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Ruminating on Love and Desire
Anthony Tommasini | The New York Times | 29 April 2013

Whenever the New York Philharmonic takes a break from Lincoln Center to play at Carnegie Hall there is usually a special program suited to the occasion. So it was on Friday night for a concert conducted by Alan Gilbert.

The program, which opened with Respighi's "Fountains of Rome" and ended with Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition" (in Ravel's familiar orchestration), featured the premiere of an impressive piece by the Swedish composer Anders Hillborg written for the soprano Renée Fleming, who is completing her Perspectives series at Carnegie Hall this season. The idea of commissioning Mr. Hillborg arose in Sweden during the summer of 2008, when Ms. Fleming performed a program of opera arias with Mr. Gilbert and the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra. Though five years from the conception to the premiere of a piece may seem like a long gestation period, it is not atypical in classical music.

"The Strand Settings," a 24-minute song cycle on texts by the distinguished Canadian-born poet Mark Strand, was worth waiting for. At once atmospheric, elegiac and unsettling, the work was crafted with Ms. Fleming's creamy voice in mind, and she sang beautifully.

Mr. Hillborg, 58, has had a diverse life in music. In his youth he played in rock bands while singing in choirs. At the conservatory in Stockholm he studied with formidable modernist composers but also immersed himself in experimental electronic music. In his best pieces these myriad influences are deftly blended into a distinctive voice.

Taken together, the four Strand poems selected for this cycle make a rumination on love and desire in its mysterious and acutely real dimensions. In the first, "The Black Sea," the narrator climbs to the roof of a house to gaze at the sea during a "whispering night," waiting for something, a sign, or someone. It is not clear.

Mr. Hillborg sets the words in a quasi-recitative style, though with fleeting lyrical phrases and bursts of agitation. The orchestra at first heaves with thick, subdued chords but soon settles into a shimmering, pungent sustained harmony. That shifting sonority, though transfixing, seems static. But listen closely and you hear inner voices colliding and astringent textures stacked thick with notes.

The next three poems are taken from Mr. Strand's "Dark Harbor" series. "Dark Harbor XX" seems the lonely thoughts of someone experiencing a sensual kiss, or longing for one. The song continues the ruminative yet quietly dangerous mood already established. The final line is a question: "Is it you or the long compassionate wind/That whispers in my ear: alas, alas?" As the orchestra lingers on a tremulous harmony we hear penetrating soft, high tones from wineglass rims being rubbed with water.

In "Dark Harbor XXXV" the orchestra finally breaks loose into rising riffs and overlapping lines to convey the imagery of kisses "blown out of heaven,/Melting the moment they land." In one surprisingly jazzy episode, the music breaks incongruously into what sounds like the fragment of a jaunty tune. It could be the "Anthem of Dark Harbor."

During stretches of the final song, "Dark Harbor XI," the vocal lines took Ms. Fleming from chesty low-voiced phrases into soaring highs, which she delivered with sensual sound and wistful resignation. This organic song cycle may seem accessible on the surface. But the music keeps its secrets to itself and makes you want to hear it again to figure out more. The ovation lasted five minutes, which does not happen often with new works.

Mr. Gilbert conducted a sumptuous and refreshingly incisive account of Respighi's colorful "Fountains of Rome," composed in 1915-16. The performance of "Pictures at an Exhibition" was majestic, crackling and full of character. The orchestra sounded plush and glittering in Carnegie Hall. Back in the late 1950s the Philharmonic had the option of buying Carnegie Hall, which was threatened with demolition. Instead it moved to Lincoln Center. Ah, hindsight.
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