New York Philharmonic – Jaap van Zweden conducts Julia Wolfe’s unEarth, and Frank Huang plays Sibelius’s Violin Concerto


Violin Concerto in D-minor, Op.47

Julia Wolfe

unEarth [New York Philharmonic commission: world premiere]

Frank Huang (violin)

Else Torp (soprano)

The Crossing [men’s voices]
Young People’s Chorus of New York City

New York Philharmonic
Jaap van Zweden

Anne Kauffman – Director
Lucy MacKinnon – Projection Designer
Ben Stanton – Lighting Designer
Jody Elff – Sound Designer
Kenny Savelson – Project Manager

Reviewed by: Susan Stempleski

Reviewed: 2 June, 2023
Venue: Wu Tsai Theater, David Geffen Hall, Lincoln Center, New York City

Wu Tsai Theater, David Geffen Hall, Lincoln Center, New York City

Julia Wolfe’s unEarth was the featured work in the New York Philharmonic’s on-going series exploring climate change and exploiting the dynamic audiovisual capabilities of the newly renovated Geffen Hall. The oratorio-like multimedia work is cast in three movements – “Flood”, “Forest”, and “Fix It” – and the text, displayed on a huge circular disk suspended over the orchestra and superimposed onto images of nature, pages from scientific documents, and video portraits of individual members of the Young People’s Chorus – is based on a wide variety of sources: the Book of Genesis, Emily Dickenson, documents on climate study, responses from members of the children’s chorus, and protest slogans about climate change.

The colorful and largely tonal score calls for a full symphonic orchestra supplemented by a large and unusual array of instruments – including gongs, sandpaper blocks, guiros, conga drums, marimba, vibraphone, acoustic guitar, electric bass guitar, and electric organ, along with a soprano and choirs.

The second movement offered the most imaginative music. As the male choristers slow-danced down the aisles of the hall intoning the word “tree” in a variety of world languages (including indigenous ones), the orchestra imitated tree-sounds in nature – creaking, winds rustling through branches, rumbling leaves – against an invigorating mix of Latin, folk and rock rhythms. When the men reached the lip of the stage, they turned their backs to the audience as Else Torp, costumed as the Earth Goddess Gaia in a long white robe and botanical crown, roamed the stage, her overamplified and stratospherically high voice singing fragments from Dickinson’s “Who robbed the woods”.

Elsewhere, the music sounded more like the soundtrack from a documentary film, especially the Finale where the increasingly urgent orchestral line was constantly interrupted by expressive cries from solo instruments while the choristers called out words and phrases like “Solarification” and “Habitat fragmentation” along with pleas for a greener planet. While there can be no doubt about the sincerity and worthiness of Wolfe’s message, and that the score is at times highly imaginative, the multimedia concept presented was so overblown that it undercut the musical experience and was less than compelling.

For the first half, New York Philharmonic concertmaster Frank Huang played Sibelius’s Violin Concerto, a rather odd pairing with the Wolfe, but its intriguing mix of brooding melancholy with brighter sounding themes served as a surprisingly fitting complement to the predominantly ominous tone of the Wolfe. Playing with clarity and grace, Huang engaged his colleagues – in excellent form under Jaap van Zweden – in a genuine dialogue. After negotiating the challenges of the first-movement cadenza with seeming ease, his silver-toned lyricism was especially moving in the Adagio, delivered with elegant restraint, and the Finale was fast, brilliant and wonderfully clear.

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