Jaap van Zweden's first season as Music Director of the New York Philharmonic is concluding with three weeks placed under the banner "Music of conscience", which may sound uplifting and inspiring but lacks specificity. According to the organizers, the presentations include "unforgettable music created in response to historical events, political unrest, and societal turmoil" and are, at least in part, related to the fiftieth anniversary of the Stonewall riots.

Jaap van Zweden conducts the New York Philharmonic
© Steven Pisano for Bachtrack

Thursday night's concert was marked by a powerful rendition of John Corigliano's Symphony no. 1, a memorial to the victims of AIDS. As a preamble to the performance, the 81-year-old composer took to the stage himself and reiterated for the audience several long-known facts about the opus' genesis and its source of inspiration: the AIDS Memorial Quilt, a series of panels where friends, lovers and family commemorate the life of someone who has perished. (Some panels honoring New York musicians that died of the epidemic were displayed this week on the David Geffen Hall’s Grand Promenade.) He mentioned the friends he was thinking of while composing and commented on the structure of the symphony and the meaning of individual movement titles. There is little doubt that Corigliano's words and the program notes shed additional light on everything the music was trying to express. Nevertheless, do details really increase the score's impact? Shouldn’t listeners be free to make their own connections, to surface their own mindsets and reminiscences? When listening to Beethoven's “Eroica” or Mahler’s Sixth, are dedications that were erased or, respectively, hammer blows associations with particular events truly indispensable for appreciating these works of genius?

John Corigliano
© Steven Pisano for Bachtrack

A quarter century after its New York premiere, Corigliano’s First has maintained its emotional impact and the ability to stir up the listeners’ intellectual interest without being truly revolutionary from a stylistic point of view. Played with intense dedication by the New York Philharmonic under van Zweden’s careful eye, the score clearly proved its lasting value. Bearing the title “Apologue: of range and remembrance”, the first movement starts with a powerful, attention grabbing outcry and then alternates – in the composer’s words – “between the tension of anger and the bittersweet nostalgia of remembering”. Somewhere in the midst of this sober, rather colorless lament comes a big surprise: a whiff of the Leopold Godowsky transcription of Isaac Albéniz’s Tango played off-stage. Corigliano’s pianist friend, evoked here, loved to play it. More concise than the first part that had its little longueurs, the “Tarantella” is based on an earlier composition. The dance’s regular patterns are perturbed by skids into reverie or brass frenzy, suggesting the advance into an AIDS induced dementia. If this is the equivalent of a Scherzo, the music certainly lacks any merriment, reminding one some similar movements by Mahler or Shostakovich. The third section, “Chaconne”; Giulio’s song” featured Principal Cello Carter Brey playing with remarkable sweet determination a melody inspired by an old tape-recorded improvisation by another of the composer’s friends. Trying to enforce some structural consistency to the work, Corigliano brings back, in the Epilogue, several themes from prior movements played against waves of brass chords, conveying “an image of timelessness”.

New York Philharmonic
© Steven Pisano for Bachtrack

Before intermission, the orchestra offered a well-articulated Brahms’ Tragic Overture, though lacking contrasts, followed by a rather undistinguished rendition of Mozart’s superb Piano Concerto no. 24 in C minor. David Fray displayed his characteristic reserved elegance, but his playing lacked clarity, especially in the Allegro. One also hoped for a better resolution of the work’s paradox: the largest accompanying ensemble of any of Mozart’s concertos must play a score that, more than occasionally, evokes the delicacy and transparency of chamber music.

Irrespective of its “Tragic” label, Brahms’ score doesn’t fit particularly well under the “music of conscience” umbrella. Neither is Mozart’s piano concerto. At the same time, one couldn’t find a better match than Corigliano’s work. We should be grateful to the Philharmonic for not letting us forget it.