What influence does a place exert on art? Surely there is an agreed-upon “French” sound in music, a distinctive look to Flemish portraiture, but how different might the work of a Muscovite sculptor be from one based in St Petersburg? And in a global age, does place still matter? The first concert of this season’s CONTACT! New Music Series presented works by four New York composers, none natives, but all of whom have lived and worked in the city. World premières were given of works by Andy Ahiko and Jude Vaclavik; Try by Andrew Norman had its New York première; and the program closed with Jacob Druckman’s Counterpoise, in its arrangement for chamber ensemble.
Conductor and host Jayce Ogren spoke with the three living composers (Druckman lived from 1928 to 96) about their compositional processes and what, if anything, they deemed to be truly “New York” about their music. All seemed to agree that the energy and noise of the city influenced their ears, or at least their work habits: after drawing some good-natured heckling for saying he still identified with his native Texas, Mr Vaclavik insisted that New York was the only place he could compose, having once moved away and found himself to be unproductive. Mr Ogren was joined onstage by New York Philharmonic composer-in-residence Christopher Rouse, who suggested that the energy of these works was more a by-product of youth than anything else (Mr Akiho and Mr Norman were born in 1979, Mr Vaclavik in 1982). Or else, he added, “maybe there’s testosterone in the New York City water supply”.
The composers spoke primarily of their compositional aims, as well as specific instrumental techniques in the present works. Mr Akiho mentioned his fascination with Nikola Tesla, the Serbian-born inventor and electrical pioneer. (The title Oscillate is an anagram for “Tesla Coil”.) Tesla would apparently work for days on end while completing a project. Mr Akiho claims the same tendency, and wrote in a program note that the three main sections of this piece represent “three continuous sleep-deprived days of inspiration, perseverance, and blissful confusion!” Mr Norman was also inspired by process, and based Try on his personal love for moments of music “when you can hear the composer working through an idea in real time”. Mr Vaclavik, like Mr Akiho, was influenced by science, namely the concept of sonic booms. He modeled much of SHOCK WAVES on the idea of “hearing the effects of a mysterious and invisible force...” Mr Druckman’s son David, a percussionist with the New York Phil, described how his father tailored Counterpoise to fit the voice and character of Dawn Upshaw, who sang the première with the Philadelphia Orchestra.
The works heard this evening utilized ensembles ranging from nine to 21 players and creatively exploited coloristic challenges. Oscillate requires a percussionist to scrape the resonators of a vibraphone with a metal brush, and the pianist to use credit cards on the instrument’s tuning pins and strings. Mr Norman gave specific expression markings for some instruments in Try, namely the güiro (a scraped Latin-American percussion instrument), and used at one point, as a drone, a cello played with excessive bow pressure to the point of scratching. Mr Vaclavik sought to dispel the notion of brass and percussion as mere noisemakers and in SHOCK WAVES, he explored myriad permutations of fully or partially muted instruments.
New music at its best can grip and challenge audiences, and tonight’s performance brought these excellent works to life. The sections of manic activity in Oscillate were driven by heavy syncopations, which dissolved into each of the two connective episodes. The shock waves of Mr Vaclavik’s title manifested themselves in tuba rumblings that grew into an assault of dynamic swells capped by accents darting throughout the brass section. Try used isolated notes in the piano or percussion as triggers for a “reset”, either cutting to entirely new material or reprising the music from its opening. Mr Ogren shaped these moments to achieve rhetorical intensity; even this kind of transparent compositional device was granted full musical meaning, typical of the thoughtful, committed performance all evening.
Counterpoise was featured as the most substantial work, and it was also the most sophisticated. Soprano Elizabeth Futral boldly projected the wildly different characters of the poets whose texts Druckman set (Emily Dickinson and Guillaume Apollinaire). Mr Druckman (the younger) gave an astute and acrobatic reading of the percussion part, scaled down from three players to one in the chamber version. And Mr Ogren showed enormous sensitivity and finesse in gently molding the work to fit Ms Futral’s delivery. For all that there may be to look back on as we enter the bicentennial year of Wagner and Verdi, there is at least as much reason to be excited about the future of music in New York, and all places.