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Death, Fate and The Great Wall of Horns

New York
David Geffen Auditorium, Lincoln Center
04/27/2017 -  & April 29, 2017
Igor Stravinsky: Pogrebal’naya Pesnya, Opus 5 (NY Philharmonic Premiere)
Tansy Davies: Forest: a concerto for four horns (U.S. Premiere)
Richard Strauss: Also Sprach Zarathustra, opus 30

Richard Watkins, Katy Wooley, Nigel Block, Michael Thompson (Horns)
Musicians from NY Phil Global Academy with Rice University School of Music, New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Esa-Pekka Salonen (Conductor)

E.-P. Salonen (© LAPhil.com)

“Then lifted I up mine eyes, and saw, and beheld four horns. And I said unto the angel that talked with me, ‘What be these?’. And he answered me, ‘These are the horns that scattered Judah, Israel and Jerusalem’”
Book of Zechariah, I.18, 19

One didn’t need to be a visionary minor Old Testament prophet to behold four horns last night in David Geffen Hall. French horns and their practitioners were everywhere. Richard Strauss had been obsessed with the French horn, his father having been a French horn avatar of the German opera. Conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen’s first instrument, when a child in Finland, was a French horn. Conductor Tansy studied French horn in Bristol, England before any other instrument.

And when the audience last night did lift up their eyes for the second piece they beheld no less than four British French horn practitioners, apparently the best of the Isles themselves. Not playing Robert Schumann’s Konzertstück, but a Concerto by Ms. Davies, commissioned by conductor Salonen, receiving its debut here under the baton of its devotee.

T. Davies (© Faber.com)

And oh, how I wished I could have enjoyed it more. Ms. Davies is apparently one of the shining lights of younger British composers. And her reverence for nature–not the Teutonic Dr. Schweitzer kind, but the full-grown Henry Thoreau variety–is worthy of the greatest respect. Besides this, the four British horn players were splendid. They took up virtually all of the 24 minutes (save a few seconds pause to empty out their saliva), and made nary a mistake in their close harmonies, their cluster of hunting-horn calls, the riffs, the ending valveless remnants of an early age.

Add to this, Ms. Davies’ credo, that the work is “A celebration of creation, and the power that might be found – or refound – through developing better communication with nature”.

Nonetheless, all of the detail, the expertise, the pointed orchestral color (much in the piccolo high-violin stage) couldn’t hide the fact that this was a Great Wall of Horns. Almost 30 minutes of horn harmonies, and horn tunes and horns in harmony and in discordance.

And while I love the French horn for all its worth, spending this time in front of that Great Wall inevitably had a sense of wearying monotony. So distinct is the sound by itself, that quadrupling it can be a chore for the ears. And while my admiration for her case and her explanations is respectful, this is not a work I would enjoy hearing again. Asingle horn from a Strauss or Mozart concerto is satisfying enough.

This was still Ms. Davies vision of life. It was preceded by death, in this case the death of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and the tribute by his greatest student, Igor Stravinsky. In fact, Funeral Song, written in 1908, had been dead to the world for over a century. The composer remembered it slightly (he thought it had been written for winds), had no regrets, but it disappeared into the archives of the St. Petersburg Conservatory until 2015, when the parts were discovered and played in Europe.

Written in the same year as Nightingale and two years before Firebird, the work was a pièce d’occasion, and a lamentable occasion, so of course had none of those works’ glitter. Instead, the composer generated a kind of cortege, where various instrumental groups supposedly pass by the bier of Rimsky, uttering their own laments.

That was his inspiration. The result is not lugubrious by any means. We have here Stravinsky’s quiet tremolos (like the start of Firebird finale), we have a judicious use of winds and strings and hardly any heavy brass. And within its twelve minutes, an obviously reverential work. One doubts that it will become part of the composer’s most accessible early music, but as a “missing link”, part Wagnerian, part Russian, this is a worthy work, conducted with worthy reverence.

It goes without saying (though one jubilantly repeats it), that Esa-Pekka Salonen is the conductor of our times. As a composer, his knowledge of the orchestra, its permutations, its possibilities, seems infinite. As a human, whether standing before 40-odd listeners in National Sawdust or the full Lincoln Center audience last night, he is enlightening, humorous, sagacious , and always accessible.

One need not dissect Mr. Salonen’s conducting. His enthusiasm is never greater than his im-Pekka-ble rightness, an ear which balances and accentuates with the greatest care, and with an apparently great rapport with the orchestra. (I say that without personal knowledge, just an instinct in how the NY Philharmonic relates to him.)

So after the appropriately funereal Stravinsky and the plethora of horns, one anticipated pure unsullied uber-Romantic music. No apologies. This was the full New York Philharmonic Orchestra, augmented with six young artists from the Phil’s Global Academy, mastered by Mr. Salonen in his element.

Not that Esa-Pekka is a prime master of Richard Strauss at his most gargantuan. But having been raised on Sibelius and the other Finnish orchestral masters, he knows that the greatest challenge is transparency, bringing forth clarity when over 100 instrumentalists are blowing, tootling, fiddling and banging. Thanks to Stanley Kubrick, anybody can fail to satisfy with those opening monumental opening chords. Yet I’ve never heard any conductor create such a musical sound from the pounding timpani.

Nor is it difficult to bring the chorus of strings sound longing and romantic and epic.

But once we come to the meat of Nietzsche’s tone poem Thus Spake Zarathustra, we could be in trouble. How does one handle “The Great Yearning”, bringing the orchestra up to a huge crescendo with the grand organ? Or gather them for a double– or triple-fugue? Or send the Brobdingnagian-sized orchestra dancing in meters half Beethoven Seventh, half Tantric.

Mr. Salonen was afraid of nothing. His gestures were dramatic but always on sync. He retained, throughout the murkiest Strauss orchestration a sense of utmost energy, helped immeasurably (I meant “measurably”) by solos in the strings. Especially a solo of pure energy by Concertmaster Frank Huang. And for those poor listeners who preferred something more subtle, more cerebral, more nuanced...well, one takes each work at its own value. Zarathustra was a piece which may have presaged 20th Century German aggression or the last rays of Bismarkian power. But on its own terms–with the right conductor–it is still a work whose bloviated sounds can transport us (as well as Kubrick) into the bubbling lava sections of our still primordial minds.

Harry Rolnick



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