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Saturday, April 28, 2012

Concert Review: Across the Narrow Sea

The Philharmonic premieres Mark Neikrug's Concerto for Orchestra.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Kanagawa Oki Nami Ura (The Great Wave) by Hokusai
as it appeared on the score cover of Debussys La Mer.
Kanagawa Oki Nami Ura
This week, the New York Philharmonic launched the first performances of Marc Neikrug's Concerto for Orchestra, a major work by this modern composer dedicated to music director Alan Gilbert and designed to show the players of this famous orchestra to maximum effect. Mr. Gilbert conducted.

Mr. Neikrug's Concerto was framed as the centerpiece in a centuries-spanning program that ranged over 400 years of music making, from the delicate classicism of Mozart to the modern ideas of Mr. Neikrug. Friday's matinee concert opened with Hector Berlioz' overture Le Corsaire. Although the woodwinds sounded muddled in the early pages of the work, the ensemble recovered to deliver a thrilling, salty performance, reveling in this composer's complex orchestrations.

Despite some unusual orchestral textures and a penchant for dissonance that made members of the staid Friday matinee subscription audience somewhat uncomfortable, Mr. Neikrug's creation is a fairly conventional four-movement work. In fact, this Concerto seems more like a symphony under another name, as it has a scherzo, slow movement and blazing finale, forms that have more in common with that genre.

The first melodic idea develops from percussion, playing descending intervals. The other sections extrapolate the theme from these bare bones, drawing out the shifting harmonies and musical ideas. The scherzo is fascinating, lacking the usual driving percussion that one associates with dance movements. Gestating from the twitter and warble of flutes and oboes, these serpentine themes then shift over to the strings for a melodic trio section before returning to the demanding woodwind parts at the movement's close.

The slow movement is a parade of Mr. Neikrug's musical heroes, with Mahler and Debussy prominently featured. The last movement is a bewildering onslaught of orchestral ideas, as multiple soloists and sections got a fast turn in the spotlight. The reception of the piece was lukewarm, polite applause as the audience got ready for intermission. 

The audience seemed more enthusiastic about the second half of the program which featured the dazzling violinist Lisa Batiashvili playing Mozart's G Major violin concerto. Ms. Batiashvili brought a warm, expressive tone to the solo part, choosing her own cadenzas as opportunities to soliloquize with her instrument. She played the central slow movement with arch precision, carefully and tastefully accompanied by Mr. Gilbert. The finale, an example of Mozart's quirky humor shifts gears halfway through, paving the way for the soloist play a folk melody over pizzicato strings.

The concert ended with La Mer. Debussy's three "symphonic sketches" are a sturdy standard for this orchestra, allowing rich opportunities for orchestral color and a chance for the brass section to peal forth waves of glorious sound. However, this performance sounded mannered and rushed. The notes were all there, played with care and CD-worthy clarity. What was missing was the emotive quality, the overwhelming rush of the big climax in the first movement, and the twin qualities of nostalgia and nature-painting that make this composition an audience favorite.

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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats