The New York Philharmonic presented an evening of recent American music at Alice Tully Hall, one of their two temporary venues while David Geffen Hall is being renovated. It’s a smaller space, and these were smaller works: while the forces for Missy Mazzoli’s Sinfonia (for Orbiting Spheres) filled the stage, there were fewer string players assembled for Anthony Davis’s You Have the Right to Remain Silent, and John Adams’ Chamber Symphony calls for only fifteen players.

Dalia Stasevska
© Chris Lee

In her Philharmonic debut, Dalia Stasevska led the orchestra with energy, sensitivity and precision, but somewhere between the unfamiliar hall, the unfamiliar conductor and the unfamiliar repertoire, balance problems arose that marred the evening. 

Mazzoli’s piece fared best. She has referred to the work as a “portrait of a solar system,” and it is an extremely effective example of descriptive program music. Strings swoop and curlicue, evoking orbits and epicycles; percussion startles and disappears like shooting stars. Wind players double on harmonica, while a percussionist plays melodica; the sound of sustaining reeds resembles an otherworldly organ. Quieter passages with solo winds give a sense of zooming in on detail, as in a planetarium. Weighty brass chorales bring the piece back to earth at the end, with synthesizer pads providing the sky.

You Have the Right to Remain Silent featured the Philharmonic’s excellent principal clarinetist, Anthony McGill, along with synthesizer player Earl Howard, a longtime Davis collaborator. This is also program music: it is about the experience of black Americans with law enforcement, with the clarinet serving as protagonist and a stand-in for Davis, whose own terrifying traffic stop was the impetus for the piece.

Anthony McGill, Dalia Stasevska and the New York Philharmonic
© Chris Lee

The four movements are titled Interrogation, Loss, Incarceration and Dance of the Other. This is not a clarinet concerto; for much of the suite, the clarinet leads the orchestra’s texture without opposing it. (Incarceration, which emphasizes the brittleness of many of the clarinet lines by doubling them with marimba, was the exception.) For me, Loss is the core of the piece. The soloist swaps out his B-flat clarinet for an E-flat contra-alto clarinet, playing multiphonics that sound like muted screams, echoed by raw textures from the synthesizer as they traverse a perversely gentle landscape of strings and harp. The exposed heart is a moving dual cadenza for clarinet and synthesizer; when the low strings come in as if to comfort them, and then the whole orchestra launches into a somber, Ellington-like ballad, the sense of communal grief is palpable.

Stasevska, McGill and Howard made a strong case for this piece. However, the percussion overbalanced the rest of the orchestra throughout, and many of the musicians’ spoken lines (excerpts from the Miranda warning) were practically inaudible.

The balance problems all but killed Adams’ Chamber Symphony. I suspect the blame lies with the eminently practical decision to leave the winds and percussion where they were and assemble the four string players in front, rather than array the forces in the small semicircle more typical for this size group. The genial, manic chaos of this work depends on being able to hear all the contrasting rhythmic streams, but for long stretches many of the players might as well have been miming. When the texture thinned, as in the violin cadenza accompanied by tambourine in the third movement, or the passage for woodwinds and synthesizer in the second, we got a glimpse of what might have been: these are some of the best musicians in the world, and they made their individual moments spectacular.