The origins of chamber music lie in a wish for music that could fit within a small room. On display at the New York Philharmonic last Friday were recent contributions by Anna Thorvaldsdóttir and Esa-Pekka Salonen, as well as a performance of the Brahms Violin Concerto by Leonidas Kavakos, that wished for the opposite: music that made the walls of David Geffen Hall permeable, letting an invigorating wind tear in.

Anna Thorvaldsdóttir © Saga Sigurdardóttir
Anna Thorvaldsdóttir
© Saga Sigurdardóttir

Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdóttir’s Aeriality – a pun on “reality,” the tangible, and “aerial,” the immaterial – received its New York première this evening, with Thorvaldsdóttir present on stage alongside Gilbert for a brief talk before the piece was performed. Thorvaldsdóttir, currently the Philharmonic’s Kravis Emerging Composer, has gained rapid renown for crafting panoramas of cold sonic clusters evocative of her homeland’s environmental extremes.

In Aeriality, sounds bend and warp without rest over the 13-minute composition; the work brings to mind the dynamic light landscapes of the artist Thomas Wilfred, (currently on exhibition at the Yale University Art Gallery), whose installations of indefinite length delineate narrative through organic shifts in color and tone. The piece asks that the orchestra ride through moments of sweetness and austerity in a spectrum of timbres occasionally reminiscent of a whale’s muted croaks and the growling earth.

Esa-Pekka Salonen, the Philharmonic’s Marie-Josée Kravis Composer-in-Residence, last introduced his music to New York audiences in March with his Cello Concerto, premiered by Yo-Yo Ma. Dedicated to Frank Gehry, Wing on Wing, which also received its New York première this evening following the Thorvaldsdóttir, premiered at the opening of Walt Disney Concert Hall in 2004 and was written to make use of that cavernous space. Two coloraturas, Piia and Anu Komsi, migrated from the stage to the first balcony and back, enfolding the audience in sighing, wordless lines of vertiginous pitch. For Wing on Wing, which takes its name from a phrase describing the unfolding of a sailboat’s sails, Salonen plumbed for sounds located as far off as in the Plainfin Midshipman, a fish found off the Pacific coastline that emits a high, buzzing E natural when mating. Yet in a piece already so crowded with colorful effects, the novelty of the ichthyic drone, coupled with the scrubby, blended recordings of Gehry’s voice that erupted at times from around the stage, began to feel heavy-handed. As the piece began a gusty cavort towards its conclusion, however, Salonen’s deft rhythms, not his electronic accoutrements, won our focus.

Opening the program was Brahms’ Violin Concerto in D major, famously scorned by the virtuoso violinist Pablo de Sarasate, who was amazed that the composer had the gall to pen a piece for violin where the orchestra’s airtime often rivals that of the soloist. The piece survived Sarasate’s hubris, and ought to have fared well this evening in the hands of the Philharmonic’s artist-in-residence, the violinist Leonidas Kavakos, a remarkably sturdy player who strikes his instrument as though it were an anvil, the sound bright and immediate as the resulting sparks.

But the first movement of the Brahms was uncharacteristically out of tune, and what introspection and intimacy the score invites the violinist to soak in were missing from Kavakos’ bland, at times tentative performance. The orchestra – in particular principal oboist Liang Wang, whose solo sanctified the opening of the second movement – supplied much of the missing lushness. In the third movement, however, Kavakos seemed to hit his stride, his burly stroke hefting to the fore Brahms’ Hungarian roots.

***11