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Six concerts in eight days

By Albert Imperato, Gramophone
April 19, 2010
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(Including three world premieres and one New York premiere)

I’m not sure what my record is for number of concerts attended in the course of a week, but last night’s CONTACT! concert by the New York Philharmonic was my sixth in eight days. The past two days alone featured a major New York premiere and three world premieres – an embarrassment of riches!

It began last Friday in Philadelphia where I heard pianist Yefim “Fima” Bronfman in recital (Fima is a client of our company, 21C Media Group). Fima’s superhuman technique was jaw-dropping, especially in the Prokofiev Second Sonata as well as a Lizst arrangement of a Paganini piece he played as one of three encores. Hearing him in such an intimate space (the Perelman Theater in the Kimmel Center) only added to the forcefulness of the experience. The next night I heard Chanticleer (another client) at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The singing was characteristically resplendent, but once again the setting heightened the experience: twilight in the glass-enclosed Temple of Dendur at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where shafts of rich-colored light flooded the space and colored the rapturous sounds that were ringing in the air.

The next day it was a Thomas Hampson recital at Alice Tully Hall (Hampson is also a client – sorry!). The program was equal parts Barber and Schumann. The Schumann portion was revelatory for me: 20 Heine songs that in a later incarnation would become his famed Dichterliebe. The directness of the songs and the richness of their emotion – all delivered with Hampson’s probing intelligence, superb German and burnished tone – were transporting.

I returned to Alice Tully Hall the next night to hear (another client) Alan Gilbert conduct the Juilliard Orchestra. Wow, those kids can play! The program presented such a wonderful opportunity to explore four very different types of expression, beginning with Ligeti’s otherworldly Atmospheres, and moving on to Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto (soloist Michael Brown played with great confidence and rhythmic flair) and Schoenberg’s Five Orchestral Pieces. Based on Alan’s recent performances (and recording) of Berg’s Three Orchestral Pieces with the NY Phil, and his Schoenberg performances with Juilliard (his alma mater), I find myself craving hearing Alan conducting more Second Viennese School music (did I really just write that?). The final piece was Mozart’s “Prague” Symphony, played with such rich character that the music was stuck in my head all week.

I grew tired as the week moved on and thought it might be time to spend a night at home, but Mark Swed’s detailed Los Angeles Times review of Louis Andriessen’s Dante-inspired La Commedia – cleverly posted on Facebook by Carnegie Hall’s Jeremy Geffen – lured me out of the house Thursday night for this important New York premiere. I don’t know enough about Andriessen’s music to call this opera the Dutch composer’s “magnum opus,” as some critics have described it, but I can say that I found it highly original and strangely moving, drawing upon a large variety of inspirations and styles that only a master could integrate (Reinbert de Leeuw’s expert conducting certainly helped the cause). I actually loved the darkness of the first half of the work, with Andriessen drawing up appropriately hellish sounds to match the text from Dante’s Inferno, the biblical Psalms, and the Dutch poet Joost van den Vondel’s Lucifer. I secretly delighted that some concertgoers headed for the doors, sometimes a sign that something really significant is happening on stage! Deep, grinding woodwind sounds and crashing clusters of brass conveyed the sulfurous atmosphere of the texts (some of these blasts reminded me very much of the blocks of chords that make up so much of Messiaen’s music). Those who fled the hall missed the sensuous appeal of Part IV, “The Garden of Earthly Delights,” and the soaring beauty of soprano Claron McFadden’s voice in the finale, “Eternal Light.” As in life, experiencing the darkness of Andriessen’s vision only heightened the transcendent quality of the work’s sublime moments.

Where am I now? Okay, Friday evening. The New York Philharmonic’s CONTACT! series, composed entirely of new works commissioned by the Philharmonic, is a major initiative by Alan in his first year as Music Director. Composer-in-Residence Magnus Lindberg was on hand last night at Symphony Space (30 blocks north of the orchestra’s usual residence at Lincoln Center) to explain the reasoning behind the second of this year’s two programs (he conducted the first program in the fall, and Alan conducted all of the works last night), noting that he had selected these gifted young composers to show something of the extraordinary variety of sounds that make up the contemporary music scene today.

The format of these CONTACT! programs is great, with informal and illuminating commentary from the stage last night provided by Alan, Magnus, John Schaeffer of WNYC radio, and the featured composers, Sean Shephard, Nico Muhly and Matthias Pintscher. I found all three works enormously appealing, each – to illustrate Lindberg’s point – complementing the other with their contrasting sonorities and rhythms.

I had never heard Sean Shepherd’s music before, but what I heard made me want to hear more. The title of his work, These Particular Circumstances, in seven uninterrupted episodes, was a reference to the specific requirements of writing for a chamber-sized group of Philharmonic musicians. The episodes, to quote the program, were, by turns “floating, circling, spinning, grinding, sinking, teetering, soaring,” with a few quick quotations from other composers (including Holst’s The Planets) that made some in the audience (including me) laugh. Nico Muhly’s three-movement Detailed Instructions evoked varied landscapes (and skyscapes) seen through the window of a moving train: the influence of Adams and Glass were apparent, the latter in terms of the music’s repetitive figures and sweetly melancholic tone.

I was most moved by Matthias Pintscher’s songs from Solomon’s garden, a setting from the Shir ha-Shirim, the Song of Solomon. Before the performance Pintscher talked about the extraordinary precision of the Hebrew language and called the text “perhaps the most beautiful love poetry ever written.” Hampson had, in interviews, said that he found Hebrew to be an enormously beautiful language, and his singing of it last night was ardent, intense, and, for me, deeply stirring. The writing was clearly complex and challenging, but Gilbert and the musicians played it with extraordinary authority. The sonorities didn’t conjure up daytime sensuousness, but rather, the deep mysteries of the night. It was hauntingly beautiful.

I was very impressed by the turnout – lots from the young and hip set that orchestras would love to see at all their concerts – and by how many music industry people were on hand: other composers, performers, critics, music publishing people, etc. My business partner and best buddy, Glenn Petry, was there, too, and wrote me an e-mail this morning, which I briefly excerpt here: “Last night was a blast. Can you believe that crowd was hanging around talking about the NY Phil and new music? Was that a mirage? A dream? I can't believe it. It's amazing. Now the only thing left to do is to take that show on the road. Downtown! Brooklyn!! Maybe even Queens, the Bronx!”

Media note: you can hear this CONTACT! concert on-line at WQXR’s Q2 channel on Thursday, April 22 at 7 pm or Saturday, April 24 at 4 pm.

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