New York Philharmonic/Slatkin Lang Lang – Tan Dun Piano Concerto … The Firebird

Tan Dun
Piano Concerto [New York Philharmonic commission: World premiere performances]
The Firebird [1910 original version]

Lang Lang (piano)

New York Philharmonic
Leonard Slatkin

Reviewed by: Gene Gaudette

Reviewed: 11 April, 2008
Venue: Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center, New York City

Tan DunSteven Stucky kept the pre-performance “Hear and Now” presentation a bit shorter than previous such presentations, making the point that “you won’t be able to predict what comes next” in Tan Dun’s Piano Concerto prior to the screening of a short video in which the composer made a few points about the work. Stucky also engaged in a bit of uncharacteristically shameless marketing, billing what was about to happen as an “event”. The composer described the influence of martial arts on the work’s genesis and the simultaneous “stillness” and “speed” in its practice (a facet that has been exploited in a host of recent films’ super-slow-motion combat sequences). He also reflected on modern Chinese music and culture (including the nation’s repressive “Cultural Revolution” under Mao), and the influence of traditional elements (water and wind) and natural and man-made materials (bamboo, metal and silk).

The work itself is cast in three movements, the first two exploiting slow tempos and sustained material, the finale emphasizing propulsive motion. The music held few surprises to those familiar with Tan Dun’s other concert works and film scores, breaking little new ground but bringing together many of the composer’s stylistic elements: sustained unison string melodies with lush portamenti, percussion as a prominent coloristic element, and a ‘modular’ structure using repeated material with sometimes subtle transformations. The music clearly draws on folk-music elements and the influence of Takemitsu, but long stretches of the orchestral material are reminiscent of Messiaen, often contrasting with pianistic passages that recalled Ravel and Busoni. And there were more than a few passages with a jazz-blues inflection that seemed aesthetically at odds with the surrounding material.

While the work may have veered too often toward the derivative, a “crowd-pleaser” (Stucky), the music as a whole is very compelling — the unfolding and reappearance of its myriad themes, motifs and rhapsodic material makes for engaging and pleasant listening, and binds together in a manner that is both dramatically and musically satisfying.

Lang LangLang Lang dispatched the solo part with amazing technical finesse – but also physical histrionics that drew too much attention to themselves; he seemed to consciously rein himself in as the work progressed. And in strong contrast to his previous appearance with the Philharmonic, in which he and Riccardo Muti seemed to be on completely different wavelengths, Lang Lang and Slatkin were in tight artistic unity, particularly in the frequent unison passages. The work puts particular demands on the string and percussion sections, and the Philharmonic’s players rose to the work’s challenges.

The best music-making of the evening, however, came after the intermission. Slatkin banished the ghost of Nijinsky and presented Stravinsky’s complete The Firebird ballet as a virtuoso symphonic poem, a sort of Russian ‘Ein Vogelsleben’. Not that long ago, the New York Philharmonic performed this work under Riccardo Chailly. Slatkin’s performance was far more colorful and dramatic than that of his Italian colleague. Slatkin elicited unexpected moments of orchestral color from the opening downbeat (in which the pizzicato basses and arco cellos sounded like an enormous, ominous organ pedal) and gave the principal chairs, particularly the winds, wide rhythmic license with their solos. Slatkin deployed the three ‘behind the scene’ trumpets in the upper tier for the ‘Daybreak’ sequence, one the sides and to the rear of the audience, to thrilling dramatic effect.

The ballet is often pigeonholed as musically forward-looking – but Slatkin also brought out the work’s references to Borodin and Mussorgsky that place the music more firmly in the “Russian nationalist” school than expected. This was a ‘Firebird’ that broke a lot of the rules – and made for some of the most exciting playing I’ve heard from the Philharmonic this season.

Slatkin will soon be assuming the music directorship of one of America’s best orchestra, the Detroit Symphony. Given not only the daring approach he brought to The Firebird but a very edifying recent appearance with the National Symphony at Carnegie Hall, Detroit’s music lovers are in for some superb music-making.

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