Friday, October 8, 2010

The shape of sound: Debussy, Sibelius, and Lindberg at the NYPhil

Last night, I went to hear a much-advertised program comprising Debussy's Prélude à l’après-midi d'un faune, Sibelius' Violin Concerto in D minor, op. 47, and Magnus Lindberg's orchestral work Kraft.  (I then resisted the temptation to title this "A faun, a fantasy, and a Finn.")  Admittedly, none of this is opera, but it was exciting, so I thought I would share, with the caveat that I am, if anything, less qualified (because a less habitual listener) to review orchestral works than opera.  Still... it was a very interesting night out.  (An unfortunate drawback to the listening experience was that I was seated next to two snorers and behind a row of talkers; there was applause after the first movement of the Sibelius, and defections began approximately halfway through the Lindberg, growing gradually less surreptitious and more numerous up until a scant few minutes before the piece's conclusion.)

As in the evening of French and Italian opera extracts which I attended in the summer, this evening's program was preceded by a brief informative and interpretative speech by the conductor.  This still strikes me as strange! but as an insatiable absorber of educational tidbits, I can hardly object to being offered new ways to think about music.  Alan Gilbert, with passionate engagement, spoke about how Debussy shaped the Prélude; about the impulsion in the Sibelius, and, after the interval, about the unconventional aural landscape of Kraft.  (He speaks at greater length about the coherence of the program, and the place of Kraft, a work from 1983-5, in Lindberg's oeuvre, here.)  The opening remarks for  L’après-midi emphasized (perhaps tendentiously; I confess that I do not know) Debussy's use of similar, shapely phrases echoed by different instruments in the orchestra, rather than more traditional melodic line, to give the work its form.  I usually think of this as an ethereal piece, evoking pastoral paintings of the early nineteenth century with soft gold light and gray-green trees leaning from dark cliffs and maybe a few small figures in the distance.  This was not the mood I took from the NYPhil's performance: it was lush, dark, and sensual, seeming to be driven by the character of the faun rather than that of the afternoon, from that first, uncanny flute onwards.  

The orchestra also created rich, deeply Romantic sound for the Sibelius, but I missed a sense of excitement, of irresistible urgency, which I think can belong to the piece (now if only I could remember which recording(s) my father had knocking about the house, I might know why I think that.)  Joshua Bell, on the other hand, while responsive to and supported by the orchestra, played as though his life depended on it.  This is the second time I've heard Mr. Bell play and each time I've thought, sitting and politely joining in the welcoming applause: surely he's over-hyped; I've been tricked into this; he can't be that good.  And then, each time, he has done something wildly exciting.  Truly, his performance tempts me to employ the vocabulary of Conan Doyle (or a contemporary) and say that he was like a man possessed; I was on the edge of my seat throughout the work. I have just discovered that he has recorded it with Esa-Pekka Salonen, on a CD which also includes Goldmark's first violin concerto; at less than $10, I might call that an acceptable impulse purchase for the non-operatic side of my CD collection.

The second half of the program was devoted to Marcus Lindberg's Kraft; Lindberg talks about the piece and some of its influences (alternative post-punk Berlin music scene!) here.  In preparation for the performance, much touted as an Event, members of the orchestra went on a quest to a local junkyard to find instruments:
  Alan Gilbert spoke of this adventure with some pride; they even salvaged a technically superfluous car hood to place decoratively in front of the podium.  Other notable finds included three empty oxygen cans, a traffic sign, and giant springs.  There were also several gongs of varied sizes!  

I was reminded, listening to the work, of Andrew Richards' recent blog post on learning to listen; Mr. Richards is talking about the process of putting together production ideas, but I think the principle of steady, committed attention to an unexpected use of a familiar form is similar.  I was unsurprised to learn that Lindberg (together with Esa-Pekka Salonen) is a founding member of an informal group of artists known as the Ears Open Society.  While certainly unconventional--eight different points in the house were used for different members of the orchestra to play from throughout the piece, and eight participants, including Mr. Lindberg himself (who played the piano, some of the salvaged percussion, and several of the gongs) and Maestro Gilbert, were clad in knit polos of every color of the spectrum--the piece seemed to me to be experimenting with "traditional" symphonic ideas rather than rebelling against them.  There were sounds so complex, so unexpected, so simply loud, that they jolted one out of one's seat (I thought of Papa Haydn).  I would be tempted to call the exuberant piece childlike in its apparently inexhaustible drive to explore sound, but it was also a work which struck me as clearly reasoned.  From blasts of industrial sound in the opening to the gurgling of water and sounds reminiscent of bird calls in the end, it was an invigorating listen which also struck me as an indictment of ugliness.  If we can find this much beauty, and this much joy, in unconventional places, why don't we bother?

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