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Seen and Heard Recital Review

Pärt, Musorgsky, Stravinsky: Marina Domashenko, Mezzo-soprano (New York Philharmonic debut), The New York Philharmonic, Riccardo Chailly, Conductor, Avery Fisher Hall, New York City, 19th February 2005 (BH)

Arvo Pärt: Cantus in memoriam Benjamin Britten (1977, rev. 1980)
Musorgsky: Songs and Dances of Death (1875/77; orch. Shostakovich 1962)
Stravinsky: L’Oiseau de feu (1909-10)

For this second of two concerts with guest conductor Riccardo Chailly, I invited a friend to join me who had never heard The Firebird before, a practice which I highly encourage any veteran listener to do now and then in the service of “getting back in touch with why music is so much fun in the first place.” Her reaction was telling, as she proclaimed after the ovations had ended: “Exhausting!” Exactly. This is precisely the reaction people often have following a good concert (and this one was very good), when the music sweeps you up into a reaction that is as much physical as mental, with some emotional drainage, perhaps as if your soul is being yanked out by something slightly beyond your control.

My most recent live encounter with this work was last year when Sir Colin Davis did it so pungently with the London Symphony Orchestra, and I certainly don’t mind hearing it live about once a year. Where Davis and the LSO offered strong playing, rhythmic incisiveness and crisp phrasing, Chailly took the approach of making the music sound almost shocking (not that it isn’t in almost anyone’s hands). Even though parts of the first twenty minutes had the sensuous sweep of Ravel, there were many more moments that offered almost barbaric shivers, enough to disorient my companion and banish any thoughts of listening to this music in the background.

Before intermission came a forceful debut by Marina Domashenko, rock-solid in Musorgsky’s bleak cycle, based on poems by his friend Arseny Golenishchev-Kutuzov. These four songs are grim, but certainly not with the grisly imagery of Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, which I happen to have heard twice in the last month. Musically, anyone who responds to Pictures at an Exhibition (don’t be shy) would surely find much to enjoy in these songs. Ms. Domashenko has a startling power given her relatively small size. My friend said, “Where is that voice coming from? How does she do that?” I didn’t have any answers, but all that mattered at the moment was being enthralled by her dusky-hued instrument, beautifully used here. From her attention-getting fortissimo at the end of the second “Serenade” to her forceful phrasing in the final “Field Marshal,” she was uncommonly decisive, and has one of the finest new voices I’ve had the pleasure of hearing this year.

This might be a good moment to digress to praise the Philharmonic’s program notes – in this instance by the always informative James M. Keller, but I’m really commenting on the style, a relatively new format that has been in place for a couple of years or so, which gives listeners a terse but well-rounded overview of the music, expanding significantly on the basic biography of the composer and genesis of the piece. The notes include the date of the world premiere, the approximate length, and when it was last conducted – startlingly, this piece was first performed by the Philharmonic just ten years ago! If this isn’t an argument for a little more variety in the programming (yes, perhaps go easy on the Beethoven and Mozart), I don’t know what is.

The tiny Pärt that opened the concert seems to divide listeners: those who adore it (like me) and those who find it far too elementary in its concept. Following a somber chime, the strings play a simple falling figure that could be lifted out of Albinoni’s Adagio in G Minor, and as it progresses the instruments gradually fall out of synch with each other, creating a gently pulsing, reverent glow. The effect is sort of like watching a glacier melt, the rivulets running together. The same friend who was slightly depleted by the Stravinsky was completely energized by this piece, finding a huge vault of imagery in its six minutes. (Short synopsis: it’s early morning, and something dreadful may happen later in the day.)

I have no problem linking this work to examples of contemporary minimalism, but listeners who hate John Taverner (for example) or other mystics of that ilk may find this Cantus less than satisfying. It is very simply scored, for string orchestra and that chime – the latter patiently done here by the excellent Daniel Druckman, usually rushing around with far more challenging tasks, but tonight leaving a smaller, more modest calling card.

Bruce Hodges



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