Review: A Refugee Crisis, Composed Into a Symphony

Just before the start of the New York Philharmonic’s concert on Wednesday at David Geffen Hall, the composer Thomas Larcher came on stage, modestly introduced himself, and explained the title of his Symphony No. 2, “Kenotaph” (2015-16), which was about to receive its American premiere.

“Kenotaph” is the German word for cenotaph, he said: an “empty grave” commemorating “people who disappeared.” Honored in this work are the tens of thousands of refugees who have drowned in the Mediterranean Sea since the early 2000s. Living in Austria, a country roiled with debate over immigration, Mr. Larcher felt terrible about the refugee crisis, but also powerless. “Kenotaph” was his response, he said — a “helpless cry of despair.”

He emphasized that he didn’t conceive the symphony as program music, or as attempting to evoke a specific story. But in performance this wrenching, mysterious and episodic 37-minute piece did come across like program music. Conducted by Semyon Bychkov, who had a major success last season conducting the Philharmonic in Berio’s “Sinfonia,” its visceral intensity was its strongest quality. Whole stretches felt like teeming, sorrowful reflections of the human tragedy that inspired Mr. Larcher.

It’s scored for a huge orchestra with an array of makeshift percussion instruments, including thunder sheets and oil barrels. Yet these myriad sounds are folded subtly into the orchestral textures. From the opening of the first movement, which begins with a thwacked chord that sets off fidgety riffs, the music is continually kinetic and shifting.

Mr. Larcher’s ear for captivating sonorities and his sheer imagination kept pulling me in. Cluster chords are dense and hazy, yet pungent with tension. The music will break into a fleeting lyrical passage only to be pummeled down by an onslaught of percussion. The pensive Adagio movement comes closest to being a cogent entity, which made it all the more affecting. Echoes of Baroque-style chorales were intricately folded into the opening of the final movement, with tonal harmonies that splinter and turn vaporous.

But time and again I found the music predictable: a sudden fortissimo outburst will send other instruments scurrying; in collective glissando patterns, the instruments rise, swell in sound, then slide down and dissipate. As a cry of despair, “Kenotaph” was often powerful, but it did not always work as a symphony.

After intermission, leading Brahms’s Fourth Symphony, Mr. Bychkov seemed to be emphasizing the majestic sweep and breadth of the music, so much so that the performance sometimes felt stretched out and ponderous, especially the first movement. His approach worked best in the finale, which had uncommon grandeur and nobility. Why this Brahms staple was paired with Mr. Larcher’s symphony, though, I could not say.

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