Monday, October 8, 2018

New York Philharmonic Performs Andriessen, Stravinsky and Debussy

On Friday afternoon I went to David Geffen Hall to hear the New York Philharmonic perform for the first time this season.  Jaap van Zweden has now taken over as Music Director, and I was pleased to see that, perhaps as a result, the programming was much more imaginative than in prior years.  Rather than the usual array of overfamiliar crowdpleasers, this concert actually featured at least some lesser known works by an intriguing array of composers - Louis Andriessen, Stravinsky and Debussy.

The concert's opening piece turned out to be the most interesting on the program.  This was Andriessen's Agamemnon, a work that had had its world premiere only the evening before at this same venue. The only work I had prevously encountered by Andriessen was a 1991 piece titled Hout that I had heard several years ago at a Juilliard Chamberfest performance.  A canon displaced by a sixteenth note, it was a fusion between jazz and progressive classical music and, as such, fit in very well with the description of Andriessen's late style as set forth in his Wikipedia biography:
"Since the early 1970s he [Andriessen] has refused to write for conventional symphony orchestras and has instead opted to write for his own idiosyncratic instrumental combinations...  His harmonic writing eschews the consonant modality of much minimalism, preferring post war European dissonance, often crystallised into large blocks of sound...  Andriessen's music is thus anti-Germanic and anti-Romantic..."
What then to make of Agamemnon?  Not only is this a full scale orchestral work, but in its programmatic setting it is nothing if not a tone poem squarely in the Romantic tradition.  As Andriessen himself states:
"It's not a literal drama depicting specific scenes in the narrative... You might hear Achilles running around the battlefield one moment and then perhaps Iphigenia in a few quieter bars in B minor.  And Kalachas is there arguing in declamatory music about the will of the gods."
Not surprisingly, considering its subject, much of the music has a thoroughly martial air, with heavy use of percussion, that in spirit (but not sound) is somewhat reminiscent of Strauss's Ein Heldenleben.  At the end, a female speaker who had been seated in the orchestra rises with microphone in hand to recite Cassandra's speech from Aeschylus's Agamemnon.  As one would imagine, the piece is highly enjoyable and accessible in a manner few contemporary works can claim.  Following the twenty minute performance the composer appeared onstage to accept a well deserved ovation.

The next work was Stravinsky's Violin Concerto in D major (1931).  After having complained in my last post how infrequently I had heard this work performed, I now heard it for the second time in less than twenty-four hours, on this occasion with soloist Leila Josefowicz.  Attending two performances back to back gave me an opportunity to compare the different approaches of the respective orchestras and soloists.  In general, I found the Philharmonic's and Ms. Josefowicz's interpretation much more energetic.  The fact that there were no pauses between movements - in contrast to the SFS performance where there had been distinct pauses between each of the four movements - made the work appear much faster paced when performed by the Philharmonic.  And though the work does not encourage virtuosic flourishes, Ms. Josefowicz added to the drama by playing her part with much more vivacity than had Leonidas Kavakos on Thursday evening.

After intermission, the concert resumed with another Stravinsky piece, the Symphonies of Wind Instruments (1920, rev. 1945-1947).  This was much more the type of Stravinsky work I wish the SFS had performed the previous evening, one that displays some of the composer's earliest thoughts on modernism.  For better or worse, following the end of World War I in 1918, the Europe for which Stravinsky had composed his Ballets Russes spectacles no longer existed.  The war's cataclysmic upheavals, epitomized for the composer by the Russian Revolution, had a profound influence on his life and career and forced upon him the realization that a new form of music was needed for a new social order.  Hence the move to modernism, nowhere so well exemplified as in the present piece.  Not only did the work employ a minimalist approach in which discrete motifs, described by Stravinsky as "tonal masses," were placed side by side but also called for a new choice of instruments.  In a January post in which I discussed Stravinsky's 1923 Octet, I quoted the composer's thoughts on wind instruments:
"Wind instruments seem to me to be more apt to render a certain rigidity of the form I had in mind than other instruments... which are less cold and more vague... My Octuor is not an 'emotive' work but a musical composition based on objective elements which are sufficient in themselves."
It was this same striving for objectivity that had earlier infused Symphonies and had determined the choice of wind instruments for this work as well.  That Stravinsky was consciously attempting to rid the piece of all emotional elements can be inferred from his dissatisfaction with the disastrous 1921 premiere conducted by Serge Koussevitsky that was met with hisses and gales of laughter from an unappreciative British audience.  Stravinsky wrote:
"The audience did not hiss enough.  They should have been much angrier...  The radical misunderstanding was that an attempt was made to impose an external pathos on the music."
The program concluded with one of Debussy's best known works, La Mer (1903-1905, rev. 1910). Although when listening to this piece one always imagines sunlight glinting off Mediterranean waters, Debussy actually composed it while staying in East Sussex in England. It was the composer's skill at creating impressions of calm vistas and gentle breezes that imbued the work with its magical character. So popular has this piece become over the years that it's difficult to believe now that when the work premiered it was not well received, perhaps because it did not fit the standard symphonic form to which audiences had by then grown accustomed. It's also of interest that Debussy finally decided to title the first movement "From dawn to noon on the sea" when in a 1903 letter to his publisher he had originally referred to it as "Beautiful sea by the bloodthirsty islands."

This was the second time I had heard Jaap van Zweden conduct the Philharmonic (see my February 19th post), and I was just as impressed this time as last.  Mr. van Zweden managed to elicit from his ensemle a far better performance than I had thought it capable of producing.  This was as auspicious a beginning to his tenure as one could have wished, and one can only hope it will continue in the same manner.  And it comes just in time.  In the last few years the Philharmonic had descended almost to the level of a "pops orchestra," a sad fate indeed for the venerable ensemble once led by Mahler and Bernstein.  Evidence of change can be seen not only in the level of performance but also, as I mentioned earlier, in the approach to programming.  That performed on Friday afternoon was coherent and well thought out and was not afraid to include less accessible works in its search for quality.  Judging by the enthusiastic response of the nearly sold out audience, the effort was well appreciated.

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