Returning to lead the New York Philharmonic for the first time since 2000, Franz Welser-Möst selected two works that, despite addressing the quite opposed worlds of the mythical and the domestic, have more in common than meets the ear.

Franz Welser-Möst conducts the New York Philharmonic © Steven Pisano for Bachtrack
Franz Welser-Möst conducts the New York Philharmonic
© Steven Pisano for Bachtrack

He started with the US première of Jörg Widmann’s Babylon Suite, a partial rehashing of the music of his most famous opera, with a complex and convoluted libretto alluding to prior masterpieces from Orfeo and Magic Flute to Aida and The Rite of Spring. Flattening the voices into the orchestral tapestry, he has conceived an opus typical for his protean approach to composing. Widmann can be a real chameleon, changing his musical patterns almost on a whim. Here, an intended illustration of the Biblical Tower of Babel myth about the confusion of languages and cultures has become a real jumble of new ideas, influences or direct quotes that doesn’t have a clear direction or purpose. In Babylon, the German composer, a deep connoisseur of European musical history, imbued the frantically eclectic score with references to Baroque counterpoint and jazz, the atonal asceticism of the Second Viennese School and Hollywood kitsch, bel canto and Mahlerian Ländler, waltzes and Straussian woodwind-and-string dialogues, all overlapping and melting one into another. A large orchestra is augmented with all sorts of exotic percussion instruments, from Chinese cymbals to riqs to water gongs, that probably disappear from the musical landscape before the audience has the chance to identify them. The listener seems to be a passenger in a rather fast-moving train exposed to randomly recurrent images, from graffiti-scribbled walls and neon-reflecting glass façades to circus performances and religious processions. Welser-Möst reigned imperturbably over the flamboyantly orchestrated chaos, clearly indicating every entry, calibrating sounds, nudging forward the plethora of different individual contributions. It doesn’t mean that the listeners were less confused at the end.

Franz Welser-Möst conducts the New York Philharmonic © Steven Pisano for Bachtrack
Franz Welser-Möst conducts the New York Philharmonic
© Steven Pisano for Bachtrack

The Symphonia domestica is among the lesser played of Richard Strauss’ orchestral works. It’s a score that Franz Welser-Möst – very much a Strauss specialist – has conducted in New York several years ago, heading his own Cleveland Orchestra. It proved to be an excellent vehicle for displaying his outstanding technique, his ability to coerce a variety of musical streams into a totum and to guide individual motifs through a multitude of transformations.

There is an intrinsic “conflict” associated with Strauss' Sinfonia domestica: namely, the score is employing a gargantuan orchestral apparatus for portraying inconsequential household events, probably better suited for a more intimate setting. If the right thing to do when interpreting this music is to alternatively ignore the narrative, just focusing on the gloriously imaginative soundscape exemplified by the quasi-impressionistic pages in Dreams and worries and relate to it, say, in the fugal setting of a domestic dispute with the theme flowing from bassoons to clarinets to oboes to trumpets and so on, Welser-Möst was only partially successful in his endeavor. He avoided the trap of drifting into pomposity. He did let individual instrumentalists (concertmaster Frank Huang, oboist Sherry Sylar) stand out in the many solo segments of the score. Nevertheless, heading an ensemble which is not the most flexible, he didn’t fully succeed in seizing the quirky spirit of the piece or bringing forward any new insights into this underrated Strauss tone poem that had its world première in New York City and is, alas, too rarely performed here.

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