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Sunday, April 28, 2013

Concert Review: Fountains, Poems and Pictures

The New York Philharmonic plays Carnegie Hall.
by Ellen Fishbein
Renée Fleming appeared with the New York Philharmonic on Friday night.
Photo © Decca Classics.
On Friday night, the New York Philharmonic made a rare appearance on the stage of Carnegie Hall, with a short program that was rich and engaging despite its brevity. Alan Gilbert conducted two orchestral favorites, framing the world premiere of Swedish composer Anders Hillborg's The Strand Settings. The new work featured soprano Renée Fleming in her only appearance with the orchestra this season.

The evening began with Fountains of Rome, a set of four tonal paintings that made the career of composer Ottorino Respighi. It started with a pastoral daybreak, played by the Philharmonic with a crisp, sparkling delicacy. In the second and third sections (featuring appearances from mythological water nymphs and the Roman sea god Neptune) the orchestra produced a pure expression of joy. Mr. Gilbert trembled on tiptoe, conducting as if supported by a robust wind. The sunset depicted in the final movement seemed to change the light within Carnegie Hall, glowing in the crystalline acoustics of Stern Auditorium.

Anticipation mounted as Renée Fleming stepped onstage, reminiscent of a drop of rainwater
in her billowing blue gown. The Strand Settings was commissioned jointly by the New York Philharmonic and Carnegie Hall. Mr. Hillborg drew his four texts from the published work of Mark Strand, an award-winning poet and former Poet Laureate Consultant to the Library of Congress.

The music struck the heart immediately. Mr. Hillborg’s soft, atmospheric opening seemed to leave no space in the Hall; rather, it pressed on the walls and opened the ceilings even higher. Ms. Fleming’s voice moved in and out of the musical texture, highlighting some of Mr. Strand’s phrases. With a recitative-like structure, Mr. Hillborg created an active dialogue between Ms. Fleming and the orchestra. As the orchestra played slow chord changes, Ms. Fleming sang over them at faster tempo.

When Ms. Fleming released her high notes, the orchestra swelled into distinctive new shapes. Hillborg’s exquisite third movement, based on a section of Mr. Strand’s longer poem Dark Harbor, showcased his instantly recognizable style as well as Ms. Fleming’s interpretive maturity. This wasn’t simply a recitation of poetry set to music; she seemed to invent the words and melodies moments before she sang them. Her personalized, almost conversational performance complemented the orchestra’s throbbing urgency.

Mr. Hillborg approached the text with humility. Not once did he obscure the poetry with excessive ornamentation; instead, the words shone. If it is possible to bring even more meaning to Strand’s work, Hillborg has done it. His composition had depth but not pretense; it was meditative but accessible. Though distinctly relevant, The Strand Settings are not what one imagines as "modern," and that is a good thing. After all, as Mr. Hillborg remarked after the premiere, "I hate modern music!"

After the intermission, the Philharmonic offered a vivid rendition of Modest Mussorgsky’s
Pictures at an Exhibition in its orchestration by Maurice Ravel. After an initial trumpet hiccup in the opening Promenade theme, the New York Philharmonic played each contrasting image with poise. The whimsical Gnomus and Hut on Fowl’s Legs were memorable. The final section, The Great Gate of Kiev depicts an honorary piece of architecture that was commissioned (but never built) in that city. It was buoyant and deeply satisfying.

Ellen Fishbein studies economics at Fordham University and loves opera, orchestral music, and entrepreneurial ventures. She runs Precision Editing NJ, a new agency working to help small businesses stand out.

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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.