The NY Phil's CONTACT! new-music series, now in its fourth season, has become something of a holiday ritual for New Yorkers—at least for those looking for an alternative from the endless parade of Messiah performances. (If you happen to like your Handel, the Phil can help you out there, too.) As in past years, last Friday's concert at the Met Museum included new works by young composers written for the occasion, as well as a contemporary "classic" that might appeal to the generation of subscribers who went to Pierre Boulez's Rug Concerts or Jacob Druckman's Horizons series.
Conspicuously missing this time out was conductor Alan Gilbert, who founded CONTACT! during his first season as the Phil's Music Director, and has since led most performances himself. Taking his place was Jayce Ogren: a young, unknown Washington State native who once served as Gilbert's apprentice while both were stationed in Stockholm. Ogren, himself a composer who once had his own Seattle-based band, told host John Schaefer that he feels most at home conducting new music.
The first three works on the program were all by composers in their early thirties, and seemed to follow the same sonic blueprint: loud, raucous beginning, and a slow fade at the end. Andy Akiho—best known for his steel pan music—wrote Oscillate for a small band of strings and percussion, including a piano that persistently plunked a single note over and over. Inspired by the troubled inventor-genius Nikola Tesla, Akiho's music was filled with scratches, clangs, and other unusual sounds that somehow managed to engage. (In the program notes, Akhio says he wrote the work in a sleepless three-day fit, much as Tesla himself might have done when conjuring one of his inventions.)
Try was Andrew Norman's attempt to write his way out of an endless cycle of revisions after being backed up against a commission deadline. Unfortunately, the resulting music was messy and unstructured, more a collection of effects than a coherent narrative. Jude Vaclavik's SHOCK WAVES was inspired by strange phenomenon of the sonic boom, which is often more felt than heard. Driving and dynamic, the music seemed to come from all directions, filled with primal, Varèse-like blasts of brass and percussion.
The concert ended with a performance of Jacob Druckman's Counterpoise (1995), with soprano Elizabeth Futral singing the words of Emily Dickinson and Guillaume Apolinaire—two poets who live on opposite sides of the Apollonian-Dionysian divide. Druckman's music was dense and challenging, particularly the part for soprano, which Futral dispatched with charisma and conviction. Still, for all its strengths, Counterpoise seemed to hail from a different era in new music, one in which tonality and rhythmic vitality had not yet taken root.
The full house moved to the basement afterwards for what seemed like an unlimited amount of wine and beer, courtesy of Brooklyn Brewery. Who am I to turn down some Christmas cheer?