Friday Night’s Edition of the NY Phil’s CONTACT: Their Best Ever?
Twice a year, the New York Philharmonic treats adventurous listeners to its bravest program of the season, CONTACT, featuring all sorts of premieres that run the gamut from the transcendent to the mystifying. In conversation with WNYC’s John Schaefer before this year’s initial performance last night at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, maestro Alan Gilbert held nothing back in letting the crowd know the reason he’d programmed this particular quartet of works was because they were “pieces we really wanted to play.”And hearing them, who wouldn’t jump at such an opportunity? It was a dark carnival of sonic treats, embraced with verve and pinpoint precision by a rotating cast of Philharmonic players usually numbering in the high teens, heavy on percussion and strings.
Gilbert’s description of Anders Hillborg’s Vaporised Tivoli (the single New York premiere on the bill) as an “exquisite corpse” was right on the money in every conceivable way. Inspired by Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, it began as an illustration of youthful vigor and carefree exuberance, elephantine snorts from the brass and dancing voices intertwined boisterously throughout the orchestra, Katchaturian’s Sabre Dance gone to the midway. Then the shadows fell and a creepy, carnivalesque crescendo straight out of Bernard Herrmann took over, surreal stereo percussive effects bouncing all over the stage. The strings let its death linger with a macabre, crespuscular shimmer.
Poul Ruders‘ Oboe Concerto, the first of three US premieres, was written on the heels of Ruders finishing his opera The Handmaid’s Tale. The composer related that the four-part suite, a rather spectral series of moonscapes with the exception of the animatedly, timbrally rich second movement, were inspired architecturally if not thematically by a Joyce Carol Oates novel. A brief dark carnival in outer space returned to stillness and desolation, a depiction brought into high definition by oboeist Liang Wang’s long, mesmerizingly pristine sostenuto tones, often standing alone when not blending with the otherworldly close harmonies of the high strings. Like Hilllborg’s piece, it ended with a deathly calm.
The second US premiere, Yann Robin‘s Backdraft, took its impetus from a mechanical theme that the composer essentially admitted was so annoying that he had to get it out of his head. Watching pianist Eric Huebner chop his way through it with a stilletto jackhammer staccato – he really got a workout! – it wasn’t hard to understand why (and also wonder why the composer felt obliged to subject others, pianists included, to it in the first place). But then the scene shifted to a long, incessantly fluctuating series of doppler effects, boomy lows versus high resonance, hints of humanity as traffic raced by on both sides. Not the most profound piece on the bill, perhaps, but great fun to watch.
The concert came full circle with Unsuk Chin’s gleefully macabre Scenes from a Street Theatre. Inspired by the tradition of low-rent traveling puppet shows in the composer’s native Korea, it’s a six-part suite of sometimes droll but more often menacing, jarringly rhythmic tableaux. The Dramatic Opening of the Curtain was both a mockery and self-parody, followed by the Lament of the Bald Singer – an Ionesco reference? – with its memorably twisted, morose sliding string elisions. Cans and bottles – real ones! – played with deadpan vigor introduced The Grinning Fortune Teller with the False Teeth and her surreal accompanists, a faux brass band. The piano got involved, murky and spacious, in an Episode Between Bottles and Cans, followed by the sirening, circularly sarcastic Circulus Vitiosus – Dance Around the Shacks. The concert ended The Hunt for the Quack’s Plait [of hair], part Spike Jones vaudeville, part bludgeoningly orchestrated Simpsons Halloween episode. A triumphant smile broke through the sweat on Gilbert’s face as he signaled for a final cruel, sardonic “awww” from the timpani. Given material of this caliber, what this orchestra and conductor can do with is it genuine magic. The concert will be broadcast in the near future on WNYC.
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