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A Rare Medium, Well Done

New York
David Geffen Hall, Lincoln Center
04/18/2024 -  & April 19* 20, 2024
Lili Boulanger: D’un matin de printemps
Olga Neuwirth: Keyframes for a Hippogriffes‑Musical Calligrams in memoriam Hester Diamond
Sergei Prokofiev: Symphony No. 5 in B‑Flat Major, Opus 100

Andrew Watts (Countertenor)
Brooklyn Youth Chorus, Diane Berkun (Founder, Artistic Director, Conductor), New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Thomas Søndergård (Conductor)

T. Søndergård/A. Watts

Thai nipple gongs, crotales, vibraphone, cowbells, tamtams, glissando gong, suspended gong, tom‑tom, metal blocks, anvils, auto‑brake drums, mechanical car horns with rubber balls, guiros, tubular bells, temple blocks, orchestra bells, two synthesizers.
A few of the percussion instruments for Keyframes for a Hippogriff - Musical Calligrams in memoriam Hester Diamond

And what good deeds have we Manhattanites done to deserve all the Danes this week? Thursday we had the wonderful Danish String Quartet. Thursday, Friday and Saturday, the great Danish conductor Thomas Søndergård led the New York Philharmonic. And just for kicks, that Danish Prince Hamlet is playing on the Lower East Side.

This piece is devoted, though, to Mr. Søndergård, making his New York Philharmonic debut. Along with a premiere of the NY Phil-commissioned awkwardly titled Keyframes for a Hippogriff - Musical Calligrams in memoriam Hester Diamond. (The Phil was supposed to give the world premiere, but Covid cancelled that.)

That piece, by the Austrian composer/visual artist Olga Neuwirth had to be heard to be believed. And even hearing it, one couldn’t quite believe one’s ears.

Formally, the title encompasses a video start‑stop device, a mythical animal, a text which has a pictorial (as well as verbal) meaning. (Many a Renaissance motet was in the form of a crucifix.) It was dedicated in the title to a noted art curator.

The ensemble includes a young chorus (the always amazing Brooklyn Youth Chorus), a countertenor (Andrew Watts warbling to the highest registers, singing melismas so lengthy and involved it would make bel canto arias seem like monotones), and the Philharmonic, conducted by the energetic graceful Mr. Søndergård .

Did I say the Philharmonic? Well, this was the Phil augmented by a crazy, loud, shattering percussion battery some of which is listed below the opening picture.

From its first forte-forte-fortissimo clash‑bang through to the penultimate measure, the diminutive Ms. Neuwirth (she will have attended all the performances) charged ahead orchestrally with mad, almost screaming sounds embracing all of these instruments–rarely modestly constrained. (Imagine a Mahler’s Symphony of a Thousand composed by Edgard Varèse.

Some of Brooklyn Youth Chorus (© Brooklyn Youth Chorus)

And what was this massive extravaganza about? Ah, (as Danish Prince Hamlet said) there’s the rub! It was about hope, peace, joy, song, youth, brotherhood and freedom of expression. And this was accomplished by an accumulation of poem bits by Whitman, Dickinson, Blake, Lear, Nietzsche, and Gertrude Stein. Amongst others.

Miracle of miracles, it worked. First, countertenor Watts and the Brooklyn Youth Chorus paraded the lyrics, the contrast of an old man and the young chorus coming together at the end, with “Joy in eternal nature! The liberty to be free! Hope? Hope!”

Second Ms. Neuwirth succeed on the fun side. Mr. Søndergård balanced out vocal and orchestra well enough that we could have pictured it as a gigantic circus, or Steppenwolf’s Magic Theater or a banquet of laughter.

And why not fun? Shakespeare would have loved this. “Always prepare for mirth,” he penned. “For mirth becomes a feast.”

Mr. Søndergård opened with an extremely rare piece of French Impressionism. The composer, Lili Boulanger (yes, the sister of famed Nadia), died when 24 years old, but her small output showed astounding promise. This tiny work, Of a Spring Morning, could have summoned up Delius or MacDowell. The result was more intriguing. Delicate insect-buzzing, flower-scenting, sun‑rising. Mr. Søndergård showed, in movement and surety, a miniature lovely picture.

The last work was a 20th Century warhorse., Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony. At one time it might have been considered brassy (one critic called the composer “Dr. Fortissimo”). Today, it is a model of neo‑classical restraint, its angular themes developed, ascending to great climaxes, each movement with structures as transparent as his “Classical” Symphony.

Yet with all that, this was painted with gorgeous colors. I imagine that, with the right orchestra, it would be a great conductor’s dream piece. Mr. Søndergård and the New York Phil fit the bill. The Symphony spread out in the opening movement, was jaunty in the second, luminous in the third movement, incandescent in the finale, and from first to last controlled under Mr. Søndergård’s baton.

Harry Rolnick



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