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In The Beginning Was The F

New York
Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center
04/08/2014 -  
Matthias Pintscher: Bereshit (New York premiere)
Michael Jarrell: Un long fracas somptueux de rapide céleste... (American premiere)
Béla Bartók: Concerto for Orchestra, sz. 116

June Hahn (Percussion)
Juilliard Orchestra, Matthias Pintscher (Conductor)

A conventional thought is that it must be a distinct honor for a student orchestra to give the New York premiere of a major work by a major composer. Not as a corollary, but as a major other thought is that it must be a gift for any student orchestra to be conducted by one of the most striking conductors of our day.

Matthias Pintscher has conducted several times before in New York, but this is the first time I’ve heard him with a full orchestra in one of the mainstream works of the 20th Century, Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra. Like his mentor, Pierre Boulez, also esteemed as composer and conductor, Mr. Pintscher has such an innate sense of orchestral possibilities that the work was a triumph of transparency, a cynosure of clarity.

This was one time when, at the conclusion of the whirling conclusion, one wasn’t thinking “What a terrific orchestra, what marvelous conducting” as “What thrilling music!.” Which of course is what conductor Pintscher had in mind.

Truth be told, the strings of the Juilliard Orchestra, while technically in good shape, didn’t have the resonance or aura of a New York Phil or Chicago Symphony. That kind of ensemble playing can only come in time. What Mr. Pintscher did bring were the contrasts–consort against consort, soloist against soloist, timbre against timbre, rhythm against rhythm.

For his own music, Mr. Pintscher didn’t use a baton. Here he used a stick to cue in everybody. In the second movement, the “games of couples” was taken at faster pace than usual, so those colors bounced off each other. But Mr. Pintscher made the bouncing as jolly as the last movement was ebullient. It was as perfect an effect as the conductor could possibly get with the Juilliard group, and it left one with–oh, an irrelevant word, but what the hell–an optimism, that musically, all was right with the world.

Juilliard is obviously thrilled that Mr. Pintscher is joining its faculty this year, for his own compositions, while obviously individual, have the open-ended flexibility that shows he will be no orthodox pedant. His work last night was modestly about the creation of the world.

Not exactly that, but Bereshit is the Hebrew work which opens Genesis. “In the beginning.” Or, in the composer’s words, “In a beginning.” His Biblical metaphor is the act of creation. But his simile is that of waking in “the pitch darkness of night in a strange room...attempting to make out the shapes of the space (where) gradually particles free themselves, then condense and fit together as shapes.”

That image certainly helped, and the sounds, with three batteries of percussion on different sides of the stage, did coalesce, then draw apart, and send us on a trip from darkness to light and back again. There was indeed a unity, which started with a held F-note by the trumpet, the same F which continued in fits and starts through the entire work.

Thirty minutes sounds like a long time, but Mr. Pintscher is no John Cage or even Pierre Boulez. His gestures, his orchestral colors, his sometimes erratic sometimes rational sections formed a whole. One wasn’t thinking serialism, or Tao te Ching aleatory chances. Instead, the color was close to a Bartók night-scene. No literal chirping, of course, but evocative sounds from a bass clarinet at its lowest, from high violins, from the antiphonal notes of the percussion, going from left to center to right of the stage.

One didn’t have to follow either Mr Pintscher’s description or even the sectional elements. Like an abstract painting, the textures and colors were enough for temporal fascination, a thoroughly involving experience.

The second premiere was by the Swiss composer Michael Jarrell, with the tongue-twisting title Un long fracas somptueux de rapide céleste... (which I suppose can be translated as “a long sumptuous crash with celestial rapidity”?)

The better title would be Concerto for Percussion and Orchestra. Soloist June Hahn had assembled an army on the front of the stage of cymbals, coils, gongs, triangles, skin drums, bongos, congas, xylophone, marimba, blocks and tiny thing which make tiny sounds.

Added to the controlled percussions were two percussionists in the back of the orchestra, augmenting the highly punctuated sounds for a man who Mr. Pintscher calls “a sound artist.”

Happily ensconced in the first row of the balcony (where I hope to be seated from now on in Alice Tully Hall), I had an eagle-eye view of Ms. Hahn’s legerdemain as she moved amongst her tools to create a massive series of hues and cries, and was transformed by them all.

But the final measures said it all. Ms. Hahn allowed herself to play softer and softer...and even softer until she reached the point of aural invisibility.

For the record, June Hahn is no relation to Hilary Hahn, though how splendid it would be if composers were commissioned to write works for violin and percussion in Terry Riley’s famed key. The disc would of course be entitled (gulp) Hahns Across The C.

Harry Rolnick



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