Conductor: Alan Gilbert
Salonen: LA Variations
Strauss: Ein Heldenleben (A Hero's Life), Op. 40
Frank Huang: Violin
Yesterday I knew that my evening – and, as it happens, my new musical season – had started well when I was unexpectedly handed a free CD filled with goodies performed by the New York Philharmonic, including Mozart's Symphony No. 40 (Yeah!), by a friendly violinist from the orchestra on my way into the newly renamed David Geffen Hall. The most welcome gift turned out to be a token of appreciation for taking the plunge and becoming a subscriber again after a few years as a single-ticket buyer. I guess commitment does pay off sometimes!
So I decided to put aside work-related distractions, such as the emotional goodbye to an old colleague of ours and to our old office location earlier in the day, as well as New York-related frustrations, such as the infuriating street closings and the hysterical hoopla generated by the dreadfully outdated and overbloated entities that are the U.N. and papacy, to resolutely focus on what had brought me to the Lincoln Center: The first concert program of the season by the New York Philharmonic, featuring a work by the always exciting Esa-Pekka Salonen and a classic by the no less reliable Richard Strauss, as well as an opportunity to welcome Salonen as the new Marie-Josée Kravis Composer-in-Residence for the next three years and check out the orchestra's brand new concertmaster Frank Huang. Not a bad way to kick off the weekend after all.
The advantage of having a composer on the program in the house is that he just may get on the stage and share some precious background information. Since yesterday's program was shorter and Salonen is a wildly popular figure on the New York music scene, he was totally game to entertain us with a few insightful and funny anecdotes on how LA Variations came about (Suddenly realizing that he was happy while making an espresso alone in his kitchen while his family was sleeping, one morning in the mid-1990s, in Santa Monica, CA, was apparently an "extraordinary" thing for the Finnish man that he was, and this particular experience unleashed his creative juices again). Or on how he and a buddy of his broke into and stole some sounds from Pierre Boulez's IRCAM Institute on a floppy disk – one of which made it into the composition – only to confess to the man years later without getting much of a reaction.
And so "LA variations" was born soon afterwards. As performed by the New York Philharmonic last night, it was predictably a joyful work, punctuated by moments of occasionally dark cacophony, and quirky splashes, in particular a delightful double bass solo that was as quick as mind-blowing, and always a solid sense of purpose. The adventurous spirit of the composer was nevertheless always mindful of the exacting nature of the conductor, and the result was 20 minutes of meticulously crafted yet spontaneously creative music that managed to be unabashedly fun and reasonably challenging.
E.P. had done it again.
After intermission, we were in for a more substantial piece with Richard Strauss' Ein Heldenleben, the composer's sweeping tone poem partially inspired by his wife, which could not but bring me back to the glorious performance I heard of it several years ago in Vienna's prestigious Musikverein courtesy of the prestigious Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. But hey, the David Geffen Hall is conveniently closer to home and the New York Philharmonic is made of highly talented professionals, so I was in good hands last night too. Strauss' lush melodies, stark resonances and eerie quietness were heartily conveyed while kept in tight check by maestro Gilbert, and it is probably a safe bet to assume that Frank Huang met everybody's high expectations with his delicately assertive sound during the challenging violin solos. The season has started well.