Steeped in the Classicals: Spices, Perfumes, Toxins and Bartok at the Philharmonic

03/21/2009 9:00 AM |

Steeped in the Classicals is Henry Stewart’s classical music column, and if you don’t like it, lump it. (Take it down the road and dump it.)

One of the oldest tricks in the classical music programming playbook (out of print) is to pair contemporary music with repertoire favorites. If the conservative blue hairs want the old stuff, they’ll have to sit through some of the new, too: that’s the only way contemporary compositions can get a hearing in uptown’s hallowed halls. Sometimes, it’s a pain in the neck — I don’t want to hear John Corigliano, I want to hear Beethoven! — but the latest pieces coupled at the New York Philharmonic, Avner Dorman’s "Spices, Perfumes and Toxins!" (2006) and Bela Bartok’s "Concerto for Ochestra" (1943), complemented one another well.

Dorman, an Israeli composer, wrote his Juilliard dissertation on Bartok and considers the composer a major influence. For his piece, performed by the orchestra and Dorman’s former classmates and frequent collaborators PercaDu (as in, Percussion Duo) in its U.S. premiere, the Avery Fisher stage was lined from wing to wing with percussion instruments, from the melodic, like marimbas and xylophones, to the rhythmic, like tom toms and Turkish hand drums. Many contemporary composers seem to thrive off of annihilating the old forms and structures, but Dorman, in this piece anyway, embraces them, finding his own voice mostly through inventive orchestration. In the second movement, "Perfumes," creamy string textures are overlaid with a gentle melody ached out on harmonizing marimba and xylophone. It sounded Late Romantic, like a Dvorak second movement with tinkling percussion replacing the usual part for wistful violin.

The bookending movements, "Spices" and "Toxins," were more explosive; they included frequent drum-solo duets. It was like watching the Philharmonic with two sick drummers, bro, which had a gimmicky appeal: you don’t often get to hear rock-inflected drumming in the concert hall. But the piece had its flaws: the first movement, with its lush, dreamy and melodramatic exoticism, wouldn’t have seemed out of place in the trailer for a Hollywood thriller about Middle East espionage. My percussionist friend made unfavorable comparisons to Yanni and John Tesh. We both agreed: it was more powerful to see performed than it would be just to hear. Percussion playing is exciting to watch, like dancing. (Watch PercaDu play "Spices" with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.)

Prior to intermission, PercaDu played an encore, a Bach piece arranged for two marimbas, that was hauntingly effective; if you go, clap a lot so they’ll play it. After intermission, the orchestra played the Bartok, the stage now uncluttered. Much of the work, written after the composer had fled Nazi-ridden Europe, teeters near the edge of playfulness, with moments of sprightly woodwind trills over thick strings, though the sustained tone of uneasiness prevents it from toppling over. It evokes otherworldliness, like fairy songs in a time of wizard wars, blending melancholic folk melodies with brash brass, crashing cymbals and whirlwind strings. It alternates between teasingly lulling interludes and thwomping passages of startling force; the latter were matched in severity by conductor Zubin Mehta’s stern countenance. Mehta, who dropped his baton during one particularly intense passage, conducted a compelling performance. (Listen to Mehta lead the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra in the last movement, from 1977.)

In the middle of the fifth movement, Bartok’s music slips into several measures of Aaron Coplandness; a bit of Americanness emerges. Bartok wrote the concerto while living in New York — around the time Copland was writing some of his most enduring works — and it premiered two years before he died. (The Boston Symphony commissioned it while Bartok was confined to a hospital bed.) It lacks most of classical music’s architectural predictability; it’s the equivalent of orchestral free verse, often challenging, though it largely stays within the consonant boundaries of accessibility. As did Dorman’s: the two pieces were an effective, though not stunning, match.

This program will be repeated tonight night at 8pm. Visit the Philharmonic’s website for more information. It may also be broadcast on WQXR (96.3 FM) in April; check this schedule for updates.