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Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Concert Review: Bang a Gong: The Philharmonic Plays Kraft

Walking into Avery Fisher Hall on Tuesday night, one realized that this was no ordinary concert.
Members of the New York Philharmonic, with Magnus Lindberg
(second from left) search a Staten Island junkyard for percussion
instruments for Kraft. Photo © 2010 by Chris Lee.
Maybe it was the small percussion stations and music stands scattered in the corners of the concert hall. Or possibly, it was the enormous bronze Paiste gong suspended from a cable in the exact center of the room, as if Chuck Barris had been brought in as a guest conductor.

The extra stations were installed to facilitate the first New York performances of Kraft, the 1985 composition that cemented the reputation of Philarmonic composer in residence Magnus Lindberg. Kraft is essentially a two-movement concerto, which incorporates huge tone clusters (at one point, a chord is formed from 72 seperate tones), spatial music, offstage brass, and found objects, including three suspended, sawn-off oxygen tanks, a set of bamboo wind chimes, and a large (and thankfully empty) nitrogen storage cylinder set next to the hanging gong.

The opening thunder of Kraft overwhelms the ear. But as the opening chords dwindle, the textures and rich ideas of Mr. Lindberg's music unveil themselves. Weird shrieks on the 'cello (produced by playing very close to the bridge), eerie piano noises, random cross-rhythms, and hisses and chitters from the conductor himself. the rat-a-tat-tat of metal sticks beating the nitrogen tank, and the sonorous effect of the multiple gongs. This passage recalled the Montsalvat bells from Wagner's Parsifal to beautiful effect.

The first half of the concert was more sedate, with works by Debussy and Sibelius, chosen to open the listener's ears to the experimentation of Kraft. The evening opened with a radiant, translucent performance of Prelude a les apre-midi d'un Faune, with Mr. Gilbert taking pains to explain the connection between Debussy's use of short, rising and falling motifs and the musical ideas of Mr. Lindberg.

The orchestra was then joined by Joshua Bell for Sibelius' ever-popular violin concerto. This is an unusual work in that it relies on the soloist to drive the momentum forward, developing its thematic ideas from the difficult cadenzas that dominate the first movement. Each movement featured spectacular playing and a singing tone from Mr. Bell's instrument. Again, Mr. Gilbert drew beautiful textures in the second movement, showing the influence of Debussy. The rapport between conductor and soloist was evident as they almost seemed to duel onstage, making the high-speed finale a thrilling experience.

Watch the Philharmonic percussion section discover their instruments for Kraft.

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