Review: The New York Philharmonic’s CONTACT Live 11/19/10
review of Contact! premiere as seen on LucidCulture.Wordpress.com/
Monday, November 29, 2010
We’re liveblogging from New York’s Symphony Space tonight. Latest updates at the bottom of the page. In a minute or two, what looks like a roughly fifteen-piece ensemble of the New York Philharmonic conducted by Alan Gilbert will open this fall’s first concert of their new music series CONTACT that began so auspiciously last year. First piece on the bill is a world premiere by the NY Phil’s composer-in-residence, Magnus Lindberg titled Souvenir (In Memoriam Gerard Grisey). They’ll follow that with Grisey’s final work, the suite Quatre Chants Pour Franchir le Seuil, featuring soprano Barbara Hannigan.
Lindberg studied with Grisey, so there’s a personal connection here dating from 1981 until Grisey’s death unexpectedly in 1998.
For those of you on twitter, you can tweet to @nyphilcontact.
This concert being recorded and will air on Q2 on 11/24 and 11/27 at 8 PM EST and then on 11/30 at 4 PM EST.
Grisey was one of the titans of serial music – airy, atmospheric, horizontal stuff that makes frequent (in this guy’s case, constant) use of microtones. John Schaefer’s emceeing a brief pre-concert conversation with Gilbert and Lindberg. The term “otherworldly” arose early, and that ought to be one way of describing what’s going to happen. Off we go…
Drama right off the bat – a muted crash on the gong, and another – it’s a funeral march, wandering and weaving. The occasional low register accents from the piano anchor the cello and now the bassoon – it’s more melodic, and Romantically tinged, and just plain interesting than one might assume a Grisey homage might be…dark, stately drama, a flourish of the vibraphone, a stormy rise up the scale, the hint of a fanfare – Gilbert is like a kid in a candy store up there but judicious about it…
Piano and cello bustle…staccato violin, and was that just a Sacre de Printemps quote?! Wary woodwind trills…a pause…a somewhat cinematic string-led crescendo…what an interesting person Grisey must have been…
The winds take over, a brass flourish, drums cap the swell, vibes take it down and more mysterious…reminds of a Bill Evans score, and a good one. Drive it home, low brass! Nope. First movement ends quietly and unresolved – as if there would be a resolution…
Second movement – a mournful horn call, the ensemble rises warily – it’s austerity versus bubbles with the harp and the vibes…big swell, vibes kick in with a bang at the top, down a bit – is anybody else hearing Stravinsky here? Moonlight piano breezes, cold ones – colder, beautifully twinkling…a bass drum pulse grows beneath rising uneasy atmospherics, a shift and a downshift…and now the funeral procession has come together. Maybe it’s just running up here in the cold with just a suit jacket on, but this really captures an atmosphere. And the strings rustle, everybody knows what time it is, nobody wants to go to the grave, everybody just wants to start drinking…but that won’t happen. This is magnificent.
The low brass weigh in lugubriously, the strings and those vibes again, they’re all nerves, searching for a frivolous note to hold reality at bay…but the tritone won’t let them. Nice. Still and sad out.
Fluttering and dark and chillly intro to the third movement. And more percussive drama – why did this have to happen? Shostakovian swell, a mini-rondo with the vibes and the strings and a gentle little Gallic dance – remember the Debussy string quartet? – a little like that…descending into the depths with whacks of the woodblock, down we go…such an autumnal ambience…and a big practically joyous swell as if to say “thanks for the memories.” Unexpected. The crowd are on their feet…check back with us in about fifteen minutes for the Grisey.
A very nice couple in the back here were distracted by all this typing during the performance. They had every right to be hostile, but they were diplomatic. Same thing happened while liveblogging here last time. The most obvious solution would be to do this oldschool style: record it and listen back, or take some notes and then work up a review from there afterward. Grisey’s music isn’t exactly thunderous. But since we’re halfway through – and we promised you the whole show – we’ll finish it this time.
Grisey’s songs are titled The Death of the Angel, The Death of Civilization, The Death of the Voice and The Death of Humanity. Upbeat and cheery – not. The ensemble for this is slightly smaller – no piano, but twin harps. More pre-performance chatter with John Schaefer – Lindberg credits Grisey as the most philosophical composer of his era. “You have to submerge yourself in this piece,” explains Gilbert, equating it to the drama in watching drops of water. Stephen Jay Gould’s description of evolution as ”punctuated equilibrium,” catastrophism rather than a slow, steady rate of change as an analogy – stillness punctuated by drama (hmmm…that’s Wagner, isn’t it?).
Pianissimo white noise into muffled , terse, atonal descending progressions; Barbara Hannigan interjects a couple moments of staccato operatic angst…hearing this live for the first time, it’s surprisingly tight, much more of an ensemble piece than the way others have interpreted it…translation from the French: “Like an angel, I owe it to myself to die.” Offcenter vibraphone tones provide a ghostly gamelan tinge…and speaking of a gamelan, there goes the big bass gong…airy stillness over distantly boomy percussion…would “Ballardian soundscape” be completely over-the-top?
All these low yodel-like melismas into dramatic octave-plus jumps for Hannigan are incredibly tough and she’s absolutely nailing them…and a low rumble out. The Black Angel’s Death Song?
No, that might be La Mort de la Civilisation, though: brooding quiet chromatics and a narration taken from Egyptian mummy cases: “destroyed…almost completely destroyed…” etc. Profound stillness beneath plaintive vocals, marvelously done. They get this music. Big vocal leaps against slightly sharp tones (i.e. sharp versus flat)…it could have ended pretty much anywhere, which is where it did.
Now the voice succumbs…oh no it doesn’t. Scary scrapy violin, the rumble of the gong and bass clarinet and is that a contrabassoon – more of a study in contrasts than anything up to this point. When there’s so much stillness, the temptation is to seize on the dramatic moments, few and far between as they are here – but they’re building this, and it’s not looking optimistic…
So let’s kill off all of humanity now. Ominous low swells into a fluttery helicoptering of a snare drum, or two, mechanically acoustic Alan Parsons ambience…this is based on the Epic of Gilgamesh – footsteps, and a rise, and Hannigan sends a shudder down everybody’s spine with a couple of hair-raising out-of-the-blue wails…angst against the dying of the light…what a chilling set of compositions to go out with! Grisey died shortly after completing these, maybe he sensed his time was short…pianississimo, a last glimmer of life in the distance…pregnant pause…decaying overtonal overture…airy and bell-like, a soft-focus apocalypse…they march it with surprising lack of rage as it winds out…
The reaction is slow – now the trance is over, the stunned crowd reacts. Time for a drink now!!