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Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Concert Review: Ahead of the Curve

The New York Philharmonic opens 2014--for real this time.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Alan Gilbert in action. Photo courtesy nyphil.tumblr.com
Image © 2014 The New York Philharmonic
The New York Philharmonic turned from movie music this week with its first subscription concert at Avery Fisher Hall. This ambitious program paired a new Clarinet Concerto by composer Unsuk Chin with the Symphony No. 1 of former Philharmonic music director Gustav Mahler under the baton of the orchestra's current leader Alan Gilbert.

A Korean-born, Berlin-based composer, Ms. Chin's teachers included the legendary composer György Ligeti. She wrote this concerto as part of an ongoing project to compose works in this format for both Eastern and Western instruments. This performance marked the world premiere of the full three-movement work, which was expanded from its original format with the addition of the new first movement.

Ms. Chin's first work played by the Philharmonic was  Gougalon: Scenes from a Street Theater, which premiered at the orchestra's CONTACT! series in 2013. While not as esoteric as that remarkable composiotn, this new concerto has its share of exotic sounds and glittering textures, achieved with an enormous orchestra, 32 percussion instruments (some of them found objects like wine glass and fishing reels) and a solo part that makes extraordinary demands on the clarinet.

Luckily, that soloist was Kari Krikku, the Finnish clarinetist who gave a virtual clinic in avant-garde playing of this most versataile woodwind. Flutter-tonguing, over-blowing and multiphonics (opening keys higher up on the barrel of the instrument to achieve a second air-stream and playing two melodic lines at once) combine in this work.

Perched on a stool next to Mr. Gilbert, Mr. Krikku made his instrument drone, shriek, whisper and occasionally play in its conventional range against delicate orchestral textures. Ms. Chin set the solo part against a slow introduction, a relentless central passacaglia, and a fiercely inventive final movement that pulsed with energy and rhythmic excitement. The impact of this work was softened by a lengthy "music lesson" with Mr. Gilbert and Mr. Krikku before the performance.

No such couching was necessary for the Mahler First, one of the composer's most powerful symphonies and a work which Mr. Gilbert led at the Philharmonic in the days before he took its helm. This was an edgy, muscular performance, with Mr. Gilbert whipping his players into a fury in the repeated crescendoes of the first movement. The familiar folk-tunes (drawn from Mahler's own Wunderhorn songs and Humperdinck's fairy tale opera Hansel und Gretel) raced forward under his direction. The orchestra reacted to his urgency with renewed fury, as if determined to squeeze and suck the vitality from this music and unleash a firestorm of sound.

The second movement had a similar urgency, with the opening Ländler sounding as if the dancing Austrian peasants had switched their spring wine for strong black Viennese coffee. The trio was better, with lyricism emerging at last and some lovely textures from the strings and winds. The slow funeral march was back at its proper tempo, played with delicacy and attention to detail, from the opening, mournful quotation of "Frére Jacques" to the joyous middle section. One could hear the off-season additions to this orchestra in the basses, clarinet and horns making themselves heard in this movement.

Mahler ended his first symphony with a long, complex structure that cycles through itself completely before drawing on material from the first movement and then repeating itself as if in affirmation. It is easy for even a veteran conductor to get lost in this forest, but Mr. Gilbert drew a firm and furious performance from his orchestra. Indeed, the Philharmonic players sounded energized and invigorated in this movement, playing the work with more energy than in years past yet not sacrificing detail or finesse. The horns, who have had another personnel shuffle this season were particularly potent, ringing out Mahler's ambitions in the work's final climax.

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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.