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Mozart, Mahler, Adès: Thomas Hampson (baritone), Thomas Adès (piano), Tad Rosner (video artist), Alan Gilbert (conductor), New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Avery Fisher Hall, New York City, 6.1.2011 (SSM)

Mozart: Symphony No. 40 in G minor, K.550

Mahler: Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the Death of Children)

Adès: In Seven Days (Concerto for Piano with Moving Image)

It has already been noted by many in the press that Alan Gilbert has found a formula for presenting contemporary music to his New York audience and NYPO subscriber base in a way that seems to stanch the flow of audience members exiting the concert hall at the sound of the first atonal phrase. From my vantage point, only a handful of the audience walked out during the New York Premiere of Thomas Adès’
In Seven Days. Mr. Gilbert’s enthusiasm for and admirable commitment to the new music he is presenting has convinced his audience to give an ear (and in this concert an eye) to these compositions.

If this particular program was unified in any way, it was in its seriousness and melancholic temperament. The program started with Mozart’s Symphony in G minor, the second of only two minor-key symphonies Mozart wrote and only one of a handful of Mozart pieces written in G minor. (The first movement of the String Quintet in G Minor K.516 probably tops the list of Mozart’s most sorrowful music.) The second piece performed was Mahler’s
Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the Death of Children). Can there be a title for a song cycle and its accompanying music more melancholic than this? Although it might be over-generalizing to assign this mood to Adès’ piece, certainly the opening movement “Chaos – Light – Darkness” is no Rossini overture.

Mr. Gilbert’s Mozart was pleasant in an old-fashioned way and reminded me of nothing so much as the performance I grew up with: Felix Prohaska conducting the Vienna State Opera Orchestra. At the time that performance was considered to be on the more adventuresome side. As with Mr. Prohaska, Mr. Gilbert’s conducting drew from the orchestra energetic, sharply accented rhythms using tempos more liberal than those usually played by major orchestras. I liked his attention to detail, for instance in the yearning two-note phrase at the end of the second theme, bounced back and forth between the strings and winds and the cellos and double basses. The tempo in the second movement was right on the mark, and the brass excelled in the last movement’s exposition.

Thomas Hampson’s history with Mahler goes back over twenty years with more than twenty recordings of his music to date. Hampson's performance and recording of Mahler’s
Kindertotenlieder with Leonard Bernstein and the Vienna Philharmonic is considered a classic. Older and a bit lacking in his ability to project his voice to the last row, he still was able to move some listeners to tears. Mr. Gilbert, as usual, conducted with tremendous finesse and seems to he headed in the direction of Leonard Bernstein as the NYPO’s next great Mahlerian.

The final piece was the New York premiere of Thomas Adès’
In Seven Days. This work, as Mr. Adès stated in a brief pre-performance conversation with Mr. Gilbert, was written in collaboration with his civil partner, Tad Rosner. The subject of the work, nothing less than the seven days of Genesis, has been tackled by many composers over the centuries, too many to enumerate, and the Adès-Rosner team have given themselves a tall order. Their method of composition was for a short segment of music to be written by the composer and then interpreted by the visual artist, who edited video clips and photographs of the buildings which house the two institutions that commissioned the work: Southbank Centre's Royal Festival Hall in London and the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. I'm not sure what the Southbank Centre's relationship is to the work at hand, but I could see Walt Disney's influence on the video representation of the music. Disney's attempt to visualize the music of various classical composers in Fantasia was considerably less amateurish than the visualizations of Mr. Rosner, even though Fantasia was created seventy years ago without any computer editing equipment.

The music was pleasant enough, though difficult to pay attention to with the distracting video being shown. So much of the music was derivative that I found it hard to stop my mind from coming up with names of composers whose music Adès was recycling: Britten, Stravinsky, Hindemith, Bernard Herrmann, Walton, Bax, Tippett, George Lloyd and so forth. From the visual side, the recycling was of old graphical clichés: Pac-Man characters, exploding fractals, space journeys done better on science fiction television, portals opening to the other world, amoeba represented by dots going through binary fission, and less interesting graphics than found in the early video game,
Snakes. If the goal was to match visual images to the music being played, it could have been done by simply clicking the "Random Alchemy" visualization option in Windows Media Player. There, at least, you would see true synchronization of music and image.

Credit should be given to the conductor, orchestra and pianist (Mr. Adès himself) for making the thirty-minute work seem more pleasingly substantial than it actually was. Unfortunately, thirty minutes later it had been completely forgotten.

Stan Metzger


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