NY Phil Biennial Roundup: Sound if Safe Success

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Julia Wolfe's Anthracite Fields featuring Bang on a Can All-Stars

He did it: Alan Gilbert managed to make the first-ever New York Philharmonic Biennial, a string of contemporary music concerts featuring not only conductor and orchestra but a host of New York's more adventurous musical institutions. The Biennial was not just a success but a capital-e Event. Concert after concert left me feeling lucky to have been in the audience.

I managed to make it to about half of the festival's 14 different musical programs, which included two nights at the opera. Gilbert led the phenomenal players of Juilliard's AXIOM ensemble in Gloria, a new opera by HK Gruber. In a clear, funny staging by Gilbert's frequent collaborators, Doug Fitch's Giants Are Small, Gruber's score was itself a great pleasure: it was smart as it was silly, the work of a bonafide opera composer.

Gotham Chamber Opera's performance of The Raven, with George Monahan conducting mezzo Fredrika Brillembourg, set a chilling exploration of Poe's poem with minimal, highly effective staging by director Luca Veggetti.

Gloria – A Pig Tale

Aside from AXIOM, the most dazzling non-Philharmonic ensemble of the Biennial was the Orchestra of St. Luke's. Under the baton of Pablo Heras-Casado, the group performed a pair of concerts exploring the influences of George Benjamin and Pierre Boulez. The pieces by Boulez's disciples, all U.S. premieres, followed clearly from his music, like the reverberations of a gong after the stroke of the mallet.

The most exciting piece of this pair of concerts however was, by far, Marc-André Dalbavie's Concerto, the rich consonances of which broke radically from the more obscure, Boulezian harmonies of the pieces that preceded it. At the Benjamin tribute concert, the two pieces of Benjamin's own music seemed more varied and generous than those of the composers on the Boulez program.

Circles of Influence: Pierre Boulez

The only thing missing from most of these concerts was a real sense of risk. The mastery of the composers was evident. There was no piece on any program that dared the audience to find it anything but "academic" or "difficult," in the way that some of the great musical masterpieces of the last century managed to do.

The one program that came the closest was a huge, intense Matthias Pintscher-led New York Philharmonic concert at MoMA, including works like Olga Neuwirth's brutal, inscrutable Piazza dei Numeri

CONTACT! at the Biennial: Beyond Recall

But for the most part, the Biennial was about Gilbert and closely trusted collaborators making the music they obviously love to make (and make very well): music written with real passion and a sharp, modern edge. The festival's musical highlight, for me, was Gilbert's traversal of a new Peter Eötvös violin concerto, Do-Re-Mi, with Midori and the Philharmonic.

It was a bewitchingly lovely piece, composed according to some logic just beyond my understanding, but clearly within the grasp of conductor, soloist and orchestra. They played it with the same gusto they could have given to an old warhorse of the repertoire. It was exactly the mysterious and sensual performance that a new music lover prays for before every concert.

Forget Biennial; how about they do this every month?

Listen to select performances from the New York Philharmonic Biennial