Saturday, December 19, 2009

making contact

Members of the New York Philharmonic
Magnus Lindberg, conductor
Arlene Sierra, Game of Attrition
Lei Lang, Verge
Marc-Andre Dalbavie, Melodia
Arthur Kampela, MACUNAIMA

I saw the New York Phil's first Contact! series performance on Thursday night, and was supposed to attend again this evening but for the impending snowpocalypse.

One of the complaints I heard regarding Contact! leading up to the performance was that the New York Phil is ghetto-izing new music. This doesn't really hold up. Yes, there are occasional concerts of conservative, Maazel-era programming--in that case, I imagine, because of the cancelled Cuba tour debacle (Sidebar: how hilarious is the quote "“Perhaps the New York Philharmonic should have checked with the government before announcing the trip."?). But Gilbert and Lindberg have done an admirable job of sprinking in new composers and premires throughout the season, even if they skew towards the Scandinavian fare which Gilbert prefers, rather than American or New York-based composers.

And does anyone really want to hear new music, or for that matter, any music, in Avery Fisher Hall? That space would have been terrible for any of the small-ensemble pieces performed, and the Kampela in particular would have been a complete disaster. Contact! is similar to the CSO's MusicNOW--find a cool space (in the CSO's case, Harris Theater), give out free food/beverages (CSO provides pizza and beer; New York gave us a surprisingly strong cocktail), and try to attract an audience beyond your graying subscribers. But the CSO has a more developed series: once a month on Mondays (so it doesn't conflict with other CSO events; all four Contact! performances are scheduled during orchestra concerts), with a wide variety of music including premieres and contemporary classics.

One of my main issues with Thursday's concert was that Contact!'s audience seemed, for better or worse, self-congratulatory and a little bit too "insider". I mentioned to Alex that it seemed like everyone at the performance knew each other---it was packed with young composers, new-music PR types, critics, etc. There were a few faces that looked like your average NY Phil donor, and a couple people bewildered enough to not be part of the New York new music scene. But I wonder how much new audience that the performance attracted---as in people not somehow professionally or personally connected to the composers, performers, or administration.

I don't know if that's necessarily a bad thing, because a lot of those new-music types wouldn't necessarily show their faces at a Maazel-era Phil concert. And since this was the first event in their series (four concerts, with only two programs, by the way, is not really a series) time will tell.

Now let's discuss programming: the four pieces performed were of a generally eclectic nature, so one cannot accuse Gilbert/Lindberg of having a true stylistic agenda. But they definitly skewed towards the European modernist vein; besides Nico's piece, the second program seems to do the same. I would love for next season's (hopefully expanded) series to have one entire program devoted to New York-based composers, maybe even the New Amsterdam mafia. And why not host it at Le Poisson Rouge, so the New York Times will at least call it hip.

Another question I have is regarding the actual make-up of the ensemble. There didn't seem to be a consistency regarding the string players performing, with different musicians in each piece. And considering that the Messiah was being done at the same time at Avery Fisher, clearly the entire orchestra was not involved in rehearsing this music (the April concerts are during a Muti orchestra performance). Will Contact! itself be a specific, crack-team small ensemble devoted to new music, within the orchestra? Or will it be a different group for each concert, or even for each individual piece? There are advantages to both: a small, consistent group would allow for a development of performance practice and possibly more rehearsal time, but a rotation would give more musicians exposure to new music and give the entire orchestra more experience with modern techniques. I'm not sure which is the better option, but I would like to hear from the orchestra which is being done.

Some thoughts on the music (with help from the pre-performance composer interviews, which I wish had been done by Alec Baldwin instead of Lindberg): Arlene Sienna's piece was apparently about Darwinism, which may have helped her construct the work but wasn't particularly evident in the music itself. It had a definite Stravinsky vibe, with a few cool alternations between the small ensembles-within-the-ensemble, but overall just sounded too new music-y and went on too long; it also felt a bit underrehearsed. Lei Liang's Verge, for string ensemble, was definitely the highlight of the performance and the biggest hit with the audience. When he said he used his newborn son's name (Albert) to derive the pitches for the work, I was expecting some kind of twelve-tone pitch-class mumbo jumbo. But the work was intense and emotionally powerful, beginning with some cool Xenakis-esque (Xenakisy? Edit: I think the appropriate term is actually Xenakesque) effects and interesting spatial combinations. It was divided into two sections, each of which started slow and built into enormous, frantic, and beautiful climaxes before suddenly dying away into silence. Throughout the work, a Mongolian chant melody weaved in and out of the ensemble, adding a folksy aspect to the bracing atmosphere.

The second half of the program was problematic. Dalbavie's work, apparently based on a 9th century Offertorium melody, only occasionally rose above the post-spectralist techniques he described in his interview with Lindberg. It began a ravishing section of quick arpeggios and rhythmic delicacy reminiscent of Debussy before suddenly veering towards boring spectralism, but recovered towards the end with some excellent string quartet writing and a wistful conclusion featuring the medieval tune. The work, though, felt unfocused and lacked the emotional rigor and drive of better post-spectralist music by composers like Saariaho.

Arthur Kampela's MACUNAIMA was, for lack of a better phrase, a hot mess. In his spoken introduction, which Tommasini called a hit with the audience but was actually a bit terrifying (if you watch this video you will have an idea), he mentioned the influence od this crazy Brazilian modernist novel. This was the only piece in which the limitations of the Contact! ensemble were truly felt. Kampela's writing, which at one point instructs the musicians to "fart" into their instruments, demands the dedication and understanding of post-modern music which is only found in smaller full-time new music ensembles. If he had writen for the JACK Quartet or the Ensemble Modern, they might have made a compelling account of his madness. I heard through the grapevine that the NY Phil musicians were not particularly sympathetic to his mode of composition and extra-instrumental demands (a few of the players onstage did not seem particularly pleased to be there).

I think what Kampela asks for is a deconstruction of the relationship between musician and musical instrument, which is something that comes from both the European avant-garde (especially Helmut Lachenmann) and also jazz multi-instrumentalists ike Anthony Braxton. The gist of the idea is that gifted musicians use their musicality towards instruments with which they are not familiar, or aspects of their own instruments which are not typically considered musical. Thus we saw the strings and brass playing percussion, making unusual noises into their instruments, laughing, whispering. If the musicians are receptive to this, it can be very effective: I don't think the New York Phil musicians, as incredible as they are, are the right ensemble for this type of performing style, and they may have felt the same way.

Beyond that, the piece was not very good. It was too cluttered with stage action, and would have been more effective with a smaller group of players. The offstage elements, which included a few players going behind a screen, playing a folkish South American dance, and laughing, didn't come off well in performance.

Was Contact! a success? As an event and a statement about the NY Phil's dedication to new music, yes. But as a set of four newly commissioned works, no. I doubt any other work besides Liang's piece will have a place in the repertoire. Actually, the idea of repertoire is another important issue: what happens to these pieces? Will other groups take them on, or will future Contact! performances in later seasons repeat them? It would be great to hear a firm commitment from Gilbert about the future of all these commissions, and not just the ensemble itself---what if they took the initiative to post some of the scores online, or even do a Keeping Score type thing? Most of the pieces premiered by New York and Chicago in the past couple years have simply vanished (a few for good reason). It doesn't look like the NY Phil iTunes pass will include this concert, although it may include the April one; the concert will be broadcast on Q2 next Tuesday and the following Sunday. I think my overall concern with the series has to do with the lack of a firm commitment to the actual artistic goals of Contact!, beyond commissioning works and putting on concerts.


  1. Glad that Alex steered me your way. Thanks for these (and yr other) thoughtful observations.

    Andrew P. -- 98.7WFMT/Chicago Sun-Times

  2. Yes, what we surely need in NYC is the chance to hear more music by Nico Muhly and teh new Amsterdam "mafia." If there's one thing that hasn't benefitted from enough exposure it's bad, watered down post-minimalist drivel.

    Give me a break.