NY Phil Biennial: Scads, Oodles, and Heaps of Composers

New York Philharmonic Biennial

Photo by Chris Lee

As the NY Phil Biennial continues, with events every day through this Saturday, I’ve begun to realize how many new pieces and how many composers I’ve heard over the last week or so. My rough count comes to 56 people, with only one name appearing on more than one program: that of French composer Bruno Mantovani (whose two delicious yet totally different pieces, Spirit of Alberti and Turbulences, separated by more than fifteen years and adding much to both the “Beyond Recall” and “Circles of Influence: Boulez” programs, was a fascinating contrast in itself). While certain works—the operas Gloria – A Pig Tale and The Raven and other major statements—have made biennial marquis names out of a small number of composers such as HK Gruber, Toshio Hosokawa, Christopher Rouse, Steven Mackey, and Peter Eötvös, the majority of pieces I’ve heard are for modest forces and are of modest length: nearly always less than fifteen minutes long. Of course, if what the planners seek is variety, then such a design makes sense. To paraphrase Alan Gilbert during his conversations with leaders in the visual arts on Monday evening, time space is to music what wall space is to art. Both are precious, but the more Richard Serra one exhibits, the less space there is for everything else. A combination of grand monuments and humble still lifes can fill a gallery—differences of scale are powerful in giving us context for what see and hear, and also how we come (perhaps over several pieces and several visits) to know an artist or composer.

Ruminating on the delicate art of programming these recent days, I’ve been struck by that old simple math: finding the right pieces and putting them in the right order can provide for some seriously satisfying musical experiences. If the scope of the festival might be called broad, then several of the biennial programs have approached the questions of what music to put and where to put it from a place of (sometimes to my ears, very sharp) focus: surveys of the British and French scenes by way of Pierre Boulez and George Benjamin; solo works from young Americans. Europe seemed to figure in more heavily over the weekend, whereas on Tuesday alone, I heard 12 very new pieces from Americans of roughly my generation—all less than 10 years older or younger. (Ed. note: Sean will be 35 next month!) In the case of the two “Circles of Influence” concerts presented by Pablo Heras-Casado and the Orchestra of St. Luke’s in Rose Hall, the pieces had an uncanny way of talking to each other. Boulez’s former students of various generations—Mantovani, Marc-André Dalbavie, and Philippe Manoury—each provided a new prism of commentary and illumination of Boulez’s slightest works, Mémoriale (…explosante-fixe… Orginel) for flute and small ensemble and Une page d’éphéméride for piano. His contemporary and colleague Heinz Holliger’s Ostinato funèbre was a real outlier, a kind of dirge of found and novel sounds, which gave the whole program a different weight altogether. Similarly, Sunday’s program—essentially Brits of two generations—presented a kind of dialogue across the ages. Although not as tightly wrapped as the French version (those sharing the program with Benjamin each could be said to have closer personal history with another British lion, Oliver Knussen, who wasn’t on the program), these composers complemented each other in natural and surprising ways. The pieces of the thirty-somethings, Helen Grime and Ryan Wigglesworth, each balanced, melancholy and impeccably elegant, contrasted with Colin Matthews’s hugely frenetic and impassioned Suns Dance, cool-to-the-touch Night Rides, and Benjamin’s virtuosic, noble Octet and gravely poetic Upon Silence.

Matthias Pintscher conducting members of the New York Philharmonic in Contact!  At the Biennial:  Beyond Recall at Museum of Modern Art. Photo by Chris Lee

Matthias Pintscher conducting members of the New York Philharmonic in Contact! At the Biennial: Beyond Recall at Museum of Modern Art. Photo by Chris Lee

A cousin of these programs could be the “Beyond Recall” concerts, presented at MoMA as part of the Philharmonic’s CONTACT! series, with Matthias Pintscher conducting Philharmonic musicians in nine pieces, each less than one year old, each in response to a work of public art in the city of Salzburg. Rather than a meditation on recent history, however, this concert served as a snapshot of the present on the Continent. As such, a different atmosphere—that of anticipation, with an almost tingling sense of event—seemed to permeate the lobby of MoMA at 10 p.m. on a school night. Major voices in Europe like Michael Jarrell, Olga Neuwirth, Dai Fujikura, Johannes Staud, Mark Andre, and Mantovani shared the program with emerging voices like Slovenians Nina Senk and Vito Zuraj, while American composer Jay Schwartz, who at age 25 left the US for Germany to study nearly 25 years ago, enjoyed his US concert debut, presented by the New York Philharmonic, in a moment whose significance was not lost on him.

Matthias Pintscher conducting members of the New York Philharmonic in Contact!  At the Biennial:  Beyond Recall at Museum of Moder Art, 5/29/14. Photo by Chris Lee

Photo by Chris Lee

The program—often dense, often jubilant, and veering fast among all things between—would have been unheard of as a New York Philharmonic presentation when I arrived in New York more than a decade ago, but the growth of CONTACT! has contributed to a new institutional norm: the new music band. The subset of Philharmonic musicians, always changing, who tackle this repertoire, have, I dare say, grown into the job over the years. It’s a very different one than sitting on the Avery Fisher Hall stage with Brahms and Mahler and the weight of history on your shoulders, and in years of seeing CONTACT! after my own premiere on the opening season, I’ve enjoyed the blossoming of these die-hard chamber virtuosos in magnificent performances of major contemporary rep, like Boulez’s …explosante-fixe… a few seasons back. I also dare say that whether or not the biennial (which has put a lot of difficult new music in the hands of Philharmonic musicians this week) is a natural outgrowth of CONTACT!, it has been enhanced immeasurably, both in performance and as an experience, by this and other journeys into the new world of brave new music. This orchestra is ready for this exhibition.

New York Philharmonic's Biennial Contact! Young American Composers at Subculture. Photo by Chris Lee

New York Philharmonic’s Biennial Contact! Young American Composers at Subculture. Photo by Chris Lee

Tuesday’s American fare, a night of solo works at SubCulture on Bleeker Street, co-presented with the 92nd Street Y and the EarShot reading sessions in a closed session by the Philharmonic, seemed yet a different way of shining a light on what’s happening this very minute. Six composers for six soloists (Paola Prestini, Eric Nathan, Oscar Bettison, Ryan Brown, Michael Hersch, and Chris Kapica, respectively, with Sumire Kudo, cello; Joseph Alessi, trombone; Rebecca Young, viola; Eric Huebner, piano; Yulia Ziskel, violin; and Pascual Martínez Forteza, clarinet) provided what was has probably been the loosest night of the biennial—all pieces, save Ryan Brown’s charmingly dappled Four Pieces for Solo Piano, were commissioned premieres, with huge variations in result. From the spare gravity of Michael Hersch’s seven elegies lasting nearly 20 minutes, to Eric Nathan’s clever take using a partially dismantled instrument, to Chris Kapica’s party-on-the-stage Fandanglish, with sweet and sensuous turns for strings from Prestini and Bettison, what was compelling in concert was actually the sense that each new piece would be approaching the problem of the instrumental soliloquy from a new perspective.

New York Philharmonic's Biennial Contact! Young American Composers at Subculture, 6/3/14. Photo by Chris Lee

Photo by Chris Lee

The orchestra readings offered a similar view from six in their late twenties and early thirties—it’s musical variety that we Americans expect, especially from each other. As with many an early orchestra piece, I heard a lot of others composer’s music in the six pieces chosen on Tuesday morning. I’ve spoken before about getting one’s flight hours in with the orchestra, and with so much to be aware of, developing one’s personal orchestral voice is no slick and simple process. These pieces each approached the challenge of these forces with intelligence, and this weekend we hear the pieces selected for performances (by Julia Adolphe, Andrew McManus, and Max Grafe) get the fair Philharmonic treatment, not just those 20 or so minutes of the reading, which can frustratingly pose more questions than answers. I’m curious to revisit them.

The notion of a musical program is so simple: several pieces, often split by a break, before we head off to drinks. The orchestral norm—overture, concerto followed by symphony—has been so satisfying that it’s worked for centuries. But it seems that the element of surprise can bring so much perspective, and can help us to absorb things afresh. Alan Gilbert is well known for his talent in this realm (“…best we’ve had since Bernstein,” as a former member of the orchestra told me this week), and I’ve seen it here—he and Edward Yim, the Philharmonic’s vice president for artistic planning, and the NY Phil partners understand that there are myriads way to present a piece or a composer. Last night, pianist Marino Formenti, in what has been among the most rich of all such endeavors, presented a stunningly shaped program of Liszt (“the first of the moderns,” as he said from the stage) and works since the 1960s, in which there were many unclear moments—which century were we in? Now there was a surprise, as satisfying as they come.

One thought on “NY Phil Biennial: Scads, Oodles, and Heaps of Composers

  1. Robinson McClellan

    Great article! Just a small correction/addition: at least one other composer’s name appeared on more than one program at the Biennial: Julian Galesi, 9th-grade composition major at the Special Music School, and also alum of the NY Philharmonic’s Very Young Composers program. He had two world premieres on the Biennial, first with VYC and then on the SMS/Face the Music concert.

    The NY Phil’s featuring of young composers, including two other SMS composers and several VYC composers elementary through high-school aged, was another wonderful feature of the Biennial.

    Reply

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