Live review: Varse (R)evolution at the Lincoln Center Festival

Edgard Varse

We never thought we'd say this about a music director of the New York Philharmonic—a post previously held by Mahler, Leonard Bernstein and Lorin Maazel, all dashing, hard-jawed guys—but Alan Gilbert looked frankly adorable conducting the second night of Varse (R)evolution on Tuesday night. The two-day retrospective of composer Edgard Varse's complete works, part of the Lincoln Center Festival, brought out some of the best musicians in the city—from the International Contemporary Ensemble to soprano Anu Komsi—to celebrate some gnarly and challenging works.

RECOMMENDED: All Lincoln Center Festival coverage

Strange, then, that it was at once soothing, energizing and comforting to listen to them. In a tricked-out Avery Fisher Hall with the thrust of the concert stage nearly doubled to accommodate a huge number of musicians, it all felt rather cozy—more like a living room than a concert hall. Folks kicked back for the all-percussion piece Ionisation, a drumline-on-acid piece that was stirring in Gilbert's hands. The eight-player Octandre was full of Stravinskian hints (Igor would also write an octet in the same year as Varse) and Bernstein premonitions, an eternal sunshine of our addled minds. On flute and piccolo, Mindy Kaufman was an especially welcome presence.

The finale, Amriques, was the runaway audience favorite; dozens of slack-jawed folks kvelling about the resounding final chords were kicked out of the lobby by security guards eager to close up shop for the night. But by far the most epic piece was Tuning Up, a concise work that Varse started in 1947 and left unfinished at his death in 1965. (Chou Wen-chung completed the score in 1998.) Emerging from the seemingly casual pitches of an orchestra tuning before a performance, the piece turns into a theatrical event akin to a musical odyssey of Varse's life. There are quotes from Beethoven's Seventh Symphony, "Yankee Doodle Dandy" and (ever so meta) Varse's own works. None of the references were lost on Gilbert or the players, and it was a massive listen—the sonic equivalent to T. S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." Eddie would have been proud.