Above: Leila Josefowicz, photographed by Chris Lee
~ Author: Oberon
Thursday October 4th, 2018 - A world premiere by Louis Andriessen and a glistening performance of Debussy's La Mer book-ended Leila Josefowicz's inspired rendering of the Stravinsky violin concerto as the New York Philharmonic's new Music Director, Jaap van Zweden, continued the inaugural programs of his reign.
Masetro van Zweden's seating arrangement for the orchestra seems to have settled on having the celli and basses at his right hand, with the violas wedged in the center: all well and good, except that this configuration deprives us of a clear view of Cynthia Phelps, principal violist and an artist we much admire.
Above: composer Louis Andriessen
Andriessen's Agamemnon, a New York Philharmonic commission, is a strikingly dramatic piece which I feel has the potential to enter the repertory of many orchestras worldwide. It makes for a terrific program-opener, and it seems to me that it must be as rewarding to play as to hear.
The name 'Agamemnon' finds its iconic musical incarnation in the shattering opening notes of Richard Strauss's opera ELEKTRA. Strauss then goes on to dwell on the story of the women the king has left behind. Mr. Andriessen's new work gives the story of its title character a fresh dimension.
Trumpet fanfares signal kingship, flutes and bells speak of ancient songs. The timpani seem ominous at first, then develop a swaying rhythms. A big rising theme carries forward as the timpani continue to pulse. In one of the work's many intriguing sonic mixes, the tuba and piano are joined. The trombones sing forth, then a combination of strings, winds, and chimes lends a rather Oriental feel.
The horns again evoke the purple of royalty; woodwinds and violas unite. Then, in a particularly atmospheric (and extended) solo, the soprano saxophone brings its unique colour. The music turns grand, then shifts to a more intimate feel with a solo from oboist Sherry Sylar. The piano is heard again, this time with the violins. A composer unafraid of melody, Andriessen gives us a plaintive flute solo (I could not see who was playing), followed by Mahleresque strings. Tuba, trombones, and piano unite in a rather jazzy passage.
The music sounds mythic over the heartbeat of time, the deep horns and timpani heralding a dense crescendo. Suddenly, silence falls. But the piece is not yet over: as if out of nowhere, a strikingly beautiful woman appears standing amid the violins. She begins to speak:
"Just a few words. Agamemnon was killed by his wife. Soon I will be killed as well. This is life. The luckiest hours like scribbles in chalk on a slate in a classroom. We stare, and try to understand them. Then luck turns its back - and everything’s wiped out. Joy was not less pathetic than the worst grief."
The words are from Aeschylus, translated by Ted Hughes; the first three lines are by Mr. Andriessen. The speaker, embodying Kassandra, is Juliette Kenn de Balinthazy, who does not declaim the words with theatrical hauteur, but rather speaks simply, as a woman. It's a great moment.
The audience responded to this new work with genuine enthusiasm, welcoming the composer's onstage bow. He designated various soloists to stand, the saxophone player (not named in the program) rightly winning shouts of approval. I felt that Mlle. de Balinthazy should have been brought forward, and also that she deserved to be listed on the main program page rather than as a parenthetical note under 'Instrumentation'. (I found some photos of her, but they are all copyrighted...believe me, she looks like a goddess.)
For me, the sure sign of the successful premiere of a new work is simple: I want to hear it again. Right away, and any time. I feel that so often works premiered by the Philharmonic vanish after their initial performances. It would be beneficial, I think, to program them in the succeeding season to gauge their viability.
Both the London Philharmonic and the Royal Concertgebouw have announced performances of Agamemnon for 2019.
Stravinsky's Violin Concerto, so deeply familiar to me after hearing it played dozens of times at New York City Ballet over the past 40 years, was given a fascinating performance by Ms. Josefowicz, who brought a remarkable blend of grit and silk to her tone as the varying moods of the concerto invoke. Needless to say, the Balanchine ballet created to this score played in my mind throughout tonight's performance.
Backed by simply marvelous orchestral playing, Ms Josefowicz seemed truly to be having a wonderful time playing this music for us. She would dig into the dramatic passages, then let a sort of steely beauty take over in the more lyrical moments. The opening movement's 5-note theme gets passed about to perfect effect as I continued to dream of Balanchine.
In the strange, unearthly melody of Aria I, Ms. Josefowicz's dynamic control impressed. The orchestra brings forth chords, upon which the solo violin comments. Ms. Josefowicz gave me the chills with her haunting playing of Aria II: over the pulsing, deeper melody her playing attained incredible subtlety. From its driven start, the Capriccio moves onward with soloist and ensemble engaged in a folkish dance.
Great enthusiasm and shouts of joy filled the hall after the Josefowicz Stravinsky, and we keenly anticipated an encore, wondering what she might choose to play. Instead, when Ms. Josefowicz returned to the stage, it was on the arm of Deborah Borda, president and chief executive officer of the New York Philharmonic. In a lovely and sincere speech, Ms. Borda announced that Ms. Josefowicz had been chosen as the recipient of the 2018 Avery Fisher Prize. This announcement caused a fresh wave of applause for the comely violinist, who spoke briefly.
More Stravinsky - his Symphonies of Wind Instruments (1947 version) - followed the interval. This compact piece, for an ensemble of brass and woodwind players, features stimulating harmonies, expert layering of sounds, and plenty of rhythmic variety. Among the stellar group, Robert Langevin (flute), Anthony McGill (clarinet), Sherry Sylar (oboe), and Judith LeClair (bassoon) were prominent. A solemn brass chorale made a particular impression. All this, in the work's ten-minute time frame.
While we're on the subject of Stravinsky, I would like to suggest that you watch this unique film: Stravinsky in Hollywood.
Debussy's La Mer brought the evening to its close. Waiting for the Maestro to return to the podium, I wondered how this music would sound under van Zweden's guidance. The answer? Superb! The orchestra were on luminous form, and the many solo phrases that dot the score were exquisitely played, often by the artists featured in the preceding Stravinsky work.
In La Mer's first two movements, I felt myself immersed in the coloristic sea that Debussy's music so sublimely evokes. The familiar theme of the concluding Dialogue du vent et de la mer was taken up near the end by Robert Langevin: simply intoxicating.