With future uncertain, “CONTACT!” series continues to strike sparks

Tue Jan 24, 2017 at 1:04 pm
David Lang's "sweet air" was performed at the "CONTACT!" concert Monday night at National Sawdust.

David Lang’s “sweet air” was performed at the “CONTACT!” concert Monday night at National Sawdust.

The New York Philharmonic’s CONTACT! new music series had its first concert of an abbreviated season Monday night at National Sawdust, with its status and future unclear. To save money, the Philharmonic was going to suspend the series this season, until personal donations from Alan Gilbert, Esa-Pekka Salonen, Philharmonic President Matthew VanBeisen–who just quite his job—and incoming music director Jaap van Zweden salvaged the concerts.

Van Zweden committing his own money to CONTACT! is an encouraging sign of his incipient reign. , and Michael Cooper reported in the New York Times that the conductor is a firm believer in the value of the series. At issue is the cost of administrative resources against an attendance that the use of smaller venues capped at around 800 people for a season.

With Monday night’s event and the upcoming spring concert both at National Sawdust, that total will probably be around just 300. Despite bad weather, almost every seat was full Monday for a concert of five pieces, three of them from the previous century, and one nearly 30 years old.

Despite the modest reach of CONTACT, the passions behind it, the range of the compositions and the quality of the performances opened up the fundamental question of just what the purpose and direction of the series might be. Everything was solidly within the modern classical tradition, with works from Alexandre Lunsqui, David Lang, Zosha Di Castri, and Steven Mackey revolving around the lodestar of Elliott Carter’s Quintet for Piano and Strings.

The excellent performance, anchored by pianist Eric Huebner, of Carter’s dense and very American expression of dialogue and disagreement was yet another in an enormous set of examples of how well the Philharmonic musicians play high modernism. During most of the post-WWII era, and especially through Gilbert’s eight years, the orchestra has given one superb performance after another of music of its own era.

Lunsqui’s Glaes, which opened, was an ideal example of the series incorporating the experimental into the classical tradition. With Huebner playing the prepared piano strings directly, and Daniel Druckman playing a berimbau like it was a slide guitar, the timbres were unusual and wonderful, while the sharply defined, mechanical rhythms came directly out of Cage’s pioneering, and pre-experimental, early percussion music.

Lang and Di Castri represented two contemporary styles: Lang’s sweet air the post-minimal branch, and Di Castri’s La forma dello spazio the high-modernist.

Lang’s quintet for flute, clarinet, violin, cello, and piano is one of his loveliest works, gentle and limpid, full of fascinating counterpoint. It can be heard with a more fluid pulse from the Italian ensemble Sentieri Selvaggi, but the rather stiff rhythmic playing of the Philharmonic musicians produced the feeling of baroque dance music, an intriguing result that affirmed both Lang’s position in the classical tradition and the value of the Philharmonic in playing modern music.

Di Castri’s piece was inspired by mobiles like those of Alexander Calder. This is a staple influence on modernism, and produced excellent music from Morton Feldman. The best part of the piece was the most Feldmanesque, a long denouement with a sparse piano solo supported by slow glissandos from the flute, clarinet, violin, and cello. The form earlier in the piece captured the sensations of objects moving around and past each other, but the musical expression was less focussed and individual.

Steven Mackey’s Indigenous Instruments was last on the program, and was a bridge between minimalism and more classic modernism. For the same Pierrot ensemble as Lang and Di Castri—and like the latter piece, conducted by Jeffrey Milarsky—there was plenty of charm in the music. Mackey meant the piece to sound like folk music from an imaginary culture, and in person he spoke about how it came out of the physicality of playing instruments, but it sounded most like children’s music. There were nice, short phrases that worked playfully with each other, and a dance feel rose and fell, but there was little of the vocalized quality one expects from folk music. That Milarsky was need to conduct the quintet indicated that the musicians were less secure in the formal, and especially rhythmic, aspects of Di Castri’s and Mackey’s idioms.

Next season David Geffen Hall will be closed for renovations, and the orchestra will be peripatetic, as CONTACT! has been. It’s great to hear the musicians play in chamber groups, but the Philharmonic already has its own chamber music series at Merkin Concert Hall. The salient difference with CONTACT! has been a nice social atmosphere, with introductions from the stage and alcohol in the audience. Perhaps it’s time to combine all these, with CONTACT! concerts folded into, and serving as introductions for, orchestral performances. That overall modern tradition is already set at the Philharmonic.

CONTACT! returns to National Sawdust 7:30 p.m. May 22. nyphil.org

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