NY Phil Ensembles serve up exemplary chamber program from Arensky to Wagner

Mon Apr 08, 2024 at 12:27 pm
Melinda Wagner’s Elegy Flywheel was heard in its world premiere Sunday at the New York Philharmonic Ensembles concert at Merkin Hall.

Sunday afternoon in Merkin Hall, the chamber configurations of the New York Philharmonic Ensembles traversed many moods in the course of just four pieces of music. The variety of the music, with classics from Janáček and Arensky paired with a lesser-known work from Isang Yun and the world premiere of a commission from Melinda Wagner, had a lot to do with that, and so did the vigorous playing from the Philharmonic Musicians.

A sextet, led by guest conductor Gerald Karni, opened with Wagner’s new work, Elegy Flywheel. The piece comes out of the Philharmonic’s Project 19 series of commissions from women composers to commemorate the centennial of the passage of the 19ᵗʰ Amendment, giving women the right to vote. As Wagner described it from the stage, there was another Philharmonic connection; she found the melancholy melody she crafted for it was an expression of her sadness over the death of Christopher Rouse, her colleague and a long-time composer-in-residence with the orchestra.

That was the Elegy part, the mournful opening phrase played with a tactile, woody timbre by cellist Nathan Vickery. This was punctuated by brief, metallic stabs from the piano and tuned percussion, and wry and mysterious harmonica tones, played by clarinetist Pascual Martínez Forteza. This slow, thoughtful music didn’t resolve so much us evaporate into the Flywheel part, terrific cartoon-like music that captured both Wagner’s sense of fun and reflected Rouse’s love for all things Disney.

On the surface, this was like John Zorn’s jump-cut music, just a little calmer, and as it went along Wagner’s subtle craft became apparent. What seemed just an illustration of one manic image after another teased out a coherent, and consistent path to a sense of repose and resolution. This was entertaining music that slipped in strong intellectual satisfaction when the mind wasn’t looking.

Violinists Fiona Simon and Sharon Yamada, violist Robert Rinehart, and cellist Alexei Yupanqui Gonzales followed with Janáček’s String Quartet No. 1, “Kreutzer Sonata.” Rinehart introduced this with an explanation of the complicated literary connection, via Tolstoy, to Beethoven’s violin sonata, but one didn’t require that to hear the personal passion and intensity in the music.

The four musicians didn’t have the same level of subtle communication and refinement that a long-standing quartet would have, but that well served the music. Janáček’s quartets are like nothing else in the repertoire—he was sui generis as a composer—and the strongest expressive and psychological effect is to mix moments of instrumental technique together with willful and almost improvisatory articulation and phrasing. Nothing is conventional, no single chord nor sequence of phrases.

Every odd structural element and hermetic twist and turn of Janáček’s seemed full of a sense of naturalism and logic; stacked notes like the chords in the first and second movement were full of suspense. Janacek’s genius is that every seeming eccentricity is coherent on his own terms, and a great performance means embracing his thinking completely. This was a great and stirring performance.

Violinist Kuan Cheng Lu and bassist Rion Wentworth played Yun’s short Together after intermission. Wentworth briefly narrated Yun’s amazing story, which included being kidnapped in the ‘70s, in Germany, by a dictatorial South Korean government, tortured and headed for life in prison before classical music luminaries earned his release.

Together was appealingly enigmatic. The first movement is full of hesitations, the two instruments mostly talking past each other. The music becomes more of a conventional duet in the second movement, but the sense of togetherness is full of intriguing and honest ambiguity, like two lovers still trying to figure out what their intimacy means, and if they want it to continue.

Last was Arensky’s Piano Trio No. 1, played by violinist Lisa Eunsoo Kim, cellist Matthew Christakos, and guest pianist Hanna Hyunjung Kim. This was superb chamber music playing, with the musicians clearly excited by the piece and working together closely to shape the music.

The formal sense of the opening movement was superb, the main theme couched slightly differently with each return, and the last statement and coda resolving all the emotional turmoil that had come before with a sense of understanding and acceptance. The scherzo was excellent, everyone had command of the tricky rhythms, and even more had a smooth understanding of how they shape the phrases. The Elegia and then Finale had terrific pace and also great contrasts, a large scale easing and expansion of mood, an exemplary end to a strong afternoon.

The New York Philharmonic, conductor Manfred Honeck, and pianist Beatrice Rana play Katherine Balch, Rachmaninoff, and Tchaikovsky April 12-14. nyphil.org

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