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Saturday, March 12, 2011

Concert Review: The Great Leap Forward

Week 1 of Hungarian Echoes at the Philharmonic
Casual Friday with Esa-Pekka Salonen. Photo by Clive Barda © Esa-Pekka Salonen
The New York Philharmonic opened their three-week Hungarian Echoes festival this week, under the baton of Finnish conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen. Friday morning's concert allowed listeners to hear the correlations between a genteel, early Haydn symphony, Györgi Ligeti's experimental Piano Concerto and Bártok's Concerto for Orchestra, a Philharmonic showpiece.

Haydn's Sixth, nicknamed Le matin) comes early in his canon of 104 symphonies. Part of a tryptich, (No. 7, (Le midi )and No. 8 (Le soir) will follow later in the festival) the work is concerto-like, allowing the soloists plenty of opportunity to demonstrate their skill. Mr. Salonen drew some beautiful phrases from the scaled-down orchestra, especially in the swelling "dawn" that introduces the first movement.

The program then jumped 223 years forward, to Ligeti's sole Piano Concerto,  written in 1984. These performance mark the Philharmonic premiere of this five-movement work, scored for chamber orchestra and solo pianist. The percussive piano part was played by Marino Formenti, a last-minute replacement for Pierre Laurent-Aimard. Mr. Formenti leapt into the opening Vivace molto, creating dense structures as he raced up and down the keyboard. Occasionally, he leapt up, repositioning himself at the other end of the piano bench to work at the treble or bass ends of the instrument, keeping up with Mr. Salonen's tempo and the demands of the score.

Mr. Ligeti's orchestration includes numerous percussion pieces, a slide whistle, and a police whistle. There are also parts for Chromonica (a pitch-shifting harmonica) the alto ocarina (played by the clarinetist) and the flexatone, the odd percussion instrument that shows up in '80s funk songs like Rick James' "Super Freak." This bizarre battery was used to good musical effect throughout the five movements, providing steady work for Philharmonic percussionists Daniel Druckman and Christopher Lamb as they enjoyed almost-equal status with the solo piano.

Béla Bartók wrote the Concerto for Orchestra in 1943, in the middle of the five-year American exile that had the composer living unenthusiastically in New York. The Concerto has remained a Philharmonic standby since the orchestra premiered it under George Szell in 1946. Mr. Salonen led a fiery, rhythmic account of the five movements, allowing soloists and clusters of instruments their turns in the spotlight. The most thrilling moment came with the brass fugato in the first movement, as trombones and tuba roared forth in a dramatic statement of the theme. It may not have been especially "Hungarian" in character, but this was the kind of music-making this orchestra does best.

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