New York Philharmonic – Susanna Mälkki conducts Unanswered Question, Petrushka & Felipa Lara’s Double Concerto

Ives

The Unanswered Question

Felipe Lara

Double Concerto [New York premiere]

Stravinsky

Petrushka [1947 version]

Claire Chase (flute) & esperanza spalding (bass & vocals)

New York Philharmonic
Susanna Mälkki


Reviewed by: Susan Stempleski

Reviewed: 30 March, 2023
Venue: Wu Tsai Theater, David Geffen Hall, Lincoln Center, New York City

One of a very few works in which he does not refer to folk melodies or hymn tunes, Charles Ives’s The Unanswered Question is best described as a philosophical statement in music. The enigmatic and cosmic composition may have been inspired by New Englander Ralph Waldo Emerson’s poem ‘The Sphinx’ in which the title phrase appears and which poses the perennial question about “the meaning of man”. In an inspired account, Susanna Mälkki drew lovely shimmering sounds from the strings as a mellifluous solo trumpet, stationed on the second tier, repeatedly intoned the introspective question, each time answered by a befuddled chorus of flutes positioned elsewhere in the auditorium, until the final unanswered call drifted off into silence.

Next came Felipe Lara’s Double Concerto, a long single movement (thirty minutes), composed for Claire Chase and jazz bassist and singer esperanza spalding. Employing a wide array of unusual effects from both soloists, the piece fuses several disconnected traditions. Alongside a huge orchestra consisting of triple and quadruple winds and brass, four percussionists, two amplified harps (planted center stage) and full strings, the score allows for diverse degrees of improvisation from the soloists – especially in the long (twelve minutes or so) cadenza in which they respond to each other using a variety of instruments. The voice part alternates between a Portuguese language play on words (“Dádiva Vera / Dádiva divina da / dádiva da vida / dá devagar…”) and vocalise. The more traditional orchestral parts see-saw through a series of jarring tutti passages and more intricate chamber-like moments. Performed with remarkable energy and determination by all the forces, the piece summoned up a unique, if not altogether pleasing, musical language.

In Petrushka, a magician and three puppets enact a lively tale of love and jealousy, strikingly theatrical. Under Mälkki’s graceful baton, the musicians – with notably colorful contributions from Robert Langevin’s flute and Eric Huebner’s piano – this astonishingly fine performance communicated the music’s individual tones and textures so that one could easily visualize the story’s cast of characters and sequence of devilish events.

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