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Northern Lights to Be Heard, Not Seen

11.12.10
Inon Barnatan & Alisa Weilerstein, Inon Barnatan, Alisa Weilerstein
The New York Times

By Steve Smith

Into each concertgoer’s life a little uncertainty must fall. For a presenter the key challenge is not simply to offer the unfamiliar, but also to provide a context in which an audience can approach and appreciate it. The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center demonstrated the right way to do it on Tuesday night at Alice Tully Hall.

At hand was the New York premiere of “Northern Lights,” a recent work by Bright Sheng, the Chinese-American composer known for incorporating traditional Chinese elements into his works. In this piece, commissioned by the society with the Bergen Festival in Norway and the La Jolla Music Society in California, he instead drew upon Scandinavian folk styles.

Mr. Sheng, one of the society’s season composers in 2007, presumably was known to some audience members. The artists involved in the premiere, the cellist Alisa Weilerstein and the pianist Inon Barnatan, were familiar faces: former Chamber Music Society Two members who have gone on to prominent careers, both individually and together. And the society provided further guidance by framing “Northern Lights” with other culturally diverse works.

In André Jolivet’s “Chant de Linos,” the flutist Ransom Wilson soared and shimmered over contributions from Ms. Weilerstein, the violinist Bella Hristova , the violist Ida Kavafian and the harpist Bridget Kibbey. Ms. Hristova and Ms. Kavafian brought a spectacular coordination to Martinu’s elegant neo-Baroque Duo No. 1 (“Three Madrigals”). Both works were well chosen. Jolivet’s vibrant colors and surging rhythms and Martinu’s intricate interplay would resound in Mr. Sheng’s piece.

Indeed, striking timbres and rhythmic vitality were the chief assets of “Northern Lights,” a 25-minute work in four movements. The cello’s double-stopped lines, drones and eerie keening evoked Norway’s hardanger fiddle. The piano part, though seemingly cool and reticent, included treacherous metrical juxtapositions; in one eye-popping measure near the end of the third movement, five-beat patterns in the right hand scuttled over groupings of three and four notes in the left.

Despite those appealing elements, “Northern Lights” felt overlong and meandering; at half its length, it might have been twice as effective. But Ms. Weilerstein and Mr. Barnatan were stylish, committed advocates, and the audience responded warmly.

After the intermission came Ravel’s Sonatine, in Carlos Salzedo’s delectable arrangement for flute, cello and harp. The big-boned Russian Romanticism of Arensky’s Piano Trio No. 1 might have made for a stodgy conclusion. But Ms. Kavafian (on violin), Ms. Weilerstein and Mr. Barnatan played with eloquence and concentration; their haunting work in the Elegia nearly eclipsed everything that came before it.