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Battle of the Titans

New York
David Geffen Hall, Lincoln Center
02/27/2020 -  & February 28, 29*, 2020
Jörg Widmann: Babylon-Suite (American premiere)
Richard Strauss: Sinfonia Domestica, Op. 53

New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Franz Welser-Möst (Conductor)

J. Widmann/R. Strauss

I like extremes.
Jörg Widmann (1973-)

By the disorders of “Babylon”, there we schlepped.
Revised, from Psalm 137

Of course Jörg Widmann’s Babylon Suite was preposterous.

This is not a judgement, it’s a description. Perhaps the original three-hour opera from which the Suite is taken makes more musical sense. But that seems doubtful.

(For the record: Babylonian woman falls in love with Jewish man, who is sacrificed and goes to the Underworld, where she goes to rescue him and they ride off together in a rocket-ship.)

Last night, though, the 30-minute orchestral bonanza was like a 16th Century through-composed motet. No repetitions, no variations, no links, no theoretical explanations. Only a half-hour of orchestral climaxes and chorales, nine or ten drummers drumming about 46 different instruments, quartets of winds blowing, strings winding up and down, brass brazen, and one accordion to play the first measure! About 90 different instruments almost falling off the stage.

Was it tedious? Never! Was it logical? Perhaps to the composer or conductor Franz Welser-Möst. Did the never-ending climaxes shake the David Geffen Auditorium rafters? Not to these ears, since the climaxes had no forebears.

Was it memorable? Ah, here’s the rub. Jörg Widmann is superb in everything he does. One of Germany’s two most renowned composers (with Matthias Pintscher), one of the greatest clarinet virtuosi, an incomparable conductor, who will lead the Juilliard Orchestra later this month.

So one has the idea–the supposition–that this over-long massive orchestral madness was written for fun. That Mr. Widmann took themes from the opera (which I haven’t yet seen, alas), hanging them like Calder mobiles–and then shoving together without a breath of air or space between them.

Mr. Widmann spoke of the Babylon Suite as a “linguistic confusion” not only from ancient Babylon but cities today. At its best, this confusion was very much like the chaos of an Ives symphony.

Charles Ives had a method to his madness, which climaxed in a tune like Columbia, The Gem of the Ocean. But Ives was the product of an optimistic Edwardian society which believed in inevitable progress. Jörg Widmann, born in 1973, realizes that chaos can be its own...reward?

Well, its own half-hour frantic étude for an orchestra which has no bounds.

F. Welser-Möst

Programming Widmann’s mammoth orchestral animal with a Richard Strauss tone-poem was the essence of voluminous chutzpah. But Franz Welser-Möst–who hasn’t been seen with the Philharmonic for almost two decades–pulled off both extravaganzas. Whether this was a valued success is questionable.

The Widmann was worth a listen, because everything he does is miraculous, even if the miracle cusps on entertainment.

Strauss’s Sinfonia Domestica is a different story. Rather Widmann didn’t have a story, while Strauss got off his heroic steed and told a story which could have been sponsored by Hallmark Cards or Procter and Gamble soaps.

Climaxing his three decades of symphonic poems, Strauss descended from Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life) to Das Leben einer Hausfrau (A Housewife’s Life). Or house-husband. Or Strauss’s less heroic picture of himself. In his own words, “easy-going...dreany...fiery.” Going about playing with his children, putting them to bed, singing a lullaby, making love (not with Don Juan or Heldenleben passion, but presumably Missionary Position). A short fugal argument and a happy conclusion.

To its merit, the major theme is a gorgeous one. Strauss could have used it an opera rather than a future concerto. And to Mr. Welser-Möst’s credit, he led the New York Philharmonic with unerring pleasure. One had the choice, then of Mr. Widmann’s shameless themeless orchestral spectacular, or Strauss’s straightforward somewhat saccharine picture of life in the bourgeois home.

Oh, one thing, Jörg Widmann gave us only four French horns in his Babylon Suite. Strauss doubled the odds and added two for ten French horns. So take that Mr. Extreme!

In both works last night, they played faultlessly.

Harry Rolnick



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