Months ago, I'd made plans to spend this past Tuesday night at the Metropolitan Opera, to hear Deborah Voigt opposite Marcello Giordani in Tosca. But in late March I attended a performance by the Arditti String Quartet at New York University, which included new pieces by the school's graduate-student composers. (A report on that concert is here.) I contemplated postponing the Tosca then and there, because five of those NYU composers were to have pieces played by the International Contemporary Ensemble at Merkin Concert Hall that same night. More recently, Giordani cancelled his engagement due to illness, which pretty much sealed the deal: My enthusiasm for these new voices won out, which is why I found myself not at the Met but at Merkin on Tuesday.
With all due respect to Ms. Voigt, whose performance has been generally well received by press and blogosphere alike, I'm pretty sure I made the right decision. Once again, my encounter with this particular crop of young creators left me entertained, energized and enthusiastic with regard to the prognosis for new concert music in the 21st century. Given the amount of music I consume -- live and otherwise, as the banner overhead proclaims -- that's no small feat.
The program opened with "Stain," a song originally written for If I Told Napoleon, the rock band composer Sophocles Papavasilopoulos leads with his wife, singer Sheila Callaghan. (Another of these NYU composers, Matthew Quayle, plays keyboards in the group.) For this recital, Papavasilopoulos arranged the song for string quartet, double bass, flute, muted trumpet, harp, electric guitar, electric piano and drums. Sustained strings swelled cloudlike under Callaghan's evocative lyrics, which were delivered in a breathy whisper while flutist Claire Chase offered counterpoint. A slow, hypnotic pulse underpinned the verses in a melancholy reverie rattled now and again by swelling dissonance; the song ended with a patient percussionist's sudden bass drum thwack. The arrangement was attractive, even stately; still, having since checked out the band's demos on their MySpace page, I think its songs are better served in their original versions for electric keyboards, guitar, bass and drums.
Alexander Ness, whose music is influenced by time spent studying Indian classical percussion, was represented by Nine, Against Nature, a colorful nonet for violin, flute, alto saxophone, clarinet, trumpet, acoustic guitar, piano, harp and percussion. The brief, abstract work made intelligent use of an especially colorful timbral palette; instrumentalists mixed, mingled and parted like guests at a party, resulting in continually shifting colors and densities.
Three Spirits, the first of two Matthew Quayle compositions on the program, was an expertly crafted trio for piccolo, viola and harp -- lithe, breezy and even humorous. Confronted with virtuosic harp flurries mimicked by the piccolo, the viola offers tart, sullen asides. Eventually, the piccolo player takes an interest in the violist's lines, and parrots them instead. By the end, all three voices are dashing and swooping in tandem; the harpist strums what seems to be a final cadence, but the piccolo demands the final word. It's a lot of action to pack into a five-minute piece. (The program note indicated that an earlier version had clocked in at two minutes.) Another Quayle composition, Contradance, opened the concert's second half. A bristling, playful piece for cello and piano (the latter played by the composer), the work lived up to its billing as "somewhere between Bartok and bluegrass," yet Gershwin and Copland were surely present, as well. Cellist Jameson Platte played the piece confidently, although his lines were sometimes swallowed by the piano; his Baroque bow lent a sharp edge to his lines, answered by jazzy licks from the keyboard. Based on this evidence, Quayle reminds me of Paul Moravec, a contemporary composer who unapologetically finds value in consonance, straightforward melody and rhythmic vitality, and finds something new to say with those time-honored tools.
At the other end of the spectrum, Felipe Lara's Serenata, proved that complexity is far from played out. Based on the half-dozen or so pieces I've heard so far, Lara is a composer concerned with tonal clashes and rhythmic abrasion; even so, I've yet to hear a piece of his that didn't sound utterly natural, even inevitable. Like Jeffrey Mumford, Lara has a unique gift for creating difficult music that falls easy on the ear. His Serenata -- scored for flute, bass clarinet, French horn, acoustic guitar, harp, piano, double bass and percussion -- ebbed and flowed like a moody dream interrupted by fits and starts. Lara's masterful combinations of tone and timbre frequently suggested voices and instruments that simply weren't present on the stage.
The closing work, Jenny Olivia Johnson's The Endings, was billed as an "opera fragment." Based on children's books by Philip Pullman, the libretto -- which Johnson withheld from the printed program, in order to focus attention on the stage -- dealt with Lyra and Will, two childhood friends from alternate worlds who aged at different rates; when we encounter them, Lyra has grown old and is near death, while Will remains youthful. The two roles, scored respectively for soprano and countertenor, were performed by Elizabeth Barber and Adam Ward. (For those who keep tabs on developing singers, Ward should be on your radar; he's young and handsome, and while his technique is unfinished, it's already remarkably secure, and the sound he produces is exquisite. He'd make a devastating Akhnaten.)
Sans scenery, the work was semi-staged and accompanied by an evocative video. Johnson extended the range of her small orchestra by calling upon its players to tap and rub wine glasses, bow keening lines on vibraphone and summon an eerily rattling wail from a Tibetan prayer bowl stroked with a wooden dowel. Again and again, the composer conjured a sense of passing time through cannily scored clockworks; shimmering rhythms borrowed from Steve Reich, while the work's surging pace and sonic density were closer in sound to Michael Gordon. A hissing amplifier intruded upon the quieter moments, but Johnson's iridescent score was exceedingly well served. She is a composer with a genuine flair for musical drama -- which bodes well for Leaving Santa Monica, the work by which she will be represented during New York City Opera's VOX readings. (These will be held on May 6 and 7 at New York University's Skirball Center; Johnson's score will be performed at 2pm on Sunday. The details are here.)
Throughout the evening, conductor Matthew Cody and the International Contemporary Ensemble players performed wonders with a slate of scores that challenged musicians in a variety of ways. At the end of the concert's first half, four members of the ensemble were allowed to truly strut in the masterfully scored mayhem of Magnus Lindberg's Linea D'Ombra. This was the first piece Lindberg wrote as a "professional" composer, just out of the Sibelius Academy. Its violent tonal and rhythmic clashes, bashes and crashes, vocal shrieks and babbled glossolalia seem less angry than cathartic and bullishly gleeful; I wouldn't be surprised if each member of this NYU "Gang of Five" composes something equally bold, reckless and assured once their diplomas are delivered. They've certainly got the tools.
Nico Muhly - Speaks Volumes (Bedroom Community)
Osvaldo Golijov - Ainadamar - Dawn Upshaw, Jessica Rivera, Kelley O'Connor, Jesús Montoya, Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus / Robert Spano (Deutsche Grammophon)
Anthony Burr, Oscar Noriega and Chris Speed - The Clarinets (Skirl)
Ted Reichman - My Ears Are Bent (Skirl)
Curtis Hasselbring - The New Mellow Edwards (Skirl)
Richard Wagner - Das Rheingold - Reinhild Runkel, Anne Gjevang, Chris Merritt, Graham Clark, Henk Smit, John Bröcheler, Residentie Orchestra / Hartmut Haenchen (Opus Arte DVD)
Isis - Panopticon (Ipecac)
Zombi - Surface to Air (Relapse)
Mono - You Are There (Temporary Residence)
Silent Civilian - Rebirth of the Temple (Mediaskare)
Eyes of Fire - Ashes to Embers (Century Media)
Beans featuring William Parker and Hamid Drake - Only (Thirsty Ear)
If I Told Napoleon - "Made of You," "Easy" and "Romance Bomb" (demos from the band's MySpace page)
Richard Wagner - Die Walküre - Jessye Norman, Hildegard Behrens, Christa Ludwig, Gary Lakes, Kurt Moll, James Morris, Metropolitan Opera Orchestra / James Levine (Deutsche Grammophon DVD)