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Magical Mystery Tour de Force

New York
David Geffen Hall, Lincoln Center
11/22/2023 -  & November 24, 25*, 2023
Győrgy Ligeti: Atmosphères
Julia Perry: Stabat Mater
Gustav Holst: The Planets, Op. 32

J’Nai Bridges (Mezzo-soprano)
Dessoff Choirs, Malcolm J. Merryweather (Director), New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Dima Slobodeniouk (Conductor)

D. Slobodeniouk(© Marco Borggreve)

Micropolyphony is like viewing a hanging oriental tapestry, suspended outside of time.
Győrgy Ligeti

The universe is like a safe to which there is a combination, but the combination is locked up in the safe.
Peter de Vries, novelist

My primary goal in composition? Music as frozen time, as an object in an imaginary space…to hold on to time, to suspend its disappearance, to confine it in the present moment.

Győrgy Ligeti hardly confined himself to this ontological credo. But in Atmosphères, he succeeded not only in giving us (and of course Stanley Kubrick in 2001), not only the illusion of space but an actual caesura of human un-reality.

Gustav Holst came close to the Ligeti destination in the final choral in “Neptune, the Mystic” climax to The Planets. Yet the mind of Holst gave us only a mystical magic trick. Holst’s was a suspension of belief, Ligeti’s was an ontological suspension of consciousness.

Planets, Atmosphères, and Julia Perry’s Stabat Mater together made a trio of the Galactic, the Cosmic and the Sacred. The result, if not exactly the start of a Merry Christmas, gave us Thanks for Giving two hours of unworldly delight.

All three essays were surveyed by the New York Philharmonic this week under the baton of the young Russian-born Finnish conductor Dima Slobodeniouk. He was cool, precise, he could offer Bernstein-like excitement the Holst piece. Yet his control for Ligeti’s Atmosphères–a crucial control–was exactly what was needed to control what E.E. Cummings called “the universe next door”.

Each time I have heard Atmosphères , mainly on recordings, it provides a new depths, new emotions, new sensitivities. The stasis can be mesmerizing. (Stoners probably love it.) The instruments, all different, all with the illusion of stillness, is fascinating until (at a more cerebral listening), those huge chords, up to 55 notes can be separated and put together.

All in the atmosphere.

The Phil gave Atmosphères the full measure of fortefortefortissimos and pianoissimo. The moves were quantum‑short, yet I for one was moved deeply, for these textures within textures within textures.

(Though it was difficult. The Saturday audience coughed their way through the work. One would like to suggest that adjacent to the Security Guards, the Phil Management place an Ear, Nose and Throat doctor to examine attendees.)

I wrote before that Julia Perry’s Stabat Mater was the “sacred part of the concert”. This severely understated the drama, the mono‑dramatic feeling of the 12th Century poem. Ms. Perry had translated the original Latin about Mary’s desolation, turning the lamentation into a work enveloping the dark–and terrifying–thoughts of the Mother.

Even more interesting was the Alban Berg‑like atonality, the original string melody rarely turned into dissonance, more lyrical, and sometimes shattering.

J. Bridges (© Freddie Collier)

The mezzo-soprano was J’Nai Bridges, already an icon of 20/21st Century opera. Here one felt, as Ms. Bridges enunciated every Latin syllable, at times rising to the top of her range, that this was an unending plea, a cry in the wilderness, a lyrical utterance.

I am not a fashion maven, but before the first note, the singers chthonic‑black dress and huge white shawls lifting up as angelic wings, would make Yuja Wang, in comparison resemble a frumpy fishwife.

After the intermission came Holst’s Planets. Only the most Holy Elite Snob would shy away from this blazing, indescribable orchestral tour de force.

And forceful did Maestro Slobodeniouk conduct it. Of course “Mars” brought the house down with timpani and really scary brass. (Did Respighi steal those brass moments for his buccinæ in Roman Festivals?)

The chorales in “Jupiter” were so veddy veddy British that no Jupiterean would recognize them.

And with “Neptune, the Magician”, the Dessoff Choirs offstage gave a suitably mystical sounds, ending a mystical musical evening.

Harry Rolnick



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