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Sunday, October 7, 2018

Concert Review: The Axe, the King, His Wife and Her Lover

Jaap van Zweden takes his new orchestra for a swim.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Violins is no solution, but in the hands of Leila Josefowicz it's damn impressive.
Photo b Chris Lee © 2018 The New York Philharmonic.
The New York Philharmonic is settling into its new relationship with music director Jaap van Zweden, whose contract started just last month. So far the new boss has placed a heavy emphasis on modern music, with works by living composers opening the first three programs of the young season. This week marked the opening of The Art of Andriessen, a program celebrating the large-scale idiosyncratic work of composer Louis Andriessen. (Mr. Andriessen, an award-winning Dutch composer, is best known to New Yorkers for De Materie, an opera that included hovering blimps and a large flock of live sheep.)
These concerts mark the world premiere of Mr. Andriessen's large-scale tone poem Agamemnon, an orchestral portrait of the Mycenaen king who led the Greeks in the Trojan War, only to be brutally murdered (by his wife and her lover)  in his bathtub upon his return home. At Friday's matinee presentation, this music struck the usually placid daytime crowd like a bronze fist. From the first, dissonant chords, this music had a raw and bleeding edge, painting the dark and bloody fate of the House of Atreus in uncompromising minor-key language.

Mr. van Zweden drew an enthusiastic response from his troops as the orchestra tore into this score with raw energy and the enthusiasm that they reserve for modern music of the highest quality. The multiple sections of Mr. Andriessen's score sounded in the four sections, with exotic percussion touches recalling the "ritual slaughter" music from Strauss' Elektra. That connection was also present in the rising, slab-like chords played by the horns and heavy brass, creating an imposing structure.

If any negative can be levied at this new work, it might be Mr. Andriessen's determination to thoroughly make his point. The work belabored its welcome as most of the musical ideas came full circle, as its utterations of tragic weight became tiring. Suddenly it stopped, and a speaker came forward, uttering a few spoken lines as a sort of eulogy for the slaughtered Greek king. It seemed a dismal payment.

Next up, a pair of Stravinsky works appeared on either side of the intermission, compositions that had not appeared on the Philharmonic program in almost a decade. First was the redoubtable Leila Josefowicz playing the athletic Stravinsky Violin Concerto. This is a composition that reverses the traditional roles of soloist and orchestra in its four movements, placing the onus of rhythmic drive and small musical cell-repetition on the single instrument. Ms.  Josefowicz rose to the challenge, working tautly with Mr. van Zweden and flitting through the quicksilver finale with flying colors.

After the interval, the winds and brass essayed Stravinsky's ten-minute Symphony for Winds, a musically challenging work that explores the idea of antiphon and argument between different groups of musical voices. The sharp-toned argument, with Stravinsky making a foray into atonality seemed to leave the audience befuddled, but they clapped politely for the considerable skill of the players.

When you serve three doses of modern orchestral medicine, follow it with something everybody knows. This was La Mer, the three symphonic esquisses from Claude Debussy. Mr. van Zweden led a performance that was clear, concise but not especially inspired. This performance was more photo snap than Impressionist painting, bringing out all the orchestral details written in the score but played with competence instead of soul-shattering glory. Perhaps that's enough for a new conductor with his orchestra, but then again, perhaps not.

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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.