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Elim Chan’s Volcanic Baton

New York
David Geffen Hall, Lincoln Center
03/07/2024 -  & March 8, 9, 2024
Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate: Pisachi (world premiere)
Bohuslav Martinů: Cello Concerto No. 1, H. 196
Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov: Scheherazade

Sol Gabetta (Cellist), Frank Huang (Violinist)
New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Elim Chan (Conductor)

E. Chan (© Simon Pauly)

Orchestration is part of the very soul of my work. A work is thought out in terms of the orchestra, certain tone‑colors being inseparable from it in the mind of its creator and native to it from the hour of its birth.
Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov

What incandescent paintings and artists both from the vast margins of the world, were presented by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra last night.

From the once fertile and now desolate plains of Southwestern America by a composer of the Chickasaw nation; the chiaroscuro blazes of a refugee Czech; the fabled tales of an Arabia that never was, by a peripatetic Russian. All of this with an Argentine cellist, a Beijing‑born violinist and a Hong Kong‑born conductor, leading the semi‑global New York Philharmonic.

And while a conductor should only be the tool for the music, the hands and baton of Elim Chan were mesmeric. Without the stick, Ms. Chan led the strings in an eloquent reading of a world premiere of Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate’s Pisachi, a word in Chickasaw which means “reveal” or perhaps “revelation”. With her baton, she had no need to edge on the volcanic cello of Sol Gabetta in Bohuslav Martinů’s First Cello Concerto.

For the final Rimsky-Korsakov Scheherezade, Ms. Chan’s baton did all the tricks in the book to give a dazzling Arabian Nights radiance. She flipped the stick at all the orchestra members, she made it flutter and vibrate (was this an electric baton?).

As for Ms. Chan’s own movements, she quickly transcended her mournful black suit, and danced like a Peri from the original Arabian Nights.

But I break the rules by talking about a conductor instead of the music.

J. Impichchaachaaha’ Tate/S. Gabetta (© Shevaun Williams/Julia Wesely)

Mr. Tate’s piece was a New York Philharmonic commission, an arrangement of his original string quartet. That in turn was taken from a series of photos by the United States Environmental Protection Agency, as well as encouragement from the Native American Composer Apprentice Project at Grand Canyon School.

“Apprentice” is obviously a mistake. Mr. Tate is well known as conductor, pianist and educator. And Pisachi is a work of several dimensions. The composer describes it as, first, a picture of the Native American aird prairies (to which the Great American White Chiefs herded them from more fertile pastures). Plus the degradation of the land throughout recent history. It was a celebration–an underlying celebration with no particular “Native American music–of his own Chickasaw Nation and other groups.

To this listener, we had a fascinating twelve-minute continuous suite of the most varied inspiration. From a ghostly opening high amorphous melody to rich rushing movements to a fierce crescendo and series of chords, back to an almost silent finale.

No ethnic “meaning” was present (though did I hear the cellos in a percussive drum beat), but the whole 12 minutes were tense, tensile and often fascinating.

No extraneous description was necessary for Bohuslav Martinů’s Cello Concerto. Like most of this most fecund composer’s work, it was seemingly extrovert, jolly, forward, extravagant. It also had the typical–or more than typical for this composer without a home–Czech sadness, nostalgia, Baroque counterpoint and singular rhythms.

As for cellist Sol Gabetta, nothing–nothing!–prevented the firework performance. This was no Dvorák or Elgar cello concerto. The first measures were a brassy introduction, and then Ms. Gabetta took over, never stopping in that first movement, and giving only slight rests in the Andante Moderato.

Yet the pinnacle for artist and composer came in the last movement, beginning quickly and then descending emotionally into the most tragic central part. Elgar did the same in his Concerto, but Martinů’s sadness was as much heart as musical trick.

Finally we had Rimsky-Korsakov’s 46‑minute Arabian Nights stories. (Why does nobody play his equally inspired Antar Symphony?). Not “picture” or “homage” but a reality. The reality of an age which was never real except ii the words of Medieval fabulists.

As mentioned above, this was a sizzling performance! Nor am I capable of judging it since (sorry for the personal story), I heard it first when I was eight years old, and my whole traveling life was in search of this extraordinary chimerical wonderland.

Was it close to the original stories from A Thousand and One Nights? No, it was more real, like Cézanne’s oranges were more real than the fruits themselves.

All I can say is that when Ms. Chen finally put down her magic baton, I whispered to a friend, I’d rather hear this than all the symphonies of Brahms, Schubert and Schumann.

Was this vulgar, plebeian uncouth? Guess so. But let it stand, at least for one enchanted evening.

Harry Rolnick



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