The big news at the New York Philharmonic this week was the world premiere of "One Sweet Morning," for Mezzo-Soprano and Orchestra, by John Corigliano. The piece was co-commissioned by the Philharmonic and the Shangai Symphony Orchestra (interesting coupling?) to mark the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. And, at the second performance, which I attended last night, it was a palpable hit, helped along considerably by the excellent advocacy of mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe and the inspired conducting and playing of Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic.
Corigliano is among the most-honored of contemporary American composers, and deservedly so, as he has attained excellence in many different compositional forms. This song cycle sets poems from four distinctly different sources — Czeslaw Milosz, Homer's Illiad, Li Po (8th century Chinese poet), and American musical lyricist Yip Harburg — but they add up to an effective, unified piece due to the stylistic consistency of the musical setting. Milosz's "A Song on the End of the World" sets the scene with the evocation of the mundane, everyday happenings that will undoubtedly mark the end of the world, Homer and Li Po brood and storm on the barbarity of warfare, and Harburg imagines the blessed day when peace will finally come to the world. The poems create a dramatic arch that is supported, complemented, and enriched by the music. I have to think that Corigliano has taken a lesson from Mahler (Das Lied von der Erde) with his ending, as the music dissolves in ethereal beauty. Also noteworthy is his orchestrational virtuosity, employing a variety of unusual percussion instruments and a harmonic as well as the rich palette of the large, romantic symphony orchestra.
The concert began with a welcome revival: the first NY Philharmonic performance since 1966 of Samuel Barber's Essay No. 1 for Orchestra, Op. 12. This piece, written by the composer in his late 20s and premiered by Toscanini and the NBC Symphony in 1938, seems to have fallen out of the repertory, most likely as a result of its sequel, the Essay No. 2, being a much more rousing and audience-pleasing work. The first Essay is gorgeous but less effective than the second; Barber finds a very emotive chord sequence and repeats it a bit too often, and the piece sort of fades away, leaving the audience a bit non-plussed. It is worth hearing from time to time – perhaps most effectively, as on some recordings, as a prelude to the second Essay – and the Philharmonic gave a fabulously beautiful rendition. The sheer depth and beauty of the low strings at the beginning were particularly breathtaking.
After intermission, I think we may have paid the price for the excellent performances in the first half because — just speculation on my part — it felt like the Dvorak Symphony No. 7 had received somewhat less rehearsing than would be ideal. I had the feeling that more time could have been spent on working out instrumental balances in many of the big moments, and more attention could have been given to small details of phrasing. The crisp unanimity of the Philharmonic string sections, amply on display in Barber and Corigliano, was a bit less well focused in Dvorak. There was plenty of excitement, to be sure, and the brass were aces in the finale, but the slow movement tended to wander (as it will do in all but the most sharply focused performances). The high point for me, as it usually is in this symphony, was the third movement, a Slavonic Dance in all but name, and Gilbert did a good job here in pointing the distinctive dotted rhythm that recurs throughout. (My standard for this is the great recording left by Pierre Monteux and the London Symphony Orchestra.) On the other hand, the "trio" section seemed just a tad mushy rhythmically.
Rehearsing a large premiere and a revival of unfamiliar 20th century music within the limitations of a weekly rehearsal schedule (in a holiday-interrupted week) was likely the priority, as they last played the 7th in 2008 so at least a large portion of the orchestra would be familiar with it from that exposure, but there were a few times when it sounded to me a bit like sight-reading. (Of course, sight-reading by this orchestra can be very, very good, but inevitably not to their highest standard. I suspect that were it on a program with more familiar works, the performance would have been that much sharper.)
Some other things to keep in mind, of course. Since there was no performance Thursday night, due to the holiday, I was hearing the second performance rather than the third I would normally hear on a Saturday night. I suspect the third performance, on Tuesday, will be sharper, as the playing tends to settle over the course of a series. And I was not sitting in my usual subscription seat, having purchased a single ticket for this concert, and instrumental balances really do vary as one moves about in that hall. Anybody who is free Tuesday should not hesitate to take the chance to hear this spectacular Corigliano piece. I hope plans are in process for a recording, but I suspect that the sheer power of some of the climaxes in the two middle movements can only really be fully appreciated in a live performance.