Conductor: Alan Gilbert
Sibelius: Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in D Minor, Op. 47 - Leonidas Kavakos
Shostakovich: The Age of Gold Suite, Op. 22a
Salonen: Karawane - New York Choral Artists
After all these years, I still have not figured out the best way to approach a work I am not familiar with. Going in there cold for a totally unbiased first impression or doing some homework beforehand for a relatively enlightened experience? But in any case, when it came to Esa-Pekka Salonen's Karawane, whose New York premiere took place this week at the David Geffen Hall with the New York Philharmonic, who also co-commissioned it, fate handed me two golden opportunities for homework that I simply could not turn down.
The first one serendipitously came to me last summer at my mom's home in Provence, where the world premiere of Karawane at the Zurich Tonhalle suddenly popped up on Mezzo TV, stopping me cold in my tracks and compelling me to actually sit down and watch TV for the first time in a couple of decades. The second one came last Wednesday evening much closer to home at the Lincoln Center's Rubinstein Atrium, where E.P. Salonen and the New York Philharmonic's Edward Yim discussed the work in depth during an Insight at the Atrium event. And that's not counting the short introduction by Salonen right before the performance on Friday evening. Needless to say, each new round of insights had unfailingly made more excited about the real thing.
I was also very excited about the other hard-to-resist attraction on the program in the person of Leonidas Kavakos playing my beloved Sibelius violin concerto. After memorable performances of it by Anne-Sophie Mutter and Hilary Hahn earlier this season, I was still looking forward to yet another one, this time by a violinist whose performance of the Tchaikovsky violin concerto a few years ago with the same orchestra in the same venue was a totally unique experience. And that's because so far this has been the first and only time in all my years of concert going that I got to witness an audience become unable to repress their boundless enthusiasm any longer and spontaneously burst into applause during the first movement.Seriously.
So here we were again on Friday night, although this time it was for Sibelius' timeless masterpiece. I have always found Leonidas Kavakos' performances brilliant because they achieve so much with seemingly so little. He cleverly lets the music speak for itself, quietly going for the core emotional content of the work with a minimum of fuss, which makes the overall impact all the more powerful. On Friday, his tour de force was particularly persuasive as Alan Gilbert led the New York Philharmonic down the same road for an inconspicuously eloquent reading of the instrumental part. The icy darkness was restrained yet unmistakably ominous, which in turn emphasized the underlying intensity of the romantic flights and the irresistible pulse of the light-hearted "polonaise for polar bears". This was Sibelius at his most organic and haunting.
The wide range of Leonidas Kavakos' virtuosic skills were on full display again in his terrific encore, the Gavotte en Rondeau from Bach’s Partita No. 3, which he effortlessly handled with godly inspiration (and I am not saying that just because he's Greek).
At first glance, Shostakovich's The Age of Gold Suite pretty much looked like an after-thought on the program, stuck as it was between a popular Finnish classic and an eagerly awaited new work by the first and foremost Finnish composer and conductor of our times. It turned out to be a complex and fun piece, which the orchestra played with their usual savoir faire and good humor, almost making me feel guilty not to care about it more than I did. But what can I say? There's only so much I can take in one evening, and I had to save some on my energy and concentration for what was coming next.
And Karawane eventually came and easily conquered, mostly because it is an intrinsically engaging and appealing work, overflowing with gorgeous sounds, like an intense choral passage slowly dissolving into nothingness, interesting combinations, such as a cello suddenly duetting with an oboe as well as unexpected twists and turns every few minutes.
Inspired by the avant-garde Dada movement, which not coincidentally was born in Zurich, and more precisely by a Hugo Ball poem whose words are meaningless, Karawane intends to make sense of the senseless by using the sounds of those words to pave the way to possible interpretations. And that's because, as Salonen quipped during his introduction, "There is nothing that means nothing". After confessing that while composing it he drew from Escher's lithograph Ascending and Descending, images of traveling circuses and the idea of constantly moving without getting anywhere, he left us to our own devices to decide for ourselves.
Karawane opened with the chorus whole-heartedly engaged in countless whispering sounds coming from the poem, creating a most unusual buzzing tapestry, until it all became music. The singing remained stunningly textured throughout the entire piece, which is uniformly dense and often challenging. For the accomplishment of that feat due credit has to be given to the fabulous New York Choral Artists chorus and its music director Joseph Flummerfelt, who is about to retire on this superb note after 44 years.
The instruments kept busy as well, and if it all occasionally sounded like rowdy chaos, there was no doubt that the apparent confusion was intended and fully controlled. Altogether, the ambitious score burst with vivid colors and cinematographic images worthy of a road movie, always moving ahead in search for more. On Friday night, the audience was more than grateful for being taken for the thrilling ride and let it be known with a triumphant ovation.
Let's hope we'll get to hear it again soon, possibly conducted by its composer?