Poetic MacMillan concerto needs no introduction at New York Philharmonic

Thu Feb 12, 2015 at 1:44 pm
Stephane Deneve conducted the New York Philharmonic in music of Faure, Tchaikovsky and MacMillan Wednesday night.

Stéphane Denève conducted the New York Philharmonic in music of Faure, Tchaikovsky and MacMillan Wednesday night.

Podium introductions of new works are tricky. When approached thoughtfully by a conductor (or other performer) of the right temperament and sufficient charisma, they can be informative and engaging. More often than not, though, they turn into rehashes of the program notes, or pandering pre-premiere pep talks. And they seem to be getting longer and more tedious with every subscription concert.

Stéphane Denève, who led the New York Philharmonic on Wednesday, has a charming enough persona onstage, and in other guest appearances his notes of gratitude and brief remarks on the program have been inoffensive. But introducing the New York premiere of James MacMillan’s Third Piano Concerto, “The Mysteries of Light”, he fell into a routine that has become more and more common on Philharmonic concerts, asking the soloist, Jean-Yves Thibaudet, to play excerpts from each movement of the piece, explaining quotations and motivic material as he went along.

Maybe these talks do help audiences understand what’s going on by offering signposts. Even so, they inevitably reinforce the perception of new music as a foreign thing to be approached warily, and they dull the effect of hearing a new work speak for itself, which is, after all, part of what makes hearing contemporary works so rewarding. And while the standard concert hall experience certainly deserves to be reexamined, it’s hard to believe that this—a watered-down music appreciation lecture—is what has been missing.

MacMillan’s concerto could, in fact, have spoken for itself. Listeners might not have understood every programmatic element in detail, but the music is both expressive and readily accessible. Consisting of five continuous movements, “The Mysteries of Light” is MacMillan’s attempt to write a piece based on the structure of the Rosary. The writing, though, a recurrent quotation of a plainchant aside, does not draw on traditional devotional music, instead exploring faith and reflection in a modern idiom.

The writing for solo piano is poetic, a mix of rippling virtuosity and earnest, contemplative lyricism. Thibaudet’s rhapsodic playing gave the music breathing energy, his liquid, floating touch letting the piano bloom.

The outstanding movement was the third, the “Proclamatio Regni Dei.” Beginning with a massive, chaotic opening fanfare, it is intimidating at its start, but the simple piano melody that emerges is gorgeous, a hauntingly lyrical strain overlaid by “raindrops” in the right hand, high at the top of the keyboard. MacMillan’s judicious orchestration creates a warm bed of strings that amplifies the sentiment of the solo part.

“The Mysteries of Light” anchored a somewhat eclectic program that nonetheless proved rewarding, thanks to skillful playing and intelligent, well communicated interpretation. The opening act, Fauré’s Pelléas et Mélisande Suite, showed Denève’s terrific dynamic control and exceptional attention to texture, spinning gauze in the Prelude, and maintaining a flowing, moving energy in the “Fileuse.” Oddly, the “Sicilienne,” the piece’s most cherished section, was played with the least relish.

The evening’s chestnut was Tchaikovsky’s beloved, if somewhat glitzy, Fourth Symphony. Despite getting off to a rough start with a messy initial string entrance, this was a lean, finely crafted performance. As in the Fauré, Denève’s precise dynamic control brought out the dramatic excitement of the work, and he coaxed a gleaming sound from the Philharmonic strings. Sensitivity to color and texture made the Andantino a singing, sighing rumination, highlighted by a winning oboe solo.

A cleanly executed and playful scherzo showed off more pinpoint dynamics, and the spectacular bombast of the finale closed the evening with flair. There were pitfalls with this performance to be sure—once in a while, particularly in the first movement, Denève allowed the music’s troughs to stretch out and lose momentum, and the Avery Fisher acoustic made the strength of the brass and percussion almost painful. The strings’ intonation in the third movement veered sharp. Still, on the whole, under Denève’s baton, the Philharmonic was a formidable instrument, giving a performance that was lively and rewarding, even if fitfully lacking in polish.

The program will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Thursday and 2:30 p.m. Friday. nyphil.org

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