Review: New York Philharmonic Journeys From Ocean to Desert

Ostensibly, the New York Philharmonic’s final two programs of the season were about the earth. But they served more to illustrate the challenge composers face in translating the climate crisis to music.

Last week at David Geffen Hall, Julia Wolfe’s new multimedia oratorio, “unEarth,” took an explicitly activist stance, lashing out at ecological violence and offering a path to recovery. On Thursday, John Luther Adams’s “Become Desert,” in its New York premiere, addressed the natural world more humbly — mourning, perhaps, the desertification of environments, but also evoking, marveling at and bowing down to forces larger than ourselves.

The approach you prefer can be a matter of taste; I find observation more persuasive. Take this week. As smoke from Canadian wildfires drifted to New York, you could read that the city’s air quality was the worst on record, and understand the severity, but a step outside would reveal even more: a burning in your eyes and throat, an unrecognizable view of streets and parks obscured by an orange haze.

That is the difference between “unEarth” and “Become Desert,” between declaring an emergency and bringing it to your feet. Interestingly, Wolfe and Adams have worked in both modes; her earlier oratorios have tended toward the poetic, and his “Vespers of the Blessed Earth,” which premiered in April, had the blunt rhetoric of a protest sign. These are two of the finest composers of our time, each with a Pulitzer Prize. But they are still figuring out how to respond to the climate crisis without making artistic missteps.

And composers aren’t alone. The Philharmonic, too, had mixed success with its “Earth” concerts, which were both conducted by Jaap van Zweden. Wolfe’s work shared the billing with, for some reason, a seemingly unrehearsed account of Sibelius’s Violin Concerto. Thursday’s program was an improvement, tracing a more considered path from the ocean to the desert.

Representing the ocean was Britten’s “Four Sea Interludes From ‘Peter Grimes,’” brief movements that do double duty as poetic depictions of water, and as representations of the opera’s underlying drama. On Thursday, they were mainly illustrative of the renovated Geffen Hall’s acoustics, which in their bright dryness rewarded the lithe angularity of “Sunday Morning” but punished the violent muddle of “Storm.”

Between the climactic ending of the “Interludes” and the monumentality of “Become Desert,” it was easy to overlook the small, Debussyan beauty of Toru Takemitsu’s “I Hear the Water Dreaming,” featuring the Philharmonic’s principal flute, Robert Langevin, as the soloist. He had a warm, lulling tone but played — like the concertmaster, Frank Huang, in the Sibelius last week — with the selfless stage presence of a section leader rather than an assertive star.

“Become Desert” is the third installment of a trilogy that began with “Become River,” a 2010 chamber work of icy harmonic shards trickling into a flow that grows grander, and deeper, as if to lead directly into “Become Ocean” (2013), which won the Pulitzer. A masterpiece of scale and form, it immerses its listeners into a world that moves unpredictably in grand swells and ebbs. “Desert,” from 2018, continues in that enveloping vein, a musical equivalent of a camera placed on the ground to witness an expansive landscape as the day breaks and recedes, then returns — a glimpse into a repetitive yet ever-changing environment. The earth emerges, in all three, as awesome in every sense of the word.

The Seattle Symphony, under Ludovic Morlot, has recorded the entire trilogy. In that account, you get a sense of Adams’s deference to his subject, rendered in stereoscopic clarity: textures that move like shadows; stretches of seeming stasis that evolve organically, demanding patience and distance to truly perceive; an unchanging pace of life marked in the score with a tempo of 45 beats per minute, described by Adams as “timeless.” At the opening, percussion instruments chime on every beat, but scattered, which with a haze of sustained harmonics dissolve any sense of a downbeat.

But at Geffen Hall, van Zweden’s baton sliced through the air more quickly, shaving a few minutes from the score’s typical duration and dispelling its magic, and delicacy, along the way. Its 4/4 time signature all too apparent, the music was less immersive than propulsive.

It was an unfortunate New York introduction to a work that ranks among Adams’s most ingeniously reverential. As written, the slowly evaporating final section recalls the poignant dissolving strings at the end of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony. On Thursday, though, it just felt like a march to a finish line painted intrusively on the earth.

New York Philharmonic

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

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