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Sunday, March 5, 2017

Concert Review: Ain't No Sunshine

Alan Gilbert takes on the Mahler Fourth.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
New York Philharmonic artist-in-residence Leonidas Kavakos played a new concerto by
Lera Auerback

In the online marketing materials for this week’s series of concerts at David Geffen Hall, featuring a new violin concerto by composer Lera Auerbach and Mahler’s Symphony No. 4 in G Major, the orchestra’s promotion department referred to the latter as Mahler's “sunniest” work. However, as Friday nights concert under the baton of music director Alan Gilbert showed, this concert offered very little in the way of solar illumination.


Ms. Auerbach’s Concerto No. 4 for Violin and Orchestra is a 2016 Philharmonic commission, bearing the NYx: Fractured Dreams. This refers both to her adopted hometown and the Greek goddess Nyx, who watches over the nighttime. The solo part was played by Leonidas Kavakos, the violinist who is this year’s artist in residence with the Philharmonic. In constructing her concerto, Ms. Auerbach eschewed the traditional three movement form in favor of 13 contiguous sections, each marked Sogno, or "dream." These were shards of musical ideas that peer at the listener through a gauzy fabric of exotic instruments and unusual orchestral effects. 

The work opened with a brilliant cadenza, establishing Mr. Kavakos’ instrument as a Proust-like narrator who would go to bed early only to find himself trapped in a labyrinth of waking dreams, some of them sweet and nostalgic, others angry and troubled. Along the journey, Mr. Kavakos and his instrument were met by other wandering voices. Prominent among these was a musical saw, that humble and ordinary carpentry instrument played with a violin bow. Its flexible metal edge sounded remarkably like a poor man’s ondes Martenot. 

Also notable was the use of the timpani, played by Markus Rhoten. Mr. Rhoten was instructed to apply pressure to his tuning pedal while the notes were being struck, creating an otherworldly percussive effect. Orchestral chimes and bells were also employed to ring the changes of a sleepless night. Throughout, the solo violin meandered, trying door after door in hope of finding the portal that would lead to blissful sleep. Dawn came at last in a brilliant final Allegro furioso, with the violin rising, weary but in no way rested.

Mahler’s Fourth is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Its use of G Major and recurring sleigh-bell theme suggest a child-like, optimistic outlook. However, this symphony is one many farewells to earthly existence. Indeed, its famous sung fourth movement, a setting of the song Das himmlische leben ("The Heavenly Life") originated as a planned seventh movement for his enormous Third. Instead of supplying the heavenly capstone to that cosmic work, this song here provides a headstone, a memento mori for children taken years before their time.

Mr. Gilbert led a contradictory performance, taut in its observance of the first movement’s many tempo shifts but loose in its use of rhythm and rubato. Driven by the sleigh-bells and the recurrence of that rhythm in strings, oboe and horns, the first movement ambled forward, its six subjective themes introducing themselves before engaging in lively musical debate. At its apogee, the trumpets sounded a rat-a-tat funeral rhythm: the opening of the still unwritten Mahler Fifth, before retuning to games and gambols 'round the bright tonality.

The second movement is darker stuff, a dance based on the folkloric figure of Freund Heine, a  kind of demonic fiddler. Concertmaster Frank Huang played this important part, soloing with a special instrument tuned a step above the rest of the ensemble. Mr. Gilbert took the Adagio movement at a tortoise-like pace, holding the orchestra in almost frozen stasis. The music rose from its torpor into a gathering of strength, percussion and brass offering an outpouring of grief.

At this climactic moment, the soprano soloist Christina Landshamer entered.

Although Das himmlische leben is a popular piece among singers, it is a dark, morbid little song. The text contrasts the bright images of saints, angels, happy children with plenty to eat and games to play ...in heaven. The singing voices are of children no longer trapped on this troubled earth. That point is underpinned by a dark, recurring brass riff, its insistence a reminder of the grief of those of us left behind. Here, expertly delivered by Mr. Gilbert, it wasn’t sunny at all.

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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.