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Sunday, September 20, 2009

New York Philharmonic premieres "Expo"

The New York Philharmonic under the direction of their brand new music director Alan Gilbert opened their much anticipated 2009-10 season with a stunning concert September 16th. I was not there, but caught the featured world premiere of work by Magnus Lindberg (right) on a national television broadcast the following Sunday afternoon.

New York's orchestra seems to be leading the concert programming curve this season when it comes to commissioning and performing new works.

The NY Philharmonic web site provides some background information about the pivotal role Mr. Lindberg will assume as the appointed NY Philharmonic Composer in Residence:

Finnish composer Magnus Lindberg is The Marie-Josée Kravis Composer-in-Residence at the New York Philharmonic, a two-year appointment that begins in the 2009–10 season. As part of his appointment — which is one of Alan Gilbert’s major new initiatives as Music Director — Mr. Lindberg will write music for the Philharmonic and serve in a curatorial role for the institution. He will also be an integral part of CONTACT, the New York Philharmonic's new-music series, including curating and conducting programs.

What I find encouraging is that the 51 year-old Lindberg was commissioned to compose the all-important opening piece for the new season. That's a high profile function, which is pretty rare in the new music business.

His work Expo, composed this year, is a six or seven minute energetic fanfare full of vibrant and colorful orchestral techniques that showcase just about every section of New York's wonderful orchestra.

The work begins with the percussive sound of the whip followed by the rhythmical pulse of fast and repetitive alternating bowing from within the string section. Soon a brass chorale ensues, which is punctuated by the timpani. Colorful special effects, such as string harmonics and rapid fire bassoon riffs from alternating bassoons give way to a more lyrical arioso section played by the French horns. The wind section steps up to assume the chorale melody followed by a short cadence on well-voiced but thickly scored chords which hint at the lush Romantic harmonic language of Alban Berg.

But, Lindberg is not shy about revealing his influences. Besides Berg, once can hear the influence of Ligeti, Debussy, Ravel, and perhaps even a tinge of John Williams emerge out of the rich textures of his piece.

Expo is well orchestrated and full of interesting details that invite us to pay a return visit and hear it again. It is a fast roller coaster ride, and a trill to listen to from beginning to end. Expo is one of those works where everyone in the orchestra gets to play non stop pretty much from beginning to end (including it seems the harp, which we can't hear all the time). The musicians are called upon to dish out a lot of notes in a short time span - or to put it another way, it reflects a high "event to time ratio."

The work is full of traditional orchestral sounds and techniques, catchy lyrical tunes, pedal points, and an assortment of contrasting harmonic and melodic scales. Some of the first chair solo instrumentalists get a chance to shine: from the piccolo, to bass drum, to the tam tam. Of course there is a prominent "must have" two-handed ascending glissandi in the harp. You can't have opening night without one.

After the performance, a tuxedo clad Lindberg came to the stage to accept his round of applause. The NY audience seemed thrilled by the world premiere. Several other works by Lindberg will be heard later this season and into next.

We have to praise music director Alan Gilbert for taking the initiative of selecting, commissioning, and performing works such as Lindberg's Expo. Other American orchestras should be more courageous in their programming as well and do the same. This should be proof that new music is not the de facto box office curse it is often assumed to be. What could be more mainstream than the NY Philharmonic performing a new work during national broadcast on PBS?

I don't see any controversy here.