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Alice Tully Hall offers Vladimir Martynov and Philippe Herreweghe

March 2, 2009 |  2:00 pm

Vitanuova

Normally, New Yorkers never agree on anything.  But everyone seems to think the new and improved Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center’s super-sized “chamber music” venue, is swell.

Hearing two programs with relatively large forces over the weekend –- a bizarre new Russian opera and Bach’s B-minor Mass on period instruments –- both from close to the stage, I found the sound honest and alive.  New York colleagues who have cased the joint checking out the acoustical improvements by JaffeHolden assure me that the sound farther back in the hall and in the balcony (where it was never objectionable) is excellent as well.

Once Spartan, the hall now feels deluxe.  Still, the transformation by the architectural firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro is, I think, as much psychological as substantive.  In claustrophobic New York, where moving to an apartment in a new neighborhood is treated like relocation to a different continent, any change is a big deal.

Basically, Tully remains Tully.  The auditorium, which is now named the Starr Theater, was always a peculiar hall, and it still is.  An unusually wide layout accommodates about 1,000 seats (plus or minus a few given a variety of configurations) with ample leg room.  Consequently, Tully was never a cozy home for the Lincoln Center Chamber Music Society, although it worked well enough for the New York Film Festival.  Dry though not terrible acoustics added to a sense of wide-open space.

When the former opera singer and New York patron Alice Tully commissioned Olivier Messiaen to write “From the Canyons to the Stars” in 1974, his evocation of Zion National Park in Utah seemed to be just the right gesture for her hall.  Somewhat more reverberant and liquid acoustics now give the illusion of more intimacy, as does the lovely wood (with hidden LEDs to make it glow) added to the hall’s walls.

Still, the place is as big as ever.  But at least Tully is less monumental than Lincoln Center’s other grand edifices, and it was never as stuffy.  In it, Bang on a Can could hold a marathon or an outrageous composer like John Moran could premiere an opera in which Charles Manson was dropped into an episode of “Hawaii Five-0.”  Plus Tully contained Lincoln Center’s only organ, even if it remained hidden and hardly used.  The instrument was removed for the renovation and will be reinstalled shortly.

Fortunately, Tully's upscale new features -- felt fabric on the lobby walls à la Walt Disney Concert Hall, a large cafe (finally!) in the newly soaring foyer –- don't seem to have gone to Lincoln Center’s head.  For a two-week opening festival, which began Feb. 22 and will conclude Sunday, all seats for most events are $25.  The exception is that some concerts are free.  The range of music and musicians is admirably broad, with music ancient, modern and in between.  The performers include Juilliard students as well as the expensive touring groups I heard over the weekend.

Saturday night, the London Philharmonic, led by its galvanic young Russian music director, Vladimir Jurowski, gave the U.S. premiere of Vladimir Martynov’s “Vita Nuova,” a supposedly anti-opera based on Dante’s early poem “The New Life.”  Performed by these forces in London last month, the opera was lambasted by British critics, who called the score “Russian piffle” and worse.  Half the audience reportedly left at intermission.

Although Martynov, who was born in 1946 and is a major figure on the Moscow scene, remains unknown in the states, the Tully crowd (if not the New York Times) proved far kinder.  Most audience members stayed, and many rewarded the nearly three-hour event with a standing ovation.   The performance, with tenor and early music star Mark Padmore as a stunning Dante paying tribute to his Beatrice, was, I thought, gripping from beginning to end. 

Martynov can take some getting used to.  Once a Minimalist when that was subversive in the USSR, he these days provokes by maximalizing up a storm.  In “Vita Nuova,” he begins with early chant and at one point or another throws in as many styles as he can get away with.  Poly-stylism has long been a Russian vogue, but never anything this extreme.

In a pre-concert talk, Jurowski spoke of Martynov’s profound nihilism –- God is dead, European culture is dead, Western music is dead, composition is meaningless.  Padmore said the vocal writing continually “wrong-foots you.”  The musicologist Gerard McBurney, a longtime friend of the composer, called “Vita Nuova” a “portrait of the artist at a place that is beyond,” and he said of the score that Martynov “adds sugar until it makes you want to be sick.” 

That sugar starts being poured in the second act, which is all about sickness.  Musical treacle eventually creates sticky, sickly pseudo Schumann, pseudo Wagner, pseudo Mahler and pseudo Strauss.  Martynov is Uncle Vanya, decadent and sick of it all and, if you let him into your senses, mesmerizing.  He is an extraordinary sensualist and an equally extraordinary Medievalist (he’s an authority on the music of the Russian Orthodox Church). 

In his remarkable poem, Dante describes love and its loss through sonnets and their deconstruction.  Martynov finds a modern-day equivalent and has all of Russian culture and Western culture to help him in this postmodern postmortem.  The cast included Tatiana Monogarova (Beatrice), Marianna Tarasova (Amor) and three boy singers as delightful spirits, along with the EuropaChorAkademie. 

The minimal theatrics were trivial, especially the lighting and the orchestra's leaving at the end.  But that's no matter.  Robert Wilson plans to stage the work, and he is also cooking up an outdoor event with Martynov for Red Square and a cast of thousands.  The Kronos Quartet also has a Martynov project in the works.   The critics who hate Martynov will have a lot to hate.  I think he’s going to catch on big in the West.

Bach’s B-Minor Mass on Sunday came from Ghent, Belgium.  Philippe Herreweghe conducted his outstanding Collegium Vocale Gent Choir and Orchestra with four young soloists.  Damien Guillon, a male alto (who also sang some soprano), was the best.  The performance was light, fast and as thrilling as Herreweghe’s on Harmonia Mundi, a gold standard.  Early instruments resounded brilliantly in Tully, although I would have liked the timpani on risers so they might resound even more brilliantly.

This punchy, unsentimental performance had very little sugar, but on a deeper level it underscored the fact that Bach’s Mass was a religious and musical hybrid.  Bach’s many critics were just as mystified by it as today’s are about “Vita Nuova.”

Juxtaposing the two works was a stroke of genius.  Tallyho, Tully.

-- Mark Swed 

Photo: Soprano Tatiana Monogarova, a boys trio and the London Philharmonic conducted by Vladimir Jurowski perform Vladimir Martynov's "Vita Nuova" at Alice Tully Hall. Credit: Richard Termine

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