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Archive for the ‘New Music’ Category

12/20 CONTACT! New Music Series @ The Metropolitan Museum Auditorium

Magnus Lindberg-Conductor

Game of Attrition-Arlene Sierra

Verge- Lei Liang

Melodia- Marc-André Dalbavie

Macunaíma- Arthur Kampela

It’s not often that one can say they saw the Upper East Side premier of 4 new works, but on Saturday that was the case. I attended the second performance of the New York Philharmonic’s offshore new music series, Contact!, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s auditorium. The works were given their world première on Thursday at the Upper West Side’s Symphony Space. While the format of the concert was a little rough, and some of the premieres were disappointing, I think the series has the potential to grow into a respected and exciting outlet for new music.

The format of the concert was a short interview with the composer of each piece followed by a performance. This gave the concert a more intimate feel as well as a providing some guide to the pieces, some of which might have been inexplicable without it. However, it would be greatly augmented if short musical passages to emphasize the composer’s points could be added beyond the miniscule one that was played. If the New York Philharmonic and Alan Gilbert want to bring new music to “the common man”, and I believe they do, explanations should use vocabulary the common man can understand. To throw out a term like “spectral music” or to talk about the chords that certain pitches form without playing those chords are examples of the over complication that scares many people away from modern music. The concert is about finding a contact point, not intimidation.

The most of interesting of the pieces was Lei Liang’s Verge, for 4 string quartets and 2 double basses, written the month before and after his son Albert’s birth. The players were arranged in a semicircle and were grouped into different ensembles throughout the piece, giving an interesting shifting effect as well as broadening the orchestration, not limiting it to one traditional group.

Arlene Sierra’s Game of Attrition deserves a second listen-her introduction described the piece as an evolution of melodic cells and “games” played out between instruments, but I struggled to hear this idea. However, the idea intrigues me, and the thorny sound of the music fit that of a competition.

Dalbavie’s  piece was uninteresting and not particularly original. It was based on a Gregorian chant, but sounded more like a summary of French music of the past 100 years. I would rather have heard Ravel.

I was most excited about Arthur Kampela’s piece after his dynamic introduction, so its bad cliches made it the biggest disappointment. Kampela explained that one of his composing methods was to give talented players other instruments to work with. Why, when you have talented musicians of the caliber of those in the New York Philharmonic, would you give them percussion instruments that 6th graders have mastered? A harp player is not going to bring new subtleties to the Thunder Tube. The piece ran far too long for what ended up being almost a parody of modern music.

Although not all the pieces were pleasing, I did enjoy the chance to “contact” with a cross-section of what is going on in new composition.

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12/13 John Adam’s El Nino @ Carnegie Hall

Orchestra of St. Luke’s

John Adams-Conductor

Most Christmas songs about the Nativity story put me in mind of a medieval painting – the infant Jesus with a halo, Mary in beautiful blue, looking serene. John Adam’s El Nino put me strongly in mind of the recent movie “The Nativity Story”, a realistic, no frills account of the humans involved in the birth of Christ. John Adams brought the same sensibility to his Nativity oratorio, using a variety of Hispanic poetry about birth and multiple biblical accounts to give personality to the story. The result was a serious, emotional, and reverential treatment of one of the most well-known stories ever told. Adams originally composed the work in 2000 as a “Christmas oratorio for the new millenium”, and I think he accomplished that goal.

The piece was set for a large orchestra (the impressive St. Luke’s Orchestra) with a choir and 6 vocal soloists- a bass-baritone, 3 countertenors, mezzo-soprano, and soprano. Each voice sang a different role (the most interesting casting being the 3 countertenors as the angel Gabriel-ethereal, to be certain), but was not confined to that role alone. The chorus seemed to play the part of the shepherds or angels, echoing the soloists or singing choruses in great waves of sound. Their parts and strength in 4. For with God no thing shall be impossible and 9.Shake the Heavens were powerful and reverential, echoing a faith both modern and ancient. Dawn Upshaw, singing mostly as Mary, portrayed the excitement as well as the confusion and sorrow of the young mother well in a vocal part full of interval leaps. Michelle DeYoung was a powerful narrator, mostly in Spanish, while bass baritone Eric Owens had a solid stage presence, mostly singing the role of Joseph. The three counter tenors, Daniel Bubeck, Brian Cummings, and Steven Rickards sang well together, sounding otherworldly as the angel Gabriel. They also took an interesting turn as the 3 kings (I’m not sure if Adams was using the voices he had here or was trying to suggest something about the role the kings played…)

The orchestral accompaniment to the singers drew from a variety of sources, occasionally suggesting Latin rhythms and Baroque sounds, while at other times offering more murky modern sounds (although staying largely within the conventional sounds of the instruments.) The orchestra definitely functioned as the accompanist in the piece – the real drama was among the solo singers, but they did a fine job in support, helping to create an emotional atmosphere.

Adams’ piece offered an interesting, updated version of the Christmas story, although it was far too long. I thought it would have been perfect if the piece had ended at intermission, with the birth of Christ. While I was enthralled with the first “act”, my attention wandered during the second, especially as the piece went on what I felt were tangents that did not move it forward. The first half had a strong narrative drive, while the second seemed to move at a much more languid pace, finally ending with stories of Jesus from unpublished Gospels. However, the applause Adams earned from an enthusiastic crowd was certainly merited, and the length of the piece did not take away from its value as a significant oratorio for today.

For someone who dreads “Christmas music” and its trite tinny sound, El Niño was a refreshing reminder of the power and humanity of the story that started it all.

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11/21 Bang On A Can All-Stars + Trio Mediaeval @ Zankel Hall

Julia Wolfe’s Steel Hammer

A more succinct version of this review available here.

After seeing Julia Wolfe’s Vermeer Room performed by the NYU Symphony Orchestra in October, I became interested in the music of Ms. Wolfe and was thrilled to find out that a new piece of hers was being premiered at Carnegie’s Zankel Hall in November. Zankel is a more intimate venue in the same building as Carnegie’s main stage, Perlman/Stern and a perfect place for the premiere of a new work performed by a chamber group. And an interesting chamber group it was. The piece called for piano, clarinet, cello, bass, guitar/banjo/mountain dulcimer, and quite an assortment of percussion (including performers’ feet and hands, and “the bones”) as well as the wonderful Trio Mediaeval, three female vocalists from Scandinavia. The piece, Steel Hammer, was a retelling of the myth of John Henry, known for using his steel hammers to beat a steam machine in a race. But unlike many composers before her, Ms. Wolfe did more than just retell a legend-she chose to look at the legacy of legends themselves through the lens of this particular one.

The piece was organized into several different movements that each told a part of the legend, and were ordered by each segment of lyrics. However, the “lyrics” were mostly descriptions which were then layered together to create an ambiguous narrative. The first movement was a setting of the words “Some say he’s from”, which were broken down and put back together in a round of the three vocalists. There were some beautiful harmonies and the cohesiveness of the singers was quite impressive. The instrumentalists joined in at the end with percussion that sounded like a train moving on a track-a theme both aural and visual throughout the night. The next movement, The States, was a list of (as Ms. Wolfe explained in the talk beforehand) all the places that different versions of the story said John Henry was from, which were again layered by the vocalists over and over such that the meaning of the words themselves was almost obscured. One got a sense of how many different versions of the story exist and have been told. The trend continued in the other movements, with John Henry being described as small, tall, black, white, true, false and many other things. By choosing lyrics that were ambiguous and layering these descriptions over each other, Ms. Wolfe was able to communicate to the listener the sheer scope of the legend. Walking away from the concert, I felt as if I had heard the legend itself of John Henry, a myth made up of the weaving together of many different stories. The three vocalists embodied the hundred different narrators of these stories, speaking with different musical voices to lend a rich diversity of sound to the entire piece.

The instrumental accompaniment to the piece also added to the feeling of many stories being communicated at once. The background was constantly shifting, although a percussive take on the instruments as well as repeated melodic pointed to Wolfe’s minimalist background and gave cohesion to the piece. Clarinetist Evan Ziporyn’s lines often joined with the vocalists, while the rest of the ensemble was largely a percussion ensemble, using cello, bass, and guitar lines to create rhythm and drive the piece.  The mood changed from tender at some points to cacophonous, particularly in the movement about the race between the steam engine and John Henry. The instrumentation was evocative and descriptive at some points, for instance when trying to portray a train, and at other times merely a background against which the singers portrayed the storyline.

The piece had a curious, and I felt rather unnecessary series of visuals, at times flashing the words that made up the lyrics and also using charcoal drawings of a train and the map of the United States. There was a revealing moment in which the picture of chair rocking was shown to be several chairs rocking during the movement about John Henry’s “woman” Polly (further contributing to the feeling of multiple stories being told at once), but otherwise I found the video amateur and distracting. Ms. Wolfe said during her talk that she did not want it to be a formal, boring concert, but I honestly found the musicians themselves wonderfully engaging and entertaining. The use of lighting to highlight drama and show the change between movements, as well as the campfire-esque stage setup were nice touches.

The musicians themselves were quite wonderful-engaged in the music while also very precise. If no one had told me the Trio Medieaval was from Scandanavia, I would not have known given their excellent articulation. They had great group chemistry and were fun to watch. Clarinetist and conductor Evan Ziporyn was lyrical and worked well to keep the group together. Guitarist Mark Stewart is also to be commended for the performance of his feet during one movement as an effective percussion instrument-not an easy feat (yes, pun intended). The ease with which the musicians performed imbued the piece with a familiarity that one might not have expected from a modern composition.

Though I felt the piece was rather lengthy, the ingenuity of its conception and the lovely presentation it was given were quite impressive. Julia Wolfe is definitely a composer to keep watching and the Bang On A Can All Stars a group to see again.

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