CONTACT!, the New York Philharmonic New Music Series at the Symphony Space

Sometimes it’s difficult to imagine an intimate atmosphere within the Avery Fisher Hall, even if the music calls for it, due to the Hall’s size. Of course this isn’t to say that seeing the New York Philharmonic isn’t an experience that will live with you years later, I still remember my first New York Philharmonic experience seeing the incomparable “Rite of Spring.” But as far as the intimacy between the players and the audience is concerned, the hall is too vast for there to be the sort of intimacy that there is in a theater such as Symphony Space on the upper west side, located on Broadway at 95th street.

When thinking about the conception of The New Music Series entitled CONTACT! by the New York Philharmonic, one gets a sense that its sole purpose, other than presenting new music by renowned composers of our time, is to bring an intimate experience to the audience where the players and the audience can connect in a way that can’t be accomplished at the Avery Fisher Hall. The Saturday concert on December 17th took place at Symphony Space, which helped tremendously in creating that connection between the players and the audience that the Avery Fisher Hall just can’t create.

Sitting a mere couple of feet away from Alan Gilbert, the musical director for the New York Philharmonic, I was able to get a closer look at not only his conducting, but the players’ interaction between one another while playing. This interaction with one another was blatantly obvious during one of the night’s pieces entitled Gran Duo by the Finnish composer Magnus Lindberg. So obvious in fact that my girlfriend, who doesn’t know much about music, was able to hear and see the interaction between the different instrumentalists, which brings me to the night’s program.

There were three pieces performed, one of the pieces being a world premiere by the Brazilian composer Alexandre Lunsqui entitled Fibers, Yarn, and Wire. Before I get into the other two pieces let me talk about this wonderful piece that was commissioned for the New York Philharmonic. Mr. Lunsqui says that, “the titles speaks of craftsmanship, which I like very much. It offers so many metaphors of how the composer goes about approaching textures, which is reflected in the sound surface of the piece.” (Program notes 2011, 2012 season) Fibers, Yarn, and Wire is a colorful, vivacious, and unpredictable piece that transfers the interweaving of cloth into sound, predominantly in the string section which is small in size (two violins, two violas, two cellos, one contrabass) yet strong in sound. The glissandi, pizzicati, and other techniques utilized in the string section helped tremendously in painting this picture of cloth interwoven together, creating a picture of harmony within a dissonant, disjunctive piece of music.

The second piece that was performed was Gran Duo , written by Magnus Lindberg, who is in his third year as the New York Philharmonic’s Marie-Josée Kravis composer-in-Residence. Mr. Lindberg, joking about the pieces’ title in the introduction of the piece (as a duo is a piece with only two instruments, not 24) mentioned that when he thought of the title for this piece he thought of the dualism between the woodwind and the brass section. Mr. Lindberg writes, “what I wanted to do with that piece was to just take the wind section of a symphony orchestra as we know it and make a large-scale piece to show the capability of exactly the wind section of the 19th-century and the early 20th- century music.” (Program notes 2011, 2012 season) One would think that this dualism between the woodwinds and the brass would be opposing, but I found the dualism between the two sections to be complimentary more often than not, creating a rich harmonic structure that utilized the sections’ individual characteristics. Dualism was even apparent within the two sections themselves, as if to say that dualism isn’t only between two unlike forces, but within one harmonious force as well.

The third, and last, piece was the contemporary-classic (sorry for the inadequate terminology) Frankenstein!! , written by Austrian composer HK Gruber. Hearing this piece and seeing it is a completely different experience, even more so than the other pieces aforementioned, for the fact that there is stage direction for the ensemble as well as the chansonnier , the chansonnier being a cabaret singer and songwriter of topical, often satirical, ballads. HK Gruber played the chansonnier , juxtaposing humor and seriousness between the vocals and the instrumentation, as well as creating a melange between the two characteristics in such a way as to perfect its satirical nature; the lyrics themselves, written by HC Artmann, containing “covert political statements” (Program notes 2011, 2012 season) within children’s rhymes. With the children’s rhymes, the comical singing, the players doubling on toy instruments (including the conductor), and the often hilarious stage work that calls for the players to stand up at random, one would think that Frankenstein!! is nothing more than a joke. This cannot be further from the truth, as exemplified in its instrumental writing as well as the humor itself, for what is art without a sense of humor.

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