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Brian Taylor is a musician and writer. He resides in New York City.

REVIEW: Pintscher Conducts Pintscher at the NY Phil

REVIEW: Pintscher Conducts Pintscher at the NY Phil

FEBRUARY 21, 2019

BY BRIAN TAYLOR

Matthias Pintscher is one of today's most successful composers, having won many European awards, and a busy conductor, too, serving as music director of Pierre Boulez's prestigious Ensemble Intercontemporain. This week he leads the New York Philharmonic in a program featuring one of his own compositions. 

The slightly off-kilter program begins with Maurice Ravel's Spanish-tinged confection Alborada del gracioso. Originally written for piano, Ravel orchestrated the Alborada at the behest of ballet impresario Serge Diaghilev for a ballet, and in both versions, it's a highlight of the composer's output. It was described in an early review (by the critic M.D. Calvocoressi) as a "big...scherzo in the manner of Chopin..." and indeed, it has jocular whimsy and nostalgic lyricism. Pintscher has a lively, confident presence on the podium, and injected a bolt of energy onto the stage, as the crisp guitar-like dance conjures the bustling air of a festive Spanish plaza. 

The Philharmonic's woodwinds are given ample solo opportunities in this little showpiece, and they do not disappoint. Principal bassoonist Judith LeClair brought yearning and bittersweet abandon to her serenade.. The percussion section also deserves to be singled out for praise, the delicate wisps of cymbal right in the pocket, the quick, concise bass drum crescendos, and crucial in this journey to Spain, the brittle castanets holding everything together. At Thursday's first performance, this was the evening's most successful piece.

Photo: Chris Lee

Photo: Chris Lee

French violinist Renaud Capuçon joined Pintscher and the Philharmonic to play a fiendishly difficult concerto-like work called mar'eh. According to the composer, the title is a Hebrew word meaning "face, sign," and "wonderful appearance" is "a metaphor for the sound-aura of the entire concerto." Indeed, the music is a series of obscurities just out of reach, with Capuçon soaring higher and higher on the fiddle. His strong bow arm seemed indefatigable, and his dynamic range is remarkable -- sometimes he's left alone to play so soft I wondered if decibels go into negative measurements. But, at 23 minutes, the composition itself, which would work perfectly as underscoring for a horror movie in outer space, conceals any linear form holding it together. Delicate, inventive orchestration, yes, and brilliant playing, especially in characterful little brass solos, mar'eh comes across as a series of special effects that we've heard before.

Photo: Chris Lee

Photo: Chris Lee

Another ballet commission of Diaghilev, Igor Stravinsky's groundbreaking score for The Firebird was played in its entirety (as opposed to the suite played just a few weeks ago under Kahchun Wong). Whereas the suite hits all the highlights, omitting much of the connective material, some of that connective tissue has value, the buildups and suspense so ingenious. And unlike in mar'eh, 47 minutes under Stravinsky's spell fly by. Pintscher conducted an urgent, visceral account, with expressive playing from every corner of the ensemble. The woodwinds, as ever, technically flawless, but full of emotion and warmth. The brass, muscular and incisive, yet rounded. The percussion and three harps always ready to inject fresh energy into the room. The  Philharmonic strings seemingly ready to do anything, as in this piece, they are required to. 

On Thursday evening, however, the performance had not fully gelled. For example, at the iconic climax -- the trumpets hailing their triumphant theme in seven -- it took a few beats for everyone to agree on a tempo. Still, the piece's impact comes through, and the performance is worth hearing for the glittering reading of Ravel's Alborada and the spectacular violin playing of  Renaud Capuçon. Hopefully, this brilliant soloist will be back (ideally with some more ingratiating repertoire) in the future.

***

The performance will be repeated Saturday, February 23 at 2PM.

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