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Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Concert Review: Sssh, They'll Hear You

Composer Matthias Pintscher conducts the New York Philharmonic
The composer Matthias Pinscher did podium duty this week at the New York Philharmonic.
Photo from
In the new era of administration at the New York Philharmonic, it is as yet unclear what priority is really being placed on the performance of new and contemporary classical music. However, modernity was a priority at last week's concerts, which saw the orchestra welcome composer Matthias Pintscher to the podium of David Geffen Hall. Mr. Pintscher has conducted these forces a few times in the past decade, leading concerts in the grand 360˚ experiment of 2012,  the first NY Phil Biennial and a memorable Das Lied von der Erde in the hectic week following Hurricane Sandy. However, these performances were his first regular subscription concerts.

On Thursday evening, the concert opened with Ravel, the Alborada de grazioso. This is a transcription for orchestra of a fiendishly difficult piano piece, where the snap rhythms and trills that are so demanding for ten fingers are distributed among plucked strings and a glittering array of percussion. The musicans know this one in their proverbial sleep and responded to Mr. Pintscher's leadership with respectful good humor, going through their paces smoothly. 

The main course was Mr. Pintscher's new work:  mar'eh. This is a new single-movement concerto for violin. Its title is the Hebrew word for "breath". It found Mr. Pintscher and soloist Renaud Capuçon, exploring some unfamiliar territory for this most traditional of instruments. Mr. Capuçon led the audience into the high ionosphere of the fretboard and the wispy exosphere of harmonics, sometimes with sounds so faint that they seemed to fade (though not quite) to silence. The overall tone piece was ethereal, with notes finally emerging from the mists, and in certain passages the ear was forced to focus intently as Mr. Capuçon played almost inaudibly.

It wasn't all silence. Mr. Capuçon's violin skittered, skipped and danced, its player intent on the subtleties emerging. It would be answered by horn calls in the distance, squiggly figurations in the woodwinds and occasionally the grunt and chug of the basses. Mr. Pintscher adorned the solo line with all manner of orchestral effect, but the violin dominated the work throughout, barely taking a moment to let the accompaniment speak. When the strings did it was in the same stuttering language as the soloist, as if the two musical lines were trying to shout each other down in a friendly but voluble argument.

The second half of the concert was devoted to Mr. Pintscher's interpretation of The Firebird, the first major work in the catalogue of one Igor Stravinsky. It was presented here in its entirety rather than one of the trimmed-for-length concert suites that are popular with some orchestras. This works stands like the two-headed Russian eagle of the old Empire. In one direction, it draws from the late Romanticism and love of Russian folklore that colored the music of Stravinksy's teacher Rimsky-Korsakov. What the other head is looking at is often a matter of interpretation by the conductor, as Stravinsky's vast score contains a number of middle passages in which the young firebrand's love of experimentation was given room to roam.  

It was these passages, often rushed or played as rote, that Mr. Pintscher found to be of the greatest interest. He revelled in the glittering flames that licked out of the woodwinds as the titular Firebird appeared. The slow, majestic dances were a succession of little sonic miracles, as details were polished and lovingly presented. A slow and considered tempo was the rule here, the better to draw out each tiny detail in the score. 

Then came the ferocious slam-bang of the Dance of King Kaschei, and the orchestra came to animated life. Mr. Pintscher drove them hard through this propulsive music, somewhere between a Dies Irae and a danse macabre. The contrabassoons held the spotlight briefly for their great solo passage in "Lullaby" and then it was time for the big finish. The first horn entered, playing the solo that starts the great avalanche of tonal resolution that wraps this work up. As the orchestra followed and the timpani rolled, the composer's design emerged in flaming wings of glory. Silence had been conquered.

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