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New York Philharmonic Disappoints in Turnage and Beethoven

by Michael Cirigliano II

New York Philharmonic New York Times

Photo credit: Ian Douglas, The New York Times

After a blockbuster opening to their season—a live performance of the score to 2001: A Space Odyssey, and a gala event featuring no less a soloist than Yo-Yo Ma—the New York Philharmonic returned to lifeless territory this weekend, giving a thoroughly lackluster and uninspired performance of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony and a newly composed companion piece from Mark-Anthony Turnage. Led by Alan Gilbert, the ensemble failed to bring any sense of nuance to the proceedings, with both the new composition and the symphonic warhorse suffering from many of the same issues.

Co-commissioned by the New York Philharmonic, the Royal Philharmonic Society, and BBC Radio 3, Turnage's Frieze was always meant to serve as a concert opener to the Beethoven, an element that seemingly terrorized Turnage during the compositional process. (Although a four-movement, 25-minute work, Turnage insists that the piece not be thought of as a symphony.) Unfortunately, other than the work beginning with the hollow open fifth interval found in the Beethoven, and a handful of fractured quotations, the parent-child relationship between the works never developed.

Like his recent operatic triumph, Anna Nicole, Turnage builds on a musical vocabulary that pulls equally from Berg and American jazz music. However, in Frieze, there proved to be a lack of cohesion in concept, with all four movements sounding like disembodies entities, and not like a frieze at all. The first movement shot icy wind chords through a hazy fog of strings, while the third movement developed a bass ostinato into a Wozzeck-like shriek of fury—making the second movement's fractured doo-wop melodies, and the finale's brassy fanfares all the more confusing. 

One could forgive the group for not rising up to the challenge of a distracted new work, but the true downfall of the evening was in the presentation of the Beethoven. Gilbert made a number of questionable tempo choices that hardly let the material breathe, and myriad balance issues plagued the entire work. Surprisingly, it was the string body causing most of the trouble, projecting a brittle sound that overpowered the woodwind melodies found in the manic scherzo, as well as the fugal entries of the finale. The balance issues could seemingly be felt on the stage as well, as the woodwinds fatigued themselves greatly forcing their sound into the audience, with pitch and musicality suffering in the process.

Despite a longstanding history with the Westminster Symphonic Choir, the group was instead accompanied by a choir from the Manhattan School of Music, who—although producing a rich and robust sound—failed to provide a clear sense of diction at times. Rocky entrances abounded in the Seid umschlugen, Millionen!, but the fault here was in Gilbert's unclear baton, causing the trombones to interpret note beginnings differently from the men of the choir.

Much was said about this being the Phil's first performance of the symphony in nearly a decade, and the first with Gilbert at the podium, and one could have only hoped for a performance that fit such an occasion. Unfortunately, Gilbert didn't put any distinctive stamp on his interpretation, and the players followed suit with a performance easily trumped by any of the visiting orchestras making their ways through Carnegie Hall.