At least somewhat in keeping with last night's encounter with VisionIntoArt, a collective populated by former and current Juilliard students, I spent Sunday immersed in music written by student composers. The main lure of this afternoon's "NYU First Performance" event at New York University's Eisner and Lubin Hall -- a spare, elegant concert space in the university's imposing Kimmel Center on Washington Square South -- was the fact that the featured ensemble was that brilliant British new-music institution, the Arditti Quartet. And I'd be lying if I didn't confess that the foremost lure of the concert was the American premiere of French composer Pascal Dusapin's String Quartet No. 5.
Still, spending some serious time with the music of student composers is a notion I'd fancied for some time, even going so far as to plot a potential Time Out New York feature on the subject. Unsurprisingly, Alex Ross got there first in a New Yorker piece, which basically put paid to that idea. (Since Alex did his typically masterful job, I can't say that I have any real regrets.)
This was my first live encounter with this quartet in more than a decade, so I was genuinely surprised to note just how young an ensemble violinist Irvine Arditti is fielding these days. Violist Ralf Ehlers, who joined the group in 2003, can now claim seniority over everyone but the leader; he's in his mid-30s. Second violinist Ashot Sarkissjan, 29, signed on in June 2005; cellist Lucas Fels, who is in his early 40s, joined the quartet in December.
The first half of the program featured the six student pieces, all of them relatively succinct. Alexander Ness's Motion Painting, his second quartet, opened with a series of Webern- or Kurtág-like microludes, which soon broke into a more sustained, lyrical sweep. Swirling dance patterns lept from player to player, and a sweetly undulating melody closed the work. In a program note, Ness mentioned having been influenced by the music he'd heard during a period of study in India, which made it all the more surprising and welcome that nothing in the piece spoke derivatively of that experience. Jenny Olivia Johnson's little lotte let her mind remember, based on a theme from -- of all places -- Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Phantom of the Opera, was a perky abstraction animated by tiny percussive shakers and dry pizzicato notes, culminating in a final stretch that sounded something like a chance meeting on a composing desk of a popcorn popper and a tea kettle.
Matthew Quayle's Sweet Insanity squared lush melodicism, bluesy walking-bass figures and agitated 12-tone incursions with a Shostakovich-like intensity. A Clean Kill, by Sophocles Papavasilopoulos (who has previously composed for formats ranging from opera to Gameboy), opened with a clatter of pizzicato plucks like metronomes set at different tempi, resolved into a roughly tonal development, and closed as a squeaking flock of bats. A rich modal tunefulness introduced Jesse Sklar's Quartet #2, followed by an ambiguous transition that led to an overtly Coplandesque prairie-twilight finale filled with the stately sighs and yawns of Billy the Kid. The last of the student works, Felipe Lara's Corde Vocale, stuck me as the piece most likely to gain entry into the Arditti repertoire: an introductory stretch of stabbing thrusts, stitched together with the most tenuous of sonic threads, gave rise to a series of tonal chords made all the more startling by context. A transition of sine-wave stillness led to an agitated conclusion. The horsehair-ripping physicality of Lara's piece announced a bold, distinctive voice, presented with stylistic confidence and technical assurance.
After intermission came the promised Dusapin premiere. While I count Dusapin among my favorite contemporary orchestral composers, I hadn't heard much of his previous chamber music. According to his program note, he has a serious bent for the idiom; hearing his fifth effort, it was clear that his enthusiasm is matched by a genuine knack. Dusapin's String Quartet No. 5 was inspired by the Samuel Beckett novel Mercier and Camier, a work the composer claims to have "quoted" in numerous previous pieces. Here, the novel's peculiar, free-floating dialogue was evoked by a similarly unrooted idiom, a time-loosed expanse broken up by chatty instrumental asides. The piece opened with gently rocking lines plucked on viola and cello, over which the first violin sounded out a keening soliloquy abruptly questioned by the second violin. Melodies and harmonies bled and smudged at their borders; a more frantic middle section resolved into a cloud of hushed whispers. British composer James Clarke's String Quartet, the 2003 Arditti commission that closed the concert, was more like a perpetual-motion torture machine, a 10-minute tarantella interesting mainly for the boozy lurches and heaves with which it was punctuated. It was probably great fun for the performers.
Uptown at Merkin Concert Hall tonight, Columbia Composers presented recent pieces by five Columbia University graduate students. Purl, by Katharine Soper, was an animated duologue for Erin Lesser, who hissed, spit and sang on standard and alto flutes, and Gregory Beyer, who deftly partnered her on vibraphone, crotales, congas, bongos and wood blocks. James Fei's Septet -- for paired alto saxophones, trumpets and basses set in mirror configuration on either side of a baritone saxophone -- was the only strictly 12-tone composition I encountered today; unsurprisingly, it was also the most dated piece, sounding quaint in a certain way, but rather lacking in expressive power. (This was surprising from a creator whose work in other areas -- in analog electronics, and certainly on saxophone alongside Anthony Braxton, has been so consistently forward-looking.) Katharina Rosenberger's Bild 3A, a movement from her Fünf Bilder für Oktett (scored for string trio, bass, trombone, alto saxophone, bass clarinet and flute), opened with jarring smacks from three slapsticks wielded by ensemble members. The piece crackled like dry kindling catching fire, elusive melodic flurries depicting fitful flames.
After the break came Alexandre Lunsqui's p-Orbital, a brilliantly dizzying sonic construction that called upon rattling plastic bags, blown wine bottles, a berimbau played virtually any way but in its traditional manner, a slide whistle that conjured Messiaen's Ondes Martenot and two players depositing dry beans into plastic receptacles (the more manic of whom turned out to be Lunsqui himself). If the methodology described seems contrived, the results were anything but; Lunsqui's piece drew knowingly upon Stravinsky, Ligeti, Carl Stalling and John Zorn, and the ends achieved through his arcane conventions were in the end completely convincing. The closing work, Oscar Bianchi's formal, refined Primordia Rerum, demanded of soprano Daisy Press the extended techniques of Cathy Berberian and Joan La Barbara. She delivered with utter security alongside a quintet that throbbed, pulsed and stabbed; still, this well-wrought piece seemed slightly anticlimactic in the aftermath of Lunsqui's giddy din.
All told, this was a busy day of listening and cogitation -- but more important, it was a terrifically happy day, thanks to the generous efforts of the composers and players involved. (Cellist Claire Bryant, whose agile Dee Dee Ramone impersonation was noted during last night's VisionIntoArt performance, earned extra credit for flexibility of technique and exacting dedication to the cause with her performances in most of the Columbia Composers pieces tonight.) For years now, the media has been filled with articles about the rapidly impending "Death of Classical Music." Given this weekend's evidence, I am more energized than ever to suggest -- maybe even proclaim -- that precisely the opposite is the case. Contemporary classical music may not currently occupy the position of centrality it once claimed within the day-to-day experience of intellectually active, artistically attuned people -- and yes, that is something to regret, if not necessarily a cause for alarm or even surprise. But these composers and musicians proved that worthy music is still being written and played right now. If, as Kris Kristofferson suggested, "Freedom's just another word for nothin' left to lose," then these performances fairly shouted that nothin' left to lose is as potent a call for stylistic freedom as any.
Gaetano Donizetti - Don Pasquale - Beverly Sills, Alfredo Kraus, Alan Titus, Donald Gramm, London Symphony Orchestra / Sarah Caldwell (EMI Classics)
Pascal Dusapin - Watt*; Galim**; Celo*** - Alain Trudel*, Juliette Hurel**, Sonia Wieder-Atherton***, Orchestre National de Montpellier / Pascal Rophé (Naïve)