Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Concerto for Yo-Yo Ma

Alan Gilbert conducts the New York Philharmonic in Esa-Pekka Salonen
Cello Concerto with Yo-Yo Ma and Berlioz
Symphonie fantastique at David Geffen Hall, 3/15/17. Photo by Chris Lee.

Yo-Yo Ma Premieres Salonen Concerto in New York

March 15, 2017

Sequenza 21

By Christian Carey

 

NEW YORK – One of the most eagerly anticipated New York premieres of 2017 was Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Cello Concerto, written for Yo-Yo Ma. It had been presented shortly before by the Chicago Symphony, and buzz had grown around the piece based on positive reports from the these concerts. At David Geffen Hall, the New York Philharmonic showed that the Chicagoans hadn’t cornered the market: they had much to offer in this engrossing work. Outgoing Music Director Alan Gilbert made a strong impression with a sensitive and detailed reading of the Salonen concerto. The composer was on hand before the performance to give an image-filled talk from the stage.

 

Opening in a chromatic environment, with stacks of bitonal chords (C+D# diminished noteworthy among them), hazy string tremolos are set against motoric patterns from winds, muted brass, and pitched percussion. The cello solo at first plays along with the cello section, then in counterpoint with it: a mournful melody that starts out in the cello’s medium upper register and works its way down to the open A string. The orchestra part juxtaposes the modernist palette of the opening with post-minimal repetitive gestures: sostenuto interludes from the strings also take part in the proceedings, giving the impression of the cello solo on steroids. The movement ends with the cello wending its way down from its upper register to the lower half of the cello, ending on the G-string. A low D# from bass clarinet and an icy vertical from the strings accompany it into a void where time seems to stop.

 

After a blazing brass crescendo, the second movement is often placid, with long stretches of fragility and transparency. A noteworthy feature is the concerto’s first (and primary) use of electronics. Loops are employed to project small sections of the cello part throughout the hall, building an army of ghostly apparitions out of the solo part. While there has been much more extensive incorporation of electronics in various pieces for orchestra, the sound of these loops whirring around Geffen Hall was impressive.

 

The third movement has been called by Salonen a nod to the musicianship Yo-Yo Ma has garnered with the Silk Road ensemble. To create a multi-cultural effect, and to buoy the dance rhythms that populate the closing movement, Philharmonic percussionist Christopher Lamb was on hand to play a vigorous part on bongos and congas. This isn’t the only duet Ma engages in. He is also given stretches of music to interact with other players, such as the contrabassoon and alto flute in movement two. That said, the pairing of percussion and cello brings out an intensity in the solo part. Cadenzas pile up alongside vigorous tutti, until at the last …

 

There’s “that high note” that is the penultimate gesture in the work (It is followed by electronics – loops from the second movement that burst into activity around the hall). It is a Bb7 (the last B-flat at the very top of the piano). In an interview with Alex Ross in the New Yorker, Salonen said that he originally pitched the note an octave lower, but Yo-Yo Ma said he could go even higher: hence, Bb7.

 

I was curious: how many other works for cello go this high (or higher)? I’ll admit, I crowdfunded the answer. A quick question on Facebook yielded several responses from friends that the cello has indeed been employed this high and even higher (B7 and C8). Cellist and composer Franklin Cox was kind enough to explain to me that even though the notes are past the end of the fingerboard, by squeezing the string against it, one can elicit these stratospheric pitches. Cox has written them, and Joseph Dangerfield cited Curve With Plateaux, a work by Jonathan Harvey ,that goes all the way up to C8. Andrew Rindfleisch shared JACK’s performance of his second string quartet, in which Jay Campbell plays A7, Bb7, and C8. Pianist Gloria Cheng nominated Thomas Adès’ Lieux retrouvés. Several people mentioned Matthias Pintscher and Salvatore Sciarrino (I haven’t tracked the scores down yet to verify this).

 

My sometimes curmudgeonly friend Andrew Rudin complained that these composers were trying to make the cello into a violin, but what I heard at David Geffen hall was nothing like the altissimo register of a violin. In some ways, it wasn’t about the extreme highness of the sound; apart from the harmony surrounding it, I don’t think it mattered that the pitch was Bb7 or C8; it seemed eminently attainable – and sustainable – by the soloist. What was remarkable was the long ringing quality it made – like a singing sword on steroids. Here’s hoping that someone – preferably our New Yorkers (while Mr. Gilbert remains with them) records this work ASAP.

New York Philharmonic Premieres HK Gruber’s Piano Concerto

Hi All. This fell off the blog for some reason. I am re-hosting it today. 

 

New York Philharmonic Premieres H.K. Gruber

New York Philharmonic

Photos: Chris Lee

 

Avery Fisher Hall, New York

January 7, 2017

By Christian Carey

Five Things to Love About the NY Phil’s January 7th Concert

  1. Kurt Weill’s Kleine Dreigroschenmusik (Little Threepenny Music) for Wind Ensemble: A truly charming work that also demonstrates the composer’s affinity for early jazz orchestration, Little Threepenny Music showed off the wind section of the Philharmonic at their very best, and it was wonderful to hear banjo in the mix. Mack the Knife alone is worth many three-pennies!
  2. Emmanuel Ax playing H.K. Gruber: As Ax himself admits (see video embed below), his training is classical, not jazz-oriented. That said, he acquitted himself well in the premiere of H.K. Gruber’s Piano Concerto, spinning swinging fistfuls of notes into the air at a nearly relentless pace with his characteristic musicality.
  3. H.K. Gruber’s Piano Concerto: It is audaciously orchestrated, cast for a large orchestra with tons of contrapuntal imitation thickening the texture — yet somehow the piano comes through in brilliant fashion. There are elements of Weill’s early jazz, notably “shimmy music” from his opera Tales from the Vienna Woods. But the piece contains an even more pronounced strain of modern jazz: one could imagine the late Eric Dolphy fitting right in, taking a seat among the winds.
  4. Thoughtful programming: H.K. Gruber has performed works by Kurt Weill as a chansonnier. Schubert’s early Second Symphony hasn’t been performed since Kurt Masur was Music Director of the NY Phil (I saw that performance too; more about it momentarily).
  5. Alan Gilbert conducting Franz Schubert: When I heard Masur’s performance of Schubert’s Second Symphony in 1994, I was convinced that the teenage composer had the capacity to be a proto-Brahms with high Romantic spirits. Gilbert’s interpretation of the piece stands in stark contrast. It is much quicker, putting the strings through fleet-footed paces and distilling Schubert’s admiration for Mozart into each of the work’s movements. I wouldn’t want to be without either rendition, and am grateful to have heard them both. That said, January 7th’s masterful performance is just going to make me miss Alan Gilbert at the helm of the NY Phil even more.

_u7a6531sm

This Week: The NY PHIL Biennial Begins!

1516_biennial_landing_page_1884x1048

On Monday, May 23rd, with a performance by JACK Quartet at the 92nd Street Y, the New York Philharmonic’s second Biennial begins. Running until June 11th, a plethora of concerts are contained in this year’s offerings. Last week, Music Director Alan Gilbert outlined some of them at an “Insights at the Atrium” event. You can watch a video of it below.

 

On Tuesday, May 24th, Q2 whets listeners’ appetites for the Biennial with a 24-hour marathon devoted to the NY PHIL. Hosted by composer Phil Kline, it features recordings from the orchestra’s archive and record label. At 7 PM, there will be a live broadcast from National Sawdust of violinist Jennifer Koh playing from her Shared Madness commissioning project.

A few other events that I’m particularly enthused about:

Cheering for the home team, the Orchestra of the League of Composers/ISCM, conducted by Louis Karchin, presents a concert on June 1st at Miller Theatre with works by Huck Hodge, Felipe Lara, Paul Moravec, and Charles Wuorinen. 

On June 2-4, a staging of Gerald Barry’s The Importance of Being Earnest will be given as part of the NY PHIL’s Contact! series.

Cellist Jay Campbell curates Ligeti Forwarda series of three concerts on June 3-5, performed by alums of the Lucerne Festival, conducted by Gilbert. Using György Ligeti as a starting point, the concerts incorporate a number of composers who have been influenced by his work, including Unsuk Chin,Marc-André Dalbavie, Gérard Grisey, and Alexandre Lunsqui.

On June 8, the Aspen Contemporary Ensemble  performs a program that features the NY Premiere of Steven Stucky’s composition for tenor and ensemble The Stars and the Roses. A setting of three Czeslaw Milosz poems, the affirming character of both the words and music of this piece are made even more poignant by the composer’s recent passing. The concert also includes NY premieres of works by Esa-Pekka Salonen and Stephen Hartke. 

On June 9th, Brooklyn Youth Chorus, San Francisco Girls Chorus, and Brooklyn Knights join forces on two programs that feature pieces by, among others, Lisa Bielawa, Theo Bleckmann, Philip Glass, Aaron Jay Kernis, Carla Kihlstedt, Nico Muhly, and Caroline Shaw.

There’s more Stucky on the Biennial’s finale on June 11th; a concert given by the Philharmonic features the New York premiere of his Pulitzer prizewinning Second Concerto for Orchestra. Also on the program is the cello-filled Messagesquisse by Pierre Boulez and the U.S. Premiere of Per Nørgård’s Symphony No. 8.