New York Philharmonic/Gilbert Joshua Bell – Kraft

Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune
Violin Concerto in D minor, Op.47
Kraft [New York premiere]

Joshua Bell (violin)

Magnus Lindberg (piano), Chen Halevi (clarinets), Carter Brey (cello), Christopher S. Lamb, Daniel Druckman & Daniel Boico (percussion), Markus Rhoten (timpani), Juhani Liimatainen (electronics) & Lou Mannarino (sound design) [Kraft]

New York Philharmonic
Alan Gilbert

Reviewed by: Gene Gaudette

Reviewed: 7 October, 2010
Venue: Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center, New York

Alan Gilbert preceded the performance of Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun with musical examples and brief comments explaining what made the work so unrelentingly modern for a work of the mid-1890s: Wagnerian motifs that transform throughout the work and in effect create its formal structure. Gilbert used a smaller-than-usual string section — under 50 players — and led a lean, transparent, and unsentimental performance that emphasized the work’s beauty and variety of tone colors.

Joshua Bell. Photograph: www.joshuabell.comThe opening pianissimo of Sibelius’s Violin Concerto was instantaneously atmospheric and suspenseful, and Joshua Bell played the opening phrases with dramatic affirmation and extrovert phrasing, employing emphatic portamento and strong accents but avoiding choppiness. Yes, the first movement is in a minor key, but Bell gave the opening solo passage a surprisingly optimistic undercurrent. Gilbert’s accompaniment was poker-faced until the central cadenza, which Bell rendered with urgency. Upon the orchestra’s entrance, soloist and conductor delivered the remainder of the movement with a confident, heroic character reminiscent of Sibelius’s tone poems based on Finnish legends. In the Adagio, Gilbert and Bell seemed to rein-in its outbursts, delivering more lyricism and emphasizing the movement’s structural arc. The finale had plenty of rhythmic impetus, Bell and Gilbert seeking-out the movement’s color and lyricism – and nuanced, dramatic tempo shifts, including a very effective acceleration of the last few bars, were used to good effect. Bell, one of the most consistently fine soloists today, was never overwhelmed by the orchestra – Gilbert exerts tight control over dynamics, and I can think of a few big-name maestros who could learn a few things from him on this matter.

Alan Gilbert. Photograph: Chris LeeThe New York Philharmonic has worked overtime to promote the local premiere of Magnus Lindberg’s Kraft. The Sunday New York Times ran an amusing feature on the search for “found” percussion instruments required by the score, following the composer and NYP percussionists on their trek through a Staten Island scrap-yard (they also found a ‘stop sign’ and a panel from a “Rapid Sewer Cleaning” truck, which was cheekily hung from the podium for this performance). For the last few days, one couldn’t tune into the city’s classical station, WQXR, without hearing mention of the work. The publicity campaign worked, as the orchestra played to a capacity audience.

Kraft is a dense, large-scale work for amplified soloists (even the conductor, who with the soloists interjects amplified vocal noises) and orchestra. Composed between 1983 and 1985 for the Toimii Ensemble (of which Lindberg was a member), the harmonic underpinning of the work is a chain of dense chords (at the beginning of bar 4, a chord of 72 individual pitches spanning nearly the entire range of the orchestra is played) that are in a continuous state of transformation. At various points in the work members or entire sections of the orchestra leave the stage for points around the hall – in the first movement, the brass leaves to form antiphonal groups in front of the stage and in the rear corners of the audience; and the flutists are in the corners of the first tier playing piccolos. Even the instrumental soloists are participating as percussionists, slowly walking down the aisles playing antique cymbals; there is a station of percussion instruments dead-center in the audience, including a large tam-tam hung to rotate after it is struck. The music holds similarities to that of Ligeti, Berio and Boulez; Lindberg’s interest in mathematics is also reflected in the score, and a few sections — particularly a stretch of complex contrapuntal section played by the lower brass that slowly rises in central pitch and portamento playing from the cellist – are strongly reminiscent of Xenakis’s later orchestral works.

It’s worth noting that Kraft was the last work Lindberg wrote in something resembling the “cosmopolitan postwar avant-garde” style – he took a hiatus from composing for a couple of years after Kraft’s completion and writes in a style that retains strong rhythmic complexity and vivid orchestral colors, but in an extended tonal and harmonic musical grammar.

Gilbert preceded the performance with a few words about preparations for the performance and a number of musical examples. There was not a dull moment in the work – and one meditative section, in which the central tam-tam and four pitched gongs play isolated notes from vantage points in and around the orchestra, is remarkable in its beauty. Lindberg has created a score that draws amazing sounds from the instruments, including bright but not unpleasant metallic timbres from the upper strings, wild quasi-improvisatory outbursts from contrabass clarinet, and plenty of decibels from the panoply of “found” and traditional percussion instruments. The soloists, Gilbert, and the Philharmonic brought clarity to this massive half-hour of music. The orchestral players seemed just as enthusiastic and engaged as the soloists. Admittedly, this music isn’t for everyone, and a few-dozen people walked out. The response from the audience was a little tentative, though a solid contingent applauded and cheered quite loudly. I was thoroughly impressed with both the exuberant music and the extraordinarily well-prepared performance.

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