Tonight’s Philharmonic concert got a bit of an inauspicious start with Steven Stucky’s Elegy from his oratorio August 4, 1964. The overall work was premiered and recorded by JvZ ten years ago in Houston. Tonight, though, the excerpt seemed a little not-quite. The music clearly comes from a very deep place, but the performance, while accomplished, didn’t so much. Copland’s Clarinet Concerto came off much better—principal clarinetist Anthony McGill is fantastic and much-loved by orchestra and audience, and the performance was polished and eloquent.
If the Stucky wasn’t all it needed to be, perhaps the reason was after intermission. Julia Wolfe’s Fire in My Mouth, receiving its first performance tonight, must have taken up the lion’s share of the rehearsal time. It’s a massive, hour-long work for very large orchestra, chamber choir and girls’ choir. Inspired by the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, it’s a dense, tense and chilling piece. Reaching beyond the tragedy with testimony of survivors, Wolfe takes in a greater arc of the victims’ story, not just the end of it. It’s at once specific and big-picture. And it’s very good. It’s a lot to take in on one hearing; I’m a little surprised I’ve managed to say even this much. It’s stunning and unsettling. Go, or catch it on the radio (or presumably there’s a recording not too far off).