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'Kraft' is a challenging, and a worthwhile, night with the New York Phil
Zachary Woolfe | Capital New York | 8 October 2010

Old people get a bad rap in classical music circles. They're the audience one always assumes, never the audience one seeks. And when we imagine concertgoers streaming out of a hall during a "challenging" piece, we invariably visualize a sea of white-haired heads bobbing up the aisle, leaving the young and hip to sprawl across their now-empty seats.

It wasn't a surprise that a good number of people walked out of the New York Philharmonic's concert last night during the New York premiere of Magnus Lindberg's aggressive, stunning masterpiece of the early 1980s, Kraft. But it was unexpected to see so many younger people headed for the exits, and so many older people among those who were standing and cheering at the end. We have to rethink the standard narrative about the kind of audience we're seeking to draw to the concert hall. So much emphasis is placed on attracting young people that it can obscure the more important goal: getting an audience, whatever the age breakdown, that is open to a range of musical experiences.

There is no good reason to fear Kraft, which is often noisy, and not always pleasant, but always interesting and entertaining. The Phil's music director, Alan Gilbert, makes it even less intimidating with some brilliant programming. The Lindberg is played after two works that contextualize it nicely: Debussy's atmospheric, quietly experimental Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, and the Sibelius Violin Concerto, which, like Kraft, rises from lyricism to bursts of violent energy, played with intensity by Joshua Bell. (Bell, a big name in classical music, was clearly invited to draw subscribers who would never in a million years have come just for the Lindberg piece.)

But the main event was after the intermission. Kraft, half an hour long, has been done just once before in the United States. It's something like a sextet with orchestra in two parts. The orchestra swoops and jitters underneath six soloists, the composer among them, playing an intricate series of percussion-heavy sounds, some of them from instruments that originated in a Staten Island junkyard. The instruments are arranged at stations placed throughout the hall. A huge gong hangs in a space in the center of the auditorium formed by taking out a few rows of seats. Gilbert, at the podium, blows a whistle and, at one point, has to conduct while singing—or not exactly singing, but letting forth a series of hisses and clicks.

The sight of principal instrumentalists of the New York Philharmonic jumping off the stage and running down the aisles to bang on a huge gas tank is itself worth the price of admission, as is the sight of these same musicians returning to the stage, often in a kind of procession, sounding small gongs and bells. It's a spectacle alternately solemn and hilarious—this is that rare piece of contemporary music that's not afraid of being funny—and the audience was often left veering from laughter to a self-conscious silence.

The effect can seem chaotic and random, but is in fact highly planned; the central tension of the piece is between the overarching spirit of playful exploration and the precision of the form. It's what makes the virtuosity of the soloists particularly effective.

Kraft is a work both exhilarating and ambivalent—notable in new music for its wariness about both nature and technology. The instruments are intermittently amplified, which causes sounds to seem to bounce around the hall, but those sounds themselves are never electronically generated; all the instruments are old-fashioned. Piccolos trill out Messiaen-like bird calls, but they quickly take on a mechanical quality that makes it clear that Lindberg is no nostalgist for some idealized state of uncorrupted nature. Though the sounds are not generated electronically, the piece's composition would have been impossible without the assistance of computer programs.

Lindberg is most enthusiastic about what all good music is about: exploring different sounds in an atmosphere of camaraderie among performers and between them and their audience. Despite the piece's massive scale, its most memorable quality might be its intimacy. The soloists walk right past you. The orchestra wears traditional white tie, but the soloists are in brightly colored polo shirts and jeans, setting them apart, and there are passages that are almost like chamber music—interplay between the cellist and the clarinetist, a chorale of gongs. Noisy or quiet, ethereal or dense, it's finally riveting, and even beautiful.

The Phil does this program again tonight and on Tuesday. It's a terrifically enjoyable night of music, and yet more evidence of Alan Gilbert's ambitious plans for his orchestra. A bunch of people, young and old, may have left last night, but you should most definitely go.