Concert Review: NY Philharmonic’s Contact!


New York Philharmonic; David Robertson, conductor

Metropolitan Museum of New York

June 8, 2012

The end of the third season of Contact!, the New York Philharmonic’s contemporary music series at the Met Museum and Symphony Space, was led by guest conductor David Robertson; a staunch advocate for new music and specialist in modernist-leaning repertoire. The program, for chamber orchestra, featured two premieres commissioned by the NY Phil: NACHLESE Vb: Liederzyklus by Swiss composer Michael Jarrell and Two Controversies and a Conversation by the 103 year-old American composer Elliott Carter. It also included …explosante-fixe… a watershed work for multiple flute soloists, electronics, and ensemble by French composer Pierre Boulez.

Jarrell’s piece featured soprano Charlotte Dobbs singing translations in several different languages of a poem (originally written in Spanish) by Seventeenth Century poet Luís de Góngora. Its unifying concept: the idea of how texts are reflected and even changed when translated (the game of telephone as post-structuralism). Not only does the vocal part require polyglot linguistic flexibility; it features a wide vocal and dynamic range, demanding exquisite control: Dobbs handled it with impressive finesse. The piece’s musical language itself, while colorfully orchestrated, didn’t transform nearly as much as the texts it treated: Jarrell’s penchant for disjunct leaps and pervasive dissonance could have accommodated a bit more variation.

Carter’s post-centenarian works have been aphoristic, but bursting with creativity. Conductor Oliver Knussen heard an earlier version of this work,Conversations, and asked the composer to expand it. The resulting lightly orchestrated concertino for piano, percussion, and ensemble gave soloists Eric Huebner and Colin Currie a number of brilliant passages separately and in dialogue with each other. Despite Carter having already written several works for piano soloist and a recent piece for percussion ensemble, he still has wily tricks up his sleeve. A particularly brilliant passage saw Currie playing brilliant ascending arpeggios on a marimba and xylophone placed at right angles, moving seamlessly from one mallet instrument to another. IfControversies/Conversations will likely be seen as a diminutive companion piece to Dialogues, Asko Concerto, and even the Double Concerto, this interplay of sharply delineated characters is a welcome continuation of a distinctive compositional approach.

Robert Langevin, Alexandra Sopp, and Mindy Kaufmann were the flute soloists for the Boulez work (Langevin’s instrument outfitted with MIDI). The piece displays some of the fruits of Boulez’s labors in the early 1980s at the electronic music studio at IRCAM in Paris. Like the Carter work, it deals with instrumental interplay as well, but in a more coloristic rather than characteristic fashion. Shimmering slabs of orchestral harmonies, clouds of overlaid flute passages, and ricocheting angular gestures are haloed by interactive electronics, which refract musical excerpts into a swirling kaleidoscope that envelops the listener. …explosante-fixe… is important, even canonic, in that it suggests a way forward in which orchestras and electronics don’t just coexist onstage, but interact in organic fashion. The ensuing thirty years have found countless composers extending this idea, but few of them have created works as memorable as this.

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