As rock stars of the nineties and noughties enter middle age, they deal with this maturity in different ways. Whilst some cling to past glories, others move on to pastures new. For some, contemporary classical represents a way of expressing their musical development. Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood is one such guitarist making a foray into “serious music”. Bryce Dessner of the American five-piece The National is another.

Aaron and Bryce Dessner
© Claudia Höhne

Dessner, a classically trained guitarist, brings brooding symphonic arrangements to his band’s gloomy Americana. Following his collaboration with the Kronos Quartet in 2009 he has written numerous works for classical ensembles, including part of the score for Oscar-winning film The Revenant. Launching a new “Reflektor” series of short festivals, Hamburg’s Elbphilharmonie invited Dessner to curate two days of concerts, including a programme of his own works and other contemporary pieces by the Symphoniker Hamburg. 

Quilting, written for the LA Phil in 2014, is Dessner’s first standalone work for orchestra and his most accomplished piece to date. Here, he sensibly sticks to broad ensemble brush strokes and well-executed colouristic gestures, creating an Americana-tinged impressionism. The work ends with a stadium-sized harmonic progression taken from The National’s playbook.

St Carolyn by the Sea is comparatively ponderous until two guitars (performed by Dessner and his twin brother and band-mate Aaron) pop out of the ensemble with mesmeric interwoven lines. The Hamburger Symphoniker brought verve to Dessner’s works under the sympathetic direction of New Yorker Alan Pierson. The ensemble were no less energetic, if not as disciplined, in Hans Abrahamsen’s Stratifications, a piece that at times recalls the spikiness and acerbic wit of the composer’s mentor, György Ligeti.

The National revolves around the creative axis of two sets of brothers: the cerebral Dessners on guitars and the Devendorfs on drums and bass. It was therefore fitting that the concert featured works written by both brothers for piano duo and sisters Katia and Marielle Labèque. Bryce’s El Chan is under the spell of early 20th-century composers such as Debussy and Bartók, whilst Aaron’s Deauville for pianos and guitars was a sweet meditation on sibling relationships.

Katia and Marielle Labèque
© Claudia Höhne

The Labèque’s considerable talents weren’t really tested until Philip Glass’ 2008 piece Four Movements for Two Pianos, which has become something of a party piece for the duo. Late-period Glass has its longueurs, but there are plenty of moments recalling the concision and excitement of his heyday. The sisters were exhilarating, rattling off fiendish arpeggios with nonchalant precision and building to a fiery climax.

The comparison with Glass is instructive. Neither composer is much interested in the European obsession with difficulty and seriousness. Both have a breezy intelligence and a continued faith in tonal harmony that wins them fans beyond the core audience. Dessner has a way to go to match the craft and power of Glass’ works, but he already has some influential champions in the classical world. This was an interesting portrait of a developing artist with unexpected promise.