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Wednesday, June 29, 2022

Review: At the Philharmonic, Contemporary Is King for a Week

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You could hear a tantalizing possible future for the New York Philharmonic on Wednesday evening at Alice Tully Hall — as well as some of the orchestra’s present difficulties. The program at Tully, one of the Philharmonic’s bases as David Geffen Hall is renovated this season, featured three contemporary works. One was by the safely canonized John Adams, the other two by names newer to Philharmonic audiences: Missy Mazzoli and Anthony Davis.

Not that either of the two is really unknown. Both have been tapped for premieres at the Metropolitan Opera in the coming years — for Davis, the belated Met debut of his “X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X,” from the 1980s, and for Mazzoli, a new adaptation of George Saunders’s novel “Lincoln in the Bardo.” But until this week, neither had been played on a Philharmonic subscription program.

Their works landed with persuasive panache on Wednesday, aided by powerful but never overly brash conducting by Dalia Stasevska, also making her Philharmonic debut. But there were some problems with the overall sound. The sonic glare of Tully, generally a home for chamber music rather than larger-scale contemporary symphonic repertory, sometimes worked against the haunted sensuality of Mazzoli’s “Sinfonia (for Orbiting Spheres),” written in 2013 and revised three years later.

Stasevska fostered warmth whenever possible, shaping the 12-minute piece’s transfers of elegantly gloomy melodic ornaments from section to section of the ensemble with care and relish. And when a small army of harmonicas gently peeked out from behind the work’s often mournful textures, they glimmered delicately. Stasevska also found moments to collaborate with the bright harshness of Tully’s acoustic, allowing herself a leap and a stomp on the podium during one transition between a string glissando and a full-orchestra blast. Call it fighting the hall to a draw.

Davis’s 25-minute, four-movement clarinet concerto “You Have the Right to Remain Silent,” written in 2006 and revised in 2011, fared more unevenly. The superbly varied work was inspired by a time that Davis, who is Black, was pulled over by the police while driving in Boston in the 1970s. Amid the dense music, he sometimes asks the players to recite portions of the Miranda warning. (On a recording by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, this is done in a deadened Sprechstimme.)

On Wednesday, the Philharmonic did well by the concerto’s debt to Charles Mingus in passages of gravelly extended technique and others of deceptively breezy swing — and, as with Mingus, at the intersection of the two.

But the initial vocalization of the Miranda text wasn’t quite crisp enough, slightly deflating the dramatic stakes. And the frenetic cello figures that followed lacked the tight ensemble necessary to suggest the first movement’s title: “Interrogation.”

Yet the soloist, the Philharmonic’s principal clarinetist Anthony McGill, excelled in the grave material for contra-alto clarinet in the second movement, “Loss,” while his sound turned more arid amid more assaultive music in the third movement, “Incarceration.” The sly final movement, “The Dance of the Other,” felt the most inspired. There’s a satirical edge to this music, but in lingering, affecting phrases McGill also evoked a fully sincere yearning to travel from the grimness of interrogation, loss and incarceration.

With its febrile mixture of influences from Minimalism, Hindemith’s pellucid peculiarity and classic cartoons, Adams’s 22-minute Chamber Symphony for 15 musicians, from 1992 — which the Philharmonic has played just once before, in 2000 — needs subtlety as well as brio. On Wednesday the middle movement, “Aria With Walking Bass,” was more plodding than witty. But an energetic “Roadrunner” finale was a saving grace. (And McGill deserves plaudits for playing the fiendish piece right after the Davis concerto, and without any intermission.)

Philharmonic audiences will get more Adams soon, and in more welcoming acoustics, when the orchestra plays his Saxophone Concerto at Carnegie Hall in January. But here’s hoping we also hear more of Davis’s music; how about his piano concerto “Wayang V,” with its composer as soloist? And more Mazzoli, too. Hopefully both will be frequent presences once the Philharmonic returns to Geffen Hall next season. Refreshed acoustics do only so much; Davis and Mazzoli can be part of a refreshed repertoire.

New York Philharmonic

This program continues through Saturday at Alice Tully Hall, Manhattan; nyphil.org.

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