New York Philharmonic/Gilbert – Barber & Dvořák – Stephanie Blythe sings John Corigliano’s One Sweet Morning

Essay No.1
One Sweet Morning [Co-commissioned by New York Philharmonic & Shanghai Symphony Orchestra: world premiere performances]
Symphony No.7 in D minor, Op.70

Stephanie Blythe (mezzo-soprano)

New York Philharmonic
Alan Gilbert

Reviewed by: Gene Gaudette

Reviewed: 4 October, 2011
Venue: Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center, New York City

Alan Gilbert. Photograph: Chris LeeThe sound of the New York Philharmonic has never been as lush as that of the Philadelphia Orchestra, past or present, but I was struck by the uncanny brilliance of the lower strings in the opening bars of Samuel Barber’s Essay (the first of three such works) that didn’t sacrifice warmth or weight. Alan Gilbert clearly delineated the work’s rhapsodic form, but although the orchestra played some technically dazzling phrases, the performance was ultimately a bloodless and glib exercise.

The Philharmonic co-commissioned John Corigliano’s song-cycle One Sweet Morning to commemorate the tenth anniversary of attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Corigliano has set texts that are a broader meditation on war, by Czeslaw Milosz (on a community stunned by the coming of war), Homer (a particularly raw and explicit description of Patroclus’s methodical, one-by-one slaughter of Trojan warriors), Li Po (a woman who may have lost her husband and sons on the battlefield), and E. Y. (“Yip”) Harburg (on the hope for peace). The work breaks no new ground for Corigliano, and the heavy-handed, gimmicky handling of the Homer text is a serious aesthetic misfire, but the ominous opening song and lamenting Li Po setting are particularly effective, as is the worn-down longing that Corigliano’s music elicits in the hope-filled Harburg poem. Stephanie Blythe’s enormous yet invitingly warm voice – and what an amazing lower range she has – conveyed emotion and atmosphere with powerful effect, transcending the orchestra’s crushing fortissimos in Homer’s brutal re-counting of massacre. The Philharmonic gave a thrillingly colorful rendering, and Gilbert’s skills at balancing an orchestra suited this music very well.

The Seventh is Dvořák’s best symphony. Gilbert’s approach to it was a mixed bag, avoiding, for the most part, the work’s structural pitfalls, but with some jarring tempo shifts. In the opening movement, the first theme suffered from soft-edged articulation, but caught well were the contrasting, delicate mood of the second theme and the hairpin-turn contrasts of the tricky development section, ratcheting up the tension in the high-voltage coda. The Adagio was a bit more sugary than customary, but nevertheless bucolic, and the scherzo’s contrasting articulations in the strings were particularly effective without sounding exaggerated – although the tempo was somewhat lingering. The finale’s opening was ominous enough, but despite some extreme tempo shifts, the music unfolded with plenty of drama, Gilbert and the very-in-form Philharmonic more physically engaged than has been the case.

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