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A Couple of First Encounters, One Including Musicians
Anthony Tommasini | The New York Times | 3 June 2011

Though the brilliant German violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter has been artist in residence at the New York Philharmonic all season, she had never worked with Alan Gilbert until Thursday night. In fact, this was the first time these two artists in their 40s had ever collaborated, which was surprising, since they have long traveled the byways of the international orchestra world.

They certainly seemed to relish their overdue musical date. Ms. Mutter brought glowing elegance to Beethoven's Romance in F for Violin and Orchestra. She was riveting in the premiere of the American composer Sebastian Currier's "Time Machines."

Mr. Gilbert, a consistently impressive conductor of contemporary music, drew assured and rapturous playing from the orchestra in Mr. Currier's demanding 30-minute score, composed in 2007. The program also offered the Philharmonic's first performance in 40 years — an inexplicable gap — of Bruckner's Symphony No. 2 in C minor, which proved a surprisingly right piece to hear along with "Time Machines."

Championing the music of living composers has been central to Ms. Mutter's career. This fall at the Philharmonic she gave the premiere of Wolfgang Rihm's "Lichtes Spiel" and in March presented the New York premiere of Sofia Gubaidulina's violin concerto "In Tempus Praesens."

In a composer's note Mr. Currier writes that each of the seven movements of "Time Machines" explores "some aspect of the relationship between the perception of music and time." Of course, you could argue that every musical work is an exploration of time. But this one takes that challenge seriously.

In the first movement, "Fragmented Time," the violin plays a near-continuous line of buzzing, fitful notes, riffs and chords. The orchestra reacts with nervous harmonic bursts, skittish figures for an intrusive piano and, now and then, a sustained series of chords that seem to want to stop the music cold. In a way, the violin is all that holds the movement together.

The subsequent movements explore other elements of time and space. "Delay Time" is like an eerie prolongation of a reverberating sound. "Compressed Time," true to its title, is all wired energy and abrupt phrases, with the violin tossing off a stream of 16th notes that could be some crazed perpetual-motion toccata.

Though this work is driven by Mr. Currier's handling of rhythm and time, the music's harmonic allure and textural richness were often its most striking qualities. Mr. Currier's musical language, which draws from tonal and atonal sources, if not pathbreaking, is very personal. With his acute ear and sensitivity to color, whole passages of the piece were rapturously beautiful, especially the mystical final movement, "Harmonic Time." Ms. Mutter played magnificently. During the ovation she kept deferring to and applauding Mr. Currier.

Turning to Bruckner's Second Symphony after intermission was an inspired idea. At its 1873 premiere by the Vienna Philharmonic, the work was dubbed the "Symphony of Pauses," and the nickname stuck for a while. The description is apt, since the piece evolves in spans of music that sometimes simply stop before continuing on or taking off in another direction. Bruckner later revised the score, trimming it to just under an hour.

There is no program to this work. Here, simply, is a composer steeped in the Viennese symphonic tradition who has had a life-changing encounter with the music and person of Wagner, and is now trying to take the symphony into the future. The second movement, with its stately themes and walking bass patterns, is Bruckner at his most inspired. The third movement could be a rustic Schubert dance turned late-Romantic symphonic scherzo. And the finale hovers on an emotional edge between trepidation and exhilaration.

Mr. Gilbert drew a terrific performance from the Philharmonic. Textures were shimmering yet lucid. The scherzo was emphatic without ever turning pumped-up or bloated. Clearly Mr. Gilbert has a special fondness for this seldom-heard symphony.