This week the New York Philharmonic managed to be in two places at once. That is, a chamber orchestra drawn from the full ensemble appeared at Avery Fisher Hall, collaborating with four vocal soloists, the New York Choral Artists, and guest conductor Bernard Labadie in what threatens to become an annual practice of a week of performances of George Frideric Handel's oratorio "Messiah", while another group of ensembles drawn from the orchestra was busily rehearsing and then performing a concert of premiere performances as part of the "Contact" new music series, led by Musical Director Alan Gilbert at the Metropolitan Museum on Friday and Symphony Space on Saturday.
When I received the season's program last winter, I groaned to see that "Messiah" has become an annual event at the Philharmonic and my subscription series included it this year, on the same night as the Symphony Space "Contact" program. Ultimately things worked out, as the Philharmonic allows for relatively unrestricted exchanges of subscription tickets. When it came to making exchanges, I decided to use one of my tickets for an earlier performance of "Messiah" and to attend "Contact" on Saturday night. So here is my report on the Philharmonic's divided week.
My "groan" about an annual "Messiah" tradition was due to my feeling that the piece is over-done and is presented by so many different organizations in New York City each December that to spend a week of Philharmonic subscription concerts on it is a redundancy and a misguided one at that in this age of period performance practice. Why would one want to hear a piece of the 1740s with a modern instrumental ensemble, a large chorus and non-specialist soloists? The answer, of course, is that if it is done really well with a strong consciousness of the period, it is worth hearing our city's best orchestra and a fine chorus essay this piece, which is one of the imperishable masterpieces of music. And so it proved for me on Thursday evening. (But with a little more imagination they might come up with other interesting programs for this time of year. Anyone for Berlioz's "L'Enfance du Christ," perhaps, or JS Bach's Christmas Oratorio?)
Bernard Labadie, a Canadian who has made a specialty of early music performance, came through aces in getting the ensemble drawn from the Philharmonic to play with the requisite transparency and lightness of an early instrument ensemble, but without the sometimes astringent, teeth-gritting quality of vibrato-less gut strings characteristic of some early music ensembles. That is, they played with warmth and full string color, but avoided the thickness and underinflected heavy romantic sound that would be out of place in this music. The New York Choral Artists, despite the size of the group, was nimble and well pointed in its phrasing (thanks, no doubt, to the expert preparation by Joseph Flummerfelt), and the soloists — Karina Guavin (soprano), Marie-Nicole Lemieux (contralto), Tilman Lichdi (tenor) and Andrew Foster-Williams (bass) — were all splendid in finding a just balance of beauty and drama. I was particularly impressed with Mr. Lichdi's impeccable English pronunciation, not necessarily the norm for a German born and trained singer. And, a special shout-out to Thomas V. Smith, the excellent trumpet soloist!
They took the piece in two parts, combining Parts II and III of the score after the intermission and avoiding undue length by skipping a few numbers in these parts, which, after all, are less relevant textually to a Christmas season performance. Part I, which details the prophecies and birth of Jesus, was presented complete. Part II, the Passion, is more relevant for Easter, as is Part III, the Resurrection music. Sometimes I think the best solution to the "Messiah" Christmas syndrome would be just to present Part I followed by the Hallelujah Chorus from Part II and Worthy is the Lamb and the Amen Chorus from Part III. After all, Handel actually composed this piece to be an Easter-time presentation, not a Christmas piece, and it was only in later years that it became a Christmas favorite due to the topicality of Part I in that season.
Despite my forboding about hearing "Messiah" yet again, I found — as I always do — that the piece is just such a joy to hear in a good performance that familiarity overcame contempt and, in the end, I thought it a jolly good show. My only quibble, and that a faint one, was that I thought Labadie overdid the fussiness in his phrasing of the beginning of the Amen chorus, breaking up the line with little gaps. When I got home, I pulled out my copy of the score — the Dover edition, which reprints the scholarly edition made by Alfred Mann for Rutgers University in the 1960s — to see whether this peculiar phrasing is from the score, and found it totally absent – but then the score as presented in this edition provides no phrasing at all, no slurs, no accents, just the succession of notes, so it is certainly tempting for a conductor to do things with it. I just found it awkward and discordant with what had come before. In my experience, the Amen Chorus works beautifully as a flowing, legato outpouring of reverence at the end of the piece….
On to "Contact," and here I was less well pleased. I attended at Symphony Space tonight (Saturday). The first half was made up of commissions of two New York-based middle-aged composers, James Matheson and Jay Alan Yim, with after intermission a New York premiere of a 2009 piece by English composer Julian Anderson. My reaction: Oh, for a tune! Or even something recognizable as a melody.
Of the three pieces, I most appreciated Mr. Yim's "neverthesamerivertwice", which he explained prior to the performance was inspired by a trip to Iceland and a statement attributed to Heraclitus that when one gazes at a river more than once, one is always looking at a different river because of the constant flow of the water. The piece fulfilled this as a sort of perpetual motion, well capturing the sense of flowing water at different speeds over the course of a river with constantly varying textures and intermixing instrumental lines. Although, in common with the other two pieces, there was no really defined melody in the thing, the constant forward motion and varying textures and sheer beauty much of the time made it compelling and kept my attention engaged.
Matheson's piece, True South, started out well, but I found my attention wandering in the absence of theme and development to grasp. Perhaps there was theme and development going on, but I didn't perceive it at first hearing, and although there was some variety of texture, ultimately I didn't find the whole very interesting. Even less so, Mr. Anderson's "The Comedy of Change", a ballet for a smaller ensemble of instruments augmented with some electronics, from which my mind disengaged at an early point, as I heard nothing interesting going on.
When you come to think of it, however, one out of three isn't too bad. After all, it is extremely difficult to write a piece of music that has lasting interest. At any given time in the past several hundred years, there have been hundreds of composers laboring simultaneously throughout the "western" world producing music in then-contemporary styles for varying uses, but from any particular decade, there emerged only a relatively small percentage of their output that entered the active and ongoing repertory of performing musicians and can be heard with any frequency after their earliest performances. Even the greatest composers among them produced some works of lesser interest that only get played occasionally due to the celebrity of the composer as a result of their more successful works. And there are some really fine composers who are represented in the "permanent" repertory by only one or two works. So it shouldn't be all that surprising if a program of premieres does not yield up an evening of solid hits. [To illustrate the point, try a thought experiment by picking a decade from the 19th century and trying to list all the works written during that decade that are regularly played today, and then imagine how many pieces of music were likely composed during that decade. You'll quickly get the point.]
The audience at Symphony Space was kind of sparse, but responded enthusiastically to everything. Will the Philharmonic continue these "Contact" programs in this format? After the initial burst of enthusiasm last year, the attendance seems to have declined to a more die-hard element, and one wonders. Perhaps they can find a slightly smaller hall, or else just perform each program once (although then some number of people will be disappointed if they can't get seats due to the reduced availability). I think it is vitally important that the Philharmonic play new music — and they are doing more of it on their main series at Avery Fisher, including later this month when we will have world premieres by Kernis and Rouse – and these "Contact" programs give the musicians additional opportunities, but there are enough new music ensembles around town to play pieces for smaller groups of musicians, that one might think the NYP could make its contribution by playing more new music for full orchestra. The Matheson piece struck me as one that could just as well have the full NYP string section and might have sounded better for that. How to handle the new music issue is something that requires continuing thought. Meanwhile, one could wish that more NYP subscribers would make the trek uptown to support this worthy effort, now completed for the 2010-11 season, if they decide to repeat the experiment next season.