Currier concerto given sterling premiere by Mutter and New York Philharmonic

June 03, 2011
By George Loomis

Anne-Sophie Mutter performs the world premiere of Sebastian Currier's "Time Machines," with Alan Gilbert leading the New York Philharmonic Thursday night at Avery Fisher Hall. Photo: Chris Lee.

Anne-Sophie Mutter’s stint as artist-in-residence of the New York Philharmonic concludes with this weekend’s series of concerts.  And, as with her two previous programs with the orchestra this season, she brought a new work in tow—Sebastian Currier’s Time Machines, a full-fledged violin concerto in seven movements.

As the title hints, the individual movements of Time Machines, which bear labels such as “Delay Time,” “Compressed Time,” “Overlapping Time” and the like, purport to encapsulate particular qualities of time.  In a program note, Currier philosophically observes that “it’s only a little bit of an exaggeration to say that music is made of nothing but time.” Currier’s piece is clearly no exception, with movements that come and go just as they do in other large-scale works.

But any notion that Time Machines explores the relationship between music and time in an especially novel or revelatory way proved to be illusory at its world premiere on Thursday evening. Nevertheless, the movement titles do bear a relationship to musical content.  For instance, the fourth movement, “Overlapping Time,” makes considerable use of two-against-three rhythms.

And speaking of time, there was a significant lag between the completion in 2007 of Time Machines, which like Currier’s Aftersong for violin and piano (1994) was written specifically for Mutter, and its belated world premiere Thursday night.  Perhaps Mutter’s schedule precluded earlier performances or perhaps she was waiting for the right audience.  If the latter was the reason, she must have been disappointed by all the coughing and sneezing that went on during the performance.

Still, despite its conceptual pretension, Time Machines proved to be a fluent and enjoyable work that for the most part justified its appreciable length.  The first four movements are especially terse, and while the fifth is more expansive, it is animated by a three-note rhythmic pattern and, at the close, peters out amusingly with a succession of descending glissandos from the soloist and other instruments.

The extensive last movement also looks back to material previously heard—most notably the second movement, which is also slow and finds lush sonorities in the orchestra supporting soaring melodic phrases and sustained notes from the soloist in an almost post-Romantic idiom, though with harmonic spice. Moments like this, in which the soloist is accorded traditional opportunities to shine, serve to keep Time Machines listener friendly.

Moreover, they are essential to the work’s makeup and help define the movements of which they are a part.  Other instances include scruffy tremolos, rapidly flowing sixteenth notes and arpeggios that keep the bow arm moving.  Mutter handled them all with technical polish and interpretive flair.  The orchestra and conductor Alan Gilbert also contributed handsomely, not least in rendering Currier’s colorful writing for percussion.

The concert opened with a performance of Beethoven’s Romance in F major for violin and orchestra, op. 50, in which its lovely melody sounded as gorgeous as ever, although Mutter’s choices of whether to play sotto voce or with full tone sometimes seemed arbitrary.

An outstanding performance of Bruckner’s Symphony No. 2 in C minor brought the concert to a close.  This is one of the least popular of Bruckner’s symphonies, but it is the meatiest and most expansive symphony I have heard Gilbert conduct in his two seasons as music director and he made the work shine.

Despite the hefty proportions of Bruckner’s symphonies, their formal outlines are almost always readily apparent in performance. Perhaps Gilbert felt this allowed him to give special attention to surface detail in structuring the performance (using the recent edition by William Carragan, based on Bruckner’s 1877 revision). Through nuances of tempo, dynamic fluctuation and articulation, Gilbert seemed determined to bring out the expressive potential of virtually every musical phrase and sentence, as well as their capacity for drama.  It is hard to credit the usual complaint that the content of Bruckner’s symphonies is boring when it emerges as vividly and compellingly as it did here.

The program will be repeated 2 p.m. Friday and 8 p.m. Saturday.

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