Is it poor form to describe new music in images? In my defense, it was at least encouraged at the New York Philharmonic concert last night, whose centerpiece was highlights from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet ballet, with its scene- and character-specific score. So I ended up doing it at the beginning of the evening, too, during the US premiere of Julian Anderson’s exhilarating and unsettling The Discovery of Heaven, based on a novel in which god gives Moses the Ten Commandments and then wants them back (!). The piece opens with something resembling the soft sounds of morning, but it’s a menacing one: tittering flutes evoke scattering birds, then the strings come in on a sustained sour chord, whining like an electronic hum, like the rising of a blood moon; this unease is sustained, as though run through tensely with the radioactive breezes of nuclear fallout, till it finally reaches an angry outburst.
This structure repeats; it’s all wheeze and boom, reaching almost-glorious crescendos in a wicked, nasty sort of way. It sounds like—or we’ve been trained to hear it as—the occasional monster wandering past a panoramic view of an apocalyptic landscape. (At least, an alternate score to Fantasia‘s Rite of Spring segment?) “It sounds like it belongs in a horror movie,” I overheard someone at intermission say, surely referencing its Ligeti-like nightmarishness. Anderson even seems influenced by that genre’s sound design, frequently employing long stretches of silence, better to keep you on edge. (By comparison, Franck’s Variations symphoniques, which closed out the first half, didn’t lend itself to such poetic waxing: just a non-narrative piano concerto, though a lovely one, a characteristically Big and Romantic piece—full of vim and yearning, alternately dreamy and punchy—anchored by pianist Marc-André Hamelin’s expert, emotional performance.)
The main event was one of the rare instances in which a live performance of a familiar piece proves revelatory: I’ve been listening to Prokofiev’s Shakespeare adaptation regularly for weeks now, but hearing it last night was like hearing it clearly for the first time. The opening blasts of “The Montagues and the Capulets,” the New York orchestra employing that booming percussion for which it’s known, signaled the grandeur that’d follow: crisp horns, sweet strings and smooth sax playing sparklingly clean melodies, the orchestra (under Andrew Davis’s baton) sharply rhythmic and bone-rattlingly dynamic.
As a suite, Romeo and Juliet emerged last night on a par with Bizet’s Carmen and L’Arlesienne suites, which I hold as the gold standards (along with, perhaps, Grieg’s Peer Gynt): similarly shimmering, with a fantastical flair, almost Eastern inflected, in its softer moments; danceable and orchestrationally varied, it was full of iconic melodies—or at least icon-worthy ones. The Phil will repeat the program on Saturday evening, and will play the Prokofiev with a different piece that afternoon; don’t miss it!
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