Renée Fleming Meets Anders Hillborg

United StatesUnited States Respighi, Hillborg, Mussorgsky: Renée Fleming (soprano), New York Philharmonic, Alan Gilbert (conductor), Carnegie Hall, New York City, 16.4.2013 (BH)

Respighi: Fontane di Roma (Fountains of Rome) (1915-1916)
Anders Hillborg: The Strand Settings (2012-2013, world premiere)
Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition (1874, orch. 1922 by Maurice Ravel)

The sickness of angels is nothing new
I have seen them crawling like bees
Flightless, chewing their tongues, not singing.
(From Dark Harbor XXXV, by Mark Strand)

This spring, Renée Fleming has curated a quartet of Carnegie Hall concerts, including a French song recital with Susan Graham, André Previn’s A Streetcar Named Desire, and a salute to turn-of-the-century Vienna. In between, this powerful evening with the New York Philharmonic demonstrated the virtuosity of the orchestra—confidently led by Alan Gilbert—and showed off a major new commission, The Strand Settings, from the Swedish composer Anders Hillborg (b. 1954). In addition, I’m happy to report, Fleming gave one of her most gleaming and sensitive performances.

Using texts by American poet Mark Strand, Hillborg has created a shimmering landscape of eloquence, unusual colors and mystery, and when coupled with Strand’s writing, the result makes potent listening. “The Black Sea” opens with an arresting, ethereal orchestral chord—impossible to dissect at first hearing, but all the more beautiful for that—and the soprano floating above in a luminous recitative as she gazes from a rooftop, looking out over the night sea. In the second part, “Dark Harbor XX,” the orchestra seems to remain almost motionless as the singer recounts memories of a past love. Tempi become more animated in “Dark Harbor XXXV” (quoted above) and in the finale, “Dark Harbor XI,” one last reminiscence is buoyed by the ensemble’s sweeping texture, slowly turning and sparkling as if in twilight. The large orchestra—usually reined in at a dynamic level of no louder than mezzo-forte—is augmented by some fascinating percussion sonorities, including wind chimes and four wine glasses (a “glass harmonica”). With Ms. Fleming effortlessly gliding through the texts, and Gilbert and the ensemble creating magic, it was no surprise that everyone—including Hillborg and Strand—received huge ovations right before intermission.

Flanking the premiere were glittering readings of two standards, including Respighi’s Fontane di Roma, which Gilbert programmed last fall for the New York Philharmonic’s opening night. It was a hit then, and even more so here. The ensemble’s winds sounded especially luxurious, but the entire group left a huge footprint with a score that rewards clarity and detail. Vibrant flourishes were everywhere—the brass sailing cheerfully over all—with rich string textures and delicate pepperings of chimes and bells.

Every listener should hear Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition now and then, just to be reminded of why it remains so popular. Taking nothing for granted, Gilbert (with no score) brought the parade to taut, exhilarating life. Impudent effects made the “Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks” bubble with detail, and the low brasses were superb in the groaning “Bydlo.” Gilbert cracked into “Baba Yaga” with a fury and made the most of its violent thrills, and in the “Great Gate at Kiev,” the sober woodwind interludes were almost as impressive as the tumultuous conclusion.

Bruce Hodges