Sunday, April 28, 2013

And the dark became desire: Renée Fleming and the NYPhil at Carnegie Hall

The centerpiece of Friday evening's Carnegie Hall concert was unquestionably Anders Hillborg's The Strand Settings, a song cycle commissioned by the New York Philharmonic for Renée Fleming, and receiving its world premiere. Just as unquestionably, the occasion was an event: the buzz of audience chatter proclaimed eager anticipation in several languages. The performance, in its energy and subtlety, gratified this anticipation not only in the haunting, lapidary lieder, but in surprisingly nuanced and insightful accounts of two repertory staples. The programming of Respighi's Fountains of Rome and the Mussorgsky/Ravel Pictures at an Exhibition alongside Hillborg's work helped me hear each of the familiar works differently.

I tend to think, I confess, of Respighi's famous tone poem as somewhat overwrought in its effects, but Gilbert and the Philharmonic gave it a reading that was surprisingly anti-kitsch, Straussian, sensual without being indulgently sentimental. Alan Gilbert treated the late-romantic work with a perfect seriousness which may, paradoxically, be the secret to his light touch with it, not overemphasizing its earnest sincerity at the expense of the nuance in its harmonies. The woodwinds and strings both distinguished themselves (and the brass performed beautifully when called on.) The violin solo was played with great delicacy by Glenn Dicterow. The dynamics and tempi within movements were subtly handled, making the pastoral songs melancholy, the trumpets not only triumphant but defiant, the Trevi fountain both solemn and sensual, and the night deliberately and sadly secretive.

Fleming, photo (c) Decca
This unusually dark interpretation of Fountains of Rome set the stage well for The Strand Settings, the eerie cycle of Anders Hillborg. The songs' multivalence begins in the title; most obviously, perhaps, it could be descriptive: they set the poetry of Mark Strand, former Poet Laureate of the United States. But this meaning did not occur to me until a full day after the concert, for they are also settings dependent on the strand: a line washed by tides, a threshold, a place of encounters endlessly repeated, yet always elusive, subject to new interpretations. The first song in the cycle is called "The Black Sea"; the other three are taken from a cycle of poems called "Dark Harbor," yet rearranged to form new (and perhaps more hopeful) meanings. The strings predominated in the settings like the pull of the tide, sometimes mimicking the mournful wail of an electric guitar, sometimes seeming to sigh with an almost human voice. Uncertain harmonies and a half-declaimed vocal line, declining to exploit the rich gleam of Fleming's voice, gradually unfolded into more complex orchestration, bassoons and glass harmonica echoing the sorrow and madness of many operatic loves, while the singer, in increasingly wide arcs of sound, invokes a lover who is perhaps only hallucinated, who perhaps has always been so. Fleming's diction was more precise than I've sometimes heard it, and she colored her voice with remarkable subtlety of expression, and infused it with remarkably complex yearning. The resolution apparently promised by the brighter harmonies and bright visions of the final song in the cycle is almost undone in its last line, in a vision not of transcendence but of transience. I'm tempted to describe the cycle as a sort of Wesendonck Lieder for the twenty-first century, simultaneously portraying and protesting a sense of imposed loneliness, expressing a longing for the almost unattainable, the infinitely desired other, the beloved.

Gilbert and the orchestra rose to the challenge of making the rest of the evening a climax rather than an anticlimax. An unusually brisk account of Pictures at an Exhibition was wicked and wry by turns, and never less than incisive. Perhaps because of my aural preoccupation with the foregoing, modernist uncertainties and ironies seemed to emerge in unexpected ways--hesitating rhythms, minor chords--in the familiar sketches of the old castle, the ox cart. Descending first to the tomb, and then among the dead, seemed inevitable instead of incongruous. That Baba Yaga's hut was terrifying--delighting in chaos for its own sake--was nothing new. Gilbert led the orchestra with vigor through the massive crescendo of the Great Gate of Kiev, but found an unexpected hush at its heart, a breath of relief, a recognition that its triumph is neither complete nor final. This may seem like a contrarian hearing, but I was anything but dissatisfied: with the rest of the Carnegie Hall audience I applauded loud and long.

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