New York Philharmonic/Robertson – Saariaho Premiere

The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian – Symphonic Fragments
Adriana Songs [U.S. premiere]
Night Ride and Sunrise, Op.55
La mer – three symphonic studies

Patricia Bardon (mezzo-soprano)

New York Philharmonic
David Robertson

Reviewed by: Victor Wheeler

Reviewed: 14 December, 2006
Venue: Avery Fisher Hall, New York City

Claude Debussy’s lush palette of incidental music for Gabriele D’Annunzio’s impious 1911 ‘mystery play’ “The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian” set the stage for what was to transpire: an evening replete with superb musicianship, conducting, and singing.

D’Annunzio (1863-1938), a literary polymath turned to Debussy to write the music for the play – after two lesser composers had turned down D’Annunzio’s request. The Symphonic Fragments are four sections compiled by André Caplet (1878-1925). This performance was done with panache, with dissonant violin and viola chords bouncing off each other. The double basses supplied powerful added tension while the horns and trumpets hit their chromatic peaks, causing this listener’s heart to race and jump. Both subtle and evident plucking, strumming, and long bowing, induced well-formulated orchestral sonorities. The winds demonstrated clarity of sound and formulation of psychological imagery.

The Irish mezzo-soprano, Patricia Bardon, sang the part of Adriana in the U.S. premiere of Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho’s second opera, “Adriana Mater”. Here Bardon lovingly sang three of Adriana’s songs taken from the opera. An anonymous country at war is the setting for the songs. Tsargo, a man living in Adriana’s village, rapes her, and out of that crime is born a son, Yonas, who at the age of 17 learns of the rape and that the rapist was his father; Yonas decides to murder his father in revenge – but then does not. Amin Maalouf, the Lebanese librettist of the work, knows of war first-hand. Life and death play off against each other in the songs and in an orchestral interlude. Bardon showed a wide range of emotions in her portrayal, and the pathos in her rich, dusky voice brought out Adriana’s multiple emotional states that wavered from line to line. In ‘Autumn Garden’, the she showed the complexities of Adriana’s feelings and realistically conveyed Adriana’s feelings in quiet moments. Bardon was the consummate opera actress and singer, revealing Adriana’s heart and psyche. The orchestral interlude was played with flair. David Robertson wielded the baton in an ecstatic manner pushing and pulling orchestral sounds that conveyed Yonas’s conflicting emotions regarding his father.

Also from Finland, Night Ride and Sunrise, with its incessant rhythm of horses’ hooves pulls the listener through a shadowy landscape, images of a landscape reawakening from the monotony of darkness and returning to life with the arrival of sunrise. The horns sound the arrival, prior to which birds call an evocation of the bright day to come. Sibelius was a pessimist by nature, yet he is reported to have said of a sunrise he witnessed after a 350-mile trip by horse-drawn sleigh (poor horse!): “The whole heavens were a sea of colors that shifted and flowed producing the most inspiring sight until it all ended in a growing light”. The orchestra wonderfully conveyed those colors and light.

The best-known music of the evening was Debussy’s La mer, his love-affair with the sea evident in this three-movement piece. This passion for the sea began at his familial doorstep – his father, an ex-Navy man. In 1904, Debussy left his wife and with his mistress moved to the island of Jersey. A month later he was elsewhere: at the seaside in Sussex (England). Debussy also felt an emotional connection to the famous woodblock “The Hollow of the Wave off Kanagawa” (usually just called “The Wave”) by the Japanese artist Hokusai.

Debussy painted with sound the ocean’s hue, mood, and light. La mer is full of all types of sonic possibilities. David Robertson approached it head on. Panoply of sound engulfed the audience and carried it to the sea; trumpets cut through whatever delicacy of sound there was; the tension in the air was palpable at times – but in a subtle way, so was the sanguinity of the occasion.

The orchestra in the first movement, with its undulation of tone, gave pointed refinement to one’s image of a moody sea. The woodwind chorale was intoned beneath the clamor of the rest of the orchestra. The middle movement represents the scherzo of this ‘symphony’. The finale shows a wilder, windier ocean. The orchestra wonderfully captured the moods and physicality of the music: I could feel the salt spray, smell the ocean air, and sense Debussy’s longing for the sea.

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