By Leslie Kandell
NEW YORK — Concerts by great orchestras are not associated with pranks, jokes, or humor. Last week, however, such playfulness was the main event at the New York Philharmonic, in a rowdy premiere by Andrew Norman, programmed with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 4 (grumbling mockery) and Strauss’ Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks (saucy malice).
This imaginative mix, in the newly-renamed David Geffen Hall (formerly Avery Fisher), was performed under the strong, vigorous baton of James Gaffigan, New York-born chief conductor of the Lucerne Symphony Orchestra, in his Philharmonic debut.
“It’s a pleasure to work with someone who knows what he wants,” said Gaffigan, speaking on stage with Norman before the premiere of the composer’s Split — a single-movement piano concerto. Gaffigan knows what he wants too, and he got it, exuberantly, all evening.
Boyish, optimistic, and born in 1979 (as was Gaffigan), Norman is a contender. His awards include both the Rome and Berlin prizes; A Companion Guide to Rome, his string trio, was a Pulitzer Prize finalist, and the Boston Modern Orchestra Project’s recording of his Play (with his Try, heard on a recent Contact! concert) is nominated for a Grammy Award.
Norman’s work has been played at major festivals: Ojai, MATA, Tanglewood (twice), and Juilliard’s Focus. Split is a Philharmonic commission, composed for Jeffrey Kahane, who performed the somewhat wild piano solo.
Norman’s sound world, in this and other works, evokes a crowded holiday party — chaotic, festive, cheerful. Non-threatening titles (“Drip Blip Sparkle Spin Glint Glide Glow Float Flop Chop Pop Splatter Splash” is one) suggest that general listeners won’t have to slog through austere atonality or have advanced demands placed on them — they’re welcome to join the fun.
In composing the 25-minute Split, Norman writes, “I started with the idea of the piano as a mercurial trickster, wreaking havoc in and among the various sections of the orchestra, but as the piece progressed he became less the prankster and more the pranked.”
The concerto, which he calls a fantasy, begins with a startling smackdown piano chord — hands at opposite ends of the keyboard–making you jump and glance around. (Smiles were seen in the audience, as were snickers and a shrug.) Percussion is plentiful: tambourine, wood blocks, side drum, and slapstick are prominent among the 18 percussion instruments requiring three players. Orchestra (with bouncing oboe) and piano chase each other, mimicking and interrupting.
Norman said he envisions the orchestra as a “human machine.” In the middle of Split, there is a sort of cadenza, whose duration and progression are determined by the pianist, making it different each time. Single piano notes in the slow section have dialogue with one cello and, elsewhere, one viola (the composer’s first instrument). Principal cellist Carter Brey and principal violist Cynthia Phelps were deservedly singled out for bows.
In the last section the piano leads what seems like a merry band. The struggle for precedence among the instruments continues, with Straussian horn blasts and a plunky section when piano and orchestra take turns playing one note, or making splatty sounds. At the end, G major piano arpeggios subside to a low solo in refreshing transparent tranquility, as the piano finally gets the floor to itself. “The journey,” said Norman, “gives meaning to the final G major chord.”
Vladimir Horowitz would have done justice to this piece, too, smirking as he bowed. Maybe new Philharmonic board member Daniil Trifonov will have a go at it.
Gaffigan led Beethoven’s Symphony No. 4, which opened the program, and Strauss’ Till Eulenspiegel, which concluded it, with confident smarts and gusto. The Beethoven could have been a bore because it’s so well known, but Gaffigan was sensitive to its rough humor, oddball meters, and little digs at instrumentalists who can’t count — or bassoons; Beethoven never had enough of ribbing them.
It took a second or two — no more — for the orchestra to arrive at Gaffigan’s clear, energetic beat. The thoroughly enjoyable performance highlighted the start, which seemed to presage a grand majestic work, but it jumped to a cute, busy tune. String tone yearned in the adagio, and allegros thundered along, with fractious timpani whose hard mallets were deftly exchanged with leather ones.
The Beethoven turned out to be an unexpectedly tough act to follow. Intermission at this point was wise. A good Beethoven performance uses up the air in the room, and breathing time is required.
Split came after the intermission, followed by Eulenspiegel. While Till is a rambunctious rascal, the piece could have used a little more delicacy than this performance had; the tone poem had the strongest narrative on the program, and Till’s squealing final plea on the clarinet (which depicts him) was plowed under by the noise of the music representing the crowd and the hangmen, who didn’t find his pranks so merry.
Nevertheless, as concertgoers filed out, they nodded at strangers, the way they do when they’ve heard something they liked. James Gaffigan, come back soon.
Leslie Kandell has contributed to The New York Times, Musical America, Musical America Directory, and The Daily Gazette.