Last weekend's edition of CONTACT!, the NY Phil's new-music series, leaned older and more establishment than in the recent past. Which is both good and bad: on the one hand, you know you're getting the work of seasoned composers who know how to write inventive, challenging music, but such music is also not the easiest to listen to, relative to what's being put out by the latest generation of audience-facing composers.
Part of the reason for this shift may be due to a changing of the guard at the Phil's Composer-in-Residence desk. Christopher Rouse, longtime composition teacher at both Eastman and Juilliard, took over this season for Magnus Lindberg and seemed to embrace his professorial role Saturday night at Symphony Space: brown jacket, beard, and all. At one point, NY Phil Music Director Alan Gilbert—who himself came across as diffident—asked Rouse what he thought of contemporary music concerts.
"Um, well, it depends," Rouse said, haltingly. "These pieces are all written for smaller ensemble, so it wouldn't work in a larger context."
The music itself was something of a mixed bag. Anders Hillborg's Vaporized Tivoli (2010) was full of crazy dense sounds, like a carnival gone mad. (Mind you, that didn't prevent an elderly patron sitting behind me from snoring less than five minutes into it.) Poul Ruders' Oboe Concerto (1998) was simultaneously straightforward and difficult, though not outside the ability of NY Phil Principal Liang Wang.
Onstage, Gilbert told French composer Yann Robin (b. 1974) that when he saw the score to Backdraft (2012), he "didn't know what to make of it," with its nontraditional scoring that most of the Phil musicians could barely comprehend. Robin, a former jazz musician, explained that a repeating theme had lodged itself in his head, and writing the piece was the only way to get rid of it. Philharmonic pianist Eric Huebner plinked out the obsesssively repeating figure while cellos grated on their strings and percussion created feral outbursts of sound, leaving not a few audience members scratching their heads.
Things came together in the end with Unsuk Chin's Gougalon: Scenes from a Street Theater (2011). Chin, who was born in South Korea but now lives in Berlin, is one of today's most formidable dramatic composers: her jarringly dissonant opera Alice In Wonderland blew me away when I saw it last summer in St. Louis. (She's now working on a sequel, Alice through the Looking Glass.) Gougalon was meant to be more whimsical, evoking the traveling circuses of Chin's youth, with tinny trumpets, prepared piano, Balinese gamelan, and...beer bottles (played by principal percussionist Chris Lamb). But, it also had a dark, menacing edge to it, echoing the theater music of her teacher, György Ligeti.
More pics on the photo page.