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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Concert Review: Fifty Shades of Tonality

Spectral music comes to the New York Philharmonic.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Conductor of many colors: David Robertson.
Original image © Michael Tammaro, color alterations by the author.
The pursuit of the new by modern composers is invariably met with excitement from music people and dread from the ordinary concert-goer, who may prefer the traditional harmonies of Mozart and Beethoven to the experiments of Olivier Messiaen and (his pupil) Tristan Murail. The New York Philharmonic split the difference this week, as David Robertson conducted a performance of Mr. Murail's new piano concerto, (titled Le Désenchantement du monde) framed in the works of the other three, more familiar composers.

Messiaen is a composer whose very name can induce post-traumatic stress disorder in the most conservative listener. However, the work presented here,  Les Offrandes oubliées is an early composition, more modest in scale and ambition than the composer's later, thundering works. Mr. Robertson painted with a fine brush, bringing out bright colors in this meditative, devotional tryptich.

The vast orchestral forces sound gentle and surprisingly tender in the first movement. This yielded to a raging, powerful central section featuring taut, sprung rhythms and the minor-key self-flagellation of weeping sinners. Mr. Roberton led a delicate transition to the minor-key tones of the final section, a gauzy meditation on the infinite.

Pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard joined the orchestra for Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 23. While Mr. Aimard is an exceptional interpreter of Bach and modern music, the Mozart seemed somehow out of place. The notes were there, played in an elegant French style with delicate orchestral accompaniment. But the finale, taken at a very quick tempo seemed to stumble over itself in its eagerness to reach the final bars.

Tristan Murail is a leading exponent of "spectral" music, using computers to find new frequencies and colors of sound outside the usual palette of twelve tones. These new tones are then reproduced orchestrally, combining de-tuned instruments with normally tempered ones to make strange, somewhat unearthly sounds that have never been heard before. The composer's colorist technique has made him the leader of a whole movement in French music, although one less known than the rigorous, mathematical serialism of Pierre Boulez.

For this concerto, Mr. Robertson and Mr. Aimard worked together in a call-and-response between soloist and orchestra. Mr. Aimard would play an arpeggio, a few notes or a flurry of descending scales. Mr. Robertson responded with an ectoplasmic, unearthly wash of strings, a blurt of trumpets, or a few tuned notes from marimba, vibraphone or orchestral bells. Although the work was presented in one contiguous movement, there were definite sections with their own tonal colors. There were playful, almost impressionistic sections, elbowed aside by the bleats of woodwinds or the growls of the heavy brass. The strings and piano were the constant, their unearthly intersections of sound making intervals that were strange, new and brilliant.

The performance ended with a brisk, cheerful account of Beethoven's Second Symphony. Mr. Robertson led the first movement with a robust, enthusiastic style that involved the audience, to the point that they burst into applause at its end. Turning to the audience, the conductor said, "Now, we play three encores!" Of course, those were the remaining movements of the symphony, culminating in a stylish Rondo whose start-stop stutter-step rhythms were exactly as the composer intended, a sophisticated musical game for the entertainment of the listener.

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