Philharmonic’s Sound ON opens with the musical shape of water

Wed Oct 02, 2019 at 12:52 pm
John Luther Adams’ Dream in White on White was performed at the New York Philharmonic’s Sound ON concert Tuesday night at Jazz at Lincoln Center.

The theme of Tuesday night’s New York Philharmonic Sound ON concert was “Telling Tales”—it said so right in the program, and host/curator Nadia Sirota reinforced the idea that the music heard was going to be about storytelling. 

Except it wasn’t. With one exception, the music was about water.

In the Appel room at Jazz at Lincoln Center, the concert opened the second season for Sound ON, the Philharmonic’s new music series. The difference between it and the previous CONTACT! series is mainly one of presentation. Although Sirota was not always in sync with the musicians and composers she spoke with on stage, she kept the proceedings moving and the introductions brief, an improvement from Esa-Pekka Salonen’s rambling hosting duties in the post.

The programming is different as well, centered on the ongoing return to tonality and with less experimentation. That was evident Tuesday, with music from Jacob Druckman,Thea Musgrave, Ellen Reid, and John Luther Adams.

And yes, water. The Philharmonic musicians and soprano Eliza Bagg played a song from Reid’s recent operon, p r i s m (which has just been awarded the Pulitzer Prize), and that was indeed storytelling, but everything else was about the stuff of life.

Percussionist Daniel Druckman played Reflections on the Nature of Water, a solo marimba piece that his father Jacob wrote. The subject was right there in the “title, and Sirota sensibly connected the idea back to Debussy’s “Reflets dans l’eau from Images Book I.

Druckman’s piece is just as impressionistic. It is about the sensations one feels when observing water—there are section titles like “Fleet,” “Tranquil.” “Profound.” The liquid sound of the marimba was an ideal choice, and with his son’s fluid playing, the piece was a lovely emulation of drops, ripples, and torrents, all coming together in harmony, the way a pond will return to a still surface after rain falls into it. The percussionist’s command of fine gradations of dynamics was technically virtuosic and aesthetically seductive.

Musgrave, who turned 91 earlier this year, was on hand as flutist Yoobin Son played her Narcissus, for soloist backed with electronic processing. The title is for the myth of the beautiful man enraptured with his own reflection, but the way the music worked was all about the reflection, and not about the story, and that was to the good.

Narcissus is a gorgeous work, and Son dug deep into the lushness of Musgrave’s realization. The music, in moments, looks back to Debussy’s Syrinx, another reflection on that titan. The electronic feature is a digital delay; used at judicious moments it took a phrase and Son’s big, pure sound and echoed it back to her, reflections or reflections. This was a beautiful performance, and complex too, with an unsettled structural quality that turned into hints of bitterness at the end.

Reid’s opera, p r is m, is about the effect that a sexual assault has on a mother/ daughter relationship. The excerpt, “Lumee’s Dream,” was a hint of why it was so deserving. With Bagg singing with an open tone and a guileless simplicity, colored with just the right amount of inflection, the music created a feeling of luminous tragedy that reached uncannily into the gut, brightness stitched with foreboding. It is rare indeed to hear something that is fundamentally a major key ballad have so much heartache and devastation.

Conductor Jeffrey Milarsk led a small string ensemble featuring harpist Nancy Allen, in John Luther Adams’ Dream in White on White, which finished the evening. Before the music started, the composer told Sirota it came from his “Thoreau phase,” and talked about how the composition was part of his desire to make music about places. Along with the ice and snow-covered landscape of Alaska, the white on white is the music’s technique; it uses only the white keys on the piano.

Stately, static, and shifting, the music was the essence of Adams’ aesthetic and values. This was an excellent performance—much of the music is sustained pitches slowly passing over each other, but Milarsky and the musicians produced a strong pulse even when there was no rhythmic material.

Made in 1992, the music didn’t anticipate that the landscape he was capturing would soon be turning into water. It seemed almost decadent to hear something so beautiful that is now melting away, but it is good to remember what the world once was.

Sound ON returns at 7:30 p.m., February 10. The New York Philharmonic and violinist Augustin Hadelich play Sibelius and Berlioz, 7:30 p.m., October 3.

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