Mar 1, 2003

So Wednesday night, after spending the day in the freezing cold, shopping, standing in line for tickets, then seeing “Thoroughly Modern Millie”, we were on our way to Lincoln Center to see the NY Philharmonic for the first time, and the first time in Avery Fisher Hall. The main attraction on the program initially was Peter Serkin doing the Brahms first concerto. I’ve heard Serkin a couple of times before, he’s not my favorite, and typically plays more modern stuff (last time with the BSO I think it was the Stravinsky Concerto, which suits him perfectly), so it was some mixture of anticipation and trepidation that I approached his attempt at Brahms. But the real star of the show was Danish composer Poul Ruders, who was in town for the American premiere in the same concert of his “Listening Earth”. We even went to the Barnes & Noble across the street for a pre-concert talk with Ruders. It turns out he came across the text that inspired him from a poem by Addison that was quoted in a novel by Kim Stanley Robinson. Since his operas have been about somewhat sfnal subjects in the mainstream (The Handmaid’s Tale, plus his next one based on Kafka’s “The Trial”), it’s kind of neat that there’s a composer who’s also a science fiction fan. The piece is in four sections that lead one into the next, the first three with a very dense orchestration that required four percussionists plus timpani playing a large variety of instruments, predominantly vibraphone and three glockenspiels. The last section takes a sudden turn into different territory as it was written after September 11, and is a much sparer, yet darker texture, with repetitive percussive outbursts from timpani and bass drum, which Ruders said should have been called “Angry Earth”. For this section, he diverged from Addison’s poem, which had a much more upbeat ending, and chose as inspiration W.H. Auden’s poem written the day the Germans invaded Poland in 1939. In his pre-concert talk he said he wasn’t trying to “cash in”, and didn’t even set out to compose a response to 9/11, but it since he was in the middle of composing something he couldn’t help but be affected by what had happened. The audience, which was about half full, was polite but not overly enthusiastic, but it seemed the sort of work that would benefit from multiple hearings. I’d heard of the “Handmaid’s Tale” opera, but the composer’s name was unfamiliar to me before, so this was a good introduction to his work.

The original attraction for the concert, the Brahms concerto with Peter Serkin, turned out to be something of a revelation too. Serkin was definitely giving it all he had, and as Tommasini wrote he seemed to feed off of conductor David Robertson’s enthusiasm, making the fast parts, particularly the last movement, very exciting. The large part of the first movement particular he allowed tons of time for the expanisveness of the music to naturally take over, such that the total elapsed time for the concerto was well over 50 minutes. I also liked how he played around with dynamics, taking some of the obviously fortissimo octave passages and playing them more mezzo forte once in a while. The last piece on the program, the Janacek Sinfonietta, is a very nice piece and was very capably performed, and Robertson acquitted himself and the orchestra admirably. And we got our money’s worth since it was nearly 10 (after a 7:30 start) by the time the show came to an end.

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