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Journeys to the Centers of the Music

New York
National Sawdust
01/08/2018 -  
Sarah Kirkland Snider: Thread and Fray
Ashley Fure: Therefore I Was
Du Yun: Tattooed in Snow for String Quartet (New York Premiere)
Fernanda Aoki Navarro: Parthenogenesis (New York Premiere)
Anna Thorvaldsdóttir:

Musicians from the New York Philharmonic: Quan Ge, Shanshan Yao, Anna Rabinova, Na Sun (Violins), Robert Rinehart, Rémi Pelletier (Violas), Carter Brey, Ru-Pei Yeh, Nathan Vickery (Cellos), Meighan Stoops (Guest artist - Clarinet, Bass clarinet), Blair Francis (Bass flute), David Taylor (Guest artist, Trombone), Daniel Druckman (Marimba, Percussion), Steven Beck (Guest artist - Piano), Eric Huebner (Piano), Jeffrey Milarsky (Guest artist, Conductor)
Paola Prestini (Host), Esa-Pekka Salonen (Interlocutor)

E.-P. Salonen, A. Thorvaldsdóttir (© Samuel A. Dog)

Like the silence before the first notes of the Ninth Symphony, Esa-Pekka Salonen’s name was nowhere to be found on the Contact! program last night at National Sawdust. Yet in this splendid series founded several years ago by Alan Gilbert, Mr. Salonen was the spirit, the essence and the very foundation for the quintet of works performed here.

Sitting in the audience, Mr. Salonen came onstage before and after each work with the composers. His questions and comments were revealing about the inspirations of the composer, his comments about form, style, meaning–with that rare combination of humor and erudition–brought out the best from the four participants (Ashley Fure was unable to come). Equally important, Mr. Salonen not only knew the music (whether through score or previous performances), and was able to pointedly question the composers on their own words.

Example was Fernanda Aoki Navarro, whose notes on Parthenogenesis was almost cryptic. “(My three ideas) were non-development, ‘democratic distribution’ and corporeality.” Mr. Salonen never let it go at that. What did she mean by non-development? Where was the corporality? Ms. Navarro’s replies–and the music itself–gave the answers.

And what were the five works here? Hopefully the quintet of female composers was a coincidence, since not a single note offered a scintilla of gender. In fact, like those famed meetings of composers in 1920’s Vienna and Paris, “Contact!” prides itself on diversity of form. And certainly like the performers of Schoenberg, Bartók, Webern and Stravinsky almost a century ago, the musicians here were the ultimate executants to reflect the meanings of these writers.

New York’s avant-garde scene is booming (and thundering, whispering and making weird sounds) throughout its territory. But to employ the musicians of the New York Philharmonic in their capacity as soloists and chamber musicians is an accolade in which few younger composers can take pride.

Ms. Navarro’s Parthenogenesis, for example, was blatantly an example of soloists at their most proficient.

The idea of “no development” or repetition, she wrote, would underestimate the intelligence of modern listeners. (No repetition? Philip Glass would be turning over in his grave demeanor.) Instead, Parthenogenesis gave cadenzas to all four players. The colors of bass trombone and cello were haunting, Eric Huebner’s piano work inside and outside the instrument were astounding. But Ms. Navarro was not without great humor, Out of nowhere came fierce samba (or tango) rhythm. After simply adding continuo notes to the music, bass trombonist David Taylor played olde-jazz wah-wah sounds. And if the corporeality was missing, this was intriguing music.

Du Yun/F. Aoki Navarro (© Samuel A. Dog)

Shanghai-born, Oberlin-Harvard-educated Du Yun started with a ravishing string quartet. Music which seemed partly Slavic, partly densely contrapuntal, all of it meant to give a picture of the “temporary and fragile crystallization of art”. Frankly, I didn’t need either this or the title Tatooed in Snow, because the post-Romantic music could have made a splendid quartet.

Alas, we had a video half way through which wiped out that music. The music was amorphous, the video halfway through was a blatant white-backgrounded androgynous dancer doing exercises, being cupped, doing swordplay, and then stopping. DuYun’s musical effects stopped as well. Her concept was admirable. The two factors never quite meshed.

The opening piece by Sarah Kirkland Snider was as easy to understand as its music have been difficult to compose. The low-toned ensemble of viola, bass clarinet and marimba, beginning in unison, created a canonic puzzle, splintering, coming together to a point where one didn’t quite know where one was. The puzzle was almost like those floating colors of a Victor Vasarely painting, where directions were going in...well, every direction! A work of great skill and great fun.

Rome-based Ashley Fure was unable to attend, but Mr. Salonen described her work of instrumental legerdemain as not needing “either harmony or melody”. It existed in the extended techniques of cello, piano and percussion.

Pianist Steven Beck magnified, minimalized, made strange colors around his instrument. David Druckman had amplified percussion (which I couldn’t see or from end of the concert hall). But First Chair cellist Carter Brey was the star. His cello was entirely retuned, his sounds from the deepest bass to high fingerboard gymnastics was a treat to hear. Like certain paintings which are fascinating in a gallery, I wouldn’t want to have Therefore I Was in my living room, but Ms. Fure, in far-ranging program notes, described it was “the muscular act of music-making and the chaotic behaviors of raw acoustic matter.”

For the final work, Anna Thorvaldsdóttir’s , allow some cheating here. This almost archetypal young Icelandic composer creates music which, at first listening, is almost a stasis. Long extended single lines, broken by almost unheard quartet-tones, not-quite melodies which fold themselves in as if afraid to move off the ground, dark colors from dark instruments (here the bass flute, bass clarinet, string quartet, piano and percussion), atmospheres which are anti-passionate, anti-romantic, yet aching to come out from their isolated shells.

The cheating comes from my visit two months ago to Iceland, where I took a long solitary walk near the great Snæfellsjökull volcano. Unlike the flashier glaciers and waterfalls, this is a rocky place, thick grass, flowerless plants. A few seagulls, rare flowerless plants. (Jules Verne made it the background for Journey to the Center of the Earth.)

Yet from the start of this morning walk, I felt the vibrations of the ground. It was partly real (the thermal underpinnings), but partly imaginary. Add to this, in my imagination, overtones, gloomy rumblings. The feeling was literally unearthly, lunar, and–unlike Ms. Thorvaldsdóttir’s piece–initially foreboding.

Her work was called , Icelandic for “calm” or “comfort”. And yes, as I painfully made my way to the 3,000-foot volcano over the rocky path, it was possible for feel that calm. She had it right. Ms. Thorvaldsottir had given the aural song to a picture which was created thousands of years before the first flute, drum or piano. Seemingly before big bangs, creations or the universe itself.

Bless her for that. And for the amazing Philharmonic players who made it come alive.

Harry Rolnick



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