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Compositional Cornucopia

New York
Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center
06/05/2014 -  
Julia Adolphe: Dark Sand, Sifting Light (World Premiere)
Peter Eötvös: DoReMi (New York Premiere)
Christopher Rouse: Symphony No. 4 (World Premiere)

Midori (Violin)
New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Alan Gilbert (Conductor/Music Director)

Midori (© Timothy Greenfield-Sanders)

Like those bubble-making machines in our summer parks, the New York Phil Biennial is producing literally hundreds of new, eccentrically-colored, multi-shaped never-seen-before creations every evening. World premieres, New York premieres, American, foreign music, composers established and new, bizarre, performing in private one day, given readings by the New York Phil the next night...

How Alan Gilbert manages to read through so much new work, how he gets the New York Phil to play it so well, and how he seduces audiences which usually wouldn’t be caught dead for music written less than a century ago is his secret. And one dares not ask end of the mystery.

Last night was typical. On Tuesday, the New York Philharmonic had read through six works which came from 400 pieces submitted to the orchestra through calls from the American Composers Orchestra. A mere 48 hours later, a work by California-based Julia Adolphe was given in public. And while Ms. Adolphe has been performed several times here, her Dark Sand, Sifting Light was a dazzling surprise.

The work had a program of sorts. A piano is heard in the distance, and the listener daydreams, with the piano taking orchestral colors. The piano clusters here, played by Eric Huebner, were quickly taken up with cymbals and strings, and the entire orchestra now came radiating with confusion of orchestral colors.

I imagine that the music was a variation on the original tone clusters, but this wasn’t important. Ms. Adolphe was unafraid to dash together the most varied instruments, suddenly changing tempos and hues.

For some reason, perhaps from the title, I kept thinking she was performing an orchestral physic experiment, analyzing light into a million parts, putting the parts together, hiding the rays in the shadows, and coming back again to show that this was only a game of visual (or aural) sensations. And sensational it was.

The second work was by an established composer. Born in Rumania’s Transylvania, but ethnically an established Hungarian composer like the 69-year-old Peter Eötvös means that anything is possible. And that, like Béla Bartók himself, one never quite separates the most complex and sublime from the most macabre Hungarian humor.

Even the title had its double-joke. DoReMi sounds like a simple child’s piece. But who was its dedicatee? Midori...or, in other words, MiDoRi...a pun, almost an anagram, maybe a Magyar prank.

Perhaps even the Magyar folklore, where inanimate things have a life of their own. Mr. Eötvös (pronounced, I believe from a my one year in Budapest, “Etvish”) went to pains to tell us that the Re is “extremely sensitive. Being wedged between Do and Mi, Re seems to want to escape form the pressure of the other two sounds.”

Oh, the magic of the Hungarian mind. In fact, DoReMi is actually a violin concerto–an extraordinarily difficult violin concerto–and only somebody like Midori could handle it, not only with ability but aplomb–and with humor.

Yes, we start off with those three notes, filaments of notes for the strings and the soloist. And then Mr. Eötvös turns those notes upside down, inside out. The trio of percussionists may raise a storm, but Midori and the orchestra while going round a musical cosmos, keep the trio of notes in the background or foreground.

The moods shift, the hues are vivid, and Mr. Eötvös is never afraid to pull some magical tricks. When the trombones begin a wah-wah section, Midori follows with the same bluesy rhythms. When they slide up and down, she follows on her instrument. When Concertmaster Sheryl Staples played her own solo, Midori’s duet merged, and the two played as delighted students.

Like Bartók’s abrupt movement into simple Hungarian idioms, Mr. Eötvös had an equally abrupt folkish section, albeit with Do, Re and Mi part of the structure.

Just because the work balanced the impossible–muscular, light, amusing, enigmatic and a gift to Midori–didn’t meant that the structure was transparent. But who cared? We had those three notes to hold onto (could one call Mr Eötvös: a tredecaphonist?), and I for one would love to hear this many times over. The double-legerdemain of Midori and Eötvös is not something to ignore.

The third premiere came from the most familiar name to the New York Philharmonic audiences, Christopher Rouse, the Marie Josée Krafis Composer-in-Residence. Since Midori’s name served as a pun, I feel no humiliation in saying that this composer always has the most rousing music, even if the music can be incessantly loud, or brassy or up-front complex.

But Mr. Rouse has such technical brilliance, such a mastery in every genre, that even his lesser works can shake up the listener.

This Fourth Symphony (New York Philharmonic Orchestra Commission) was an enigma, as Mr. Rouse himself admits. While confessing to giving background stories to much of his music, here he said that he “prefers to keep the exact meaning to myself.” Not that anything was baffling about the first movement, less Felice than scurrying, hurrying, scampering with the orchestra running over the whole gamut.

This could be called “urban” music, the music of traffic and locomotion and speed. But halfway through, Mr. Rouse suddenly lowered the temperature to what was to be the signal coloration of Doloroso.

The skittering strings stopped and in the lowest of the brasses came a quiet chorale. For the next 12-odd minutes, the lowest brass and winds–the tuba, bass clarinet, contrabassoon, trombone–uttered and muttered, presented elegiac solos, whispered mordant dirges, passed the notes for awhile to the orchestra and then resumed their dim requiems.

What was it all about? Ah, that is Mr. Rouse’s secret. Maestro Gilbert had described the movement as “profound”, but that was surprising. Alan Gilbert is as meticulous in his words as his conducting, and “profundity” is hardly an expressive word.

In a way, I wish the Rouse Symphony had started the program, and we could continue with the two works that entranced and played with colors, temperatures and velocities. But if this Symphony left us feeling dissatisfied, perhaps this was the composer playing his own game with the audience.

As always, his art and his heart were blatantly open. Last night, he had a secret and was in no hurry to reveal his inner thoughts.

Harry Rolnick



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