Ellen Reid’s When the World As You’ve Know It Doesn’t Exist is the third orchestral piece to be premiered as part of the New York Philharmonic’s “Project 19” series of commissions by female composers in honor of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution. She described it in pre-performance remarks as a reaction to our unsettled times, starting with disembodiment, dizziness and anger, but moving toward resonance and meaning. It was an entirely successful depiction, to my ears; in fact, it was one of the most evocative renditions of an emotional inner monologue I have heard from an orchestra in music from any century. The ten-minute piece is a succession of shifting and contrasting vignettes, each with the emotional clarity of good film music. Fragments of melody emerge from and retreat into nightmarish, lonely landscapes. Wordless sopranos soar over distorted ragtime rhythms. (Eliza Bagg, Martha Cluver and Estelí Gomez joined the Philharmonic.) A huge orchestral descent shatters into shards that accumulate into an ostinato. A sweeping, emotional melody comes to dominate the final minutes. Notably, Reid is not afraid to thin her orchestra out: a passage for piccolo, accompanied only by tremolo cellos and suspended cymbal, is among my most vivid impressions of the piece.

Renée Fleming © Andrew Eccles
Renée Fleming
© Andrew Eccles

Renée Fleming sang four selections from her “Distant Light” album: two songs from Anders Hillborg’s The Strand Settings (Dark Harbor XXXV and Dark Harbor XI) and two songs by Björk (Virus and All is Full of Love) in orchestrations by Hans Ek. The Hillborg pieces struck me as paintings in sound, the first swirling and spiky, the second glistening and moody (albeit with an unfortunate surfeit of wind chimes). Fleming did them more than ample justice, with immaculate phrasing and impeccable choices throughout. Her ferocious attack on Dark Harbor XXXV was especially mesmerizing, and she provided astonishing proof that clear enunciation of English words is possible even for a lush voice singing a legato line. 

Fleming sang the Björk songs with a microphone (after first using it to apologize for the inopportune timing of a song called Virus in the midst of a burgeoning pandemic, noting that symphonic concerts are programmed years in advance and wishing “our friends in China” well). While this must have been to allow her to use shadings of vocal technique that would not project over an orchestra, as pop singers do, in actuality her production veered not far at all off of her gorgeous classical baseline – she didn’t come near Björk’s whispery or edged colors. Ek’s orchestral arrangement of Virus, like many pops arrangements, does not quite manage to replace the impact of the original with orchestral forces; the cacophony of bells on the original recording was faithfully reproduced, but back in the percussion section it had not nearly the same surrounding presence. All is Full of Love, with its dissonant pads, here rendered by strings, fared somewhat better in its adaptation.

Van Zweden’s approach to Bruckner’s mammoth Symphony No. 4 in E flat major was very straightforward: set a moderate tempo, inflecting it only occasionally at major points, and let the music speak for itself. Unfortunately, led to a boring account. Among other things, the banality of much of Bruckner’s transitional material, plodding chromatic scales and the like, was unadorned by any dramatic impulse. The orchestra played each passage marvelously, mind you: the section brass was appropriately crunchy and raucous; the many horn solos (by Richard Deane) were rock-solid; the woodwinds were expressive; the strings gleamed, cried and whispered in turn. (I was quite taken with the extended viola section soli in the second movement, accompanied by the rest of the strings pizzicato.) But none of this seemed connected to what had come before by any logic, any musical or dramatic impulse. I question whether van Zweden had any point of view on the work. Bruckner symphonies are long, but they don’t always seem endless.

***11