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A Soundtrack for the Chaos, Light and Dark of Creation
Anthony Tommasini | The New York Times | 7 January 2011

Word must be getting around that when Alan Gilbert presents one of his ambitious contemporary-music projects at the New York Philharmonic, like the staged production of Ligeti's bleakly comic opera "Le Grand Macabre" last season, these programs are not to be missed. So it was on Thursday night when Mr. Gilbert conducted the New York premiere of the British composer Thomas Adès's "In Seven Days (Concerto for Piano With Moving Image)."

This riveting, restless and kaleidoscopically colorful 30-minute orchestra piece, written in 2008, incorporates projected videos by Tal Rosner to illustrate the Genesis story through music and imagery. Mr. Adès, also a skilled conductor and a brilliant pianist (as he proved in his solo recital at Carnegie Hall last March) played the piano part. And Avery Fisher Hall appeared nearly full.

The program also offered familiar inducements in Mozart's Symphony No. 40 and Mahler's "Kindertotenlieder," featuring the baritone Thomas Hampson, both works splendidly conducted by Mr. Gilbert. Still, "In Seven Days" was the major draw, and the turnout supports Mr. Gilbert's conviction that if he and his players present challenging contemporary pieces that they really believe in, that curious audiences will come.

In an onstage conversation with Mr. Gilbert before the performance, Mr. Adès explained that from the start he and Mr. Rosner worked collaboratively. Mr. Adès would write "10 seconds of music," he said; then Mr. Rosner would fashion images. Or sometimes it was the other way around, but always in incremental segments.

The work is structured in seven connected sections that depict the seven days of creation in Genesis. The opening section, "Chaos – Light – Darkness," the longest (about one-third of the score), begins with subdued, skittish triplet figures in the strings that never settle into clear, rooted harmonies. The chaos evoked is not forbidding, just formless, yet alive, waiting to become something. The activity picks up, and the density thickens, as other instruments join in, until the skittish music coalesces into counterpoint. An insistent solo flute breaks through as if to impose some order on the bustling musical strands.

Mr. Rosner creates his videos mostly from still photographs that he animates, as Mr. Adès explained. For this work he used images of the two halls where "In Seven Days" received its first performances: Royal Festival Hall in London and Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. The video, projected onto a large rectangular screen to the rear of the stage, began with undulant, watery images that suggested some cosmic, primordial soup. For the most part, however, Mr. Rosner explodes bits of still pictures into intricate geometric designs and shifting patterns.

Even though the music and videos were conceived together, I hope "In Seven Days" has a future as a concert work as well, for the piece, structured as an elaborate theme and variations, is terrific. As the creation saga unfolds, the music is at once reverent and playful. Galumphing basses and low brass evoke the creatures of the land, while twittering flutes and crazed piccolo announce the creatures of the sky. Long episodes evolve in arcs of brilliant piano writing where restless, filigreed, spiraling figures cascade down the keyboard.

Even when the music heaves on the surface, the inner textures and voices are a riot of activity. It has long been hard to pigeonhole Mr. Adès's musical language, and so it was with this piece. For music of such audacious modernism, the overall sound was wondrously strange and somehow elemental. Hints of ancient modal harmony combine with jazzy chords and fractured rhythms. In the final section, "Contemplation," the theme is presented straightforwardly as the music slowly disperses into silence, to suggest touchingly that the work of creation is done. Now what?

Under Mr. Gilbert's leadership the Philharmonic has become a crack contemporary-music ensemble. The performance was assured and exhilarating.

The program began with a lean, lithe and elegantly shaped account of the Mozart symphony. In Mahler's "Kindertotenlieder," Mr. Hampson's voice sometimes sounded gravelly. But it did not matter. He is an insightful and sensitive Mahler singer who knew what he wanted to do with every phrase, word and emotional nuance of these wrenchingly beautiful songs.

The Mozart and Mahler somehow set the mood for Mr. Adès's exploration of creation. Mr. Gilbert relies on musical instinct to group pieces together. As Philharmonic audiences have learned already, his instincts are usually good.