~ Author: Scoresby
Wednesday October 10 2018 – For the first time this season, the New York Philharmonic was led by a conductor other than Jaap van Zweden in a program that continued on The Art of Andriessen mini-festival that has been ongoing the past week or so. David Robertson, the outgoing music director of the St. Louis Symphony and recently appointed Director of Conducting Studies at Juilliard was at the helm. It was nice to see David Geffen Hall at what looked like near full capacity.
The program began with an Andriessen work from the mid-1990’s entitled TAO for orchestra, piano, vocal quartet, koto, and voice. The work was originally the second movement of a three part long cycle, all of which can be performed together or stand alone. Mr. Andriessen draws from both an ancient Chinese and modern Japanese text that discuss time and seems to try to eschew the notion that his music appropriates from these cultures in any way - which seems questionable at best. Putting aside the uncomfortable politics of the work, the music is worthwhile in its own right and was by far the most significant piece on the program.
For the extended introduction, the woodwinds produce high eerie chords. These chords at first seem to stay static like blocks of sustained sound, but after a few measures shift downward. The effect is that while the music sounds sustained and almost timeless, it also is constantly shifting. Sort of an odd aural illusion reminiscent of a downward Shepard Tone mixed with larger chords. Eventually the strings join in these high sounds. Mr. Andriessen’s subtle attention to timbre kept me on the edge of my chair, even if I felt that this timeless section went on a little too long. After a dissonant clash, dramatically played up by Mr. Robertson, the music pushes downward. Finally using some of the middle and lower registers and the rest of the orchestra.
It is at this point the vocal quartet, comprised of Caroline Jaya-Ratnam, Micaela Haslam, and Rachel Weston, Heather Cairncross from Synergy Vocals, enters singing a text by Laozi about death. The singers did an excellent job of blending with the sparse whiny timbres of the orchestra. After this text is finished, the tranquility of the score is uprooted with Tomoko Mukaiyama’s block-like downward chords on the piano. Ms. Mukaiyama really hit these hard and slow, letting each ring like bell. What is so striking about this moment is the piano seems free from the steady, infinite time of the orchestra. It is in its own world of time and timbre – Ms. Mukaiyama did an excellent job of making the piano line contrast the rest of the orchestra. As the work wears on, Messiaen-like textures appear all over the woodwinds, time accelerates, and dissonances mimicking the timbre of the piano appear. Mr. Robertson made sure that all of these textures were transparent and easily heard, providing an energy to every phrase.
After the most climactic moment of the work, the music quiets. Ms. Mukaiyama left the piano (placed as it usually would be for a concerto) and walked to the edge of the stage like a ghost. There, she bent down to play a simple melody on the koto while speaking (and then singing) the “Kinfe-Whetter” by Kotaro Takamura. In the poem, the character sits “Wordless, he whets the knife” - which mimicked Ms. Mukaiyama hunched over the koto. Ms. Mukaiyama’s stage presence and voice really made the end seem like a piece of theatre.
After a set change, the orchestra moved to play something that felt like it was from a completely different world: the lush Rachmaninoff Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43 with Garrick Ohlsson playing the piano part. Mr. Ohlsson played with a cool, clear tone. He managed to bring out the Dies Irae theme well throughout the piece, seeming to highlight it whenever possible. While his playing was undeniable impressive, I personally found it to be too cool of a reading for my taste. Those that eschew romanticism would have loved it though. Contrasting that style, Mr. Robertson managed (especially in the third second of the piece) to make the orchestra sound wild with energy, making every phrase incisive when trading tuttis with the piano. As an encore, Mr. Ohlsson played “the most famous Rachmaninoff piece” Prelude in C-Sharp minor, Op. 3 No. 2. Here, Mr. Ohlsson sounded as I remember him recordings (this was the first time I heard him live): fiery, sinewy in fast runs with a burly sound to match. It was thrilling, even for someone that doesn’t like the piece much, and I look forward to hearing him again sometime in a solo recital.
After the intermission, Mr. Robertson led the orchestra in Sibelius Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 43. It is rare to hear a fresh performance of this overplayed conservatory piece, but both the orchestra and Mr. Robertson managed it here. Throughout the perplexing first movement, in which themes are slowly introduced in small bits until they finally come together in the climax, Mr. Robertson made sure that every instrument in the orchestra sounded clear. There wasn’t much blending, but instead as each note of the theme was slyly introduced, one could hear how it fit in. This is the first time when listening to the work that each of these moments was audible for me. There were countless wonderful moments through the symphony such as the rumbling cellos and basses in the second movement, the lyrical oboe solo in the third movement played by associate principal Sherry Sylar (former principal Liang Wang was recently terminated following an investigation) mixing well with Anthony McGill and a beautiful horn backdrop, and of course Markus Rhoten’s subtle timpani playing through the symphony. The giant romantic climax in the last movement was full of joy and energy thanks to Mr. Roberrtson's vivacious lead. While an exquisite performance, I could only think of TAO's ethereal chords that were still bouncing through my head. A great evening to be at the NY Phil.