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Thursday, December 8, 2011

Concert Review: Reverse Culture Shock

Daniel Harding conducts Knussen, Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky.
Daniel Harding. Photo by K. Miura.
In setting a symphony program, it is common practice to slip a modern work in between tried-and-true compositions, giving audiences a chance to hear cutting-edge music in conjunction with their favorites.

This week's program by the New York Philharmonic (heard Wednesday night at Avery Fisher Hall) reversed the trick. Joshua Bell's performance of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto was wedged between two modern works:  Oliver Knussen's Flourishes and Fireworks and Igor Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring

The concert was led by young British conductor Daniel Harding, who stunned audiences last week with a carefully thought out performance of the posthumous Tenth Symphony by Mahler. He proved himself once again to be an exciting conductor unafraid to bring some fresh ideas to the staid audiences at Lincoln Center.

Mr. Harding opened the program with the  Knussen work, a three-minute taster of this composer's fascinating output. He drew jagged textures from the orchestra, sharp stabs from the brass and complex rhythms from the percussion section, including a figure on the castanets. The work was well matched with the evening-ending Stravinsky, and the influence of the elder Russian composer was very clear.

Joshua Bell then joined the orchestra to offer his interpretation of the well-traveled Tchaikovsky concerto. Mr. Bell brought a fearless technique and incisive attack to the cadenzas in the first movement, drawing full, rich tone from his instrument that was wholeheartedly supported by the orchestra. Mr. Harding kept a steady hand through the slow canzonetta that followed.

Mr. Bell saved his best playing for the exuberant finale, a Russian celebration through dance. Although this movement was sneered at by Viennese critic Eduard Hanslick at its premiere, it remains an exciting ending to the concerto. Mr. Harding led the orchestra with rhythmic snap, and the last movement soared to a thrilling close. 

Taut rhythms also dominated Mr. Harding's interpretation of Stravinsky's revolutionary ballet score. The Rite of Spring is almost 100 years old, and still sounds fresh, bold and innovative. Following the opening bassoon cadenza and mutters in the plucked strings, the orchestra went into the famous chugging theme that inspired 20th century composers of orchestral works and thrash metal.

The second movement was played after a tiny pause. This section has more of these hushed, mysterious passages, including some challenging writing for the massive, muted brass section. For the final sacrificial dance, the mutes were set aside. Mr. Harding brought out the calculated violence hidden in Stravinsky's neat pen-strokes. He brought the orchestra to a frenzied height and then drew forth the subtle moments that other conductors skate over.

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