Thorvaldsdottir’s voice stands out among emerging trends at CONTACT!

Tue Jan 09, 2018 at 12:58 pm
Anna Thorvaldsdottir's "Ro" as performed at the New York Philharmonic's CONTACT! concert Monday night at National Sawdust. Photo: Chris Lee

Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s “Ró” was performed at the New York Philharmonic’s CONTACT! concert Monday night at National Sawdust. Photo: Chris Lee

While hosting the first CONTACT! 2017-18 concert for the New York Philharmonic Monday night, Esa-Pekka Salonen revealed what he felt was a dirty little secret—that classical music is just as subject to trends and fads as pop music, albeit on a slower cycle.

That has never been a secret, and it was doubly amusing to play at revealing such a conspiracy at National Sawdust, the latest home for the Philharmonic’s new music series and currently the trendiest venue in classical music in New York (and designed and promoted as such).

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Indeed, Monday night’s concert and the previous one in the series have shown the Philharmonic moving into current trends. Since the series began with the 2009-10 season, it has focused almost exclusively on ideas of tonal modernism while eschewing minimalism and its legacies. Call it one trend ignoring another.

Now the ship is steering in the direction of America and more generally toward post-minimal ports of call. Opening with Sarah Kirkland Snider’s 2006 Thread and Fray, the concert was an illumination of the current balance point in classical music.

Snider is an important representative of 21st century trends in composition, as one of the founding partners of New Amsterdam records, itself one of the most important labels in classical music and the leading clearing house for the indie-classical trend.

She is very much a post-minimalist composer and she explained how her trio for viola, bass clarinet and marimba made conscious use of elements she found in Louis Andriessen’s style. Snider’s pithy, lively work made special use of a close canonic structure of repeated phrases. More individual was her inspiration to combine three soft, dark sonorities into a creamy, warm texture.

The middle of the program, conducted by Jeffrey Milarsky, offered music from Ashley Fure, Du Yun, and Fernanda Aoki Navarro that, collectively, spoke to where music is going right now.

Though different from each other, each of these pieces shared a fundamental interest in extended techniques, which Salonen saw as on the upswing. Fure’s Therefore I Was and Navarro’s Parthenogenesis each eschewed formal presentation and development for a basic, and sophisticated, placement of sound in time.

Those ideas are returning from about two generations ago, but they are still fresh and the music sounded new. Fure’s manipulation of timbres with piano, percussion, and cello (with the low C string tuned down radically to F-sharp) was often marvelous to the ear, the instruments combining to produce things like a tantalizing glassy moan that would otherwise have seemed completely synthetic.

What her and Navarro’s Messiaen-tinged quartet for clarinet, trombone, piano, and cello also shared was a mismatch between material and duration. With nothing more than sound, Therefore I Was built up considerable tension. That was released by a deliberate pause, followed by a structural coda that didn’t have the same grip on time.

For Navarro, the issue was of pacing and mood. Parthenogenesis had a strong opening, and hit high points of energetic humor, but there were troughs where the level of inspiration couldn’t make up for the intentional lack of form. There was perceptible tension in the playing too, and the quartet required direction from Milarsky.

Du Yun’s string quartet Tattooed in Snow, played by violinists Quan Ge and Shanshan Yao, violist Rémi Pelletier, and cellist Ru-Pei Yeh, was impressively well written. This was a narrative piece, a set of abstract episodes, the music alternating between avant-garde gestures and expressive passages in older styles, from Renaissance counterpoint to romantic homophony.

The music was accompanied by a video from visual artist Lu Yang. But the unintentional self-parody of the video–a slick and fashionably accessorized vignette that could have been an ad for men’s underwear as directed by Martin Scorsese–was nowhere in the same aesthetic, intellectual, or professional class. Fortunately, one can close the eyes and keep the ears open.

The opposite pole on the program from Snider was Anna Thorvaldsdottir, the Philharmonic’s Kravis Emerging Composer. Her style may not currently represent a trend, but as she is one of the most compelling contemporary composers, she may very well be starting her own.

Her was superficially sympathetic to the previous three pieces, but Thorvaldsdottir has a voice and style that lie outside of current fads. As she explained, she’s fascinated with harmony, so where other pieces were about sounds on a timeline, her music was about sounds that change through time into and out of harmonies.

At the point of the spear of contemporary music, her taste for low dynamics and organic growth produces a captivating beauty for all ears. Even though the performance was less than ideal—there was a stiff concentration on technique rather than producing her unique sound, unaided by Milarsky’s tempo that felt a hair too fast. Even so, created a sense of stature free from historical burdens.

The final CONTACT! Concert will take place 7:30 p.m. April 2 at National Sawdust.

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