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May 2017

NY Philharmonic's CONTACT! at National Sawdust

New york philharmonic  contact  national sawdust May 22  2017  9-28 PM
As Alan Gilbert winds down his eight-year tenure as the NY Philharmonic's music director over the next few weeks (Damn, where does the time go?), the Phil is marking the occasion with a series of concerts that kicked off two weeks ago with choral works by Beethoven and Schoenberg, continues next week with a concert performance of Das Rheingold, and wraps up with a "Concert for Unity" featuring musicians from around the world playing alongside the Philharmonic. Not to mention tomorrow's free Memorial Day Concert at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine and the annual series of parks concerts (June 13-16), all led by Gilbert. 

At risk of being lost in this hive of activity are Alan's significant efforts on behalf of new music, of which he has programmed more than any Philharmonic music director since Pierre Boulez, while simultaneously managing to avoid alienating core audiences. In addition to the 50+ world premieres the Phil has presented during Gilbert's tenure, he introduced two new series devoted to new music: the Biennial in 2014 (repeated last year) and CONTACT!, which started in Alan's first season and features Philharmonic musicians performing at venues around the city. The Phil has already announced that despite Alan's departure, both series will return next season. 

This season's final CONTACT! performance, which took place Monday night at Williamsburg's National Sawdust, featured three works by composers all in their mid-30's: Eric Wubbels' katachi: etudes for ensembles, Sam Pluta's jazz-inspired binary/momentary ii: flow state/joy state, and David Fulmer's Sky's Acetylene, featuring one of the Phil's flutists, Mindy Kaufman, on two flutes and piccolo. All three composers were there to introduce their works, in portentous academic language that focused on the technical aspects of their music, rather than its emotional content.

More engaging was Jacob Druckman's Come Round (1992), a set of variations which, while unapologetically modern, had a symmetry and tightness that the other works on the program lacked. (As the Phil's composer-in-residence in the 1980's, Druckman (1928-96) created the Horizons new music series, which has often been cited as an inspiration for CONTACT!) Although the ensemble was ostensibly led by conductor Jeffrey Milarsky, the driving force was Druckman's son Daniel, the Phil's Associate Principal Percussionist, who commanded a huge battery of instruments including marimba, bass drum, and Chinese gongs. Druckman's conviction and sense of purpose was palpable; you couldn't ask for a more authentic performance. 

More pics on the photo page. More info about Alan Gilbert's final weeks as music director here

New York Philharmonic Has Breakfast at Tiffany's

by Nick Stubblefield

IMG_5128The moment the heavy string vibrato and lush jazz harmonies of "Moon River" hit my eardrums at the New York Philharmonic's live play-a-long to Breakfast at Tiffany's Thursday night at David Geffen Hall, I was instantly transported to a different era. It's just so 1960s, I thought, knowing of course that composer Henry Mancini's beloved compositions largely defined the sound of that decade. The Philharmonic wasn't exactly in their element on a jazz and Latin-infused score, but they rose to the occasion with verve, and the result was a marvel.

Mancini's score calls for different instrumentation than a standard orchestra set-up. It's heavy on percussion -- there were drumsets and lots of sparkling vibraphone. In the party scenes, brightly-timbred piano held down groovy bossa-nova riffs. Saxophone and other brass played so loudly at times that the film's dialogue was largely inaudible -- a minor burr remedied with subtitles on the large projector screen. The score is also rich with the twinkling sonorities of vibraphones, harps, and high-register piano, all in high-definition thanks to the orchestra's crisp and precise playing. 

Notwithstanding the mallet work (pure ear candy!) and rick-rollicking percussion in the party scenes, the strings provided the emotional weight to the film. Breakfast at Tiffany's carefully balances sadness and humor, and the string players maintained that balance with sublime phrasing and dynamic contrasts. They entered the opening of “Moon River” refrain with a delicate, yet thick vibrato that evoked the sensitive nature of the film's protagonists. Unctuous vibrato is often associated with those saccharine, gauzy B-movies of old, but here the strings succeeded in conjuring feelings of longing and sadness, touching even the hardened heart.

There's no question that orchestras, like most musical performances, are best heard live. Recorded film scores, however, are destined for playback through theater speakers, or worse – through a TV. A live performance of a film score is something cinephiles or music listeners would likely appreciate deeply and should experience at any opportunity.

New York Philharmonic Dazzles with Schoenberg and Beethoven

by Nick Stubblefield

IMG_5113Last weekend, I was privileged to hear Alan Gilbert lead the fine musicians of the New York Philharmonic in a pair of Viennese choral works that, while radically different, shared the same ferocious energy and enthusiasm. Arnold Schoenberg's A Survivor from Warsaw, Op.46  is a brief cantata composed as a tribute to Holocaust victims. The work's narrative depicts a Nazi sergeant as he barks orders at a group of Jewish men in a Warsaw ghetto. The performance commanded attention from the start, as harsh note-clusters (utilizing Schoenberg's signature twelve-tone method) from the horns and woodwinds punctuated moments of lighter instrumental texture. The orchestra took a backseat when soloist Gabriel Ebert took sonic and visual focus as he performed the German text, which is composed in sprechstimme, a vocal style that blurs the line between singing and spoken word.  Moments after the solo, the men of the Westminster Symphonic Choir marched down the aisles of the hall, boldly and defiantly responding to their oppressor.  An overwhelming crescendo led to a stirring and, for me, haunting conclusion.

Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 - and specifically his “Ode to Joy” theme - is arguably one of the best-known symphonies in the musical canon, so in the hands of a lesser orchestra, the 70 minute symphony might feel to some listeners like having to eat your vegetables before getting your dessert. (Or not, as the Greenwhich Village Orchestra proved in March.) Fortunately, the Philharmonic's careful attention to balance and dynamics made for a highly-rewarding experience throughout the performance. Melodic motifs established in the second movement reappeared in pristine clarity in the last -- a big payoff for those listeners paying close attention. At its climax, the “Ode to Joy” dazzled and delighted. The Westminster Symphonic Choir, along with the brilliant soloists Camilla Tilling, Daniela Mack, Joseph Kaiser, and Eric Owens, sang with exuberance and energy, hitting several shiver-inducing high notes. Overall, it was a thrilling Saturday night in Geffen Hall.