Saturday, January 14, 2012

NSO plays Matthews, Mackey, Sibelius

Saw the NSO with violinist Leila Josefowicz and the Finnish conductor Hannu Lintu last night, in the DC-premiere of a captivating violin concerto by the composer Steve Mackey composed, Sibelius' 5th, and orchestrations of selected Debussy Preludes by Colin Matthews.
The Mackey piece, "Beautiful Passing," was composed with Josefowicz in mind in 2008. Josefowicz played some of the key themes before the performance and explained their provenance in Mackey's experience of his mother's death. I can appreciate this as a way to get an audience to identify with a new work--its hard to expect even the most open-minded concert-goers to develop much rapport with a complex piece the first time out. Premieres end up being "that new thing" between the overture and symphony. Some framing and a story, live from the musicians or composer, helps ensure listeners walk away with a lasting association, even if they can't hum the tune.
Yet, as Robert Reilly notes here, a work like this should really stand on its own as a piece of abstract music and learning about the "program" in this way can be a bit distracting. For instance, the work opens with a violent contest between wild percussive gnashing in the orchestra and the exuberant, almost desperate violin solo--it ends softly, the violin exhausted, the orchestra at a quiet drone. We are told this is Mackey's mother resigning herself to die, but such information seems so terribly reductive when applied to this rich, evocative music. Words and stories fail, as they should, to describe the experience. While inspired by a specific experience for the composer, the music becomes more universal, in the hearing, transcending its subject matter. Which is all to say, my hope for this worthwhile piece is that it is still played in 10 years but that the majority of audience members without the initiative to check out its history are none the wiser about its context.
Josefowicz was quite stunning in the solo part, embracing the raucous dance figures that reappear throughout with diabolical gusto and imbuing the closing section with a devastating sense of collapse.
After the half was a bravura performance of Sibelius' 5th symphony. Lintu goaded along the rollicking rhythms of the first movement with swift, intense precision, culminating in an ecstatic climax that was hard not to applaud. The winning final movement (I swear to God that theme is ripped off in a tearful Don Bluth-animated animal reunion somewhere) was urgent but suitably majestic. Lintu clearly has that great intangible conducting skill of maintaining momentum while allowing the audience to appreciate the "vertical" harmony and texture in a work. The NSO sounded agile and rich throughout, though some shrillness in the winds and scattered coordination problems in the strings were popped up.
The concert opened with a series of five Debussy preludes, as orchestrated by the composer Colin Matthews, apparently best known for his role in Deryk Cooke's performance version of Mahler's 10th. This may be a personal bias, but I have difficulty seeing the point of these sorts of projects. The Preludes are quintessential creatures of the piano, and, not having particularly memorable tunes, much of their appeal is bound up in the way Debussy's colors play on that instrument. Why one would want to hear an orchestra try its hand is unclear. Moreover, it is exceedingly grating to hear Debussy's music orchestrated in a way that is far removed from how Debussy's orchestral music actually sounds. Not that I would find it particularly worthwhile to hear someone fake Debussy's style, but there is some deep cognitive dissonance in listening to the composer's music via a sensibility far more obvious and schmaltzy than anything we would expect from Debussy himself. Not saying all orchestrations are bad ideas, but it doesn't work for all material.
(And dere's Downey's original take at Ionarts.)