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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 © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Concert Review: Cords, Chords, and Crossed Clarinets

The Philharmonic makes Contact! at the Met.
Austrian composer H.K. Gruber performs Frankenstein!!
Photo: Intermusica page on H.K. Gruber. 
On Friday night, the New York Philharmonic unveiled its third season of Contact! the intimate series which features ultra-modern music played by a chamber-sized orchestra. Music director Alan Gilbert, finally returned from giving concerts in Europe, conducted. The program was held at the Grace Rainey Rodgers auditorium in the Egyptian wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. (The program will repeat tonight at Symphony Space.)

Contact! Mk. III opened with the world premiere of Brazilian composer Alexander Lunsqui's Fibers, Yarn and Wire. Mr. Lunsqui intertwined score featured virtuoso woodwind parts, complicated percussion effects and atonal drones from the small string section. The complexity of the writing (and the title) evoked a South American artifact, the quechua. Although from Peru, the music reminded one of the Incan method of sending complicated messages via multi-colored, knotted cords.

Strange atmospheres coalesced through the music, which featured some unusual work for percussionists Daniel Druckman and Christopher Lamb. At one point, the latter even played the edge of a small cymbal--using a violin bow. In the final passages the violins stopped sawing and broke into a fragment of the "Ride of the Valkyries," a surreal choice.

Along with Mr. Gilbert, the  Finnish composer Magnus Lindberg is one of the driving forces behind the Contact! series. After a brief exchange with WNYC commentator and host John Schafer, the instruments were rearranged for a performance of Mr. Lindberg's Gran Duo, written originally for a millennial series held by Sir Simon Rattle at the end of his tenure with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra.

The Gran Duo looks back to the wind band arrangements and divertimenti of Mozart. But the music is unmistakably Mr. Lindberg's, a highly organized, original approach to sculpting sound from vibrating reeds and buzzing lips. The wind and brass players were delighted to be alone on the stage with Mr. Gilbert, forming seperate, competing and mutually supportive aural teams. Mr. Lindberg also created virtuoso passages for instruments not usually featured--particularly the contrabassoon and bass clarinet.

Toy trumpet, mouth organs,  kazoos, slide whistle, singing tubes: the instruments of Frankenstein!!
The second half of the program featured a trusty work of modernism: Mr. H.K. Gruber's 1978 piece Frankenstein!!. Mr. Gruber joined the orchestra as chansonnier, spouting off a series of absurd poems that paste pop culture images together in a stream-of consciousness quilt of sound.

Poet H. C. Artmann's work encompasses monster movies, horror stories of babies run amuck, John Wayne, comic books (Batman and Robin are present as gay lovers sharing breakfast) and 007 himself, "Little Jimmy Bond." Mr. Gruber squawks, squeaks, roars and stutters his way through the poems, clearly having a great time as he led the audience through the fun-house.

The shock in experiencing Frankenstein!! is not the poetry, but the orchestration, which doubtless inspired the explorations of Peter Schickele (in his P.D.Q. Bach persona) and Frank Zappa. Mr. Lamb rhythmically inflated and popped a series of brown paper bags. Mr. Gruber played slide whistle, mouth organ and toy saxophone, duetting gleefully with the solo horn and Carter Brey's cello.

At one point, the Invocation (the part about the evil vampire baby--don't ask) the ensemble turned and all sang to us, including Mr. Gilbert. It was a funny, playful moment, with the clarinetist making a cross with his two instruments. Mr. Gilbert, his hands in an X over his chest, looked like an extra in an Ed Wood movie. The work ended with bassoonist Judith LeClair putting down her instrument and picking up two brightly colored Singing Tubes--one green, one purple. As they moaned and whooped, the monster finally came to rest.

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