Thursday, April 22, 2010


So, CONTACT! all caps exclamation mark is the new, new-music ensemble within the New York Philharmonic, and they are doing their best to raise its profile as this hip, edgy new thing—they're putting the public in direct CONTACT! with the ensemble and its composers by holding concerts in the more informal Symphony Space, inviting red-hot, tastemaking bloggers [cough cough] to its shows for free, and even allowing liveblogging on the premises to those who might so opt.

I opted out, but I could not resist the siren call of free Phil tix. Not that tickets were terribly expensive in the first place—I bought an extra ticket for my extra date (2 arms = 2 slots for arm-candy), and the house was small enough that everybody seemed to have a pretty good seat. I'd never actual been to a show in Symphony Space before (I know, I know), and it is a very different place to hear classical music. My auxiliary date thought it looked like a repurposed discotheque, and yeah maybe it does look a little cheap and gaudy, and yeah the acoustics are a little dry (more on that later), but it achieved what the Phil was obviously after, which was to let their collective hair down a bit.

Okay, there was something a little forced about the whole setup—the Phil's chamber group playing in front of an exposed brick wall, wearing the new-music "all black" uniform rather than the symphonic "concert black" uniform, and then the MCing, sheesh the MCing between each piece. John Schaefer is, to be sure, a treasure to the world of contemporary music, but every time I see him MC something it feels like that weird moment in the game show where Alex Trebek asks June from Yuba City about the hobbies she mentioned in the pre-interview. Alan Gilbert's remarks were articulate and pleasingly blunt, and Magnus Lindberg was UTTERLY ADORABLE, cannot stress that enough. Why not just give Lindberg the mike? Did adding yet a third facilitator to introduce the composers to the audience really make us feel more at home? I dunno.

(The funniest moment of Mandatory Informality actually came after the concert, when a really nice staff photographer apologetically asked Nico Muhly, with whom we were in mid-shmooze, if she could get a picture of him holding a plastic cup of beer instead of a plastic cup of wine. We didn't ask why—these were her instructions, she said—but I assume that wine was too snooty? They wanted more of a "Facebook kegger pix" vibe? It was completely not a big deal, and I've already made too much of it, but I swear it was very funny at the time.)

I'm not sure the pre-performance chitchat was terribly helpful to the audience, either. During Sean Shepherd's piece, These Particular Circumstances I found myself listening for the correlations between the titles of each of the twelve continuous movements of the piece and the musical materials of each before I finally realized I was enjoying the piece less this way than if I'd just sat there and listened.

More important than knowing what Shepherd's scheme was, was perceiving that Shepherd had conceived of a sturdy structural scheme, and yes one could, and it was satisfying. I also thought of Boulez, whose works are often structured as similar chains of "effects" explored singly in short, attacca movements movements, and who also features, like Shepherd, a richly colored, volatile, Frenchy style. But the voice was Shepherd's own, engaging rather than confrontational, not ashamed to wink at the audience once in a while. (Date #1 caught a reference to The Planets and tittered.) Your Friend & Mine Nico Muhly characterized Shepherd's style quite well in the intro to his own piece—"like a flock of birds turning upon a single point," he said or something like that, which is right! Alive and chaotic with tiny details, centered and organized invisibly, but perceptibly. I shall keep an eye out for Shepherd's name in the future.

He also came across quite well in the little intro-interview (INTROVIEW!)—small, handsome, charming. Danny likes this.

Nico's own piece, Detailed Instructions, showcased his by-now-familiar musical obsessions—the influence of Adams and Glass, yeah, and also his orchestrational obsessions: piccolo, viola (molte viole, no violins), low brass (trombone bass trombone, tuba). The first movement was positively arid, Gilbert further baring the piece's already exposed clockworks like Boulez conducting the Rite of Spring. Were these the right choices, compositional and interpretational, for a premiere in such an acoustically unappealing space? The audience could hear everything that was going on, which was impressive, but we could also hear everything that wasn't going on.

There were also balance problems, or at least one big balance problem—the viola is such a quiet instrument, when that were playing off of the brass or the woodwinds, it wasn't much of a contest; the hapless fiddlers would've had to lay into their instruments like orchestral soloists for the whole piece, which didn't happen, and sometimes they were totally inaudible.

THAT SAID. The slow second movement was lovely—very lovely—maybe one of the most moving things Nico's ever written, and the third was like a happy speedread through early Glass, constantly shifting and moving urgently forward. I would very much like to hear this again, especially with an amplified or closely recorded ensemble.

Since we're keeping score now, Nico was a hit in the interview as well, very funny and dressed stylishly as ever—a black, I don't know, tunic I guess? very long, uneven hem, under a deceptively conventional black jacket. Nice!

Matthias Pintscher (sharply cut black suit, skinny black tie, hot) explained that he was attracted to the Hebrew original of the very familiar text he set, from the Song of Songs, by the language's density of meaning; for me, there was also a sense, listening to the music, that this cryptic score was also an untranslated utterance of some kind, an exotic code. That pedal G being passed around the ensemble, what does it mean? What's the connection between the text and the logic of this score? Dissonant and atmospheric, it was too elaborately knotted for me to untangle cerebrally, and instead I experienced it as the expression of some primitive passion—think of the way that Solomon expresses his love in terms of beasts, in terms of sweet fragrances, and so do Pintscher's songs from Solomon's garden communicate, with strange noises, with wafting clouds of sound. Also worth noting that the soundworld of the piece survived, intact, its premiere in the funky space—it contained its own resonances.

The presence of Thomas Hampson at this event was almost surreal. He was the most famous person on the stage that night, by a longshot, and with the exception of his star-aura was dressed like everybody else, all in black, plus his trademark pompadour and a pair of reading glasses for his sheet music. His out-of-placeness was at once awesome (America's most celebrated opera man sings avant-garde music in intimate venue?? YES please) and awkward. His vocal instrument is amazing, and he sang a difficult score very passionately, but was he really the best guy for the role? Mightn't a less polished artist have had a more incisive take? (One of my dates suggested that his Hebrew was less than spot-on, as well.)

Anyway: three World Premieres, three successes. Put this shit in the WIN column. And I tease, but the social atmosphere was quite congenial; there wasn't a sharp line between HERE'S WHERE YOU SIT FOR THE CONCERT and HERE'S WHERE YOU CHILL OUT AFTER, so everybody milled around and it was kind of a party right there. Your favorite people showed up! Again! Nico's librettist, playwright Craig Lucas; to my delight, Matthias Pintscher's seat was RIGHT NEXT to ours, and right behind us were Timo Andres and Ted Hearne; Zachary Woolfe was there from the Observer, and Jordan Brown from Musical America, and I'm sure I'm forgetting somebody I'll regret but hooray anyway. I was actually feeling not so hot due to some lingering flu-y crap, so I didn't get to drink anything and didn't get to stick around very long, but it was a nice vibe and everybody seemed to be having a good time and I had a nice nap on the train back to New Haven, iTunesing the Redhooker album, which I seem to be doing an awful lot lately. But they are a post for another day! And with that fair reader I bid you whatever.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

This makes me wish I had been there, which I honestly had not wished previously. Blerg.
-former MD'

April 22, 2010 at 11:39 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, those seats at Symphony Space were not all filled and I bought my tickets way way early by use of the internet and they mailed me my seats and they were way up and off to the side where I could neither see nor hear properly, so the Philharmonic has some 'splaining to do.

Having John Schaeffer interview those composers was even worse than Alex Trebek, it was like Uncle Morty at the bar mitzvah, it was AWK. WORD.

The music was wonderful.

April 25, 2010 at 12:53 PM  

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