By Bernard Holland
From the New York Times - September 10, 2006
Of the few weeds that crop up in the well-mowed lawn that is the New York Philharmonic’s coming season, one of the more welcome is native to the Midwest. David Robertson, taking a week off from his music director’s job at the St. Louis Symphony, will conduct music by Kaija Saariaho, Debussy and Sibelius (Dec. 14 to 16).
He’s not a completely unfamiliar species: the Philharmonic is a co-commissioner of Ms. Saariaho’s “Adriana Songs,” a cycle extracted from her recent opera “Adriana Mater” with new connective tissue to join the various sequences. On the other hand, it takes visitors like Mr. Robertson to do the kind of heavy thinking that brings these three composers together in such a provocative way.
Ms. Saariaho represents an interesting merger of Finnish music’s gray, stony aesthetic with a deep involvement in the “spectral” movement and its slow-moving clouds of carefully calculated overtones. “Adriana Mater” — a story of rape and vengeance but, most of all, motherhood — offers moments of sonic violence uncharacteristic of her earlier work, but the songs will also turn to dream sequences and Ms. Saariaho’s dramatically conciliatory ending. The Irish mezzo-soprano Patricia Bardon will be the soloist.
Debussy’s “Martyr de St.-Sébastien” conceals his later, leaner and more ascetic style inside a lumbering multimedia vehicle crushed by its own hyperactivity. When Kurt Masur did a cut-down version with the Philharmonic a few years ago, spectacle was eliminated, but the arm-waving excesses of d’Annunzio’s texts were inescapable. Mr. Robertson performs further liposuction by presenting what he calls “Symphonic Fragments.”
If Debussy’s elusiveness has made its mark on Ms. Saariaho’s music, Sibelius’s “Night Ride and Sunrise” helps show the door she first came through. Brief, curious, obsessive, complex, with strings at a gallop, it is wintry in tone, a little hard-hearted and not easy to perform. “La Mer,” Debussy’s great essay on orchestral beauty, should warm us up at the end. After hearing this work, subtitled “Day in the Life of the Sea,” Erik Satie said that he liked the part at about half-past 10. We should be on our way home by then.