On the Good and the Great—Wrapping up the NY Phil Biennial
Last week amounted to a floodgate of new music being opened: from a few new subscription-series pieces per season from major figures and some encouragement to young talent by way of CONTACT! commissions, the Philharmonic and partners performed well over 60 pieces from composers of all stages and many walks of life.
Since three nights late last week of hugely ambitious programming and concerts—the big finish of the first NY Phil Biennial—I’ve waited to let things settle for a few days in my ears and memories before trying to sum up this heady, busy, and at times even giddy festival. As I mentioned in earlier posts on the goings-on all over New York City, I was excited by what I heard and saw: some dazzling performances of new repertoire and the galvanized atmosphere of a happening. Professionals from as far as London and Los Angeles popped their heads in and seemed to be enjoying themselves as much as anyone else. Holders of the Biennial Pass (a golden key to every event) began to recognize each other and band together at intermissions and at après-concert events for conversation. Composers both young and not-so were out and about: in droves at the large concerts in Avery Fisher Hall; in trickles for other events. And the musicians of the Philharmonic, thoroughly exhausted by a punishing schedule, still found energy to honor and even serenade their colleagues at the annual Musicians Retirement Concert and dinner last Thursday. It’s always heartening to see great musicians speak so fondly and eloquently of each other, and with legends like principal second violin Marc Ginsberg, principal trumpet Philip Smith, and concertmaster Glenn Dicterow all saying their goodbyes to the Philharmonic this season, I was further reminded of the riches of continuity of this and other great orchestras. A 30-plus year orchestral career is not built merely upon one’s own talent, but upon stamina, trust, and flexibility, and in truly valuing one’s colleagues. In some way, last week’s enormous back-to-back programs of Rouse, Eötvös, Carter, Pintscher, and added Earshot (“Composer Idol”) winners Julia Adolphe, Max Grafe, and Andrew McManus, as impressive as they were, were just another challenging (and hopefully to more than a few, gratifying) week of work at the New York Philharmonic.
Still, as exciting as it was this year, the most significant element of the biennial may be already stored away in the attics, waiting for 2016 (or ’18, or ’26) to be fully unpacked. Its potential as a driver and supplier of new projects and new music was (understandably) only just lightly tapped this year, with most pieces being US/NYC premieres as opposed to commissions. And yet, last week amounted to a floodgate of new music being opened: from a few new subscription-series pieces per season from major figures and some encouragement to young talent by way of CONTACT! commissions, the Philharmonic and partners performed well over 60 pieces from composers of all stages and many walks of life. Absolutely laudable say some, foolhardy say others. I couldn’t possibly say I enjoyed every piece. One left me angered in concert, and a few others had me in various states of nervous discomfort. Nothing new for me—I assume never to like or despise anything until I’ve heard it (and then maybe heard it again, and again…) but liking every piece is, for me, not the point. (I also have a strict personal policy against picking favorites in a concert, and I must say it’s improved my complexion, demeanor, and probably lengthened my life—no two composers are trying to make the same piece; judging them against each other simply makes no sense.)
But a subtle tension begins to build when one of the world’s great orchestras and a committed presenter of “Great” music (when have you heard the perfectly good music of Louis Spohr or Eugène Bozza at Avery Fisher Hall?) says, “We’ve got it here; you be the judge of what’s good and what’s great.” (I also hear the voices singing of the problematic aesthetics of words like great and good!—Don’t worry; I hear them!) There are those composers and listeners, taking a generally unpopular position, who say that part of the honor of being performed by the Philharmonic was that one had to earn the privilege, or that this is the not the place to be tried in the fire. (As someone who was tried in this fire, with one of my first major commissions from the New York Philharmonic at age 29 after a thorough vetting, I can recognize and regard the whole process as one of those defining moments of one’s musical life, although I took the responsibility of those twenty minutes of stage time as seriously as I could. I did my absolute best to rise to the specific challenges and opportunities presented by that particular commission, and beyond that can’t assess myself in terms of great or good or bad. For those not interested in that kind of internal and external pressure, I can’t recommend it.) Selectivity is important, as is perspective, but I believe this floodgate can be managed to great benefit. I know composers who rise to the challenge of a major commission each and every time, and I know many more who are still waiting for the invitation. In the future, when the biennial provides opportunities to hear their kind, and all kinds, of vital, compelling music, I will be cheering in the aisles.
If hearing three major statements (the premiere of Christopher Rouse’s Fourth Symphony, DoReMi for violin and orchestra by Péter Eötvös, and Matthias Pintscher’s cello concerto, Reflections on Narcissus, with soloists Midori and Alisa Weilerstein, respectively) was a highlight of the week for this listener, it was powerfully counterbalanced by a special event from the opening weekend—that of the Very Young Composers of the New York Philharmonic in a free a.m. concert titled The Continuum. A mentoring program, part of the Philharmonic’s vast education conspiracy and developed by composer and former Philharmonic associate principal bassist Jon Deak, the VYC emphasizes guidance and directed enthusiasm over style-based composer training, and kids start in third grade. The concert, a presentation of the whole range of the program, with pieces from young students through to senior teaching artists (all noted composers themselves) Richard Carrick, Daniel Felsenfeld, and David Wallace, was bound to put a smile on my dial. When 12-and-unders Samantha Darris, Graydon Hanson, Jake O’Brien, and Elli Choi joined members of the orchestra on stage to hear their pieces, each an individual jewel, and took their triumphant bows, my mother hen’s heart leapt! The VYC Jazz Improvisation Group (Eric Poretsky, Ethan Cohn, Jack Gulielmetti, and Nick Chomowicz, with mentor Will Healy) followed with a cool, original fill-in for the stage change, with larger statements by more young composers to keep an eye on: teens Milo Poniewozic, Julian Galesi, and recent graduate Farah Taslima, now a young mentor in the VYC program. Lovingly shepherded by vice president of education Ted Wiprud, Deak, and his dedicated army of teaching artists, the morning program was an Instagram of this exciting moment (for each composer, and for the VYC program, to a packed house at the NY Phil Biennial) which felt more like a Polaroid, reminding me of my own excitement for music at that age. Including these voices, and those on the Face The Music program the next day, on the biennial was one of the masterstrokes of the festival, as striking as any statement that could be made about the future.
And to the future the NY Phil Biennial will ride, after the number crunching and soul searching, and fine-tuning and finagling. My stated goal in the first post was to hear lots of live music, which I managed to achieve in spades, and which was every bit as rejuvenating and electrifying as I’d hoped it would be. I’m eager to know what shape the biennial will take in two years, but for now, I’ve got something more pressing on the horizon: the premiere of my own new work for Alan Gilbert and the orchestra. Songs is paired with (actually sandwiched between) some of that Great music—Beethoven’s Second and Third Piano Concerti—this coming week in Avery Fisher Hall. It will be time to put my music where my mouth is, but one thing has been a relief, as I have been able to content myself, so far, with working to make (not easy!) something good. With Alan, Yefim Bronfman (the humblest man in the world), the Philharmonic and Herr B (perhaps the least humble man in history) on the program, we’ve got the great covered just plenty.