Tuesday , May 28 2024
Jaap van Zweden leads the New York Philharmonic in the U.S. Premiere of 'The Elements' with combined works by Kevin Puts, Edgar Meyer, Jake Heggie, Jennifer Higdon, and Jessie Montgomery with soloist Joshua Bell and Copland's Third Symphony at David Geffen Hall, 9/29/2023. Photo by Chris Lee
Jaap van Zweden leads the New York Philharmonic in the U.S. Premiere of 'The Elements' with combined works by Kevin Puts, Edgar Meyer, Jake Heggie, Jennifer Higdon, and Jessie Montgomery with soloist Joshua Bell and Copland's Third Symphony at David Geffen Hall, 9/29/2023. Photo by Chris Lee

Concert Review: Joshua Bell and the New York Philharmonic – ‘The Elements’ (US Premiere) and Copland’s Third Symphony

Start with one of the world’s greatest violinists. Mix in sparking-new music by five eminent contemporary composers with multiple Grammy awards and two Pulitzer prizes among them. Layer these over a top-tier orchestra, and add an iconic symphony by an American legend. That’s the recipe for the start of the New York Philharmonic’s new season.

Five composers commissioned by Joshua Bell wrote the individual movements of a new symphonic work called The Elements. The piece is receiving its U.S. premiere this weekend by the New York Philharmonic and Bell himself, with music director Jaap van Zweden conducting. Aaron Copland’s Third Symphony – the one that so brilliantly incorporates “Fanfare for the Common Man” – rounds out the program.

Copland’s Third and the NY Phil go way back: Friday night’s was the orchestra’s 69th performance of the symphony since Copland completed it in 1946. That it sounded as spectacular as ever was no surprise.

But what to expect from Bell’s unusual commission?

We’re Five!

It was actually the stellar lineup of composers, even more than the always-welcome prospect of hearing Bell himself, that got me excited about the event.

I’ve been a fan of the music of Jessie Montgomery and of Kevin Puts for some time now. Jennifer Higdon’s fertile musical imagination never flags, and I’ve followed bassist extraordinaire Edgar Meyer’s career since the Goat Rodeo sessions back in 2012. As I write this, Jake Heggie’s opera Dead Man Walking is on stage at the Metropolitan Opera, just around the corner from the Philharmonic’s newly refurbished home at David Geffen Hall.

But with little interaction among the composers as they wrote, would their efforts hang together?

I’m delighted to report that the music, laden with beauty and drama, succeeds on all levels.

The Elements: Four Plus One

It’s based on the ancient conceit of the “elements”: the basic four – Earth, Air, Fire, and Water – plus Space, standing in for the mythical “ether” once postulated to fill interplanetary space.

Kevin Puts took on “Earth.” The music starts serenely, with the solo violin and the violin section trading intriguing melodies that dance atop a repeated four-note figure plucked on the harp. The music lulls us for just long enough that when the harmonies start to sink and fold in on themselves, we’re both surprised and ready for it.

A gigue-like section features bravura solo passages in the violin’s high register, and when the initial theme returns it’s with a dimly dissonant vibe that comments drily on the major-key bliss of the opening. The movement ends mournfully with a single held note.

“Water,” from Edgar Meyer, is the most programmatic movement. It evokes a delicate sequence of descending droplets, supporting highly ornamental violin passages that suggest, perhaps, birds in flight or mystical creatures in chorus. A cascade ensues, and the tension begins; I pictured dark dangers lurking in the pool at the base of a waterfall.

Jaap van Zweden leads the New York Philharmonic in the U.S. Premiere of 'The Elements' with combined works by Kevin Puts, Edgar Meyer, Jake Heggie, Jennifer Higdon, and Jessie Montgomery with soloist Joshua Bell and Copland's Third Symphony at David Geffen Hall, 9/29/2023. Photo by Chris Lee
Jaap van Zweden leads the New York Philharmonic in the U.S. Premiere of ‘The Elements’ with combined works by Kevin Puts, Edgar Meyer, Jake Heggie, Jennifer Higdon, and Jessie Montgomery with soloist Joshua Bell and Copland’s Third Symphony at David Geffen Hall, 9/29/2023. Photo by Chris Lee

A storm arises with rumbles of thunder from the drums and low strings, the solo violin trying to find its place. Recalling “Earth” – were Puts and Meyer in unconscious telepathic communication? – a four-note rising figure iterates up and down the scale. The overall effect is of high drama. A return to the dripping water of the start gives us time to reflect – until, mid-reflection, the piece ends abruptly.

Jake Heggie’s “Fire” suggests first a macabre dance, then a more generalized danger, but also fire’s life-giving properties. Progressing in a number of sections it wraps up with an exciting finish.

Up in the Air – and Beyond

In “Air,” the most melodic and romantic of the movements, Jennifer Higdon establishes a sense of peace, with gorgeous melodies that emanated with deep resonance from Bell’s low register and muscular, evocative undercurrents from the orchestra. A brief, stately march reminds us that the invisible substance we often take for granted can carry force as well.

An “air” of mystery characterizes Jessie Montgomery’s “Space,” which develops into a stirring adventure in 3/4 time. It’s the only movement with an extended cadenza-like violin solo (Montgomery happens to be an accomplished violinist herself). The movement places a lot of focus on the soloist, while harmonic movement in the orchestra alternates between soft and ominous. And it flows directly into the finale, a reprise of “Earth,” which builds quickly as if anxious to “get to the good part.” Really, it’s all good, as that climbing four-note theme flits from one instrument or section to another with rapidly oscillating dynamics.

During a few of the louder passages of The Elements the orchestra drowned out Bell’s violin, but fortunately not often and only for a few moments at a time. His touch and tone, dexterity and power were everything we have come to expect from him. The music, too, measured up to the composers’ previous standout work. And pairing The Elements with Copland’s elemental Third Symphony was a good choice. It showed the vigor and excitement the Philharmonic under van Zweden can bring to both the brand-new and the tried-and-true.

Aaron Copland Heard Anew at the New David Geffen Hall

We heard full-throated definition and forceful, even martial clarity as the first movement got underway. The quiet section beautifully evoked a truly Copland-esque big-sky vista. The “Allegro molto” sparkled with stalwart French horn work and a gorgeous woodwind chorale, all voices well balanced and distinct. (Van Zweden has fully assimilated the acoustics of the freshly redesigned David Geffen Hall.)

Glowing strings lit the pastoral and dreamlike slow movement, and the finale, infused with the famous Fanfare, was a big beautiful swirl of victory. It was a fitting finish to the first program of the New York Philharmonic’s new season.

New York Philharmonic tickets are available online, as is more information about The Elements, with further performances of the piece scheduled for 2024 around the U.S.

About Jon Sobel

Jon Sobel is Publisher and Executive Editor of Blogcritics as well as lead editor of the Culture & Society section. As a writer he contributes most often to Music, where he covers classical music (old and new) and other genres, and Culture, where he reviews NYC theater. Through Oren Hope Marketing and Copywriting at http://www.orenhope.com/ you can hire him to write or edit whatever marketing or journalistic materials your heart desires. Jon also writes the blog Park Odyssey at http://parkodyssey.blogspot.com/ where he is on a mission to visit every park in New York City. He has also been a part-time working musician, including as lead singer, songwriter, and bass player for Whisperado.

Check Also

The Knights, Zankel Hall, May 16, 2024

Concert Review: The Knights – Gabriel Kahane’s ‘Heirloom’ (NY Premiere) with Jeffrey Kahane, Plus Anna Clyne, Jessie Montgomery, Mozart

There was a bit of an underground vibe in Zankel Hall, The contrast between Kahane's performance as a troubadour and his creative energy as a classical composer is striking.