Conductor: Alan Gilbert
Norgard: Symphony No. 8
Boulez: Messagesquisse for Solo Cello and Six Cellos
Eric Bartlett: Solo Cello
Stucky: Second Concerto for Orchestra
Because all good things must come to an end, on Saturday night the NY Phil Biennial wrapped up with an contemporary music concert by the New York Philharmonic at the David Geffen Hall, followed by a playdate with the artists. True to the biennial’s ambitious and far-reaching mission, the line-up featured intriguing works, two of which written by major composers that have passed away this year, Pierre Boulez and Steven Stucky, as well as lesser-known but equally worth-knowing Danish composer Per Norgard.
Adventurous programming oblige, only the orchestra section of the concert hall was open, but the fact that most of the seats of the large space were filled by an eclectic crowd – I had a banking intern from Colorado to my left, a long-time NY Phil subscriber to my right and a couple of Japanese tourists behind me – was certainly a heart-warming sight considering the wide range of options in New York City and beyond on a warm June Saturday night.
Because Per Norgard's Symphony No. 8 was originally the last piece on the official program, I had figured that I would read about it during intermission. But things had changed, and I was very grateful for Alan Gilbert’s detailed introduction after he had announced that it would open the concert after all.
Fact is, although the composition was indisputably complex and occasionally unusual, it also turned out to be fundamentally engaging, despite, or possibly because of, its subtle mystical loftiness. Throughout its entire course it often came out lively and playful, with light-hearted hints at folk music and tidbits of attractive melodies, but always with unmistakable Nordic clarity and transparence. There was a lot going on, sometimes in the most unexpected ways, but even in the busiest moments, an overall Zen quality prevailed. Alan Gilbert led the orchestra into an intense and haunting performance of it, which also – inexplicably – happened to be the US premiere of the engrossing work.
After intermission, we moved on to Pierre Boulez's Messagesquisse for Solo Cello and Six Cellos, originally a birthday present from the composer to dedicated avant-garde supporter Paul Sacher, which on Saturday became a heartfelt tribute from the New York Philharmonic to the man who was their music director from 1971 to 1977. Downright simple at first sight, the composition is in fact a seven-minute set of coded messages, or esquisses, which allowed soloist Eric Bartlett and the six accompanying cellists to display their renowned virtuosic skills with brio and authority.
Steven Stucky’s Second Concerto for Orchestra, which was awarded the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Music, was next to celebrate its long-overdue New York premiere and conclude the 2016 NY Phil Biennial. The concerto brilliantly packs in musical references as different, clever and meaningful as Ravel, Sibelius, Debussy, Brahms, Stravinsky and Britten, just to name a few, for a brisk half hour of endlessly inventive and delightfully refreshing, pure musical bliss. Under Alan Gilbert's vigorous conducting, the orchestra's performance was thrilling, infectiously exuding bright colors and unadulterated joy, and proudly bringing this second NY Phil Biennial, still very young but already an essential part of the New York music scene, to a well-deserved, glorious finish.