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Saturday, March 29, 2014

Concert Review: Wrestling With His Angels

The Philharmonic pairs Vivier and Bruckner.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Manfred Honeck took over this week's Philharmonic program at short notice.
Photo by Felix Broede © 2014 IMG Artists.
The sudden withdrawal of conductor Gustavo Dudamel this week caused consternation for the New York Philharmonic, who were suddenly presenting an ambitious program of music by Claude Vivier and Anton Bruckner without a conductor. However, the orchestra was able to secure the services of Manfred Honeck, the music director of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and the concerts went off as scheduled. To his credit, Mr. Honeck chose to leave the program unaltered. These concerts (heard Friday night at Avery Fisher Hall) paired Vivier's Orion with Anton Bruckner's unfinished Symphony No. 9 in D minor, the unfinished finale of that composer's career. These two big pieces were heard back-to-back, without intermission.

Claude Vivier's short career and sordid end(he was murdered in Paris by a male prostitute at the age of 35) tends to obscure the fact that he was one of the most important voices in Canadian music in the late 20th century. A student of Stockhausen and a bold experimenter, Vivier produced some far-reaching and imaginative works for orchestra. Orion is organized around a theme for violins and woodwinds. The ethereal, descending main theme yields to heavyweight chords and tone clusters provide the sonic raw material for the conductor to sculpt. This main theme is subject to five more iterations, with the music becoming denser at it goes.

There are some parallels to Bruckner. Vivier used long pauses and the sudden switching on-and-off of whole arrays of instruments, much like Bruckner's "organ-stops" orchestration where whole banks of brass and wind suddenly stop and start playing. Mr. Honeck kept the proceedings organized with a strict time beat, enabling the musicians to focus on drawing melodies from their instruments or assailing their listeners with jarring bursts of noise. Huge, jarring clusters released the pent-up energy, mostly through the work of four spatially organized percussionists playing a vast array of metallophones.

Following the removal of the gongs, metal plates, chimes and marimba (and their replacement with four timpani and principal player Markus Rhoten) the orchestra slammed into the first movement of the Ninth. Mr. Honeck chose a hard-driving approach, maximizing the impact of the expanded brass section at the big climax and never letting the music lag or lose shape. This was bold, big-shouldered conducting, as he guided the strings and winds through the complex development at the heart of this movement before paving the way for a thunderous climax that stunned the listener and shook the floor.

The Scherzo of this symphony starts with an ascending pizzicatto figure that gives way to a pounding, grinding rhythm of primal urgency. Mr. Honeck led this thunderous figure with sledge-hammer precision, driving home the brutal chords with all necessary force. The central trio was elegant and uplifting, one of this composer's loveliest melodies for low strings. Inevitably, the pounding chords returned. Bruckner knew he was writing his last work, and that stark terror of the infinite was apparent in this performance.

The slow movement of this symphony is not a proper finale, but with the fourth movement left incomplete it is traditionally used to end the work. Here, Bruckner opts for a return to his rising, cathedral-like walls of brass chords, with choirs of horns and Wagner tubas alternating with soft hymn-like playing from the massive string section. This movement is punctuated with quotations, from the repeated use of the "Dresden Amen" (heard in Mendelssohn's Reformation Symphony and two of Wagner's operas.  Bruckner ends this movement with three quotations: themes fromm Adagios of the Eighth and Seventh Symphonies (sounded in the Wagner tubas and horns), and the strings playing the four notes of the bells of Montsalvat, a final nod to the influence of Wagner's music on Bruckner's life.

The Philharmonic players found their finest voice in this last movement. With a quintet of horns led by Philip Myers and a quartet of Wagner tubas (that strange cross between a tuba and a French horn designed by the composer himself) led by Michael Gast, the stage was set for a powerful, emotional finale. Mr. Honeck did not disappoint, steering the vast orchestra through an occasionally stormy ocean of sound, maintaining the necessary rhythmic momentum but always keeping the work moving forward. As the conductor lifted his hands for the last note, a respectful silence filled the room--a moving tribute to Bruckner and his struggle with the infinite. 

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