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Poems in Four Voices, a Concerto in Two
The New York Times
By Steve Smith
New York Philharmonic’s Contact! Series at the Met
That David Robertson is a superb conductor of contemporary classical music hardly needs repeating. Evidence is everywhere in reviews worldwide and in the vivid memories of those who have heard concerts he has led. But what makes Mr. Robertson one of the most extraordinary musical advocates of our day has just as much to do with what he does off the podium.
The latest demonstration came during the first of two concerts in the New York Philharmonic’s Contact! series, presented in the Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium of the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Friday evening. In the context of an enticing program that included, miracle of continuing miracles, a premiere by the 103-year-old Elliott Carter, a single moment exemplified Mr. Robertson’s gift.
It happened after the second piece in the program, “Nachlese Vb (Liederzyklus)”, by the Swiss composer Michael Jarrell. The piece (whose title roughly translates as “Gleanings”) was a song cycle with a twist. Starting with his own earlier setting of a poem by Luis de Góngora y Argote in a French translation, Mr. Jarrell added three further movements: a German translation, a wholly instrumental impression and, finally, a setting of the original Spanish verse.
The result was intoxicating: four distinct reactions to the same impulse, with subtle but palpable alterations in color and emphasis. Charlotte Dobbs, a soprano, illuminated those shifts with precision and sensitivity. The Philharmonic players provided iridescent accompaniment.
When it was done, Mr. Robertson scanned the audience, then leapt from the stage and trotted out to acknowledge Mr. Jarrell. That act, simple and straightforward, crystallized the joy with which Mr. Robertson consistently infuses the act of bringing new music to life. His passion is infectious.
The rest of the program, hosted by the radio personality John Schaefer, was equally edifying. Mr. Carter’s “Two Controversies and a Conversation,” in effect a pocket-size double concerto, took full advantage of its confident soloists, the pianist Eric Huebner and the percussionist Colin Currie.
Two initial movements engaged the soloists in volleys of brittle one-upmanship, with no small show of athleticism from the constantly sprinting Mr. Currie. The last and longest eased them into more involved exchanges. The applause for Mr. Carter, wheelchair bound but characteristically animated, resounded thunderously.
Before the final piece, Pierre Boulez’s “... explosante-fixe ... ,” Mr. Robertson spoke at length, sharing not just historical background but also personal reminiscences of time spent with Mr. Boulez. Part Carl Sagan and part Midwestern evangelist, Mr. Robertson conveyed heady concepts and convictions with personable charm and entrancing zeal.
It worked. You could not miss the striking allusions to Stravinsky in Mr. Boulez’s splendid score. And I doubt that anyone failed to recall Mr. Robertson’s just-related anecdote about Mr. Boulez’s delight at a play of lights and clouds viewed from an airplane window as the flutists Robert Langevin, Mindy Kaufman and Alexandra Sopp fluttered and soared in electronically enhanced reveries.