Where the Spiritual Meets the Sensual

Classic Arts Features   Where the Spiritual Meets the Sensual
The New York Philharmonic's 170th Season, whichofficially opened on Sept. 21, continues Alan Gilbert'sexploration of works that span centuries, coupled in newand engaging combinations and, as Olivia Giovetti reveals,with a more profound flavor.


Ludwig van Beethoven described music as "the mediator between the spiritual and sensual life," a statement with significant bearings in the New York Philharmonic's programming under Alan Gilbert. In his third year as Music Director, he aims to continue presenting music "that we want the Orchestra to play, that I want to conduct, and that we really believe : truly : that the audience should hear."

The New York Philharmonic continues to focus on Mahler (who was born 150 years ago and died in 1911) as the current Music Director leads the Orchestra in the great former Music Director's Symphony No. 9 (January 5 _10, and at the Free Annual Memorial Day Concert at The Cathedral of St. John the Divine, May 28) and Symphony No. 6 (at Carnegie Hall, May 2). The redolent themes of Mahler's Sixth, originally subtitled Tragic, give way to the affi rmative qualities of his Ninth, which Alan Gilbert describes as "the quintessential Mahler symphony." The composer's last completed symphony, like all of his works, touches on the human experience and specifi cally foreshadows one universal element of that experience: mortality. "It ends with this real valedictory moment, which seems like death or perhaps the attainment of the ultimate spiritual peace," the Music Director says. "It seems to give a picture of what it means to be human in every sense."

Complementing the manifold Mahler is a multitude of Mozart, up to the season's closing performances with the latter's Great Mass in C minor (June 20 _23). Like Mahler's Resurrection, Mozart's mass balances the intimate, communal nature of the spiritual with a titanic scale that encapsulates the more sensual grandeur of the physical world. Prior to that, violinist Lisa Batiashvili returns to Avery Fisher Hall for the vibrant, Turkish-infl uenced Violin Concerto No. 5 (April 26 _28), and Alan Gilbert will lead the Finale of Act I of Don Giovanni at the Park Avenue Armory (June 29 _30).

The Mozart at the Armory is part of a larger, ambitious program that features Stockhausen's Gruppen and also includes Pierre Boulez's Rituel in memoriam Bruno Maderna and Ives's The Unanswered Question. All four pieces make ample use of the cathedral-like sonic qualities of the Armory's soaring, 55,000-square-foot Wade Thompson Drill Hall, providing a resonant home for acoustics and an area that speaks to the nontraditional spatial manifestations of these works: Gruppen requires three orchestras led by three conductors (composer- conductors Matthias Pintscher and Magnus Lindberg will form a triumvirate with Alan Gilbert), offering an epic experience for both eyes and ears.

Many of the concerts that the Philharmonic is performing at its Avery Fisher Hall home also emphasize the balance of old and new. So while many of the Music Director's programs feature powerful symphonies by Brahms, Dvoˇršk, Nielsen, Prokofi ev, and Tchaikovsky, there is also a healthy dose of contemporary music. Magnus Lindberg reprises his role as The Marie-Jos_e Kravis Composer-in- Residence for a third year. "I think he's really embodied every aspect that we hoped would be in his position here," Mr. Gilbert explains, "both the 'composer' part, obviously, and also the 'in-residence' part." Mr. Lindberg will again curate CONTACT!, the new-music series (December 16 _17 and June 8 _9), and this year he is writing his Piano Concerto No. 2, which the Philharmonic will premiere with virtuoso pianist Yefi m Bronfman (May 3 _5).

Mozart not only cozies up to Boulez in the Armory: in April his Fifth Violin Concerto will be heard alongside the World Premiere of Marc Neikrug's Concerto for Orchestra. This native New Yorker's Quintessence: Symphony No. 2 was one of the fi rst new works that Alan Gilbert brought to the Orchestra, back in 2008. The new Philharmonic commission will further the relationship between composer and orchestra, offering a work tailor-made to the strengths and talents of the specifi c Philharmonic players.

Likewise, Mahler's Symphony No. 9 is blended like a top-shelf cocktail with the New York Premiere of Thomas Ads's Polaris, a co-commission that shows off the composer's inimitable sense of color and harmony. "He's someone that I think New York audiences are getting to know more and more, and who will really be an important part of the musical scene for many years," observes Alan Gilbert, who led the Philharmonic in Ads's In Seven Days last season (when it also shared a program with Mahler).

Perhaps most meaningful, however, is the World Premiere of John Corigliano's One Sweet Morning, for mezzo-soprano and orchestra (September 30 _October 4), on a program that also includes Dvoˇršk's expressive Symphony No. 7. Written in commemoration of the tenth anniversary of 9/11 and set to a poem by Yip Harburg, the new work continues the composer's talent for musical storytelling, as seen in his monumental Symphony No. 1 or his opera, The Ghosts of Versailles.

This continual balance of old and new reaches its zenith with The Modern Beethoven: A Philharmonic Festival, conducted by David Zinman (March 1 _20). Described by Alan Gilbert as "one of the most important interpreters of Beethoven working today," Mr. Zinman brings his historically informed approach to six of Beethoven's nine symphonies. Though familiar to the ear : from the opening jolts of the Third to the pensive and pulsating second movement of the Seventh : these works will be heard in a different light thanks to Mr. Zinman's insightful "back to the score" approach. The "Modern" component of this Beethoven festival is enhanced by the inclusion of three 20th century concertos that draw influence and inspiration from their paired symphonies. Echoing Beethoven's flair for wit, Romanticism, and drama are works by Stravinsky, Barber, and Hartmann, interpreted by pianist Peter Serkin, cellist Alisa Weilerstein, and violinist Gil Shaham.

These are a sample of the bevy of highcaliber performers on the Philharmonic's roster, culminating with The Mary and James G. Wallach Artist-in-Residence Frank Peter Zimmermann, who will bring his talents to concertos by Beethoven, Berg, Brahms, and Dvoˇršk plus : in a rare switch for the Music Director : Bach's Double Concerto played with Alan Gilbert (October 5 _7). Regardless of what composer is on the program, Mr. Zimmermann will lend his own brand of spirituality to the works in store this season. "There's something so direct about the experience he provides," says Mr. Gilbert of the violinist, "and that only can happen because his musicality is so intense and his technical ability is so consummate that all of those sort of mundane, earthly considerations are out of the picture and it really becomes about the music."

This is also true, in a sense, of the Orchestra, its Music Director, and of the season as a whole.


Olivia Giovetti is the host of The New Canon on Q2. She also writes for WQXR's opera blog, WQX-Aria, and has written for Time Out New York, Gramophone, Classical Singer, and The Washington Post.

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