Norman’s playful “Split” given dazzling premiere by Kahane, Philharmonic
Andrew Norman is having quite a year. It began with the Boston Modern Orchestra Project releasing a recording of his large scale symphonic work, Play, an ambitious, teeth-rattling work that firmly established the composer’s distinctive voice.
That recording has now been nominated for a Grammy award, and Thursday evening the New York Philharmonic presented the world premiere of his Split. This Philharmonic-commissioned concerto for piano and orchestra is a stellar work, and a nice companion to Play—playful and tender where the earlier composition is rugged and gnarly. Norman calls it a “fantasy for piano and orchestra,” which is not wrong, but it’s also a concerto, with pianist Jeffrey Kahane not only as soloist but leading the ensemble.
Kahane wasn’t conducting—that was James Gaffigan, making his subscription series debut with the orchestra—but he was in the lead. Written expressly for Kahane—no doubt for his effervescent touch—Split is music as a game, with three players: piano, orchestra, and a three-player percussion section. The pianist points the way, the orchestra follows (there is push and pull between them), while the percussionists disrupt the flow of the music, banging drums in what are musical cues that produce specific, immediate responses from the piano.
Norman sees this as a protagonist/antagonists relationship, with the pianist first pranking the orchestra, then trying to escape retaliation and find some peace. How that comes out in sound is through jump-cuts and rapid juxtapositions of phrases, generally familiar to anyone who’s heard the cartoon music of Carl Stalling or the game pieces of John Zorn.
Split is less manic than playful, and by repeating material that, if stitched together in linear form would make a long, connected line, the piece coheres through an accumulating collection of events.
It was a dazzling listen and great fun throughout. Kahane and the orchestra played with great agility and energy. This is music that showcases smarts as much as chops and the performance made every detail of composition and orchestration clear, even as things happened fast and furiously.
There’s also substantial beauty in Split. The peace that the piano seeks comes out in gorgeous, still music, made with minimal means and no fuss. In one passage, later repeated, Kahane picked out the sparsest melody, accompanied by an equally spare, melancholy viola line. Near the end, another quiet piano melody was accompanied by a single cello, which doubled the bass notes and added vibrato, creating an uncanny wobbly piano sound. In each of these sections, the vivacious activity of the overall music made the quiet simplicity affectingly poignant.
Split lingered as the most memorable and enjoyable work on the program, even as it was flanked by Beethoven’s Symphony No. 4 and Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks. Gaffigan, speaking with Norman from the stage after intermission, remarked that what on paper seemed a bizarre mix was held together by the idea of humor, which was there in all the works.
The contrast, though, made the Beethoven and Strauss that followed sound quaint, pleasant but unimpressive. Gaffigan led performances that were bursting with verve but with no distinctive characteristics other than quality execution.
The humor is obvious in Strauss, an aural depiction of the trickster Till Eulenspiegel. It’s also there in the bright sunshine of Beethoven’s Fourth, music that is full of jests and horseplay. Humor, though, is a heavily culturally specific, and things like Till’s pranks and a peasant reel don’t tickle the funny bone like they did in 19th-century Vienna. Beethoven and Strauss came off as merely good-humored.
Split, on the other hand, comes to us from a common cultural memory— of Marx Brothers, screwball comedies, and cartoons (listen for the Woody Woodpecker quote from the orchestra). Norman’s humor is our humor. In its ability to entertain while being seriously made and kinship with Gershwin’s works for piano and orchestra, it shares the same knock-around joy of urban life. Split brings delight to the mind and touches the heart deeply, and it should not be missed.
The program will be repeated 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday. nyphil.org