The Raven

May 28, 2014

The New York Times

Anthony Tommasini

Last year, in announcing the inaugural NY Phil Biennial — an 11-day festival of contemporary music with 21 performances of 13 programs — Alan Gilbert, the music director of the New York Philharmonic, unabashedly invited comparisons with similar events in the visual arts. Not just the Whitney Biennial in New York, which focuses on American artists, but also the Venice Biennale, perhaps the world’s most prestigious showcase of international contemporary art.

There should be something like them in music, Mr. Gilbert asserted. Every other year was the right frequency; New York was the obvious city. And the Philharmonic was the ideal institution to anchor it, to be the principal curator, along with partnering institutions like the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Music of Art, the 92nd Street Y and the Orchestra of St. Luke’s.

The NY Phil Biennial, which will present works by some 70 composers, ranging from high school students to living masters, opened on Wednesday night. And it said much about the festival’s nature and scope that the first event was not a Philharmonic concert, but an inventive production by the enterprising Gotham Chamber Opera, in collaboration with the Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College. The main feature was the American premiere of “The Raven,” a monodrama for mezzo-soprano and 12 instruments by the Japanese composer Toshio Hosokawa, in the first of three performances.

Neal Goren conducts with, from left onstage, Fredrika Brillembourg and Alessandra Ferri.

At 58, Mr. Hosokawa has long been a major figure in Japan and an influential presence in Europe. He has had less exposure in America. “The Raven” takes its text from Edgar Allan Poe’s well-known narrative poem about a man in despair over the loss of his lover, Lenore; he is visited, or so it seems, by a mysterious raven that answers all of his perplexed questions with an enigmatic “Nevermore.”

Mr. Hosokawa’s engrossing 44-minute score sets Poe’s poem to vocal lines that vary from intoned speech to quasi-sung declamation to lyrically alluring flights to bursts of soaring intensity. The instrumental music is atmospheric and organic, with Impressionist colorings, pungently atonal harmonic writing, spectral textures and Asian-influenced melodic fragments.

For this presentation, the director and choreographer Luca Veggetti turns the monologue into a staged work for the compelling mezzo-soprano Fredrika Brillembourg and the renowned, and riveting, dancer Alessandra Ferri. Poe’s narrator, never named, tells his story in chilling, haunting detail. But is the raven appearing in the present? Is the narrator delusional? Is he descending in the moment into near madness? Or telling us about it?

Mr. Veggetti honors the ambiguity of the poem by treating the two performers as sides of a single person. That the music is sung by a mezzo-soprano intriguingly ameliorates the gender-specificity of the narrator.

In this staging, Ms. Brillembourg and Ms. Ferri are similarly costumed (by Peter Speliopoulos) in dark, grayish slacks and shirts, with silken black hair and ponytails. As the work opens, Ms. Brillembourg sits on the front edge of a platform, her knees against her chest, her head resting on her arms, lost in thought. Ms. Ferri is curled up nearby.

Soon the two performers interact, and the staging becomes like a dance. While singing this daunting work, Ms. Brillembourg entwines her limbs in stylized positions with Ms. Ferri’s, whose balletic gestures express the inner grief and fears of the narrator. At times, Ms. Brillembourg even balances Ms. Ferri across her knees or on her back.

In opening up Mr. Hosokawa’s monodrama, Mr. Veggetti calls attention to the one problematic element of the score. Poe’s long poem is written in incessantly rhymed, rhythmically repetitive, alliterative lines that are meant to lull you, to numb you, in a way, into the desired state of mystery and fear: “Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing,/Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before.”

The lines almost demand to be read in a subdued drone, which is what Mr. Hosokawa does during too many stretches of his vocal setting. Inevitably, this creates some ponderous moments. I wish that now and then the singer would break into patter, or skittish bursts that match the instruments — which include a sultry saxophone and a reedy clarinet — especially in the vivid, atmospheric performance conducted by Neal Goren.

Still, the music, over all, is intricate, distinctive and, at its best, genuinely frightening. The staging offers a showcase for two impressive artists, especially the vocally plush, dramatically courageous Ms. Brillembourg.

This 60-minute program, with no intermission, opened with a performance of a 1924 instrumental work inspired by a Poe tale, “Conte Fantastique: Le Masque de la Mort Rouge” (“The Masque of the Red Death”), by the French composer André Caplet, who was a colleague of Debussy’s. Scored for harp and string quartet, the piece loosely depicts the story of a prince hosting a masquerade ball who is visited by a mysterious figure that turns out to be not a person, but a fatal plague.

The score recalls Debussy and nicely conveys the oblivious ball guests, dancing to swirling, waltzing music, spiked with ominous undercurrents. It is vividly performed by members of the Gotham Chamber Opera Orchestra, including the excellent harpist Sivan Magen.

Judging by the enthusiastic audience that filled the hall, the first NY Phil Biennial is off to an encouraging start.