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Friday, April 26, 2019

Concert Review: The Bigger Bang Theory

The New York Philharmonic premieres Thomas Larcher's Kenotaph.
A bigger bang: Semyon Bychkov, on podium leads the New York Philharmonic.
Photo by Chris Lee © 2019 The New York Philharmonic.
In his Symphony No. 2, "Kenotaph", the Austrian composer Thomas Larcher employs a bewildering variety of percussion instruments. Ranging from conventional drums to items found in kitchens and garages, this battery serves as the harsh and unyielding reminder of the cruelty and misery running rampant on our globe in this still-young century. On Thursday night at the New York Philharmonic, this young work was paired with a symphony of great intellectual rigor, the Fourth by Johannes Brahms. This was the second of four scheduled performances this week at David Geffen Hall.

This grim work was written in reaction to the refugee crisis that flooded the Mediterranean following the seemingly endless series of wars in the Middle East, a flood tide of desperate people swarming in flight from their now destroyed country into the arms of a cold and uncaring world. The title refers to a grave marker without human remains, a symbol demanding reflection and solemnity. Mr. Larcher took the stage on Thursday before the performance, saying a few words about the title of his piece and the rationale behind it but preferring to let the music speak for itself.

Despite having a title and intent, Kenotaph is not program music. It follows Mr. Larcher’s own rules but also observes the conventions of its genre in its four movements. Its gritty black-and-white language recalls Richard Strauss at his most experimental. There are repeated references to the jarring final pages of Elektra: huge slab-like chords answered by the pianissimo hum of woodwinds atop tremolo strings. The effect is unsettling, and is meant to be. The music punches the listener, and then counter-punches, lulling the ears one moment before the next wave of horror hits.

The conductor Semyon Bychkov, at the start of a two week visit with the Philharmonic is the dedicatee of this work. (He also led the world premiere of this work in Vienna, two years ago.) He did a superb job here, wrangling this challenging score and drawing precision assaults from the five-man percussion team. The strings played stuttering rhythms and slithering glissandi. These struggling young tunes were cut off again and again by the brutal percussion: heating coils, metal sheets and even a biscuit tin. (I myself cannot tell you where that particular implement was deployed--there was simply too much going on.)

The orchestra minced into the spidery Scherzo, a movement that proved to be full of small jewel-like treasures that would come alive and seem to snap at your fingers. A prepared piano and an accordion added to the exotic textures of sound, and a tumultuous middle section led p, not to t
a repeat of the first theme (as is is customary in a scherzo) but to the cruelest trick of all, a short, exquisite coda for strings that brought the listener into a dead end. The Finale employed this device in reverse, starting with a conventional circle of fifths before going off to the races again in a dazzling display of orchestration that managed to get in a few last sharp kicks to the ribs.

Following this, the Brahms Symphony No. 4 in E minor seems (on paper anyway) like an almost dull choice. However, the myth that Brahms was a "conservative" composer can be safely laid to rest by this work. True, the Fourth employs deliberate throwbacks to the Baroque era, but this is Brahms' most radical large-scale creation. It is a symphony that pointed a way forward toward dense musical construction. Brahms, toward the end of his career was exploring the same principles of vertical organization as Wagner, creating denser music that would be a pervasive influence on Schoenberg and Webern. If there is a common ground with Mr. Larcher's new work, it is in the blunt refusal of its creator to engage in any sort of musical compromise for the sake of his audience. 

Mr. Bychkov gave the Fourth a quirky interpretation that was very much his own. The sighing thirds of the first movement had grief and weight. The horn call that led off the adagio sounded particularly isolated, the loneliest lament in an unfeeling world. Warmth returned through a rock solid faith in the traditions of music. This could be heard in the church chorales that led off the Scherzo, an interpolation of joy into the gloom. And then there's that finale, a massive construction in which an eight-note chaconne theme is put through the torture test of thirty-two variations. Brahms is not about dry academia here, he uses this as a means to his own emotional rescue in the triumphant final pages.

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