The New York Philharmonic – emphatically Alan Gilbert’s Philharmonic – offered an intriguing juxtaposition of opposites on Thursday. The evening began with a brief essay in glittery compression, Thomas Adès’s Polaris, in its New York premiere. This was followed, after an awkward intermission, by 80 minutes of hyper-expansive Mahler: the Weltschmerz, bombast, pathos and otherworldly shimmer of his Ninth Symphony.
Both works, not incidentally, will be repeated in London when the orchestra visits the Barbican next month. Polaris turns up on the 17th, in tandem with music of Berlioz, Stravinsky and Ravel. The Mahler, which needs no warm-up exercise, serves as sole offering on February 16.
Introduced in Miami a year ago at the opening of the New World Center, Polaris was commissioned by seven institutions, attesting to Adès’s international fame and fortune. Since the composition lasts only 13 minutes, one might speculate that each organisation paid for less than two minutes of music. Luckily it is all good music, splashy in affect, fascinating in context, rich in texture, clever in execution. And the Philharmonic played it beautifully.
In one way, the performance may have been notable for what it lacked rather than what it offered. Missing, though not necessarily missed, were the video projections originally devised by Tal Rosner. New Yorkers saw no split-screen vistas of distressed damsels lingering on cliffs and beaches amid picturesque abstractions. “I am looking forward to the increased focus on the orchestra that is possible when not presenting the visuals,” a possibly defensive Gilbert declared in his annotation.
Polaris is the north star, around which other stars apparently rotate. The stellar imagery is neatly translated in the score, which toys intricately with catchy canons, vast textural and dynamic crescendos and incessant contrapuntal echoes. Brass choirs, stationed in balconies within the auditorium, are supposed to add spatial polyphony, but the impact was inevitably diminished by the acoustical blurs of Avery Fisher Hall.
Still, Adès held his own honourably. And then came monumental Mahler.