Two works composed in the past two years, one by a 28-year-old, one by a 103-year-old. Each offered such a wide span of sounds that within a half hour, the audience had been whisked through every imaginable mood. The second half of the concert, also about a half hour, consisted of an intelligent and thoughtful concerto featuring a brilliant soloist. With all three works having been composed since the turn of the century, this was an ideal program: the sort of program that should become commonplace, and that shouldn’t be reserved for biennials or other special occasions.

Alisa Weilerstein © Jamie Jung
Alisa Weilerstein
© Jamie Jung

Not that I’m not grateful for the Biennial itself; I’ve loved every second of it. I’m sure the same can be said for many, particularly those presented with opportunities they otherwise would have encountered rarely if ever. Thanks to the New York Phil Biennial and EarShot New Music Readings, three young composers had their works premiered this past weekend by the New York Philharmonic. It’s extremely uncommon for young composers to hear their compositions played by a full orchestra these days, so it was true delight to hear Andrew McManus’ Strobe, composed in 2013. Emulating movement under a strobe light, the piece flits between vivid musical snapshots with abrupt twists and turns, like “jarring pulses of bright light” as the composer states in the program notes. These snapshots include celestial violins sliding in upwards phrases, capricious thumping drums, wailing brass, and clinking piano. The madness eventually resolves in a sudden outpouring of sound from the winds and brass – sudden enough to be shocking, but not enough for you to forget anything you’ve just heard.

 The late Elliott Carter held a similar approach to sounds; he is quoted as saying, “I’m always concerned with context...or dealing with things that change abruptly. And making all this significant.” Instances, his final completed orchestral composition, was written in 2012, several months before his death at age 103. Conductor Matthias Pintscher prefaced the work by discussing its descendance from the Second Viennese School (Webern in particular) with its pointillistic language and short run-time (eight minutes). Mr Pintscher described the piece (accurately, I might add) as “simple, colorful, and heartfelt” before saying that it was up to us to “connect the dots” in this mutable and intriguing performance. The dialogue oscillated between contemplative strings sections and humorous woodwind and percussion parts, including tom-toms, tam-tam, bongos, vibraphone, and marimba. We were swept along between these beautifully-flowing vertical “instances”, dizzyingly yet succinctly, by Mr Pintscher and the Philharmonic musicians.

 Less humorous and more thought-provoking was Mr Pintscher’s own composition, Reflections on Narcissus for cello and orchestra. The work was composed about ten years ago, and Mr Pintscher explained that it was not a piece he would write today, and that he had to brush up on the score – loosely based on Ovid’s tale of Echo and Narcissus – before conducting it. Yet the piece sounded precise and reflective, and was mindfully conducted, beginning with the opening rumbles and woodblocks. The meditation on self-obsession and vanity continued through an innovative and gradual development in which no sound was gratuitous. Alisa Weilerstein, the attentive and radiant soloist, shifted from crowded, intricate passagework to more ruminative sections including the final lone, low note. Unlike some of the other large-scale works premiered at the Biennial, such as Julia Wolfe’s Anthracite Fields or Steven Mackey’s Dreamhouse, the sound world here was more traditional: no guitars, no shouting, no bicycle wheels. And yet Mr Pintscher brought his own unique instrumentation to the concert. The woodblocks pattering along, the rainstick and sandpaper blocks and guiros sketching out sandy-textured rhythms, the cartoonish flexatone, and the ever-present cello: all contributed to the thick layers of sound without seeming clamorous or over-the-top. His music, expanding in echoes and snatches of narrative, provided much to ponder over in the days following the concert. Indeed, this rich program, with its snapshots, instances, and mirrored glances, offered much more depth than these surface descriptions imply. The music will have a lasting impression on those willing to connect the dots.

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