Trio Of Unusual Concertos In NY Biennial Wrap-Up

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By Leslie Kandell

NEW YORK — Alan Gilbert not only knows how to wrap up a festival, but also how to put one on. His second New York Philharmonic Biennial took over its hometown the way Wagner’s Ring cycle periodically takes over Seattle. But these concerts, which took place from May 23 to June 11, were more challenging to listeners because the music was either brand new or new to New York.

Under the discriminating eye of Esa-Pekka Salonen, the festival’s co-curator and Philharmonic composer-in-residence, this Biennial was expanded from the first one, to 28 events in major Manhattan and Brooklyn venues (including museums), with 12 partners. More than 30 newly composed pieces were heard – instrumental, vocal, and dance – with a long list of notable composers from Adams to Zorn.

Martin Grubinger was soloist in John Corigliano's 'Conjurer. (Photos by Chris Lee)
Martin Grubinger performed in Corigliano’s ‘Conjurer.’ (Photos by Chris Lee)

The daring June 10 and 11 programs in David Geffen Hall comprised three concertos – for trombone, a world premiere by William Bolcom; for percussion, by John Corigliano; and for orchestra, by the late Steven Stucky – as well as a symphony by the Danish composer Per Nørgård  and a brief memorial to former music director Pierre Boulez, performed by seven cellists. The large audiences were sophisticated and enthusiastic; nobody sneaked out, which could make one proud to live in New York City.

Gilbert, who is to step down as music director after next season, has often fallen short of mastery, with oversized or nonspecific conducting gestures. That floating style has no place in the unfamiliar scores for which Gilbert was making a case, and he rose to the occasion. Without baton, he carried himself with control, and his indications were clear, knowledgeable, and precise.

Joseph Alessi was soloist in William Bolcom's new Trombone Concerto.
Joseph Alessi was soloist in William Bolcom’s new Trombone Concerto.

Bolcom’s new Trombone Concerto, eloquently played by principal trombone Joseph Alessi, is another work with a soloist that the composer has produced for the Philharmonic, which commissioned and premiered his Clarinet Concerto for its 150th anniversary in 1992. Gilbert, who introduced pieces with the confiding air of a lounge emcee, mentioned that this premiere was taking place during the International Trombone Festival at the Juilliard School across the street. When he asked trombonists in the audience to stand, fully half the hall did.

The three-movement tonal piece, about 20 minutes long, is a Philharmonic co-commission with the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra. It effectively brought the trombone part gradually forward from an indistinct mist (suggesting the trombone’s rarity as a solo instrument) through a familiar bluesy sound to jaunty, syncopated prominence.

The trombone sailed over harp and strings in the muted first movement, tossing off little chromatic runs and becoming a firm presence at the conclusion. The middle movement featured bent tones and lazy blues flavor of the sort Bolcom can evoke so ingeniously. The solo line is not that attractive, but the concerto is a competent example of the form, with interesting moments. It will be heard again.

Alessi, in his quiet manner, was fully at ease in the solo part, though its fast soft puffs of tone and elongated phrases must require skill that only trombonists understand.

Alan Gilbert conducted the final Biennial 2016 concert. (Photos by Chris Lee)
Alan Gilbert conducted the final Biennial 2016 concert.

Corigliano, who like Bolcom took the stage to say a few words about his piece, maintained that he was an unlikely choice to compose Conjurer, for percussion, string orchestra, and brass.  His father had been concertmaster of the Philharmonic for 26 years, he noted, so he was more at ease with string timbre.  (His film score for The Red Violin earned the 1999 Academy Award.) But after much thought and (he said) “outrageous” compensation, he came up with a clever three-movement form dividing percussion into sounds on wood, metal, and skin. Written for Evelyn Glennie (which means it has to be showy), the 37-minute piece (which seems 10 minutes too long) was premiered in 2008. Glennie has nothing on the NYPhil’s guest percussionist, Martin Grubinger, a fleet-footed Austrian whose worthwhile discussion and demonstration of the work is posted on the orchestra’s Facebook feed here

The video portrays a boyish percussionist in love with his varied instruments, racing among them, striking and pounding with joyful excitement that veers toward madness. Corigliano, who has a flair for the dramatic, provided several cadenzas, which are, of course, extended virtuoso solo passages.

Gilbert led the next night’s final Biennial concert with a smart change of program order. He began with Nørgård’s Symphony No. 8, followed it after intermission with the seven-minute Boulez cello tribute, and concluded with Stucky’s Second Concerto for Orchestra. The big, colorful orchestra of the 2012 Nørgård symphony rumbles, whistles, and clangs. Percussion is prominent, and the string writing smooth and unobtrusive, with solos by the concertmaster. (Frank Huang has done a quietly solid job in his first year with the NYPhil, keeping a low profile.) Small, scale-like motifs recur among the sections throughout, as do appealing high woodwinds and percussion: vibraphones, marimba, and the like.

Eric Bartlett and six comrades played Boulez's 'Messagesquisses.'
Eric Bartlett and six comrades played Boulez’s ‘Messagesquisses.’

Boulez’s Messagesquisse, for cello solo and six other cellos, invites contemplation of timbres within a category. Starting softly, it features pizzicato, bow taps on strings, and scrub to bowed sound. There was no interest in this 1977 piece when Boulez was music director here, but now we’ve caught up – if only because Boulez recently died. The sound of combined cellos eases listening, and Gilbert’s directing of the orchestra members was exceptional and practiced; Eric Bartlett was a fine lead cellist.

Stucky’s 2005 Pulitzer Prize-winning concerto, like Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra and to some degree Britten’s Young People’s Guide to the Orchestra, spotlighted sections of the orchestra. Languid brass sweeps gave way to rhythmic percussive pounding in Christopher Rouse mode.  The full orchestra introduced each variation, and at the end all joined in a unison melody of a few notes.

This wide-ranging Biennial will be a hard act to follow. In 2018, the project (or the choice to have a Biennial at all) will be up to the incoming music director, Jaap van Zweden. It has become a big undertaking, although highly worthwhile. Let’s hope it can happen again.

Leslie Kandell has contributed to The New York Times, Musical America, Musical America Directory, Sondheim Review and The Daily Gazette.