The Better Choice

This Is More Like It

P1310021I've received a bunch of comments about my recent post, calling the New York Philharmonic to task for what I felt was a substandard performance last week of Schumann and Bruckner, made worse by the abysmal confines of Avery Fisher Hall. I won't say they completely redeemed themselves with this week's performances of the works of 20th Century Italian composer Luciano Berio, but at least they showed this listener that they have their musical priorities in order.

Berio, who taught for many years at Juilliard, was an unrepentant modernist associated with the leading composers of the European avant-garde, including Boulez and Stockhausen. He composed many works while living in New York, including his Sinfonia, commissioned by the Philharmonic in 1968. It is a wild pastiche of musical and literary references, full of "everything and the kitchen sink," as compose r Stephen Stucky remarked prior to the Philharmonic's performance of Sinfonia this past Thursday.

P1310020Sinfonia is scored for orchestra and eight amplified voices, who both sing and recite passages from post-modernist literature. It all sounded a bit obtuse to me, but the music itself was engaging and the performance by London-based Synergy Vocals was remarkable.

The centerpiece of Sinfonia is the wild third movement, where Berio mixes bits of Mahler, Schoenberg, Stockhausen and a dozen others with passages from Samuel Beckett's The Unnameable. It's meant to be a comprehensive summary of musical history, but ends up devolving into chaos, much as the world was in the turbulent year of its composition. Sinfonia ends with a tribute to recently-slain Martin Luther King, Jr., with the singers delivering a deconstructed version of King's name.

P1310022The reaction of the audience was mixed, but generally polite. At intermission, a reception was held in the lobby for the Young New Yorkers for the Philharmonic, the Philharmonic's patron program for 21-40 year olds. Passing by it on my way to the cash bar, I overheard some twentysomething in a tux try to make excuses to his date. "No, I didn't really like it either," he said. "I think the second half will be much better."

He was referring to Brahms' 4th symphony, which Maazel has used before to whip the Philharmonic back into shape. They gave a stoic, solid performance, though I still heard some flubs in the brass section. Still, there is something seriously wrong with our media and music education system if young people would prefer to hear Brahms over music from their own time. Or, maybe it's just these young people and their misplaced motivation we need to worry about.

Dsc03613Fortunately, there were no black ties to be seen yesterday afternoon at Rose Hall in the Time Warner Building, where the Philharmonic hosted a marathon performance of Berio's Sequenzas: a landmark cycle of fourteen works for solo instruments written over some five decades. There is an astonishing consistency throughout the Sequenzas (Italian for "Sequences") each pushing the boundaries of a particular instrument far beyond its usual boundaries. They are showpieces for our time.

Dsc03589Composer Stephen Stucky offered introductions to each of these immensely challening pieces, which he said are best seen live in order to fully appreciate the athleticism of the performers. Unfortunately, I missed the first two Sequenzas - Sequenza III for Woman's Voice (1966) and Sequenza XI for Guitar (1987) - but the remaining 12, played by a mix of Philharmonic musicians and guests, were filled with astonishing displays of virtuosity, pushing the players - and their instruments - to the breaking point. I don't know about the rest of the orchestra, but damn, these guys are good.

P20200261Sequenza I for Flute (1958)

Robert Langevin (NYP Principal Flute)

Dsc03584Sequenza V for Trombone (1965)

Shachar Israel

Dsc03587Sequenza VIII for Violin (1977)

Charles Rex (former NYP Associate Concertmaster)

Dsc03590_2Sequenza X for Trumpet and Piano Resonance (1984)

Denver Dill, trumpet

Dsc03597Sequenza II for Harp (1963)

Nancy Allen (NYP Principal Harp)

Dsc03601Sequenza IV for Piano (1965)

Amy Briggs Dissanayake

Dsc03605Sequenza VII for Oboe (1969)

Sherry Sylar (NYP Principal Oboe)

Dsc03610Sequenza VI for Viola (1967)

Peter Kenote (NYP)

Dsc03616Sequenza XII for Bassoon (1995)

Martin  Kuuskmann

Dsc03618 Sequenza XIII for Accordion, Chanson (1995)

William Schimmel

Dsc03626Sequenza IX for Clarinet (1980)

Stanley Drucker (NYP Principal Clarinet)

Dsc03629 Sequenza XIV for Cello (2002)

Eric Bartlett (NYP)