The World in Flower [New York Philharmonic commission: World premiere performances]
Joyce DiDonato (mezzo-soprano) & Russell Braun (baritone)
New York Choral Artists
New York Philharmonic
Reviewed by: Andrew Farach-Colton
Reviewed: 9 May, 2009
Venue: Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center, New York City
Delicate and dreamily nostalgic, Mahler’s rarely-heard Blumine might seem an unlikely concert-opener. It was an inspired choice for this particular program, however. Mahler was surely wise to excise this slender, serenade-like movement from the final version of his First Symphony, yet it’s woven from the same musical fabric and well-worth hearing. Here, it not only set the stage for a blissed-out new work by Peter Lieberson but also served as a kind of anticipatory appendix to the First Symphony itself – whilst keeping an appropriately respectful distance. Alan Gilbert led a disarmingly earnest reading; he let both the music and musicians breathe and was rewarded with playing of exceptional radiance and artless sophistication.
Lieberson’s “The World in Flower”, given its world premiere during this week of subscription concerts, was a New York Philharmonic commission. An expansive song-cycle for mezzo-soprano, baritone, chorus and orchestra, it is not an easy piece to hold together. For one thing, the composer’s choice of texts is eclectic, to say the least; verses by Gerald Manley Hopkins, Rilke, and Walt Whitman rub shoulders with spiritual exhortations by Rumi, Solomonic odes and Navajo prayers. This diversity is reflected directly in Lieberson’s tonal, tuneful and colorfully-scored music. The opening Rilke setting “I Live My Life in Widening Circles” moves in hypnotic, post-minimalist melodic spirals, for example, while the dance-like rhythms and slippery harmonies of Hopkins’s “That Nature Is a Heraclitean Fire and of the Comfort of the Resurrection” are strikingly Brittenesque, and Neruda’s “Oceana” has a character reminiscent of a Spanish sensual canción.
Gilbert seized on these contrasts to give the cycle a strong, dramatic profile. Joyce DiDonato sang with a tonal richness and emotional generosity that left Russell Braun somewhat in her shadow. Braun was at his best in the penultimate song, an excerpt from “Leaves of Grass”, where he conveyed the profound sensuality of Whitman’s lines with warmth and authority. Lieberson, who knows how to write for the voice, also knows how to write for a choir, and the members of the New York Choral Artists made the most of their substantial part. Indeed, their crisp diction and firm tone were a joy throughout.
After the interval, it was back to Mahler. Gilbert, who conducted the First Symphony from memory, appears to have a close relationship with this tricky score. And there were indeed some marvelous moments. The trio section of the second movement Ländler was simply ravishing, for instance, its melodies unfolding in long, graceful lines. Gilbert’s easy rubato made the music sound a little tipsy; one could imagine a young couple wandering arm-in-arm together after a few too many glasses of wine.
But there were disappointments, too. The symphony’s opening wasn’t nearly hushed or expectant enough; the slow movement’s G major lullaby was too cool (and too loud); and the ‘Sturm und Drang’ of the finale expressed surprisingly little angst. Gilbert, who seems to generally favor flowing tempos, also has a tendency to push, and often to push hard. He did this in the symphony’s coda, which generated considerable excitement (and a standing ovation), but glossed over the fact that there are still vestiges of pain being wrenched out by the brass.