The NY Philharmonic hosted another “blogger night” for its new contemporary music series, CONTACT!, on Friday. I was especially eager to go for a few reasons. I knew two of the composers personally (Sean and Nico) and was eager to see what they‘d come up with for the Philharmonic; I‘m also just interested to watch the evolution of the series, the existence of which would have been unthinkable even a couple of years ago. (You can read some of my thoughts on the first CONTACT! show here.) I‘d never seen Alan Gilbert conduct before, embarrassingly enough. And lastly, who am I to turn down free tickets from the NY Philharmonic? Just a composer who dearly hopes he might be commissioned someday, too! (I think was subtle. Was that subtle?)
So I met my dear friend Ted up at Symphony Space. That place still needs to get more legroom. And less carpeting. But other than that, it‘s a nice venue for a new music concert, and it was pretty packed on Friday, which was great to see (I wonder if the second show, at the Met museum, where they didn‘t hand out massive numbers of free tickets, was as full). I was looking forward to hearing some music, but CONTACT! wants to be all up in your face about it beforehand, which is probably why they named it that. I‘m all for putting composers in the spotlight and making them talk. But there was So Much Pontificating. Alan Gilbert, John Schæfer, Magnus Lindberg PLUS Sean, Nico, and Matthias Pintscher; all smart, charismatic, and articulate people, but just too many voices. They could have cut down the talking and added a fourth piece to the program.
The music on this show felt completely in place at a New York Philharmonic Concert; polished and inventive, but not too risky. Sean’s piece, These Particular Circumstances, sounded ravishing— quite a feat in the bone-dry acoustic of Symphony Space. It struck me as celebrating a particular kind of virtuosity or craft, both compositional and instrumental. The level of workmanship of the piece was so obviously of the highest quality that the musicians responded by genuinely playing their best. Sean‘s musical language is very much an “embarrassment of riches” kind of sound— beautiful details fly by at an alarming rate. I had the feeling of being at some sort of overwhelming buffet and wanting to eat everything, but not being able to take it all in. The piece was structured in seven or eight very short, continuous episodes, and I missed a logical thread connecting them, but mostly I was so amused by what was taking place at that very moment that it didn‘t bother me.
Nico joked beforehand that he wrote a piece without any detail, knowing it would be paired with Sean’s obsessively detailed one. (Their titles, however, share a certain similarity of tone; Nico’s is called Detailed Instructions.) It actually was quite a stark change from Sean’s gesture-driven music to Nico’s, which is pulse-driven (even when he distorts the pulse with cæsuras and jump-cuts) and rigorously structural. Here, I felt, a more flattering acoustic would have done the music many favors; the orchestration was downright arid, with the exception of the middle section, which worked up a lovely, Brian Eno-esque soupiness. Overall, though, the piece felt a bit pale after Sean’s riot of color; maybe this had to do with Nico’s decision to cast out the violins in favor of more violas, which didn’t seem to adequately fill out the sound. It was as though an important frequency of the orchestra had been EQ‘d into oblivion. Of course, this may have just been a factor of program order, and could have easily been fixed by swapping the first two pieces.
Matthias Pintscher’s songs from Solomon’s garden was clearly meant to be the “big piece” on the program, and it had a big star in it: Thomas Hampson. He looked earnest and a bit out of place in his New Music Concertblax and avuncular reading specs. I think Hampson is a good singer, and his album of Mahler lieder saw me through high school, but I think he was a terrible choice for the Pintscher. I always have a hard time telling what pitch baritones are singing, much less in music that lacks any sort of tonal center, and here the vocal writing was very “generic New Music”: tritone here, minor second there, major seventh leap for a particularly expressive moment. I commented to Ted that I would have liked to hear a more pure-voiced singer like Theo Bleckmann sing it; the more abstract the harmonic language, the more dead-on precise the singer’s pitch has to be.
Pintscher’s orchestral writing was exquisite to a fault, but I didn’t understand how it related to the vocal line or the text (which was set in the original Hebrew). Every compositional decision seemed geared toward achieving a particular kind of æsthetic beauty, in a control-freak watchmaker sort of way, but as in These Particular Circumstances, I failed to grasp a narrative thread; the structure of the piece seemed to be completely a function of the text. I guess I’m more of the David Lang school of text setting, where I like my words to wedge themselves into a musical form, not vice versa. Music and text are structured differently for a reason; reading poetry takes place in the reader’s mind, at his own pace, while music exists in real time, meaning it can control the audience’s perception of time passing. Why even bother setting text if you don’t have any of your own interpretation to add? Otherwise you’re more of a glorified medieval troubadour, strumming your lute quietly along to a dramatic recitation. If that‘s the affect Pintscher was trying to achieve, that‘s fine, but in that case, he should have set the text in English, and made absolutely sure we could understand every word without following along in the program (which it was too dark to read, anyway); it would seem a safe assumption that Hebrew is not the primary language of New York Philharmonic concertgoers.
But the really important thing about this CONTACT! show: free beer instead of free flavoured vodka. Know your audience!