Gemma New brings out a softer side of the NSO
By Michael Andor Brodeur
The Washington Post
February 4, 2022
The New Zealand-born Gemma New, music director of the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra in Ontario and principal guest conductor for the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, made her NSO debut in January 2020, just weeks before the pandemic landed in the States.
For Thursday’s return to the podium, New eased the NSO into Ralph Vaughan Williams’s “Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis” with scarcely any attack at all — allowing it to rise and widen and deepen and darken. As meticulous as Beethoven was with his mechanics, Vaughan Williams was with his moods; and the “Fantasia,” which essentially introduced him as a major talent in 1910, offers an often thrilling glimpse of his harmonic strategies still in formation.
Part of the magic of this “Fantasia” is how it transforms its sacred source material — one of nine tunes Thomas Tallis wrote for the archbishop of Canterbury in 1567 — into something more like a sublime naturalism. At times it feels driven by the wind. New led the piece as though she were steering the weather, sweeping her arms to summon shifting colors to the surface. But she also maintained firm control over the piece’s countering major and minor surges.
The program’s molten core was the world premiere of Missy Mazzoli’s “Violin Concerto (Procession)," a work in five short (mostly conjoined) movements. Like Vaughan Williams, Mazzoli taps into and transforms a hymnal history — albeit with a more “messed-up” (her words) twist.
Composed over the course of 2021, the concerto’s themes are inspired by medieval rituals that emerged through the Plague. (“It can always be worse,” Mazzoli deadpanned from the stage before the performance). Over its 20-minute run, Mazzoli conjures penitential processions, “melting hymns,” spells cast over broken bones and a conclusory ascent to the heavens. (And sure, that included some writhing in my seat here and there. Not everything needs to be nice.)
Jennifer Koh and Mazzoli have a decade of collaborative work behind them — including a short piece for “Alone Together” — and the “Violin Concerto” puts this long-brewed chemistry on full display. It’s an unsettling work that opens like a trapdoor, or the moment you fall asleep.
Koh didn’t ride atop the orchestra so much as engage in a prolonged tug-of-war with it — her solos tensing like a tendon within the body of the music. She attacked short solos as if she were sawing through a pipe; elsewhere she strung silvery threads through a dense fabric of dark strings and darting flutes. Her slow-burning centerpiece cadenza was a searing highlight of the evening.
The Fifth — composed as a centerpiece for a national celebration of the Finnish composer’s 50th birthday in 1915 — is a symphony that passively embraces your perception like a landscape. At all times, it gives the impression of a vast distance surveyed, a vista studded with mountains, a vantage unfettered by a frame. It is music in service of scale.
As such, many of the Fifths I’ve grown most attached to over the decades have taken the work’s capacity for grandeur as an invitation to play God for half an hour. I’m thinking of Koussevitzky leading the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1945; Karajan leading the Berlin Philharmonic in 1965; Ashkenazy leading the Philharmonia Orchestra in 1980.
New’s approach to Sibelius brought to mind Noseda’s approach to Beethoven — a heightened attention to detail and texture without complete deference to drama. Those elemental forces that New summoned in the Vaughan Williams came in quite handy for the Fifth. She elevated the tectonic shifts of its earthy lower registers in the first movement; and she let the strings gather and build in whipping gusts around the foothills of the third.
Like the “Fantasia,” the Fifth draws its power from rich passages of gleaming, sun-flooded concordance. New brought a unique sensitivity to the task, negotiating the symphony’s balance of beauty and beast without obscuring Sibelius’s fondness for darker brushstrokes to better bring out the bright ones. Even as she released the swans at its famously soaring finale, there was a lightness to it, a softness to their departure that felt unexpectedly welcome.
To read the full review, click here.