At the Philharmonic, new music for a changing world

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At the Philharmonic, new music for a changing world
Soprano Renée Fleming sings with the New York Philharmonic, conducted by Jaap van Zweden, at David Geffen Hall in New York, Feb. 20, 2020. Fleming joined the orchestra as soloist in two songs from the Swedish composer Anders Hillborg’s “The Strand Settings,” written for her, and two songs by Björk, orchestrated by Hans Ek. Caitlin Ochs/The New York Times.

by Anthony Tommasini

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Sometimes, depending on current events, a new piece can take on unexpected resonance. Before the New York Philharmonic gave the premiere of Ellen Reid’s “When the World as You’ve Known It Doesn’t Exist” on Thursday, she asked the audience whether anyone, like her, “has felt that way recently.”

Her question drew some laughter. She explained that the long title of this 11-minute orchestra work is meant to convey the experience of a questioning journey through a realm where once-familiar surroundings suddenly seem different, both scary and wondrous.

Conducted by Jaap van Zweden at David Geffen Hall, “When the World” was the latest offering in the Philharmonic’s Project 19 initiative to commission 19 female composers to celebrate the centennial of the 19th Amendment, which granted women the right to vote. Reid, whose opera “Prism” won the Pulitzer Prize for Music last year, also describes herself as a sound artist. The opening of her new piece came across as a wash of alluring sounds, effects and colors, with high-pitched strings, fluttering winds and softly wailing brass bustling along — yet with a jolt of inner tension. The whole sound mass then glides downward and becomes more agitated.

Suddenly, thematic bits protrude ominously from various instruments, and the violins try to lead the journey into dark terrain with a slinky, elusive melody. The music goes through fitful episodes, with percolating riffs, pummeling percussion and gratingly dissonant clusters. Throughout, three sopranos (Eliza Bagg, Martha Cluver and Estelí Gomez) sing wordless lyrical fragments and soft sonorities, lending an eerily angelic touch. Van Zweden drew a lush, suspenseful performance from the Philharmonic.

The orchestra’s two previous Project 19 premieres felt shoehorned into standard-repertory programs. This time, at least in the first half, van Zweden choose recent works that complemented Reid’s score.

Following the premiere, the star soprano Renée Fleming joined the orchestra as the soloist in two songs from Swedish composer Anders Hillborg’s “The Strand Settings,” written for her, and two songs by Björk, orchestrated by Hans Ek. (Fleming recorded both works on her 2017 album “Distant Light.”)

Hillborg’s songs use sections of Mark Strand’s 45-part poem “Dark Harbor” as texts. One describes the “sickness of angels” during their “brief term on Earth,” with final images of “kisses blown out of heaven.” The vocal lines shift from clipped, nearly declaimed passages to sensually lyrical phrases, elegantly rendered by Fleming and cushioned by the orchestra’s hazy, spiraling and pungent sounds. The other basks in nostalgia for a moment when two lovers felt safe from the elements. The text brought out Coplandesque musical warmth, with achingly lyrical lines written with Fleming’s sumptuous voice in mind.

The Björk song “Virus” likens a deep love to a virus that “needs a body.” Before singing it, Fleming spoke to the audience to say that, with a deadly virus outbreak in China, the song may now have disturbing overtones. The arrangement brought percolating animation to Björk’s music. Fleming, holding a hand microphone like a pop singer, performed it tenderly. She also sounded splendid in the wistfully romantic “All Is Full of Love.”

After intermission, van Zweden led the Philharmonic in Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony. The performance, though sometimes marred by shaky brass playing and van Zweden’s tendency to push the music forcefully, had impressive breadth, structural clarity and Wagnerian heft. But it felt like an entirely different concert.

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