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.

3/4: Babbitt Conference Presentation at Wright State University

The Wright State University Music Department will be hosting a Colloquium/Concert on March 3-4, 2012, entitled The Legacy of Milton Babbitt: Post-WWII Serialism in the Americas. Andrew Mead will be the  keynote speaker and Winston Choi the guest performer. I’m very excited to be participating in the session below, which will occur on Sunday morning. My work For Milton, a duo for flute and piano, will appear on the PNM/OS CD release.

Roundtable Discussion

For Milton Babbitt: a Memorial Recording


Andrew Mead (University of Michigan)

Robert Morris (Eastman School of Music)

Benjamin Boretz (Bard College)

James Romig (Western Illinois University)

Ashlee Mack (Knox College)

Christian Carey (Westminster Choir College)

Abstract: A number of Milton Babbitt’s compositions are occasional works. Some, such as My Complements to Roger and Swan Song No. 1, dedicated, respectively, to Babbitt’s teacher Roger Sessions and to the Cygnus Ensemble, are affirmative in nature, celebrating special occasions or thanking stalwart performers of Babbitt’s music. On the other hand, A Solo Requiem, dedicated to Godfrey Winham, commemorates the memory of a departed friend.

This roundtable discussion includes some of the contributors to a new set of CD recordings commemorating Milton Babbitt. Perspectives of New Music and Open Space Magazine are releasing it in collaboration. Some, such as Odds and Ends, by Robert Morris, were written while Babbitt was still alive, as birthday greetings and other tributes. But a number of the pieces included on the CDs have been composed since Babbitt’s passing, as musical remembrances.

Most of the participants are composers who contributed pieces to the recording: Ms. Mack is a pianist who recorded several of the works. Several have also studied with or written about Babbitt. The participants will talk about the genesis of the Babbitt PNM/OSM recording project. In addition to discussing some of the pieces on the recording, they will describe the affinities between their own creative processes and Babbitt’s compositional work. Finally, they will talk about Babbitt’s legacy as a teacher and theorist.


The CDs will contain many pieces composed in honor of Milton Babbitt, on the occasion of his passing. The release also includes a book containing all scores, notes on the music by the composers, and several essays about aspects of Milton Babbitt’s presence. This will be mailed along with the CD album as a special supplement to PNM 49/2 and will also be mailed as Special Issue 14 of The Open Space Magazine. They may also be purchased separately at the websites of PNM and OSM (information below).

Perspectives of New Music ( is directed to a readership consisting of composers, performers, scholars, and all others interested in any kind of contemporary music. Published material includes theoretical research, analyses, technical reports, position papers by composers, sociological and philosophical articles, interviews, reviews, and, for special purposes, short musical scores or other creative productions.

OPEN SPACE Publications, and THE OPEN SPACE MAGAZINE ( are output from a community for people who need to explore or expand the limits of their expressive worlds, to extend or dissolve the boundaries among their expressive-language practices, to experiment with the forms or subjects of thinking or making or performing in the context of creative phenomena.

Superlative Sessions

Tanglewood Festival of Contemporary Music

Friday, August 13 at 2:30 PM

Lenox, Massachusetts

Just about the best thing I’ve heard thus far at the 2010 Tanglewood Festival of Contemporary Music is a performance of Roger Sessions’ relatively late (1975) Five Pieces for Piano by Tanglewood Fellow Alexander Bernstein.

While his From My Diary, an earlier non-dodecaphonic group for solo piano, is programmed more frequently, Five Pieces is some of Sessions’ best piano writing. Dedicated to the then recently deceased composer Luigi Dallapiccola, they are dazzling works that combine harmonic rigor and abundant virtuosity with an unerring sense of pacing. While Sessions is frequently described as having a somewhat vinegary palette, these pieces contain some considerably lush verticals. They don’t linger in this energetically modernist work, but these sumptuous glancing blows help to make the piece one of my favorites in Sessions’ catalogue.

The impression that Bernstein made is far more than a glancing blow. He played these pieces with such assurance and musicality that the audience could scarcely contain themselves. What was programmed as the ‘progenitor’s piece’ on a concert of later modernists, an appetizer to a hearty main course of Babbitt, Wuorinen, and Foss, was anything but an amuse-bouche. It received a number of curtain calls and a hearty share of hoots and hollers (happily, the students here are enthusiastic supporters of one another!). If this is what Bernstein can do now with Sessions, I can’t wait to hear his Babbitt, Carter, and Boulez in a few years. Scratch that: now please!

Darmstadt Invades LPR

JACK Quartet and the International Contemporary Ensemble are the ensembles-in-residence at the Internationale Ferienkurse für Neue Musik, Darmstadt this summer. Tonight at Le Poisson Rouge, our estimable colleagues will be giving a “send-off” concert, presenting a program of the music they’ll play in Darmstadt at 7:30 PM. Doors open at 6:30. If you make it to the show and see yours truly, say hi!

Paradise for Emerging Composers, Part Two

June in Buffalo Memory: Pinch hitter


In 1999, I was invited to June in Buffalo for a second time. My string quartet was slated for premiere by the Cassatt Quartet: an excellent opportunity for a composer at any age, but particularly exciting for a young pup still in grad school!

The piece mixed aspects of 12-tone writing with swing-era jazz, and finding the correct balance between these two different demeanors was a tricky compositional and interpretive challenge.

Fortunately, the Cassatt members were very generous with their time. I met with them in New York City to rehearse the quartet, and things went quite well.

But when I arrived in Buffalo, I learned that their cellist had fallen ill and wouldn’t be able to play on the concert; the festival’s opener. While having any ensemble member cancel is concerning, it was particularly worrisome that the cellist was unavailable. I’d written the quartet in such a way that the cello served as the de facto ‘rhythm section’ of the piece, frequently articulating the pulse with walking bass lines.

But into the breach stepped Christopher Finckel; an excellent new music player who was also playing at the festival. Chris learned, rehearsed, and performed the quartet in one day. His pinch-hitting rescued the concert and earned a young composer’s lasting gratitude.