Philharmonic’s Contact! program offers an array of worthy music from Israel

Tue Feb 10, 2015 at 2:41 pm

Case Scaglione leads New York Philharmonic members in a concert of music from Israel Monday night at Subculture. Photo: Chris Lee

When the New York Philharmonic started its Contact! new-music series in 2009, critics worried that these chamber programs, presented in halls around New York, might be a way of paying lip-service to contemporary music without having to bring new works into the orchestra’s own programming. But during Alan Gilbert’s tenure – which, the conductor announced last week, would come to an end in 2017 – new music has fared reasonably well at the Philharmonic, which also added the NY Phil Biennial to its programming in 2013, and has increased the quotient of new works in its subscription programming as well.

In a way, it makes more sense to see Contact! as an added chamber series – a feistier version of the New York Philharmonic Ensembles series, which mixes standard repertory with older contemporary works by established composers (Hindemith, Penderecki and Britten, for example) – than as a segregation of contemporary music. The audience on hand at SubCulture on Monday evening not only packed the small downtown hall, but also seemed to span the age range. (The concert was co-presented by the 92nd Street Y, and no doubt drew on that organization’s audience as well.) And the musicians, drawn from the younger part of the Philharmonic’s roster, played the music at hand – four works by Israeli composers – with energy and focus.

Most of this year’s programs – all but the opener, in November, a potpourri selected by John Adams – are glances at relatively recent works from individual countries or regions, with Scandinavian, Italian and Japanese composers in the spotlight for the remaining concerts. For the Israeli works, the Philharmonic enlisted Yotam Haber, whose Estro Poetico-armonico II was among the performed works, as the host. (Another of the four featured composers, Avner Dorman, was to have been on hand as well, but was unable to travel to New York because of inclement weather.)

Given the diversity of its population, which includes Jewish refugees not only from Europe, but also from Arab countries and North Africa, as well as Muslims and Christians, Israel is pretty much the melting pot that the United States was in the early 20th century – that is, when it isn’t being a powder keg. And that diversity was reflected in much of the music that Haber and the Philharmonic musicians presented, which embraced everything from Jewish sacred music, the Muslim call to prayer and Gregorian chant (the ubiquitous Dies Irae) to klezmer and jazz, with a good deal of European abstraction along with way.

Josef Bardanashvili, a Georgian composer who moved to Israel in 1995, and quickly became part of the fabric of Israeli musical life, with university posts (he is currently at the Academy of Music at Tel Aviv University) and relationships with ensembles (he is the Israel Camerata Jerusalem’s composer-in-residence) was represented by the “Quasi Danza Macabra” movement from his String Quartet No. 1. Its inclusion, as the program’s opening work, quickly raised a few questions. The quartet was composed, after all, in 1985. That’s 30 years ago, and a decade before Bardanashvili arrived in Israel. To my mind, that makes it a questionable representation of, to cite the program’s title, “New Music from Israel.”

You could, in fact, raise similar questions about the program’s other works. Haber was born in the Netherlands, grew up partly in Israel (and a couple of other countries as well), studied in the United States, and now lives in New York, where he directed the MATA Festival from 2010 until last year. Dorman was born in Israel, where he studied with Bardanashvili before he became a student of John Corigliano at the Juilliard School. He is now based in the United States (he directs a chamber orchestra in Cleveland and teaches in Gettysburg). And Shulamit Ran, also born in Israel, moved to New York in the early 1960’s and has lived in Chicago since 1973. It is not clear whether any of the four works on the program were actually composed, in whole or in part, in Israel.

That said, the music had its share of power and charm, to say nothing of melting-pot eclecticism. The Bardanashvili quartet begins with a burst of harsh chordal scoring, followed by an eerily glassy, pianissimo, first violin figure, a combination that quickly and efficiently explains the movement’s title. Both those elements, and particularly the brash chordal writing, return later in the work, which is otherwise a series of episodes that include a short tango, the Dies Irae reference, and hints of Georgian folk and dance music, all swirling within an essentially acidic harmonic brew.

Haber said that his Estro Poetico-armonico II (2014) was based on psalm settings by the Baroque composer Benedetto Marcello, who drew upon Jewish liturgical music he heard in Venice. I’m certainly willing to take Haber at his word, but he has filtered his source material through a contemporary prism so thoroughly that you have to strain both your ears and your imagination to hear echoes of the originals. Does that matter? Probably not. If you want to hear the Marcello settings, you can find them. What Haber offers is a series of fragmented themes that move easily, and often delicately, among winds (alto flute and bass clarinet), strings (violin and cello) and piano, creating a dreamlike effect. Case Scaglione conducted the work.

Ran’s Mirage (1990), also for mixed strings, winds and piano, had elements in common with Haber’s work, most notably a fondness for gracefully winding alto flute writing, and for textures that blend the flute and clarinet in arresting ways. Ran’s harmonic language can be abstruse, but here, you found yourself thinking less about Ran’s harmony than about the ornamental, vaguely Middle Eastern character of her themes, and about the ease with which the work’s lines move between tandem figuration and counterpoint. Her writing is assured and focused, even in its flightiest sections, and the ease with which Ran moves through shifting textures and styles creates its own magic.

Dorman’s Jerusalem Mix (2007) proved the most eclectic piece on the program, and the most evocative of Israel itself. It takes its title from an Israeli fried meat dish, but its six movements, which are played without pause, create a composite picture of Jerusalem and its varied influences. Among them, “The Wailing Wall” is a meditation, with prayer rhythms in the clarinet line, a growling bassoon underpinning and a dulcimer-like sound created by plucking the piano’s strings.

The dulcimer effect returns as a backdrop for the “Adhan” movement, in which the bassoon, clarinet and horn combine to create a stylized evocation of the Muslim call to prayer. Between those movements, Dorman provides “Wedding March” – pure klezmer, with bending clarinet lines and a rhythmically vital accompaniment – and “Blast,” in which the winds collectively imitate the sound of the shofar, a ram’s horn used in the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services. The work’s outer movements, both called “Jerusalem Mix,” put these vignettes in a jazzy frame, couched in catchy, energetic themes with more than a touch of Gershwin in their DNA.

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