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Monday, May 11, 2009

Concert Review: NY Philharmonic

This past week I traveled to New York to hear the New York Philharmonic premiere a new 45 minute Cantata title The World in Flower by an old friend from my Brandeis - Peter Lieberson. I was at the open rehearsal, but also attended the official Thursday evening premiere on May 7th and pre-concert discussion before the concert. It was all very exciting and gave me much pleasure hear.

I've never been able to find words that adequately describe music, and Lieberson's new work speaks very well for itself. Is destined to be recorded, and will likely be performed often.

(photo by the NY Times)

The World in Flower impressed me immensely, particularly with the selection and arrangement of diverse and interesting texts from 11 different writers. From beginning to end, there was a real sense of drama and pilgrimage. Each song has its own distinctive character, and I was seduced by the harmonies, orchestrational detail, and inspired vocal writing. It comes across as a very enlightened piece that is full of joy, awe, and ecstasy. Lieberson found the zone, and has the talent, experience, and technical prowess to put it down on paper. Not everyone can do that.

I do want to comment briefly on the various commentary the work is bound to receive over time, since I think much hype will inevitably be made in the press about Peter's supposed "conversion" to tonality. It will surely be viewed by some (as Stucky already implied in the pre-concert discussion), as a high-profile rejection of the aesthetics of atonal music in favor of happy triads and tunes that grandma can sing. Tony Tommasini in the Times wrote that the Neruda poem "skirts uncomfortably close to Manuel de Falla." (The link to the article is at the bottom of this post.)

What annoyed me about Tommasini's comment in an otherwise positive NY Times review is that no matter what a composer writes, it's going to offend some one's religion. For at least three decades (since the Harold Schonberg era), the Times has been attacking modernist composers for writing atonal music. Now that Lieberson has written something (quite successfully) in a much more accessible style, the NY Times wants him to be more modern! Composers are dammed if we do and dammed if we don't.

Some of my recent pieces dabble in tonality, and I've at times embraced it in a way that is even more literal than Lieberson's take on it. In some instances I have stolen directly from Haydn, South American tango, and 1920's French jazz. I haven't thought about why, but I certainly didn't do so to make a political statement or to adapt a new religion. It's simply what I felt like writing at the time. It was what interested me at the moment, and the music was written for fun. My next piece might be edgy modern music again, depending on what I have for breakfast that day.

Arnold Schoenberg wrote tonal and atonal works throughout his career, as did Stravinsky. Don Martino's big tonal romantic work "Paradiso Chorus" composed in the early 1970s is yet another example. Different kinds of pieces are (and should be) written for different occasions, contexts, and situations. George Rochberg and David Del Tredici had a similar realization - also in the 1970s.

Frankly, I think the days when orchestras commission and premiere very complex and difficult atonal works are past, or nearly past. Composers (aside from the likes of Carter, Wuorinen, or Babbitt) are not likely to get a second chance at it if they write an unpopular piece. The burden on the institution of the modern American orchestra to sell tickets is just too great. (Surprisingly, there were about 15% empty seats in Avery Fisher Hall at the Philharmonic concert the other night for the Lieberson premiere. That exemplifies the crisis that I'm talking about).

I think Peter handled the issue about musical language well in his public response to Stucky's question/comment about his dramatic change is style. There are lots of reasons why music has changed, and I'll throw in my two cents on this topic here:

1) As composer grow older and presumably wiser, they can better see the large arc of music history and all of the musical languages that it encompasses. As a composer, I don't want to exclude anything up front. As I listener, I can be more selective and pick and choose what I listen to.

2) The battle regarding musical styles is over. I no longer care to fight that war. If one is purely objective about 12-tone music, it never was a success and its' time is
over. I can count the number of significant still-living 12-tone composers on the fingers of one hand.

3) Practical concerns about performance (particularly with regard to vocal and orchestral music) lead a composer to write music that is simpler to perform. It will provide better end-results if it is sight-readable. This is not a concession, but an acceptance of reality.

4) The question about serialism being too-limiting is a personal question. I don't think it has been a limiting paradigm for Milton Babbitt, Charles Wuorinen, or Don Martino (all of whom were Lieberson's teachers). Elliott Carter never really fit into that camp, although his music is about as organized and structured as it can possibly get. I always found a way to make the music sound as I wanted, but never had the brain-power to comfortably converse with the Princeton crowd about set arrays and time points.

5) Here is my final but most important observation... Music has always been "tonal." It is ingrained in our ears, and certain patterns, combinations of pitches, and linear connections are universal in any system, style, or idiom. What interests me greatly about a recent work like Lieberson's is his ability to utilize those tonal musical connections in a new and fresh way. He finds a way to embrace scales and triads in a NON-traditional manner. The music often alludes to tonality, but to my hearing avoids functional harmony like the plague. Lieberson modulates to unrelated areas often and abruptly, and tonal centers are difficult to detect. While there are the vestiges of tonal and modal music throughout (e.g. pedal point, ostinati, leading tones, melodic sequences) it's all implemented in a new way. To my ear there is great tension in the notes that DO NOT resolve, and the ambiguous harmony (such as the quasi-octatonic major-minor chords in the opening prelude, which permeate the piece). It's stylistically ambiguous too, with lineages to late the Romanticm of Richard Strauss, neo-classic Stravinsky (particularly Symphony of Psalms), and punctuated with traces of Alban Berg (who was also a great "tonal" composer). I don't hear the Bill Evans influence that some have said is in Peter's recent music so much, but it may be there "under the hood."

The performance by the NY Philharmonic under the direction of their young and soon-to-be Music Director Alan Gilbert, mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato, baritone Russell Braun, and the chorus of the NY Choral Artists sounded excellent to me, although I think the baritone could have sung out a little more in places. And perhaps the chorus could have articulated the words more clearly in a few spots. I like the alto sax writing (another Bergian influence?), and noticed that the composer passed on trombones this time around.

It was great to see Dan Druckman playing percussion in the orchestra. He now looks just like his dad, late composer Jacob Druckman. Also there was principal clarinetist Stanley Drucker (who is a legend) playing. It made me think about the larger community of music, and how it brings together so many people over the course of a lifetime. Good stuff.

At the open rehearsal (pictured above) I happened to sit in the second balcony next to a freelance writer for the NY Times: Katrine Ames. There is a link to her article about the mezzo-soprano soloist, Joyce DiDonato at the bottom of this post.

Before the musicians got down to work at the rehearsal, Lieberson and Gilbert discussed his piece (photo on left).

There was a humorous moment as Gilbert gave the downbeat at the morning rehearsal. Although the chorus was positioned on stage for Lieberson's work, the first piece to be rehearsed was Blumine (Flowers) - a short work by Gustav Mahler. The orchestral pianist didn't know about the Mahler, and played the opening chord to Peter's piece along with the orchestra's Mahler. The chorus let out a collective laugh.

It was my first exposure to the young conductor Alan Gilbert. He appears to have lots of youthful energy and talks very little during rehearsal. He is a no nonsense conductor.... very practical. He will be the first NY-born Music Director of the NY Philharmonic when he assumes his post next season.

During the rehearsal of the Malher first symphony, a young mother and her two small children were in the balcony near me watching. The kids, a boy and a girl I'd estimate between the ages of 3 and 5, were squirming like typical kids. As Gilbert lifted his baton for the downbeat of the final movement of the Mahler, I saw him glance up to the mom and the two kids.

It appeared to me that he had previously explained to the little ones (his own I presume) that the finale of the Mahler sounds like a jet taking off from LaGuardia. The decibel level is about as high as legally possible in a public space - if not in direct violation of OSHA regulations. I observed several musicians (e.g. Stanley Drucker) putting in earplugs to protect their hearing. The sound of the cymbal crash, eight French horns with elevated bells, and large brass section literally shook the floor of Avery Fisher Hall. The two kids jumped with joy as "daddy" waved his little stick and made 100-plus highly-compensated musicians blast out Mahler. Soon after that, mom wisely took the kids outside for a little quiet time. But it was good to see this human connection. The boy looks excatly like his dad.

NY is such a happening place for music. It turned out that the night before conductor Daniel Barenboim had conducted the very same Mahler work with the Staatskapelle Berlin at Carnegie Hall. Barenboim and Pierre Boulez are in NY to give 12 concerts of the complete Mahler symphonies, along with a program of Elliott Carter's music. I'd love to live in NY and attend concerts every night. It becomes difficult when there are several great concerts scheduled simultaneously, and one is simply forced to choose!

Here is a photo of Peter on the stage right after the final rehearsal of his work (photo on right). He and Maestro Gilbert had only two minutes at the end to polish some last minute details relating to balance and dynamics. But when the clock struck the top of the hour the musicians quickly vanished into thin air.

As I mentioned, later in the day was a pre-concert discussion with Peter Lieberson and composer Steven Stucky - host of the NY Philharmonic "Here & Now" series. They discussed a range of topics, including the genesis and history of The World in Flower as well as the poetry the orchestral song cycle is based on. Stucky began by giving the audience some background on Peter Lieberson, explaining that he grew up in New York and that is father was Goddard Lieberson, head of Columbia Records. As a result, Peter literally grew up with renowned musicians, movie stars, dancers, and artists around his house. When prompted by Stucky, Peter conceded that he knew Lenny Bernstein from birth, and was told by his parents about an embarrassing Lenny-related incident that happened when he was a baby. Apparently, Bernstein held up the infant Lieberson, and the baby puked all over the famous conductor.

(You read it here first on "Deconstructing-Jim"!)

The evening performances of Lieberson's The World in Flower and the Mahler were more polished and energetic than in the dress rehearsal. After the intermission, Gilbert conducted the Mahler 1st Symphony from memory and added plenty of physical animation that we didn't see in the rehearsal. The New York audience went wild after Mahler's triumphic ending, and greeted their future Music Director with healthy enthusiasm. New Yorkers appear to be very optimistic about the long relationship Gilbert will have with the orchestra. He will commence officially as Music Director in a few months.