Sunday, May 28, 2017

New York Philharmonic - Brahms, Thorvaldsdottir & Salonen - 05/20/17

Conductor: Alan Gilbert 
Johannes Brahms: Concerto in D Major for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 77 
Leonidas Kavakos: Violin 
Anna Thorvaldsdottir: Aeriality 
Esa-Pekka Salonen: Wing on Wing 
Anu Komsi: Soprano 
Piia Komsi: Soprano 
Ella Wahlstrom: Sound Design 

For the past several years, I had planned to spend my next milestone birthday, Sunday, May 21, 2017, at the Philharmonie de Paris, or potentially in another music venue of the City of Lights if the program in my first choice had not been to my liking. Because I simply could not imagine a better excuse to find out what all the fuss about the new musical institution was about while spending quality time in the city as well. It was a no-brainer.
However, about one year before B-Day I received the New York Philharmonic's 2016-2017 season calendar and immediately noticed that on my birthday week my home orchestra had put together a pretty unbeatable line-up that included Leonidas Kavakos playing the Brahms concerto (A double hitter than could not possibly go wrong), a new piece by an emerging composer (New voices are always welcome), and the New York premiere of a piece by Esa-Pekka Salonen (Always a pleasure).
So I soon concluded that there was no point crossing the Atlantic Ocean to go hear the Philharmonie's program for that weekend, which was not even close to being as appealing as the triple treat waiting for me down the street. And I figured that the venue and the city would still be there whenever I am finally ready. So I happily stayed and excitedly walked down Broadway to the unquestionably less cool but definitely more convenient David Geffen Hall on Saturday night.

The programming was actually a bit of a bold move as the most popular work of the evening would be performed before intermission, giving the less adventurous members of the audience an opportunity to leave before things became less familiar, but under's Alan Gilbert's firm leadership, the NY Phil has learned to live dangerously anyway. For the last program of his artist-in-residence stint, Leonidas Kavakos could not have picked a more beloved staple than Brahms' violin concerto, which pretty much guaranteed that he would wrap up his purposefully eclectic and immensely enjoyable one-year residency with plenty of virtuosic fireworks.
Although he is not the flashy type, his interpretation had gripping moments of lush lyricism in the expansive first movement and terrific pyrotechnics during the no-holds-barred gypsy-inspired last movement. Joseph Joachim's tricky cadenza was keenly played, and the meditative Adagio was a truly exquisite interlude, oboe solo included. In the end, Kavakos' characteristically understated approach to the dauntingly dense and magnificently intricate work did marvels at emphasizing its intense Romanticism, not to mention its enduring appeal.
The audience predictably went wild, but alas no encore was bestowed upon us – I guess he did not get the memo that this was a uniquely special performance for me – so we eventually had to let him go.
Having attended the entire concert, I can rightfully confirm that all the people who did not return after intermission should be eating crow by now as the next two pieces were totally worth staying for. Deceptively short and inconspicuous, Aeriality by young Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir ended up making a memorable statement. A continuous 13-minute evocation of mysterious Nordic landscapes, the music was generally so subtle that it was challenging to know if anything was actually going on until barely perceptible details started springing out such as sparks, bubbles and clanks. It did not take long to realize that there was in fact always something going on, and that the whole adventure was quite mesmerizing.
While I believe I am fairly open-minded when it comes to contemporary music, I have to admit that I tend to resent the incorporation of electronics in instrumental music simply because their appearance usually feels forced and unnecessary, like an easy shortcut to get credits for innovation and edginess. The one exception I can think of is unsurprisingly Esa-Pekka Salonen who, to my knowledge, is the only composer able and willing to deal with non-traditional musical elements not only efficiently, but imaginatively as well.
Therefore, I was very much looking forward to hearing his Wing on Wing, a work that was inspired by the imposing tribute to water, wind and sails that is Frank Gehry's Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown Los Angeles and that premiered at its opening. Truth be told, I was also very intrigued by how the recordings of the plainfin midshipman's singing, whose mating call does bring to mind a bunch of buzzing bees and, somewhat more logically, Frank Gehry's (sampled and distorted) voice would fit into the whole thing.
And sure enough, the musical creation turned out to be as boldly conceived, deftly executed and immediately awe-inspiring as the architectural creation, which is admittedly no small feat. Unabashedly ambitious in its composition and staging – the extravagantly colorful score was epic in its weirdness and brilliance, the huge orchestra included a wide range of unusual instruments, the fish and Frank Gehry eerily reverberated around the space, the two coloratura soprano sisters extraordinarily vocalized from various spots in the hall – Wing on Wing sailed on smoothly and confidently.
That was certainly the most glorious send-off I could hoped for before reluctantly and irreversibly stepping into "the other side".

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