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Sunday, June 10, 2012

Concert Review: When the Flutes Exploded

The New York Philharmonic makes CONTACT!
by Paul Pelkonen
Conductor David Robertson.
At New York Philharmonic subscription concerts, the performance of new music or works by still-living composers can be an afterthought, wedged between familiar slabs of Brahms and Beethoven. The CONTACT! concerts are different. They take place away from Avery Fisher Hall, and offer nothing but modern music. Saturday night's concert was at Symphony Space.

This spring's CONTACT! program, curated by Philharmonic composer-in-residence Magnus Lindberg and led by conductor David Robertson, featured two premieres. opened with a Philharmonic commission from New York's own Elliott Carter: Two Controversies and a Confrontation. Mr. Carter is one of this city's most celebrated composers, and at 103 years old, the dean of modern American music.

The concert opened with Carter being interviewed by Mr. Lindberg, who acted as an emcee for the evening. Mr. Carter explained that his new piece had its roots in an earlier piece, Conversations that was in turn inspired by the sound of a crash cymbal and the effects of resonating metal on the ear.

This new piece explored the idea of dialogue and argument between solo instruments against an unfolding, scratchy fabric of bowed violins and stabs of muted brass. Percussionist Colin Currie employed a wide variety of instruments, moving athletically between bass marimba, vibraphone, temple blocks and bass drum to create melodious runs and percussive thumps. These were answered in turn by pianist Eric Huebner, who in turn explored the percussive possibilities of the piano's hammers.

Michael Jarrell was brought to the stage next, to discuss NACHLESE v. Liederzyklus, a four-movement setting of Descaminado, a 16th century Spanish poem by Luis de Góngora y Argote. Again, Mr. Lindberg interviewed the composer. Mr. Jarrell explained how each movement was written in a different language, with the original text sung and spoken in French, German and finally the original Spanish.

That interpretation was given by mezzo-soprano Charlotte Dobbs, who shifted rapidly from spoken melodrama to sprechstimme, to keening, haunted passages in each of the three languages. Mr. Jarrell's music expertly supported the language of each movement. The French was lyric until the transition to spoken word jarred the listener. The German passages were aggressive. The third movement was purely instrumental, allowing the players of the Philharmonic freedom to bring their own meanings to the text.

To start the second half of the concert, David Robertson took the microphone to explain the complexities of ...explosante-fixé..., Pierre Boulez' concerto for three flutes, electronics and small orchestra. The first version of this work was created in 1971, as a memorial to the composer Igor Stravinsky. It incorporates three flutes and a chamber orchestra. The flutes, in turn are MIDI controllers, triggering electronic sounds that are, in themselves built from flutes.

Mr. Robertson played musical examples from the work, with fragments of the originel, the tone-row which serves as the building block of the movements. Conducting without looking at the musicians, he illustrated how Boulez' compositional technique eschews ideas of variation and development for a mosaic-like series of brightly colored sound-tiles.

Those bright colors of sound were paramount in the performance that followed. Flautists Michael Langevin, Mindy Kaufmann and Alexandra Sopp wove bright fabric out of their melodic lines, contrasting it with the whooshes of breath and clacking keys from the electronic flute samples. Each player wore a tiy digital headset, a far cry from the ten-pound MIDI-equipped instruments that were required when this piece was first performed 20 years ago.

Mr. Robertson's performance captured the ferocity and grieving tone of Transitoire VII, played here as the opening movement The opening  had a sharp, grating texture, tinted by the unexpected death of a musician friend of the composer's. It smoothly shifted through an interstitel (the composer's term) and into Transitoire V which had bright, sparring rhythms that recalled the meters of Italian baroque music and the late works of Beethoven.

Finally, the time came to play the originel, the tone-row that thanks to Mr. Robertson's short preview, had been seeded in the ears and minds of the audience. The simple presentation of this note-row in four different rhythms led to a closing passage of great lyric beauty, as the muiscal ideas rose in pitch and slowly faded to silence, leacing the listeners transformed and transfxed

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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.