Review: Children Sing of Resistance at the Philharmonic

The composer Olga Neuwirth doesn’t tend to call her works anything as straightforward as symphonies or concertos.

Instead, over the years, Neuwirth, 55, has classified pieces in fanciful categories: an “amphigory” for violin and ensemble, a “ballet mécanomorphe,” a “distorting mirror” for orchestra, a “footnote” for soprano.

And now, “musical calligrams.” That is the subtitle of “Keyframes for a Hippogriff,” the sprawling, chaotic explosion of postmodernism that the New York Philharmonic played on Saturday evening at David Geffen Hall, conducted by Thomas Sondergard.

“Hippogriff” was to have had its world premiere with the Philharmonic as part of its Project 19 series of new works by female composers. But the pandemic intervened, and the piece came to New York after being performed by the Berlin Philharmonic and the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic, two of the other commissioners.

It is good news for those of us who keep pressuring orchestras to commission music larger in scale than the 10- or 15-minute length of the standard concert opener. That position has become something of a prison for contemporary works, offering audiences a little taste of the new that can be quickly forgotten over the next hour or two of standard repertory.

Thirty minutes long, and scored for a big orchestra, countertenor soloist, children’s choir, broad battery of percussion, electric guitar and pair of synthesizers, “Hippogriff” is not so easily dismissed. Grand and in-your-face, it keeps surging from hushed, tensely vibrating simmers to piercing instrumental and vocal roars.

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