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Life and Transfiguration

New York
David Geffen Auditorium, Lincoln Center
11/06/2019 -  & November 8, 9, 12, 2019
Paul Hindemith: Rag Time (Well-Tempered) – Symphony “Mathis der Maler”
Johann Sebastian Bach: Schmücke Dich, o liebe Seele, BWV 654 – Komm, Gott, Schöpfer, Heiliger Geist, BWV 667 (Arranged by Arnold Schoenberg)
Esa-Pekka Salonen: Gemini (New York premiere)

New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Esa-Pekka Salonen (Conductor)

E.-P. Salonen

Music, as long as it exists, will always take its departure from the major triad and return to it. The musician cannot escape it any more than the painter his primary colors or the architect his three dimensions.
Paul Hindemith (1895-1963)

There is something intriguing about a famed beauty having a penchant for large water birds.
Esa-Pekka Salonen (1958– ) on the birth of Pollux in his eponymous composition

Ovid, the exiled Roman poet vegetating in the furthermost scabrous regions of Illyria, would have burst with joy had Esa-Pekka Salonen and the New York Philharmonic made a time-travel appearance in his dingy refuge. Not simply because of the music–both alien and amazing to his First Century ears. Not because we had a creation of Castor and Pollux, two of Ovid’s characters. But because Ovid was the author of Metamorphoses.

And Maestro Salonen, with his impeccable imagination, had created a concert of transformations, disguises, permutations and–yes–metamorphoses.

Mr. Salonen gave us Johann Sebastian Bach in ragtime costume (well, ersatz Teutonic ragtime, but we’ll come to that later). The same Bach was elevated (or lowered) from two simple chorales to a giant orchestra. The glorious icons of Matthias Grünewald flew off their church chancels, the painted angelic orchestras made into sound. And yes, the twin stars of Pollux and Castor became the Gemini twins, thanks to the magic of Mr. Salonen himself.

So enchanting were the selections, and so error-free was the New York Phil under Mr. Salonen’s baton that even the unfamiliar New York premiere was given an unexpectedly rapturous welcome.

Mr. Salonen’s two sections of Gemini were written separately, and both could be played alone, according to the composer. After all, the original half-brothers had been created separately (one from Zeus, the other from a mortal). And while Pollux and Castor had their half-sib problems, they mainly fought together, helped Jason and the Argonauts, and insisted on dying together.

That information courtesy of Ovid, who pleaded until the day of his death to return to Rome.

Whatever Ovid added to the original Hesiod/Homer characters, Esa-Pekka Salonen augmented with distinct personalities. Mr. Salonen may be the most art-literate performer since Franz Liszt, and he quoted, besides the Greeks, Rilke, Dalí and Parisian grunge music to explain his creation.

That, though, was secondary. The form of the two movements was not terribly clear at first hearing. But those two alien words to contemporary music–emotion and feeling–burst through the work.

Here was Pollux, the son of Zeus (who had disguised himself as a swan to seduce Leda), re-created by Mr. Salonen as the tranquil brother. His New York Philharmonic gave us shimmering strings, masses of bass-clarinet and contra-bassoon notes, arpeggios, percussive tintinnabulations, and great paintings from the orchestra.

That description sounds like Ravel’s Greek Daphnis, but this was Salonen’s Pollux, with echoes of that grunge motif, with melodies dashing in and out, with an ending of (what the composer describes as) Aeolian chords, the original Greek harmonies.

Scholars might argue that Pollux was anything but tranquil, that he was as much as warrior as his brother. Mr. Salonen, though, kept the military dimensions for Castor. The Castor movement was purely military, an orchestral Dies Irae with the huge percussion group banging away on four kettledrums together, along with fierce music, deceivingly gentle interludes, up the highest notes, and down to nothingness.

Whether that be Mr. Salonen’s picture of Hades (the Greek amorphous after-life) or the stars, where they appear as Gemini the Twins, is not important. This was another vision of Salonen’s genius. And like any Greek myth, we could make our own reading.

Arnold Schoenberg has his own version of those two movements, in a gentle chorale prelude, Deck Thy Soul with Gladness, and the energetic Come God, Creator, Holy Ghost. Schoenberg was a wonderful orchestrator, and one has little doubt he dressed up Bach in terrific robes. Comparing his version to Webern’s, though, is a mistake. Webern’s Bach was almost naked, the orchestral lines single, mysterious, pointillistic. Schoenberg dressed his Bach in heavy Victorian robes.

The Schoenberg orchestral Brahms is an original a masterpiece. These pieces seemed almost lugubrious.

Paul Hindemith’s ”ragtime” dance of the C Minor Prelude and Fugue was dashing and danceable and delightful, as all his early pieces. Scott Joplin, an eclectic pianist, would have enjoyed it. I doubt, though, though, whether he would recognize anything raggy in the supposed Well-Tempered Ragtime.

M. Grünewald: Angelic Concert of the Nativity

The second half was devoted to the 14th Century paintings of Matthias Grünewald, under the title of Mathis der Maler. Alas, the religious paintings are rarely shown with the music (as shown above). They are glorious, the oils are shimmering, and Hindemith–minus his early devilish works or later contrapuntal puzzles–was at his most shimmering, his most radiant, his most accessible all the way to the final fortissimo chord.

Mr. Salonen obviously has a love affair with such orchestration. One could carp at some of tempos faster than usual, but never with his conception of all three movements. They were produced with blazing chorales and climaxes by an orchestra obviously sharing the conductor’s incandescent love affair.

Harry Rolnick



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