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A New Work Bares Its Secrets, With Feeling

11.30.12
Gil Shaham
The New York Times

By Anthony Tommasini

New York Philharmonic Plays Steven Stucky’s Symphony

Before conducting the New York Philharmonic in the New York premiere of Steven Stucky’s Symphony on Thursday night at Avery Fisher Hall, Alan Gilbert asked Mr. Stucky a simple but challenging question: What makes a piece a symphony? Or, as Mr. Gilbert added, invoking what he called a loaded term: What makes a piece “worthy” to be called a symphony?

Mr. Stucky had brought the question on himself, not only by his shaky history with the genre but also by comments he had been making since Gustavo Dudamel conducted the work’s premiere with the Los Angeles Philharmonic in September. (The piece was commissioned by the Los Angeles and New York orchestras.)

Though he never quite answered the “worthy” question, Mr. Stucky explained that he wrote four symphonies before he was 30, but withdrew them. For more than 30 years he ignored the genre, though he became known for a series of vividly scored and ambitious works for orchestra, including his Second Concerto for Orchestra, which won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for music.

Now 63, Mr. Stucky is hardly the first composer to be intimidated by the great heritage of the symphony, with its expectation of a piece that involves, as Mr. Stucky sees it, well-defined formal patterns and complex developmental techniques. Yet Mr. Stucky’s Symphony is a fairly modest piece, a 20-minute, colorfully orchestrated work in four parts, played without break. The music is quite graspable, to borrow a word from Mr. Stucky’s description. That it is called a symphony seemed no big deal. It was actually the shortest work on the program, which included Barber’s Violin Concerto, featuring the brilliant violinist Gil Shaham, and Rachmaninoff’s “Symphonic Dances.”

Mr. Stucky has long written in an intricate, pungent yet transparent and, in the best sense, accessible musical language, as in this symphony. In the opening section, “Introduction and Hymn,” a subdued solo oboe plays a quizzical melody. Other instruments slowly enter. Whether they are comforting the oboe or sneaking in for an ambush is not clear.

Eventually the orchestra breaks into a passage of every-which-way scurrying that turns almost frenzied. Then comes the promised hymn, a fractured one played by mellow brasses, and things calm down.

But with “Outcry,” the next part, the music becomes tumultuous: all jagged bursts, gnashing harmonies and hurtling rhythms. The tension is released in “Flying,” conceived as a whirling, jittery and virtuosic scherzo. In the final section, “Reconciliation and Hymn,” resolution is achieved partly by taming frenetic materials heard in “Outcry.” The piece ends with a return of the hymn, but this time, as in something by Ives, pensive strands of a distant melody are heard.

Mr. Stucky perhaps achieved his goal of writing a graspable symphony too well. I was engrossed in the work right through, and Mr. Gilbert drew an exciting performance from the orchestra. But the music may give away its secrets too readily.

By following Mr. Stucky’s piece with Barber’s Violin Concerto, completed in 1940 and later revised, Mr. Gilbert linked Mr. Stucky to an American symphonic composer who also wrote graspable music. In this vivid and sensitive performance the Barber sounded wonderfully fresh.

Mr. Shaham played the main theme of the first movement, one of those soaring, majestic Barber melodies, with plush sound and affecting restraint. He brought warmth touched with impetuosity to the contemplative slow movement, and his dazzling account of the perpetual-motion finale had flawless precision and gleeful command.

Mr. Gilbert got to know Rachmaninoff’s “Symphonic Dances,” written in 1940 (three years before the composer’s death), in his student days, when he played the piece as a substitute violinist in the Philadelphia Orchestra. He has loved it ever since, he wrote in a program note, and that passion came through in every moment of the joyous, crackling performance he conducted.

He brought out the punchy rhythmic energy, reminiscent of Prokofiev’s, in the marchlike first movement, and teased out the twists in the waltzing second movement. Best of all, he brought some cohesion to the episodic finale, while still conveying the music’s rhapsodic daring. The Philharmonic, playing with velvety yet focused strings, melting woodwinds and glimmering brasses, seemed inspired.

Mr. Gilbert announced at the start of the concert that this program was being dedicated to two towering composers who had close associations with the Philharmonic and who died recently: Hans Werner Henze and Elliott Carter.