In my experience of this line of work, there are few things more difficult than writing about an evening of entirely new music. Sure, there's plenty of research you can do in advance to prepare yourself for a first encounter. And it's not like there's no risk involved in weighing in on a standard repertoire performance -- something of which I was reminded rather sharply when I noted today that the opera blogosphere has greeted Renée Fleming's Tuesday night Rodelinda, about which I wrote admiringly last night, with some rather harsh criticism. (Which doesn't change my opinion in the least, although I'm definitely sympathetic to Sieglinde's nicely pointed comparison of Patrick Summers and his predecessor, Harry Bicket).
But an all-new music program affords few ready means of comparison, whether to other pieces by the same composers, similar works or whatever. Absent the luxury of a dress rehearsal to attend (which seems to be a nearly defunct practice these days) or even a score to consult, you're basically left with a quick perusal of someone's program notes and the performance itself -- a fleeting experience that offers rather little in the way of extended consideration.
Of course, if you've visited this blog before, you know that I attend and write about all-contemporary concerts with some regularity. The reason that I'm stuck mulling over thoughts like those expressed above is that half of the American Composers Orchestra's Wednesday night bill at Carnegie Hall left me wondering what, if anything, I might say about pieces that left me more perplexed than convinced. This isn't to imply that the pieces were failures, but in an ideal world -- one which my personal idol and bugbear Andrew Porter apparently once inhabited -- both works on the first half of tonight's concert were pieces with which I'd prefer to have spent more time, before responding with anything that could be construed as criticism.
The opening work, Symphonies in Slanted Time by Canadian composer Brian Current (whose 34th birthday arrived 34 minutes ago, as I'm writing this), called for the orchestra to continually speed up or slow down while it played relatively simple basic material. On paper, it makes for an enticing premise; like minimalism, Current's "slanted time" is based on manipulating rhythm rather than tones and chords as the basic function of a composition. But Current's nervous music works in an altogether different manner than the extended, trancelike reveries that minimalism conjures. (Conjured?) In practice, Current's rhythmic variety was enticing, and he also demonstrated a knack for well-turned tonalities. The piece opened with a brilliant shimmer of tinkling notes on harp and piano. One early section sounded like an LP of Debussy's La Mer spun back and forth by a DJ. Another colorful passage paced plucked strings with whooshing harp figures and thumping woodblocks, while a still-later stretch suggested glassy Pärt tintinnabulations rolling slowly down a hill. But the sections didn't seem to cohere into a compelling whole, and muddy string-section execution occasionally hampered the vitality of Current's metric manipulations. "Slanted time" is a tactic worth exploring, but this might not have been its best expression.
Kristin Kuster's Myrrha, a setting of texts from Ovid for three amplified sopranos, male chorus and orchestra, unquestionably demonstrated the composer's expertise in crafting unique timbres. Here, my hesitancy to declare full apprehension had more to do with the specific ways in which she set her texts. The rippling harp and luscious bass clarinet figures behind the word "noctis" ("night") seemed fitting, as did the resounding booms that punctuated the repeated appearances of "Me miseram" ("I am wretched"). The sopranos bent their notes like a folk choir under succulent lines translated as, "The golden moon flies from the heavens, and black clouds cover the hiding stars, and Night has lost her fires." But the burbling conga drum and rhumba intimations that percolated behind the lyric in which Myrrha is transformed into a tree gave me pause -- while incidentally making me think of similarly jarring juxtapositions of word and sound in Osvaldo Golijov's works -- and the rhythmic ferocity with which Kuster set lines that described bent branches and falling tears were disorienting in much the same way. Still, even at 15 minutes in length, this felt like a piece one might fruitfully spend much more time getting to know. And despite my seeming ambivalence, I will add that in the end, Kuster's compositional ingenuity outweighed my questions with regard to its deployment. Judith Clurman's well-drilled chorus did outstanding work, and the piece received a rousing response, well deserved.
After the break came Derek Bermel's Elixir, an appropriately titled magical concoction that opened with a shimmer of bowed metal, the elongated dry shush of a rain stick and a glistening sweep on a mark tree. Hushed strings and harp played a simple lullaby, which gained in microtonal complexity with each repetition. Ghostly voices soon sounded out from Bermel's orchestra; lacking a score, I craned my head this way and that, trying to figure out how this was accomplished. Wind sections perched in balconies left and right provided birdsong chirped from tree to tree. Bermel's vocabulary drew upon Ives and Messiaen, but in a strikingly original manner that yielded an utterly narcotic effect. All too soon, the percussionists ended the piece as it had begun -- a pity only in that this was a sound world I would have happily lived in for a much greater length of time.
The concert ended with Erotic Spirits, a song cycle on amorous poetry composed by Stephen Paulus for soprano Deborah Voigt -- and the work for which an apparently sizeable portion of the crowd was present, to judge by the singer's reception. The senior figure on tonight's concert at the tender age of 56, Paulus is one of America's most celebrated, frequently commissioned composers. His capacity for skillful orchestration is undeniable, but Paulus's music has always struck me as defiantly atavistic. That was certainly true of this piece, which was about as nuanced as Voigt's bright red gown and big blond mane. Opening with a Hollywood flourish, Paulus's score referenced Bernstein's urban sensuality, Copland's "lonely city" rumination, Prokofiev's martial drive, the bustle of Stravinsky's Petrouchka and the wistful nostalgia of Barber's Knoxville: Summer of 1915. Everywhere, the piece provided well-worn musical cues to elicit appropriate emotional responses -- admittedly making good use of Voigt's sterling equipment in the process. Eighty years ago, this would have been innovative; tonight, it just felt derivative, even manipulative. Ultimately, Erotic Spirits was the orchestral equivalent of Zalman King's cable-television fare: a softcore fantasy with a stunning leading lady in suggestive settings -- only the heat is simulated, and so are the climaxes.
Paul Motian Trio - Le Voyage (ECM)
George Adams - Sound Suggestions (ECM)
Kenny Wheeler - Around 6 (ECM)
Bengt Berger - Bitter Funeral Beer (ECM)
Marion Brown - Afternoon of a Georgia Faun (ECM)
Tom Verlaine - Songs and Other Things (Thrill Jockey)
Depeche Mode - Playing the Angel (Sire/Reprise/Warner Bros.)
Plumbline with Roger Eno - Transparencies (Hydrogen Dukebox)