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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2016 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Concert Review: Playing at Statues

The New York Philharmonic makes CONTACT! at MoMA.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The Mario Merz sculpture Ziffer im Wald inspired a work on this week's CONTACT! 
program at the 2014 NY PHIL BIENNIAL. Photo from salzburg.gv.at.
In the Alan Gilbert era at the New York Philharmonic, the CONTACT! series has provided a playground for musicians and enthusiasts of modern music alike to hear avant-garde compositions n a more intimate venue than the vast cavern of Avery Fisher Hall. On Thursday night, composer/conductor Matthias Pintscher led members of the orchestra in Beyond Recall, a late-night new music marathon at the Museum of Modern Art. This was the first of three CONTACT! concerts in the orchestra's ongoing NY PHIL BIENNIAL.

Like Mr. Pintscher himself, Beyond Recall is an Austrian import, originating as a Salzburg Festival commission challenging young composers to write short works based on modern sculptures found around that Alpine city. Of the twelve works commissioned for the original Salzburg concerts and premiered less than a year ago, Mr. Pintscher chose nine, assembling a two-and-a-half hour concert that challenged the horizons (and endurance) of the assembled.

The concert was presented on a purpose-built stage in the Agnes Gund Garden Lobby, with the musicians playing against a vast glass wall with the night-lit sculpture garden beyond. The show opened with Dai Fujikura's silence seeking solace. A small string ensemble played keening lines, providing an uneasy bed for the voice of soprano Jennifer Zetlan. The long lines and the setting of Harry Ross' text created a feeling of infinite space, obsessing on particular words and phrases in a meditation on the eternal feminine.


The next work, Spirit of Alberti by Bruno Mantovani is based on a sculpture by Marina Abramovic called Spirit of Mozart, a circle of metal chairs with one enormously high one in the center evoking the composer himself. Piano, kinetic percussion and the sound of buzzing insects recalled the feel of Salzburg on a searing summer day, the circular nature of Mantovani's music evoking the artist's suggestion that her sculpture was best experienced by sitting on it.

Olga Neuwirth's Piazzi de Numeri was a mathematician's dream, an ascending string of Fibonacci numbers (1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13...) sung in German over the sound of a great, creaking rumbling clock  by Ms. Zetlan. It was followed by Adtende, ubi albescit veritas a setting by the composer Michael Jarrell of Latin text from the Confessions of St. Augustine.  Just as the Neuwirth work was a meditation on the power of ever-increasing numbers, this work studied the finite nature of time. Baritone Evan Hughes declaimed the text over a large orchestra.

After a short pause, the program resumed with a slate of more intimate works. Caldera by Johannes Maria Staud featured clarinet, piano and Ms. Zetlan, declaiming a nonsensical, polysyllabic text over Spartan accompaniment. But that was positively extravagant next to Mark Andre's E2, a minimalist walking journey for cello and bass that featured the two players tapping a steady rhythm for twelve minutes on strings, frog, neck, stem peg and the sides of their instrument. This work was an unlikely spotlight for new principal bassist Timothy Cobb, but he rose to the challenge.

The last three works were by composers who also happened to be attending Thursday night's performance. It was Edwin Wurm's set of large sculptures of gherkin pickles that inspired In the Absence by composer Nina Senk, set to a babbling, repeating text that included images of an exploding cucumber. Jay Schwartz' M  reconstructed material from the Overture to Le Nozze di Figaro and the Lacrymosa from the Requiem into a radical new musical form. Sung by Mr. Hughes, this fragmented Latin text puzzled and intrigued the listener. These familiar themes were rebuilt into a heaven-storming wall of sound--impressive stuff.

Mr. Pintscher ended the concert with what appeared in the program to be a short opera by Vito Zuraj, a drama for two lovers on the verge of a really brutal breakup. And it must be said that Mr. Hughes and Ms. Zettan captured the drama and angst of ordinary people falling madly in love and then splitting in a firework display of spite and hatred before realizing at the end that love might prevail despite the pain inflicted. This compelling work  featured the singers repeatedly overlapping each other and shouting each other down above the clamor of the orchestra--a raucous and brilliant close to this difficult but rewarding program.

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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.