Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Transcendence and Revelations from Women Composers at Juilliard

Dovetailing with the New York Philharmonic’s Project 19 celebration of women composers and women achieving the right to vote in this country, the Juilliard School’s current Focus 2020 series features unprecedented, all-female programming this week. The big basement theatre there was about three-quarters full last night. If brilliant, obscure repertoire is your thing, or if you just like free classical concerts, you ought to be able to get in if you show up by about 7:15. Or you can pick up tickets at the box office during the day. The show tonight, Jan 28 starts at 7:30 PM with mostly piano-centric music by Vivian Fine, Florence Price, Young-ja Lee, Priaulx Rainier and Mary Lou Williams.

Last night’s performance was a revelation. It’s shameful that such sublime and powerful material has been largely ignored for so long, and it was clear from the program notes that a lot of sleuthing was required simply to track down the scores for much of it. Few of these women were fortunate enough to land a composer-in-residence gig, as Liu Zhuang maintained for two decades in her native China. Yet her own publisher was unable to provide the sheet music for her 1999 trio Wind Through Pines. A friend of Juilliard’s Joel Sachs had to be enlisted to supply a copy from his local library.

Rebecca Clarke broke the gender barrier as a hardworking symphony violist, yet was reduced to working as a nanny at one point. And Verdina Shlonsky, an early Israeli composer, had very few performances during her lifetime, dying broke and forgotten in 1990.

The concert was a rollercoaster ride, beginning and ending very darkly. Clarke’s 1941 Dumka, played with inspired, animated counterpoint by violinist Yaegy Park, violist Serena Hsu and pianist Jiahao Han, was a bitterly anthemic, Balkan-tinged theme and variations punctuated by jagged pointillisms and a forlornly lyrical viola solo.

Irish-English composer Elizabeth Maconchy’s 1938 String Quartet No. 3 was a broodingly and often grimly apt choice of concluding number. Cellist Erica Ogihara‘s deep pitchblende drive contrasted with the elegant exchanges between violinists Jeongah Choi and Haokun Liang and violist Leah Glick. Its uninterrupted variations foreshaded what Shostakovich would be doing twenty years later, all the way through to a macabre, slow gallop and flicker of a coda.

The night’s most breaktaking display of interpretive skill was pianist Isabella Ma’s vastly dynamic, sometimes muted and tender, sometimes explosive take of Shlonsky’s 1949 suite Pages From the Diary. The obvious precursor is Pictures at an Exhibition, coyly and fleetingly referenced toward the end. Icy belltones gave way to a marionettish strut that eventually resurfaced as fullscale phantasmagoria, only to flutter away gracefully at the conclusion.

Ruth Schonthal’s 1979 duo Love Letters, played by clarinetist Ashbur Jin and cellist Elisabeth Chang, was a matter-of-fact exchange that began somewhat warily and warmed to a casual stroll, more of a display of camaraderie than red-hot passion. Violist Sergio Munoz Leiva gamely tackled the knotty demands for extended technique throughout the short, sharp phrasing of Barbara Pentland’s solo Variations for Viola. And the trio of pianist Qu Xi, cellist Raphael Boden and flutist Audrey Emata emulated the alternately airy and otherworldly plucked, Asian-tinged pastoral phrasing of the Zhuang piece.

This week’s programming concludes with a big blowout at Alice Tully Hall this Friday, Jan 31 at 7:30 PM featuring works by Betsy Jolas, Grażyna Bacewicz, Ethel Smyth, Thea Musgrave and Sofia Gubaidulina with Raphael Vogl at the organ along with the Juilliard ensemble. Free tickets are currently available at the box office there.

January 28, 2020 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Leading the Way for Women Composers at Lincoln Center

To celebrate one hundred years of women voting in this country, the New York Philharmonic have launched Project 19, a major initiative to feature women composers in their regular programming. That’s a genuine paradigm shift, in the wake of the ugly confirmation from a Baltimore Symphony Orchestra survey confirming that as recently as 2015, the major orchestras in this country have been performing works written by women less than two percent of the time

Dovetailing with the Philharmonic’s long-overdue move, the Juilliard School are staging an unprecedented series of free concerts the last week of this month, with both semi-popular and obscure works by women from over the past two hundred years. The first is on Jan 24 at 7:30 PM at the conservatory’s Sharp Theatre, with a student ensemble playing music by Jacqueline Fontyn, Ursula Mamlok, Ruth Crawford Seeger, Elisabeth Lutyens and Galina Ustvolskaya. Free tiix are currently available.

For what it’s worth, Helen Grime is not one of the composers featured during this marathon week, possibly because she’s one of the better-known women in new classical music. There’s a fantastic London Symphony Orchestra recording of her Woven Space triptych conducted by Simon Rattle streaming at Spotify that you should hear, if staying on top of what’s happening in that world matters to you…or if you love John Barry or Bernard Herrmann suspense film scores.

The orchestra pounce on Grime’s sharp, anxious, Rite of Spring-ish introduction and swing its swirling variations around, brass and percussion dancing amid the strings as the first movement gains momentum. A distant horn sounds over a momentary lull, the angst returning with a vengeance anchored by low, sustained bass.

The second movement begins with disquieting chimes and disorienting, acidic resonance, nebulous strings in the background. There’s a sense of horror rising as sudden accents puncture the stillness, receding momentarily for an elegantly circling call-and-response. Sprightly dancing riffs interchange with bright brass, then ominous bass introduces a brooding reflecting pool of sound. The dance returns furtively – a celebrarion of the human spirit amid constant surveillance?

A tensely gusty circle dance kicks off the concluding movement, delicately churning amid heavy, stern percussion accents. A brief, eerily starry interlude rises and morphs into a series of bracing echo phrases. Grime’s low-high contrasts and reliance on percussion have Stravinsky’s fingerprints all over them; the dance ends suddenly and without closure.

January 19, 2020 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Jaap van Zweden Shares His Optimism for Women Composers and New Music at Lincoln Center

Beginning in the fall of this year, the New York Philharmonic will be celebrating a century of women in this country having the right to vote. The orchestra’s upcoming Project 19 series. built around works by nineteen contemporary female composers, features an intriguing list including but not limited to Sarah Kirkland Snider, Joan LaBarbara and Paola Prestini. Last night at Lincoln Center, in a conversation with Philharmonic President Deborah Borda, Musical Director Jaap van Zweden enthused about the advantages of working with them. “We can come close, but we can never know what Brahms wanted,” he mused. But engaging with a composer willing to tweak the music to make it more orchestra-friendly pays big dividends, he reminded.

Anybody who doubts van Zweden’s commitment to new music “Didn’t research enough about my past,” he chuckled. In his tenure with the Dallas Symphony, he earned a reputation for programming old Germanic warhorses. “We had to fill the hall,” he groused. “Whenever I had to do a contemporary piece, I had to fight for it.”

Those battles began after the 2008 market crash and continued, and he made no secret how happy he is that these battles are over. Van Zweden comes with the reputation for being a very straight shooter, a rarity in a world that so often stands on ceremony and where candor can get you in a lot of trouble. Mozart in the Jungle may be a stupid soap opera, but the intrigue is real.

Van Zweden’s advocacy for living composers dates back to his days leading the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic. With weekly broadcasts, there was a constant need for new material: standard repertoire from centuries past runs out fast.

Borda confided that the Philharmonic had never played a piece by Philip Glass until van Zweden came aboard – an acknowledgment that was as painful as it should have been. And both she and van Zweden whooped it up – well, kind of whooped it up – about how last month’s performances of Julia Wolfe’s epic, Triangle Shirtwaist Fire-themed cantata sold out so quickly.

In her tenure with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Borda landed Gustavo Dudamel, and she seems to have similar faith in van Zweden. Like Dudamel, he comes across as more of a bon vivant than obsessive music geek. “Sing with your brain, think with your heart,” seems to be his guiding principle, a mantra he shared with a somewhat starstruck music student in the crowd. That would make sense, considering that van Zweden was inspired to take up the violin after being present at his pianist father’s many jams with fiddlers who dazzled him with their Hungarian Romany songs.

Asked how the orchestra’s programming is conceived, he made no secret of how it’s a group effort, and that “there are requests.” Nonetheless, the orchestra members are consulted and number among those putting in requests, he assured.

In about an hour worth of banter and then audience Q&A, van Zweden also touched on the legacy of Gustav Mahler, his distant predecessor as Musical Director at the Philharmonic, whose work will be feted both here and in Holland next year. He and Borda reassured the crowd that the imminent replacement for the former Avery Fisher Hall would be built to accommodate the Philharmonic’s schedule, not the other way around, “Because we don’t want to lose you.” And he beamed about the orchestra’s upcoming Phil the Hall program next month, a series of hourlong concerts with five-dollar tickets, which were first offered to New York City first responders. These shows aren’t just pops fluff either: there’s Beethoven, and Bernstein, and even Steven Stucky on the bill.

The next classical music event at the Lincoln Center atrium space on Broadway just north of 62nd St. is on April 18 at 7:30 PM with the Castalian String Quartet playing works by Britten and Schubert. These free shows fill up fast; getting to the space early is always a good idea.

March 21, 2019 Posted by | classical music, Live Events, Music, music, concert | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Pianist Leif Ove Andsnes and the New York Philharmonic Think Outside the Box

It’s almost twenty years to the day that virtuoso Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes made his debut with the New York Philharmonic. In another stroke of fate, he was playing a Rachmaninoff concerto, with a Scandinavian conductor on the podium, just as he will during his first stand as artist-in-residence with the orchestra, which starts tonight at 7:30 PM, featuring Rachmaninoff’s relatively rarely programmed Piano Concerto No. 4 and Sibelius’ Fifth Symphony.

In conversation with the Philharmonic’s Isaac Thompson at Lincoln Center last night, Andsnes revealed that he’s played New York more than any other city in the world – in that sense, he’s one of us, and he feels it. Yet another happy coincidence, Thompson revealed, was that this will be the first time in quite awhile where both the Philharmonic’s artist-in-residence and composer-in-residence will be represented on the same bill, in this case by a New York premiere by Esa-Pekka Salonen. Paavo Järvi conducts; Andsnes and the Philharmonic are back on Oct 13 at 11 AM, Oct 14 at 8 and on the 17th at 7:30. The most affordable tickets are in the thirty-dollar range and still available as of today

As a programmer, Andsnes isn’t satisfied with merely performing standard repertoire. He’s fresh off a world tour playing Beethoven concertos, but also served for seventeen years as artistic director of a Norwegian festival, a role that greatly influenced him, not only through the expected exposure to all sorts of different music, but also the need to think outside the box and celebrate lesser-known works from across the centuries. In some lively banter with the audience, Andsnes spoke of his fondness for the seldom-performed solo piano works of Dvorak as well as Shostakovich’s haunting, World War II-era Piano Sonata No. 2, a recent discovery for him. His latest album celebrates the solo piano music of Sibelius.

Andsnes animatedly reaffimirmed his advocacy for the Rach 4, a vastly different beast by comparison to the composer’s previous concertos. Famously, Rachmaninoff’s favorite pianist was the only guy in the world at the time who could play faster: Art Tatum. “Rhythmically, it’s very jazzy sometimes,” Andsnes explained, “The second movement begins like an improvisation by Bill Evans,” a confluence of jazz-informed harmonies and nostalgia.

“The harmonies are so juicy in late Rachmaninoff, with the Third Symphony, with the Symphonic Dance – truly heartbreaking. Rachmaninoff would always dismiss composers like Prokofiev, but in the final movement there’s a lot of Prokofiev along with the long, sweeping melodies Rachmaninoff was so famous for” 

The Rach 4 is also very hard to play from memory, Andsnes admitted. “Maybe this is the jazz influence: very few downbeats, very few obvious rhythms between the orchestra and the pianist. It’s very easy to get lost and for them to understand what I’m playing. I have a few scary memories with this piece,” he grinned, referring to his first live performances of it.

With his new album, Andsnes leaps to the front of an admittedly small circle of advocates for Sibelius’ solo piano music, which he admits is “much more uneven” than the composer’s orchestral output but is still full of rare gems. His wishlist for future recording includes Chopin preludes as well as Mozart and Debussy: he likes to focus on one particular composer at a time, to get a full sense of the diversity of their work.

As the interview went on, Andsnes offered plenty of insight into his own development as a performer, not to mention a sharp sense of humor. Which composer does Andsne find the most challenging? Bach. Surprisingly, Andsnes didn’t get much exposure to Bach as a young piano student: to Andsnes, Bach is like a language, best learned sooner than later in life. Does Andsnes ever get the urge to compose? No. “Not even once,” he smiled, “There’s already so much bad music out there, and there’s so much exciting music waiting for me to discover.”

What were his most dramatic moments at the keyboard? As a sixteen-year-old, headlining with the Grieg Piano Concerto on the final night of the annual festival in his native Bergen = he’d never heard the piece before, beyond its first few famous bars. He also mentioned a colorful, satirical Britten concerto whose big keyboard-length glissandos left the pianist bleeding all over the ivories.

And the night’s funniest moment was when Thompson asked Andsnes to talk about his frequent side gigs as a chamber musician. Andsnes got a kick out of that one. “Friends get together. We play music,” he laughed. “What’s so exotic about that?”

October 12, 2017 Posted by | classical music, concert, interview, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

April 6, 2013 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Magical Night in Central Park with the NY Phil

A gentle rain fell, delivering a welcome respite from the heat as maestro Alan Gilbert led the NY Philharmonic up from pianissimo to a velvety nocturne in Central Park last night. The big lawn in the middle of the park may not be the quietest place during the day, but the vast crowd was pretty much rapt as the lush beauty of the dawning movement of Respighi’s Fountains of Rome slowly unwound. Gilbert conducted it from memory: he had it in his fingers, and so did the orchestra. The magical moments were too numerous to count. As if on cue, the music diverted a couple of expected interruptions, the first when a plane crossed the sky just as the strings exploded with a bustling fury as Respighi’s suite reached morning rush hour: it isn’t often that an orchestra beats a jet engine, but this time it did. Then during a particularly incisive passage in Respighi’s Pines of Rome, which followed, a siren moving through the park added accidental harmonies which worked far more effectively, and interestingly, than one would have expected. The rest of the Fountains, from balletesque, to boomy, to practically silent, then stormy and and intense, then back again, was cinematic in the purest sense of the word, a tour of Rome a hundred years ago by a particularly insightful guide. As Gilbert led the orchestra on a blissful, silken glide out, it was transcendent, the kind of good-to-be-alive moment that can be savored in this city and this city alone.

The Pines were just as good, and made the fireworks display afterward seem redundant. From the swirling, Christmasy introduction, the richly misterioso outside-the-catacombs theme, artfully shifting motifs from the woodwinds leading the orchestra up and the final, lengthy crescendo (which begs the question, did Respighi know of Gustav Holst’s The Planets when he wrote this?), it was a triumphant conclusion to a sonic art-house double feature. The Philharmonic is playing both suites for their opening gala on September 27 at 7:30 PM: they couldn’t have chosen better. Avery Fisher Hall may need a new roof after they’re done.

What about Tschaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4, which opened the bill? The audience responded somewhat restlessly, particularly toward the end of the second movement. If a piece drags, is it the fault of the orchestra? Hardly, if they play it as the composer dictated, which is exactly what they did. Gilbert set up the pyrotechnics of the finale so it could resound in the park’s lower valley by keeping the quieter parts especially low key: by the end, he was practically jumping out of his shoes in a storm of blazing minor-key riffage and so was the ensemble. But there were points where the melody lagged, and during the incessant pizzicato introduction to the third movement, didn’t leave much hope that there would be many more interesting things to come for those with the patience to wait through the 1877 equivalent of a song by Rush. The NY Phil is back in Central Park this coming Monday the 16th at 8 PM, program still TBA: as always, early arrival (six isn’t too early) is a must.

July 14, 2012 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The NY Philharmonic’s 9/11 Memorial Concert: A Class Act

A genuinely classy move: for their September 10, 7:30 PM performance of Mahler’s Symphony #2, the NY Philharmonic is offering priority ticket access to the families of 9/11 victims, first responders and survivors. Members of this community may request a pair of free tickets in advance by e-mailing concertfornewyork@nyphil.org by September 1, so hurry if you qualify and you like Mahler. If there are any remaining tickets, they’ll be distributed for free, first-come, first-serve, one pair per person at 4 PM on the plaza at Lincoln Center the day of the show.

There will also be seating on the plaza for those who prefer to watch a live projection outdoors. The concert will be conducted by Alan Gilbert and telecast in the U.S. on PBS’s Great Performances at 9 PM on Sept 11 (check local listings), and webcast at nyphil.org at 9 PM EDT on Sept 11 as well. A live concert DVD will follow in October.

August 29, 2011 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The New York Philharmonic’s CONTACT Live 11/19/10

We’re liveblogging from New York’s Symphony Space tonight. Latest updates at the bottom of the page.

In a minute or two, what looks like a roughly fifteen-piece ensemble of the New York Philharmonic conducted by Alan Gilbert will open this fall’s first concert of their new music series CONTACT that began so auspiciously last year. First piece on the bill is a world premiere by the NY Phil’s composer-in-residence, Magnus Lindberg titled Souvenir (In Memoriam Gerard Grisey). They’ll follow that with Grisey’s final work, the suite Quatre Chants Pour Franchir le Seuil, featuring soprano Barbara Hannigan. 

Lindberg studied with Grisey, so there’s a personal connection here dating from 1981 until Grisey’s death unexpectedly in 1998.

For those of you on twitter, you can tweet to @nyphilcontact. 

This concert being recorded and will air on Q2 on 11/24 and 11/27 at 8 PM EST and then on 11/30 at 4 PM EST.

Grisey was one of the titans of serial music – airy, atmospheric, horizontal stuff that makes frequent (in this guy’s case, constant) use of microtones. John Schaefer’s emceeing a brief pre-concert conversation with Gilbert and Lindberg. The term “otherworldly” arose early, and that ought to be one way of describing what’s going to happen. Off we go…

Drama right off the bat – a muted crash on the gong, and another – it’s a funeral march, wandering and weaving. The occasional low register accents from the piano anchor the cello and now the bassoon – it’s more melodic, and Romantically tinged, and just plain interesting than one might assume a Grisey homage might be…dark, stately drama, a flourish of the vibraphone, a stormy rise up the scale, the hint of a fanfare – Gilbert is like a kid in a candy store up there but judicious about it…

Piano and cello bustle…staccato violin, and was that just a Sacre de Printemps quote?! Wary woodwind trills…a pause…a somewhat cinematic string-led crescendo…what an interesting person Grisey must have been…

The winds take over, a brass flourish, drums cap the swell, vibes take it down and more mysterious…reminds of a Bill Evans score, and a good one. Drive it home, low brass! Nope. First movement ends quietly and unresolved – as if there would be a resolution…

Second movement – a mournful horn call, the ensemble rises warily – it’s austerity versus bubbles with the harp and the vibes…big swell, vibes kick in with a bang at the top, down a bit – is anybody else hearing Stravinsky here? Moonlight piano breezes, cold ones – colder, beautifully twinkling…a bass drum pulse grows beneath rising uneasy atmospherics, a shift and a downshift…and now the funeral procession has come together. Maybe it’s just running up here in the cold with just a suit jacket on, but this really captures an atmosphere. And the strings rustle, everybody knows what time it is, nobody wants to go to the grave, everybody just wants to start drinking…but that won’t happen. This is magnificent.

The low brass weigh in lugubriously, the strings and those vibes again, they’re all nerves, searching for a frivolous note to hold reality at bay…but the tritone won’t let them. Nice. Still and sad out.

Fluttering and dark and chillly intro to the third movement. And more percussive drama – why did this have to happen? Shostakovian swell, a mini-rondo with the vibes and the strings and a gentle little Gallic dance – remember the Debussy string quartet? – a little like that…descending into the depths with whacks of the woodblock, down we go…such an autumnal ambience…and a big practically joyous swell as if to say “thanks for the memories.” Unexpected. The crowd are on their feet…check back with us in about fifteen minutes for the Grisey.

A very nice couple in the back here were distracted by all this typing during the performance. They had every right to be hostile, but they were diplomatic. Same thing happened while liveblogging here last time. The most obvious solution would be to do this oldschool style: record it and listen back, or take some notes and then work up a review from there afterward. Grisey’s music isn’t exactly thunderous. But since we’re halfway through – and we promised you the whole show – we’ll finish it this time.

Grisey’s songs are titled The Death of the Angel, The Death of Civilization, The Death of the Voice and The Death of Humanity. Upbeat and cheery – not. The ensemble for this is slightly smaller – no piano, but twin harps. More pre-performance chatter with John Schaefer – Lindberg credits Grisey as the most philosophical composer of his era. “You have to submerge yourself in this piece,” explains Gilbert, equating it to the drama in watching drops of water. Stephen Jay Gould’s description of evolution as “punctuated equilibrium,” catastrophism rather than a slow, steady rate of change as an analogy – stillness punctuated by drama (hmmm…that’s Wagner, isn’t it?).

Pianissimo white noise into muffled , terse, atonal descending progressions; Barbara Hannigan interjects a couple moments of staccato operatic angst…hearing this live for the first time, it’s surprisingly tight, much more of an ensemble piece than the way others have interpreted it…translation from the French: “Like an angel, I owe it to myself to die.” Offcenter vibraphone tones provide a ghostly gamelan tinge…and speaking of a gamelan, there goes the big bass gong…airy stillness over distantly boomy percussion…would “Ballardian soundscape” be completely over-the-top?

All these low yodel-like melismas into dramatic octave-plus jumps for Hannigan are incredibly tough and she’s absolutely nailing them…and a low rumble out. The Black Angel’s Death Song?

No, that might be La Mort de la Civilisation, though: brooding quiet chromatics and a narration taken from Egyptian mummy cases: “destroyed…almost completely destroyed…” etc. Profound stillness beneath plaintive vocals, marvelously done. They get this music. Big vocal leaps against slightly sharp tones (i.e. sharp versus flat)…it could have ended pretty much anywhere, which is where it did.

Now the voice succumbs…oh no it doesn’t. Scary scrapy violin, the rumble of the gong and bass clarinet and is that a contrabassoon – more of a study in contrasts than anything up to this point. When there’s so much stillness, the temptation is to seize on the dramatic moments, few and far between as they are here – but they’re building this, and it’s not looking optimistic…

So let’s kill off all of humanity now. Ominous low swells into a fluttery helicoptering of a snare drum, or two, mechanically acoustic Alan Parsons ambience…this is based on the Epic of Gilgamesh – footsteps, and a rise, and Hannigan sends a shudder down everybody’s spine with a couple of hair-raising out-of-the-blue wails…angst against the dying of the light…what a chilling set of compositions to go out with! Grisey died shortly after completing these, maybe he sensed his time was short…pianississimo, a last glimmer of life in the distance…pregnant pause…decaying overtonal overture…airy and bell-like, a soft-focus apocalypse…they march it with surprising lack of rage as it winds out…

The reaction is slow – now the trance is over, the stunned crowd reacts. Time for a drink now!!

November 19, 2010 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The NY Phil Shows Their Mettle

Last night’s concert was a tough gig. The New York Philharmonic have played tougher ones, but this was no walk in the park (pardon the awful pun). And guest conductor Andrey Boreyko pushed them about as far as he could, on a Central Park evening where the air still hung heavy and muggy, helicopters sputtering overhead and, early on, the PA backfiring a little. During the sixth segment of a suite from Prokofiev’s ballet Romeo and Juliet (the section where the two lovers finally get together), the strings led a long flurry of sixteenth notes and it was only there that any trace of fatigue could be heard. That they got through it with as much aplomb as they did – and then had enough in reserve to triumphantly pull off the roaring swells of the ominous concluding march – speaks for itself. The Russian conductor’s careful attention to minutiae is matched by a robust (some might say relentless) rhythmic drive. The Phil responded just as robustly, resulting in a mutually confident performance that often reached joyous proportions.

This wasn’t your typical outdoor bill of moldy oldies with a thousand forks stuck in them, either. The ensemble opened with fairly obscure Russian Romantic composer Anatoly Lyadov’s Baba-Yaga, a witch’s tale. With a bit of a battle theme, an elven dance, suspenseful lull and something of a trick ending, it could be the Skirmish of Marston Moor (did Roy Wood know of it when he wrote that piece? It’s not inconceivable).

Branford Marsalis joined them for Glazunov’s Concerto in E Flat for Alto Saxophone and String Orchestra, Op. 109. The textural contrast between his austere, oboe-like clarity against the lush, rich atmospherics of the strings was nothing short of exquisite, through the majestic ambience of the opening section, a couple of perfectly precise solo passages and the comfortable little dance that winds it up. He got the opportunity to vary that tone, shifting matter-of-factly through bluesier tinges on twentieth century Czech composer Ervin Schulhoff’s Hot Sonate. A smaller-ensemble arrangement, the suite ran from genial, Kurt Weill-inflected bounce to more complex permutations that could have easily been contemporary big band jazz (imagine an orchestrated Dred Scott piece).

The big hit of the night, unsurprisingly, was the Prokofiev. The ballet could be summed up as unease within opulence, a tone that resonated powerfully from the opening fortissimo fireball and the bitter, doomed martial theme that follows it, through its stately but apprehensive portrayal of Juliet as dancing girl, a richly dynamic take on the masked ball theme, the cantabile sweep of the two lovers parting, Friar Lawrence’s bittersweetly crescendoing scene, and the irony-charged intensity at the end. There were fireworks afterward, none of which could compare with what had just happened onstage – and which provided a welcome opportunity to beat the crowd exiting the park, and the storm that had threatened all evening but never arrived.

July 15, 2010 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The New York Philharmonic’s Contact! Demystified

The New York Philharmonic’s debut performance of Contact!, their new series dedicated to cutting-edge music by contemporary composers got off to an auspicious start at Symphony Space last December. They’re doing another program at Symphony Space featuring pieces by Nico Muhly, Matthias Pintscher and Sean Shepherd this Friday, April 16 at 8, which we’ll be liveblogging (wave to us up in the balcony but please don’t disturb your neighbor). The program repeats at the Metropolitan Museum of Art at 7 PM on the 17th. John Mangum, the orchestra’s Artistic Administrator, didn’t let a computer crash stop him from helping us shed some light on what promises to be an equally auspicious performance:

Q: The first question is the most crucial one: are tickets still available for the April 16 show at Symphony Space and the one on the 17th at the Metropolitan Museum of Art?

A: Yes.

Q: The New York Philharmonic are not strangers to championing contemporary composers. Other than the fact that Contact! so far has featured pieces for smaller ensembles, what differentiates this series from other programs featuring the avant-garde?

A: The Contact! series for the current season, 2009/10, features exclusively commissioned works – each program is comprised entirely of world premieres. In future seasons, we’re looking at expanding the series’ mandate to make room for some of the classics from the last two decades. For example, in November 2010, we’ll have a program pairing a world premiere by Magnus Lindberg with the “Quatre chants pour franchir le seiul” (“Four Songs for Crossing the Threshhold”), the last work of Magnus’ teacher, the pivotal French composer Gerard Grisey, which he completed in 1994.

Q: Is there a common link between the composers that led to their selection for this program? Or a common thread, musical or thematic, that links the compositions?

A: They’re all crucial voices from among the younger generations of composers living and working in the New York area – both Matthias Pintscher and Nico Muhly are here in the City, and Sean Shepherd, who recently graduated from Juilliard, is working at Cornell with Steven Stucky and Roberto Sierra. The striking thing is how different each composer’s approach is, and that really comes to the fore when their works are placed on the same program. It makes a strong statement about the variety and vitality of music today.

Q: What criteria and whose decisions determine who gets a commission from the NY Phil as Muhly, Shepherd and Pintscher have here? Is there a line around the block, or is is the secret star chamber that decides immune to persuasion?

A: We try to be really aware of who is out there. Members of the Orchestra, Magnus Lindberg (our Composer-in-Residence), Alan Gilbert (our Music Director), and I all play a part. We meet, talk, look at scores – both those we’ve requested and those that have just come in unsolicited – and make the decision based on what turns us on. It’s exciting to be part of creating new art, and we want to share that excitement with our audiences.

Q: The debut of Contact! had minimalism, an intricate rondo, horizontal music, orchestrated Mongolian throat-singing chants and a jungly thicket of Brazilian percussion. What do audiences have to look forward to in this program?

A: Matthias’ piece is a wonderfully refined, tremendously thoughtful setting of sacred Hebrew texts for our Artist-in-Residence Thomas Hampson. There are strikingly beautiful sonorities, and really sophisticated use of the instrumental ensemble. Sean’s work is very energetic, full of all sorts of references to itself and other pieces. It’s a piece in seven sections, with a real arc, a real shape to it, and the use of the ensemble is, like Matthias’ work, again very sophisticated, though the result is different. Nico’s piece also has that same sense of energy and structure – there seems to be something about New York that brings this energy, this life out in composers.

Q: The ensemble was divided into unusual permutations last time around – for example, one of the pieces featured four string quartets with a bass at each end of the stage. Can the audience expect any such thing like on this bill?

A: The ensembles for these three pieces are similar, so there won’t be that kind of contrast like we had last time, with Lei Liang’s piece for four string quartets and two double basses. The contrast in this program comes from the different styles of the three composers, and it is striking.

Q: This is the first time Contact! has featured vocal music – will there be vocal music at upcoming performances?

A:Yes. On the November program next season, the Grisey work is for high soprano and ensemble.

Q: Why do this at Symphony Space and the Met? Why not just stay home at Avery Fisher Hall?

A: We really wanted to take this project out into the city, and after considering several different venues, these two proved ideal for a variety of practical and artistic reasons. At Symphony Space, the programming is a good fit with the work Laura Kaminsky, their artistic director, is doing there. It’s also right in the heart of the Upper West Side, close to Columbia as well. At the Met Museum, I like the statement it makes – we’re putting contemporary music on stage there, streaming new art into the flow and tradition of millennia of artistic achievement. That you literally go from ancient Egypt to New York, 2010 – I think that’s pretty cool.

April 14, 2010 Posted by | classical music, concert, interview, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment