Dreams and anxieties, religious and otherwise, were the dominant themes at Thursday night’s New York Philharmonic performance.

Christopher Rouse © Jeffrey Herman
Christopher Rouse
© Jeffrey Herman

The concert program worked backwards in time, starting with Phantasmata by composer-in-residence Christopher Rouse (completed in 1985), followed by Ernest Bloch’s Schelomo (1916), and finishing with Brahms’ Symphony no. 1 (published in 1877). The effect was such that the newness of the first piece conferred upon the following pieces a sense of freshness; the Bloch and Brahms felt just as “now” as the Rouse.

The first movement of Phantasmata, “The Evestrum of Juan de la Cruz in the Sagrada Familia, 3 A.M.”, began with a slow crescendo, the first sounds coming from a low rumbling drum, more felt than heard. The crescendo, sounding like an accordion being expanded in slow motion, reached its climax at a minor triad from which the sound immediately fragmented, scattering until arriving at a succession of unison notes, which, along with the drum, faded away into nothingness.

The second movement, “The Infernal Machine”, brought a sudden burst of frenetic activity, as the strings frantically hacked away at their instruments, with sharp attacks from the percussion and huge surges in volume that elicited a surprised response from the audience more than once. For the final movement, “Bump”, the orchestra pulled off a dazzling array of triple-forte parodic dance moves (a “nightmare conga” in Rouse’s words). The piece ended furiously fast at full volume, and the audience went absolutely wild for it; the man sitting next to me exclaimed (in tears), “The most exciting piece of music I ever heard!”

After the audience calmed down and the orchestra was reconfigured, cellist Jan Vogler took center stage for Bloch’s Schelomo. Inspired by the book of Ecclesiastes, Bloch conceived of the cello as representing King Solomon and the orchestra as representing his royal, opulent surroundings (think jewels and concubines). Accordingly, the ensemble provided a rich backdrop of late romantic lushness and hyper-colorful orchestration, while still reflecting the dark fatalism of the King’s mood (“Vanity of vanities, all is vanity”). Vogler’s gentle, warm sound elicited pathos while the orchestra at times threatened to overpower him completely.

A large quantity of ink has been spilled over Brahms’ powerful and sometimes confusing First Symphony, so I will just mention here how superbly Alan Gilbert and his orchestra pulled it off. Published in 1877, the result of fourteen years’ anxious work (Beethoven was a tough act to follow), this symphony contains a multitude of moods that were treated with equal care and artistry at Thursday’s concert. Riding the tension like a taut rubber band through the dramatic phrases and playing with glass-like clarity in the tenderer moments, the orchestra moved with the emotional and intellectual coherence of a single performer. One moment in the last movement in particular stands out in my mind, in which the strings played super soft and pizzicato in a perfect rhythmic unison that was maintained even as the tempo abruptly accelerated.

Spanning just over 100 years, a short amount of time in the grand scheme of things, the evening nonetheless displayed a wide variety of compositional approaches, or, more specifically, types of musical representation. With Rouse, texture sprang to the fore as he explored the surreality of astral projection and hallucination. Bloch, on the other hand, employed lush and exotic harmonies to portray the opulence of King Solomon’s reign. Finally, with Brahms we received pure confession: the multiplicity of themes dark and light reflecting an artist in the throes of battle with his own anxieties about the “giant” that had come before him.

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