A Month at the Phil

by Sedgwick Clark

Gilbert’s Austere Nielsen

Alan Gilbert’s first major recording project since becoming music director of the New York Philharmonic is the symphonies and concertos of Denmark’s foremost composer, Carl Nielsen (1865-1931), for Dacapo. The series commenced last year with the Second Symphony (The Four Temperaments), recorded live in concert. Last week was the Third, nicknamed Sinfonia espansiva. The two are set for release on the first CD in the fall.

Nielsen completed his Third in 1911, the same year as Stravinsky’s Petrushka, Sibelius’s Fourth Symphony, Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle, and Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier. Debussy was working on Book II of his Préludes and Ravel on Daphnis et Chloé. Three weeks after Nielsen finished his Third, Mahler died, leaving his Tenth Symphony unfinished.

Like those composers, Nielsen’s mature voice is unmistakable—unique even, like Janáček’s—with warmly German Romantic roots. He has often been compared with his fellow Scandinavian Sibelius, but the Dane’s sunny optimism, prankster humor, and humanistic love of life are nowhere to be found in the moody Finn’s music. Nor were those qualities much evident in Gilbert’s first of four performances of the Third (6/14), although a friend who heard three performances felt he had relaxed into the work a bit more by the final one.

Gilbert began promisingly with sharp attacks on those stuttering (Anthony Tommasini’s apt description in his Times review) fortissimo chords, digging in with ample schwung to the central oom-pah waltz section. But taut symphonic structure is not what Nielsen is about. By the work’s end, with only fleeting hints of rubato or expressive rhetoric (such as healthy unmarked ritards in the final bars of the outer movements) to heighten the music’s joy, one felt Gilbert’s vision anything but espansiva. His sole departure from the score was a slight increase of tempo for the last two pages of the finale, which raised the temperature nicely.

The conductor’s urgency should better suit Nielsen’s propulsive Fourth (The Inextinguishable) when the time comes.

The program opened with Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture, with Gilbert preferring warm, rounded textures over the work’s inherent nervous intensity. His sensitive accompaniment in Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s Violin Concerto fit Leonidas Kavakos’s affectionate interpretation like a glove. I felt the first two movements dragged somewhat, having learned the piece via the famous Heifetz recording, but the finale veritably crackled, bringing the audience roaring to its feet.

Comfortable Mozart   

Coming after Gilbert’s spectacularly successful subscription finales to his first two seasons, Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre and Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen, a pair of Mozart works to end the season seemed a cruel joke. True, Emanuel Ax’s genial take on the 22nd piano concerto and a buoyant, unpressured performance of the Mass in C minor (Great) on June 20 were nothing to sneeze at. Moreover, a Joseph Flummerfelt chorus (New York Choral Artists in this case) is always a treat. And those productions must have been costly in a time of red ink. But this is the New York Philharmonic, damn it all, and those two 20th-century operas were huge hits with the public and critics. An imaginative music director is a terrible thing to waste.

Dutilleux—the French Bartók?

Scheduling three non-subscription concerts of mostly 20th- and 21st-century music the following week partly made up for this lapse of judgment.

First, on June 26, a superbly performed concert of three scintillating works by French composer Henri Dutilleux: Métaboles (1961-64), Ainsi la nuit (Thus the Night) (1973-76), and Tout un monde lointain . . . (A Whole Distant World . . .) for Cello and Orchestra (1968-70, rev. 1988). Yo-Yo Ma was soloist, so the concert was sold out and scalpers proliferated. (I wonder how many audience members had the vaguest notion of what they were about to hear?) They heard top notch—Ma at his best, the young Miró Quartet irrepressible in the second work, and the Philharmonic strings in Métaboles as sumptuous as I’ve ever heard them, reminding us that Gilbert is a violinist. A definite highlight of his tenure thus far. Dutillieux revealed a delightful penchant for pizzicato in the first two works especially, reminiscent of Bartók’s MUSPAC and, more generally, the Hungarian master’s Concerto for Orchestra.

The concert also marked the first year of the Marie-Josée Kravis Prize for New Music at the New York Philharmonic, with Dutilleux as its inaugural winner. Upon accepting the award, the French composer announced that he would share the prize money of $200,000 with composers Anthony Chueng, Franck Krawczyk, and Peter Eötvös, who will write new works for the Philharmonic in Dutilleux’s honor. Kravis and her husband, Henry, have been major donors for new works at the Philharmonic since 2003, and the new prize will be awarded every other year. The Composer-in-Residence position is also endowed by the Kravises. Bravi to all concerned!

Second is a pair of concerts at the gargantuan Park Avenue Armory consisting of four works for multiple orchestras: Stockhausen’s Gruppen; Boulez’s Rituel (composed for the Philharmonic when he was music director); Mozart’s finale from Act I of Don Giovanni; and Ives’s The Unanswered Question, which is not really for three orchestras, but strings representing silence, a solo trumpet intoning the question, and flutes replying in increasingly hysterical “answers.” Presumably these three choirs will be widely separated in the Armory. The concerts are this coming weekend, the 29th and 30th. 

Let’s Not Forget CONTACT

This new-music series was conceived by Gilbert and the orchestra’s initial composer in residence, the Finn Magnus Lindberg, whose three-year term will be assumed next season by the American Christopher Rouse. On June 9 (Carl Nielsen’s birthday, incidentally) Lindberg hosted his final CONTACT program, with David Robertson conducting, at Symphony Space.

The astonishing 103-year-old Elliott Carter’s latest world premiere, Two Controversies and a Conversation, was played. He was in attendance for an interview with Lindberg and to cheer on percussionist Colin Currie and pianist Eric Huebner. The Swiss composer Michael Jarrell’s impossibly titled NACHLESE Vb: Liederzyklus (2011), on poems by Luis de Góngora y Argote, received its U.S. premiere. I have no idea if it’s a total-serial work, but it certainly harks back to the prim timbre and erotic beauty of fifties’ Boulez. I was riveted from first note to last and hope to hear more of Jarrell’s music soon. Charlotte Dobbs appeared to have mastered the composer’s intricate writing utterly.

Robertson introduced Boulez’s …explosante-fix… after intermission. He had conducted the Ensemble InterContemporain in the 1993 premiere of this final version and not only spoke lucidly but apparently extemporaneously, without notes, about the work’s history and composition. Absolutely mind-blowing! Equally impressive was his conducting, which harked back to Boulez’s Philharmonic days and the elder conductor’s extraordinary ability to make the performances so confident and easily grasped. And the Philharmonic players proved they still have it, seemingly negotiating these complex works as if they were basic repertoire—a crackpot notion that violinist Fiona Simon disabused me of afterwards, enumerating the hours of rehearsal both officially and at home. Well worth it, Fiona!

Looking forward

My week’s scheduled concerts:

6/29, Park Avenue Armory. New York Philharmonic/Alan Gilbert; Magnus Lindberg, Matthias Pintscher, assistant conductors. Gabrieli: Canzon for antiphonal brass. Boulez: Rituel in memoriam Bruno Maderna. Mozart: Don Giovanni, Act I Finale. Stockhausen: Gruppen. Ives: The Unanswered Question.

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