The New York Philharmonic's concert on Wednesday night featured the premiere of a new piano concerto by Tan Dun. He is a Chinese-American composer, highly successful. One plum commission after another has come his way. The Metropolitan Opera ordered up his "First Emperor." And the Philharmonic has paid for this concerto.
Conducting the orchestra was Leonard Slatkin, long the music director of the National Symphony Orchestra. Next season, he will go to Detroit. And the soloist was Lang Lang, the young Chinese sensation.
When the concert was supposed to begin, the orchestra wasn't on the stage. What gave? Steven Stucky came out to talk about the concerto. He is a composer, and host of the Philharmonic's pre-concert presentations. Time was, you could choose to attend the pre-concert lecture or not. Now, they are holding you hostage.
Mr. Stucky engaged in the usual special pleading done for new music. No one is ever insulted, for some reason. He told the audience that there was a lot of "buzz" about Tan Dun's concerto. We were witness to a big event. But a sure way to kill buzz, I believe, is to talk about it. And if music is really special, do you have to say so, in advance? Won't that be evident?
On a big video screen, we were shown an interview with the composer, who was asked, "What would you like us to be thinking as we listen to your piece?" This was a perfectly innocent question, perhaps even a good one. At the same time, it flirted with thought control.
In all, this pre-performance talking had the effect of ordering us to like the piece. Indeed, we were to celebrate it! And that's not really fair. Talk is talk, and music is music. A piece of music should rise or fall on its own, musical merits.
Tan Dun's concerto is in three movements, about 30 minutes long. It is a musical mishmash. It is Romantic, Impressionist, and Modernist. It is classical and popular. The first movement is mysterious, and then violent, and then bluesy (a bit). It has a cinematic feel. It could accompany a martial-arts movie (which Tan Dun has done before) or a thriller.
The piece involves a lot of percussion, as is typical in Tan Dun, and in contemporary music at large. And the piece is very much for both piano and orchestra. The orchestra is not merely in the background. In fact, the piano has surprisingly little to do, in this piano concerto.
The second movement is marked Adagio melancholia, and it is well described. It is songful and folky. And I confess I thought of the American West. I should note, too, that the piano part is not very pianistic. The solo instrument seems to be another form of soft percussion, like the marimba. (Yes, yes, the piano is a percussion instrument — but also other things.)
In time, the spell of this movement is broken with a snap, and we get some jazzy percussion. This is fairly Ravelian. And the final movement contains some beautiful writing: delicate, graceful. Tan Dun is very good at what some have called Chinese Impressionism. And, in this concerto, he brings us a big, battering Hollywood ending.
Is his concerto a curiosity or will it last? Will pianists want to champion it, or merely play it? I'm afraid I doubt it, although they may want to do so for national reasons. But guessing about the future of a work is risky business.
Lang Lang played with great limpidity and beauty, as he often does. He used music, complete with page-turner. Maybe he will come to memorize it? Maestro Slatkin managed the piece smartly, and the second movement included some gorgeous, mellifluous trumpet playing.
So, this "buzzy" premiere was the main event, which was a bit of a shame, because the second half of the program brought an absolutely superb performance from Mr. Slatkin and the Philharmonic. It was of Stravinsky's "Firebird," the full ballet, not just a suite.
Mr. Slatkin was confident, assured, ready to conduct. And the Philharmonic was ready to play. I don't know how much rehearsal they had — probably not much — but it looked like they had plenty. The score was everything we want: colorful, exotic, sweeping, crackling, kaleidoscopic. Years ago, I heard Mr. Slatkin praise Antal Dorati's classic recording of "The Firebird" with the London Symphony Orchestra. (Available on the Mercury label.) Wednesday night's performance was right up there.
"The Firebird" calls for endless instrumental solos, and the Philharmonic principals all delivered. These included the violist, the oboist, and the cellist, to name but three.
We are reminded that the New York Philharmonic is not to be taken for granted. If a visiting orchestra in Carnegie Hall, under a "buzzy" conductor, had played this way, everyone would have said, "Wow!" Maybe they did anyway.