Of all the things that inspire music, one of the most paradoxically productive is death. Whether the sounds it brings forth are meant to console, to offer catharsis, or to build a bridge to the soul of the departed, common to all is a refusal to accept that definitive silence.
Funerary music was at the heart of two very different programs at the New York Philharmonic this week. A glittering Lunar New Year gala on Wednesday, conducted by Kahchun Wong, included the American premiere of a violin concerto by Tan Dun called “Fire Ritual.” On Thursday, the orchestra’s music director, Jaap van Zweden, led a burnished reading of Brahms’s “A German Requiem.” Vastly unalike, both works are full of luminous color and reflect complex attitudes toward death.
Brahms wrote his “German Requiem” during a period in which he suffered the loss of his mother, and not long after the death of his friend Robert Schumann. Comfort, sadness and faith in an afterlife free of suffering are interwoven in this sprawling work for chorus, soloists and orchestra.
The opening chorus can’t quite seem to settle on a key or mood, and in the march of the second movement, the pulse is shared between the stern timpani and gentle harp. In the choir, too, the stentorian seriousness of the men singing a line from Peter, “For all flesh is as grass,” is answered by the women in a more pliable, folk-song-like style. If this music were a funerary wreath, it would be woven from meadow flowers rather than stiff chrysanthemums.
[Culture Calendar: NYC’s most anticipated cultural events]
On Thursday, Mr. van Zweden was attentive to these nuances, drawing subtle and flexible playing from the orchestra. In the fugal passages, where the specter of Bach flickers through, he showed a patient eye for the overarching structure. In the excellent Concert Chorale of New York, meticulously prepared by James Bagwell, the men especially impressed with ringing, muscular fortes.
The baritone Matthias Goerne brought mystery and intensity to his solos, while the soprano Ying Fang sang “Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit” (“You now have sadness”) with gleaming, youthful sound. When the choir first answered her, with lines evoking a mother’s consolation, its tone was so hushed that it sounded like a memory.
Much of Mr. Tan’s “Fire Ritual” is designed to bring forth things that are hidden. In a program note, he explained that this work is inspired by ancient Chinese rituals that pit two groups of musicians against each other. The solo violin — here played with fierce dramatic commitment by Bomsori Kim — takes on a shamanistic role. With this work, the composer was “trying to find those dead people and souls to wake them up with special sounds and gestures and colors.”
If conflicting emotions are interwoven in the Brahms, Mr. Tan isolates them and pits them in stark opposition. Tender, ornate violin solos alternate with brash orchestral outbursts full of clanging percussion and conciliatory passages. Some players are positioned in the auditorium, so that certain sounds — like an eerily realistic evocation of bird song — envelop the audience. The score includes unusual touches: musicians hum and hiss, the conductor intones a text, string players create wind by rhythmically fluttering a page of their music.
Mr. Tan’s concerto was a potentially risky piece to program. With just one performance, it also represented a substantial investment of time and resources on the part of the musicians, who donated their services to benefit the Philharmonic at the Lunar New Year gala. Crowd-pleasing pieces like Li Huanzhi’s jaunty “Spring Festival Overture,” Stravinsky’s “Firebird” Suite and a barn-burning rendition of Mozart’s Queen of the Night aria from “The Magic Flute,” with the Korean soprano So Young Park, worked their reliable magic on an enthusiastic audience.