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Two Versions of the Inimitable Ninth

New York
Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center
10/03/2013 -  & October 4*, 5, 8, 9, 2013
Mark-Anthony Turnage: Frieze (U.S. Premiere)
Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony Number 9 in D minor, Opus 125

Julianna Di Giacomo (Soprano), Kelley O’Connor (Mezzo-soprano), Russell Thomas (Tenor), Shenyang (Bass)
Manhattan School of Music Symphonic Chorus, augmented by vocalists courtesy of American Guild of Musical Artists, Kent Tritle (Director), New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Alan Gilbert (Conductor)

M.-A. Turnage (© Philip Gatward)

Asking a talented middle-aged British composer to write music that might be paired with Beethoven’s Ninth would be like requesting a master plumber to give a a postscript to the Theory of Relativity. Not that Mark-Anthony Turnage has the mind of a master plumber, save for the mastery of his trade. He is part of that new generation of Brits who have succeeded Britten and Tippett with the most extravagant technique, talent and responsibility.

But Mr. Turnage’s Frieze (New York Philharmonic co-commission with the Royal Philharmonic Society and BBC Radio 3), which precedes the Ninth in five performances, most sold out, might be impressive enough, though it pales next to its predecessor. The late Maurizio Kagel, when asked to write a Beethoven-ish work, simply took the easy way out and deconstructed Beethoven. But Mr. Turnage, whose last work here was the opera Anna Nicole, gave a more serious thought to the subject.

Wisely, he decided not to duplicate the choral finale, substituting a kind of Beethoven Seventh finale. The other movements had secret little quotes, but if anything these were distracting from the music. One was looking for quotes instead of listening to the music.

One soon overcame this, and the result was an intriguing, if not wholly convincing piece. Both the first and third movements were mysterious enough. The former quoted Beethoven’s orphic open fifths, but continued with starts and stops, working us into the atmosphere and out again. The slow movement was most intriguing of all, with a mystery of mood, much as Beethoven’s had.

Mr. Turnage began life as a jazz musician, and this was shown in the scherzo, with its jagged rhythms and percussive strains. Yes, it sounded far too much like the dances from West Side Story, but that is no mean comparison. The finale was just as much fun, though Mr. Turnage pulled his punches too often. A Shostakovich would have gone all the way, but Mr. Turnage is British, and the entire Frieze never quite plunged into the depths.

Alan Gilbert used a curious word in describing Mr. Turnage’s finale as “cynical.” That word would be more apt in describing the Ninth in the program notes. While most comments were adulatory, Igor Stravinsky ruined the party with his quote. “The finale has been sacred,” he wrote. “I have often wondered why.”

Well, because Beethoven music to Schiller’s “Ode to Joy”, not an ode to non-emotional perfection. So when that finale comes on, with the right soloists, chorus and orchestra, one doesn’t mind sitting back and feeling joyous.

There was a bit of ragged brass playing in the Friday opening, but Mr. Gilbert took it at a measured comfortable pace. The scherzo never got out of hand, and the conductor emphasized the rhythms more than the little tunes. The slow movement was not only comfortably paced, but Mr. Gilbert was flexible with his tempos.

R. Thomas (© Dario Acosta)

And now came that last movement, which should–and did–let out all the stops. We knew that Mr. Gilbert had the New York Philharmonic to do its duty. But what a terrific quartet of soloists he had here. I was especially impressed with Russell Thomas, not only a splendid tenor, but one who raised the rooftops as he added his jubilation to the poem.

K. Tritle (© Jennifer Taylor)

Most impressive of all was an unusual choir, the Manhattan School of Music Symphonic Chorus, directed by Kent Tritle. What a glorious youthful sounded they gave here. New York has its splendid professional choruses. But this ensemble had the glories, the enthusiasms, the training and the fervency to turn Schiller’s poem into a celestial paean.

Harry Rolnick



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