Philharmonic members fly solo in rewarding night of new music
Tuesday was a night of novelty for the New York Philharmonic. Members of the orchestra performed new works in a relatively new space as part of the first NY Phil Biennial. Five world premieres and one New York premiere, all for solo instruments, were presented at this “Contact!” event, shining a rather different light on the orchestra – or at least a half dozen of its members – at SubCulture, a posh new downtown venue with a nightclub vibe.
The evening was kicked off by composer, mover and shaker Paola Prestini, a curator of the annual River to River festival and creative director of the Brooklyn-based Original Music Workshop. Her Eight Takes for solo cello was inspired by “One Love Story, Eight Takes” by Brenda Shaughnessy, who read an excerpt of the poem before the performance. Each of the eight short moments were no doubt titled after the poem (“moody,” “with passion,” “in limbo”) but they also served as score directions. The music is lushly romantic, falling into staccato lines, forceful tempo shifts and percussion against the cello’s body, all played with beautiful articulation by Sumire Kudo. It was difficult to count the “takes” in the love story, which was played without a break. One easily could have counted three dozen of them before a few fast arpeggios and a satisfying, resolving tonic resolved the piece.
Eric Nathan wrote his As Above, So Below as an exploration of the trombone while in Italy. The composer and trumpeter purchased a trombone and toyed with it, discovering that tones could be projected both in front of and behind the player with the removal of the F attachment valve. He then composed a musical fantasy of taking flight over Rome, ultimately landing in the pine groves that (he later learned) inspired Respighi’s Pini di Roma. This novel preparation was well utilized in what turned out to be a more turbulent flight than one might have hoped for. Sudden, midstream volume shifts and even trompe-l’oreille flutters filled Joseph Alessi’s playing. Having established the novelty in the first section, Nathan used the bifurcated tone palette for simpler accents in long, somber lines as the piece concluded.
Oscar Bettison’s Threaded Madrigals, played by violist Rebecca Young, used harmonic structures particular to the instrument to make a piece very much of the instrument. A repeated and varying two-note dirge became a foundation over which the instrument sang, finding its way back to that simple, mournful motif. Sometimes the same note repeated on two different strings (giving it a slightly different voicing), sometimes landing a half step off and ultimately placing the two patterns at opposite ends of the register.
Four Pieces for Solo Piano, on the other hand, seemed an attempt to undermine the instrument. Ryan Brown restricted himself to the half of the keyboard above middle C in order, he explained before Eric Huebner’s performance, to divorce himself from the instrument’s history. The first, “Cellar Door,” was, he said, an attempt at beauty, based on the often-cited pleasing sound of the two words. It was nearly a pop song, somewhere between the realms of Kate Bush and Radiohead. “Buckle” was a percussive effort, mechanical but playful. “Stage Whisper” was slight and brief and, like the stage direction it is named for, softer more in pace than in volume. “Shoestring” was named for a film Brown saw of mechanics in West Africa fixing a car engine with laces and, he said, an attempt at their spirit of “making a lot out of a little.” It seemed to reduce the keyboard by half again, nearly a music box now and only escaping to the bass clef for the final note.
The highpoint of the evening was Michael Hersch’s Of Sorrow Born: Seven Elegies. The beautiful little miniatures, gracefully played by violinist Yulia Ziskel, didn’t defy expectation so much as hover in a realm where expectations were immaterial. The first pieces alternated between bold atonality and languid, mournful statements, climaxing in the fifth piece with long, sustained tones interrupted by sudden outbursts. The sixth held fast in the upper register, seeming barely even present while the final delivered light, plaintive harmonies that felt liquid, even weeping.
After that, Chris Kapica’s Fandanglish for solo clarinet was a spritely melange of Latin, pop and swing fragments, heavy breathing, reed-popping and -stomping, all stretched across six music stands for Pascual Martinez Forteza. Playful and referential, it was a perfect coda for a refreshingly casual program unconcerned with tired divisions of Up- and Downtown.
The New York Philharmonic’s Biennial continues through June 7. nyphil.org.
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