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Monday, June 13, 2016

Concert Review: The Sophomore Jinx

The second NY Phil Biennial comes to an end.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Alan Gilbert and orchestra take the last bows of the 2016 NY Phil Biennial.
Photo by Chris Lee © 2016 The New York Philharmonic.
The NY Phil Biennial just wrapped its second run at Lincoln Center with a pair of concerts on Saturday, featuring musicians from the Aspen Music Festival and School, followed by the the orchestra itself. And yet, this was a subdued affair, offering somber and sobering reflection where two years ago, ebullience and energy reigned. Two programs paid homage to the late composer Steven Stucky, whose works were heard alongside those of Pierre Boulez, Per Nørgård and the festival's curator, Esa-Pekka Salonen.

This change in tone is the most puzzling thing about this year's festival which ended Saturday night at the orchestra's renamed but as yet un-renovated home David Geffen Hall. Could it be the changes at the top, with a new chairman of the board and the imminent exit of music director Alan Gilbert from the post he was hand-picked for just five years ago? Or is it that the orchestra's marketing efforts lacked the gusto and sense of invention that made the 2014 Biennial such a rewarding and enervating experience?

In any case, Saturday started off at 4pm with a performance by members of the Aspen Music Festival and Festival playing new works by Stucky and Salonen. The Stucky work was a gorgeous song cycle, The  Stars and the Roses, setting poems by Czesław Miłosz for tenor, wind players, percussion, piano and brass. Tenor Stephen Lang sang with a bright, clean sound, evoking the celestial gardens of Milosz' poetry. Conductor Timothy Weiss drew fine, silvery melodic lines from this fine ensemble of players, with each song a model of concision and form.

The second work was even more ambitious: Esa-Pekka Salonen's playful Catch and Release. This work was inspired by sport fishing (very popular in the lake-riddled landscape of Finland) and composed (according to its creator) at the cost of a bottle of beer. It proved refreshing and brisk-paced as its seven players engaged in snappy dialogue, trading quicksilver melodic lines and culminating in a coda that quoted the opening chord of the Mahler First. The Aspen players made this difficult music look and sound effortless, an effect accomplished only by those at the highest level of skill.

The 7pm concert featured a program switcheroo as Per Nørgård's Symphony No. 8 was shoved to the first half and given a lengthy introduction by Mr. Gilbert. This was the work's Philharmonic premiere, and no explanation was given as to why the program had been reversed at the last minute After Mr. Gilbert provided his audience with a lengthy discussion of Nørgård's compositional method with a mind-bending laundry list of musical examples, it was harder to focus on the work itself.

Nørgård's writing uses diaphanous textures and juxtaposes an ascending theme with a slow descent in the enormous orchestra. Shimmering chords rose out of the depths, with the whole orchestra working itself into a furious whirl of sound. The slow movement followed rapidly, allowing the listener to delve into Mr. Nørgård's use of orchestral voices and glittering percussion. The finale started with a restless figure and then settled into an accelerando with Mr. Gilbert keeping his foot on the gas until the fading final bars. Throughout, the vast Philharmonic forces played this bold modern music with purpose and intent, creating a window into this composer's unique sound-world.

The second half of the concert now opened with Pierre Boulez' Messagesquisse for seven  cellos. Written in 1977, this piece is essentially a message coded in music, with the solo player chased through slow-developing serial lines. One could not help but admire the precision of this performance, even if the work's intent remained murky. Like the Boulez work, Stucky's Second Concerto for Orchestra is full of hidden stegnographic messages, with names buried in the score including that of Mr. Salonen. This three-movement piece was most effective as a showcase for orchestral virtuosity, and the Philharmonic players supplied that in full.

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