Premieres for Timpani and Clarinet: Quite a Sight

United StatesUnited States Bernstein, Wright, Leshnoff, and Prokofiev: Don S. Liuzzi (timpani), Ricardo Morales (clarinet), Philadelphia Orchestra, Yannick Nézet-Séguin (conductor), Verizon Hall, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, 15.4.2016. (BJ)

Bernstein: Three Dance Variations from Fancy Free
Maurice Wright: Resounding Drums, for timpani and orchestra (world premiere, commissioned by the Philadelphia Orchestra)
Jonathan Leshnoff: Clarinet Concerto, “Nekudim” (world premiere, commissioned by the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Santa Barbara Symphony)
Prokofiev: Symphony No. 7, Op. 131

Ever since first arriving in the USA more than fifty years ago, I have found it a source of amusement that, whereas the English talk of “hearing” concerts, in the States you “see” them. And not just concerts, but the works played in them too: “Did you see Beethoven’s Ninth last week?,” someone will ask—which, if you dignify it with a mere tenth of a second’s thought, is a pretty absurd idea.

But at one stage in this Philadelphia Orchestra program centered on premieres—the actual first performances were a day earlier—the American usage had a certain validity. In Resounding Drums, more than the sound, it was surely the sight of principal timpanist Don Liuzzi whirling like a dervish around his set of pedal-tuned timpani—a occasional rapid swat behind his back landing as if by magic on the right drum—that held the audience transfixed (or should I rather, in the interest of greater linguistic consistency, call them the “vidience”?).

I have no wish to denigrate the new work by the 66-year-old Maurice Wright, a professor at the city’s Temple University. The sounds of his three-movement piece, a concerto in all but name, were enjoyable in their own right, and they were marshaled in effective interplay with the orchestral part, though perhaps the logic leading from one of those three movements—and from one musical idea within them—to another was not completely convincing. No matter: it is a fun piece, and one I should be happy to hear—and see!—again.

Music director Nézet-Séguin kept everything firmly together, as he did also in the new Clarinet Concerto by New Jersey native and Baltimore resident Jonathan Leshnoff, who is Wright’s junior by 24 years. This is the latest of the ten concertos the composer has to his name to date. His subtitle “nekudim” refers to the vowels of the Hebrew language; it is concerned here with the concept of the vowels’  blowing life into the lifeless “bodies” of the consonants, and by extension with the way the clarinetist blows the “living soul” into the music he is given to play.

A further Hebrew association is with the Jewish mystical term “Chesed,” which heads the second of the work’s three movements: Leshnoff explains its meaning for the movement’s “approximately 10 minutes of unrelenting motion” in terms of “uninhibited giving, without regard to the merits of the recipient.” That motion, dazzlingly articulated by principal clarinetist Ricardo Morales in taut collaboration with conductor and orchestra, was exhilarating enough, but more compelling were the work’s slow outer movements, where the solo part, often in melodic and frequently light-textured combination with the upper strings, exploited Morales’s keening eloquence to magical effect.

The Wright work that concluded the first half of the program had been aptly preceded by percussion-inflected music from Bernstein’s Fancy Free ballet. Similarly, whether by good judgement or by luck (since you often don’t know what you are going to get in the form of a commissioned work until late in the creative process), the juxtaposition of the new concerto with Prokofiev’s Seventh Symphony proved to be stimulating, for the latter seemed to pick up at the outset from Leshnoff’s predominantly melodic and frequently bare-textured musical language. Prokofiev’s initial concentration on the kind of gradually exfoliating melody he had explored to wonderful effect in the better-known Sixth Symphony leads, as it did there, to some thoroughly absorbing developments in tone and texture, especially in the second movement, whose proliferating lines emulate the fascinating textures in the scherzo of Shostakovich’s long-suppressed Fourth Symphony.

The story of Prokofiev’s Seventh, itself a fine and unjustly neglected work, includes an episode in which, out of commercial motives during the financially strapped last years of his life, the composer inflicted a fast and apparently celebratory coda on the finale. He did, however, ask for that substitute ending not to be played after his death. Nézet-Séguin rightly gave us the original mysterious ending, and its hushed and curiously poignant sonorities made a spellbinding conclusion to a concert full of stylistic variety and musical satisfaction.

Bernard Jacobson

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