‘There's no such thing as new music, just music’, Bruce Levingston remarked halfway through the 10th anniversary gala concert for the ‘Premiere Commission’ Monday night. After hearing the evening’s performances, it feels impossible to disagree.

Lisa Bielawa
Lisa Bielawa

The two opening piano pieces were like impressions, snapshots of emotions from a particular place or time. While Kimball Gallagher’s Four Preludes captured Gallagher’s travels throughout Thailand, Afghanistan, Vietnam and Tunisia, the piano version of William Bolcom’s tenor aria ‘New York Lights’, from his opera A View From the Bridge, was created for New York City, just after September 11, 2011, and hence especially poignant. As Levingston sustained the pedal, muddying notes in the lower register, single notes in the higher register rang out, but still felt subdued by the overall sombre sound. Strangely, the piece also felt visual. The subdued piano lines created a single image or photograph: a New York City street lamp blurred by a midnight fog. Or more specifically, the memory of the Twin Towers engulfed in smog. It speaks to Levingston’s talent as a pianist to create such an ethereal picture.

More than an evening of exciting music, the concert was a tribute to the Commission itself. A non-profit organisation dedicated to developing and sustaining emerging artists through grants and necessary funds, ‘Premiere Commission’ is now synonymous with bold and innovative new music. One champion and leading proponent of the Commission is Lisa Bielawa, a composer and musician who was honoured Monday night for her outstanding dedication to the Commission as well as for her striking classical compositions.

Bestowed with overwhelming praise from Bruce Levingston, the pianist and Artistic Director of Premiere Commission, as well as from Philip Glass – he awarded Lisa a signed copy of one of his original manuscripts – Bielawa did not disappoint with her performance. Alongside the string quartet Brooklyn Rider, Bielawa introduced her latest composition, Three Movements from Graffiti dell’amante; collectively, the ensemble brought to life three distinct aspects of the most basic human emotion: love. An apt choice on the eve of Valentine’s Day, the piece was anything but straightforward. Its atonal harmonies and syncopated rhythms lent it a brittle quality, despite the impassioned lyrics Bielawa borrowed from her selected poets, Michaelangelo, Griswold and Motteux. Daring leaps in the voice attest to Bielawa’s talent as a performer: Bielawa captured the rollercoaster of emotions one feels when in love, from desperation to anxiety, hopelessness to ecstasy. A startlingly simple performance, the music was anything but. The nuances embedded in the score revealed music as complex as love itself.

In keeping with the Valentine’s Day theme, Levingston performed Alfred Schnittke’s Stillnacht, alongside dancer Maile Okamura from the Mark Morris Dance Company, actor Daniel Pettrow and Colin Jacobsen, the violinist from Brooklyn Rider. In contrast to Levingston’s warm and sinuous piano lines, Jacobsen played pizzicato and a warped, atonal version of Stillnacht. To really drive the point home, Okamura and Pettrow opened gifts on stage; Pettrow pulled a noose, a gun and pair of scissors out of his box while Okamura discovered an endless supply of sparkling ornaments in her box, only to simply drop them all on the floor in front of her. Combined with the distorted music, the entire piece was a clever way of mocking the commercialisation and hyperactive emotions surrounding Hallmark’s holiday of love.

Wrapping up the evening were Levingston, Brooklyn Rider and composer Christopher Tignor. First came the world premiere of Rondolette, Lisa Bielawa’s new quintet for strings and piano. A thoughtful and engaging piece, Levingston and Brooklyn Rider played perfectly in sync. Harkening back to their earlier performances of Philip Glass’ Suite from Bent and Bielawa’s Three Movements from Graffiti dell’amante, it was clear that Brooklyn Rider is a confident group, brimming with enthusiasm and talent. Combined with Levingston on piano, the overall ambiance of the piece was both startling and reassuring.

The final piece, Christopher Tignor’s South by Southwest, was written for piano, keyboard and computer. This was the perfect conclusion to an eclectic programme. Beginning with solo piano, the mood was as ethereal as the opening piece, New York Lights: until jarring chords rang out above the suspended pedal. A complete contrast to the delicate, atonal arpeggios that swept across the piano keys, the chords contributed to a gradual build in the music that eventually dropped off as the chords disappeared and the music softened to a stop. Then, Tignor picked up where Levingston dropped off with a pulsating sound emanating from his Apple computer. The computerised sounds mimicked the earlier piano part and gradually built up to a crescendo. But unlike the solo piano, Tignor’s pulsating music felt ominous and unnerving; it wasn’t until the music stopped altogether and the piece ended, that relief washed over the stage.

The concert Monday night was just a taste of the depth of talent molded to the very fibre of Premiere Commission. And with such a range of composers and performers showcased in the gala concert Monday night, it is impossible to mention of them all. But that is not to say each and every performer and composer did not leave their mark. In the end, the evening’s concert proved that the musicians supported by the Premiere Commission are truly provocative artists, laying claim to the next generation of classical music.