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Drama in Stories Written in Sounds

by Alann Kozinn, The New York Times, February 4, 2008.

Ever since he became the Brooklyn Philharmonic’s music director in 2005, Michael Christie has been intent on restoring the thematic programming “” and with it, the feeling that the orchestra’s concerts were events “” that was the philharmonic’s calling card through the 1990s.

His program on Saturday evening at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, “Painters of Sound,” brought together John Corigliano’s “Pied Piper Fantasy” (1982) and Berlioz’s “Symphonie Fantastique.” Both works are painterly, but more than that, they are dramas without texts. Each tells an explicitly drawn story: Mr. Corigliano’s work, a flute concerto, is the familiar tale of a piper who rids his town of its rat problem; Berlioz’s symphony, a lovelorn artist’s opium-fueled nightmare. And each leans on virtuosic orchestration to make its characters and events seem to be unfolding in the listener’s imagination.

The program also did double duty as the main event in a minifestival devoted to Mr. Corigliano, who celebrates his 70th birthday on Feb. 16. For the occasion the orchestra commissioned a staging for “Pied Piper Fantasy,” directed by David Herskovits and designed by Lenore Doxsee.

The work has always been partially staged. It was composed for James Galway, the most theatrical of flutists, who generally performed it dressed in a long, colorful robe and followed Mr. Corigliano’s suggestion in the score, that the finale include the soloist leading an army of flute-playing children through the aisles of the hall.

The flutist Alexa Still honored that request as well, with a group of flutists and percussionists from Brooklyn and Manhattan high schools. What Mr. Herskovits and Ms. Doxsee added were lighting effects on a screen behind the orchestra, and a large number of people in rat costumes with glowing red eyes. The rats were amusing but also distracting. Mr. Corigliano’s score, full of tactile percussive effects and sliding strings during these scenes, paints the rat battle clearly enough. Better to let the music do its job.

Ms. Still could not be accused of hogging the spotlight, but she played the solo line with sufficient agility and warmth to remind listeners that, story line aside, this is a virtuosic flute concerto. It is also a colorful orchestral score, and Mr. Christie drew a suitably eerie, atmospheric performance from his players.

The orchestra’s account of the Berlioz was just as fine. Mr. Christie’s tempos were often unusually brisk, but he shaped the descriptive movements carefully, and the orchestra’s lush string playing and beautifully turned solo woodwind lines kept the drama vivid and fresh.

After the concert a few of Mr. Corigliano’s former students paid tribute to him in a performance upstairs at the BAMcafé. The most vital works were Nico Muhly’s post-Minimalist “Stride” (2006) and excerpts from Jefferson Friedman’s brash, insistent String Quartets Nos. 2 and 3 (1999 and 2005), played electrifyingly by the American Contemporary Music Ensemble. Also impossible to resist were Mr. Friedman’s “Eight Songs” (2004), a set of high-energy, off-the-wall saxophone and percussion pieces played with urgency and passion by the Yesaroun’ Duo. If the avant-garde comedian Andy Kaufman had written classical music, it would probably have sounded like this.

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