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Sunday, June 7, 2015

Concert Review: Every Breaking Wave

The New York Philharmonic makes CONTACT! with Japanese music.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The torii gate at Miyajima, inspiration for Olivier Messiaen's Sept haïkaï.
Photo © 2015 from Wikimedia Commons.
Since its inception in 2009, the CONTACT! series has been the New York Philharmonic laboratory for performing modern music. Staged in more intimate venues than Avery Fisher Hall around New York, the players are liberated from the typical subscription format and the compulsion of symphony orchestras to pair the avant-garde with Beethoven, Brahms and Bruckner. On Friday evening, members of the orchestra gathered at the Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium in the Metropolitan Museum of Art for New Music in Japan, a program celebrating the classic and cutting edge of contemporary art music in the Land of the Rising Sun.

The concert opened with Archipelago S by Toro Takemitsu. Mr. Takemitsu emerged in the latter half of the 20th century working with filmmaker Akira Kurosawa to create works like the score for the Shakespeare adaptation Ran. Today, he is the  most important contemporary Japanese composer, a modern master whose work is not performed enough. Archipelago S was inspired by islands in Seto, Japan, Stockholm, Sweden and Seattle, Washington, hence the "S" in its title. In it, Mr. Takemitsu combined chamber-like textures and ideas of spatial music. Players are divided into five sonic "islands", with three small groups on the stage and two solo clarinetists playing from deep within the house.

Under the baton of Jeffery Milarsky, (making his formal New York Philharmonic conducting debut) the expert wind and string players bit cleanly into the score, creating impressions and hints of salt breezes and dappled wave. Sparse, spindly textures spun forth, accented and given body by delicate strokes of percussion. The effect was compelling and hypnotic, music that sounded at total rest with itself while moving perpetually forward.

A string orchestra formed for the world premiere of Dai Fujukira's Infinite String. Inspired (as the composer explained in a short dialogue with Mr. Milarsky)) by Mr. Fujukira's home-life and the arrival of his newborn child, this continuous three-part work used short, chivvying figures that overlapped and dialogued with each other, short gleaming threads that formed a woven texture of sound. The work transitioned into a slow section, with longer, more lyric phrases in the cellos and violin. The tempo sped up again for the final section, with taut woven textures now supporting a soaring, final melodic idea.

Following the intermission, the orchestra returned for the first U.S. performance of Misato Mochizuki's Si bleue, si calme, another work inspired by the power of the ocean. In Ms. Mochizuki's work, a thunderous tone cluster of percussion, heavy brass and low wind burst forth with the crash of a breaking wave. This yielded to an eight-beat passage that allowed the players to extrapolate the main thematic material before being interrupted by another crash and roll of sound. As the work progressed, the intervals became longer and allowed the music to stretch and expand itself into complex whorls and patterns. The tide of sound gradually rolled out before the clusters returned once more for the work's coda.

The last work on the program was Sept haïkaï esquisses japonaises (Seven Haikus on Japanese sketches) by Olivier Messiaen. The French composer was one of the key figures of the 20th century, eschewing traditional sounds for an interest in percussion and transcribed bird-songs. He was inspired to write these short pieces for piano, percussion and chamber ensemble following a visit to Japan in 1961.  This performance also featured another Philharmonic debut: the first appearance of pianist Stephen Gosling as a guest soloist.

The work is a series of five short sketches of famous Japanese landmarks and cultural touchstones, flanked by short outer movements that act like fierce temple guardians "protecting" the music within. Eight violins and complex percussion underpins Nara Park and the Stone Lanterns. The bird-calls appear in the third movement, an elaborate piano cadenza that allowed Mr. Gosling free reign of his instrument in a call-and-response with the winds.

The enlarged wind section  combined itself with the brass for Gagaku, with unison instruments creating the awe and ceremony of the Japanese court. Miyajima et le torii dans la mer is a depiction of the great sea gate of Miyajima, a forest of sound populated again by birds. A final aviary burst forth in song for The Birds of Karuizawa, with the winds and brass representing as many as 25 species in a kaleidoscope of sound. The work ended with a Coda, the last and most fierce temple guardian and a strong example of Messiaen's gift of unique orchestral sonorities.

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