Alan Gilbert and New York Phil make CONTACT!

By Gigi Yellen

Writing from New York, where an exemplary innovation in music programming launched tonight in a hall you might know as the home of that radio show “Selected Shorts.” The Peter Norton Symphony Space holds about 750 people; looked like at least 600 came out for the launch of “Contact!” a new-music series conceived by New York Philharmonic Music Director Alan Gilbert and curated by the Philharmonic’s composer-in-residence, Magnus Lindberg.

The composers Arlene Sierra, Lei Liang, Marc-André Dalbavie and Arthur Kampela received the commissions for this first pair of concerts in the series. (The concert repeats Dec. 20 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.) Dressed in casual black like the musicians (and all but one of the composers—hang on), Lindberg addressed the audience, introducing each piece by doing a short interview with its composer: a couple of hand-held microphones, a couple of stools stage left, a couple of comfortable minutes.

Sierra’s cerebral explanation of her “Game of Attrition, for Chamber Orchestra,” which opened the evening, met Lindberg’s insistence that the composer talk about rhythmic textures. Rhythm—a persistent dactyl—is the glue in this exploration of conflict among matching pairs of instruments (bass drum and string bass against, say, oboe and bassoon, or piano and harp). Janacek’s Sinfonietta came to mind, and at one point Villa-Lobos (more about him later). The American-born composer (Miami, Florida, 1970), who lives in London (and teaches in Cardiff), spoke of the big British celebration of this Darwin centennial year as an inspiration for the piece.

The Sierra work and Kampela’s Macunaima called for the biggest ensembles of the evening, 21 and 22 players. The Philharmonic’s hardworking harpist, Nancy Allen, performed in three out of the four pieces, but neither she nor anyone other than bowed strings played in the evening’s second work, “Verge” by Lei Liang.

Born in Tianjin, China, in 1972, Liang came to the U.S. when he was 17, following the Tiananmen Square protests (he now teaches at UC San Diego). He described his new composition as a gift for his newborn son—written on the verge of his birth, working with three letters of the boy’s name (Albert) and the rhythms of the fetal heartbeat. “Verge,” “converge” and “diverge” figured prominently in the composer’s comments. He cited a Mongolian chanter as the primary inspiration for the melodic material.

“Verge” uses four grouped string quartets, plus two string basses, for a tender texture merging Asian and western influences. The viola gets the first solo, and plays a prominent role throughout the piece, often in its high registers, as a meditative introduction featuring sweeping glissandi and percussive bass gives way to a fugal rush at the center of the work.

After intermission, a jovial Lindberg introduced the composer Marc-Andre Dalbavie, his friend and colleague from 25 years ago at IRCAM, the Paris-based Institute for Acoustic/Music Research, Pierre Boulez’s old stomping ground. They spoke of spectral music, of vertical music, and of how Dalbavie’s work has returned to his first love, Gregorian chant, becoming more horizontal, as evidenced by the breathtaking “Melodia,” composed for this concert.

This work used the smallest ensemble on the program, just 13 players. A 9th century requiem melody, stated in the opening bars, anchors this hymn-like work, which luxuriates in all its French color. Papa Debussy and his Jeux des Vagues have not been forgotten. Percussion included gentle gongs. There was drama in frequent sforzandi, and in the Bach-like crescendo that returned to plaintive horns over ominous strings, a prayerful conclusion. The composer was born in Neuilly-sur-Seine in 1961 and lives in St. Cyprien.

Rearranging the stage for the final work took a while: 22 musicians in a semicircle, and some offstage arrangements too.  “Macunaima” by the Rio de Janeiro-born, New York-based Arthur Kampela, provided whimsy, intensity, and challenge, starting with the presence of the composer himself.

The 49-year-old Kampela bounced onstage, a head full of auburn curls cascading to mid-chest, wearing a checkered collared shirt topped with black leather buckled vest and a sport jacket, over black and white plaid pajama-style pants. All effusive energy, Kampela called the title character of his new piece “the Till Eulenspiegel of Brazil,” an adventurous prankster, its literary source “one of the early attempts at magic realism.” Before Lindberg tapped him on the shoulder (otherwise, he might have gone on for an hour), the composer was emphasizing the difference between just hearing and really listening. “If we hear a sound from the other room, is it what we think it is?” he asked. Sound trite? Ah, not in light of what followed.

Lindberg took the podium, then looked out into the house: first right, then left, a serious look, headed all the way to the back wall. Was the look part of the performance? I wondered. In fact, it was a cue: from somewhere outside the hall, a bell chimed; then there emerged long, low sounds like impending thunder. These came from six players, three proceeding down each aisle from back to front, banging a spring drum as they walked.

Remember that reference to Villa-Lobos? Here is that great Brazilian’s shadow, not overpowering (as Beethoven’s was to Brahms) but inspiring: sounds of the rain forest are everywhere in this piece. The players of the spring drums included harpist Allen, percussionists, and other ensemble performers who took up their usual instruments when they arrived onstage. But Allen’s harp featured a paper insert through an octave or more of its strings, and that was hardly the only modification.

“The word musician is not limited to a person who plays a particular instrument,” stated Kampela, whose approach to creating is to ask what sounds any instrument can make without breaking. Springs and chopsticks took the place of bows; the piano was modified. Musicians left and returned (indeed, the ensemble includes a “conductor of offstage band,” Daniel Boico in this performance, inserting an Ivesian interlude of offstage laughter, cocktail-party chatter, and cafe tunes a Brazilian band might play).

In short, this was a well-programmed evening, traversing a multitude of aesthetics and influences, and encouraging audience engagement in the living work of music. An “ask the composer” Q&A session after the show enticed a handful of audience members to the thoughtfully-placed microphones, but the majority just helped themselves to the festive opening-night reception. I caught up with bassist Satoshi Okamoto, fresh from playing in Macunaima, and asked him about preparation. He got the score in November. They had three rehearsals, including talk time with the composer. The score looks like a diagram.You can see a bit of that score in this video of Kampela produced as part of the NY Philharmonic’s support for this concert:

The Dec. 17 concert repeats Sunday night at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. And it will be broadcast—and webcast—twice: Tuesday Dec. 22, 7pm EST and Sunday Dec. 27, 2pm EST on the new WQXR stream dedicated to contemporary music, Q2.

See what’s happening with classical music listening? You can hear this concert anywhere in the world, as you can read this anywhere in the world. But it’ll come to you from the town where it was performed. Expensive? No doubt. Alive? Absolutely.

Like so many other cultural centers, Seattle is grappling with contemporary challenges to the classical music performance and broadcast models that have served it so well for so long. Here’s an example from New York of a best effort at keeping the music both local and accessible, alive and rooted in the great traditions.

The “Contact!”series continues in April with world premieres by Sean Shepherd, Nico Muhly, and Mattias Pintscher to be conducted by New York Philharmonic Music Director Alan Gilbert.

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