The New York Philharmonic gave John Harbison's Milosz Songs a second airing tonight, following Thursday night's world premiere. That event was well supported by The New York Times -- both with a nicely turned review by Tony Tommasini and a strong Anne Midgette think-piece on Dawn Upshaw, the longtime Harbison collaborator for whom these songs were written. I read neither article before attending tonight's performance, but I've always admired Harbison's work -- with one fairly strong exception -- so it comes as no surprise to report that this composition is a rich, strongly crafted piece delivered in what must be an ideal interpretation. (And how strange it seems that this is the 67-year-old composer's first commission for the Phil.)
The work, some 30 minutes in length, sets 10 poems by Czeslaw Milosz, whose words, the composer points out, contain a ripple of dissonance even in seemingly mundane observations. Harbison surrounds the singer with a concertino group of three flutes, vibraphone, harp and celesta, which imbues the work with a diaphanous shimmer. Those instruments act as something of a chorus, offering counterpoint to the vocal line. Harbison's orchestration here leans toward relatively light textures, including some gorgeous percussion writing all the more effective for its economy.
Tommasini singles out the instrumental shouts during "You Who Wronged" for special praise; this I will echo, and further praise Harbison's well-pointed tone painting -- the braying figures that accompanied the line, "You who wronged a simple man / Bursting into laughter at the crime" a particularly keen example.
Upshaw delivered a keenly insightful, beautifully varied reading of the work -- something that might well go without mention, had I not spun her Nonesuch debut CD when I came home tonight. While I still admire that disc wholeheartedly, I couldn't help but notice once more just how much she has grown, and continues to grow, since we first took stock of her. (As if her recording of Golijov's Ayre wasn't proof enough.) Upshaw sang tonight with a conversational ease that was only partially Harbison's doing. His score is full of syncopated rhythms that lent the vocal line a talky character; Upshaw took this quality still further, delivering the music with an almost casual insouciance that certainly speaks to the long collaboration between these two artists. This is a serious confluence on display: Harbison definitely knows how to write for the voice, and for this voice in particular; Upshaw, in turn, sounds as if she's making it up on the spot.
I confess that I spent the duration of the Harbison work with my nose plunged into his eminently readable score, which is probably why I can't add very much color commentary. When I hear this piece again at the Phil's second "Hear & Now" dissection on Tuesday, perhaps I'll leave the paperwork at home.
Conductor Robert Spano opened tonight's concert with an enveloping, mysterious reading of Bartók's Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, and closed with a boisterous rendition of Bernstein's Symphonic Dances from West Side Story. No surprise that the conductor who shook his thang so effectively for Golijov's Pasión could also whip up a storm for this money-shot compilation. The orchestra met him move for move on the dance floor...but geez, would it hurt anyone to smile a bit? This music is fun to play, I know from firsthand experience, but apart from the beaming countenance of the second-chair cellist, you'd hardly have guessed it. Ladies and gentlemen, free your minds, and the audience will follow. And please, if you're going to do the "Mam-BO!" shout (which Bernstein's own troupe omitted in the classic 1961 recording), look like you mean it, or it just feels cheap.
Take a tip from the Bang on a Can All-Stars, who visibly had a gas delivering keen new scores from John Hollenbeck, Yoav Gal and Annie Gosfield during this year's People's Commissing Fund concert at Merkin Concert Hall on Wednesday night. Hollenbeck, a percussionist by trade, dealt mostly in complex stratifications of rhythm in his playful Rainbow Jimmies. Gal's Dr. King made canny use of rhythmic cadences provided by recordings of speeches by Martin Luther King, Jr.; his lovely music turned one happy phrase after another, but didn't dig especially deeply into the emotional core of what the words actually meant. Gosfield's Overvoltage Rumble was a serious art-rock gas, and a veritable concerto for keyboardist Lisa Moore, who drew upon a sampled vocabulary of sampled analog-synth smudges, smears and blurts.
As for the remaining pieces on the program, Ornette Coleman's Haven't Been Where I Left and Hermeto Pascoal's Arapua (the latter arranged by All-Star Evan Ziporyn) allowed the players to sound off virtuosically in pieces that neatly approximated the native strengths of these two unorthodox composer-performers, and proved that percussionist David Cossin commands a temporal flexibility seldom encountered on the concert stage -- i.e., he actually swings, right down to a convincingly Billy Higgins-esque ripple in the Coleman piece. Edward Ruchalski's Another Infinity, a reprise from the first People's Commissioning Fund concert in 2000, provided the evening's richest music: an ostinato figure on guitar underpinned gamelan-like phrases from vibraphone and piano, while clarinet and cello intertwined in long, loving lines of counterpoint. Interviewed on stage, Ruchalski admitted that if he had to do it all over again, he'd erase some of the notes; I agreed, but only insofar as to think that a slightly trimmed piece would have presented his seductive soundworld just as aptly.
Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky - Mazeppa - Irina Loskutova, Larissa Diadkova, Viktor Lutsiuk, Nikolai Putilin, Sergei Alexashkin, Kirov Opera/Valery Gergiev (Philips)
King Crimson - Fillmore East, New York City, November 21, 1969 and StadtHalle, Cologne, October 14, 1981 (DGMLive.com authorized FLAC downloads)
Leonard Bernstein - Candide Overture; Symphonic Dances from West Side Story; Symphonic Suite from On the Waterfront; Fancy Free - New York Philharmonic/Leonard Bernstein (Sony Classical)
Samuel Barber - Knoxville: Summer of 1915; Gian Carlo Menotti - "What a Curse for a Woman Is a Timid Man" (from The Old Maid and the Thief); John Harbison - Mirabai Songs; Igor Stravinsky - "No Word from Tom" (from The Rake's Progress) - Dawn Upshaw, Orchestra of St. Luke's/David Zinman (Nonesuch)