Christopher Rouse; photo by Jeffrey Herman
Last night, the New York Philharmonic played a program of three new pieces. And that meant, inevitably, talking from the stage. Before giving a downbeat, Alan Gilbert, the orchestra’s music director, gave a little speech about the three pieces. He described them and said how wonderful they were.
As far as I know, a composer never takes offense. A composer never says, “Hey, my piece doesn’t need any hand holding or special pleading! Just play it!” When you go to a movie, no one ever comes out and says, “Now, children, you’re about to see a new movie. Don’t be afraid. It’s really good.” They just show the movie.
The first piece on the Philharmonic’s program was Dark Sand, Sifting Light, by Julia Adolphe, an American. Her piece was chosen in a competition held by the Philharmonic, or associated forces. There were two other winners as well, and those pieces will be performed by the Philharmonic tonight and tomorrow night. In his remarks, Gilbert said the Adolphe piece was “very colorful, very poetic,” and featured “amazing sounds.”
It begins with soft percussion, like every modern piece. There seems to be a law. The music is dreamy, ruminative. It has a sound wash. Then it gets bigger, more exciting. Percussion continues to be prominent. As I have often said, today’s music has more pots and pans than Williams-Sonoma.
So, Dark Sand, Sifting Light is like a lot of pieces, almost from Central Casting. Except that it is a cut or two above. Julia Adolphe obviously has skill, and it was a pleasure to hear her piece, and I look forward to hearing more from her. And to hearing this piece again, for that matter.
One of its virtues is that it is not too long (and not too short). Earl Wild said, “Music ought to say what it has to say, then get off the stage.” I wonder if the competition had a time limit. It probably did.
The Philharmonic’s program continued with a violin concerto by Peter Eötvös, the veteran, many-dotted Hungarian. He comes out of the Stockhausen-Boulez world. But he is his own man, his own musician. This was his Violin Concerto No. 2, the first one being “a memorial for the astronauts of the space shuttle Columbia.” (I have quoted from the evening’s program notes.) I have not heard the Concerto No. 1; I would like to.
The Concerto No. 2 is titled DoReMi, for two reasons: First, the composer, in his concerto, plays with the first three notes of the musical scale. (I sound a little like Julie Andrews, I realize.) Second, “DoReMi” sounds somewhat like “Midori”—the name of the violinist who premiered the concerto last year, and who was our soloist last night. In fact, Midori has long gone by just the one name.
Her full name, just for the record, is Midori Goto. And, by the way, Yundi Li, the pianist, is now “Yundi.” He is making a bid to be the most famous one-named pianist since Solomon. But he has competition: because there is a pianist calling himself “Ji,” only. Gee.
Eötvös’s new concerto is in three movements, or parts, and they are played without pause. They are labeled “First Part,” “Second Part,” and “Third Part.” I thought of Mao, who entertained the idea of erasing people’s names and making them go by numbers. (He implemented this project to a degree, but did not continue it, perhaps because he was more interested in killing people than numbering them.)
The concerto begins with soft percussion. In all three parts, it is busy, intricate, and interesting. Also spicy. There are continual surges, sighs, statements, and asides. The music as a whole is lively, alert. There is brio in the composer’s pen, certainly in this work. The concerto has an abrupt, semi-surprise ending.
Eötvös never lost my interest, which may seem faint praise, but is actually high.
As for Midori, she played the piece with her accustomed smarts, technical assurance, and commitment. What she did not play it with was a small sound, which was surprising. She was positively booming. I had never heard her play this way. It seemed to me she was miked. At intermission, a fellow critic found out: “lightly amplified at the composer’s insistence.” I’m not so sure about the “lightly.”
As for Alan Gilbert, he was very good in this work, as he had been in the Adolphe work—and as he would be in the next one. In my experience, he is never better than in modern works. He is reliably clean, intelligent, and prepared.
The final work on the program was a new symphony by Christopher Rouse, a veteran American—his Symphony No. 4. In his opening speech, Gilbert called the symphony “very profound, highly moving.” It is in two movements, played without pause. (I once joked, “Why are there no pauses between movements in today’s music? Are composers afraid that people will leave?”) The movements are marked “Felice” and “Doloroso.” That is a straightforward contrast.
Rouse wants to be a tease. In the program notes, he was quoted as saying that his symphony has a particular meaning. There is a story behind it, certainly a specific intent. But he’s not telling.
The symphony begins, not with soft percussion, or hard, but with strings. Sometimes the first movement has a western feeling, by which I mean a Rodeo, Coplandesque feeling. I also thought I heard the influence of Sibelius. In any event, the music is Rousian.
The second movement, in its dolorousness, is arching, perhaps Shostakovich-like. Then there are deep noises (reminding me of the dragon in The Ring, I swear). There is a “ravishing cello solo”—you always call cello solos “ravishing,” it’s a rule. The movement, and the symphony, ends with something like death. Something like a quiet murder, actually.
Is it “very profound, highly moving,” as Gilbert said? It is certainly worthwhile and impressive. I would like to hear it again, and I look forward to the Symphony No. 5. I always say about Rouse, “He composes as though he liked music.” But surely all composers like music, right? Not so that you would know, sometimes.
Also, Rouse composes as though he cared whether people listen. Audiences aren’t always right, of course, and I have spent most of my life bemoaning majority tastes. But a decent respect for the audience is not a bad thing.
All of the evening’s composers, in fact, are clearly music-lovers. All three of the pieces evinced a love for music, in addition to an aptitude for it. It was a satisfying evening.
Made all the more so by an annual rite: the honoring of retiring musicians. Among the Philharmonic retirees this year is Glenn Dicterow, the longtime concertmaster. Another is Philip Smith, the longtime principal trumpet. In remarks to the audience, he said something that made me smile. He thanked all and sundry—including the Philharmonic board, for tackling “the difficult task of keeping the orchestra solvent.” (I am paraphrasing, but closely.)
In my experience, musicians often have an air of entitlement. Money should fall from the sky, into their pockets, so that they can do what they want to do. Smith strikes me as acquainted with the real world.
Another retiree was Yoko Takebe, a violinist, and the mother of Alan Gilbert (and the wife of Michael Gilbert, also a violinist, earlier retired from the Philharmonic). A beautiful and dignified woman. Her remarks to the audience—brief—were a model of grace.
Finally, a word about the cellphone announcement—the announcement at the beginning of a concert (and also before the second half) reminding people to turn off their cellphones. In a post last month, I mentioned that people were booing and hissing the announcement recorded by Alec Baldwin. I spoke about it more fully in a National Review Online post. Well, last night, the Philharmonic had an announcement recorded by Whoopi Goldberg. I discuss it at NRO, here.