Sounds of nature rustling magically to life are evoked in the opening pages of Mahler’s First Symphony, with its dawn chorus of bird calls. Ornithologists in Avery Fisher Hall last night for the opening of the New York Philharmonic’s subscription season may also have been twitching in the concert’s first half, featuring the US première of Unsuk Chin’s Clarinet Concerto. Soloist Kari Kriikku, perched on a stool for much of the second movement, tackled a role full of trills and fluttering multiphonics. Swooping, darting movements, like a secretary bird spearing a serpent, accompanied much of his playing.

Kari Kriikku © Marco Borggreve
Kari Kriikku
© Marco Borggreve

“I am a bit of a sadist,” confesses Chin in the programme note. The South Korean, based in Germany since her studies with György Ligeti in the 1980s, certainly puts Kriikku through his paces in a work often full of fiendish virtuosity. He gave also gave the work’s world première in Gothenburg in the spring, but then it was a two-movement work; since then, a lengthy opening movement has been added. A sense of agitation builds up, releasing itself in a huge orchestral climax.

Chin loves percussion, employing a staggering 32 different instruments (played by four percussionists). To report that she throws everything but the kitchen sink at the new work would be an understatement: two of the ‘instruments’ required are a washboard and a wine glass tuned to B flat! For much of the time, Chin treats the percussion with great subtlety, keyed percussion bowed in the second movement being a good example. For all that much of the writing is moodily effective in creating these soundscapes, there’s little beyond it. Alan Gilbert, the NY Philharmonic’s Music Director, spent several minutes before the concert introducing Chin’s soundworld, with useful contributions from Kriikku on techniques required. The virtuosity behind Kriikku’s playing dazzles, but the work is enigmatic, certainly on first hearing. The most memorable writing comes in the final movement, where the orchestra motors and whirrs away before the concerto abruptly halts, seemingly mid-phrase.

After the interval, Gilbert led a boisterous account of Mahler’s Symphony no. 1 in D major. This demonstrated not just the vibrant playing of the New York Philharmonic, but also the fine acoustic of the Avery Fisher Hall, allowing the strings to bloom despite favouring a bold brass sound. In the symphony’s final pages, there was no need for the horns to stand, bells raised, during the final pages – they easily dominated from a seated position.

Gilbert’s tempo choices didn’t always make sense. The first movement was fitful, almost schizophrenically fast at times, while the stamping cello and bass figure that opens the second movement was repeated at what felt like a slower, more deliberate pace. Gilbert slammed on the brakes when the Trio arrived, before the Ländler burst back in rumbustiously. On the positive side, the Bruder Martin funeral march of the third movement set off at a purposeful tread, with the manic klezmer band interruptions wonderfully raucous. There was more vulgarity in the long finale, energetically dispatched but all “sound and fury, signifying nothing”. This was Mahler as orchestral showcase – and a very effective one – but a bruising encounter nonetheless.

***11