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Finnish? No, He’s From Jupiter

New York
Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center
09/23/2014 -  & September 26, 27, 30, 2014
Unsuk Chin: Clarinet Concerto (U.S. Premiere)
Gustav Mahler: Symphony No. 1 in D Major

Kari Kriikku (Clarinet)
New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Alan Gilbert (Music Director/Conductor)

U. Chin (© Courtesy of the artist)

Two unpredictable gems and one predictable treasure from Alan Gilbert’s years here came together last night for the opening concert of the New York Philharmonic subscription season.

Finnish clarinetist Kari Kriikku, whose artistry was described in these pages as “supernatural”, was the performer for a Clarinet Concerto written for him by Korean-German composer Unsuk Chin, whose Rocaná (“Room of Light”) was called “a constant fascination.” Mr. Gilbert more predictably had masterfully conducted György Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre, and it was Ligeti who not only was Ms. Chin’s most important teacher, but had told her to forget the usual avant-garde music and compose with sheer inspiration instead.

That inspiration was the American premiere of her Clarinet Concerto last night (New York Philharmonic Co-Commission with the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, Philharmonia Orchestra, and the Barcelona Symphony Orchestra). Even Alan Gilbert in his introductory word, said it was “beyond description”, and I can’t think of a better description. And while Ms. Chin “dreamed” the work for Mr. Kriikku, no mere dream has the sounds she assigned for her artist.

True, Ms. Chin loves virtuosity for its own sake, as she has shown in several other concerti. And the clarinettist loves pushing the envelope in music. So if one marveled at Mr. Kriikku at the expense of the music itself, that would be permitted.

K. Kriikku (© Courtesy of the artist)

Yet the word marvel doesn’t begin explain this playing. We aren’t speaking of the seamless scales, the faultless technique, his lightning quick alteration of microtones with regular notes. We are speaking of how he could play, not only two different notes at once, but a counterpoint with different notes moving at different speeds.

The opening of the second movement Hymnus, played solo, was like the slow movement of the Bach Two-Violin Conceto updated to the 21st Century, with both violins overlapping each other in one wind instrument. Where Mr. Kriikku stood for the colorfully titled first movement (“Mirage-Fanfare-Ornament”) almost entirely in the upper ranges of his instrument, he sat for the meditative “Hymnos”. It was dark, low, a solo duet, later augmented with some of the 32 different percussion instruments, also played pianissimo.

One could easily see the Ligeti influence here, with this most unorthodox orchestration, with the sense even of Hungarian dance in the last movement, its own Dance Macabre. But equally, one felt throughout, the feeling of Firebird, the sparks of light, the dazzling instrumental movement–and the final quiet measures were like the end of Sacre.

As she showed in Rocaná, Ms. Chin can provide the most mesmeric atmospheres, which she certainly did here.

I play clarinet myself, but consulted a professional clarinetist in the audience how he did it. My friend simply shook his head, mumbled something about “divided air streams”, “original fingerings”...then shook his head in bewilderment again.

But this was all Unsuk Chin and Kari Kriikku. Admittedly, I personally preferred her Rocaná, for I never had to wonder, “How does he do it?” Yet both works were from one of the superb unorthodox composers of our day. The only problem with the Clarinet Concerto is that I can’t think of a single other player who could ever essay, much less triumph in this piece.

Yet one more reason to wish a long long life to Mr. Kriikku! (And an added thanks to a subscription audience for listening in rapt silence (rather than frustrated fidgeting) to this unfamiliar 2014 work.

The Mahler First Symphony put the audience on more familiar grounds, and Alan Gilbert gave his usual ultra-rousing (though hardly idiosyncratic) performance. The first two movements may have exaggerated the different tempo changes (including an untoward pause before the trio of the second movement trio). But Mr. Gilbert gave us a terrific klezmer sound for the mock-funeral third movement.

And characteristically in the finale, violins pressed down on their strings, horns and trombones blasted, and drums drummed. A young composer and youthful conductor in tandem for a gaudy rowdy climax.

Harry Rolnick



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