Philadelphia Orchestra presents Daniil Trifonov

The sounds of art and nature

I attended last weekend’s Philadelphia Orchestra concert with Daniil Trifonov on my mind. The young Russian, one of the most impressive of the new crop of concert pianists, deserves his well-earned reputation. But wait: What was this Mason Bates piece slyly tucked into the program between sections of Beethoven’s The Creatures of Prometheus and intermission? Somehow, I hadn’t noticed this work on a program led by Yannick Nézet-Séguin and featuring several of my favorite composers: Beethoven, Liszt (Prometheus, Symphonic Poem No. 5), and Trifonov playing Mozart’s “Jenamy” concerto.

Henri Rousseau's 1908 'Fight Between a Tiger and a Buffalo.' (Image via Creative Commons/Wikimedia)

The Creatures of Prometheus, an early Beethoven ballet (he didn’t write many) is one of several works by the master based on a theme in the Third Symphony’s last movement. You’d never know from this elegant ballet that mythic Prometheus was chained to a rock where an eagle ripped out his liver daily. Rather, this lovely tale of the triumph of Enlightenment ideals over depravity embodies a theme that inspired Beethoven throughout his life.

Into the wild

Our marvelous conductor prepares audiences for “new music” by first giving a friendly little chat at the podium. Following Beethoven, Nézet-Séguin introduced Mason Bates’s Alternative Energy, a suite in four movements, classical in many ways, but true to its name, a powerhouse of unexpected delights.

As the conductor described and as we heard for ourselves in 25 minutes of lively, likeable, and logical sound, the “energy” referred to in the title is just that: energy allows us to drive cars and light our homes, but also potentially destroy our planet. Joining the orchestra at his laptop for these performances, Bates’s musical parable, an activist work for full orchestra and electronics, challenges those who deny climate change and its causes. Bates describes the program of this four-movement work as follows:

“Beginning in a rustic Midwestern junkyard in the late 19th century, the piece travels through ever greater and more powerful forces of energy – a present-day particle collider, a futuristic Chinese nuclear plant – until it reaches a future Icelandic rainforest, where humanity’s last inhabitants seek a return to a simpler way of life.”

Bates integrates car parts, ratchets, Thai gongs, scrap metal, sizzle cymbals, and much more, with the traditional orchestra featuring lovely solo playing by David Kim, first violinist. The work left me with several vivid impressions. For one, it seemed a tribute to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, but in reverse. The music begins in a high-tech, civilized world and unwinds rapidly into a primitive, lurching, sensuously writhing de-evolution where macaws cry and swamp creatures croak in fetid undergrowth.

Daniil Trifonov: Linda Holt was impressed. (Photo courtesy of Philadelphia Orchestra)
Daniil Trifonov: Linda Holt was impressed. (Photo courtesy of Philadelphia Orchestra)

The second impression was of being pulled into an Henri Rousseau painting. Musical themes rose up like snakes and flitted about the sometimes bizarre electronic and mechanical murmurings, replicating the sense of a Rousseauvian jungle: steamy and guarded by beasts with smoldering eyes.

I was certain we were halfway through movement three when the conductor turned and bowed, indicating the end of movement four. I must have gotten lost in the jungle, in absentminded enjoyment of this lurching yet lyrical, sometimes soaring composition. I felt a little flat at the end, but blame neither the composer nor the performers for sweeping me away to distraction.

Prometheus Unbound

Before the concert ended with an impassioned performance of Liszt’s Prometheus, Trifonov joined the orchestra in Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 9, the “Jenamy.” This young man recognizes the depth and meaning of great music. Trim and now sporting a short beard, he is a very expressive-looking pianist. Emotions flicker over his face, changing second by second as his hands bounce high off the keyboard, seeming to startle even him.

Mere physical responses are, of course, no barometer of musical understanding, but in Trifonov’s case they do suggest a total psychological and even spiritual immersion in the music. You can see him thinking as he plays and, more interestingly, when he is not playing. Having been impressed by Trifonov’s recordings of the Romantic masters, I was curious about his approach to Mozart. For my taste, it was playing of the highest quality and deepest sensitivity. The richly textured final movement had true strength of character. You could almost say it was Promethean.

To read Robert Zaller's review of Daniil Trifonov's Philadelphia Chamber Music Society performance, click here.

To read Dan Rottenberg's review of this performance, click here.

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