Gilbert, Philharmonic serve up Beethoven and a Turnage homage via Klimt

Fri Oct 04, 2013 at 11:25 am
Mark-Anthiony Turnage's "Frieze" was given its U.S. premiere Thursday night by Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic.

Mark-Anthony Turnage’s “Frieze” was given its U.S. premiere Thursday night by Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic.

On Thursday the New York Philharmonic under Alan Gilbert gave the United States premiere of Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Frieze (2012), a co-commission with the Royal Philharmonic Society and BBC Radio 3. The four-movement work riffs on Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony via Gustav Klimt’s Beethoven Frieze, a monumental painting that Klimt created for the 1902 Vienna Secession exhibit.

A catalogue note attributed to Klimt proclaimed: “The Arts lead us into the Kingdom of the Ideal, where alone we can find pure joy, pure happiness, pure love.” Lucky Klimt who didn’t live to see the past week, when social and economic woes blitzed the arts’ “ideal” delights and joy was in short supply.

The bankrupt New York City Opera closed up shop. A labor lockout that has cost the Minnesota Orchestra a season (and counting) of concerts led to the resignation of its excellent music director, Osmo Vänskä. A strike scuttled Carnegie Hall’s opening-night gala. Though painful to music lovers, those events were minor instances of a social fabric unravelling on a vastly greater scale, from the shutdown of the United States government to the ongoing hardships in the European Union, which famously adopted Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” as its anthem of would-be concord and advancement.

Turnage’s Frieze looks back at Beethoven by way of both Klimt and the post-Beethoven musical fin de siècle. Its massive forces include Wagner tubas, cowbells, a celesta, and a large and clattery array of bells, gongs, and the like. As befits a work of our troubled time, it is almost unremittingly tense. Like Beethoven’s Ninth, it opens with an open-fifth interval, here made sour and metallic with a percussive clang. Marked “hushed and expansive,” the first movement’s expectant hum suggests less the Promethean potential of Beethoven’s music than a question none-too-hopefully awaiting an answer. Its dense layers superimpose dark brass groans and glassy sounds; four thumping chords return us to the opening figure, poisoned with dissonance.

Grunting double basses and sly, deliciously jazz-inflected phrases mark the second section (“with veiled menace”): silences that sometimes seem to sound more potently than the orchestra itself repeatedly punctuate its texture. The third movement opens with a splash of Bernstein-esque radiance and eventually swirls into a tender, lyrical dance (played with melting beauty by the Philharmonic’s strings) that later grows darker and more rhythmically fraught. Sharp, percussive chords bookend the final movement—inspired, the composer said in pre-concert remarks, by the Allegro of Beethoven’s Seventh. Between them wild syncopations, sawing strings, and chattering percussion sing of beauty and joy haunted by mayhem.

After the interval, the Philharmonic took up Beethoven’s Ninth for the first time in nearly a decade. The best that can be said for the performance under Alan Gilbert is that is had none of the embalmed finesse that one sometimes encounters in recordings of the work. Tempos were brisk; pitted with untidy attacks, the stormy first movement suggested less order emerging from chaos than a galloping race with the metronome. Overall the strings lacked bite, though the enigmatic upwards-and-downwards figure before the final statement of the main theme rippled with suppressed danger.

The second movement, too, was fast but oddly placid. The slashing strings seemed dutiful rather than inexorable; pizzicati were polite. There was some gorgeously warm and supple playing after the trio section. The third movement, instead, was extraordinary: the opening phrases seemed to float in on a breeze, as if we in the audience were overhearing music arriving from a distant world. An impish joy and a delectable Viennese lilt colored the buoyant, dance-like rhythms.

The crackling Manhattan School of Music Symphonic Chorus under Kent Tritle and four superb vocal soloists lit up the final movement. Bass Shenyang sang with suave, burnished authority; tenor Russell Thomas with bold earnestness. Soprano Julianna Di Giacomo and mezzo Kelley O’Connor contributed glad radiance. From the first humble, understated iteration of the “Ode to Joy” theme, on to the pastoral winds that twittered around the bass solo and the lush, full-bodied song of the chorus, the performance at long last gelled. The final prestissimo was wild and disheveled but in a good way, and the audience awarded Gilbert and his musicians with a lusty standing ovation. Though chaos in the outside world endured, the musical chaos in the hall was tamed and made beautiful.

Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic perform Turnage’s Frieze and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 7:30 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday.; 212-875-5656.

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