NY Phil Biennial Boosts New Music By Reaching Out

 Dancer Alessandra Ferri, front, and mezzo-soprano Fredrika Brillembourg in Toshio Hosokawa's 'The Raven,' part of the NY Phil Biennial.  (Photos by Richard Termine)

Dancer Alessandra Ferri, front, and mezzo-soprano Fredrika Brillembourg in Toshio Hosokawa’s ‘The Raven. ‘
(Photos by Richard Termine)
By George Loomis

NEW YORK – New music has by no means been neglected by the New York Philharmonic during Alan Gilbert’s years at the helm, but its cause receives an important boost with the creation of NY Phil Biennial, the first installment of which is underway. According to advance publicity, the biennial is modeled on “the great visual art biennials,” although Venice’s contemporary music festival known as “La Biennale” might be closer to home. In any case, what distinguishes the new venture is the participation of many New York musical institutions that have little or no tie to the Philharmonic. I attended three programs during the first weekend of the 11-day event, which runs through June 7.

Neal Goren, left, conducting an instrumental ensemble, with Brillembourg and Ferri.
Neal Goren, left, conducted ‘The Raven,” with Brillembourg and Ferri enacting the tale.

Given the success last year of Toshio Hosokawa’s chamber opera Matsukaze at the Lincoln Center Festival, expectations ran high for the U.S. premiere by Gotham Chamber Opera of The Raven (2012), a monodrama for mezzo-soprano and 13 instrumentalists, performed in the Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College (seen on May 30). Essentially a setting of Edgar Allan Poe’s famous narrative poem about a man who is visited by a raven following the death of his lover, the work was brilliantly performed, but Hosokawa’s music slowed down the storytelling without working with the poetry to achieve a synergistic whole.

The music is essentially atmospheric, and one could not deny that it conjures up an apt sense of eerie foreboding. Sonorities are skillfully wrought, as when winds and percussion combine to produce a deep metallic sound, to mention just one example. But Hosokawa’s techniques eventually became predictable: wind players blowing into their instruments to produce the pitchless sound of air, for example, or quiet playing from the strings that mimics a distant siren.

Toshio Hosokawa, composer of 'The Raven.'
Toshio Hosokawa, composer of ‘The Raven.’

Sometimes The Raven builds to climaxes, but despite the best efforts of mezzo-soprano Fredrika Brillembourg in projecting the text, it was hard to see how they contributed to an overall structure. Brillembourg excelled in rendering Hosokowa’s diverse writing for voice, which embraces pure speech as well as sung music – low-lying declamatory passages, sudden ascents to high notes, and full-throttle outbursts.

When directors add extra characters to an opera, it’s usually a bad idea, but Luca Veggetti’s decision to involve a dancer – the excellent Alessandra Ferri – in his staging of The Raven was an inspired one. Her physical interaction with the singer was highly abstract, but at times you couldn’t help but think of the dancer as the visual embodiment of the raven. It was apparently Veggetti’s idea that The Raven would benefit from staging. Neal Goren conducted the instrumental ensemble with precision and clarity. The 45-minute Raven was preceded by André Caplet’s Conte Fantastique: Le masque de la Mort rouge (1909) for harp and string quartet, which proved to be an engaging exercise in Impressionism even if the audience was left in the dark about its relationship to its Poe source.

Pablo Heras-Casado conducted music by Boulez and others. (Jean-Francois Leclerq)
Pablo Heras-Casado led music by Boulez. (Jean-François Leclerq)

Caplet’s piece hardly counts as new music, but it provided an apt springboard to an event the next afternoon in Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Rose Theater. Impressionism was the unrepresented progenitor of an engaging program devoted to Pierre Boulez and music influenced by him featuring members of the Orchestra of Saint Luke’s, stylishly led by its principal conductor, the up-and-coming Pablo Heras-Casado.

The opening work, Boulez’s Mémoriale (… explosante-fixe …Original) (1985), with its amiable mood and prominent flute part excellently played by Elizabeth Mann, struck one as a descendant of Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune so it was no surprise that Ara Guzelimian, who co-hosted the concert with Heras-Casado, referred to that very work in referring to Boulez’s stylistic heritage.

One program contained French composer Philippe Manoury's 'Strange ritual.'
One program included Philippe Manoury’s ‘Strange ritual.’

Bruno Montovani’s Turbulences  (1998), which, like all the works on the program other than those by Boulez, was heard in its U.S. premiere, proved to be more aggressive than the Boulez piece and denser in texture, but like the Boulez relied on trills and other fluttery instrumental sounds. It made a good impression. Strange ritual (2005) by Philippe Manoury begins with four strongly articulated notes somewhat reminiscent of the Westminster chimes; according to the composer, the origin is a kind of passacaglia in free form. This was not readily apparent, although one did notice recurring punctuation in the form of loud single chords perhaps meant to set off statements of the passacaglia motif. At 20 minutes, this was the longest work on the program.

Two works had affinities to earlier music, including Ostinato funèbre (1991) by Heinz Holliger (the oboist), a very slow and very quiet piece that bore no recognizable relationship to Mozart’s Masonic Funeral Music, on which, according to the program notes, it is “a reflection.” More enjoyable was Marc-André Dalbavie’s Concertino (1994), a reworking in contrasting tempos of a tune by Matthew Locke.

The concert also included Boulez’s appealing short piano piece Une page d’éphéméride (2005), which opens with isolated chords and flourishes but later takes on the more continuous quality of a toccata. It was handsomely played by Margaret Kampmeier.

Alan Gilbert conducting members of the New York Philharmonic in 'Gloria – A Pig Tale.'
Alan Gilbert conducting members of the Philharmonic and cast in ‘Gloria – A Pig Tale.’

For a change of pace from the gloom of The Raven, one could hardly do better than HK Gruber’s zany Gloria – A Pig Tale (1992-94, rev. 2002), seen June 1 at the last of three performances in the Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The libretto by Rudolf Herfurtner, sung in an English version by Amanda Holden, tells of Gloria, an unusually attractive pig blessed with golden curls. But her beauty makes her relatives envious and she must also dodge a couple of farm hands who want to turn her into sausages.

The energetic Prelude gives a good idea of Gruber’s musical style, a kind of updated take on Kurt Weill, although you can hear other influences, too. The violinist Fabiola Kim, heading the crack AXIOM ensemble of 13 musicians, performed virtuoso flights reminiscent of Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du Soldat, while Shostakovich’s music in circus style was brought to mind as well. The vocal writing is frank and engaging but not terribly melodic. The second of the 90-minute opera’s two parts drags at times en route to Gloria’s rescue by Rodrigo. But we can’t be sure the ending was entirely happy. There were no titles, but Rodrigo could be heard muttering about being trapped for life.

A dramatic moment from HK Gruber’s 'Gloria – A Pig Tale.'
A dramatic moment from HK Gruber’s ‘Gloria – A Pig Tale.’

In the zesty production by the theater company Giants Are Small, directed by Doug Fitch, singers and musicians share the stage. Sets are sparse, but Fitch’s costumes cleverly include masks to designate particular animals, and at one point singers dress as sausages to represent the dreaded fate awaiting the less fortunate pig. The singers, who were amplified, included the bright-voiced high soprano Lauren Snouffer, who made a delightful Gloria. Four other singers, Brenda Patterson, Alexander Lewis, Carlton Ford, and Kevin Burdette, performed vividly in multiple other roles. With Gilbert himself conducting, Gloria – A Pig Tale came off as an invigorating and fun component of the first NY Phil Biennial.

George Loomis writes regularly for the International New York Times and is a New York correspondent for Opera magazine.