Boulez, Benjamin and Disciples in NY Philharmonic Biennial

United StatesUnited States Circles of Influence: Pierre Boulez and George Benjamin: Elizabeth Mann (flute), Margaret Kampmeier (piano), Abigail Fischer (mezzo-soprano), Orchestra of St. Luke’s, Pablo Heras-Casado (conductor), Rose Theater, New York City, 31.5.14 and 1.6.14 (DA)

Boulez: Mémoriale (… explosante-fixe …Originel) (1985)
Mantovani: Turbulences (1998)
Holliger: Ostinato funèbre (1991)
Manoury: Strange Ritual (2005)
Boulez: Une page d’éphéméride (2005)
Dalbavie: Concertino (1994)


Matthews: Night Rides (2011)
Matthews: Suns Dance (1985)
Benjamin: Octet (1978)
Grime: Luna (2011)
Benjamin: Upon Silence (1990)
Wigglesworth: A First Book of Inventions (2010)


Seven American premieres, two New York premieres, three reprises of important works, none of them written before 1978, five of them written in the last decade, and not a single one of them anything less than interesting, important, and immaculately played. What’s not to like?

Nothing, as it happens. For me, these were by far the two most exciting programmes assembled as part of the “NY Phil Biennial”. Perhaps it was no coincidence that neither involved the Philharmonic itself, nor that they took place in a hall of which classical groups should make greater use, Jazz at Lincoln Center’s pristine, industrial, and acoustically flawless Rose Theater. Most important, though, was the guiding hand of Pierre Boulez, who suggested the programme of the first concert, and helped to train the fantastic young conductor who now helms the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, Pablo Heras-Casado.

Both programmes explored influences on and between two sets of composers, explorations spoken about in an extended discussion between Heras-Casado and Ara Guzelimian in the first instance, and left hanging in the second. In the first concert, we had Boulez and IRCAM refracted through Bruno Mantovani, Heinz Holliger, Philippe Manoury, and Marc-André Dalbavie. The second was less cohesive, but took George Benjamin as the core for works by Colin Matthews, Helen Grime, and Ryan Wigglesworth. A slightly odd characteristic of both concerts was that their titular focuses were only obliquely dominant. In the first, Boulez was present through two of his shorter works, Mémorialé and the albumblatt Une page d’éphéméride, while the second seemed more much a concert about Colin Matthews than George Benjamin. Of course, there was also a link between the two: Olivier Messiaen, who taught Boulez and Benjamin, albeit decades apart. It helped that the OSL managed to inhabit each piece with a sense of familiarity that bespoke real engagement with the scores, despite their novelty. But the concerts also showed, again, that Heras-Casado is a special talent.

We began at the end, with Mémoriale, written in 1985, which uses … explosant-fixe … as the basis for a brief but terribly moving tribute to a young IRCAM flautist, Lawrence Beauregard. The flute line, played here in breathily haunting fashion by Elizabeth Mann, barely stops, backed by and contributing to a chamber group of two horns, three violins, two violas, and a single cello that plays Boulez’s trademark gestures against much longer lines. What struck me was how precisely and tellingly Boulez “orchestrates” with such a small group, finding ghostly resonances as instruments pick up where others left off, creating sounds that feel elemental through newer techniques (strings playing near the bridge) and older (extensive use of trills). And what was remarkable about this performance was how close Heras-Casado made it all sound to Debussy, especially (and most obviously) the Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faun. Une page d’éphéméride was brilliantly done, too, by versatile pianist Margaret Kampmeier. Toying with gestures and resonances, as so often, Boulez compresses a lot into a work of only a few minutes of Messiaen-like chords and characteristic flourishes that surround a pulsating toccata, its ferocity amply plain in this performance.

Of the other works in Boulez’s circle, the two most ritualistic were especially powerful. Heinz Holliger’s extraordinarily intense Ostinato funèbre takes as its cue Mozart’s Masonic Funeral Music (K.477), and particularly the drooping minor second from its opening bar, splicing it, modifying it, and grounding it as an ostinato. Part of his Scardanelli Cycle, the composer employs innumerable percussion techniques that might in other hands become the focus in themselves: shuffles, rattles, tears and ruffles of paper, glasses scrapped on gongs, lassoed plastic tubing, and so on. But the amazing thing is that these only contribute to a pervading sense of total vacancy, of an empty loss, as notes seem to move away from a core that’s no longer there. Mozart’s minor second becomes a slithering departure, a bit like hearing the Doppler effect in music, as vehicles move away from a scene of death. That I thought more than once of other music in C minor, Siegfried’s Trauermarsch from Götterdämmerung, is the highest of praise.

Then there was Philippe Manoury’s Strange Ritual, a punchy work that explodes into life with lucid stabs of pizzicato, staccato brass, gongs, and steel drums, and continues along its way with clangourous, frenetic splays of brass and neurotic chords. Boulez’s Rituel was the obvious influence here, but so too, was that gestural technique. Bruno Mantovani’s Turbulences is composed of frighteningly close chords, its crushes and slices part of a structural attempt to deal with chaotic conflicts. Last, there was Marc-André Dalbavie’s Concertino, a piece originally written for the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra that is a modern take on the concerto grosso. Its opening stillness seemed to me the slow section of an overture, steadily transformed by rising horns into various dances, swarming and propulsive by turns.

The Benjamin concert began with two works by Colin Matthews, the product less of programming choice than the needs of seating rearrangement. Night Rides, the newer of the two pieces, is constructed of chains of scurries, layered through wind notes that suspend darkly. Sultry claustrophobic sections come out of those suspensions, before a return to the mood of the opening. Deftly constructed, I couldn’t decide whether it just received a more tentative performance than all the other works, or whether that tentativeness was just a product of a hidden, surreptitious piece. Suns Dance, a breakthrough work for Matthews, is written for two quintets, one of strings, the other an odd combination of winds. Much like the Boulez pieces, it’s generative, full of flashes and perpetual motion, but in the end (well, long before) quite exhausting.

Benjamin’s Octet, the work of a remarkably mature teenager, was on another level entirely. Delicate, dreamlike, and engrossingly put together, this piece for string quartet plus flute, clarinet, percussion, and celesta fuses movingly lyrical passages and aural assaults (high flute or piccolo mixed with celesta) that make you marvel at the craftsmanship even as your ears ring. Upon Silence, a slightly more recent work but hardly representative of Benjamin’s current output, is a busily wistful piece for low strings and mezzo-soprano that sets Yeats’s poem “Long-Legged Fly.” Conceived for viols and played here with a touch of vibrato here and there by the OSL, it juxtaposes quick, breathless verses with long, reflective lines in the refrain. It was artfully sung by Abigail Fischer, whose attention to text served Benjamin (and Yeats) well.

Helen Grime’s Luna, a touching work for woodwinds, has chirpy, insistent beginnings that are slowly destabilised by a lyrical counterpoise on the horn. Its central idea revolves around chimes, which sound only halfway through the piece, but which everything moves towards. And finally there was Ryan Wigglesworth’s A First Book of Inventions, a slight Bach tribute that is sensationally riotous. If there are two lines at play at any given time (as in Bach’s keyboard set), they are constantly surrounded by other, feisty goings on, unsettled by shifts of metre, and a general quickness of mind. Wigglesworth moves quickly through slightly indistinct sections, moving towards a chorale-like final summation.

I have my doubts about the Biennial. It seems to me that, however good sustained attention for music composed in our time really is, a genuinely holistic culture should have no need to separate contemporary composition out from its forebears like this, especially in a city as fervidly committed to new music as New York. This is the Philharmonic’s festival, and if the Philharmonic remains in an impossible position—devoted to new music under its new music director as under its old, but also beholden to subscribers and a hall that is just too big—there is room in this town for another orchestra to promote the new in novel, thoughtful, less showy ways, especially if the new it promotes takes a more European view than Gilbert’s tastes allow. Both Heras-Casado and the Orchestra of St. Luke’s have the ability and vision to become that orchestra. Let’s hope they do. More concerts like these, in this space especially, would be a good start.

David Allen

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