Review: The New York Philharmonic Gets Audacious, With Ease

Esa-Pekka Salonen concluded his stint as the New York Philharmonic's composer in residence with an interdisciplinary program that included his work "Foreign Bodies," featuring a live video installation by Tal Rosner.

In the end, the rare presence of officially sanctioned booze was not the oddest thing about the New York Philharmonic’s concert on Friday night.

More than an hour after the official end of the program — which served as the finale of Esa-Pekka Salonen’s three-year stint as the orchestra’s composer in residence — someone was still playing live music inside David Geffen Hall.

Though the concert had begun nearly three hours before and everyone was free to leave, at least 100 people remained as the Finnish violinist Pekka Kuusisto, heard earlier that night as the soloist in a concerto, had swapped his traditional instrument for an electric one and played an improvisatory encore that included blasts of amplified noise distortion (think Merzbow).

Mr. Salonen — who also conducted two of his own delirious, top-shelf orchestral scores and paired each with a multimedia flourish — was obviously trying to create an event. And by allowing drinks inside the hall, he was trying to bring aspects of concert life that are unremarkable elsewhere to the classical music experience.

Extramusical stunts can easily feel extraneous. And setting a higher bar for hipness can lead to results that fall short and come across as tragically strained. (Adults imbibing clear cocktails from plastic “souvenir” mugs reminiscent of sippy cups did not embody the nightclub aesthetic.) But this self-consciously audacious concert came off with a surprising sense of ease.

Most of the credit belonged to the Philharmonic’s deep feeling for Mr. Salonen’s music; both performances of his works would have thrilled even the most sober crowds. In the opening movement of “Foreign Bodies,” the orchestra dug into a martial riff with impressive vigor. But its approach wasn’t all about abandon. The third movement’s opening is announced by Minimalist harp figures and muted tones — suggestive of jazz, but not imitative — in the brasses. The composer-conductor and the orchestra projected this fine synthesis of textures with a gratifying elegance.

The accompanying live video installation, designed and executed by Tal Rosner, was sensitive to prismatic changes in the music. When Salonen’s music blew on some slowly burning ember of a foregoing phrase, fomenting smoke for a new tutti passage, the video often responded with an imaginative visual point of comparison: exploding into surreally Fauvist color schemes, or using a live feed of the orchestra as the basis for a swirl of line-drawing patterns.

This collaboration was a potent element in an already rich concert — as was Wayne McGregor’s ballet “Obsidian Tear,” set to Mr. Salonen’s solo violin work “Lachen Verlernt” (performed by Simone Porter) and the orchestral workout “Nyx.” As dancers from Boston Ballet enacted the climax of the dance’s opaque (but gripping) central conflict at the front of the stage, Mr. Salonen occasionally peered behind his right shoulder, waiting to time the next orchestral swerve in sync with the action.

Similar spasms of showmanship were evident throughout the concert. Mr. Salonen was so preternaturally confident in this work that he announced Mr. Kuusisto’s encore before the ballet began. (No fear of tipping one’s hand, or of anticlimax, here.)

Mr. Kuusisto, as in his eventual post-show performance, displayed a keen ear for uncommon textures when playing Daniel Bjarnason’s Violin Concerto, which was slotted in between Mr. Salonen’s compositions.

At the beginning of the concerto, the soloist whistles a folk-like melody; later on, the score calls for intense scraping sounds. Mr. Bjarnason delights — perhaps once too often — in creating a journey back to tuneful melody after some noisy extended-technique breakdowns. Still, Mr. Kuusisto fashioned a cheerful emotional arc from all this material. As with the rest of the night, the aim was to be to make something experimental appear natural.

Perhaps even repeatable. In an interview with The New York Times last week, Mr. Salonen outlined a vision for bringing classical concert life more in line with other forms of contemporary entertainment. He’s not the first artist at the Philharmonic to have this idea. Alan Gilbert, the orchestra’s former music director, also made must-see events out of orchestral programming, with seasonal regularity.

There are still hints of this. Last month, the orchestra’s performance of Luciano Berio’s “Sinfonia” achieved an exalted state of intoxicating transcendence, no alcohol at the seats required. If the Philharmonic can assimilate Mr. Salonen’s parting advice with some of its own recent history, pretty soon aficionados won’t be talking about whether Geffen Hall needs renovations. They’ll just be making plans to be there more frequently.

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