Saturday, January 08, 2011

Mozart, Mahler, and Adès at the New York Philharmonic

Friday night's New York Philharmonic concert featured music director Alan Gilbert at the podium once again.  If that wasn't enough of a draw for me, the program of Mozart's Symphony No. 40, Mahler's Kindertotenlieder, and the New York premiere of a new piano concerto by Thomas Adès pulled me in.  

I don't remember the last time I heard Mozart's 40th Symphony in concert.  It's such a well-known work that it's possible I haven't ever heard it performed live before.  Gilbert led the orchestra in a lively, exciting, and, dare I say it, ferocious reading of the work.  The first movement was energetic and forceful, highlighting the power of Mozart at his most emotional.  In the second movement, I liked the balance of the winds and the strings.  I heard suspensions in the harmonies that I've never noticed before.  The minuet and trio were well-played, with lovely work from principal horn Phil Myers, and the finale, marked "Allegro assai" was nearly a "Vivace."  The fury with which the strings played their runs and tossed the melodic lines back and forth gave me chills.

Baritone Thomas Hampson took the stage for Mahler's Kindertotenlieder, a song cycle of poems written by Friedrich Rückert after the deaths of his two children from scarlet fever.  Mahler took five of the 428 poems and set them to wrenching, heartbreaking music.  I'd seen Hampson in concert with the Philharmonic on TV, and his voice was even more impressive in person.  He took Mahler's tragic melodies and brought them to life.  I could feel the pain of the poet, lamenting the demise of his daughter as he remembered her running into a room after his wife.  The words and music painted a truly affecting picture.

After intermission, Gilbert and composer (and soloist) Thomas Adès took the stage and talked to the audience about this new concerto.  Gilbert asked Adès how the piece and the images that accompanied it (projected on a screen above the orchestra) had come about.  Adès worked with Tal Rosner, an Israeli visual artist, to create the concerto and the images together, each using the other's work as inspiration.  The result was a musical tableaux of the seven days of Creation, with abstract images that moved along with the rhythm of the music.  I enjoyed the visual effects, and it's clear that Rosner is a skilled artist in his own right.  But I also thought that the images distracted me from the music.  There were some really complex and enthralling things going on with the music and I wasn't able to focus on them with the images floating above the orchestra.  The music was at times jangly, atonal, dissonant, but then there were serene moments of shimmering tonic chords from the strings and brass.  I'd like to hear the music without the images to get a better sense of what Adès was trying to say.  But once again I enjoyed the Philharmonic's effort to get New York audiences interested in contemporary classical composition.  They got me in the door with Mozart and Mahler, and I was all too happy to stick around to see what Adès had to offer.   And I was not disappointed.

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