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The Origin of Pieces

New York
Grace Rainey Auditorium, Metropolitan Museum of Art
12/17/2010 -  December 18, 2010
Contact!: The New-Music Series of the New York Philharmonic
James Matheson: True South (World Premiere–New York Philharmonic Commission)
Jay Alan Yim: neverthesamerivertwice (World Premiere–New York Philharmonic Commission)
Julian Anderson: The Comedy of Change (U.S. Premiere)

Jonathan Feldman (Piano), John Schaefer (Host)
New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Alan Gilbert (Conductor)

J. Matheson (© Herring Rollmop)

The trio of premieres at the Metropolitan Museum of Art last night shared one collaborator and three inspirations. The partner was Alan Gilbert, who, with “Contact!” has drawn New York’s musical Gray Lady, his New York Philharmonic, into special venues to premiere world or American premieres. After brief conversations with the composers, Mr. Gilbert or WQXR’s John Schaefer offer only surface technical details, but the audience does feel that composers are human beings as well as Grands Artistes.

The inspirations were 2,500 years apart, but two of them, Heraclites of Ephesus and Charles Darwin both shared a similar idea and ideal. The third inspiration was Werner Herzog, whose film Encounters at the End of the World generated inspiration for the first composer, James Matheson.

This writer believes that every movie made by Herzog offers an oppoprtunmity for bagatelle or opera. Mr. Matheson confined himself to Herzog’s sometimes noisy picture about the supposed quietest place on earth, the Antarctic. His music wasn’t about its eccentric people, but turning “true north” into the titular True South.. For this, he used an abbreviated orchestra (albeit with a very large percussion group), finagling with consonant chords, but turning them around so that one had an aural illusion.

It wasn’t an illusion of dissonance, but rather that the topnotes were descants, that the harmonies were hovering around looking for a place to land. That could have been unnerving (good music or good conducting should always be unnerving), and the first and last minutes did have that rhythmic volition which made one want to hear more.

Alas, not having read the score, not hearing the technical tricks, the middle seemed to wander a bit. Mr. Matheson obviously wanted to show more disconnects, but the slow solos slid past, and I, for one, had to wait to bring the full orchestra rogether with the opening bars.

Two inspirations shared the same concept. The final work, Julian Anderson’s ballet, isnpired by Darwin’s evolutionary ideas, and Jay Alan Yim’s shorter work, neverthesamerivertwice, both dealt with a most appropriate subject for music, impermanence.
Mr. Anderson dealt with the impermanence of species. Mr. Yim based his work on Heraclites’ famous metaphor on impermanence, “You cannot step into the same river twice.” (Were one into wordplay, you could say this was both the paradox and the solution.)

J.A. Yim (© Herring Rollmop)

neverthesamerivertwice was, on the surface, an absolute delight. Neither a concerto or non-concerto for piano (Mr. Yim’s words), the piano did play a major role, along with autoharps (two), vibraphone, xylophone, marimba, chimes and harp, presenting various incarnationa of what seemed to be a nine-tone row of notes. But this row itself changed (like the river), and one heard it tinkling, tingling, repeated in endless forms (or at least as endless as the 20-minute duratiion).
It wasn’t only the instruments above which continued this endless undulations. Mr. Yim obviously enjoys great contrasts, so tuba and piccolo weaved around each other, strings floated over the ripples, all the keyed percussion instruments presented mutations of endless wonders.
I have no illusions that Mr. Yim’s work was far more complex. But like that other rippling inspiration, the Saint-Saëns’ Aquarium from Carnival of the Animals, the gentle movements were their own rewards.

Julian Anderson, presently composer-in-residence for the London Philharmonic Orchestra, flew in for the American premiere of his Comedy of Changes. Composed for the Rambert Ballet Company to celebrate 150 years since Darwin’s On The Origin of Species, the orchestral work (I use the term broadly, since the instrumentation was almost always for individual instrument) is divided into seven different sections, each similar in form.
The form was one of evolution itself. We begin with a few solo notes: a plucked 32nd note, a tiny clarinet run, a minor harmony. From here, different instruments pick up the thread, change it around, double the effect, come back to the beginning and–just as species change from one aberrant mutation–so this tiny cell of a theme is transmuted as well.
Good science, and, not surprisingly, good music as well. The basic texture, with the individual solos (as well as paper-rattling and a synthesizer) had initially the feeling of Webern. But nothing so complex as that. For each section had hints of another texture–a scintilla of jazz, an iota of Latin, a smidgen of a lush lullaby
One could imagine any species (one particularly awkward section I imagined had to be the origin of camels), but the music was absolutely entrancing, even without genomes or mutations.
Charles Darwin might have wondered what it was all about. But methinks that latter-day Darwinian, Richard Dawkins, would have listened with all the wonder and awe that the music deserved.

Harry Rolnick



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