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.

Rouse Oboe Concerto in Philly

I went to hear Chris Rouse’s Oboe Concerto tonight with the Philadelphia Orchestra, Alan Gilbert conducting, and the superb Richard Woodhams as soloist. The piece is in what the composer calls his “genial” mode – as opposed to a demonic piece like his Pulitzer Prize winning Trombone Concerto. I was most taken with the slow music – exquisite colors, both in the sense of harmony and of orchestral timbre. The contrasting fast playful sections are brilliant, but it was the ecstatic stillness supporting the intensely lyrical Woodhams oboe that was most striking.

Gilbert opened the program with the piece Magnus Lindberg wrote for Gilbert’s inaugural concert as music director of the NY Phil – it is called EXPO (not sure why the all-caps). The piece works with a rather French sounding harmonic language, something it shared with the Rouse. Beethoven 6 closed the program in a performance memorable for some moments of remarkably soft but rich string playing and the characterful wind solos – it was a great night for wind playing all around. Bravo to Alan Gilbert for programming not one but two new pieces.

Made in USA

Anthony Tommasini’s piece in today’s Times about the NY Phil’s programming of American music touches on a tricky subject. I’m glad, of course, to see the Philharmonic doing new music at all, and particularly glad to see American composers Marsalis, Rouse and Kernis on the bill for next season. And it does seem reasonable of Alan Gilbert to say that a longer view of the programming over a couple of seasons is necessary to get an accurate sense of his priorities. (Of course that point cuts both ways – he can’t exactly take credit for programming the Kernis which has been in the pipeline for some time.) The Philharmonic is a global citizen, and has a responsibility to bring the work of top composers like Adés and Lindberg from other countries to New York. That is an important service that nourishes our cultural life.

And yet – the Philharmonic also has a responsibility to be a cultural leader in this country and in New York City. Consistently commissioning and presenting a substantial amount of music by American composers is an essential part of that leadership. Here’s hoping that the next composer-in-residence with the Philharmonic will be an American, someone who can give an American face to American music at the Philharmonic.