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Saturday, June 11, 2016

Concert Review: With a Slide and a Clatter

Two concertos debut at the NY Phil Biennial.
by Paul J. Pelkonen

Percussionist Martin Grubinger was the featured soloist
in John Corigliano's percussion concerto Conjurer. 
The NYPhil Biennial, that exuberant, multi-borough celebration of modern music by America’s oldest orchestra entered its home stretch on Friday night, with the first of two orchestral concerts at David Geffen Hall. And yet, the orchestra’s Lincoln Center home was sparsely seated on this pleasant summer night, with the fire of enthusiasm that marked the 2014 edition strangely muted. Audience members were confined to the orchestra level seats and their ranks swelled by a visiting conference of trombone enthusiasts.

The audience of. new music lovers, press people and the aforementioned posse of trombonists were well rewarded by the first work on this program, a Concerto for Trombone and Orchestra by William Bolcom. Mr. Bolcom, who took the stage with music director Alan Gilbert for a brief and entertaining Q and A, has become a dean among American composers, creating a long run of compelling orchestral works as well as operas like A View From the Bridge. 

His Trombone Concerto was cast in the traditional three movements, offering a look at the instrument’s long history. The opening, marked Quasi una Fantasia, hearkened back to the trombone’s not-so-humble origin as the sackbut, a slide instrument whose solemn tone was reserved for church music. As the movement rolled forward, soloist Joseph Alessi alternated mute and open bell to create a vast palette of textures. Eventually the movement surged to a climax evoking the rich brass writing of Wagner and Strauss, finishing with a flourish.

This cleared the table for Blues, a movement that explored the soulful, mournful quality of the trombone and the skill of Mr. Alessi in imitating the human voice. The final movement was playful, a fast, whirling caper that was unexpectedly light and light-hearted in tone. Mr. Alessi slid smoothly through Mr. Bolcom's considerable technical demands, finishing this exciting concerto with a brilliant display of his ability.

The second half of this short concert featured the music of John Corigliano, another American composer known for his operas--in his case the seminal Beaumarchais update The Ghosts of Versailles. Mr. Corigliano also shared the stage with Mr. Gilbert, relating the back-story of Conjurer, his Concerto for Percussion, Strings and Brass. The composer was also frank regarding his reluctance to engage in creating the work until offered a sizable commission from the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.

For this performance, a vast battery of instruments was arranged across the lip of the stage. The movements were labeled Wood, Metal and Skin, indicating the kids of sins trumpets used in each. Soloist Martin Grubinger moved from stage right to left, playing xylophone, marimba and log drums in the first movement, metal instruments like the tam-tam, orchestra bells and vibraphone in the second, and finishing on a talking drum, gran casa and timpani. 

Each movement opened with a cadenza, allowing Mr.  Grubinger To strut his stuff on the xylophone, the simultaneously struck bells and gong (much tothe discomfort of the nearby. Seated cellists) and the talking drum, played in concert with a small kick drum mounted the lip of the stage. And yet, mr. Corigliano’s work seemed to diminish in inspiration as it progressed, transitioning from entertaining if  showy virtuosity to an empty and vulgar display on the timpani. When you’ve heard one drum solo, you've heard them all.
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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.