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Friday, March 17, 2017

Concert Review: A Composer's Fancy

Alan Gilbert and Yo-Yo Ma premiere the Salonen Cello Concerto.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Yo-Yo Ma onstage with the New York Philharmonic.
Photo by Chris Lee © 2017 The New York Philharmonic.
The New York premiere of a new concerto by a major composer is always an event. On Wednesday night at David Geffen Hall, that composer was the new music rock star Esa-Pekka Salonen, currently composer-in-residence at the New York Philharmonic. The work: his new Concerto for Cello and Orchestra. The soloist: Yo-Yo Ma, the most famous cellist in the world. Mr. Ma and Mr. Salonen played this work together on March 9, giving its world premiere in Chicago. Here, the conductor was Alan Gilbert.

First though, was a continuation of the Philharmonic's celebration of John Adams’ 70th birthday, with a reprise of The Chairman Dances, a short scherzo written as a kind of pendant (or missing scene) from that composer’s breakout opera Nixon In China. This piece found Mr. Adams shifting gears between quick-footed minimal pulses and a slower trio section, a lilting waltz undercut with more than a hint of irony. Mr. Gilbert, more cogent of the orchestras superb performance than the average concert-goer, looked at the audience afterward, cupping his hand to his ear to draw louder (and well-deserved) applause.

Next, Mr. Salonen walked onstage to  offer some insignia to his new work with Mr. Gilbert. He offered the explanation that the three movements of this 38-minute concerto are written in ever more concentrated concentric circles. The opening movement offers a more universal view of the subject matter, and the close becomes very personal indeed, pitting the cello as individual against the rest of the vast orchestra. Following this brief speech, the composer hopped off the low lip of the stage to take a seat on the right side of the house.

Mr. Ma generated the initial material of the first movement, with the themes tumbling against a cosmic haze of percussion, strings and wind, a tingling pulse being provided by the percussion section. His thematic fragments were answered by the orchestra, expanded upon and building g in complexity. The orchestral answers sometimes came from below the cello line, other times flying high above iit, shifting in tone and texture but always letting the instrument's voice provide the direction.

The second movement was fascinating, incorporating taped loops of Mr. Ma’s playing, projected on small speakers arranged on different levels of the house. This allowed the cello signal to rotate around the audience, pass between the four levels of the auditorium before returning to rest at the stage, ready for the next instrumental utterance. The orchestra offered a glittering if unobtrusive accompaniment here, muted in a display of quiet power.

The slow movement led directly into the third, and the emergence of a second soloist: Philharmonic percussionist Christopher Lamb. Mr. Lamb stood at the right if Mr  Gilbert and Mr. Ma, playing bongos, half and full congas and a tenor drum, using his hands to generate variety and velocity of rhythmic effects. These essays were answered in kind by cello itself, which eventually emerged as the true protagonist of this movement. This is where Mr. Salonen wrote his most challenging cadenzas, offering M.  Ma the chance to cut loose in the cello’s highest register. The work ended with a final use of the electronics, fading to nothingness and leaving the listener utterly drained and overwhelmed.

Following this, a prosaic performance of Berlioz Symphonie-fantastique did not promise to be a satisfactory makeweight. However, Mr. Gilbert led a performance that respected the work's narrative drive and even fenced with the odd, self-regarding humor that Berlioz injected into the grim final movement of the piece. It did not hurt matters that this was the orchestra at a spring peak, preparing to launch its European tour with a work that it plays very well indeed.

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