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Dutilleux Honored with New York Philharmonic's Kravis Prize for New Music

by Michael Cirigliano II

New York Philharmonic Kravis Prize Dutilleux Yo Yo Ma
Photo credit: Ruby Washington for The New York Times

It does seem odd that the inaugural recipient of the New York Philharmonic’s Kravis Prize for New Music would be a 96-year-old composer that hasn’t written an original piece of music since 2006, right? However, that was exactly the case when French composer Henri Dutilleux was honored with a celebratory concert of his work Tuesday night at Avery Fisher Hall. The prize, fully endowed for $200,000, will be awarded every two years for championing “extraordinary artistic endeavor in the field of new music,” according to the press release. Therefore, it seems like quite a miss to laud such a composer by performing three of his works from nearly half a century ago.

Opening the program was Dutilleux’s work for massive orchestra, Métaboles, written from 1961–64. Hardly a revolutionary warhorse, Duttileux weaves a cubist tapestry built on jarring woodwind chorales, flute and clarinet arabesques, and snarling brass interjections. In fact, a hallmark of the composer’s style that evening was a constant display of percussive sound signaling every harmonic change, whether it be a harsh string pizzicato or an accented brass choir. Subtlety was not the name of the game, leaving a hollow lack of diversity on the overall program. The Philharmonic strings, though, excelled in creating a hushed body of sound as they floated muted and shadowy chorales during interlude-style passages, giving way to an altissimo cello solo from principal cellist Carter Brey.

The centerpiece of the program was the Miró Quartet’s performance of Ainsi la nuit (Thus the Night), completed in 1976. Again, why a string quartet was performed in the middle of an inaugural symphonic event is beside me, but the quartet showed a determined presence throughout the lengthy, complex work. Often sounding like a distillation of the orchestral music heard earlier, thorny and chromatic passages mixed with hushed music that seemed to evaporate into the hall itself. In fact, it was incredibly surprising to witness how much more suited to chamber music Avery Fisher Hall actually is; the quartet warmly resonated throughout, with hardly the biting, edgy sound the space gives to its resident orchestra.

Yo-Yo Ma ended the evening with a rapturous performance of Tout un monde lointain (A Whole Distant World), proving once again that he can make a convincing argument for any given work. Ma was pitted against the orchestra in an aggressive battle royale for much of the work, and showed just how much virtuosity the cellist can display in thirty minutes. Despite the heaviness of the orchestral writing (and its closer relationship to postwar serialism than anything you’ll hear at Galapagos Art Space or Le Poisson Rouge), the orchestra played with crisp, nimble balances, making sure to never swallow the solo cello’s presence. Ma made each lyrical moment count, resonating his signature sound.

To Dutilleux’s credit, it was also announced Tuesday that the elder statesman had decided to share his prize with three young composers at the dawn of their careers, with each student receiving a Philharmonic commission over the next two seasons. Whether this was Dutilleux’s plan all along or not, it was nice to see the composer (rather than Gilbert and the Philharmonic) truly championing “artistic endeavor in the field of new music” that night.