Coming Events: 2017 Rings In New Year Of New Music

Wynton Marsalis’ ‘The Jungle’ is one of three New York Philharmonic commissions celebrating its 175th anniversary.
(Photo by Danny Clinch)

DATE BOOK — January is the cruelest month, no matter what T. S. Eliot wrote. The joy of the holidays has dissipated, leaving only pie- and cookie-fuelled torpor in its place. Daylight is sparse, temperatures are frigid, and many cultural organizations, after holiday programming, restart their regular seasons only late in the month.

But seven major North American orchestras are avoiding the doldrums and celebrating the new year with new music, presenting nine American and world premieres, including one at the end of December. All but one are in cold climates, where audiences most need some warmth and light during the shortest days of the year.

New York: Marsalis’ The Jungle leads off Philharmonic’s 175th

Dec. 28, 29, 30; Jan. 3, David Geffen Hall: Full details

Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic start off the new year swinging, with the world premiere of Wynton Marsalis’ The Jungle. The first of three New York commissions in honor of the Philharmonic’s 175th anniversary, the work is Marsalis’ fourth symphony and features the 15-piece Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Marsalis on trumpet. (Marsalis a co-founder and artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center.) The Jungle is Gilbert’s second collaboration with Marsalis: The American premiere of the jazz titan’s Swing Symphony opened Gilbert’s second season with the Philharmonic, in 2010.

Gilbert said of the commissions: “I’ve always tried to make the New York Philharmonic not just an orchestra that happens to be in New York, but an orchestra of New York that is New York’s orchestra in a very meaningful way. We’ve asked three composers, very good friends, to write works on what New York means to them.”

Marsalis responds: “New York City is the most fluid, pressure-packed, and cosmopolitan metropolis the modern world has ever seen. The dense mosaic of all kinds of people everywhere doing all kinds of things encourages you to ‘stay in your lane,’ but the speed, freedom, and intensity of our relationships to each other – and to the city itself – forces us onto a collective super highway.”

Other works in The New York Commissions project, by Sean Shepherd and Julia Wolfe, are intended for the 2018-19 season.

Jan. 5, 6, 7, David Geffen Hall: Full details
HK Gruber has written a new concerto for Emanuel Ax. (Jon Super)

Gilbert and the Philharmonic follow The Jungle with another world premiere when Emanuel Ax is the soloist in a piano concerto by HK Gruber.  The Viennese composer incorporates jazz, cabaret, and waltzes into a symphonic idiom in the manner of Kurt Weill, with an irreverent wit worthy of Haydn — some of his scores call for musicians to take up toy instruments. The two premieres in a row are a fitting part of Gilbert’s last season as music director of the Philharmonic, a tenure distinguished by an admirable focus on new music.

Ax is also to perform the new concerto eventually with the other co-commissioning orchestras — Berlin Philharmonic, Amsterdam Royal Concertgebouw, and Royal Stockholm Philharmonic. On the NYPhil’s website, Gruber wrote that when he writes for a soloist, he always asks, “Who is your favorite concerto composer?” and Ax told him Brahms. “Behind his hint I felt a full-blooded musician’s massive dose of vitamins — an essential help for a composer!”

Atlanta: New work by Neikrug inspired by friendship and drifting clouds 

Jan. 12, 14, Atlanta Symphony Hall: Full details
Marc Neikrug’s ‘The Unicorn of Atlas Peak’ debuts in Atlanta.
(New Music Box)

Atlanta is the lone warm city on this list, with Donald Runnicles leading the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra in a world premiere of The Unicorn of Atlas Peak by Marc Neikrug. The composer notes that the piece’s unusual title alludes to the friend who introduced Runnicles and Neikrug.  The music (on view here) features layers drifting over and past one another in a manner akin to clouds floating across the sky. [Here is a profile of the composer, who has long lived among the people in a New Mexican pueblo.]

Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto is featured on the other half of the program, with Kirill Gerstein performing the newly recovered 1879 version of the concerto. Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony fills out the concert.

St. Paul: Biss and Beamish in second round of Beethoven pairings

Jan. 20, 21, Ordway Concert Hall; Jan. 22, St. Andrew’s Lutheran Church: Full details

Piano concertos abound in January. As part of a commissioning project that pairs new concertos with Beethoven’s five mainstays, Jonathan Biss and the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra under Mischa Santora give the world premiere of British composer Sally Beamish’s Piano Concerto No. 3, City Stanzas, along with a performance of Beethoven’s First Concerto.

Sally Beamish’s ‘City Stanzas’ is a concerto for Jonathan Biss.
(Ashley Coombes)

Beamish has spent a lot of time writing for the piano recently—her Piano Concerto No. 2, Cauldron of the Speckled Seas, premieres with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra Dec. 10. Her heartfelt music has a dramatic verve rooted in the green hills of Scotland, her home since 1990. She has ventured outside standard instrumentation — she’s composed concertos for both accordion and soprano saxophone, the latter written for and recorded by Branford Marsalis.

The five-year commissioning project began in November 2015, when Biss played Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 2 and the new concerto by Timo Andres that it inspired. The SPCO is the lead commissioner on all five pieces, which will eventually include a new concerto by Salvatore Sciarrino, paired with Beethoven’s Fourth, to premiere in 2017-18; another by Caroline Shaw, paired with Beethoven’s Third, to premiere in 2018-19, and the last by Brett Dean, paired with Beethoven’s Fifth, to premiere in 2019-20.

Boston: Julian Anderson’s Incantesimi crosses the pond

Jan. 26, 27, 28, Boston Symphony Hall: Full details
Julian Anderson’s ‘Incantesimi’ is a Boston Symphony commission.
(Maurice Foxall)

The British composer Julian Anderson found inspiration for his new work Incantesimi in an exceptional performance of Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony by Christoph von Dohnányi and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, so its fitting that those same performers will give the American premiere of the piece.  The piece was co-commissioned by the BSO, the Royal Philharmonic Society, and the Berlin Philharmonic. It was premiered in June 2016 by the Berliners, who then took the work to the London Proms in September. Italian for charms or spells, Incantesimi features five distinct ideas orbiting each other as in the finale of the Jupiter, all realized in Anderson’s characteristic shimmery, brilliant orchestration.

Vancouver: New Music Festival kicks off Canada’s sesquicentennial

Jan. 24, 25, 27, 28, 29, Orpheum Theatre and Christ Church: Full details
Glenn Buhr (center front) and the Button Factory Band.

All of Canada takes up the new-music challenge in early 2017 with nationwide premieres and musical retrospectives celebrating the sesquicentennial of the country’s establishment as a dominion. In the last days of January, the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra hosts a New Music Festival featuring five distinct concerts by various ensembles, including baroque period-instrument groups playing new music. The VSO itself gives the world premiere of two works: Guernica 2017 by Glenn Buhr (Jan. 27) and VSO composer in residence Jocelyn Morlock’s Hullabaloo (Jan. 29).

Guernica 2017, which the composer describes as a musical rant against the way children are victimized by war, features Bramwell Tovey conducting the VSO along with Glenn Buhr and the Button Factory Band, a quartet of instrumentalists (guitar, bass and drums) who also sing. It’s a pity Morlock isn’t better known in the U.S., for her affecting music is imaginative in its approach to past styles. Hullabaloo is a fanfare for the sesquicentennial, and is conducted by Tovey.

Toronto: Youth orchestra joins TSO for celebratory blast

Jan. 28, Roy Thomson Hall: Full details
Edward Top’s ‘Eruption’ draws on heavy metal power chords.

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra is spearheading Canada’s nationwide sesquicentennial musical celebrations with a project called Canada Mosaic that coordinates the activities of more than 40 orchestras and represents a diverse musical landscape. The orchestra’s own festivities get underway with the world premiere of Eruption, a work for both the Toronto Symphony and the Toronto Symphony Youth Orchestra by Dutch composer Edward Top, who is Vancouver-based. In written notes, music director Peter Oundjian explained that Eruption is the first of several commissions designed to “do something truly transformative for Canadian music” in addition to honoring the country’s musical past. “The new commissions will incorporate distinctively Canadian characteristics, including aboriginal artists, multicultural elements, and non-classical musical traditions.”

Eruption draws on the power chords of the modern-day heavy metal genre, according to Top: “This piece in itself is an eruption — a celebration of the intense outbreak of youthful vigour. It was this primal yet contemporary approach that justified the transformation of elements from the extreme metal subgenre — such as blast-beat drumming (intense sixteenth-note strokes on the snare drum), chromatically moving power chords, and metrical shifts — into a contemporary symphonic aesthetic.”

Louisville: Abrams champions new work by Ljova (Lev Zhurbin)

Jan. 27, 28, Kentucky Center: Full details

One of the brightest rising stars in classical music right now is 29-year-old Teddy Abrams, the music director of the Louisville Orchestra as well as a composer, clarinetist, and pianist who was a keyboardist in the Philadelphia Orchestra. At Louisville he has been a champion of new music. At the end of January he gives another performance in the rolling American premiere of the vivacious Current by violist, composer, and arranger Lev Zhurbin, known as Ljova, who has worked with the Kronos Quartet and Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble.

Ljova (Lev Zhurbin) wrote ‘Current’ for the Louisville Orchestra.
(Mark Gurevich)

Current was first heard earlier this year at the Britt Festival in Oregon, where Abrams is music director and conductor — there’s an excerpt of the performance below and a few pages of the score on view here. The piece is Ljova’s first commissioned work for full orchestra, and gives both Abrams and the musicians of the orchestra considerable latitude to show off their talents, as most bars of music are simply cued by the conductor and contain only motifs without a unified pulse.

Daniel Hautzinger is the associate digital content producer at PBS’s Chicago station, WTTW. He has worked for the Grant Park Music Festival and written for Chicago On the, and Cleveland Classical. He graduated with degrees in history and piano from Oberlin College and Conservatory, where he wrote a thesis on Benjamin Britten, the Aldeburgh Festival, and modernity.