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Xi Wang (L) with Yannick Nézet-Séguin. Photo by Steve Sherman
At Carnegie Hall, on the evening of Tuesday, December 13th, I had the privilege to attend an excellent concert featuring the Philadelphia Orchestra under the direction of Yannick Nézet-Séguin.
The event opened promisingly with a superb account of the New York Premiere of contemporary composer Xi Wang’s remarkable, impressively orchestrated Ensō. Sean Colonna, in an informative program note, provides some useful background:
Xi describes Ensō as a “sister piece” to her 2021 double concerto for violin, trumpet, and orchestra titled Year 2020. Written as something of a musical and emotional journal of Xi’s observations of the global tumult during 2020, she describes Year 2020 as “full of struggle, pain, crying, memory, and, eventually, hope.” She explains that she “felt emotionally and physically exhausted after writing [Year 2020] and decided that [her] next piece had to be a ‘healing’ piece.”Ensōis the result of this compositional process of self-healing and is in many ways more introspective than its outwardly oriented predecessor.
The title Ensō refers to a sacred symbol in Zen Buddhism that takes the form of a hand-painted circle. The circle is traditionally drawn in a single, unbroken gesture that is understood to both represent and enact the experience of total spiritual enlightenment. Painting an ensō is therefore both a creative and meditative practice, as is the process of assembling the ink, brushes, and paper. In addition to the form and symbolism of the ensō, Xi also drew inspiration from the life of the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama. Having grown up as a wealthy prince whose family attempted to isolate him from deprivation and pain, Siddhartha’s spiritual journey began with his first encounter with the suffering of others outside of the royal palace. Xi describes Ensō as a piece that tells the story of the spiritual seeker; she explains that the music “can be considered as representing the journey of looking for answers or enlightenment, the journey of freeing and understanding oneself, the journey of looking for the Buddha within oneself.”
Equally admirable was a sterling rendition of the immaculately constructed Clarinet Concerto of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, executed by the exceptionally accomplished Ricardo Morales, principal clarinetist of the ensemble. (According to annotator Christopher H. Gibbs, for this performance he played “a basset clarinet in a reconstruction of Mozart’s original concerto.”) The complex, initial Allegro is mellifluous and largely ebullient while the awesome Adagio is lyrical and exalting. Thefinaleis sprightly at the outset but more serious in places.
The second half of the evening was even more memorable—a presentation of Gustav Mahler’s marvelous Symphony No. 4. Gibbs says the following on the context for the piece:
Mahler addressed the issue of the differences among his early symphonies while composing the Fourth. As he resumed work on the piece in 1900, he confided to a friend his fears of not being able to pick up where he had left off the summer before: “I must say I now find it rather hard to come to grips with things here again; I still live half in, half out of the world of my Fourth. It is so utterly different from my other symphonies. But thatmust be;I could never repeat a state of mind, and as life progresses I follow new paths in each new work.”
The Fourth Symphony has a rather complicated genesis that is important for understanding its special character. For more than a decade, beginning in the late 1880s, Mahler was obsessed with Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Youth’s Magic Horn), a collection of folk poetry compiled in the early 19th century. One of the poems, “Das himmlische Leben” (“The Heavenly Life”), relates a child’s innocent idea of blissful existence in heaven. Mahler first set the poem for voice and piano in February 1892 and orchestrated it soon thereafter. A few years later, he decided to end his Third Symphony—destined to be the longest symphony ever written by a major composer—with that song as its seventh movement. He eventually changed his mind and chose to divert it to conclude his next symphony instead.
Mahler originally planned for the Fourth Symphony to have six movements, three of them songs, leading to “Das himmlische Leben.” Although he eliminated the other vocal movements, and suppressed as well most of the programmatic elements he had initially envisioned, the heavenly Wunderhorn song remained and in fact helped to generate the entire symphony. Mahler called attention to this on a number of occasions, such as when he chided a critic that his analysis was missing one thing: “Did you overlook the thematic connections that figure so prominently in the work’s design? Or did you want to spare the audience some technical explanations? In any case, I ask that that aspect of my work be specially observed. Each of the three movements is connected thematically with the last one in the most intimate and meaningful way.”
On Mahler he records:
He told his friend Natalie Bauer-Lechner: “I know the most wonderful names for the movements, but I will not betray them to the rabble of critics and listeners so they can subject them to banal misunderstandings and distortions.” She also reports Mahler remarking: “At first glance one does not even notice all that is hidden in this inconspicuous little song, and yet one can recognize the value of such a seed by testing whether it contains the promise of a manifold life.”
Mahler remarked on the mood of the Fourth being like “the uniform blue of the sky … Sometimes it becomes overcast and uncanny, horrific: but it is not heaven itself that darkens, for it goes on shining with its everlasting blue. It is only that to us it seems suddenly sinister.”
The first movement begins charmingly but eventually becomes more ominous in character before recapturing its more affirmative spirit. The ensuing Scherzo has an eery quality but is playful and pervaded by ironic humor. The haunting, slow third movement is mysterious, enchanting and ethereal but not without its darker moments. The concert reached its pinnacle with the gloriousfinale,gorgeously sung by the amazing soprano, Pretty Yende, who wore a sumptuous floral gown. The artists received an enthusiastic ovation.
Nézet-Séguin and the ensemble return to this venue—with the incomparable soloist, Yuja Wang—on January 28th for a program devoted entirely to the celebrated piano music of Sergei Rachmaninoff.
Michael Repper conducts the New York Youth Symphony
At Carnegie Hall on the afternoon of Sunday, November 20th, I had the pleasure of attending a fine concert featuring the terrific musicians of the New York Youth Symphony under the effective direction of Michael Repper.
The event opened auspiciously with a confident account of contemporary composer Gabriela Lena Frank’s Escaramuza from 2010–which is especially notable for its excellent orchestration—in this venue’s premiere performance. I here cite her note on the work:
Escaramuza, which signifies "skirmish" in the Spanish language, is inspired by the kachampa music of Andean Perú. Celebrating the pre-Hispanic Inca warrior, the kachampa dance is executed by athletic men who convey a triumphant, even joyful, spirit. Inspired by the kachampa dances done with fast-snapping ropes that I've witnessed in Perú, especially in Paucartambo during the Virgen de la Carmen festival, I've created a brightly chiseled romp in an asymmetrical 7/8 rhythm that is launched after an extended bass drum solo. Through most of Escaramuza, no section of the ensemble is allowed to rest for long, maintaining the high energy typical of kachampas.
The impressively promising soloist, Francisco Fullana, then entered the stage for an admirable version of Édouard Lalo’s popular Symphonie Espagnole. The initial movement, marked Allegro non troppo, is lyrical despite a bold beginning, while the ensuing Scherzando is charming and dance-like. The more dramatic Intermezzo is a habañero and the Andante that follows is moody and introspective. The Rondo finale is ebullient and virtuosic.
The second half of the concert was even better, beginning with a rendition of the Ukrainian national anthem and then a marvelous performance of the world premiere of contemporary composer Ari Sussman’s compelling aleatoric work, I hope this finds you well, which was commissioned by this ensemble. The evening concluded magnificently with what was the highlight of the evening: a thrilling realization of George Bizet’s exquisite L’Arlésienne Suites 1 & 2. The opening Prelude is substantially a thoroughly captivating march. The waltz-like Minuet is succeeded by an elevated Adagietto. The Carillon which ends the first Suite is exultant with a pretty wind chorale in its middle section. The second Suite’s Pastorale is evocative with moments of grandeur. A majestic Intermezzo, a gorgeous Minuet, and a bewitching, irrepressible Farandole that recapitulates the initial march, complete the set. Enthusiastic applause prompted the conductor to repeat the final part of the last movement as a welcome encore.
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