By David J. Baker
NEW YORK — Alan Gilbert’s eighth and final season as the New York Philharmonic’s music director is offering an appropriate mixture of past and present, nostalgia and innovation. His program on March 3 at David Geffen Hall combined the Symphony No. 4 by Mahler, whose name is stamped in the orchestra’s illustrious history, with the world premiere of a violin concerto by Russian-American composer Lera Auerbach, a reminder of Gilbert’s strong record of commissions during his Philharmonic tenure.
Auerbach, born in Chelyabinsk, near Siberia, in 1973 and a graduate of the Juilliard School and Germany’s Hanover University, is a dynamo with more than 70 compositions published and performed. A polymath also known for her poetry, sculpture, and painting, the resilient Auerbach first ventured alone to New York in her teens.
NYx: Fractured Dreams (Concerto No. 4 for Violin and Orchestra) has a strong programmatic slant, and accordingly deals as much in atmosphere, texture, and color as in the virtuosity usually associated with a concerto. As the composer told the audience in brief introductory comments, Nyx is the Greek goddess of night, “as well as of sleep, dreams, and death,” and the uppercase Y in her name, a liberty taken by the composer, is an autobiographical reference to Auerbach’s early life in New York.
The music itself suggests Slavic rather than American local color. Its soundscapes are mostly of the internal, subconscious kind, while the work seeks to capture Auerbach’s “alternative view of time” without the references or continuity of our waking state. Altogether, this may seem an excessive thematic burden for a 25-minute piece of music, and it has to be said that the program notes (essential in program music) are of very limited use to the listener. Thirteen “dreams” or movements are listed, bearing titles in Italian that translate as “Free,” “Magic,” “Tragic,” or — closer to conventional tempo indications — “Dream 6: Allegro moderato” or “Dream 13: Allegro furioso.”
There are no pauses or other unequivocal markers to separate successive sections of the score. The music glides as imperceptibly as in a dream sequence from one movement into the next; effects aggregate somewhat surreptitiously and then dissolve. A few elements recur, such as frequent brief cadenzas for the soloist, a slinky Russian-flavored slow dance tune that emerges like a refrain, and a steady four-beat monotone figure in one section. But for the most part, flux predominates and reassuring signposts are rare.
Greek violinist Leonidas Kavakos was a master of temperament and mood in the solo role, a participant rather than a self-conscious star. His tight interactions with other musicians — quasi-duets with the musical saw (played by Dale Stuckenbruck), an extended pizzicato repartee with the entire string section — were as impressive as the variety and force he achieved in cadenzas and other solos. Clarity and balance predominated in Gilbert’s conducting, giving free rein to Auerbach’s emphasis on individual instrumental voices and obsession with coloristic detail.
In addition to blurring the conventional time metrics cited in the composer’s focus on the sleeping state, Auerbach plays forcefully with “otherness” in her reliance on dissonance, often juxtaposed with conventional tonality. She also achieves distinctiveness in tone color thanks to the use of muting (even for the tuba), extreme high and low ranges, exotic percussion such as marimba, and the frequent passages for musical saw. This unusual instrument’s silky, tremulous tone is often interwoven with high solo violin sequences to suggest mystery, loss of moorings, hints of something tentative or unknown — and, no doubt, the potential for wonder that Auerbach mentions in connection with dreams.
In these programmatic characteristics, the work stands in strong contrast to Auerbach’s earlier violin concertos, particularly the more conventionally structured First (2000/2003), and her abstractly instrumental, appealing Double Concerto for Violin and Piano (1997). What continues to mark her style, whether in abstract or program music, is the flair for drama and the unexpected, bold gestures, freedom, eclecticism, and, even in serious contexts, something close to playfulness.
In the second half of the program, Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, Gilbert pursued emphatic effects freely. The first movement’s prevailing quick pace (although the score says “no haste”) was unusually restless, almost jerky, and the playing remained somewhat unsettled into the second movement, with horns obtrusive. For much of the symphony, Gilbert’s massed fortes had a fierceness that seemed to come from nowhere, breaking the mold and adding to the impression of a disjointed approach to the symphony. He had the third movement under impressive control, however, blending force and lyricism.
Soprano Christina Landshamer projected a winning quality of wonderment in the final movement’s song, “Das himmlische Leben,” and she waxed radiant in the high diminuendos concluding each stanza. Too often, Gilbert’s excessive orchestral volume covered the voice, until a softening in the concluding lines allowed a glimpse of how effective Landshamer could be in her slightly fragile lower register.
David J. Baker has written for Opera News, WQXR, the San Francisco Opera, Music@Yale, The Hartford Courant and Playbill.