In late February, the Russian maestro Vladimir Jurowski brings the London Philharmonic Orchestra to Lincoln Center for three bold programs that will include the U.S. premiere of Vladimir Martynov's Vita Nuova, presented February 28 in Alice Tully Hall as part of the New Music for a New Hall series.
Jurowski has championed modern music since the age of 21, when he was chief conductor of Berlin's Sibelius Orchestra. Flashing forward 15 years and a few orchestral posts finds Jurowski taking the reins for his second season as principal conductor of the London Philharmonic Orchestra with the same passion for 20th- and 21st-century classical music that he has displayed throughout his career.
It is impossible to hear classical music more current than the U.S. premiere of Martynov's new opera, Vita Nuova, which receives its world premiere some ten days prior in London's Royal Festival Hall. Based on a collection of verse by Dante Alighieri, Martynov's work explores the music genetics of opera from "Debussy to Berg, from Gregorian chant to the serial technique," according to the composer's notes.
Born after World War II in the Soviet Union, Martynov was avant-garde during a time when such an aesthetic was still professionally risky. The composer dabbled in serialism in early compositions, joined an electronic music studio in the early '70s, and formed a rock band, Boomerang, in the latter part of the decade for which he wrote a rock opera, Seraphic Visions from St. Francis of Assisi. This work presaged Martynov's interest in Christian themes, which he would come to after donning a late-'70s Russian coat of minimalism, a style that drew on chant, Renaissance polyphony, and (in stark contrast to the American movement) a lack of pulse. Martynov began teaching at a theological institute in the 1980s and his exploration of Christian themes heightened after the fall of the Soviet Union, yielding such works as Apocalypse (1991), Lamentations of Jeremiah (1992), Stabat Mater (1994) and Requiem (1998). Martynov's meditation on Dante's collection of poems (La Vita Nuova) about the transformative power of love is an opera to anticipate.
Jurowski and the LPO begin their stay at Lincoln Center on February 27 at Avery Fisher Hall in a performance of 20th-century orchestral masterworks by Ligeti, Mahler, and Richard Strauss. Works include the Adagio from Mahler's final (incomplete) composition, Symphony No. 10; the lush soundscape of Ligeti's Atmosphres; and Richard Strauss' mighty tone poem, Also sprach Zarathustra, wherein Strauss takes on nothing less than the conflict between nature and humanity and the transcendence of religious superstition. Also on the February 27 program is Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 23 in A major, K.488, featuring pianist Leon Fleisher, whose comeback from the affliction of focal dystonia : which caused him to lose the use of his left hand for 30 years : is one of the most heroic in all of classical music. Fleisher received the 2007 Kennedy Center Honors, where he was recognized for his "consummate" and "life-affirming" musicianship.
The LPO's final performance, March 1 at Avery Fisher Hall, is an all-Rachmaninoff program. The highlight should be Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 4 in G minor, which is lighter, more diffuse, refined, and far less frequently played than the warhorse Concertos Nos. 2 and 3. The featured pianist is the Russian veteran Alexei Lubimov, who has been a champion of contemporary composers since the late '60s, when he gave Moscow debuts of works by John Cage and Terry Riley. He went on to deliver Soviet Union premieres of Boulez, Ives, Ligeti, Schoenberg, Webern, and many others.
Also on the program is Isle of the Dead, Rachmaninoff's tone poem that takes its name from a painting of the same title (Insel der Toten) by Arnold B‹cklin, an image that the Swiss painter would obsessively return to in the latter years of his career. Rachmaninoff reflects the gloom of the painting with a dark orchestration and references to the Dies irae, pitting the death chant against a longing "life" theme in the work's climax. Jurowski's closer is also Rachmaninoff's final work, Symphonic Dances. The work is distinguished by peculiar harmony and shifting rhythm and is infused with Russian ecclesiastical chant, a sound Jurowski should have little difficulty divining.