Friday, October 08, 2010

New York Philharmonic – Alan Gilbert, conductor; Joshua Bell, violin. October 7, 2010.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center. First Tier Center (Seat DD109, $65).

Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun (1892-94) by Debussy (1862-1918).
Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in D minor, Op. 47 (1902-04; rev. 1905) by Sibelius (1865-1957).
Kraft (1983-85) by Magnus Lindberg (b. 1958).

Chen Halevi, Clarinet; Carter Brey, Cello; Magnus Lindberg, Piano; Markus Rhoten, Timpani; Christopher S. Lamb, Percussion; Daniel Druckman, Percussion; Juhani Liimatainen, Electronics; Lou Mannarino, Sound Design

Alan Gilbert’s notes in the Playbill and his short talk before the concert certainly made the concert sound quite interesting. The centerpiece is going to be the Lindberg, a Finn, piece which he composed about 25 years ago. To demonstrate the tradition of Finnish music, Sibelius’s violin concerto is a natural choice. It is quite likely that Lindberg went to the Sibelius conservatory (where else could it be?), so it would be interesting to see how music from that school has changed over the years. To link the Debussy piece to the rest of the program took some imagination, although Gilbert illustrated it quite well with how radical the music actually was by demonstrating the different “amplitudes” (I think he meant chromatic intervals) in the flute, clarinet, cello, and bass segments. And he contrasted this with Wagner’s leitmotifs. In Lindberg’s case the distinctive sounds are made by different beats in different instruments, the interplay between chaos and harmony (my words), and use of musicians staged in different parts of the auditorium and sound projected in different speakers by the sound technician.

The rather lengthy introduction did make Debussy sound more interesting than usual. I must have heard this piece many times before, but somehow never seem to remember it. I would have associated it with Debussy anyway – even without Gilbert’s explanation. He did say he liked the melody in the middle part of the piece; and I couldn’t quite tell which melody he meant.

We have heard Sibelius’s violin concerto many times before (more than I remembered, it turns out, when I checked my prior blogs.) I have written a lot about Sibelius and the violin, and there is no need to repeat here. Suffice it to say the piece can be very moving if played well. My prior “encounters” with Bell hadn’t been the most encouraging: I often remarked on his intonation problems, and wondered why the sound of his Stradivarius didn’t project well. His performance today made me change my mind. The intonation problems were there, but he strung together an excellent interpretation of the concerto. The frustration, the struggle, the bargaining, and the acceptance (stages of grief) were all there. And his violin served him well, the softer passages generally spoke above the orchestra. Bell worked very hard at it: he was sweating quite profusely.

The audience was appreciative. One got the feeling Bell wanted to do an encore but thought better of it as it would detract from the overall arcing (or arching) effect of the concert.

We heard Lindberg’s EXPO and Al largo pieces before. While forgettable, they were both relatively short and bearable. Tonight’s piece was advertised to be 27 minutes long (turned out to me more than 30 minutes, or felt that way) and involved a huge orchestra. Much was written in the news about how Lindberg collected pieces of scrap metal from junkyards to be percussion instruments, and indeed there were scattered pieces of junk on stage and in the concert hall: I saw empty gas cylinders, cogs, rocks, wooden wind chimes, containers of water and a stop sign. There is also a sign in front of the podium saying something like “Sewerage Service” which Gilbert said was just nice to have. Hanging in the ceiling over the middle part of the hall was a huge gong which was lowered during the performance.

Gilbert talked a bit more about this piece, and asked different players to demonstrate the strange sounds they could make from the instruments. Mercifully, when he asked Lindberg if he had anything to say, it was “let’s get on with it.” Lindberg played the piano, the gong and other percussion instruments, and he also made a gurgling sound by blowing air into a container of water through a rubber tube.

It is a complex piece of music, started with a loud chord, and reached 62 (or 72) notes when it got to Bar 4. Also at Bar 169 the conductor had to make chirping sounds (with the aid of a microphone.) The soloists were all dressed in polo shirts, jeans, and sneakers. One’s first guess is this is for the “junkyard” theme; probably, but turns out many of them have to run from the stage to the hall and play percussion. Carter Brey showed his athleticism by jumping from the stage and running to the middle of the auditorium to tap on an empty gas tank. One could hear him teasing the percussionists about how anyone could do their job. Different brass and piccolo players also went into the hall to play certain segments. They managed to do so in their black ties and dresses.

There are microphones placed in front of the various solo instruments (the cello in particular), not for sound amplification but to move them around the concert hall over different speakers. This generated a moving effect which was interesting at times.

If I had bothered to take notes, I am sure I would have a lot to say about other aspects of the composition. Perhaps even a bit about the music itself, how it started complex and ended rather simply. The question is, however, what’s the point? It may be an architecturally interesting piece on many levels, and engages the listeners on many different levels; but as a piece that stirs the soul it fails miserably. And (to borrow a phrase from NY Times) it is not that good that it should last 30 minutes.

I have never seen so many people walk out during the middle of a piece like today. We left right at the conclusion as we had to catch a train home. A concert advertised as lasting 1 ½ hours ended up being 2 ¼ hours long. (One reason is it took 30 minutes to set up the stage for the Lindberg piece.)

The first half of the concert certainly was to my taste. I don’t regret listening to the Lindberg piece, but it is quite unlikely I will go listen to it again. Not quite the "that's 30 minutes of my life I'll never get back," but I am certainly glad Lindberg's appointment as composer-in-residence will end after this year.

The New York Times review came out today (October 8). The reviewer analyzed the Lindberg piece just I suspected people would. He was very positive about it, though.


Anonymous said...

I was at the concert too.
First half was boring and just a warm up the Lindberg's AMAZING piece. I wish we could hear more of these kind of 21th century music in the states. So interesting and colorful.
You could hear and see how all of the musicians spent a lot of time working on that piece and that it has something special. I wish I could go there again and again and that Lindberg's residency won't end this year... cause then we're back to the boring american contemporary music, which we have heard too many times. Too bad you couldn't open your self to something new and exciting.

Anonymous said...

Fair enough, but not everyoni is into new experiences.

A couple of comments: I think this season all NY Phil concerts will be replayed on the radio, so Mr/Ms Anonymous can listen to it again (and again, when the concert is available on iTunes.)

Another thing, the piece was written in the TWENTIETH century.

If "spen[ding] a lot of time working on" something would make it great, then we wouldn't have the Sibelius violin concerto, which as it turns out is also 20th century music.

Anonymous said...

I apologize for my mistake, of course I meant to write 20th century and not 21th.

I never said that the Sibelius concerto is not a good piece, it's a masterpiece but we can not compare KRAFT to it - it's a different world and was written in a different time.
Lindberg is currently one of the leading composers in Europe and I wish america could appreciate his work and talent as it is being appreciated in Europe.

It's refreshing for me to hear this kind of style of music live in the city , it doesn't happen too much.
Last night didn't feel long at all for - just exciting and again - refreshing.