Stasevska makes powerful Philharmonic debut with two modern American classics

Thu Oct 21, 2021 at 2:02 pm
Anthony McGill was the clarinet soloist in Anthony Davis’s You Have the Right to Remain Silent, with Dalia Staseveska conducting the New York Philharmonic Wednesday night at Alice Tully Hall. Photo: Chris Lee

The New York Philharmonic is back in Alice Tully Hall this week with a program that has the title “American Triptych”—three contemporary pieces from Missy Mazzoli, Anthony Davis, and John Adams. On paper alone, that stands out, as do the Philharmonic debuts of Finnish conductor Dalia Stasevska and synthesist and electronic musician Earl Howard.

That last detail may raise some eyebrows—what’s the Philharmonic doing with an electronic musician? But Howard, an important and accomplished creative figure, is an integral part of Davis’s You Have the Right to Remain Silent, a clarinet concerto with principal clarinetist Anthony McGill playing the solo part. 

Howard’s presence, the sound of Davis’s piece, every note of Mazzoli’s Sinfonia (for Orbiting Spheres) and Adams’ Chamber Symphony combined to present one of the finest, and certainly the most meaningful, New York Philharmonic concert one has heard over the past decade-plus.

One felt, a few minutes into Mazzoli’s gorgeous Sinfonia (which opened the concert), that the only abnormal part was having to emphasize that this American orchestra in America’s most vital cultural center was doing something unique by playing all American composers for one night. Adams is, of course, the current mantle-holder of the American Composer title, heir to Aaron Copland for good and ill. Mazzoli is rapidly becoming one of the most prominent current American composers, a status she and her music have earned. Davis has been making excellent and important music for decades, but the way he has straddled both the jazz and classical worlds has unfairly painted him as an outlier and a specialist. Yet his music making has been in the mainstream of American traditions all along.

Davis’s You Have the Right To Remain Silent doesn’t just take its title from the Miranda warning, but comes out of the composer’s own experience of being pulled over, at gunpoint, by the police, essentially because he is black. The music comes out of the fabric of American life. Adams’ Chamber Symphony comes out of American popular culture. Mazzoli’s stargazing of the mind is more abstract, but the sound of her music, its immediate popular appeal and underlying formal skill, is built on this same world of American minimalism, post-minimalism, and popular music.

The subtitle of Sinfonia belied its complexity. Setting the relative cycles of the planets’ orbits in the solar system, in frequencies or tempos, is simple. Her stated idea was to make a “piece in the shape of the solar system,” starting with loops that move together and apart. But the results were far richer than that, sounding like the tuned motion of celestial bodies, the equivalent of the choreography one might see from Mark Morris. 

The strings, playing with a plush sound, slide along gracefully, stop and twirl, like a dancer spinning gracefully in place, then pick up the formal path again. Woodwinds and brass flash by, like shooting stars or satellites. The orchestra sounded huge, fluid and colored in dark pastels, and there was a feeling of tremendous mass moving slowly and inevitably across the field of vision, like watching the Milky Way pass across the night sky. It’s space music, which can be a cliché, but the beauty of the experience was fresh and eternal. At the end, the orchestra finished playing, and electronically processed samples of what had come before floated from speakers on stage, like dawn dissipating the darkness.

Davis mines clichés too, but that’s praise—he takes elements that are familiar and uses them to build the world of his music. With one foot in jazz, he is skilled at making the colors of jazz harmony and rhythm work for a classical orchestra, but what is broader and deeper is how You Have the Right makes its narrative work by being cinematic. There are specific indicators of what’s happening, with musicians speaking phrases from the Miranda warning, but McGill’s leading voice was more abstract. Playing both clarinet and contrabass clarinet, he had phrases to play with his expansive, pure tone, but also abstract extended techniques, including multiphonics. Howard’s part was also abstract, taking the clarinet playing and processing it to create complex extended timbres that were intriguing to the ear and mixed naturally with the acoustic sounds of the orchestra.

The concerto was a Kafka-esque drama told through the sound of film noir soundtracks, the cityscapes of Bernard Herrmann. This was very much original music that was also rooted in the way those movies have taught us to hear tilted shadows in doorways and streetlights reflected in puddles as a set of certain harmonies and timbres—they are clichés because they work and have extra-musical meaning. This made the music both familiar and unsettling, a nightmare one, hopefully, would only experience through the movies but that Davis and the musicians made vivid and haunting. Like Mazzoli, who was also in attendance, Davis received a robust ovation from the audience.

Both works received superior performances from the Philharmonic under the direction of Stasevska. The orchestra, of course, can play this music well, but there was the feeling that what they were playing mattered to them—going past listening to how well each passage sounded into the sheer experience of expression and meaning. Stasevska led with a controlled but palpable intensity. 

Those qualities peaked with the performance of Adams’ Chamber Symphony. Thirty years old now, this music now seems increasingly stale, no more so than in the company of Mazzoli and Davis. Where Davis uses clichés that work, Adams tries to invent his own clichés about cartoon music. Never much interesting, they now fall flat. The Chamber Symphony was an attractive novelty when it first came out, now it sounds like a lecture, something like the bit from 30 Rock when middle-aged Steve Buscemi, trying to be undercover in a high school, greets teenagers with “How do you do, fellow kids?”

The music works very hard to be manic and goofy, but it sounds stiff and brittle, forced and intellectualized rather than the easy, antic brilliance of Carl Stallings. It’s American music, but studied rather than lived like the other works heard Wednesday night.

That being said, Stasevska led what might have been the finest performance this piece has ever had. The musicians, with athletic strength, took the relentlessness and turned it into a ridiculous amount of incandescent energy. The writing demands a lot of chops, and the players were clearly jazzed to be putting themselves, and their axes, through the paces.

This program will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Thursday and 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

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