Bottles and Cans Fill Metropolitan Museum

United StatesUnited States  CONTACT!: Anders Hillborg, Poul Ruders, Yann Robin, Unsuk Chin: Liang Wang (oboe), John Schaefer (host), New York Philharmonic, Alan Gilbert (conductor). Metropolitan Museum of Art, Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium,New York City, 5.4.2013 (BH)

Anders Hillborg: Vaporized Tivoli (2010, New York premiere)
Poul Ruders: Oboe Concerto (1998; U.S. premiere)
Yann Robin: Backdraft (2012, U.S. premiere)
Unsuk Chin: Gougalōn: Scenes from a Street Theater (2009/2011, U.S. premiere)

During John Schaefer’s opening remarks at this New York Philharmonic CONTACT! concert at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Schaefer asked Alan Gilbert if the program had any kind of theme, to which Gilbert replied, “Just good music.” Gilbert got it right; all four pieces seemed to move from strength to strength.

In Vaporized Tivoli, Anders Hillborg refers to an amusement park, with all the stimulation and merriment that implies. His depiction begins with a unison “C” but quickly erupts into a spree of colorful orchestral effects. A small jazz-funk episode swaggers in but then splinters into a cloud of glittering particles as the music takes a somehow more sober turn. (Hillborg mentions Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, a novel about a sinister traveling carnival.) At the end, a double bass solo arrives with the simplicity of a folk song, memorably played by Max Zeugner, amid light strokes on a guiro and bell.

Literature continues to inspire composers, and Poul Ruders was reading Joyce Carol Oates’ Foxfire: Confessions of a Girl Gang when he got the idea for his Oboe Concerto. Its four movements have titles related to water, and among his many other strengths, soloist Liang Wang’s performance could persuasively be described as “liquid,” given his sumptuous tone and sensitive phrasing. The slow-moving first movement has the oboe in a high register over low, gentle rumble in the ensemble. A more lively second movement (“Ocean of Storms,” marked “turbinoso”) encouraged Wang to scamper through a huge, dense orchestral texture. A lengthy, expressive oboe solo is at the core of the “Sea of Tranquility,” and in the finale, Wang again returns to melodic motifs in his upper register—his face predictably turning almost purple with some of Ruders’s sustained lines.

Yann Robin was obsessed by the idea of an extremely rapid and brittle gesture in the piano—a motif that became the spine of Backdraft. With pianist Eric Huebner’s hands moving like a blur of flippers, the score is filled with explosive, violent, scratchy effects—a state of constant upheaval—reflecting the composer’s interest in fire, smoke, ignition and “a confined atmosphere saturated with unburned gases and graphite particles.” Even in the occasional slow sequences Robin ratchets up the tension, and the Philharmonic’s group of 17 players caused sparks, albeit metaphorical ones. Score for Gilbert and the orchestra: three-for-three.

To end this night of premieres came Korean-born Unsuk Chin’s Gougalōn: Scenes from a Street Theater, which she describes as an “imaginary folk music.” Its six sections—all vividly titled—tingle with unusual instrumentations and imaginative effects, including a mammoth percussion arsenal stretched all the way across the back of the Met’s stage. In “Prologue – Dramatic Opening of the Curtain,” prominent maracas combine with strings zigzagging in double-stops, as the ensemble eventually evaporates in a haze of triangles. “Lament of the Bald Singer” uses scraping inside the piano strings, and a plucked double bass gives a New Orleans-worthy solo before the guiro has the last word. “The Grinning Fortune Teller with the False Teeth” is frantic, fast and nervous, with a bevy of cowbells. But for many, “Episode Between Bottles and Cans” was the highlight—a lengthy dialogue exactly as the title promises, with an array of pitched tin cans and a large row of tuned bottles, creating a brittle, lively factory evoking a mid-20th century cartoon soundtrack.

In “Circulus Vitiosus—Dance Around the Shacks” the string players offer a lunging motif, obsessing over a single low note, before growing into a hyperactive, smoky furor. And the finale, “The Hunt for the Quack’s Plait,” begins with aggressive, growly bass and low piano tones, building to a restless throbbing—a sort of Korean feria. A feverish response left no doubt about the audience’s opinion, with waves of cheering as the composer took the stage.


Bruce Hodges