Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

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

The NY Philharmonic Makes Solid CONTACT!

The debut concert of CONTACT!, the New York Philharmonic’s new-music series proved auspiciously to be a lot more than just a PR opportunity, a brazen attempt to court a younger audience: these people mean business. The NY Phil has commissioned works for decades, but the fact that they selected Arlene Sierra, Lei Liang, Marc-Andre Dalbavie and Arthur Kampela to create an inaugural program of world premieres for a series devoted exclusively to the avant garde underscores the seriousness of their commitment. Under the direction of composer-in-residence Magnus Lindberg – making his NY Phil debut as a conductor – players from the Orchestra demonstrated a versatility and an unabashed enthusiasm for a program that was challenging and often highly unorthodox (and thus a welcome break from the familiar canon – it probably couldn’t have been timed better for the musicians).

Sierra’s Game of Attrition was described beforehand in a brief dialogue between composer and conductor as essentially math-rock for orchestra, a Darwinian competition  for space between instruments of similar timbres. Composers have been sending motifs on a journey around the orchestra, or from one rank of the organ to another, since before Bach. But with a playfulness and an understated deliberation, Sierra’s simple ideas grew as she said they would into larger, more expressive figures: evolution on display, the warmth of the lows contrasting with the ominous portents of the highs and what sounded like a deliberate quote from The Eton Rifles by 70s mod punk rockers the Jam. The tension was most appealingly apparent toward the end in a detente-breaking conversation between marimba and piano. And then it was over.

Lei Liang’s Verge, for 18 Strings was another successful attempt to put new spin on an old idea, in this case using the notes of the scale to spell out a name. It’s been done scores of times – you assign a note to the first twelve letters of the alphabet, and then you start over. Google Prelude and Fugue on B.A.C.H., for example and see what you get. Liang dedicated this one to his infant son: he’d started the piece before the child was born, hence the title. With the strings arranged T.S. Eliot style in four quartets with a bassist at each end of the stage, it was a hypnotic, ambient, oscillating tone poem replete with quadrophonic effects that built to a dramatic, windswept crescendo of Mongolian tonalities on the second movement, evocative of  throat singers Huun Huur Tu’s most recent work. It was the high point of the evening.

Marc-Andre Dalbavie and Lindberg met in Paris in the 80s and bonded over their passion for spectral music. Dalbavie told the audience that he was moving further and further toward a horizontality in his composition, and his Melodia, for Instrumental Ensemble cleverly blended in the well-known Dies Irae theme from Gregorian chant, an effective update on what Rachmaninoff did with Isle of the Dead. While the tonalities would shift ever so slightly, the dynamics bubbled and lept, often in considerable contrast with the stillness of the melody, such that there was.

Arthur Kampela’s Macunaima takes its title from a seminal Brazilian magic-realist novel from the 1920s. To be fair to the composer, it seemed from the point of view of one unfamiliar with the book to be a narrative, and for that matter, it might have been spot-on. But for those in the crowd who hadn’t read it, it sounded – as one cynic put it – “like the four-year-olds in my morning class when you pass out the instruments.” It actually wasn’t that bad, percussive and carnivalesque, but like the kind of carnival that takes place on the far side of a Stop and Shop parking lot in northern New England, where it seems that the carnival guys have left all the best rides back in Massachusetts, and the sounds that make their way across to the folks on the other end aren’t exactly enticing enough to lure the eight-year-olds who make up their target audience. It was impossible to tell whether the ensemble were enjoying themselves or just counting time until the end, which they did perfectly: the composition didn’t afford them the opportunity to do much of anything else.   

Don’t just take our word for all this: the entire concert will be rebroadcast in its entirety on q2, WQXR’s contemporary online classical music stream this Sunday, December 27 at 2 PM. And even more auspiciously, CONTACT! continues on April 16 at 8 PM at Symphony Space, Alan Gilbert conducting world premieres by Sean Shepherd, Nico Muhly and Matthias Pintscher.

December 23, 2009 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment