Review: Julia Wolfe’s ‘unEarth’ Is Crowded Out by Multimedia

Since moving back into David Geffen Hall this season, the New York Philharmonic has tried to use its newly renovated, technologically adept space to give extra multimedia glamour to a few premieres.

Etienne Charles’s “San Juan Hill” opened the season in October, and dealt directly with the midcentury displacement of economically vulnerable populations on the blocks that became Lincoln Center. “The March to Liberation,” a program in March featuring the music of Black composers, was accompanied by video art.

On both occasions, I felt that the multimedia — however sensitively rendered — undercut my experience of the music. During “San Juan Hill,” Jaap van Zweden, the Philharmonic’s music director, would be building a real rapport, and momentum, with Charles’s group Creole Soul; but then there would be a pause for a lengthy new interjection of video commentary. And a new work by Courtney Bryan during “The March to Liberation” was so transporting, I at times found myself closing my eyes to avoid having my experience filtered so strongly through the lens of another artist.

I felt the need to close my eyes again on Thursday, when van Zweden led the Philharmonic in another buzzy premiere that showed off the multimedia capabilities of Geffen Hall. It happened during the imaginative second movement of Julia Wolfe’s “unEarth” — the latest in her recent series of oratorio-like protest efforts, which served as the opening of two weeks of ecologically minded programming.

During that second movement, Wolfe — a Pulitzer Prize winner and a founder of the influential Bang on a Can collective — amasses a powerful mix of sonorities: chattering, antiphonal choral music (often heard uttering the word “tree” in different languages); percussion indebted to gamelan tradition; punchy orchestral writing; intense electric guitar lines that, as played by her regular collaborator Mark Stewart, were biting but not too imitative of rock styles.

After the solemn choral writing in the first movement — which drew on the combined talents of the Young People’s Chorus of New York City and male singers from the Crossing — this mix of sounds was a welcome transition. The writing for Stewart’s guitar was a reminder of the muscular verve heard in the “Breaker Boys” movement from Wolfe’s “Anthracite Fields” (2014), for which she won that Pulitzer. And in moving from dry orchestral ruffling to powerful tutti riffing, this section of “unEarth” also recalled the “Factory” movement of her “Fire in my mouth” (2019), which the Philharmonic premiered and memorably recorded.

When the soprano Else Torp entered — with beaming, stratospheric straight-tone singing that quoted Emily Dickinson’s “Who robbed the woods” — this movement of Wolfe’s piece proved delightfully, consistently weird. But it was a weirdness in service of dramatically clear ends, since the whole thing worked as a sonic commentary on the wonders of biodiversity.

The piece was designed for both amplified and acoustic sounds, which van Zweden kept in balance. The animated projections that accompanied “unEarth,” however, were far less imaginative than the score; the video played instead like a slideshow of each language’s word for “tree,” along with some local arboreal information at the margins. The music was an impassioned litany; the multimedia amounted to a listicle.

When a stage director (Anne Kauffman), projection designer (Lucy Mackinnon), two animators and four video technicians are listed in the program — while soloists like Stewart and the electric bassist Gregg August are not — that’s another sign that the multimedia urge has transgressed a bit much on the Philharmonic’s presentation of, you know, music.

This same literalism of the video art held sway, in sound and image, during the third and final movement of “unEarth,” in which Wolfe sets some texts contributed by the younger singers to droning yet anxious music. Here, the projections — portraits similar to screen tests, featuring members of the Young People’s Chorus — were of a piece with the music: serious, but a bit too obvious to be moving.

The entire concert was something of a muddle, down to the random-seeming pairing of “unEarth” with Sibelius’s Violin Concerto, in which the solo part’s difficulty was often audible in the account by Frank Huang, the Philharmonic’s concertmaster.

Next week’s program seems to be on firmer conceptual footing, though. The orchestra will present Britten’s “Four Sea Interludes From ‘Peter Grimes,’” Toru Takemitsu’s “I hear the water dreaming” and the New York premiere of John Luther Adams’s majestic “Become Desert.”

Most important: On those nights, the focus will be entirely on the music.

New York Philharmonic

This program continues through Saturday at David Geffen Hall, Manhattan; nyphil.org.

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