I braved the snow on Saturday to make my way up to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where the NY Philharmonic was holding the second of its' two debut performances as CONTACT!, the Phil's new, new music series. There is precedent for this sort of thing elsewhere: the LA Phil's Green Umbrella concerts have been around for nearly 20 years, and the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group - made up of players from the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra - has been performing since 1987. But, for an orchestra that has been living far on the conservative end of the spectrum for the past three decades, this was a welcome add-on. (Pierre Boulez, the Phil's director from 1971-77, used to conduct contemporary music all the time, though he alienated audience and players alike by all-but-abandoning older music.)
Curated and conducted by the Phil's composer-in-residence, Magnus Lindberg, CONTACT! commissioned small ensemble works from four composers, all in their 30s and 40s. The Philharmonic seemed to be trying really hard to appeal to a younger audience, pricing tickets at $20 and marketing the event under the banner: "Prepare to go where no audience has gone before." (Ugh: what is this, a Star Trek convention?) They even hosted a "Blogger Night"at Symphony Space on Thursday, complete with open bar and a chance to chat with the composers afterward. (I was invited, but had to decline due to a preexisting date with my office holiday party. Oh well, at least I still managed to find an open bar...)
It was also a conscious decision to hold the event outside of Lincoln Center, in what the Phil referred to as a "less formal, more intimate setting." (Presumably, this was less labor intensive than ripping out all of Avery Fisher's seats and replacing them with carpets, which Boulez did for his famous "Rug"concerts.) Although I wouldn't exactly call the Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium an informal space, it was nice to hear the Philharmonic play a smaller room for a change, with good light and forgiving acoustics.
There were definitely some hiccups that need to be worked out. Lindberg, who spoke with each of the composers before their piece, was awkward and strange with his thick Finnish accent and nervous, almost inappropriate laughter. Lindberg is a formidable composer, but his baton technique could...well, use some work. And, while the Philharmonic men all wore black Chinese shirts in place of their usual penguin suits (cool!), the women mostly wore their usual concert dress (not cool!)
As opposed to Friday night's Galapagos show, CONTACT! was all about formal music, written from an academic point of view. London-based Arlene Sierra's Game of Attrition had something to do with Darwinism, pitting instruments against each other. It sounded like standard spiky modernism to me, with a brutal finish in the percussion and winds.
Chinese-born, California-based Lei Liang's Verge proved to be the highlight of the night, using four string quartets and two double basses to create an incredibly tense atmosphere that built to a fever pitch. Lei imbued his music with a distinctive Chinese sound, full of bending notes and hand slaps that ebbed and flowed like the Mongolian long chant he grew up listening to. An absolutely fresh and vital voice I hope we hear more of in these parts. (You can listen to a clip of Verge here.)
French composer Marc-Andre Dalbavie worked with Lindberg at IRCAM in the 80's, where he was an early exponent of Spectral music: the movement which sought to break music down into its molecular elements. Dalbavie claims to have moved on to more melodic writing - reflected in his piece's title, Melodia - though to my ears, his music sounded mostly disjointed, at least until the slow, soft fade at the end.
The concert ended with Brazilian-born Arthur Kampela's MACUNAIMA, which Kampela claimed - in a manic, rambling introduction - was his attempt to "deconstruct" the instruments of the orchestra and, by so doing, "teach the Philharmonic players a new way of playing." After a 20 minute circus of harsh, ugly sounds that had the musicians mumbling to themselves, walking up and down the aisles and, at one point, playing behind a curtain, I can only hope this particular lesson didn't settle in too deeply. Is it too much to expect the Phil to have a filter that would keep them from staging the musical equivalent of a fart joke?
CONTACT! will be back at the Met Museum on April 17, featuring world premieres by Sean Shepherd, Matthias Pintscher and Nico, who kidded with me about a possible NY Phil commission during my chat with him last year. Let's hope the Phil works out some of their kinks by then. (More pics below.)