Concerted Efforts

At the Philharmonic these weeks there have been concertos: the old standbys (Tchaikovsky, Mendelssohn) hacked at by wet-behind-the-ears virtuoso wannabes, but also new stuff for new combos: works for cello, solo and multiple, under the Green Umbrella, big pieces for English horn and for massed percussion in elegant conflict with Esa-Pekka Salonen’s assembled forces. Nothing sounded like anything else; creative vitality, however, ran through them all.

Sellout and turn-away crowds have become the norm at the Green Umbrella concerts, ongoing proof that there is hope for us all. Next season‘s concerts will be in Disney, four times the capacity of Zipper Hall; what’ll you bet that they sell out, too? Even so, the intimacy at Zipper adds to the impact of these events (and of the newly relocated Piano Spheres concerts as well). I got home from the last Umbrella concert exhilarated but also physically exhausted in the best sense.

Anssi Karttunen — cellist, conductor and composer — was the soloist and, alongside Esa-Pekka, the co-star: another of these fabulous Finns who have moved onto the musical map in the last 10 or so years and provided it with a transfusion of vital fluids. Karttunen played his cello — in Pierre Boulez‘s Messagesquisse, which began the program, and in Salonen’s Mania, which ended it — with an insolence that suggests that technical difficulties, for him, simply don‘t exist. Until Salonen’s work the program was entirely for cellos, with nary a trace of the soggy old Villa-Lobos manner (as in his Bachianas Brasileiras) to blur the horizons: an ensemble of six cellos, plus Karttunen‘s solo, in the Boulez; eight in Karttunen’s reworking of the Magnus Lindberg Etude that Gloria Cheng had played at Piano Spheres last fall; eight in Luciano Berio‘s buzzing, deliriously obsessed Korot, which Karttunen conducted in its first U.S. hearing.

At the end there was Salonen’s Mania, a 17-minute concerto for cello and small orchestra, completed in 2001 but previously unperformed here; hear it on the Sony disc of Salonen‘s music, played by the London Sinfonietta with, of course, Karttunen as cellist. It’s a marvelous work that demonstrates above all the results of close sharing — of outlook or, simply, of aura — among supremely gifted musicians. I can imagine it eventually in other hands, and it certainly deserves a place in the repertory, but the glow of possession that came across on this occasion would be hard to duplicate. The music fulfills its title, but in a controlled manner mitigated by an overarching sense of humor, and with occasional visits from several of Salonen‘s household gods — Ravel most notably.

Two weeks ago there was William Kraft’s English Horn Concerto, composed for the Philharmonic‘s Carolyn Hove, a work of considerable attraction along with one major flaw. Kraft’s idea, as he explained in these pages, was to surround the soloist with small orchestral groups blended into the larger ensemble; the thinking was to spare the solo instrument‘s dusky, relatively small tone the need to compete with the full orchestra. It didn’t quite work; the overall effect was of two unmatched compositions making their way on the same stage simultaneously — the soft one constantly drowned by the loud one. What was needed — and call it heresy if you must — was some kind of amplification judiciously deployed. The material itself is attractive; I think of Kraft‘s basic Americanisms more as prototype than as stereotype. There are jazz harmonies and jazz rhythms and, of course — considering his background — some dazzling use of percussion. All told, I liked his concerto; after the thick, dark soup of Schumann’s “Rhenish” Symphony, which ended the program, I liked it even more. But it needs work.

Altar de Piedra (Altar of Stone) was last week‘s new music and, like the Kraft, a Philharmonic commission. Its composer, Gabriela Ortiz, was born and lives in Mexico City, and her new work — a 20-minute concerto for four percussion soloists and orchestra — underlines that information. (Another in her “Altar” series, the 1996 Altar of the Dead, has been recorded for Nonesuch by the Kronos Quartet.) Hearing it after Aaron Copland’s El Salon Mexico, which began the program, was like walking the streets of a vital, intense and joyous community after viewing a bunch of post cards. Whatever the Finns leave undone in the process of raising the musical scene out of its doldrums, our neighbors from across the border will surely complete. The Ortiz concerto is big, serious music, miles removed from Latino pop-concert cha-cha. The solo percussion group, Kroumata by name, was from Sweden, for reasons I won‘t try to explain.

The transculturation that has turned Finland’s Salonen into an advocate for the music of Mexico‘s Silvestre Revueltas is no more easily explained, nor is there need. This program’s major event was a screening of the 60-minute film called Redes (Nets), also known as The Wave, with the Revueltas score performed live under the screen. The film dates from 1935; the cinematographer was the eloquent American Paul Strand; its co-directors were Mexico‘s Emilio Gomez Muriel and the Austrian immigrant Fred Zinnemann, who, after a few years working with short films in Hollywood, would create Redes as his first feature (and move on eventually to High Noon). The film is set in a fishing village where the fishermen rebel against exploitative capitalist bosses and march toward independence. If this sounds a little like the Soviet cinematic neo-realism of the time, the look of the film — most of all Paul Strand’s haunting capturing of faces — furthers that impression. Bear in mind that the great Sergei Eisenstein had been at work in Mexico not many years before.

Revueltas‘ score is like nothing else we know from this extraordinary Mexican artist who drank himself to death at 40 — certainly nothing of the pounding euphoria in his La Noche de los Mayas that Salonen has recorded so spectacularly. There are echoes here, probably unintentional, of the weightier surges in Debussy’s La Mer. Against my better judgment, I was even dragged from time to time into thoughts of dark moments in Sibelius: the Fourth Symphony or some of the tone poems. The available print of the film is not in good shape, but its intrinsic power, plus the extraordinary richness of Revueltas‘ music as the Philharmonic played it the other day, cries out for video release.