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Mastery of Musical Mysteries

New York
Grace Rogers Auditoirum, Metropolitan Museum of Art
12/21/2012 -  
Andy Akiho: Oscillate (World Premiere)
Andrew Norman: Try (New York Premiere)
Jude Vaclavik: Shock Waves (New York Premiere)
Jacob Druckman: Counterpoise (Ensemble version)

Elizabeth Futral (Soprano), John Schaefer (Host)
Members of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Jayce Ogren (Conductor)

J. Ogren (© Roger Mastroianni)

The New York Philharmonic’s new composer-in-residence almost had his work cut out for him last night at the final program of Contact!, the “new-music series” of the orchestra. One of the composers had been his student, another his colleague, and the three young composers who he chose for the bulk of the program were all of extraordinary talent.

More than talent, thought. The first three composers, in their early 30’s, showed, in essence, a vastly new American musical ethos, dependent on neither old-fashioned structures, serialism, minimalism, or Pop. Their individuality spoke for itself.

To briefly sum it up, this trio presented the genius of volition, the shock of the soundscape, and a limitless homage to limited resources.

Andy Akiho, well known for the use of steel drum, did far more in his Oscillate, based on the inventor/engineer/physicist Nicolai Tesla. Mr. Tesla was not one to studiously study a problem over weeks of testing. He would stay up day and night with no sleep, obsessed with solutions. However Mr. Akiho composed this, the piece, from the very beginning drum crack, went buzzing incessantly, whizzing through whiplash percussion playing, incredibly difficult strings and, yes, the eponymous oscillating of the whole orchestra.

At first it sounded like some of those Soviet pieces of the 1920’s like Mosolov’s Iron Foundry. But these works depended on a monotonous regularity. Mr. Akiho was anything but monotonous. The strings in particular seemed to have an aleatory irregularity, each playing across their instruments at different tempos, yet winding up at the same measure. It was this asymmetry, with abrupt consonant stops, which gave the piece both impetus and, frankly, a breathless ride for the listener.

Andrew Norman’s Try (the title coming from his efforts to perfection) was not like his electronic pieces. Rather, Try presented a series of structural blocks, repeating themselves in ever so slightly different rhythms, minimally changing orchestration. Each block would begin as a fragment, the fragment breaking up, reforming itself, then, when “whole” echoing, duplicating, regendering itself until the next fragment. The constancy was given by the unending speed, the insistent, incessant need to go from one section to another bringing us with the music.

The end was a kind of homage to Mr. Norman himself. The mid-section had a nine-note original scale, repeated again and again, each note taken by one or two instruments, each time, even in the energetic tempo, taken with slightly different beats. At the end, pianist Eric Huebner reversed this taking, oh so slowly one note at a time, of the nine-notes, slower and slower until the end.

Mr. Norman’s is both pianist and violist, so what choice did he have but have his piano accompanied by a drone on the viola. A self-homage well deserved.

The limited orchestra was a commission for brass and percussion which Jude Vaclavik, a student of Mr. Rouse, turned into Shock Waves. As he said in conversation with John Schaefer, one can always hear shock waves, as in a sonar boom, but one doesn’t know where they come from. Thus the eternal mystery.

(More than a human mystery, my dog will only bark at thunder. He can spot the genesis of other sounds and remains quiet. But like prehistoric man, he is awed by the boom of the sky. Where Man turned the thunder into God, my dog turns it into barking. Thus homo sapiens’ superiority to Lower Animals...I guess.)

Mr. Vaclavik gave a sense of that mystery and resonance through various forms of the orchestra. Always inventive, interesting.

The conductor for all of this, was the brilliant young Jayce Ogren, a composer himself, who I last heard conducting the International Contemporary Ensemble in Messiaen and the late Jonathan Harvey earlier this year.

E. Futral (© Christian Steiner)

The last work was the “classic” piece introduced not only by Messrs Schaefer and Rouse, but with the composer’s son, David Druckman, that brilliant percussionist who energized the previous works. He explained that the title Counterpoise related to the extreme contrast of the two authors of the songs, Emily Dickinson and Guillaume Apollinaire.

The contrast was in the highly colored music, of course, but equally in the voice and electric actions of the striking Elizabeth Futral, dressed in a mesmerizing emerald-green gown. With the most brilliant effortless high notes and a command of the difficult score, Ms. Futral turned the clever lines of Dickinson and the sensuous-mystical French of Apollinaire into a blazing conflagration of gesture and music.

Harry Rolnick



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