Elemental Recipe Was Not Easy: 5 Composers, Violinist, New York Phil

Violinist Joshua Bell gave the U.S. premiere of ‘The Elements,’ a suite by five composers, with the New York Philharmonic under music director Jaap van Zweden. (Photos by Chris Lee)

NEW YORK — Flood? What flood? Post-hurricane rain and wind that stalled subways and even put the Central Park Zoo sea lions in distress did not deter the New York Philharmonic and violinist Joshua Bell from delivering a quite-well-received Sept. 29 U.S premiere of The Elements. This five-composer collaboration had all of them present and onstage, taking bows, as if nothing was amiss. Unlike the pre-renovation, leaky-lobby years of Avery Fisher Hall, the new David Geffen Hall was solid shelter for the Philharmonic season opener, though music director Jaap van Zweden tested the auditorium’s acoustical limits with the loudest performance of Copland’s Symphony No. 3 that anybody might have remembered.

First, the new music. A few years in the making, The Elements was conceived and commissioned by Bell as a suite for solo violin and orchestra, something along the lines of The Four Seasons and The Planets, each section having a particular composer assigned to a poetic exploration of a different element. Kevin Puts framed the suite, first with his movement titled “Earth” and then at the end with a short epilogue. In-between were Edgar Meyer’s “Water,” Jake Heggie’s “Fire,” Jennifer Higdon’s “Air,” and Jessie Montgomery’s “Space.”

Six to nine minutes in length (plus the three-minute epilogue), the individual movements shared an epic scope, having been composed from deep love for the planet and obvious concern about climate change. All of the pieces had their own sound world but also somewhat similar neo-tonal temperaments that allowed them to sit well together on the same program. Every one was a winner — partly as the result of smart planning that allowed fine tuning. The pieces had what the program notes called “working sessions” in August at the Colorado Music Festival under Peter Oundjian, prior to the Sept. 1 world premiere by the NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchestra under Alan Gilbert.

At least some of the composers had access to what the others had written. Montgomery, for one, referred to quoting motifs heard in the previous moments — a nice unifying element. All of the composers tapped Bell’s sweet, stratospheric upper range amid pictorial, programmatic orchestral effects. Also, Puts, Meyer, and Higdon followed similar contours with movements that had slow, reverent opening pages, a mid-section explosion, and then some semblance of resolution.

Composers Kevin Puts, Jake Heggie, Edgar Meyer, Jennifer Higdon, and Jessie Montgomery took bows with New York Philharmonic music director Jaap van Zweden and violinist Joshua Bell.

Most memorably, Puts began with a four-note motif heard from the harp’s lower strings, repeated over and over — somewhere between a lullaby and a chaconne (and returning in expanded form in his epilogue). Bell had some heartfelt lyrical writing that he played with great expressive commitment, though even in maximal orchestral climaxes, the music’s economy of content — there wasn’t a wasted note — reminded you of what made Samuel Barber great. Puts’ epilogue had a Cinemascopic ending worthy of André Previn.

Meyer’s “Water” was inspired by those long, lofty South American waterfalls, with a central melodic idea for the violin that had a sequential tumbling motion, as well as other downward motifs from the orchestra plus an atmospheric rain stick. The piece had a movie-like sense of progression from shot to shot, right down to a musical floor of sorts — a dark, stationary, intriguingly hard-edged sonority.

Heggie’s program notes to his “Fire” movement were as thoughtful as the music itself: “We cannot hold fire, but it can consume us. It is essential for life, but it can also cause great destruction…We need it. We fear it. We try to tame and contain it, but it can quickly run out of control.” What came out were folk-like inflections in the melodic content like tales told around a camp fire. That idea became more expansive, like a magic spell, and then evolved into more chaotic terrains that were, for lack of a better word, fiery.

Higdon’s “Air” was initially rarefied with an elegiac serenity that has been part of her musical language since her 2000 breakthrough piece blue cathedral. Climaxes were full-blooded sonorities that maintained extra transparency. This was music without a palpable destination, seeming to evoke an aerial view of everyday joys and sorrows until darker, more traditional harmonies clouded Higdon’s sky.

Van Zweden’s performance of Copland’s Symphony No. 3 was marked by ‘relentless loudness.’

Montgomery had perhaps the toughest assignment with “Space.” Where’s the poetic dimension of nothingness (at least in our immediate light-year vicinity)? Well, there’s profound loneliness in space, and the piece touched on that, but not until after the most imposing opening moments of any in The Elements. Thereafter, she gave Bell the most demanding technical workout of the piece — but with a strong emotional underpinning and electrifying effect. Why not? Composers shouldn’t be held too closely to their prescribed assignments. There’s enough super-programatic Respighi in the world.

At 55, Bell looks pretty much the same as he did at 25, shows not the slightest sign of technical decline, and has become infinitely more interesting in the past decade with his semi-improvised cadenzas and impressive conducting appearances. I hope he uses his industry clout to take The Elements wherever he goes. It also brought out the best in Zweden, whose finest moments in New York have been with modern music.

But before we start getting misty-eyed about his departure from the Philharmonic at the end of the current season, his Copland Third may go down in history as the nadir of his tenure that didn’t have to be, due to one over-riding interpretive decision: relentless loudness. The Philharmonic can overplay music in ways that bleach the color out of any sonority at hand. This Copland was worse than usual, blasting much of the detail out of the music. It was loudness without magnitude or meaning.