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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.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Concert Review: Moon Dreams and Street Players

The New York Philharmonic makes CONTACT!
by Paul J. Pelkonen
An astronaut footprint from the Apollo 11 mission, on the Sea of Tranquility.
The New York Philharmonic's biannual CONTACT! series allows Alan Gilbert and company to break free of their usual digs at Avery Fisher Hall to explore works by cutting-edge composers. On Friday night, the wood panels of Grace Rainey Rodgers Auditorium (tucked neatly between Arms and Armor and the Egyptian Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art) resounded to the sounds of the 21st century.

CONTACT! is different from typical Philharmonic concerts. The players trade roles freely, with musicians rotating into the seat of concertmaster or taking turns playing double bass. Constants in the four performances were the horn of principal Philip Myers and the adroit percussion of Daniel Druckman and Christopher Lamb, whose duties increased in difficulty as the evening progressed.

This concert opened with the announcement (from NPR's John Schaefer, who served as emcee) that the program would be re-ordered a bit from what was originally listed. The evening opened with Andras Hillborg's Vaporized Tivoli. This was a phantasmagorical series of carnival-like  ideas, evoking gaudy amusements with an undercurrent of blackness inspired by the writings of Ray Bradbury. The music veered from passages of lurching menace (complete with elephant calls from Mr. Myers' horn) to a slow, evocative fade-out as the circus departed.

Poul Ruders is the best known of the four composers on this program, having authored operas The Handmaid's Tale and Selma Jezkova that have gained a following in that genre. Before the performance, he joked that his Oboe Concerto was a "lighter" work, although one fraught with dangers for the soloist. Built in four movements with titles evoking different craters on the Moon, it builds a dream-world for the listener, with the oboist leading a mysterious journey through a desolate moon-scape.

What was remarkable about this work was the incredible degree of breath control exhibited by soloist Liang Wang, who played long, keening melodic lines even as he flushed to the roots from a lack of circulated air. Mr. Wang also had the opportunity to demonstrate his technical expertise and mastery of the double reeds, but the final passages of the last movement Lake of Death required tremendous breath control.

Yann Robin's Backdraft was inspired, not by the Ron Howard/Kurt Russell firefighter drama but by a repetitive ostinato rhythm that was stuck in the head of its composer.  Here, that jittering rhythm (played on the high end of the piano by Eric Huebner) served as the fuse to light explosions of sound from the double bass (played below the bridge) contrabass tuba and skittering strings. Mr. Huebner demonstrated unflinching rhythmic skill as he banged out the tricky staccato.

The concert ended with the piece originally scheduled to start the evening: Gougalon: Scenes from a Street Theater by the Korean-born, German-based composer Unsuk Chin. This proved to be the most engaging work of the evening, evoking the rag-and-bone street players that roamed the back alleys of South Korean towns in the years following that country's disastrous war with its northern neighbor.

Ms. Chin brings this sound-world forth through unusual percussion arrangements, forcing most of the musicians on the stage to do double duty on suspended triangles, small gong, leather whip and guiro. Even the strings were slapped, snapped and plucked so that they bounced against the fretboard, joining the dances and celebration of Korean street theater. Mr. Lamb and Mr. Druckman dueled on specially-built rigs of bottles and cans (respectively.) The work ended with a ferocious near-scherzo, the quaintly titled Hunt for the Quack's Plait.

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