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Friday, June 3, 2011

Concert Review: Back For the Future

NY Philharmonic Returns, with New Music and rare Bruckner.

Woman in White: Anne-Sophie Mutter and friend.
The New York Philharmonic has returned from its European tour to kick off four weeks of concerts at its home base of Avery Fisher Hall. On Friday afternoon, the orchestra offered an unusual program featuring Time Machines, a new piece by Sebastian Currier, commissioned by artist-in-residence Anne-Sophie Mutter. The new work was flanked by a rare Beethoven trifle, and a Bruckner symphony that the orchestra hadn't performed live in 40 years.

Written in 2007 but shelved until this week, Time Machines is not a memorable piece. It is another installment of Ms. Mutter's ongoing (and commendable) quest, as she seeks to expand the repertory of her instrument. Over seven movements, Mr. Currier establishes a call-and-response between the soloist and orchestra, exploring different rhythmic approaches and concepts of time. Ms. Mutter opened the first movement with growled, staccato chords, a repeated ostinato which was answered by the orchestra strings.

The major themes of the opening were expanded upon and repeated in the movements that followed, giving listeners a sensation of traveling backwards in time, with room to move for Ms. Mutter's instrument against a shifting curtain of strings, wind, and odd percussion. There were slow, soothing minimalist passages (entropic time) alternating with frantic fast sections (compressed time.) The most impressive section: backwards time, with inversions and retrogrades of the original thematic material, adding to the sensation of time running backward.

The concert opened with Beethoven's first Romance for Violin and Orchestra, featuring the talents of Philharmonic artist-in-residence Anne-Sophie Mutter. Clad in a spectacular scarlet sheath and wielding her bow with authority, Ms. Mutter captured the lovely lyricism that one associated with Beethoven's work, illustrating how this admittedly minor piece points the way to the heights of the composer's lone violin concerto.

The Philharmonic waited four decades to bring back Anton Bruckner's underrated Second Symphony, a taut, powerful work that excels and surprises, precisely because it lacks the sheer orchestral overkill associated with this Austrian composer. On the podium, music director Alan Gilbert made Bruckner's characteristic rhythms (one-two, one-two-THREE) snap, showing the crisp architecture and tight structures present in the music of a composer who remains misunderstood today.

The Second falls into Bruckner's early period, and (through some complicated numbering issues) is actually his fourth, possibly fifth effort in the genre that he made his life's work. It stands as a bridge between the symphonies of Beethoven and Schubert and the giant structures of sound that the composer worked on at the end of his life. Known (for lack of a better nickname) as the "Symphony of Pauses," the work frequently stops for a full rest, and then picks up the theme from its beginning, restating it in what is essentially a hybrid between a theme-and-variations and traditional sonata form.

The performance featured some beautiful playing from four of the Philharmonic horns, led by principal Philip Myers. The English horn made an important contribution in the slow movement. The trio of the rousing Scherzo (based on the Ländler, a curious Austrian peasant dance that was a Bruckner favorite) featured a gorgeous solo from violist Cynthia Phelps. And the mighty final movement was the sum total of Mr. Gilbert's abilities at keeping a large structure of music intact, making the work rise consistently to its thrilling, thundering climax.

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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.