Every once and a while, it is helpful to shift the lens from a composer’s work to the musical landscape that influenced the artist. For example, who was on Schumann’s playlist? He was responsible for reviving works by Mozart and Beethoven, but what new composers did he prefer? Any historian would tell you that if it weren’t for his enthusiasm for Chopin and Brahms, the two composers might not have seen the success they did. Throughout music history, well-established masters have kindled the careers of younger composers, and the CONTACT! series, in collaboration between the 92nd Street Y and the New York Philharmonic, is a 21st century approach of doing just that. In an innovative concert experience, John Adams curated a night of living composers to shine the spotlight on his favorite new works, answering the question: “Who’s on John Adams’ playlist?”

John Adams © Margaretta Mitchell
John Adams
© Margaretta Mitchell

Björk, Sigur Rós, and volcanic ash aren’t Iceland’s only exports. All the way from the land of fire and ice, Iceland-based composer Daniel Bjarnason presented two of his works on the program. Up first, Bow to String sketches three caricatures of his friend and cellist Sæunn Thorsteinsdóttir. Glittered with explosions of sound and blended timbres, the eclectic chamber-sized assortment of New York Philharmonic musicians sounded at times like computerized sound. Not atonal or minimalistic, the first movement is a constant wave of moving sound, allowing the soloist to move in and out of focus, while the second experiments with tone color by placing paper clips on the bowed and hammered strings to create a buzzing sound with a clock bell pulse. Adams described the finale as something that would have pleased Mahler because of its prominent neo-Romantic melody. Not quite Mahler, not quite Berg, the melody ascends and descends while avoiding a conventional resolution that is eventually heard from the piano. His second piece Five Possibilities for clarinet, cello, and piano unearths windows into other worlds, painted through contrasts in tempo, color, and intensity. Both works left a positive impression on the supportive audience.

Up next from Yale composition professor, Ingram Marshall, Muddy Waters is based on a hymn from the Bay Psalmbook of 1692. The heterogeneous combination of bass clarinet, cello, bass, marimba, piano, and guitar are amplified to satiate the composer’s note to “start with reverb in extremis”. The variety of timbres helps the listener navigate the murky, fugal counterpoint, something along the lines of Bach stuck in the snow on the way to Lubeck. The introduction of each new subject often occurs one beat apart from the previous subject and the result is unclear and obscure. Adams like to use culinary terms to describe Marshall’s works, and Marshall once joked  “Adams, do you think I put too much butter in it?”

Dissolve, Oh My Heart by Missy Mazzoli was commissioned through Jennifer Koh’s Bach & Beyond project. Mazzoli said she tried to create a “failed chaconne”, which she executes by using the signature D minor chord of Bach’s famous Chaconne as the nucleus of the piece. Muted and without vibrato, the solo violin attempts to start the chaconne several times, each time losing control in a torrent of virtuosity. The piece takes several different paths, always returning to the initial attempt at the chaconne. A musical proverb, perhaps, to teach us the difficulties of failure and how things come full circle.

The last piece on the program was Timo Andres’s second string quartet Early to Rise, commissioned by the Library of Congress. Adams claims that writing for string quartet is one of the most difficult challenges for a composer because there is no where to hide. The piece pays homage to a bygone genius, using part of a Schumann piano cycle as a canonic theme. Certainly the least innovative piece on the program, the work uses all the conventional tools available for quartet writing. An influence of minimalism is clear, but with so many micro-ideas happening at the same time, the ear finds it difficult to attach to one idea before the next idea begins. The direction of the piece is always unclear, making it difficult for the mind to map out the structural outline. Nevertheless, Andres commanded a strong rapport with Adams and was by far the most eloquent in describing his work.

Overall, Adams left a positive impression on the audience by showcasing these four composers. After the concert, he took a seat at the bar to greet fans, friends, and colleagues in the intimate space. Things are different for a composer in the 21st century, according to Adams. He explained that as he watches young composers on Twitter, he has observed a perceivable “support mechanism” that didn’t exist during his time. Adams’ encouragement in this support mechanism is indispensable. These are certainly composers to watch, after all one of them may turn out to be the next Brahms.