Gilbert Brings New Works with Imagination and Wonder

United StatesUnited States Brahms, Thorvaldsdottir, Salonen: Leonidas Kavakos (Violin), Anu Komsi and Piia Komse (Sopranos), New York Philharmonic / Alan Gilbert (Conductor), David Geffen Hall, New York City. 19.5.2017. (DS)

Brahms – Concerto in D major for Violin and Orchestra
Anna Thorvaldsdottir Aeriality (NY premiere)
Esa-Pekka Salonen – Wing on Wing (NY premiere)

Alan Gilbert unwaveringly continues to make his mark – or rather establish his legacy – of bringing contemporary music to the mainstream symphonic stage, even in his last days conducting the New York Philharmonic. This performance opened with the standard-rep power surge of a Brahms Violin Concerto with artist-in-residence Leonidas Kavakos, and was balanced by two attention-grabbing New York premieres.

Gilbert’s choices were spot on – as sonorously intriguing as well as thematically complementary. Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s Icelandic soundscape, Aeriality, took inspiration from the natural surroundings of her home country. Her prowess of orchestration found equilibrium between representational, harmonic, and texturally contrapuntal episodes. The landscape imaginatively traveled through what one might envision as cavernous echoes, resonant winds, and crystalline waters. With a framework of constant sound (there are no rests in the piece), Thorvaldsdottir creates the illusion of a piece without a distinct beginning or ending – and she creates it in under fifteen minutes.

Wing on Wing by Esa-Pekka Salonen is, in contrast, an exploration of the manmade environment – a kind of architectural tone poem. Written to represent – and to fill the expanse of – Los Angeles’ Walt Disney Concert Hall designed by Frank Gehry (with excerpts from his voice), Salonen’s opus found itself in the unlikely regular space of David Geffen hall. Also embracing the concept of space, sister sopranos Anu and Piia Komsi performed both from within the orchestra and up in the balconies. Their voices took on technically extraordinary metallic qualities that begged the experience of Gehry’s sculptural setting. As the structure of Disney Hall resembles a clipper ship, Salonen incorporated wind, sea, and fish inspirations to his bigger-than-life composition, which emerged as effectively dynamic even in this drably traditional concert hall setting. In the end, Disney can’t fit inside Geffen. But it’s still fun to try it out.

In an unusual but appropriate program move, the evening began with the Brahms concerto. Kavakos is a technically flawless player who delivers what one might call the scientifically “constant” variable version of a piece. Yes, it was Brahms Violin Concerto, but I wanted to know how he felt about it. He didn’t offer a personal interpretation but a clean version – correct but lacking in wonder. Fortunately, Thorvaldsdottir’s and Salonen’s pieces activated the senses with imagination and daring that made for a memorable night.

Daniele Sahr

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