Lera Auerbach's latest world première, the violin concerto NYx: Fractured Dreams, exists as a breathless stream of thirteen fragmented musical thoughts strung together one after the other. It's the perfect pairing on a program with Mahler's Fourth Symphony, described by Theodor Adorno as "shuffling nonexistent children's songs together" in "a solitary attempt at musical communication with the déjà vu." The New York Philharmonic Orchestra brought both works to the stage at David Geffen Hall last week; their extremely polished rendition of the violin concerto contrasted starkly with their under-rehearsed Mahler interpretation. Ms Auerbach's piece breezed by in an enjoyable 25 minutes, while the Mahler symphony stretched on into an hour of poor intonation and sloppy rhythm. Alan Gilbert, conducting one of his last performances as music director of the Philharmonic, kept the orchestra together for the first two thirds of the concert, but seemed to lose energy and focus at some point during the third movement of the symphony. If momentum had been maintained (and perhaps it will be in future iterations of this program), this would have been a concert not to be missed.

Leonidas Kavakos © Marco Borggreve
Leonidas Kavakos
© Marco Borggreve

In Ms Auerbach's new work, the warbly timbres of a musical saw cut across tumultuous percussion and strings, with soloist Leonidas Kavakos' elusive violin lines weaving their way through this ethereal patchwork. Before the performance, Ms Auerbach described her compositional process, citing T.S. Eliot as inspiration: "Only through time time is conquered." Ms Auerbach explained that she was fascinated by our perception of time while we sleep. In dreams, time transforms into timelessness; by the same token, form and structure can be built through fragmentation. The concerto perfectly personified Ms Auerbach's conception of fractured time, with recurring strands fading into the ether before getting taken up again, creating a pervasive sensation of simultaneous novelty and déjà vu. The Russian-born composer had explained that New York, the site of the work's composition and première, was the "ultimate city for dreamers"; in its blend of turmoil and whimsy surely any New Yorker could find a strand with which to identify.

During Mahler's Fourth Symphony a distinct soundscape of "dream ocarinas" and sleigh bells materializes; as during Ms Auerbach's violin concerto, a sense of déjà vu can be experienced as Mahler evokes lost dreams and a nostalgia for childhood. The expansive first movement unfolds in sonata form, while the second movement scherzo is meant to evoke a frenzied danse macabre. The serene third movement is followed by a finale in which a soprano gives voice to "Das himmlische Leben" ("The Heavenly Life"), a song Mahler had set independently before using it as the basis for the Fourth. In this song, an angel-child describes the joyful (yet vaguely sinister) experience of residing and frolicking through Heaven, where "no worldly tumult can be heard". Despite the seeming tongue-in-cheek quality of certain lines in the text, Mahler requested that the words be sung "entirely without parody!"

The New York Philharmonic offered up a triumphant first half, but lost its momentum during the third movement. The tempo wavered; Mr Gilbert seemed unsure what sort of mood he was striving to create. Intonation in the high strings was poor, and the flutes were off-key as well. Soprano Christina Landshamer, joining the orchestra for the final movement, did not exude a strong presence, and her interpretation of "Das himmlische Leben" was uncertain and expressionless. Even the lines "There is no music on earth / That can compare to ours" were sung in an unmusical manner. Mahler served as music director of the New York Philharmonic during the last two years of his life; unfortunately his spirit did not seem to be present during this performance.