The Philharmonic Puts a Young Composer’s Twist on Bruckner

Conrad Tao
The New York Times

Conrad Tao, the 24-year-old composer and brilliant pianist, charmingly admitted earlier this year that he didn’t know Bruckner’s sprawling Eighth Symphony when he was asked by the New York Philharmonic to write a short piece as a sort of prelude for it. Yet Mr. Tao emphasized at the time that the proposal enticed him, and that he was eager to get to know the Bruckner.

For months Mr. Tao, immersed himself in Bruckner’s challenging, sometimes mystifying symphony as he worked on his commission. The result, “Everything Must Go,” had its premiere on Thursday at David Geffen Hall. Jaap van Zweden, in his second program as the Philharmonic’s new music director, conducted this teeming, mercurial 11-minute piece as a curtain-raiser to the symphony. Indeed, there was no break between the Tao and Bruckner works.

In a program note, Mr. Tao wrote that he had multiple “starting points” in mind as he composed the piece, including the mystical image of a cathedral gaining sentience as its melts, and the idea of pursuing pleasure as a method of control. It was difficult to detect hints of such elusive imagery in the music. But his vivid description of the piece as a “sound mass undergoing various transformations,” leaving behind “tendrils and residue as it gains and losses appendages,” strongly comported with the piece I heard.

It begins with sustained tones that elide into slides and clusters. Then, bursts of rattling percussion instigate a series of gestures that swell, fracture and break off. The fidgety music goes through shifting states driven by frenzied riffs, or grumbling low strings, or wailing motifs that seem to call out for attention. I could almost imagine certain desperate melodic fragments saying “Listen to me!” and “What do I do next?”

On Thursday, the music built to feverish episodes, thick with swirling strings, writhing riffs and whiplash cracks. Passages of soft, buzzing string tremolos — interlaced with pointillist squiggles and Messiaen-like bird calls — were almost more nerve-racking than the thick demonic eruptions. But the piece eventually lost “appendages,” to borrow Mr. Tao’s word, and thinned out, quizzically, as if turning over the stage to the Bruckner symphony — which, in this context, seemed to pick up from Mr. Tao’s music. The first movement began with subdued sustained tone, with an ominous, questioning, fragmented phrase in low strings underneath.


And it was a great idea to pair an adventurous young American composer with an august Austrian symphonic master.
Read the rest of the review here