Older works sound most like new in Chamber Music Society’s contemporary program

Fri May 08, 2015 at 12:16 pm
Daniel Philip Heft's "Monumentum" was given its U.S. premiere Thursday night by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. Photo: Manu Theebald

Daniel Philip Hefti’s “Monumentum” was given its U.S. premiere Thursday night by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. Photo: Manu Theobald

The term “New Music” comes with an implicit, clear promise: that the music will not only be recently made, but display some new thinking. What was frustrating about Thursday night’s Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center concert, “New Music in the Kaplan Penthouse,” was how little new thinking was on the program. Compounding the experience was the oddity that the oldest music had the freshest ideas, while the newest works came off as relatively staid.

There was nothing objectively wrong or disappointing about any of the pieces on the program, and the playing from the youthful Amphion String Quartet, violinist/violist Yura Lee, cellist Jan Vogler, and percussionist Ian David Rosenbaum was skillful and energetic. But the sense of newness was fleeting, and as a look into what might be happening in the Western classical tradition, it was puzzling.

The most recent music came from the youngest composer, 40-year-old David Philip Hefti. But the first piece came from the oldest living composer represented, Paul Lansky. Lansky is most widely known for either his excellent electronic music like Idle Chatter or for having his work sampled by Radiohead on their album Kid A.

Lee and Rosenbaum played his 1993 duo for violin and marimba, Hop. It’s a punchy, pleasurable dialogue, packed with tasty, syncopated riffs, a funky pulse, and some genuinely bluesy dominant intervals. Everything is strong, nothing watered down or pandering to popular taste. The piece not only substantially anticipates the movement towards stylistic eclecticism in the 21st century, but is completely aware of trends since the late 1960s, particularly minimalism and jazz-rock fusion.

Hop was followed by August Read Thomas’ Invocations for String Quartet, played by the talented Amphion musicians. Although written in 2000, the piece is a just one step removed from the 19th century. It is a satisfyingly lean reworking of the yearnings of romantic era Schoenberg and the innovative string quartet techniques of Bartók. Amphion brought out musical and expressive intensity in the music, but if one heard it cold, it would be difficult to differentiate it from pieces written in the 1930s.

Hefti’s Monumentum, for string sextet, was heard in its American premiere. Written last year and co-commissioned by the Chamber Music Society, it begins with a single pitch, shared and passed around the group. Each instrument applies a different attack—pizzicato, quiet sustain—before evolving into a tableau of shifting textures and phrases. New ideas gradually replace previous ones, and there is the feeling of a meeting, with the group arriving, through discussion, at a consensus. From moment to moment, this was fascinating to hear, though it wasn’t always clear where the piece was heading. The playing sounded clear and confident, yet the music left one with the feeling there were no secrets left to be uncovered.

Like the first half, the second opened with an older piece that turned out to be the most vibrant and fresh expression of that portion of the program: Lutoslawski’s Sacher Variation for cello solo, played by Vogler. This brief, concentrated work is an involving dialogue between the past and the present. One of the greatest composers of the 20th century, Lutoslawski applied contemporary and avant-garde ideas to the long history of the Western classical tradition. Vogler’s lively playing demonstrated how Lutoslawski is always relevant and fresh.

Yevgeny Sharlat’s Quartet No. 2 for Strings, and Andy Akiho’s LigNEouS 1 for string quartet with marimba completed the concert. Sharlat’s plainspoken and dramatic piece began with a fine, folk-like melody, that then runs through a step-by-step series of variations. There are stretches of deeply involving music, but the piece becomes predictable and, despite the commitment from the Amphion quartet, doesn’t quite sustain its length.

Aikido’s lively, propulsive piece could probably use a little more swing, but the playing was fun and unmannered. More than any of the other recent works, it was dedicated to the proposition that classical music could be made with a pop attitude, and also suffered from a superficiality essential to pop music.

The newest pieces were all polished to a bright and exacting sheen, and shared the virtue of laying out their processes on the surface. Underneath the complex and subjective variable of what they were trying to tell the audience, one could clearly follow how they built and organized themselves through time. Hefti, Sharlat and Akiho worked through variation, repeating and reforming phrases, rhythms, attacks, and even timbres, and their technique was impeccable, a collective demonstration of how composers work with materials.

But the skill and clarity also precluded any sense of genuine newness. There seemed no possibility of surprise, much less of disorder, as if it never occurred to the composers to not make music in the way that it has always been made.

The music from Lansky and Lutoslawski, as old as it was, sounded new because it sounded like it was asking questions about what might be possible. The pieces from Thomas and the young composers looked back at circumscribed portions of the past and repeated their lessons as pat answers. Nothing bad, but nothing new.

The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center presents “Spanish Dances,” 7:30 p.m. May 15 chambermusicsociety.org.

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