REVIEW: Andriessen World Premiere Anchors Excellent Week at New York Phil
October 5, 2018
By Brian Taylor
Jaap van Zweden continued his inaugural season at the helm of the New York Philharmonic with a superbly fine-tuned and interesting concert. Dispelling any concern about a lack of new music, we had the season’s third premiere of a new commission, this time a piece by Louis Andriessen; some refreshingly tart Igor Stravinsky; and a lush account of Claude Debussy's La Mer.
It appears the relationship between Philharmonic and Maestro is off to a good start, the orchestra sounding in tip-top shape, interpretations that push the limits, coming through with flying colors. This is, after all, a superior orchestra, and van Zweden is clearly relishing the virtuosic ensemble at his fingertips.
Dutch composer Andriessen’s Agamemnon opened the program, having been written expressly for the Phil. The hefty work for large orchestra — all hands on deck, plus a female speaker (more on that later), electric guitar, bass and drum kit (ditto) — brought out a fervency in van Zweden. He knows every note of this score, and believes in it — any living composer’s dream come true.
Andriessen knows his way around writing for orchestra, too, and the Philharmonic seems to have a blast tackling the varied textures and everything-but-the-kitchen-sink harmonic palette in the piece. Occasionally, certain compositional choices distract, such as an occasional rock beat — not seeming of a piece — or having a woman “playing” Kassandra, emerging from the rear of the orchestra as the final notes of the score were played, to then deliver — with costume and a Shakespearean affect — thirteen lines from Aeschylus. “...Joy was not less pathetic / Than the worst grief.”
The effect is a step too far, because, even though the program notes expound in various threads about the composer’s themes and narrative threads, music is essentially an abstract art. A tone poem stands on its own; the roughly twenty minutes of music preceding Kassandra’s verbal lament do not mean anything new upon hearing them spoken.
Stravinsky wrote in his autobiography that music is “...essentially powerless to express anything at all, whether a feeling, an attitude of mind, a psychological mood...” But Leila Josefowicz, soloist in his witty Violin Concerto, a neo-classical work from 1931, didn’t get the memo. Emoting and mugging to the audience with choreographed commitment, she telegraphs her emotional interpretation of every phrase. Thankfully, she has fully taken to heart the irony and humor in this mode of Stravinsky’s, and no one can fault her charged, flawless playing.
Strangely, the San Francisco Symphony played the same piece this week at Carnegie Hall with a more reserved, but equally as skilled soloist. But the usually disappointing acoustics in David Geffen Hall actually served Stravinsky’s drier music better, and van Zweden took a more collaborative approach, emphasizing the piece’s chamber music-like approach more.
After intermission, the strings and percussion were put away, and the woodwind and brass put their attention to Stravinsky’s single-movement Symphonies of Wind Instruments from 1920 (revised in 1947). An exploration of sonority and multiple-planes of texture, and a tribute to Debussy (hence, a thought provoking prelude to the French Impressionist’s orchestral grand opus), its beginning is shrill. But Stravinsky never bores, and van Zweden, as ever, has such a convincing point of view that the curiously warm timber of the piece’s final chords was carefully, and purposefully, earned.
Finally, Debussy’s 1903 tone poem in three movements, La Mer, gave the audience an opportunity to bathe in the New York Philharmonic’s glorious sound. The musical seascape, in which sheer symphonic sound serves as paint and canvas for a purely musical depiction of oceanic power found Van Zweden carefully plotting the delicate layers of Debussy’s orchestration, as well as the piece’s overall dramatic sweep.