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Sense and Sensuousness

New York
Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center
02/23/2012 -  & February 25, 28, 2012
Hector Berlioz: Les Nuits d’été, op. 7
Steven Stucky: Son et Lumière
Modest Mussorgsky: Picturs at an Exhibition (Orchestrated by Maurice Ravel)

Joyce DiDonato (Mezzo-soprano)
New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Alan Gilbert (Music Director/Conductor)

J. DiDonato (© Virgin Records/Sheila Rock)

An ex-Senator presently running for President of my country recently railed that Satan was punishing the United States, partly because we practiced “sensuality.” I do not believe that Mr. Senator was in the audience tonight, for we would have seen him storm out almost immediately. Alan Gilbert led the New York Philharmonic through the most diverse paths of sensuality–and I doubt if either God or Satan would have minded for a moment.

Those paths did not include the sexually sensual. Rather, an acknowledgement that our five senses can be musically (and metaphorically) enthused with great deftness. Composer Steven Stucky attempted to transmute the sense of sound to the sense of light. Maurice Ravel offered the sense of art and architecture, the senses of haunting horror and Dali-esque meta-sensory appreciation.

And then we had Joyce DiDonato taking that French composer who breathed the sensuous on this sleeve and turned The Nights of Summer into excitement, drama and pure sensual indulgence.

Rarely going to opera, I last heard Ms. DiDonato several years ago at an informal gathering , where she sung 18th Century music with virginally pure beauty. Obviously she has broadened out, and her roles–including Berlioz’ Margueite–have transformed her into a dramatic mezzo of stunning proportions.

In Berlioz’ song–cycle, Summer Nights, Ms. DiDonato began with an almost throwaway “Villanelle”. This was disarming, for after that, her voice took on a variety of characters, both male and female. It deepened, its softness was luscious, poured the most rabid operatic voice into the penultimate “Cemetery Moonlight” and finished off with the mystery of “An Unknown Isle”.

Rarely performed with full orchestra, the cycle is equally imaginative with Berlioz’s so sensitive orchestration, never ever approaching the flamboyant, always in the background for Ms. DiDonato so rich translation.

Steven Stucky’s Son et Lumière he himself calls “an entertainment” beginning with two great staccato chords which continue through nine quick episode-filled minutes. Like so many composers, Mr. Stucky has a gymnastic ability to make the orchestra perform the most marvelous tricks, but he is such an adept composer that even in this very busy bagatelle, it all makes cohesive sense. Ephemerality has its pleasures.

I was wondering where I heard those scurrying sounds from Son et Lumière and then realized it came from parts of the Ravel Pictures at an Exhibition orchestration. While Ravel did not entirely admire Berlioz, there is little doubt that Berlioz would have orchestrated the Mussorgsky piece with equal brilliance and singular imagination.

Mr. Gilbert, as expected, gave a full-bodied, spacious flowing account here, starting with Philip Smith’s piercing opening trumpet. But my own senses were especially opened now in the great brass fanfares but those voluptuous strings of the New York Philharmonic during the “Bydlo” section. Mr. Gilbert made them press hard, as hard as Mussorgsky’s heavy cartwheels.

The effects were not those of straining and toil, but so beautiful were the sounds that our own senses were inexorably drawn into their spell.

Harry Rolnick



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