New York Contacts
By Sean Shepherd
The fourth season of CONTACT! begins this month, with music by composers based in the Big Apple. Sean Shepherd, an alumnus of the new-music series, shares his insider’s perspective.
A time for cherished traditions, December is always a busy month at the Philharmonic, with the subscription season in full swing and special events, such as the annual New Year’s Eve and Messiah concerts, which have staked a place as New York holiday highlights. Also this month, a much newer winter tradition makes its anticipated return: the opening program of CONTACT!, the Philharmonic’s acclaimed new-music series.
Now in its fourth year, what started as one of Music Director Alan Gilbert’s ambitious new artistic initiatives has been warmly welcomed. Audiences and musicians, members of New York’s diverse and thriving new-music community, and those who are gratified to see the Philharmonic’s strong history of new commissions and performance continue have rallied to celebrate CONTACT! The many New Yorkers who beam with pride at the notion of their city as a world-class incubator and proving ground for new ideas in art of all kinds can appreciate their hometown orchestra’s active participation in bringing the best of the fresh to nearby neighborhoods.
As traditions go, these concerts quickly found a few of their own, such as lively onstage banter with composers and, after the performance, perhaps a beer and conversation with a musician, giving the events an intimate and friendly feel. The series’ first year was an audacious all-commission, all-World Premiere season (one piece of which was, incidentally, penned by this author) — a spotlight on youth. The second year saw an infusion of music by seeming elder statesmen who are radicals: Hk Gruber, Pierre Boulez, and, through a World Premiere, Elliott Carter, who, having passed the century mark, was still vibrant and endlessly creative in the final months of his life. Both of these threads course their way through the 2012—13 season, starting with the opening concerts (at The Metropolitan Museum of Art on December 21 and Peter Norton Symphony Space on December 22) conducted by rising star Jayce Ogren.Two Philharmonic-commissioned pieces and a New York premiere appear from three inspired composers under age 35, along with a modern classic from a warmly admired Philharmonic figure. These four composers have something else in common, bringing to a new level the connection with the Orchestra’s hometown: they are all locals — New Yorkers by choice.
Alan Gilbert, himself a native New Yorker, occupies the post of Philharmonic Music Director formerly held by no fewer than three unquestionably major composers – Mahler, Bernstein, and Boulez – and follows other champions of the new and current, from Damrosch through Mitropoulos to Mehta. “The notion was actually pretty simple,” Gilbert has said. “There was an enormous amount of enthusiasm already in the musicians of the Orchestra, and shaping a vehicle with them seemed obvious. They are some of the best contemporary musicians around.”
He is rightfully proud of the series, and closely guides its direction, but is also happy to share the credit. Another key player behind the scenes is Christopher Rouse; the upcoming concerts are the first public manifestation of his activities as the Philharmonic’s Marie-Josée kravis Composer-in-Residence, since he worked with the Music Director in programming this year’s CONTACT! season. While the role is new, Rouse’s relationship with the Orchestra is long and distinguished. His first Philharmonic commission, the Trombone Concerto, won the 1993 Pulitzer Prize in Music, and other Philharmonic commissions and many performances have since followed.
“I appreciate a sense of urgency in music, and respond when it’s invigorating, when it asserts that one sit up and listen,” Rouse says of this year’s offerings. “This program starts by bringing three talented young Americans with differing backgrounds together in a way that avoids stylistic dogmas.”
The composers — Andy Akiho, Andrew Norman, and Jude Vaclavik — each have plenty of success under their belts already: sturdy résumés and lots of performances and attention from observers in New York and elsewhere. They also share a deep fascination with the nuts and bolts of musical material as a point of creative departure, which may link each of them directly to the “senior statesman” of the program, Jacob Druckman (1928—96), the Philharmonic’s first Composer-in-Residence (from 1982 to 1985), father of Associate Principal Percussionist Daniel, and one of the most influential American musical figures of the late 20th century. The inclusion of his luminous song cycle Counterpoise, with texts by Apollinaire and Dickinson and sung by soprano Elizabeth Futral, continues the other CONTACT! tradition of mingling new pieces — on which, for everyone, the composers very much included, the verdict is still out — with recent masterworks.
With memories of my own CONTACT! excitement and worry still relatively fresh, I asked the composers about the process of tackling a piece for the Philharmonic. South Carolina native Andy Akiho, whose work for strings, percussion, and piano, Oscillate, inspired by the work of the inventor, engineer, and physicist Nikola Tesla, opens the program, described getting that first request for a piece. “Out of nowhere,” he said. “I was in shock, and really grateful.” In starting SHOCK WAVES, an aggressive study in contrasts for brass and percussion, Texas-born Jude Vaclavik agrees: “It was pretty out of the blue, and over several weeks I went from elation to terrified disbelief.” From there they both built their pieces, discovering and employing small musical bits that Vaclavik likened to lumps of clay in the hands of a sculptor and Akiho called “the DNA of the piece,” continuing, “I then need to make life of those cells.” Midwest-born, California-raised Andrew Norman’s mercurial, constantly evolving Try confronts similar issues, as well as those of musical adaptation and memory.
And on making New York their chosen home? Akiho is inspired by the “constant, even festering energy,” and Vaclavik believes “the density and diversity of activity” to be good for his work. Norman sums it up for many of us: “In New York, it’s tough but good. In the end, we know that here, we are taken seriously.”
Sean Shepherd, a native of Nevada who has become a New Yorker, is the first New York Philharmonic Kravis Emerging Composer, as well as an occasional blogger.
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