For his first of the two subscription weeks with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, conductor Semyon Bychkov decided to juxtapose two symphonies whose style is at least apparently in tune with the epoch they were composed, but in fact is deeply anchored in the past.

Even if there was a programmatic approach to the selection, Thomas Larcher’s Symphony no. 2, “Kenotaph, having its New York première on Wednesday night, is not program music, at least not according to the quinquagenarian Austrian composer. Prefacing the performance with a short explanation, he talked about writing the opus thinking about the thousands of refugees that drowned in the Mediterranean Sea this century, attempting to reach the European shores in overcrowded little vessels. He felt terrible and powerless confronted with “this manmade disaster”, and the music – “his helpless cry of despair” – is a monument, a cenotaph commemorating the graveless immigrants. For a first-time listener, this powerful, lugubrious score did bring forward real images: the agitated or just falsely becalmed waters of the sea, the people’s anger and the despair.

Thomas Larcher on stage with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra and Semyon Bychkov
© Chris Lee

In his printed notes accompanying the performance, the composer commented: “I want to explore the forms of our musical past under the light of the (musical and human) developments we have been part of during our lifetime. How can we can find tonality that speaks to our time? And how can the old forms speak to us?”. Originally envisioned as a concerto for orchestra, the four-movements symphony (Allegro, Adagio, Scherzo, Allegro) is as Classically shaped as Brahms’ Fourth or any innumerable predecessors. The differences are in the soundscape. Composed for a large orchestra, this captivating music, pendulating between bursts of energy and moments of stasis, is a testimony to Larcher’s remarkable talent as an orchestrator. The score employs an extended percussion section to generate atonal, otherworldly sounds. The instrumentation catalogue lists oil barrels, sandblocks, thunder sheets, steel pans, bongos and biscuit tins among other, more conventional sound producers. At the same time, there were several unexpected snippets of tonal harmonies (including woodwind interventions and several heartfelt solo contributions by concertmaster Frank Huang and principal viola Cynthia Phelps), reminding listeners that Larcher started his career as a composer writing chamber music. References to musical history were not limited to the overall structure of the opus. One could perceive echoes of Mahler (in the spacious Adagio, and in the Scherzo’s Ländler-like segment), Ives, Stravinsky, Baroque-style chorales (in the opening of the last movement), Richard Strauss, even Pärt – that a conductor with Bychkov’s great experience carefully underlined. Nevertheless, a fundamental premise of the Classical idiom, namely that music should be anchored by motivic development, is rather absent in Larcher’s opus. There are too many predictable scales going up and down. The music has sometimes an illustrative quality, as it would be a film score that sustains a certain ambience but it is not supposed to detract the public from paying attention to the plot.

The New York Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Semyon Bychkov
© Chris Lee

Bychkov, to whom the symphony is dedicated, conducted the world première with the Vienna Philharmonic in June 2016. It’s clearly music he cares about deeply and that he knows in intimate details. Many a times a first performance of a new piece is handled as something that needs to be checked off. Not on this occurrence. The ensemble sounded splendid under Bychkov’s baton.

Brahms’ formidable Symphony no. 4 seemed to be sculpted from massive blocks of marble. The orchestral sound was clean but neither flexible nor expressive enough. At least in the first three movements, the myriad transfigurations of individual motifs sounded flat. One didn’t have the perception of formal constraints not limiting but fostering innovation until the Finale. Here, each of the 30 variations based on a tune from Bach’s Cantata no. 150 had its own individual character. The brass glowed radiantly. Principal flute Robert Langevin was superb. The final descent into melancholy and darkness was very well paced and heart-wrenching. Larcher might have thought about it when composing the Kenotaph’s coda, when, similarly, music slowly dissolves into nothingness.