EXPO [New York Philharmonic commission: world premiere]
Poèmes pour Mi
Symphonie fantastique, Op.14
Renée Fleming (soprano)
New York Philharmonic
Reviewed by: Andrew Farach-Colton
Reviewed: 16 September, 2009
Venue: Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center, New York
Alan Gilbert was greeted with a long, loud ovation when he ascended the podium for his first concert as music director of the New York Philharmonic. Many audience members vocalized their anticipatory approval with whoops and whistles. Their excitement was entirely justified, it turns out – this was an evening of first-class music making.
Gilbert began with a brand-new work, commissioned by the Philharmonic specifically for the occasion. Magnus Lindberg’s EXPO (according to the composer, the title refers to “the exposition of Alan’s season”) packs a wide range of moods and colors into an overture-sized package. It begins with an attention-grabbing, percussive crack that ignites a furious burst of energy in the strings. This frantic scurrying is soon pushed aside by the brass, whose massive, glowering chords echo Britten’s “Peter Grimes”. Indeed, soon thereafter the entire orchestra moves in large waves that vividly suggest swell and spray. Later there’s a heavy-footed rumba-like dance section, and a climax of Straussian proportions (capped, even, by the requisite cymbal crash).
EXPO might best be described as a miniature – and somewhat schizophrenic – concerto for orchestra. Gilbert, who conducted from memory, certainly seemed to have the work under his skin. He effortlessly negotiated the music’s abrupt twists and turns, and the Philharmonic players reveled in the work’s unabashed virtuosity.
Messiaen’s “Poèmes pour mi” is probably not what the average Philharmonic subscriber would have chosen for Renée Fleming to sing. She seemed to win the audience over, however. Her performance was beautifully conceived and sung. Not only did she capture the ecstatic, joyous quality of the cycle, but she created a dramatic context, too. In ‘Paysage’, for instance, when she sings “La route pleine de chagrins et de fondrières” (“The road full of grief and potholes”), she looked down at the space in front of her feet and motioned with her hands, as if searching the path ahead.
“Poèmes pour mi” were composed for the Wagnerian soprano Marcelle Bunlet (1900-91), and one could argue that Fleming’s voice is too soft-grained for this music, especially in ‘Épouvnte’ or ‘Les Deux guerriers’. In truth, there were times when, despite Gilbert’s best efforts, the orchestra swamped her voice. On the other hand, her warm, creamy tone is marvelously effective in the sweeter songs. Her seamless legato and evenness of tone were rapturously effective in ‘Ta voix’, for example, one of the most delicate of the nine settings.
Gilbert’s technical skill and musical sensitivity were in evidence throughout. He elicited playing of supple expressivity in ‘La Maison’; ‘Épouvante’ was fabulously feral; and in ‘Le Collier’, he conjured weightless, crystalline orchestral clouds to buoy and cushion Fleming’s voice.
After the interval came Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique. Too often its quirks are underplayed, resulting in dreariness, or else they’re exaggerated, resulting in cartoonish mugging. Gilbert’s interpretation took all of the music’s myriad surprises and caprices, and fit them coherently into the symphony’s narrative trajectory while retaining their essential provocativeness. As a result, the work conveyed a feeling of inexorability and wholeness that was enormously gratifying.
There were far too many felicitous details to catalog fully here, but some that stuck in my memory include the elegant phrasing and shimmering sound of the second movement Waltz. Even at fortissimo, the tone was rounded and polished, revealing nary a hard edge (no mean feat in Avery Fisher Hall’s unforgiving acoustic). ‘March to the Scaffold’ moved with an eager, swaggering step; with a fearsomely raucous tone, the brass played the role of the bloodthirsty crowd to perfection. In the closing depiction of a Witches’ Sabbath, Gilbert made the Dies Irae motif more songful than usual, as if the tune were being chanted by a choir of monstrous, nasal-toned monks – a striking effect.
In short: I can’t remember a more exhilarating or inspiring start to a Philharmonic season.