The New York Philharmonic recently delivered its six Messages for the Millennium, and none too soon – Y2K media burnout seems more of a threat right now than a turn-of-the-century computer meltdown ever did. Actually, any excuse to ask an important composer to write a new piece is welcome, even an occasion as manufactured as this. I rather liked the observation made in the program by one of the six commissionees, Somei Satoh, who gently pointed out that in Japan, where Christians account for less than one percent of the population, the word millennium is unknown. Still, Satoh, like most of his colleagues, needed little prodding to fulfill the Philharmonic’s main injunction as expressed by the orchestra’s music director, Kurt Masur, that the “resulting pieces might reflect the hopes and dreams we all have as we enter the next century.”
That they mostly did, in works lasting ten to fifteen minutes each, and in ways that reflected the nationalities, stylistic affiliations, and personal concerns of six very different composers: Thomas Adès (England), John Corigliano (United States), Hans Werner Henze (Germany), Giya Kancheli (Georgia), Kaija Saariaho (Finland), and Somei Satoh (Japan), all of whom were on hand to hear their music. The impact of the project was also enhanced by the Philharmonic’s decision to fill an entire program with the new scores rather than play it safe by spacing them, one by one, throughout the season and diluting the message. Only the Kancheli piece had to be performed at a separate concert, because of a scheduling conflict, but the other five made up a satisfying evening on their own, a program that provided plenty of contrasts and even an occasional jolt.
The most startling work was by Adès, who, at age 28, is the youngest of the composers, the current darling of Britain’s musical Establishment, and prone to apocalyptic visions if I heard America (A Prophecy) right. The texts for chorus and mezzo-soprano soloist are taken from Mayan literature and the sixteenth-century poet Matteo Flexa, which recount the “discovery” of America from the point of view of native inhabitants who had lived here for centuries before marauding Europeans came “from the east to break with a cross your gods, your fathers, your children.” The music is deeply unsettling, at times even terrifying, partly because of its busy textures, large gestures, and aggressive instrumentation but also due to the seductive lyrical character of the soloist’s arching vocal lines. Adès may only be telling a cautionary tale here, implying that it could happen all over again while hoping that it won’t, but I wonder. The score, after all, is called a prophecy, not a warning.
The older composers tended to accommodate the occasion with less melodrama. Henze no doubt recognized a bit of his younger self in Adès’s flamboyant statement, but his offering at age 73, titled Fraternité, Air for Orchestra, sings with the mellow wisdom of old age. To symbolize his message of love and peace, Henze has devised a carefully woven tapestry of sound in which every instrument makes a crucial contribution, establishing an eventful but harmonious sense of brotherhood. The most contemplative score is by Satoh: Kisetsu, which in English means “season” and expresses the hope of a new era characterized less by the masculine spirit of war and massacre than by the feminine qualities of love and kindness. It’s a gorgeous piece, unafraid to be minimal and tonal (there’s even a key signature) but exquisitely shaped and full of subtly shifting instrumental colors.
The remaining two scores had grander aspirations. In Oltra Mar (“Across the Sea”), seven preludes for chorus and orchestra, Saariaho reminds us that the sea is the origin of all life as she mirrors the deep’s oceanic complexity in music of comparable vastness and teeming activity. Apparently Corigliano wrote his Vocalise to suggest ways in which electronics may affect the future of musical performance by altering the acoustical properties of the human voice (here soprano Sylvia McNair) and a symphony orchestra. It’s not exactly an innovative concept – Edgard Varèse did it all 45 years ago – and Vocalise came off as a pretty crude piece of work, more a random collection of sound effects than music of substance. Just one sour message out of five – not a bad start to the millennium.
Perhaps it’s another millennial sign: a number of important instrumentalists have lately paused to rethink familiar works, and spend the better part of the year performing them in the world’s major musical centers. Anne-Sophie Mutter devoted most of last season to Beethoven’s violin sonatas, and Krystian Zimerman recently arrived in Carnegie Hall to offer his fresh thoughts on the two Chopin piano concertos – the tail end of a project that has occupied him full-time since last June and has already involved traveling to some 40 cities here and in Europe.
To get the job done the way he wanted, Zimerman organized his own Polish Festival Orchestra – 55 handpicked players, most of them under 30 – which he conducts from the keyboard. Not only that, the pianist has overseen every detail, from the construction of the piano to bus schedules, the food his musicians eat en route, and of course meticulous musical preparation – the first rehearsal apparently ran for 21 hours nonstop. There is even a recording, made for Deutsche Grammophon last August in Turin before the tour began, and it has just been released on two CDs (459 684-2).
Zimerman first recorded these scores 21 years ago, and connoisseurs will have a fine time comparing the two versions’ fine points. I also detected appreciable differences between what one hears on the new discs and the even more leisurely caressed Carnegie Hall performances, which had a studied hothouse atmosphere perhaps impossible to avoid when musicians play nothing but the same two pieces for five months. On the whole, this struck me as a clear case of music’s being loved to death, although there were many lovely details to savor on the way to the cemetery, the clarity of the orchestral playing in particular. Zimerman’s polished work at the piano was also often ravishing, but I can’t help feeling that healthy musical realities got lost from sight early on in this loving Chopin pilgrimage.