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Corigliano and Strauss:
Joshua Bell (violin) New York Philmarmonic / Jonathan Nott, Avery Fisher Hall, 14.1.2006 (BH)

Corigliano: Violin Concerto, “The Red Violin” (1997-2003; New York premiere)

Strauss: Ein Alpensinfonie (An Alpine Symphony), Op. 64 (1911-15)

Thanks to the film The Red Violin (1998), the first movement of John Corigliano’s Violin Concerto has had a fair bit of exposure, but the composer felt that adding more material would better serve a soloist on a traditional concert program, so the work is now in four movements totaling just under forty minutes.  On first hearing, its rugged construction evokes a mix of 20th-century giants like Berg, Sibelius and Barber, blended with gestures that bring to mind John Adams and Ligeti, and not as much of a hodgepodge as I’m making it sound.  The blazing ending of the Chaconne is followed by a delicate Pianissimo Scherzo filled with tiny shimmers and a hymn-like Andante Flautando.  Parts of the Accelerando Finale resembled a rather hallucinatory barn dance, perhaps like Bernstein in a darker mood.


Joshua Bell, also featured on the film’s soundtrack, must have played this score dozens or times and was clearly in his element.  Corigliano has created a more acid-textured role that ultimately offers pleasant contrast to Bell’s good-natured playing.  The guest conductor for the evening, Jonathan Nott, is a formidable proponent of contemporary scores, and seemed to relish the chance to present this one with the high gloss of the Philharmonic’s musicians. 


After intermission, with the orchestra swelled to twice its size, Nott pulled out all the stops with an expertly shaped Ein Alpensinfonie, buoyed by some of the orchestra’s best playing of the season.  Richard Strauss’ extravagant tone poem is not the most beloved by some, who disdain its non-angst-ridden honesty and heart-on-sleeve deployment of a harmonic world that few of his contemporaries were interested in salvaging.  In 1915, while Stravinsky unleashed Le Sacre du Printemps and Berg his Three Pieces for Orchestra, Strauss painted an unabashedly programmatic journey into the Alps – a voyage that some find slightly cheesy, but one that offers many sonic thrills with the right conductor.  Some of the section titles tell it all, such as “Entering the Forest” and “Strolling by the Stream,” not to mention “The Sun Gradually Grows Dark” and “Calm before the Storm.”


With a massive metal thunder sheet some ten feet tall hanging over the back of the percussion section, it was hard not to get caught up in the anticipation, and Nott and the Philharmonic crew did not disappoint.  This was one of the first great performances of the new year, with wave after wave of spectacular sound painting, due in no small part to some heroic brass work.  Just when the horns seemed to reach the zenith, the trumpets crested soon after, with the rest of the ensemble surfing in behind them.  Harmonically, the piece is relatively straightforward, and brimming with innocence (some say tedium), and to present this convincingly one must plunge in and take the composer at his word.  This artistic trust is one of Nott’s strengths, or at least appears to be so, especially when he presents a new or unfamiliar score, and I could sense the same thinking happening here.  Based on what I’ve heard so far, Nott’s keen interest in contemporary music inflects everything he does, giving new life to standards, and on this occasion both Strauss and we were the beneficiaries.

Our Alpine afternoon happened as organically as if the composer himself had invited us on a picnic in a flower-filled meadow, sharing a platter full of sandwiches, while gazing at sheep and then taking cover during a late-day storm.  Without being cloying, Nott captured the work’s aura of gentle reminiscence, and it was all ultimately very moving.  Let’s hope he returns soon.  Following his memorable, unusual 2005 appearances here with the Bamberg Philharmonic and a brace with the Ensemble Intercontemporain, it would be hard to see him as anything other than one of the world’s major conductors. 


Bruce Hodges



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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)