New York Philharmonic Contemporary Music Ensemble – Lindberg & Grisey

Souvenir (in memoriam Gérard Grisey)
Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil

Barbara Hannigan (soprano)

New York Philharmonic Contemporary Music Ensemble
Alan Gilbert

Reviewed by: Gene Gaudette

Reviewed: 20 November, 2010
Venue: Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City

Alan Gilbert. Photograph: Chris LeeAlan Gilbert is proving to be one of the most ardent champions of contemporary music that New York City has seen in a long time. Gilbert was instrumental in the appointment of Magnus Lindberg as the New York Philharmonic’s composer-in-residence. This concert, a repeat of the program presented at Symphony Space the evening before, paid tribute to one of Lindberg’s teachers, the late Gérard Grisey. Each piece was introduced by Gilbert and Lindberg; Lindberg quipped that much of the time he spent with Grisey was taken up with him discussing his own compositions – an exercise Lindberg found eye-opening in seeing the creation of music through a different aesthetic approach.

Lindberg’s Souvenir (in memoriam Gérard Grisey) is written in a far more accessible style than Grisey’s Spectral-style music, but does not shy away from the timbral richness prevalent in the music of Grisey and his contemporaries. The opening movement makes emphatic use of tam-tams and instruments in the low register (a portent of the following work of Grisey). The flashes of instrumental color in the first movement are the focus, as the music itself is sparse and restrained. The second is the most funereal of the work, particularly the lamenting horn and string music and lower percussion shifting the music into funeral-march tempo. The third marks a return to the colorful flashes in the first, but with a nimbler and sometimes-manic feel and more tonally-centered melodic and harmonic content. On first listening it does not seem to be Lindberg’s most successful work, and the first two movements seem about a third too long, but the compelling finale held interest completely.

“Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil” (Four Songs for Crossing the Threshold) is Grisey’s last major work, written shortly before his death in 1998 and scored for a genuinely unusual ensemble predominated by lower winds – saxophones, bass clarinets and tubas – but also two harps, violin, flute, trumpet, and percussion. The four settings are titled ‘The Death of the Angel’ (after Christian Guez Ricord’s “The Hours of the Night”), ‘The Death of Civilization’ (from inscriptions on Egyptian sarcophagi of the Middle Empire), ‘The Death of the Voice’ (after 6th-century BC Greek poet Erinna) and ‘The Death of Humanity’ (from “The Epic of Gilgamesh”). Gilbert drew a comparison of the work with Mahler’s “Das Lied von der Erde”, but I was struck more by sonorities that sound not like something from the catacombs of IRCAM but rather the primal, low-register music of Giacinto Scelsi.

The score unfolds very slowly, comparable to the glacial pacing of Andrei Tarkovsky’s films in which tension is often sustained with slow, long takes. This instrumental music frames the text, often revealed a syllable at a time, separated by ominous instrumental tones. Barbara Hannigan dominated the performance with stunningly agile vocal leaps of an octave or more, an impressively enormous array of timbres, a frighteningly wide dynamic range, and even a moment of ironic humor as she uttered the final Egyptian inscription: “formule pour être un dieu” (formula for being a god). Guess that didn’t work out too well.

It was gratifying to see Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium filled to near capacity, and there were few people fleeing the scene (as there were during the Philharmonic’s magnificent performance of Lindberg’s Kraft earlier this season). What’s more, the audience had an impressively healthy proportion of twenty- and thirty-somethings, offering yet more evidence that it’s best to ignore talk that classical music is dead or that contemporary music is too esoteric for the conservative New York crowd.

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