The word spirit means different things to different people. For some, it’s a religious word, with sacred connotations; for others, it’s a secular evocation of the individual’s unique life force. Rather than attempt to settle on a single definition, SPIRIT — one of the focal points of the New York Philharmonic’s 2022–23 season — presents concerts and events that speak to human resilience and various forms of triumph. The Personal. The Political. The Artistic.
The centerpiece of SPIRIT is two weeks of orchestral concerts conducted by Music Director Jaap van Zweden, each presenting an epic masterpiece from a different century. The first, Messiaen’s Turangalîla-symphonie, performed March 17–19, unfolds over the course of ten movements. In its day it was praised as “new in every way” and condemned for “appalling melodic tawdriness.” Unusual for this devoutly Catholic composer, it is a fundamentally secular work, the second in a triptych inspired by Tristan and Isolde. That legend famously ends in tragedy, but Messiaen wrote that he was inspired by a love “that transcends the body, transcends even the limitations of the mind, and grows to a cosmic scale.” In fact, he created the solo piano part for Yvonne Loriod, who would become his second wife. The composer wrote of this towering, ecstatic work: “The Turangalîla-symphonie is a love song. It is also a hymn to joy. Not the respectable, calmly euphoric joy of some good man of the 17th century, but joy as it may be conceived by someone who has glimpsed it only in the midst of sadness; that is to say, a joy that is superhuman, overflowing, blinding, unlimited.”
The following week, March 23–25, van Zweden conducts J.S. Bach’s monumental St. Matthew Passion in its first NY Phil performance in 15 years—and Jaap van Zweden’s first time with this Orchestra. “It has been a huge wish to play this incredible piece in New York, and I’m so honored and happy that we can do this in our new home,” the Music Director said, referring to the newly transformed David Geffen Hall.
The St. Matthew Passion has been celebrated as a pinnacle of artistic ambition and achievement — a solemn, mournful work of tremendous scope that, over roughly three hours, tells the story of Jesus’s arrest and death. This oratorio is a blend of beautiful, poignant melodies, wide-ranging compositional techniques, and a libretto that features biblical verses from the Gospel according to St. Matthew, Lutheran hymns, and text by the 18th-century German poet Picander. The assembled musical forces comprise two orchestras, two choruses, solo tenor (singing the role of the Evangelist) and solo baritone (Christus), and an array of other soloists who sing arias, recitatives, and roles such as Judas, Peter, and Pontius Pilate. Taken together, you have a majestic, immersive work, one that makes its overall impact felt with its somber, reflective ending. Van Zweden waited for the completion of the transformed David Geffen Hall — with upgraded acoustics and a new sense of intimacy between player and listener — before presenting this oratorio. He feels that the work is “a spiritual journey inside,” and hopes for the audience to “bring the music deep within, and then home with them, after the concert.”
Before the orchestral concerts, more intimate music by Bach acts as a prelude, with the March 7 Artist Spotlight performance by Hilary Hahn, Musical America’s 2023 Artist of the Year, of the composer’s Sonata No. 1 and the Partitas Nos. 1 and 2 for solo violin. Hahn is closely associated with these works through acclaimed live performances and recordings. In fact, she has been performing and revisiting them since she was a teenager, when she said: “Bach is, for me, the touchstone that keeps my playing honest. ... One can’t fake things in Bach.”
That honesty is perhaps a result of the sonatas’ and partitas’ structural and technical demands, as well as the artistic and interpretive depths required of the performer. Hahn’s playing has a clarity and warmth that makes the starkly beautiful works particularly penetrating, which may have been, in part, what Bach was imagining when he wrote on the works’ cover page “Sei solo” (“You are alone,” in Italian) rather than “Sei soli” (“Six solos”). Just as the performer is alone on stage, the listener may feel alone with—and personally connected to and affected by—the raw power and gravity of this music.