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Review: The New York Philharmonic Highlights Nordic Works

The New York Times
March 8, 2015
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The Contact! new-music concerts were among Alan Gilbert’s first ideas at the helm of the New York Philharmonic, and they remain some of his best. At times, the series has seemed a missed opportunity, stuck in sleepy Manhattan halls and too focused on prominent composers. But high hopes have often been musically fulfilled.

All that was true enough on Saturday at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium, in a program both splendid and typical. Its premise looked dubious: four works by very different composers, all bracketed as “new music from Nordic countries.” What was essentially Nordic about them? Aren’t we past thinking about composers in regional or national terms? In his loquacious opening remarks, though, Mr. Gilbert explained that these were composers he encountered while conducting the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra. Fair enough.

Kalevi Aho’s remarkable Chamber Symphony No. 2 (1991-92) was the most unsettlingly brilliant piece here. Written for string orchestra, it’s a contemporary of John Adams’s classic Chamber Symphony (1992) and just as persuasive. Mr. Aho takes little cells of material — parabolic swoops, an ominous dotted rhythm — and pushes them through an uncanny sense for color, from a haunting, melodious solo cello line to congested outbreaks of violence and supernovas of light. With extended, stratospheric passages in the violins, this symphony is a punishingly difficult work, but you’d never have known it from the strings’ command. Shaped sensitively by Mr. Gilbert, it took on a powerful narrative quality, like Schoenberg’s “Verklärte Nacht” updated, darker and more ambiguous.

Just as moving was Kaija Saariaho’s “Terra Memoria,” written for the Emerson String Quartet (2006) and later expanded for string orchestra (2009). As the name suggests, it’s about memories and how they evolve — about how we remember those who have left us. Much is tranquil — memories in the back of a mind — but the mood is neurotic, as ideas tune in and out, blurring and fuzzing, clarifying with the force of a nightmare or a regret. Conducted by Courtney Lewis, the Philharmonic’s new assistant conductor, the strings again sounded superb, luminous at times, threatening to collapse from within elsewhere.

Per Norgard’s Cello Concerto No. 2, “Momentum” (2007-9), and Djuro Zivkovic’s “The White Angel” (2005-6) were more enigmatic. Mr. Norgard’s concerto, played with striking confidence by Eric Bartlett, posits four relationships between the soloist and a chamber ensemble in its four movements: “Monologue,” “Together,” “Multiplicity” and “Infinity.” With Mr. Gilbert conducting, it took off only in the propulsively messy “Multiplicity” and in the dissolved, ethereal “Infinity.” Mr. Zivkovic’s piece was inspired by a 13th-century fresco in the Mileseva monastery in Serbia, and points to an angel’s flight, aura and wings. Its harmonies seemed to throb, airborne, as Matthew Muckey’s piccolo trumpet led the way through frenetically busy textures.

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