The New York Philharmonic performed under Zubin Mehta at the Kennedy Center Saturday like the great orchestra it can be but at times is not. There was as fine a playing of Berlioz's "Harold in Italy" as one could ask for today, full of finesse as well as power. And there was a Tchaikovsky "Francesca da Rimini" that was mostly just power, but so is the piece.
One also heard a different brand of artistic responsibility in the presence on the program of a new work, premiered only two days earlier at Lincoln Center, that was surely as fatuous, willful and downright irritating as any so-called work of art that is likely to be imposed on any orchestra, conductor or listeners within the musical year.
This is not entirely to complain, for that is the kind of risk a great orchestra takes with new music. All the more odd, however, is that this 20-minute array of out-of-nowhere and into-the-breeze cacophony should be the creation of the Philharmonic's composer-in-residence, Jacob Druckman.
It's called "Athanor," and that's just the beginning of the confusion. "Athanor," explains the composer in program notes as pretentious as the composition, "was the cosmic furnace of the alchemists in which the 'Great Work' or transmutation of base materials into gold was to have been accomplished. Alchemy embraced the ancient concept of the four elements: water, air, earth and fire, which would combine at the alchemist's command, given the rare proper circumstances and the presence of the elusive and mysterious 'philosopher's stone.' "
Whatever the "proper circumstances," they are missed in this piece of music.
There is a movement on each of the elements. Fortunately, the first three end with pauses. Otherwise even the attentive listener would be lost, because the music all sounds the same -- trances in the high strings, unending clatter in the percussion -- except for the low brass grunts in "Earth" and extra rhythmic figures in the concluding "Fire."
There's nothing really wrong with music on a subject like this. After all, there's Strauss' "Also sprach Zarathustra" -- but that is real music, of the highest quality.
"Athanor" is one of those pieces you lose patience with early. Complicated as the alleged idea may be, it soon becomes clear that any link between the concept and what you are hearing is too vague to mean very much. That's the essential difference between this kind of sound bath and, say, the works of Varese. Varese is specific.
Mehta did his best for the piece. But he hinted at his feelings in the way he perfunctorily plopped his left arm at his side after each movement. And he made some crack at the first-chair players at the end that had them giggling.
As for "Harold in Italy," why is it not heard more these days? It used to be common in the days of Toscanini and Munch. Maybe the problem is that it's so hard, and maybe also that it spotlights a solo viola, hardly the most dazzling of instruments. Yesterday, the solo was handled beautifully by first viola Paul Neubauer, who two years ago became the youngest principal string player in the orchestra's history.
The real star was the Philharmonic itself. The piece had been polished to a refinement truly worthy of the clarity and economy of Berlioz's orchestration, with some amazing articulation of the joint strings and brass in the last movement. Mehta kept the scale modest when needed, but also enormous, as in the last movement. The individuality of Berlioz's marvelous textures was crystal clear.
The Tchaikovsky wasn't quite so neat, with some rough releases and attacks, and a little underplaying of Mehta's indicated phrasing. But keep this music at Mehta's kind of fever pitch and it's grand.