~ Author: Scoresby
Friday June 8, 2018 – For the last David Geffen Hall concert of the season, the New York Philharmonic performed an unusually interdisciplinary program in what seemed to be an appeal to millennials and younger audience members. The program led by the ever vibrant Esa-Pekka Salonen was divided into three sections of all new music, the first a Salonen work accompanied by video artist Tal Rosner and the third also a Salonen work accompanied by members of the Boston Ballet choreographed by Wayne McGregor. In-between was the New York Premiere of a theatrical new violin concerto featuring soloist Pekka Kuusisto in his New York debut.
Above: Conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen; Photo Credit: Chris Lee
The New York Philharmonic really made an effort to appeal to younger audience goers in this add-on performance. Drinks were allowed in the hall, instead of intermission there were “breaks”, there was a place to take Instagram photos, Jaap van Zweden buttons were being handed out, I received a reusable grocery bag with the NY Phil logo on it, and there were Christmas lights hanging from the ceiling outside the orchestra section of the hall. The stage was pulled in forward a few rows to accommodate the dancers for the third set – which made the hall feel infinitely more intimate. While some of these additions were met skeptically by the typical concert goer, the younger members of the audience seemed enthralled. There were many too: unusually it seemed the amount of younger audience members were almost even with the older ones, even more so than Berio's Sinfonia last month. It is nice to see this sort of effort for a hall that can be stiff, severe, and formal. While some of the ideas seemed to be trying to hard, hopefully in the future these new ways of presenting can be fine-tuned to become regular parts of the concert experience here.
The first piece on the program was Salonen’s early work Foreign Bodies with a video piece by Tal Rosner projected onto a giant screen in front of the orchestra. Like many Salonen works, Foreign Bodies lends itself well to dance with its propulsive rhythms and colorful timbres. In each movement a themes begin to ‘infect’ parts of the score until they bloom into a sound that encompasses the entire orchestra (thus the name). The video piece pulsated and changed texture with the music. In the first movement, the density of colors and movement of the various shapes on screen seemed to respond to Mr. Salonen’s cues on the podium.
The orchestra itself has never sounded better – here the flutes, English horn, and oboes shimmered and the strings dug into get a hefty metallic sound. Mr. Salonen let the music push forward, obviously enjoying his own piece (as he did when I heard him conduct the same piece with Chicago Symphony a few years ago). The four percussionists deserve special credit for all of the intensive jazzy work and subtle texturing they provided. It is easy with such an active role to eclipse the orchestra, but here they were integrated into the fabric of timbres. In the otherworldly second movement, with special tunings for the cellos and double basses, the images had a more languid Rothko-esque picture on-screen. The large brass choir of six horns, three trumpets, three trombones, and tuba sounded fantastic in the rollicking last movement – providing a warm and exciting ending the piece.
After only 20 or so minutes of music, it felt like a 20 minute “break” (not intermission) was much too long. Nonetheless, post-break the musicians returned for the New York premiere of Daníel Bjarnason’s Violin Concerto with Pekka Kuusisto playing violin. Mr. Kuusisto seemed almost primordial in his appearance with his hair tied back in a bun, hunched back, and wearing a black shawl. He certainly seemed to be playing up the theatrics of the concerto in the best way possible. It began with Mr. Kuusisto plucking away what seemed to be a folk tune while whistling. This folksy touch didn’t seem cheesy in Mr. Kuusisto’s hands, though I can see how a more traditional audience would feel alienated. The orchestra then began to pick up this first theme derived from these fragments, just at the start of extensive drumming beginning, almost like the rumbling of a thunder storm as it approaches. The unusual orchestration merges with a scratchy and virtuosic violin line. Some of the passages seemed reminiscent of late Bartok and others of Shchedrin’s Echo Sonata.
Above: Violinist Pekka Kuusisto; Photo Credit: Maiji Tammi
There are two thrilling violin cadenzas the highlight the scordatura (de-tuning the violin) that is integral to the texture of the piece. The first seems almost unvirtousic despite its formidable difficult: everything from high harmonics to left-hand pizzicatoa are used with a simple folksy melody. This moment was meditative and theatrical - Mr. Kuusisto played this up with his intensity looking like a young Klaus Kinski. After the orchestra comes back for a brief interlude, another lighter cadenza appears. Here, Mr. Kuusisto used whistling, singing, and stomping of his feet at the climax – the music being its most tuneful of the entire piece. While perhaps not my favorite new work, it was incredibly entertaining – it is hard to imagine another performer playing the work with such seriousness and dedication. Mr. Salonen and the New York Philharmonic for their part seemed to play through the score well, but giving plenty of space for Mr. Kuusisto to take the lead. For this audience and in the context of a night of theater, this was the perfect piece to program.
Again, it seemed very odd after only 20 more minutes of music to have another 20 minute “break”. Perhaps in the future for these sorts of events, the orchestra could have either shorter breaks or just one standard intermission. 40-50 minutes of break for an hour and a half of music was excessive. The final works on the program were two other fantastic Salonen compositions: Lachen verlernt performed solo by the young violinist Simone Porter and Nyx performed by the NY Phil and Mr. Salonen, all while the members of the Boston Ballet were performing a piece from 2016 titled Obsidian Tear. Before the performance, Mr. Salonen informed the audience that the ballet would like them to know that the piece was originally choreographed for the large stage of The Royal Ballet in mind. This was good to know, as while the dancers occupied the entire width of the stage, length wise they only had about 15 feet in front of the orchestra. For the lager parts of the work consisting of 9 dancers, these seemed incredibly tight. The choreography and stage placements must of have been significantly different given the small space. Mr. Salonen also announced that there would be an “after party” and more music with Mr. Kuusisto improvising on violin following the after party.
In order to accommodate the dancers, Ms. Porter’s beautifully performed Lachen verlernt was played from the one of the boxes of the second tier rather than onstage. There were two dancers during the solo violin work, circling each other and seeming to be twisting and moving with anxiety. They began in silence and as the violin gained in intensity the two men seemed to circle each other, moving closer and closer together. This prelude of sorts led straight into Nyx, which as seven androgynously dressed men appeared on the stage. Obsidian Tear was fabulous, as not someone who doesn’t know much about dance I couldn’t exactly figure out the scheme of the piece. Nonetheless, the anxiety, group movement, and circling of each other seemed perfectly in-sync with the music and thrilling to watch. The work seems to hinge on pitting the two original dancers against each other as the other dancers formed giant groups moving in and around them. It was reminiscent of the group rituals of the Rite of Spring. It was also impressive to see all of these dancers twisting back and forth only a few feet from the orchestra and Mr. Salonen. I can imagine that this would be stressful for all involved. At the climax one of the original two dancers throws the other into a volcano (an offstage orange light), with guilt and aftershock of this ridden on his face. He then at the end throws himself in too.
Below: Boston Ballet performing Obsidian Tear at the Boston Ballet; Photo Credit: Andrej Uspenski
The lush music of Nyx really is Mr. Salonen at his best. While written two years after, it sounds like the same world as his Violin Concerto. The orchestration uses a variety of lighter textures than some of his other music and has incredibly mysterious sections mixed with driving energy. Because of its diverse use of instrumentation, it sounds like the modern update of Bartok’s concerto for orchestra. The orchestra was more than up for the challenge, giving one of the most riveting performances I’ve heard in the hall (including the last time they played Nyx in 2015). Nonetheless, the focus was more on the visuals and it will be a night to remember far along in the future. I sincerely hope the NY Phil presents more evenings like this. While a long evening, the crowd gave a hearty ovation and seemed genuinely enthused and even 200 or so people came back to hear Mr. Kuusisto spin improvisatory lines from his violin.