by Alex Ross
The New York Times, Dec. 7, 1992
If you were to tell a roomful of musical pundits that the question "Whither Opera?" has become tiresome, inevitably the conversation would turn to "Whither the Symphony?" Is there a future for the symphony? Or did it die out long ago, with Mahler, Sibelius and/or Shostakovich? Alas, this topic is even more tiresome. The symphony has been a malleable form all along, re-invented by every composer who seriously addressed it. In the hands of contemporary composers as diverse as Robert Simpson, Witold Lutoslawski, Alfred Schnittke and Per Nørgård, it remains a vibrant organism, resisting musicological autopsies and epitaphs.
Signs of life could be clearly read in the Symphony No. 11 of David Diamond, given its world premiere Thursday night by the New York Philharmonic under Kurt Masur. This flawed but intensely ambitious work sprawls across three-quarters of an hour, defying a public that prefers to digest new music in 20-minute morsels. In the best tradition of Schubert and Bruckner, the structure is capped with a finale that throws out a superfluity of themes and goes on way too long. Mr. Diamond's familiar acerbic harmonies and terse lyricism held sway, giving the piece a somewhat antique sound throughout. But the confidence and conviction of the voice were unmistakable and, in the end, rather impressive.
The choice of Mr. Diamond for a 150th anniversary commission is especially apt because the Philharmonic premiered his First Symphony 51 years ago. Afterward the composer endured considerable stretches of obscurity, in spite of the efforts of Leonard Bernstein, who began his recording career with Mr. Diamond's "Prelude and Fugue No. 3" and later introduced the Fifth and Eighth Symphonies with the Philharmonic. Unlike Bernstein, Mr. Diamond never made a pretense of concealing his homosexuality, and suffered as a result. Now aged 77, he sounds a fierce tone that one might expect in the music of a much younger composer; at the same time he allows himself a rhetorical expansiveness, affirming not only the much-deprecated symphonic medium but his own difficult and determined career as well.
The Symphony No. 11 is in four movements, with brief semi-tonal themes appearing cyclically throughout. The first movement puts various motifs into play at once and develops them rigorously; the emphasis is on argumentation rather than atmosphere. The symphony's architecture widens in the Adagio, which is founded on a characteristically eloquent elegy for strings. In a note, Mr. Diamond mentions that the symphony was composed with the strengths of Kurt Masur and the Philharmonic in mind, particularly their aptitude for Bruckner; the Adagio's massed chorales and long crescendos have a Brucknerian heft, although its longer lines are clipped with an accent entirely Mr. Diamond's own.
The third movement is an "Allegro burlando" that doubles as a satiric concerto for orchestra. Surprising solos are spread throughout, with generous writing for glockenspiel and tubular bells; the concertmaster has the dominant role, although he is encroached upon by the leftmost member of the second violins. The comedy has a dark and obsessive tinge.
The enormous finale suffers from a lack of contrast; perhaps Mr. Masur should not have made a large cut halfway through, or perhaps he should have cut more. Overall, the performance gave a good picture of the score, but seemed not to make the most of it. The outer movements sometimes lacked alert rhythmic definition, an idiomatic swagger; the coda sounded tentative and abrupt. In the magnificent Adagio, however, the strings and brass sang out with commitment and eloquence. Glenn Dicterow deserves praise for his brilliant execution of the scherzo's fiendish solos.
Mr. Masur filled out the program with proficient, unremarkable readings of Brahms's "Academic Festival Overture" and Beethoven's Symphony No. 4. The Brahms began with a handsome tenseness of atmosphere, but never quite broke loose into rough jubilation. And while the Beethoven was very smoothly played, its attacks were not quite crisp enough. These excursions into familiar repertory seemed overshadowed by the colossal effort of the Diamond premiere, which all told should stand as a highlight of the current celebratory season.