Philharmonic’s renovated home blossoms anew with orchestral fireworks

Thu Oct 13, 2022 at 1:44 pm
Jaap van Zweden conducted the New York Philharmonic in the world premiere of Marcos Balter’s Oyá, at the first subscription concert in the newly renovated David Geffen Hall Wednesday night. Photo: Chris Lee

In 1798, Joseph Haydn began his oratorio The Creation with a “Representation of Chaos.”  To modern ears, this movement may sound like a rather sedate affair, with a few strange modulations along the way. 

To celebrate the interior demolition and rebirth of a concert hall in the 2020s, you need a little more firepower than that. 

Marcos Balter’s Oyá for light, electronics, and orchestra—an ecstatic vision of a world-destroying Yoruba deity—was just the ticket for Wednesday night’s opening subscription concert by Jaap van Zweden and the New York Philharmonic in their newly renovated home, David Geffen Hall.

Surely Weber’s Oberon Overture and its ilk will be back to open future Philharmonic programs. But on Wednesday, it was the shock of the new all the way, with Balter’s world premiere, John Adams’s autobiographical My Father Knew Charles Ives, and Tania León’s assertive, recently Pulitzered Stride. Oh, andRespighi for dessert.

With so much newness, there were few familiar benchmarks to assess how the classics sound in their new environs—the Wu Tsai Theater at David Geffen Hall, to give the room its full name. (Debussy, Mozart and Bruckner are on the bill for coming weeks.)

But trading the box footprint for more of a boat shape, shortening the main seating area, and moving the stage out into the room definitely brought benefits when it came to hearing what the musicians were doing. The tone of woodwind instruments in particular seemed to blossom, counterpoint became more transparent, and even super-pianissimo passages had fresh clarity and definition.

Balter’s piece could use all the clarity it could get, as imagery of destruction swirled out of the large orchestra and well-endowed percussion section. The work’s full title pegged it as a sort of double concerto; lighting designer Nicholas Houfek and electronics artist Levy Lorenzo received soloist billing in the program and worked their magic from a discreetly lit perch in Row R of the darkened auditorium.

As Balter’s electronics-enhanced score vividly depicted what the composer described as a cosmic scene of collapse and rebirth from African religion, Houfek used the hall’s mostly unadorned surfaces as his canvas, flashing bands of angry red and yellow or wrapping the space in soothing green, or occasionally flooding the room with white light.

Lorenzo at his soundboard created a track that merged in and out of the live percussion, stepping forward at the piece’s climax for a stark, resonant solo cadenza.

Following Balter’s apocalyptic vision, Adams’s nostalgic reflection on nature, fatherhood and heritage came as comfort food. The 2003 work modeled on Ives’s Three Places in New England opened with an Ivesian lonely trumpet, evocatively played by Philharmonic principal Christopher Martin, and expanded into “Concord,” an equally Ivesian cacaphony of overlapping musical sensations from Adams’s boyhood in Concord, New Hampshire. The hall’s clarified acoustic enabled a listener to hear this scene in three dimensions.

In “The Lake,” a plaintive oboe floated over a burble of clarinets, and at one point one could hear a distant piano playing in the dance hall Adams’s grandfather owned by Lake Winnipesaukee. The mystic trumpet returned to introduce “The Mountain,” a reflection on the permanence and majesty of the peaks in the composer’s New England youth and California adulthood, shot through with high, pulsing strings and shafts of brassy light.

An effective traffic cop in the cross-rhythms of “Concord,” in “The Lake” van Zweden seemed especially to revel in the nuances the new hall could convey in soft and softer dynamics.

Like Balter and his soloists, composer Adams came onstage to acknowledge the audience’s warm applause.

Tania León, composing in 2019 for the Philharmonic’s feminist commissioning program Project 19, took the indomitable personality of Susan B. Anthony as her model in Stride, a piece marked by fierce flourishes of winds and brass in echo-like canons and a thumping tread emanating from the double basses.

As the music went on, the persistent flourishes took on a blues coloration, suggesting the Afro-Cuban composer’s sympathy for another civil-rights struggle as well. An efflorescence of vibraphones, bongos and tubular bells ended the piece on an optimistic note. León, an influential behind-the-scenes presence at the Philharmonic and other New York institutions for decades, strode to center stage for a solo bow, and the hall’s big night became hers as well.

Pupil of Rimsky-Korsakov, dabbler in the avant-garde, keenly aware of Mussorgsky and Debussy, Ottorino Respighi was the very model of an early 20th-century orchestral composer, and his Pines of Rome remains a favorite for festive occasions. Like Pictures at an Exhibition, the piece offers vivid scenes of raucous children at play, gloomy catacombs, and a nocturnal landscape. But it is the inexorable crescendo of marching feet and sounding brass in the closing “Pines of the Appian Way” that really light up the room.

That was literally true in Wednesday night, as the hall’s house lights, which had been kept at black all evening (making following one’s printed program impossible) finally began coming on as Respighi’s Roman legions marched closer and closer. One hopes this was just a special effect for this performance, and that house lights will return to normal levels at subsequent concerts.

Van Zweden’s musical effects were more interesting than the light show. All the sparkle and energy of the dazzling opening movement, “The Pines of the Villa Borghese,” were breathtakingly present in the new space. “The Pines Near a Catacomb” rumbled and moaned softly but with deep dimension. A nocturnal breeze in the strings made “The Pines of the Janiculum” sigh, as the song of a nightingale (recorded from nature, per the composer’s instructions) wafted by.

Twelve brass players slipped into a front row of the auditorium–facing the stage, not the audience—to depict the distant buccine of the legions approaching on the Appian Way. If van Zweden didn’t quite gauge his climaxes to best effect, saving the biggest for last, and if some clarity of sound was lost in the tumult, Respighi’s showpiece still made a joyful noise, a Saturn 5 roar to launch David Geffen Hall into its new orbit.

The program will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Thursday and Tuesday and 8 p.m. Saturday.

One Response to “Philharmonic’s renovated home blossoms anew with orchestral fireworks”

  1. Posted Oct 21, 2022 at 9:12 pm by Brad

    We had a truly lovely evening and it was a pleasure to see the new symphony hall. However, the selection of pieces that were performed was overall terrible.

    The first piece – Balter’s, Oyá – was by far the worst. The performance of that cacophonous work was an embarrassment for the New York Philharmonic, and an insult both to the musicians on stage and to the world of electronic music. I could not believe it when midway through, the entire symphony stopped playing and the conductor even stopped conducting, so that we could be pelted with a series of beeps and electronic noise that sounded like my CD player in the 1990s when it got stuck in the middle of a song. Let us hope that the “world premiere” of this ghastly self-absorbed work will also be its last.

    The other three works were better, but only in comparison as they were not actually good. I look forward to the next performance and hope that the music will be worthy of the beautiful space.

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