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Saturday, January 16, 2016

Concert Review: The Theory of Massive Attack

The New York Philharmonic goes massive and modern.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Alan Gilbert and Frank Peter Zimmermann on tour in Europe 2012.
Photo by Chris Lee © 2012 rThe New York Philharmonic.
With the announcement of the 2016-17 season only a few weeks away, the New York Philharmonic is playing well for outgoing music director Alan Gilbert. On Friday morning at David Geffen Hall, the orchestra was joined by soloist Frank Peter Zimmermann its second performance of Magnus Lindberg's Violin Concerto No. 2. The Lindberg work, which premiered with the London Philharmonic late last year, was flanked by two heavy 20th century bookends: Respighi's Vetrate di chiesa ("Church Windows") and Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring.

A conservative composer who was a master of orchestration, Ottorino Respighi enjoyed his heyday in the early 20th century with postcard-like works written for giant orchestras. This work, untouched by the Philharmonic since 1933, was inspired by Gregorian chant and medieval modes. Each movement depicts an elaborate scene in stained glass. The opening Flight into Egypt featured a rising tide of woodwinds and horns, almost Brucknerian in its slow-building religiosity. St. Michael the Archangel added elaborate percussion for a muscular movement ending with the crash of three gongs.

The Matins of St. Clare opened with a pensive theme, depicting the meditations of this follower of St. Francis in a slow pulse wound about with elaborate language for the double reeds. This built to another climax. In the following Santa Gregorio Magno, the power of medieval Pope Gregory the Great was depicted with the full blast of the orchestra and a resounding use of the ubiquitous Dies Irae theme. Mr. Gilbert whipped his forces into a blazing assault of orchestration with repeated themes and leitmotivs clashing in their eagerness to all be heard at once.

Former Philharmonic composer in residence Magnus Lindberg joined Mr. Gilbert to explain his new work to the audience. However, this piece, as played by Mr. Zimmerman required little academic explanation. It draws on very simple ideas, with a trio of rising intervals being chief among the seeds from which the work blossomed. These ascending intervals became shifting harmonies, doubling and redoubling into a complex tapestry of sound  Mr. Zimmerman played his guts out, competing against the orchestra in the first movement before being allowed to erupt in a long and elaborate cadenza.

In the third movement, Mr. Lindberg brings the orchestra and solo part together, creating a fast-moving movement that was pleasing to the ear. The solo part was complex and playful, with the orchestra racing through the complex harmonic writing, allowing Mr. Zimmermann's heroics to dominate the spotlight. The shifting harmonies doubled and redoubled in the dense orchestration, providing a colorful backdrop for the solo violin, with the whole work coming to a pleasing and coherent manner.

If Respighi's work was the epitome of conservative, Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring is the opposite: a raucous blast of sound and rhythm that depicts the sacrificial rites enacted in ancient, pagan Russia. This performance, led by Judith LeClair's eloquent bassoon, built from rhythmic cells in the introduction, laying the groundwork for the chugging lower strings and pounding that changed the music world forever at the work's 1913 Paris premiere.

Unlike the audience at that infamous performance, the Philharmonic crowd did not riot. They embraced this Rite as the most familiar work on the program. Alan Gilbert gave a charged, thrilling reading of the work, working closely with the complex score and maintaining a strict control over the constantly changing time signatures. The Procession of the Ancient surged, moving with lumbering power. The savagery continued in the second half, with the two timpanists and gran casa thundering under the roar of brass. Brusque and muscular, this is how the Rite should be played.

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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.