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Creation, Preservation and Death

New York
Alice Tully Hall, LIncoln Center Complex
01/06/2011 -  & Jan. 7*, 8, 2011
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Symphony No. 40 in G Minor, K. 550
Gustav Mahler: Kindertotenlieder
Thomas Adès: In Seven Days (Concerto for Piano with Moving Image) (New York Premiere)

Thomas Hampson (Baritone), Thomas Adès (Piano), Tai Rosner (Video artist)
New York Philharmonic, Alan Gilbert (Conductor)

T. Hampson (©Thomas Hampson)

Like the Hindu triumvirate of Brahma the Creator, Shiva the Destroyer, and Vishnu the Preserver, the New York Philharmonic this week presented music of Creation (Thomas Adès’ In Seven Days), music of death (Mahler’s Songs on the Death of Children) and music of Preservation (Mozart, whose music preserves the Ideal of music itself).

It was a fascinating visual and musical trio, since the music was so powerful yet so dissimilar, each exemplifying part of the centuries from which they came.

Alan Gilbert’s opening of Mozart’s 40th Symphony was played with the elegant balance which one hears so rarely in Mozart. The development of the first movement is such an architectural miracle that some conductors give a little pause at the end (or in Bruno Walter’s old recording, the pause of a full measure). But Mr. Gilbert knew that the music speaks for itself and needs nothing to make its point. Ditto for the clarinet solo of the Andante, leading to each measure of the winds so ethereal. That equally needed no gilding. In fact until the finale Mr. Gilbert played the notes, and let the New York Philharmonic virtuosi provide the execution. Mozart needs nothing else.

Thomas Hampson’s baritone is a glorious instrument so one anticipates a soaring performance. His performance of Mahler’s Songs on the Death of Children was an exception. His voice was not as resonant and commanding as I have heard before. But in these five most poignant poems, Mr. Hampson offered a feeling that this was opera more than song cycle.

Specifically, his reading was more dramatic than vocal. The “rising sun” of the first poem was sung softly, almost declaimed, only rising for the “eternal light.” For that fourth poem–one with the ghostly irony which a Mussorgsky would have relished–Mr. Hampson sung with an almost jaunty tone, while the storm at the end finally gave rise to pure emotion.

With the screen as a background (for the following work), one would have suggested here a translation, for, without knowledge of German, Mr. Hampson’s literal meaningful texts are sometimes lost.

The screen, though, played a far more important role for Thomas Adès’ Concerto for Piano and Mixed Media, written in literal tandem with the great Israeli artist and filmmaker Tai Rosner. Adès explained that for each ten seconds he composed. Rosner would start his video creations, so the two were equals.

T. Adès (© EMI Classics)

Mr. Adès presided at the piano, but the orchestra provided the color, and the section headings finished the triptych of sensations.

I must make one caveat here, that multitasking is not my forte. Thus, at the beginning, I was unable to give equal thought to visuals and music. Since I had already heard two Adès works this week at Poisson Rouge, I started by watching the six connected screens, with their black-and-white tides (changing colors and tempos with the music), then the blocks of light, the whites and azure blues. All of these were video representations–though abstract replicas–from the architecture of the two venues which had commissioned the work. They were very effective.

It was also possible (if not totally productive) to follow the scenario. Much of the music was for the opening, “Chaos–Light–Darkness”, following water/sky separation, then Land-Grass-Trees, Stars, Sun, Moon and– a musical reference point–”Fugue: Creatures of the Sea and Sky”

The end was “Consolation”, and as is common in his music, Mr. Adès stopped suddenly. He had enough to say, so there was no advantage in going on.

The music did have a lot to say. After the strings singing in wide octaves, Mr. Adès on piano and the rest of the orchestra played colorful variations, some following the visuals, some not.

This was most serious music (unless one is Mel Brooks, one does not take The Creation lightly), and it was inventive fantasy music. I was fascinated myself, for Alan Gilbert produced the most marvelous sounds, but I was also moved. The reasons aren’t entirely clear at this point, but in such music with such artwork, the creation is its own inspiration.

Harry Rolnick



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