NY Philharmonic at Kimmel

I don’t get out to concerts as much as I would like, or as much as I should, but at the moment I am in the midst of a string of musical events. Here’s a first report.

Last Friday, the New York Philharmonic, with its music director Alan Gilbert, did what musicians call a run-out, bringing the program of Stucky, Berlioz, and Mussorgsky/Ravel they were playing for their weekly subscription series at Lincoln Center to the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia. Steven Stucky’s name is deservedly prominent at the moment, and he is best known for a big catalog of masterful orchestral music. (I mean a big catalog, Stucky is another one of those characters who makes me feel slow and lazy.)  His Son Et Lumière is from 1988. The music is rooted in a Franco/Russian musical world (hence the apt programming) and is influenced (as I’m sure Steve is tired of hearing said) by Lutoslawski’s language: the preference for harmonies with a very clear intervallic identity, particularly big euphonious stacks of thirds; the vibrant, bustling textures, emphasizing transparent orchestral colors, even when those textures are at their busiest; and forms often shaped by juxtaposition of contrasting sections, like cinematic cuts. The quest for harmonic clarity in this idiom can sometimes affect the melodic profile – there are spots in Lutoslawski where the melodies (say, the first part of Mi-Parti) are little more than arpeggiations of the underlying harmony, with relatively little embellishment. There is a hint of that in Steve’s music of this period, but I think he was aware of the issue, and he successfully avoids the static, somewhat flat quality that can result.

Compositions can be understood as critiques of other compositions, and Son et Lumiére responds to minimalism’s emphasis on regular pulsation by employing motor rhythms, but with a richer, less static harmonic language. Despite the reliance on ostinato throughout a good bit of the piece, Steve’s keen sense of timing moves us along at just the right moment. The repeated patterns serve the music, rather than themselves being the musical focus.

A darker expressive character inhabits the closing two and a half minutes of the piece. After a tremendous low pedal tone, the ostinatos that have driven the piece so far are set aside, and brief interjections are layered over an impassioned string cantilena, the interjections finally crystallizing into short sharp high trumpet chords. The cantilena cuts off, the glittering, slicing trumpet chords continue for a moment, and then a three-note motto from the unpitched percussion – which had served as a playful call to attention earlier in the piece – now brutally cuts off further discussion.

I may be wrong, but I don’t think the Philadelphia Orchestra has played Steve’s music since the premiere of his Concerto for Orchestra back in the 1980’s (not to be confused with his Pulitzer Prize-winning Second Concerto for Orchestra from 2003). Here’s hoping that oversight gets rectified soon. (Update: only on re-reading this post did I recall that Olly Knussen conducted the Philadelphia in Steve’s arrangement of Purcell’s Funeral Music for Queen Mary several years ago.) There is an excellent recording of Son et Lumiére by the Albany Symphony, David Alan Miller conducting.

After the brilliance of the Stucky, the Philharmonic showed itself capable of subtle nuances in its accompaniment of Joyce DiDonato in Berlioz’s Nuit d’Eté. It is hard to overpraise Ms. DiDonato – her varied, perfectly controlled, but always gorgeous sound is put at the service of  intensely characterful expression. The Berlioz is more about languid gestures than the coloratura of which she is capable, and I was most struck by the inward moments of the piece, the especially quiet spots where DiDonato drew the listeners into the music; a mere superficial projection of the music outward for us to admire is not her way.

The performance of Pictures at an Exhibition that closed the program returned to the dazzling mode of Stucky’s curtain raiser. I’m afraid I have to somewhat agree with Peter Dobrin’s sense that there were moments of imperfect balance, but these were offset by tremendous virtuosity, both of soloists and the ensemble as a whole. One moment of imbalance, at least where I was sitting, was the sampled church bell in the last movement of the Mussorgsky – it sounded great, so much better than the usual compromises –  (it is a big problem to get a truly low bell sound on an orchestral stage) but it was a bit too much of a good thing.

Comment on the Network/Felyx_M concerts from this past weekend, plus the upcoming Eric Owens recital and next week’s Philadelphia Orchestra concerts with James Gaffigan yet to come.

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