New York City was enshrouded in fog as I approached David Geffen Hall for an unusual program of Igor Stravinsky, Richard Strauss and a new horn concerto by Tansy Davies. Although Stravinsky's and Davies' works were composed 108 years apart, they were both heard here in their New York premières. Both works were eerily evocative of the misty weather outside as they moved through ethereal, breathy soundscapes that enveloped audience members in an atmospheric haze of foreboding. Although these two pieces were expertly performed, the musicians of the New York Philharmonic seemed less than enthused by the repertoire judging by their body language and lackluster energy levels. Conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen seemed to exert every ounce of energy at his disposal as he hauled the musicians through the first half of the program. During the second half, which consisted of Strauss' tone poem Also Sprach Zarathustra, the musicians were livelier yet less precise, struggling with wrong notes and bad intonation. It would have been ideal if the orchestra had been able to bring both liveliness and accuracy to this fascinating program.

Esa-Pekka Salonen
© Benjamin Suomela

The concert began with Stravinsky's Funeral Song in its New York première. One of Stravinsky's earliest compositions, the work was lost for over a century until its recovery in 2015 by Natalia Braginskaya, the dean of the musicology department at St Petersburg's Rimsky-Korsakov State Conservatory. Stravinsky composed the work in 1908 for the occasion of Rimsky-Korsakov's funeral, and in 1960 stated that he considered it to be "the best of my works before The Firebird, and the most advanced in chromatic harmony." With such a high endorsement from the work's own author, especially after the century-long delay between its first and second performances, Funeral Song could never have lived up to the hype. The twelve minutes of music passed in a gentle yet bland cinematic shimmering. The musical shapes were as vague and misty as the barely discernible cityscape outside. Although beautiful, the work could not compare with Stravinsky's more mature compositional output. The Philharmonic's performance, though pristine, was not as engaging as one would expect considering the intriguing history of the work.

The performance of Tansy Davies' Forest: a concerto for four horns was similarly lackluster, although the piece itself is anything but. With Schumann's four horn Konzertstück as possibly its only predecessor, the sound world of Forest was dense and unique. Prior to the performance, Ms Davies stated that she intended to evoke a Romantic sensation of mystery and nature, to make us consider what humans might have lost in our mechanized world. The solo part, here performed by four hornists from London's Philharmonia Orchestra (who gave the world première in February), sounds out musical lines that are "macho and rad" while the orchestra "twirls and dances" behind them. These two entities, speaking in two distinct languages, attempt to communicate and find common ground. The 25-minute piece was engaging from start to finish, particularly the eerily oscillating strings, echo-y percussion, and skillfully executed contrast on the four horns. Blurry harmonies, constantly approaching dissonance yet never definitively reaching it, effectively created a woodsy, enigmatic atmosphere. However, the body language saw the musicians leaning away from, rather than into, the music, and one violinist even plugged her ears against the wailing of the horns. 

The Philharmonic's rendition of Also Sprach Zarathustra was more impassioned. Mr Salonen took a brisk yet clean tempo from the start, lifting the fog that had pervaded the first half of the concert. The musicians seemed to be enjoying themselves as they marched their way from the familiar opening fanfare through more lyrical and waltzy passages; these different sections comprise Strauss' musicalization of Nietzsche's text of the same name. A few wrong notes (most notably from the woodwind section) distracted from the renewed vigor of the Philharmonic. This is not the first time this season that their playing has left much to be desired; hopefully the upcoming changes in leadership responsibilities at the Philharmonic will help ameliorate these issues. A program such as this one deserves to sound as fantastic as it looks on the page.