works of this important 20th century symphonist. This week, the celebration wrapped up with three performances of the composer's Symphony No. 2 along with an overture by Robert Schumann and a set of Wunderhorn songs by Gustav Mahler.

On Wednesday night, the podium of David Geffen Hall belonged to another Finn: the conductor and violinist John Storgårds in his Philharmonic debut.. He laid his cards out in the opening work, a bold interpretation of Schumann' Overture to the little-heard opera Genoveva. The orchestra responded enthusiastically, demonstrating how Schumann's singular achievement was a key support of the bridge between the styles of Mozart and Wagner: classical structure stretched and pushed by Romantic yearning, with the chromaticism of Tristan und Isolde on the not-too-distant horizon.

This season at the Philharmonic has featured bass-baritone Eric Owens as Artist-in-Residence, giving a series of concerts with the orchestra throughout the year. However, Mr. Owens withdrew from this week's concerts due to illness. Taking his place was mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung, the Princess Eboli to his King Philip in last year's Opera Philadelphia production of Don Carlo. The program was unchanged.

Mahler's book of songs based on The Boy's Magic Horn may be sung by a man or a woman. But most of the songs chosen here and presented in a curated order (presumably chosen by Mr. Owens) are military in nature and sung from a male perspective. It was fascinating to hear Ms. DeYoung's rich mezzo-soprano with its dark, contralto-like coloring push into the lower reaches for big moments, and a reflection on the fact that in this modern century, the military life is no longer exclusively a male provenance.

The set opened with "Revelge", one of last two Wunderhorn songs. Here, they offered a grim account of life in uniform, with stark orchestration and a sense of impending doom that would later show up in Mahler's Sixth Symphony. "Trost im Unglück" ("Solace in Misfortune") and the grim “Lied des Verfolgten im Turm”  captured the plight of a man about to be executed. A brief, false dawn was offered with "Des Antonius von Padua Fisch predigt," an account of St. Anthony's attempt to spread the Gospel to the fish in the oceans, before the final "Die Tambourg'sell" restored the oppressive army atmosphere.

The Symphony No. 2 in D Major is a watershed work, both for Sibelius as a creator of symphonies and for the Finnish people, who hearkened to its use of folk melodies and a woodwind theme that resembles the kantele, the plucked string instrument that is at the heart of Karelian folk music. In the first movement, that capering woodwind theme is juxtaposed with a shuddering theme in the low strings and a noble brass fanfare that hints at the work's triumphant conclusion.

Mr. Storgårds proved his abilities the tricky second movement, maintaining not just the correct note values but also the rests, their silence all-important in the music drama developing across the movement. Hints of Russian folk song (one passage of notes in the bass resembles the "Pimen" theme from Boris Godunove) mar the horizon before the work coheres in a Scherzo that draws from both folk music and Sibelius' own formidable powers of invention. The finale, eventually dominated by an upward-thrusting theme in the strings and a blaze of brass, brought the work to a glowing close.

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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.