For Piano and Percussion, Fifty Years Apart

United StatesUnited States Stockhausen, Wuorinen: Daniel Druckman and James Baker (percussion), Stephen Gosling and Steven Beck (piano), Merkin Concert Hall, New York City. 13.3.2013 (BH)

Stockhausen: Kontakte (1959/1960)
WuorinenMetagong (2008)

Suddenly it seems like Stockhausen is everywhere. Last year, the Birmingham Opera’s staging of Mittwoch aus Licht (Wednesday from Light) made worldwide news, and at the New York Philharmonic, Alan Gilbert fulfilled his promise to program Gruppen. This week at the Park Avenue Armory, six performances of Oktophonie (also from Licht) quickly sold out, causing the venue to add three more—now gone as well.

Still, never in my wildest dreams would I have imagined that I would hear the composer’s seminal Kontakte twice in the last two years: first with Anthony Cheung and Alex Lipowski (both of the Talea Ensemble) at the intimate German Consulate, and here, under the auspices of the New York New Music Ensemble, with Stephen Gosling and Daniel Druckman in the excellent acoustic of Merkin Concert Hall. (It would be hard to choose one over the other.)

The work’s electronic soundtrack, conceived long before the age of computers and their ability to create unique timbres, explores the relationship between pitch and frequency, and shows the composer’s masterful efforts using tools considered primitive by contemporary standards. The live performers use piano, celeste and vibraphone, with a percussion library including woodblocks, cowbells and antique cymbals, among others.

Gosling, the fiery new music pianist for whom stress seems to be an addictive substance, is known for his precision, hairpin control and huge sound—not to mention his ability to remain unfazed under pressure—all of which were evident here. Druckman—also committed to contemporary works, and who maintains a day job as percussionist for the New York Philharmonic—can boast similar chops. Together, they plunged into Kontakte with mad-scientist joie de vivre, patiently biding their time during its moments of stillness, and executing its sudden detonations like skilled surgeons. It didn’t hurt that the electronic portion was absolutely clear, sparkling in the Merkin acoustic.

James Baker (percussion) and Steven Beck (piano) joined Druckman and Gosling for Charles Wuorinen’s Metagong, written for the ensemble. In three movements designed to “explore the ringing sounds of metal instruments,” Wuorinen’s opus pits a metallic percussion battery (including of course, gongs) against two pianos, in the manner of Bartók’s Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion. Much of the work’s appealing tension comes from the timbre of the gongs—heady with microtones—colliding with the fixed pitches of the pianos. After a somewhat stately opening with a processional feel, Wuorinen’s rhythmic sense kicks in, producing what could almost be perceived as a collision of dances—at one point I thought I heard a tarantella gliding through. The finale winds down to slower rhythms, with sounds more delicate and more discrete in the mix. The large crowd—a pleasant surprise on a raw and wintry evening—brought the dedicated performers out for four ovations.

Bruce Hodges