Friday night I attended a Contact! series concert presented by ensembles of the New York Philharmonic in Symphony Space. The program consisted of a world premiere by Magnus Lindberg, the Marie-Josee Kravis Composer-in-Residence at the New York Philharmonic, and Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil by Gerard Grisey. I was completely encouraged by the event.
The Contact! series was devised as a way for audiences to connect with composers and music of our time, and is precisely the type of event that contemporary music needs. Hosted by WNYC’s John Schaefer, the concert began with an informal discussion of Lindberg’s new work, Souvenir, and how the work was related to the music of Grisey. Lindberg stated that primarily his piece was inspired by the compositional philosophy of Grisey’s so-called spectralism, a self-imposed label by Grisey, which he later lamented.
Souvenir, atypical of Lindberg’s output in that the work consists of three movements, rather than a one-movement sectional form, was presented flawlessly. Written for a full orchestral complement, one instrument per part (except for two horns), the work was a dazzling display of an affluent orchestrational technique, save for a few moments where the strings were drowned out by the winds, brass, and percussion. The work exhibited a vast palate of color, as one expects in Lindberg’s music, and clear architectonic pillars, reached mellifluously through linear melodic cells which culminated in constellations of sound. My one regret is that the piece lacked the feral vibrance that his earlier music so eloquently maintained, although there is no doubt that Souvenir was still a clear statement in Lindberg’s unique compositional voice.
The second half of the program was a presentation of Grisey’s Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil. Gilbert gave a very frank description of the piece: There are moments that are quite boring, but these moments are important because they allow the climactic gestures more space, more room to breathe. I found this a refreshing and honest description, particularly coming from a conductor, whose concerns are usually politically driven toward “pleasing the crowd.” It was further evidence of a desire to “teach” and “connect” with the audience on a musical, and yet less formalistic, level. There were no apologies, and no unnecessary compositional descriptions. Gilbert made a point of stating that Grisey’s compositional system was as unimportant as Mozart’s. It was a simple dialogue which resulted in the following outcomes: (1) Here is the piece. (2) Here are some elements which you may find interesting. (3) Don’t bore yourself with the details, and simply allow yourself to experience the work. The listeners were encouraged to meet the music on the terms of the individual composition. The performance was superb, and Barbara Hannigan is an absolutely amazing soprano and musician.
In my opinion, this concert is a perfect example of why contemporary music needs to be heard live. Yes, recordings are great, and once a friend told me that: “a performance doesn’t matter – it comes and just as quickly, is gone. A good recording is most important.” While I agree that a great recording is a wonderful way to preserve a performance, and is great to use for festival applications, etc., it is not a substitute for the living organism that is a live musical performance. Connecting with audiences is of the utmost importance; And I do not mean that one must prescribe to a particular aesthetic to connect, but rather one must physically connect with audiences. In the concert halls of Europe during the classical era, and the salons of the Romantic era, the composers were present – and the audience was not primarily an audience of other composers. It was an audience of people; curious and active listeners. For me the proof that “contact” had been made were statements made by the audience attendees sitting to my immediate left and right. The lady on my left, who was clearly around when the Declaration of Independence was signed, looked at me after the Grisey and said: “I really want to hear that again. In a better space, like Carnegie Hall.” The young lady to my right, who is also the director of the Japanese Culture Center in NY, and was not a trained musician stated: “Wow! I have never heard anything like that. It was incredible!”
Too often, listeners complain of bad encounters with new music because they go into a concert with a certain expectation. I often encourage listeners to attend concerts of new music with open ears – “Don’t expect anything. Keep your mind open to the possibility that you may hear something outside of the realm of your normal perspective. Then, active listening can occur.” This is precisely the atmosphere of the Contact! series.