Last night at Symphony Space the New York Philharmonic inaugurated CONTACT!, the orchestra's contemporary music series, and the exuberant result bodes well for the future. Composer-in-residence Magnus Lindberg made his Philharmonic conducting debut in four world premieres for a capacity audience—and not only from the new music universe, either. (Although make no mistake: if a bomb had dropped on the building, a significant portion of New York's compositional talent would have been wiped out.)
Introducing her Game of Attrition with a reference to Darwin, Arlene Sierra described instruments competing with each other for prominence. Small cells (e.g., pairs of sixteenth notes) scurry about in restless, constant motion, like some oddly ticking clock. Chinese-born Lei Liang offered Verge, a tribute to his newborn son, for 18 strings divided into four quartets plus two double basses. His gimmick, well-realized, was to use only notes derived from "A-L-B-E-R-T," his son's name. The result is filled with rapid tremolos and melodies that sound like Mongolian folk tunes.
Marc-André Dalbavie acknowledged his spectral roots but described his gradual transition to more "horizontal" music, and in Melodia drew on a 9th century melody, which gradually materializes from a microtonal cloud. In between the ensemble makes voluptuous flourishes—repeated appearances of a sort of arpeggiated chord—showing Dalbavie's masterful use of color. I can only echo a friend's comment afterward, who thought it a treat to hear the Philharmonic play this score with such utter mastery.
For the finale, MACUNAÍMA, Arthur Kampela used six percussionists walking up from the back of the theater wielding spring drums: small cylinders, each with a slender spring sprouting from the bottom, which create a gentle whirring sound when shaken. When they reached reached the stage, the other musicians gradually joined in, but with surprises: bassoonist Judith LeClair brushed a metal washboard, Liang Wang (oboe) appeared to have a ratchet, and Nancy Allen's upper harp strings were basted with masking tape to give her an array of clicking sounds. At one point some musicians wander offstage, creating what sounds like a dance band and the faint sounds of conversational chatter.
Lindberg made an affable host, eliciting concise, illuminating comments from the composers and excellent work from the Philharmonic, many of whom were smiling ear to ear. Afterward, more than a few people lingered to hear Lindberg interview the composers onstage, while in the back of the hall, others indulged in cocktails in his honor, made with Finnish vodka, of course.
The concert will be repeated on Saturday, Dec. 19, at 7:00 PM at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Concerts on April 16 and 17 will feature premieres by Nico Muhly, Sean Shepherd and Matthias Pintscher (the latter with Thomas Hampson), all conducted by Alan Gilbert.[Above, left to right: Kampela, Sierra, Liang, Dalbavie and Lindberg. Photo: Chris Lee for the New York Philharmonic]