If Alan Gilbert’s legacy with the New York Philharmonic is to be defined by a single accomplishment, it should be his eagerness to balance canonic repertoire with new commissions and newish works by living composers. A brand spanking new cello concerto, written by composer-in-residence Esa-Pekka Salonen and performed by renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma, headlined the Philharmonic’s concert on Thursday night, sandwiched between a deranged foxtrot by John Adams and Berlioz’s notoriously expository Symphonie Fantastique.

Yo-Yo Ma © Michael O'Neill
Yo-Yo Ma
© Michael O'Neill
Adams, who celebrated his 70th birthday last month, was commissioned to write The Chairman Dances, Foxtrot for Orchestra in 1985 by the National Endowment for the Arts for the Milwaukee Symphony. Written two years before the première of his opera Nixon in China, the foxtrot depicts a bizarre moment – not an excerpt, but rather an “out-take” – when Chairman Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing, shamelessly crashes the presidential banquet and begins dancing with her husband, who descends ghost-like from his 40-foot tall portrait. Maestro Gilbert conducted a safe and exact interpretation, immediately locking the pulsing rhythms and holding tempos tight. The one thing missing from this performance was a special observation of the punchy accents, which result from the Adams’ orchestration, to emphasize the demented undertone of the story.

Without poetic title or subtitle, Salonen’s Cello Concerto, which received its world premiere under the composer’s baton just last week in Chicago, tells a story musically, just like the works by Adams and Berlioz. Before the downbeat, the composer offered the audience a narrative map, although first acknowledging in a half-joking way, “I cannot control [your] internal narrative – as much as I’d like to.” He was inspired by the Zeitgeist of late 18th-century thinkers like E.T.A. Hoffmann who pioneered German Romanticism. Essentially, the overall structure of the concerto, as he explained, abstractly, begins with a wide view and progressively zooms like a microscope.

The stylized chaos of the first movement is created with varying motivic patterns scattered throughout the strings. The solo cello emerges slowly with a simple – by Salonen standards – melody, first with the cello section and then trekking solo, and develops, in the composer’s words, like “a comet’s tail”. The isolated second movement utilizes electronic looping as the cello automates its own cloudy accompaniment. Salonen said this movement was inspired visually by Caspar David Friedrich’s painting The Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, emblematic of a universal conflict: person vs the unknown. The murky atmosphere, which sounded improvised by Ma, created a celestial abyss in which the self wanders aimlessly, and only briefly does the cello encounter a lone alto flute (brava Yoobin Son!). In an unraveling contrast, and zooming even closer – to oblige Salonen’s program – the third movement is a harsh dash to the cello’s highest possible B flat. The music breaks into a dance-like uproar, featuring, of all things, congas and bongos, before extinguishing into the ether.

Salonen could not have found a better cellist to embody his work than Ma, who performed as if the work had entered his soul at birth. Relaxed, communicative, and emotive, Ma’s presence as a soloist is unrivaled, and his devotion to Salonen’s concerto was apparent through his persistent intention, which is why it is nearly impossible to express in words Ma’s supreme artistry.

The Philharmonic ended the concert with the spirit of programmatic music itself: Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique. In 1969, the Philharmonic’s then music director, Leonard Bernstein, narrated a television broadcast entitled “Berlioz Takes a Trip”, in which he cast the doped up hero’s journey into a hip perspective. However, upon examining the symphony now, amidst America’s dire heroin epidemic, psychedelic fun is overshadowed by a much darker reality. Luckily for the listener, regardless of any analysis or anecdote, Berlioz’s music remains timelessly fascinating. Maestro Gilbert conducted a high-caliber interpretation: Grace Shyrock’s English horn solo, and duet with an offstage oboe, in the Scène aux champs was especially robust, projecting ruggedly throughout the hall’s finicky acoustic structure and with superb phrasing, while the Philharmonic’s brass blasted an invigorating Marche au supplice. The Philharmonic made their performance unique by pulling out their own set of bronze church bells, which were commissioned in the late 1980s to achieve a sound consistent with Berlioz’s vision, in the belligerent Songe d’une nuit du sabbat.