One can be forgiven for expecting that a Sunday afternoon concert should consist of light classics to which one doesn’t need to apply too much mental exertion. The works in yesterday afternoon’s performance by the MET Orchestra under music director Fabio Luisi were anything but light. In fact, I suspect that the electrifying energy of the concert would be enough to keep me going for a long time.

Fabio Luisi © Barbara Luisi, BALU Photography
Fabio Luisi
© Barbara Luisi, BALU Photography

Contemporary Russian composer of Tatar extraction Sofia Gubaidulina has had some influential allies promoting her music to audiences worldwide. After Gidon Kremer brought her first violin concerto Offertorium to international attention in the 1980s, Anne-Sophie Mutter premièred her long-awaited second violin concerto In Tempus Praesens at the Lucerne Festival in 2007. German director Jan Schmit-Garre also captured its creation in the film Sophia: Biography of a Violin Concerto.

True to her uncompromising attitude towards artistic creation – she is quoted as saying that “just working intuitively is not good for the arts” – In Tempus Praesens is a riveting work that surveys carefully thought-out religious and philosophical themes. Anne-Sophie Mutter points out that her name and that of the composer are both derived from “Sophia”, the goddess of wisdom. Unlike some other works in the genre, where soloist and orchestra work together, the solo violin in In Tempus Praesens is pitted against the orchestra. The contest is made all the more poignant by the absence of violins in the orchestra itself.

Rumbling percussion dominated by the timpani provides a direct response to a sharp opening line on solo violin. For the next half-hour, it’s a rollercoaster tussle between light and darkness, good and evil, and individual and society. As the violin soars into the high register and tries to break free, the orchestra, with the help of low brass and woodwinds, drags it down by plunging the depths of despair and collective inertia. I take my hat off to soloist David Chan, concertmaster of the MET Orchestra, for living up to the high standards set by Anne-Sophie Mutter. His interpretation was edgy, bold and expressive. Although his tone was ascetic at times, he painstakingly laid out the intellectual themes intended by the composer. My takeaway thought: the goddess of wisdom sides with the soloist.

Yefim Bronfman joined the full orchestra returning to the stage after the intermission in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no. 5, “Emperor”, the first movement of which is said to be one long journey in search of the home key. The opening orchestral chords and intervening flourishes on the piano never cease to intrigue me, but what struck me most on Sunday was the lush, warm and radiant tone of the orchestra, matched in equal measure by the delicate dynamic contrast of the soloist.

In response to the delicate orchestral opening in the Adagio second movement, Mr Bronfman was dreamy enough in the first few phrases, but soon started drifting into a matter-of-fact earthiness that bewildered me. Fortunately, he quickly regained his poise and returned to fine form, joining the orchestra in an eloquent presentation of the Rondo. I thought I detected an occasional surfeit of sweetness, but that’s probably nitpicking on my part.

Luck is often an important contributor to success, and it certainly had a strong hand in how Igor Stravinsky gained public attention at the age of 28. If two other composers had not failed to respond properly to Diaghilev’s commission for new ballet music, Stravinsky’s Firebird suite might not have seen the light of day so early in his career. It may still bear traces of his mentor Rimsky-Korsakov’s brilliance in orchestration, and perhaps Tchaikovsky’s lyricism, but it contains enough gems of novelty to define his own style.

A kaleidoscope of orchestral colours, the Firebird suite is the closest I can think of to visual music. How can one not be dazzled by the jumpiness of the Firebird, the leisurely saunter of the Princesses, and the raw propulsive energy of Katschei’s “Infernal Dance”? Fabio Luisi extracted from the MET Orchestra layer upon layer of orchestral contrast, letting individual instruments shine without losing the integrity of the whole. The horn, the bassoon, the oboe and the clarinet each had their day, but all came together in the “Final Hymn” to celebrate liberation with Prince Ivan destroying the egg encasing Katschei’s soul.

I went to Carnegie Hall fully expecting an afternoon of enervated distraction, but came away thrilled and energised by the sheer quality and diversity of the MET Orchestra’s music-making skills. It stands among the world’s best orchestras, not just for opera, but for all types of music in general.