CONTACT! Perspective

CONTACT! alumnus Sean Shepherd weighs in on this year's batch of NY Phil New Music offerings

Tuesday, January 04, 2011 - 03:55 PM

Spending time last December in Grace Rainey Rodgers Auditorium at the Met brought back great memories for me. As I sat in rehearsals and the concert, watching two brand-new works and a nearly-new one on a hot streak come together, I was glad to do a little reminiscing, but was also able to focus my attention differently since the last time I was there.

Last April, Alan Gilbert and members of the New York Philharmonic were gathered and working in similar fashion, and the work they were premiering was my own. This December I relished the chance to see the both process and product (without being in the hot seat!) and was happy to witness the royal, if necessarily efficient, treatment of the music of three colleagues and friends: James Matheson, Jay Alan Yim and Julian Anderson.

It marked the fourth show of the Philharmonic's CONTACT! New Music series and the final installment of the '10-11 season. A long time in the making, the series as it currently exists is the result of efforts -- both in the orchestra and on the podium -- to put more contemporary music on Philharmonic programs. When the contract between the players and the administration was amended to allow for some technical changes, the series was given a green light.

Alan Gilbert arrived as Music Director in 2009, and has been an active and enthusiastic shepherd since the series's inception, heralding the virtues of the works while applying a kind of full-faith-and-credit clause to their preparation and presentation: if the way they do it with Brahms in Avery Fisher Hall works, then so will be the way they do it with Gérard Grisey at Symphony Space, thirty blocks uptown. The series's conscience has come by way of Philharmonic Composer-in-Residence Magnus Lindberg, who, with Alan, sets the programming, and joyously declared from the stage that last week's concerts included the 10th CONTACT! world premiere.

As a composer, it's easy to join Magnus and cheer. While I hope ten commissions will be the first of many milestones for the series, I find that ten new pieces brought to the stage in the space of about a calendar year to be laudable—impressive for any group. Now that the series is off and running (and surely still finding its footing), I'm also glad to see the kind of variety one can now reasonably expect from the pieces on a CONTACT! concert.

Flexibility has been a core concept when designing both the structure of the series and the programs themselves, naturally rubbing off on the composers and, thankfully, the work. Composers have taken the rather broad outlines of their CONTACT! commission and run in fascinating directions. Lei Liang used only string instruments in a spatialized stage setup in Verge; Mathias Pintscher wrote Songs from Solomon's Garden as a tour-de-force for both baritone Thomas Hampson and the ensemble; Arthur Kampela turned the entire concert hall into a theatre in MACUNAÍMA.

This past season, we heard a collection that tested the waters in terms of definitions and scope—issues brought about by the very flexibility of the so-called Large Ensemble at the heart of CONTACT!, a tough-to-tackle middle ground that doesn't fit in the intimate salon, but doesn't belong in the grand hall either. Jay Alan Yim's neverthesamerivertwice was a tightly focused solution to the problem of instrumentation. By circling the ensemble around the lidless piano and using it as single instrument to color a musical line in a constant state of metamorphosis, he succeeded in shifting our attention to the line itself. James Matheson's True South and Julian Anderson's Comedy of Change took opposite approaches on the spectrum from orchestra to chamber music: the former broad and expansive for some twenty musicians, the latter highly soloistic and crystaline for a mere twelve.

The players move in rotation between pieces and concerts, and although the demands can be extreme, the atmosphere onstage and backstage is relaxed and familial. It requires a delicate balance of patience and focus, and they are vigilant about approaching the piece on its own terms. While in Avery Fisher Hall, the atmosphere around a rehearsal of a new piece can be intense -- the sheer numbers and logistics seem to amplify the normal sense of event inherent in any orchestra rehearsal. In CONTACT! rehearsals, the tuning still happens on time, but there's room for discussion and, once in a while, even a joke. No one seems to enjoy themselves more than Alan. I imagine his time during CONTACT! weeks provides him great contrast from much of his job, with perks like getting to know his colleagues in a more intimate way to have obvious benefit.

He was cheerful and energized at the dress rehearsal, and very excited about the music. He loves New Music, and by taking, as Music Director, a personal interest in the series and shouldering the responsibility for its direction, he is creating a powerful momentum in the organization, with benefits yet to be seen. He maintains a healthy critical position -- high standards, good taste -- for both the music and performance. He hears everything and no one, himself included, gets a free pass. As long as he's involved with CONTACT!, it will be worth watching and hearing.

Any concert series that claims to be audacious, and programs new pieces by the truckload from mostly youngish composers left and right, is taking a healthy but substantial risk. It IS audacious. The beauty is in the mystery. When we sit down at Symphony Space or the Met, our experience can be fundamentally different from a Gilbert Mahler 6 in Avery Fisher; it's anticipation versus expectation. As a listener, I crave the challenge of both. As a composer, I strove to meet the demands of my CONTACT! commission, and struggled mightily with pressures internal and external to write a piece I would be happy with. I knew that I was either writing a diamond or a very hard rock.

I'm always curious to see a colleague's musical response to such forces, so my ear leans toward the sympathetic. In the last two years, I've seen and heard both gems and clunkers in CONTACT!. Both are critically important. But I love that in my discussions with friends and colleagues, no two people agree on a verdict, no two point to the same gems and clunkers. We all listen and experience the sounds and rituals of a new piece differently, and in a world premiere, no verdict is definitive.

As CONTACT! continues, my hopes sway toward the risky and audacious. Quality is not a concern with people like Alan and Magnus around, and finding music that exhibits both craft and innovation is a huge time commitment. And in the end, any new piece presents a risk. But as CONTACT! the experiment continues to evolve into CONTACT! the organizational directive, maintaining it as a laboratory, a kiddie-pool for us youngins to splash around in, and a place to put special repertory (like Mr. Grisey's final work, Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil, heard in November) provides fans, both of the Philharmonic and of New Music, a chance to get our hands, or ears, dirty. And we're all the better for it.

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