Of all the issues that encourage music, one among the most paradoxically productive is demise. Whether the sounds it brings forth are supposed to console, to supply catharsis, or to construct a bridge to the soul of the departed, frequent to all is a refusal to simply accept that definitive silence.
Funerary music was at the coronary heart of two very totally different applications at the New York Philharmonic this week. A glittering Lunar New Year gala on Wednesday, carried out by Kahchun Wong, included the American premiere of a violin concerto by Tan Dun known as “Fire Ritual.” On Thursday, the orchestra’s music director, Jaap van Zweden, led a burnished studying of Brahms’s “A German Requiem.” Vastly unalike, each works are stuffed with luminous coloration and replicate complicated attitudes towards demise.
Brahms wrote his “German Requiem” throughout a interval during which he suffered the lack of his mom, and never lengthy after the demise of his good friend Robert Schumann. Comfort, disappointment and religion in an afterlife freed from struggling are interwoven on this sprawling work for refrain, soloists and orchestra.
The opening refrain can’t fairly appear to decide on a key or temper, and in the march of the second motion, the pulse is shared between the stern timpani and mild harp. In the choir, too, the stentorian seriousness of the males singing a line from Peter, “For all flesh is as grass,” is answered by the girls in a extra pliable, folk-song-like fashion. If this music had been a funerary wreath, it might be woven from meadow flowers slightly than stiff chrysanthemums.
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On Thursday, Mr. van Zweden was attentive to these nuances, drawing subtle and flexible playing from the orchestra. In the fugal passages, where the specter of Bach flickers through, he showed a patient eye for the overarching structure. In the excellent Concert Chorale of New York, meticulously prepared by James Bagwell, the men especially impressed with ringing, muscular fortes.
The baritone Matthias Goerne brought mystery and intensity to his solos, while the soprano Ying Fang sang “Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit” (“You now have sadness”) with gleaming, youthful sound. When the choir first answered her, with lines evoking a mother’s consolation, its tone was so hushed that it sounded like a memory.
Much of Mr. Tan’s “Fire Ritual” is designed to bring forth things that are hidden. In a program note, he explained that this work is inspired by ancient Chinese rituals that pit two groups of musicians against each other. The solo violin — here played with fierce dramatic commitment by Bomsori Kim — takes on a shamanistic role. With this work, the composer was “trying to find those dead people and souls to wake them up with special sounds and gestures and colors.”
If conflicting emotions are interwoven in the Brahms, Mr. Tan isolates them and pits them in stark opposition. Tender, ornate violin solos alternate with brash orchestral outbursts full of clanging percussion and conciliatory passages. Some players are positioned in the auditorium, so that certain sounds — like an eerily realistic evocation of bird song — envelop the audience. The score includes unusual touches: musicians hum and hiss, the conductor intones a text, string players create wind by rhythmically fluttering a page of their music.
Mr. Tan’s concerto was a potentially risky piece to program. With just one performance, it also represented a substantial investment of time and resources on the part of the musicians, who donated their services to benefit the Philharmonic at the Lunar New Year gala. Crowd-pleasing pieces like Li Huanzhi’s jaunty “Spring Festival Overture,” Stravinsky’s “Firebird” Suite and a barn-burning rendition of Mozart’s Queen of the Night aria from “The Magic Flute,” with the Korean soprano So Young Park, worked their reliable magic on an enthusiastic audience.