The NY Phil’s cabaret for the end of the world

Last night’s New York Philharmonic Contact new music concert conducted by Alan Gilbert at Symphony Space featured free beer and an alarming number of people under 35. I fit right in for once!

Composer HK Gruber introduced his greatest hit, Frankenstein!! (1979) saying he didn’t intend to write a party piece. Honestly it seems like that is sort of what he did, albeit a party for Weimar revivalists eager to witness Pierrot Lunaire as rewritten by Edward Gorey. It’s a setting of twisted children’s poems set for a wild array of orchestral and toy instruments including kazoos, hoses (spun over the head), and exploding paper bags. Above all this was Gruber’s own voice, a Sprechstimme “channsonier” reminiscent (at this advanced point in his career) of Ernst Busch, intoning in accented English about John Wayne or rats or whatever. It’s great surreal fun and has some lovely moments and some genuinely intense ones too, a cabaret for the end of the world. As the Zwölftöner assured me, it’s a piece you have to hear once. (Apparently Frankenstein!! will be on at the Konzerthaus in Vienna soon, too–auf Deutsch, natürlich. I imagine it is better that way, but it really does have to be in the language of its audience.)

In fact each piece was preceded by the composer saying something about it. This struck me as a good idea because it puts a face to the music and the composers, while a little awkward, seemed friendly. But this introduction is a powerful thing in directing your listening of the subsequent piece, particularly when you are only an occasional new music listener like me.

This was particularly notable in the first half. Brazilian composer Alexandre Lunsqui introduced his piece “Fibers, Yarn and Wire” (premiere) as inspired by two photographs and talked about ideas of handcraft and weaving. The subsequent piece somehow didn’t sound like what I expected (I didn’t expect the heavy use of pan flute-like whistles, for one thing), bu I was still hearing it in terms of these images. It’s an engaging quasi-minimalist journey with steady rhythmic pulse and vaguely jazzy tone and structure. The quiet (unraveling?) ending is surprisingly nice.

Magnus Lindberg introduced his Gran Duo (2000) in far more technical terms, describing metronome markings and contrasting material and transformation between the wind and brass sections. (It’s not a duo at all but written for the winds and brass sections of a large orchestra, and owes a debt to Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Wind Instruments.) I ended up listening to it wondering if this was the part he was talking about where fast music was played slowly and whether we’d gotten yet to the spot where the metronome markings stop increasing and start decreasing. The writing is well crafted and virtuosic but I ended up finding it very “PhD music” and not too interesting, or perhaps just too dense to appreciate on a single hearing. The Philharmonic brass sounded great, though.

New York Philharmonic, Contact! series at Symphony Space, 12/17/2011.

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  1. To me that just sounds like a younger Busch (when he wasn't singing political songs), but you're right, there is slightly more tone there. It's a good recording, I've not heard it played better. A shame that W-M reacts more embarrassedly to questions about his side projects in Wien during the wilderness years than about London. One person I know finds that amusing, another (you know who) not so much.