Two hornists to the fore in New World chamber finale

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Jennifer Montone

Yuki Numata

Yuki Numata

Hyojin Ahn

Hyojin Ahn

The French horn is the wild card of the orchestra, an instrument that can be majestic, thrilling, evocative and richly expressive. It’s also a tortuous device to play and even if a musician does everything right, the instrument doesn’t always respond. There’s the gut-check factor as well: if a violinist in the middle of a section has errant intonation, only the surrounding players are aware; if a horn player flubs a note, everyone in the hall knows it instantly.

The horn featured prominently in the New World Symphony’s final event of 2008, a chamber program that closed out the year Sunday afternoon. The concert showcased this series at its best, with New World members joined by the Philadelphia Orchestra’s principal horn Jennifer Montone in a challenging 20th-century work, sandwiched between two repertoire evergreens at the Lincoln Theatre.

Gyorgy Ligeti wrote his Horn Trio in 1982 after a five-year silence following his opera Le Grand Macabre, a breakthrough that led to a series of concertos over the next decade. Subtitled  “Hommage a Brahms,” the Horn Trio utilizes the same violin-horn-piano forces as Brahms’ work in the same genre, but to very different ends.

On the surface, Ligeti’s Horn Trio looks backward toward tradition, retooling a theme from Beethoven’s Les Adieux Sonata, and utilizing a concluding passacaglia and ternary form for the first three movements. Yet the music is fully Ligeti’s own, in its fractured, anti-virtuosic virtuosity, with intense challenges for all three players.

For all the complexity, there’s a keen communicative thrust and compelling concentration, as with the spare, tendrill-like opening phrases exchanged between violin and horn against broken piano chords. Ligeti’s Hungarian background is palpable in the angular Bartokian rhythms of the second movement, which turn densely aggressive with extreme dynamic contrasts and crunched harmonics.

The horn passages of the Alla Marcia at times suggest a kind of wrong-note Strauss, while the concluding Lamento’s barely audible dynamics offer a surprisingly retro expression in the soothing phrases and peaceful solace of the coda.

It’s an understatement to call Ligeti’s Horn Trio a demanding work, but the power, eloquence and commitment of all three players in this music was outstanding even by the New World’s elevated standard.  Montone displayed complete sympathy with Ligeti’s challenging music, displaying striking breath control, her graded dynamics and tonal nuance symbiotically echoed by violinist Yuki Numata and pianist Hyojin Ahn. All three women made a strong case for this tough, densely wrought and fascinating music.

Roslyn Black

Roslyn Black

More familiar fare framed the Ligeti trio. The horn is very much primus inter pares in Mozart’s Horn Quintet, which led off the afternoon. New World hornist Roslyn Black provided a virtual seminar in Mozart style, playing with an elegance, easy grace, and glowing tone.  In the Andante, Black’s rounded, velvety legato revealed a depth in this music infrequently heard and, while the hunting-horn finale wasn’t entirely pristine, Black and colleagues conveyed the music’s wit and cheerful essence delightfully.

The horn is indigenous to Brahms’ symphonic  music, yet the afternoon closed with one of the German composer’s non-wind chamber masterworks, the Piano Quartet No. 1 in G minor. Cast in four large movements, this epic work is notoriously difficult to hold together, but the New World players showed both great technical command and complete sympathy with Brahms’ long lines and rhapsodic expression.

Anchored by the sterling piano work of Elaine Hou, violinist Melissa Chung, violist Erik Rynearson and cellist Soo Jee Yang put across the youthful fire and exuberance of the outer movements, brought a piquant touch to the Intermezzo and burnished lyrical thrust to the Andante. The performance culminated in a bravura rendition of the gypsy-flavored finale, thrown off with unbridled zigeneur intensity and at a blistering tempo that closed the afternoon and the New World’s year in exhilarating fashion.

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Mon Dec 22, 2008
at 1:30 pm
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