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Thursday, March 1, 2012

Concert Review: The Last Pictures Show

Stucky, Berlioz and Mussorgsky at the New York Philharmonic.
by Paul Pelkonen.
The Hut of Baba Yaga: Clock designed by Vladimir Hartmann
for the original art show that inspired Pictures at an Exhibition.

Normally, a Superconductor review of a New York Philharmonic concert is based on the first or second nights of a run of concerts. Due to scheduling issues (chiefly caused by the presence of the Berlin Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall, Tuesday night presented the rare opportunity to review the last of a set of subscription concerts.

This program, curated by Alan Gilbert, brought together works that are preoccupied primarily with visual imagery. Son et Lumiere by Steven Stucky evokes the grand sound-and-light displays that entertain visitors to the Egyptian pyramids. Berlioz' Nuits d'Eté evoke the richness of "Summer Nights." And Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition (with orchestration by Maurice Ravel) chronicles a visit to an art exhibition by the composer's friend Vladimir Hartmann.

The concert opened with a new work from composer and Cornell professor Stephen Stucky. Son et lumiere is written in Mr. Stucky's ne-minimalist style. Sharp stabs of brass interact with complex percussion rhythms. At first harsh and unwelcoming, the sound-world blossoms into brief aural pleasure in the very last pages.

Although she is known for cross-dressing turns in Le Nozze di Figaro, Le Comte Ory and Ariadne Auf Naxos, mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato was a powerful and decidedly feminine presence in Berlioz' six-song cycle Nuits d'Eté.. This set--one of the few works that Berlioz wrote for piano and voice, were presented here in the luxurious orchestration of 1856, which seems to drip with nostalgia and old-world decadence.

Flowers and water imagery are central to Berlioz' imagery. Ms. DiDonato brightened these already rich tonal colors with her quicksilver mezzo--bringing out the deep emotions that are written into each of these songs and singing with a lyrical flow that was glorious for sounding entirely natural. Mr. Gilbert's leadership brightened these colors further, conveying the rich complexity of Berlioz' orchestration.

Pictures at an Exhibition remains a Philharmonic war-horse. Alan Gilbert brought some new colors to this famous gallery visit, with some jarring tempo ideas to liven up Gnomus,and a moody, evocative The Old Castle featured evocative bassoon playing and the famous saxophone solo. A thunderous Bydlo set the table for the last pictures on the program, with some rock-solid tuba playing from Alan Baer.

The Catacombs were appropriately mysterious. The Hut of Baba Yaga shuddered and screamed. The Great Gate of Kiev, dominated by the percussion and brass, was an uplifting portrayal, working the original Promenade theme back into the orchestration and letting the concert end on a mighty chord.
Contact the author: E-mail Superconductor editor Paul Pelkonen.

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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.