I looked again today at the exactly 1,399 words I devoted to the weekend's IRCAM concerts at Miller Theatre, and was sorely disappointed by something I noticed. No, not my usual redundancy of adjectives -- well, okay, maybe that, too. But mainly, I was alarmed to notice that I'd devoted very little space to praising the two ensembles that delivered those concerts. And that's something I need to address; on the weekend's evidence, they're both exceptional groups that deserve attention.
Jeffrey Milarsky, a Juilliard alumnus who now teaches at Columbia University and conducts the school's symphony orchestra, is without question one of New York's most accomplished conductors of rigorous concert works. The Columbia Sinfonietta, of which Milarsky is conductor and music director, was patterned after European modernist ensembles such as the Ensemble InterContemporain, Ensemble Modern and London Sinfonietta. According to the group's mission statement, it aspires to take on works neglected for reasons of scale or specialized technique, as well as commissioning new pieces. The group doesn't limit itself to large-scale compositions; a March 2006 program at Merkin Concert Hall included solo-piano music by Augusta Read Thomas, a piece for two bass drums by Gérard Grisey, a sextet by George Edwards, an octet by Elliott Gyger and a Salvatore Sciarrino composition for 14 bells.
Like most new-music ensembles, the Columbia Sinfonietta is made up of busy freelancers, which necessarily includes a number of faces familiar to any partisan of this repertoire. On Saturday night, some of these regulars included the excellent, ubiquitous flutist Tara Helen O'Connor, clarinetist Bohdan Hilash, percussionists Tom Kolor and Pablo Rieppi, pianist Stephen Gosling, violist Lois Martin and cellist Michael Finckel. Other performers I hadn't previously encountered also made an impression: oboist Jacqueline Leclair, French-horn players Victor Sungarian and Nancy Billman, violinist Erica Kiesewetter and whichever trombonist was hidden at the back of the stage during Rand Steiger's Ecosphere. [Update: The particular trombonist here was Ben Herrington.] Milarsky led the group with exacting technique, while eliciting the sort of passionately dedicated playing required to sell music of this complexity to an audience.
Paul Griffiths's glowing New York Times review of the Columbia Sinfonietta's New York premiere of three sections from Grisey's Les Espaces Acoustiques at Merkin Concert Hall in early 2000, can be found here. (That same concert included Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire, as well as pieces by Philippe Hurel and Ronald Bruce Smith.) More recently, Bruce Hodges -- whose Monotonous Forest I just added to the blogroll last night -- reviewed the Sinfonietta's April 2005 performance at Merkin Concert Hall (which included pieces by György Kurtág, Marcelo Toledo, Josh Levine and Fred Lerdahl) in admirable depth for the British webzine MusicWeb, here. The group recorded the Lerdahl piece, Time After Time, a week later, for a CD newly issued on the Bridge label.
In his review of the Columbia Sinfonietta's Grisey semi-cycle, Griffiths wrote that "a very remarkable work was revealed, or half-revealed: the cycle has three further parts, and some day they should all be played here." That eventually happened in October 2005, but it was another new-music group that claimed the honors: the Argento Chamber Ensemble. Founded like the Columbia Sinfonietta in 2000, what was originally a quintet has grown to 11 members; also like the Columbia group, the Argentos concentrate primarily on modernist and postmodernist composers of complex works, including in its 2005-06 season alone Berg, Cerha, Grisey, Hurel, Olga Neuwirth, Georg Friedrich Haas and music director Michel Galante (who appears at left in the accompanying photograph, next to composer Tristan Murail).
Familiar faces turned up here, too, including violist Stephanie Griffin, the remarkable soloist in Sunday evening's piece by Michael Jarrell. Erin Lesser is an accomplished, versatile flutist, while Carol McGonnell is quite simply one of the most exciting young clarinetists to be heard in this city. Guest pianist Jenny Lin, who played keyboards on the opening work by Joshua Fineberg, is one of New York's most celebrated new-music pianists. And the polished, exacting young violinist Miranda Cuckson is someone whose work I've been following with admiration for close to a year now.
In a very real sense, Cuckson is also partially responsible for the existence of this blog -- although she doesn't know that, and can't be held accountable for my excesses. In March 2005, she presented a concert at Weill Recital Hall, one that I ultimately wasn't able to attend. Her program offered an intelligent mix of pieces by American composers influenced in one way or another by post-Schoenberg trends in European music: Ross Lee Finney (whose music she subsequently recorded on a rewarding Centaur CD), Ralph Shapey, Wallingford Riegger, Morton Feldman, Ben Weber and her own father, Robert Cuckson. (She wrote a very intelligent essay about that recital program, which you'll find here.)
Forced to miss Cuckson's concert, I waited for a mass-media review that never arrived. After that, I simply wished that somebody had documented the event. Later, when I launched this blog, one of my goals was to make sure that I wrote about everything I saw and heard. Of course, it's valuable to be part of a critical discourse on one major event or another, within a larger pool of newspaper, magazine and net critics. But it's also rewarding to know that even if no working reviewers were in attendance at a given event -- like, say, this weekend's IRCAM concerts -- at least something was documented, somewhere.
Ultimately, the reason I felt the need to expand so profusely on a pair of concerts about which I'd already written is pretty simple: The Columbia Sinfonietta and Argento Chamber Ensemble are both providing a real service to new-music lovers in New York City, by exposing works that might otherwise go unperformed in a community increasingly turned on the one hand toward conservatism among larger institutions, and on the other toward postminimalism and eclecticism in the best-known indie ensembles. Neither polarity is especially unexpected; the former is probably unavoidable, and the latter has certainly proved its value. It's demonstrably true that the perceived hegemony of music labeled "uptown" and "academic" came to an end some time ago. Still, I personally see no need to condemn modernist and postmodernist impulses to some slagheap of unpleasant, outdated idioms -- no matter what the Wall Street Journal says. What these two groups played over the weekend, and what they program regularly, is music that ought to be aired, appreciated and discussed.
Speaking of advocacy, I've finally added NewMusicBox to the blogroll at right. True, it's more a comprehensive webzine than a hyperactive online journal. But as stalwart supervisor Frank J. Oteri rightly reminded me, the Box's "Chatter" page has assumed the function of a blog, where you can regularly read personable musings from Oteri, "Friday Informer" Molly Sheridan and the rest of the team, as well as guests such as Belinda Reynolds and Sean Shepherd. There are no supporters of composers living in these here United States more admirable than Frank, Molly and their colleagues, and I'm grossly overdue in saying as much. So go look.
Robert Ashley - Foreign Experiences (Lovely Music)
Kayo Dot - Dowsing Anemone with Copper Tongue (Robotic Empire)
Voivod - Katorz (The End)
Fred Lerdahl - Time After Time - Columbia Sinfonietta; Marches - Antares; Oboe Quartet - La Fenice; Waves - Orpheus Chamber Orchestra (Bridge)