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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Concert Review: Extreme Orchestral Sports

The New York Philharmonic plays Berio and Strauss.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Oh what a mountain! The New York Philharmonic played Ein Alpensinfonie this week.

An evening (or an afternoon) at the New York Philharmonic is more than just a pleasant way to spend two hours: it is a way for the seeker to experience the razor-sharp cutting edge of musical expression. On Friday afternoon, the orchestra played the second of three concerts featuring two extreme examples of the symphonic genre: Sinfonia by Luciano Berio and Ein Alpensinfonie by Richard Strauss. This was the second of two concert programs led by guest conductor Semyon Bychkov.

Both of these works bear "Symphony" in their title but have almost no connection to the multi-movement form that was developed by Haydn and Mozart and found its full flowering in the 19th century. Sinfonia was originally in four movements (heard here in its five-part revision), commissioned by Leonard Bernstein for the 125th anniversary of the Philharmonic in 1968. Here, the all-important vocal parts (sung, spoken, shouted and screamed by eight amplified soloists) were performed by Roomful of Teeth.

This isn't easy stuff. Berio works in reference and collage, whipping changes through the orchestra in music that starts, stops, loops, obsessively runs in circles, and then pounds the listener over the head with fortissimo tone clusters. The vocals are a similar crazy quilt, overlapping each other with mutters and yelps, sometimes chanted, sometimes growled and almost always unintelligible. The second movement, a tribute to Martin Luther King (who was still living when Berio began the project) plays as a powerful elegy.

The centerpiece of the work is its slow movement, itself based on the third movement of Mahler's Resurrection Symphony. The structure of that work was embellished with quotes, beats, turns, and adornments, as if it had been dipped in honey, then rolled in chocolate jimmies, coconut shavings and pepperoni. Berio's adornments are a fascinating embellishment of the original structure, but one's ear kept returning to the symphonic line of the Mahler, struggling to surface beyond the jarring ornamentation.

Richard Strauss' Ein Alpensinfonie is the last tone poem of his mature period. It is in twenty-two contiguous movements, chronicling the arduous climb of a Bavarian Alp, the achievement of the summit and the pell-mell descent of the party during a sudden fortissimo thunderstorm. In unskilled hands, it can be a very messy trip, and even the most talented conductor can reduce it to a series of pretty Instagram photos of a climb into the high Alps.

Mr. Bychkov proved an expert guide. With the Philharmonic players giving their utmost effort, he managed to make this massive work cohere around a central, continuous melodic line as if the whole piece played in one breath lasting three-quarters of an hour. From the gloomy figurations of Night through the first, surging expression of the main themes, Mr. Bychkov piled thematic idea on thematic idea, seeming to find room for all of Strauss' eccentric twists and turns as the orchestra progressed upward.

At the climax of the work comes its best "special effect", a simple oboe solo that points out to the listener's imagination the scale of one person standing against the vastness of these mighty mountains. This is followed by a grand restatement of the thematic material and then the descent: the fastest and trickiest passages of the work. Here, two timpanists, extensive percussion, a small army of brass players (including Wagner tubas) and a thunder sheet added to the sense of mayhem, but the work stayed firmly on track. Mr. Bychkov's clear architecture and taut conducting paid dividends in the last bars, a lengthy solo for organ over low winds followed by a last breath of the "Night" music.

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