Review: The Philharmonic departs from business as usual

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Review: The Philharmonic departs from business as usual
A handout photo shows Leslie B. Dunner leading the New York Philharmonic in a multimedia program directed by Tazewell Thompson and featuring works by Courtney Bryan, William Grant Still and Adolphus Hailstork. (Chris Lee via The New York Times)

by Seth Colter Walls

NEW YORK, NY.- Gustavo Dudamel, recently named, to cheers, as the New York Philharmonic’s next music director, will arrive to lead the orchestra officially in 2026. But the time before then shouldn’t be thought of something to be endured or, at worst, a slog.

Just look to the Philharmonic’s program this week — titled “The March to Liberation” and conducted by Leslie B. Dunner — which Thursday had a streak of urgency and plenty of orchestral splendor.

A world premiere from Courtney Bryan, “Gathering Song,” with text by Tazewell Thompson, opened the show; William Grant Still’s Symphony No. 2 followed; and, after intermission, a 45-minute, oratorio-style work by veteran composer Adolphus Hailstork, “Done Made My Vow, A Ceremony.” Squint at this sequence — a premiere from an up-and-comer, a venerable half-hour symphony, a dramatic finish — and you could almost see the outlines of a typical subscription concert.

Yet, an all-Black roster of composers is hardly business as usual at a mainstream institution like the Philharmonic. Still’s 1937 symphony, subtitled “Song of a New Race,” is the kind of chestnut we should be hearing American orchestras playing regularly. But his music remains a rarity. Hailstork is also too infrequently heard, despite a prolific, half-century career.

A program such as this ought to be big news on its own. But the Philharmonic amped up the proceedings by inviting video artist Rasean Davonté Johnson to create a visual accompaniment for each work, multimedia playing in parallel with the music. (Thompson, the librettist for Bryan’s premiere, was credited as the show’s director.)

This was tastefully done, but I tended to feel that the music didn’t need the help. From the outset, Bryan’s work proved thrilling in its polish and expressive range. In its early going, triumphal writing for brass was tugged at — and moodily complicated — by descending string motifs that traipsed across unpredictable intervals. It had the calmly challenging poise of composer and saxophonist Wayne Shorter, who died Thursday at 89.

Thompson’s text is voiced by a griot character, on Thursday bass-baritone Ryan Speedo Green, who calls out to the audience and initiates the piece’s titular sense of gathering. The lines unfurl in short lines, which Bryan paces generously in the music. Green relished every morsel, with a bright sound in his higher range and burnished roundness in lower-slung passages. (He is soon to be heard in Terence Blanchard’s “Champion” at the Metropolitan Opera, so his performance here was also something of a promising preview.)

Later in the Bryan, there are fillips of Afro Cuban rhythm and moments of thick orchestral modernism, as well as traces of stentorian, post-minimalist American opera. But the score does not come off as a stylistic grab bag. Though prismatic, it feels carefully woven as it touches on gospel and jazz traditions as well as contemporary idioms.

In Still’s Symphony No. 2, the Philharmonic strings, in particular, seemed to savor the down-home, pastoral airs of the first movement — even as flutes (one doubling on piccolo) executed their oscillations and divebombing phrases with terrific energy and articulation. Dunner sagaciously managed the call-and-response qualities of the score, though his suave, controlled reading also seemed to glide past stray bursts of piquant personality in Still’s writing.

Toward the end of the second movement, Still alternates between brief flecks of lush, 1940s-style Hollywood romance and noir. When Neeme Järvi recorded this work with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, he played up those contrasts, whereas Dunner seemed to sand off the contrastive edges with the Philharmonic. But because I’ve heard this music in person so rarely, I’m of the mind to say: Let a thousand interpretations bloom.

During Hailstork’s piece — structured as a Black American history lesson given by a character named Toil — I felt that some sparer moments were less than ideally balanced in the auditorium. Given that Toil is an amplified speaking part, those questions of balance could have something to do with the orchestra finding its acoustic footing inside the recently retrofitted Geffen Hall. Yet, the climatic moments, during which the New York Philharmonic Chorus navigated the Hailstork’s setting of various psalms, came across as grandly cosmic.

So, forget the Philharmonic’s distant future for now. This program only runs through Saturday, and who knows how long it will be before New Yorkers can hear the music of these three composers again on the same evening?

New York Philharmonic

This program repeats through Saturday at David Geffen Hall, Manhattan;

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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