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Monday, December 18, 2017

Concert Review: In Search of Space, Still Orbiting

The Orchestra Now plays Adams, Penderecki and Holst.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Conductor JoAnn Falletta led The Orchestra Now on Saturday night at Alice Tully Hall.
Photo by Cheryl Gorsky © 2017 The Buffalo Philharmonic.
The Orchestra Now is still a new presence on the classical music scene in New York but it is, on the surface, a pretty good idea. Conceived by Bard College president Leon Botstein, TŌN (as they style themselves) is the renamed, re-packaged, re-marketed top-level student orchestra of that august educational institution. On Thursday night, the Bard students visited Lincoln Center's Alice Tully Hall to play an ambitious program under the baton of JoAnn Falletta. Ms. Falletta is the music director of the Buffalo Philharmonic, one of this great state's more underrated ensembles. On the program, three ambitious 20th century works that would have been a tall order even for a professional orchestra.

The program opened with Short Ride in a Fast Machine, a piece from the pen of John Adams. Adams, whose works range from quirky chamber pieces to full-blown operas on grand historical subjects, scored an early success with Short Ride. A propulsive hymn to winding roads and fast cars, the piece drives forward powered by the short musical cells that are a trademark of this composer.

A cowbell's incessant sound gave the impression of pistons driving wheels on a dark highway. Short figurations in the five ranges of stringed instruments gave the impression of flickering trees and mounting, dizzying speed. The brass entered, bringing sinew to the slalom turns and unexpected twists that are mapped into the second half of this piece. The work's short duration belies the virtuosity needed to carry it off, and as Ms. Falletta stopped the joyride, she seemed satisfied with her engine's performance.

The two-part Double Concerto by Krzysztov Penderecki is built on a very different chassis. Like Mr. Adams, Mr. Penderecki is a dean among living composers, but his sometimes angular, forbidding works deny him the popularity that goes with the Adams name. This concerto, which premiered in 2012 as a work for solo violin and viola, was here presented as a double concerto for violin and cello. IT proved to be an ambitious structure, with a rising first movement built entirely around the interplay between the soloists. Soloists Dennis Kim and Roman Mekinulov (both principal players in the Buffalo orchestra) led the way in the opening movement. When the orchestra entered it did so with shattering force.

This two movement work is a like a musical palindrome, with musical ideas stretched to the limit and then slowly repacked into the line of the solo instruments. Using a vast orchestra palette, the  always cerebral Penderecki pen exploded the thematic materials with a fierce joy. Jagged tone rows competed for attention with traditional folk rhythms and spiky tone rows. The work ended in a great final surge with the cello and violin functioning as one great instrument, with one soloist picking up the line smoothly where the other left off. The two soloists then followed with a nimble duet for their instruments, a welcome palate-cleanse after the dense, heavy Penderecki work.

Dense and heavy are two words that apply to Mars: The Bringer of War the first movement of Gustav Holst's The Planets, a seven movement suite that remains the British composer's best known work. Its driving rhythms yielded to the song of Venus: The Bringer of Peace, the musical obverse of the movement that came before. Mercury: the Winged Messenger is a nimble scherzo with a difficult part for solo harp and celesta. It is the herald of Jupiter, the joyous movement that closes the first half of this work with a dizzying array of thematic ideas, each more noble and giving in spirit than the last.

Although the first half of The Planets is better known, the outer movements provided the greatest musical satisfaction. Saturn: the Bringer of Old Age lacked the pipe-organ pedal tone that makes its slow tread one to dread, but it still had power in the confined space of Alice Tully Hall. Uranus: The Magician performed his tricks by transforming the themes that came before into something resembling (oddly enough) Stravinskian jazz. And the final Neptune: The Mystic, with a wordless offstage choir under the hand of James Bagwell, ended the work on a perfect, otherworldly note as the sound seemed to come from a great distance across an ocean of space.


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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.