"We have taken a deliberately non-dogmatic approach to selecting the art to be displayed...The only criterion was that the concerts comprise music that we believe in and are excited to experience." - Alan Gilbert
Alan Gilbert might not be on anyone's shortlist of the world's most captivating conductors. But, there is little question that he has emerged as one of today's most visible advocates for contemporary music. Now finishing up his fifth season as Music Director of the NY Phil, Gilbert has presented more than 40 world premieres, founded the CONTACT! new music series, and was the driving force behind the Kravis Prize for New Music, one of the world's richest composer awards. Deservedly, Gilbert was awarded the Ditson Conductors Prize in 2011, given each year to a conductor who champions contemporary and American music.
This season, Gilbert and the Phil decided to take things to another level with the first annual NY Phil Biennial: a two week smorgasbord of new music presented at venues both in and outside of Lincoln Center. In a heavy stock brochure filled with arty portraits of various Philharmonic musicians - a deliberate reference to the art biennials of Venice and the Whitney - Gilbert said his goal was to present, "a snapshot of the current state of our art form."
In order to cast the widest possible net, the Phil's role was largely curatorial: of the thirteen programs, seven featured performances by other ensembles, including Gotham Chamber Opera, the Bang on a Can All-Stars and the American Composers Orchestra, among others. In all, music by more than 70 composers - almost all of them living - were presented over two weeks, encompassing every imaginable trend in contemporary music. It was a bold experiment that deserves credit for its sheer audacity, if not necessarily for the consistent quality of its music.
The first Biennial event I attended was HK Gruber's 1994 opera Gloria - A Pig Tale with Gilbert leading AXIOM, Juilliard's new music ensemble, at the Metropolitan Museum. This marked the fourth time Gilbert has collaborated with director Doug Fitch and his Giants Are Small production company. Unfortunately, this outing didn't rise to the level of those other celebrated productions: Fitch's sets and costumes were crude, and there seemed to be a general lack of directorial vision to Gruber's absurd story about a pig living under the threat of being butchered. Still, Gilbert elicited strong performances from the young orchestra and cast - especially soprano Lauren Snouffer, who sang the role of Gloria with force and flair.
That same weekend, the Orchestra of St. Luke’s presented a pair of concerts at the Rose Theater that examined two composers and their “Sphere of Influence.” On Sunday, the OSL turned their focus to British composer George Benjamin (b. 1960), who continues to bask in the success of his 2012 opera Written on Skin. (Saturday's program was devoted to the music of former NY Phil music director Pierre Boulez.)
Benjamin’s Octet (1978), led by OSL director Pablo Heras-Casado, was the clear highlight of the evening. Written for an unusual grouping of instruments (celeste, violin, viola, double bass, piccolo, oboe, French horn, percussion), the maturity and sheer technical composure exhibited by the then-18 year old Benjamin was simply astonishing. A creeping beauty permeates the piece, alternating between lyrical beauty and aural assault; despite the music's complexity, the OSL dispatched it with ease. Later in the program, the OSL gave an equally brilliant performance Benjamin's Upon Silence (1990), featuring the impressive mezzo-soprano Abigail Fischer.
Among the other composers on the program, Colin Matthews' Night Rides (2009-11) features darkly layered woodwinds in their lower registers before returning to the sunnier mood of the opening. Suns Dance (1985), scored for strings and an odd combination of winds, is a relentless ride of perpetual motion which, though technically brilliant, eventually wears out its welcome. Helen Grime's Luna (2011) was notable for its enigmatic use of bells: a quasi-religious stroke that is also hallmark of Benjamin’s music. Ryan Wigglesworth’s “A First Book of Inventions” (2010), built up a dark swarm of sound that primarily referenced Bach, but also Benjamin's neo-Baroque leanings.
Many modern-day orchestra concerts feature a contemporary work, though usually no more than 10 minutes in length and sandwiched in between a pair of old war horses by Brahms or Beethoven. But, rarely do orchestras devote an entire program to new music. This wasn't always the case: during the 70's, Boulez hosted a contemporary music series at the Phil called Prospective Encounters, which usually took place outside of Avery Fisher Hall and included a dialogue with the composers. Boulez also presented new music during his innovative Rug Concerts, removing the seats in Avery Fisher and replacing them with rugs and pillows.
Last Thursday, the seats were still in at Avery Fisher, but the music was all-new. In the case of Julia Adolphe's Dark Sand, Sifting Light, the music was so new, the Philharmonic only saw it for the first time two days earlier. Adolphe's work was one of three selected for performance by the Phil through EarShot: a program administered by the American Composers Orchestra (with oversight from the League of American Orchestras), intended to promote new music at small and mid-tier orchestras across the country. (Why the Philharmonic felt the need to use EarShot is a bit of a mystery.) Adolphe's music was typical modernist fare: spiky, dissonant, with rattles and occasional swells in the lower strings. Whatever she was trying to get across didn't come through very clearly.
Hard to believe, but Midori, who was once one of classical music's most celebrated prodigies, is now 42. In recent years, the violinist has become a passionate supporter of new music, having commissioned works from Lee Hyla, Rodion Shchedrin, Krzysztof Penderecki, Derek Bermel, and Johannes Maria Staud, among others. On Thursday, she performed another of her recent commissions: Peter Eötvös' DoReMi (2012), which was filled with sirens, slow fades and other Varèse-like effects. Unfortunately, Eötvös' seemed preoccupied with the cuteness of playing with musical syllables, rather than eliciting an emotional response. That's to take nothing away from Midori's performance, which was both nuanced and technically brilliant: she remains one of today's most captivating soloists.
The concert ended with the world premiere of Christopher Rouse's 4th symphony: a momentous-sounding event, to be sure. Rouse, whose music mixes modernism with neo-Romanticism, has heard a lot of his music performed this season as the Phil's Composer-in-Residence; most recently, the Phil performed his Requiem during last month's Spring For Music festival. Rouse's symphony was in two movements: the first was pastoral and cheerful, like some English string suite; the second was dark and dreary, with low guttural drones and quotes from Wagner. (I'm pretty sure I heard a bit of Siegfried's Funeral Music.) It was by far the best music of the night: captivating, emotional, accessible. My only beef: where was the rest of it?
Even though the Biennial had ended, I went back to the Phil this week to hear the premiere of Anthony Cheung's Lyra, alongside a pair of piano concertos by some dead white guy. Cheung, who received his commission as part of the first Kravis Prize, spoke with Gilbert onstage beforehand, mumbling something about being inspired by the Orpheus myth, Beethoven and Rice Krispies. (Ok, I made that last bit up.) It had it's dramatic moments - including an interesting use of tape music at the end - but it was also harsh, astringent, and generally unmoving. I was starting to get the impression that a lot of composers writing for orchestra are playing with the same basic toolkit: sirens, clappers, clown-like trumpets.
Before performing Cheung's piece, Gilbert announced the winner of this year's Kravis Prize: Per Nørgård. Who? I had to look him up: Nørgård is apparently a well-respected Danish composer who's written a bevy of orchestral scores, including symphonies, concertos, operas and ballets, none of which have ever been performed by the Phil. (They'll play some of his chamber music on a CONTACT! program next season.) Nørgård is also 81 years old, which makes him only slightly younger than the first Kravis Prize winner, Henri Dutilleux, who divvied up his $200,000 prize among three younger composers (including Cheung) once he realized he'd never be able to fulfill the obligation to write something for the Phil. (Dutilleux died the following year.) It's as if the Phil wants to make the Kravis a lifetime achievement award, rather than honor composers who still have something vital to say.
Here's the thing: we need new music. We don't want concert halls turning into museums. But, we don't need bad new music, or music that some smarty pants tells us we're supposed to like from an intellectual perspective, but sounds like an elephant being run over by a locomotive. Music should simmer, soar. It should make us anxious, happy, scared, sad. It should move us. That doesn't mean it's unsophisticated, or retrograde. It just means it's doing what it's supposed to do. And, please, no more of this myth that we just don't like something because we're not used to it yet. Music is not wine. If it works, it's awesome right out of the box.
In the 80's, Jacob Druckman founded the Phil's Horizons festival, which focused (at least initially) on the "New Romanticism" that had emerged in response to the decades-long stranglehold of European modernism. The festival only lasted three seasons, but the impact was far-reaching. David Lang, who participated in all three festivals, wrote about Horizons and the dilemna facing orchestras at the time:
"The problem for the music world was that it seemed to make inevitable a collision between composers and the institutions that perform the music of the past, especially orchestras. Young European modernists still wrote music for orchestra in the fifties, often with impressive results. But, these works were at odds with the practical and rehearsal needs of the orchestras and the emotional needs of the general orchestral listener and performer... It is not surprising that some less ideological young composers would begin to develop musically in ways that would look back at the institutions of the musical mainstream."
Lang, who later co-founded Bang on a Can, clearly knows a thing or two about using the musical mainstream as a model to reconnect to the emotive powers of music. (Speaking of which, the 28th annual BOAC Marathon is set for next Sunday, June 22 at the World Financial Center Wintergarden; more info here.)
So, while Gilbert and the Phil may have meant well by presenting the widest possible variety of music during this first Biennial, they would have done better by being a bit more selective. Maybe two years from now they can come to it with a clearer vision, developing a framework for how the music of today can peacefully coexist with - and even bear witness to - the music of the past. Now, that's what I call being a Curator.