Wednesday, May 7, 2014

New York Philharmonic Opens Spring for Music

Ruby Washington/The New York Times

Spring for Music opened on Monday evening at Carnegie Hall with a powerful New York premiere: Christopher Rouse’s “Requiem” by the New York Philharmonic and the Westminster Symphonic Choir, conducted by Alan Gilbert. In many ways it was a perverse choice for the occasion. This weeklong festival, in its fourth and — because of a shortage of financing — final year, is a joyous celebration of orchestral excellence and adventurous programming. Orchestras from across North America converge for a good-natured contest of skill and spirits, cheered on by supporters who fill the auditorium with the colors of their hometown band.

The exuberant, jolly mood at the start of the concert contrasted starkly with the dark, hulking “Requiem” that followed. And yet it is hard to imagine Mr. Rouse’s work receiving a more rapt reception — or a more passionate performance — in another setting.

The 90-minute work for large symphony orchestra, baritone solo, chorus and children’s voices was finished in 2002 for the bicentenary of Berlioz’s birth. With bold colors and violent mood swings, it is a 21st-century homage to that composer’s own “Requiem.” Mr. Rouse follows Berlioz’s arrangement of the liturgical text, which emphasizes emotional extremes and dramatic contrasts: The Recordare, for instance, is not a comforting movement of its own but built into the “Rex tremendae” and swallowed up by the ensuing “flames of woe” and “black abyss” of the text.Photo.

Mr. Rouse also weaves in poems by Seamus Heaney, Siegfried Sassoon, Michelangelo, Ben Jonson and John Milton that depict death through the eyes of those left behind: a sibling, a son, a fellow soldier, a lover. Given over to the soloist — here the beautifully poised South African baritone Jacques Imbrailo — these texts function like the lone figures in old paintings of biblical crowd scenes that stare out at the viewer as if to say, “This is about you.”

The poems also drew in the listener with their settings, with a lighter orchestration that let the texts emerge even in Mr. Imbrailo’s unforced delivery. For long stretches, the choir had to battle the full might of Mr. Rouse’s orchestral fury, armed with a percussion section encouraged to unleash its maximum power. (The score features numerous quintuple fortes.) The singers showed extraordinary stamina, poise and commitment. At times their efforts were more visible than audible, like a nightmare’s silent scream.

There were moments of beauty, too. In “Quaerens me” a dense and shimmering choral texture grew gradually out of a few ashen notes played low in the basses. The basses also evoked a stunningly visceral sense of slackening with a series of downward glissandos in “Quod sum miser.” There were many such touches of skillful sound painting, including flatlining wind chords and a delicate wailing in the “Lacrimosa” that eerily echoed the sounds of a siren that had earlier floated in from the street.

The predominant mood of Mr. Rouse’s “Requiem” is one of uncomprehending grief and fury almost as if, bereft of faith, it were mourning the death of consolation itself. But then there are glimpses of hope. Mr. Imbrailo’s limpid and smoothly flowing rendition of Jonson’s “Farewell, thou child of my right hand” was joined by a fleeting, radiant flute solo. And when the Brooklyn Youth Chorus entered with the Marian hymn “Es ist ein Ros entsprungen,” sung with a gleaming, pure sound from a side balcony, the effect was powerfully emotional, even as it skirted the fine line between pathos and kitsch.

Spring for Music runs through Saturday at Carnegie Hall;
Spring for Music continues at Carnegie Hall through May 10.

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