On Thursday, Jaap van Zweden commenced his post as music director of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra with a sound that no one in the world had heard before. This was the audience’s introduction to the work of the American composer Ashley Fure, with which a first encounter can feel like a miscalculation: you are presented with how the scrapes and swipes, clangs and crashes are produced, but their fragile association with anything you know boggles comprehension. 

Constellation Chor in <i>Filament</i> © Steven Pisano
Constellation Chor in Filament
© Steven Pisano

For the Philharmonic’s première of Fure’s Filament, the orchestra and van Zweden welcomed a few additions, including three members of the International Contemporary Ensemble – Rebekah Heller on bassoon, Nate Wooley on trumpet, and Brandon Lopez on bass – who were positioned on elevated platforms on stage and throughout the hall. Members of the Constellation Chor, a New York-based improvising vocal ensemble, were present as well, dressed in athletic-inspired wear by the designer Tolulope Aremu and wielding pliable black megaphones created by Matter Studios. They moved about the hall, molding the megaphones to facilitate breath-like sounds that provoked the whole body, not just the ear. In her foreword to the piece, Fure explains that one of the megaphones’ functions is to be “democratic”, tempering the concert hall’s premium on being close to the stage by surrounding the audience with sound.

Bringing listeners closer to her sounds’ source is a theme in Fure’s work, echoed in her experimental opera The Force of Things, premiered last year, in which the audience is permitted to move around the performers. At the end of Filament, the Chor came down through the aisles, megaphones aloft. Fure is interested in ritual, and the Chor, now turning to the audience, seemed to commence a summoning – a promising place for van Zweden to begin. 

Daniil Trifonov © Steven Pisano
Daniil Trifonov
© Steven Pisano

The 27-year-old Russian pianist Daniil Trifonov, who took the stage on Thursday for Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G major, plays like the keys are floating up to meet his fingers, like fish to bait. Nothing in the effulgent, jazzy score was let go. Every phrase was held close, interpreted as an opportunity for expression. Trifonov’s treatments were mostly stunning, as during a short first movement passage of trills played with such sheen they approximated overtones. Principal harpist, Nancy Allen, likewise mesmerized with her languorous solo. But Trifonov’s notions of cadenza-like timing did not always satisfy. There is majesty in how a player of such overflowing pyrotechnics is capable of virtuosic slowness. Yet the opening of the second movement, where the pianist plays alone, was delivered so slowly that the music was almost pulled out of rhythm. The third movement returned to a more coherent understanding of pace. Trifonov’s excitement lent the piece the air of a child’s military fantasy, a war waged on hobby-horses with triumphant winds as spectators. Capping his performance was a deft Reflets dans l’eau from Debussy’s Images.

Jaap van Zweden © Steven Pisano
Jaap van Zweden
© Steven Pisano

Over a century later, even after the Fure, The Rite of Spring, in the hands of van Zweden and the Philharmonic, still terrified. No riots interrupted the concert as they supposedly did at the Paris première in 1913, but had any broken out – if the smattering of post-concert grumbles were any indication – they would have been over the Fure. Depicting a series of pagan ceremonies that culminate in a young girl’s sacrifice, this Rite was inexorable, intense to the point that a part of you might have needed it to stop. Yet van Zweden, hunched atop the podium, showed that it is sensual and even cheeky, drawing sinuous lines from the winds and lush sounds from the lower strings in particular. 

Both concerned with ritual, Rite of Spring and Filament are apt bookends for the start of van Zweden’s tenure. One is a promise that the rituals of the past will always be ripe ground for invigoration; the other is forging new rituals. The confusing encore, The Ride of the Valkyries, which began to laughter, was an ingratiating conclusion to a program that had otherwise been an awakening. Our foremost musical institutions’ programming still favors a certain rogues’ gallery and its descendants, at the expense of showcasing the contributions of an increasingly diverse body of composers and musicians. When Fure’s singers faced the audience, one might have taken their gesture as a personal solicitation. For the Philharmonic to move forward, its listeners must too. 

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