New Music Means Vibrant Night On Town At NY Phil

Two newcomers to the New York Philarmonic took their bows: Finnish conductor Santtu-Matias Rouvali (left, photo by Kaapo Kamu) conducted a new work, ‘Wires,’ by American composer Bryce Dessner (Shervin Lainez).
By Susan Brodie

NEW YORK – The New York Philharmonic’s eighth subscription program of the season, attended Nov. 16, was a crackling evening that featured two orchestra newcomers: Bryce Dessner, playing electric guitar in the New York premiere of his work Wires, and the New York debut of Santtu-Matias Rouvali, the 34-year-old Finnish conductor slated to become the next principal conductor of London’s Philharmonia Orchestra.

Rouvali is yet another rising conducting star from the Nordic countries. His parents played in the Lahti Symphony Orchestra, and Santtu-Matias himself, who trained as a percussionist at the Sibelius Academy, performed in orchestras throughout Finland. After switching to conducting studies, he first led the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra at 23, jumping in as a last-minute substitute. Within the next year, Rouvali began getting regular guest engagements around Finland and Scandinavia and was named chief conductor of the Tampere Philharmonic when he was 26. The Gothenburg Symphony appointed him chief conductor as of 2017-18, and he will become head of the Philharmonia Orchestra in 2021-22.

Santtu R By Kaapo Kamu

Any impression of Rouvali as a shy youth is dispelled when he mounts the podium. Tall and lanky, he lifts his long arms high and wide, swooping loops and figure-eights through the air. He uses his left hand to cue with a fluttery wave, or a flick of his flat palm, or a thrust index finger. His stance is loose, and he moves easily without seeming to dance. Sometimes his gestures appeared to be in a different tempo from what I heard, but rhythms never got away from him. Unlike some guest conductors who seem like inexperienced drivers behind the wheel of a Maserati, he knew where he was going and how to harness the power of the mighty Phil.

From the opening of Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Overture-Fantasy, the orchestra sounded at its best. Rouvali created a portrait of turbulent emotions waxing and waning over the work’s 20 minutes. Excessive volume from the percussion might be explained by his training, but otherwise balances were fine.

The evening’s centerpiece was Dessner’s Wires, first performed at the Philharmonie de Paris in 2016. It’s not really a concerto for electric guitar and orchestra, but an orchestral piece with a prominent part for electric guitar, an instrument never before featured at the New York Philharmonic in a work written for orchestra rather than for a jazz or pop ensemble.

Bryce Dessner (Anne Mie Dreves)

At 43, Dessner was a gray eminence compared to the conductor, but appearances can deceive – he is probably most widely known for his Grammy-winning indie rock band, The National. The Yale-trained, Paris-based composer has worked in a remarkable range of contexts and idioms, from rock to film scores, music for art installations, and commissions for classical ensembles as diverse as the London Philharmonic, the Kronos Quartet, and Roomful of Teeth. The eponymous wires of the title refer to the guitar, but also to the strings of the harp and piano, which sound prominently in the orchestral texture. The concept and title arose, as Dessner told an interviewer, when “I was thinking about [how] instead of sending emails we used to send wires.”

Dessner’s piece, in four continuous sections, begins with several sharp strokes of percussion and plucked strings, followed by fluttery passages around the orchestra as those initial sounds fade. The guitar plucks a short melody as violins slither above. A flurry of notes from the xylophone, imitated by the violins, suggests the urgent cacophony of a telegraph room. The guitar enters solo at unpredictable intervals, now with long, electronically bent sustained notes, now in pointillistic riffs. At times the music sounds full, jazzy, and loose; at others, tight and anxious. Rouvali kept a firm hand on tempi and balances, with fewer idiosyncratic gestures but clear leadership.

A slower, more transparent second section makes space for a guitar solo, now melodic, now with crash chords, and then comes a third, relentlessly driving section, with winds, strings, and piano trading off repetitive minimalist licks, punctuated by bursts from a drum kit and brass. Abruptly the music slows into a brief and gentle coda, with the sound fading away softly. It’s worth hearing, or even hearing again.  You can watch the Paris performance here.

Surveying the crowd at intermission, I noticed a wide age range: Many of the older attendees were regular subscribers, according to one man I spoke to. “The young people buy tickets at the back,” he explained, and indeed, the scattered applause I heard between movements of Sibelius’ First Symphony seemed to come from the back of the hall. Even if not everyone was fluent in concert etiquette, it was heartening to see most of the 2700 seats filled, with few defecting at intermission.

Sibelius’ First Symphony is something of a signature piece for Rouvali, whose recording with the Gothenburg Symphony, the first of a projected Sibelius cycle, was released in January. From the mournful opening clarinet solo, tempos were generally unhurried, though Rouvali’s interpretation was sure, bringing out dark clarity from all the sections. He delineated sections with grand pauses, while maintaining tension through the silences. In the grandiose final movement, “Quasi un fantasia,” I was reminded of Finland’s nearness to Russia, as a cold wind seemed to blow in from the steppes, along with a certain fatalistic melancholy, especially with the softly resigned pizzicatos at the end. It was a splendid reading, and the audience responded enthusiastically.

Meredith Monk attended the New York Philharmonic’s Nightcap penthouse concert featuring some of Dessner’s favorite music. The informal events are set up with cabaret seating and a cash bar. (

The concert that followed a half hour later looked very different. Down the block and up ten flights, the multi-function Kaplan Penthouse was set up with cabaret seating and a cash bar, lit by votive candles and purple spots that didn’t quite obscure the splendid river view through two window walls. This first of seven informal Nightcap concerts, new-music showcases by the orchestra’s featured composers, was curated by Dessner, whose musical choices provide more insight into his influences and tastes.

The evening’s host was violist Nadia Sirota, who bears the title, the Marie-Josée Kravis Creative Partner at the Philharmonic. In this position, which was created for her last season, Sirota acts as a kind of new-music ambassador for the Phil, putting a friendly face on music that still intimidates some music lovers. In addition to hosting the Nightcap series, she curates programs of contemporary chamber music played by orchestra members, held at the nearby Jazz at Lincoln Center venue.

I sat near the stage and had the pleasure of meeting Meredith Monk, who was ushered to one of the reserved seats at my table. Three of her pieces opened the program, played with liquid fluency by pianist Adam Tendler. It’s not every concert where the MC asks the composer what she thought of the performance when the last note has barely died away (Monk was surprised at the fast tempos, but she liked the new approach).

The music continued with edge-of-the-seat performances of some of Dessner’s favorite pieces: Kaija Saariaho’s Sept Papillons for solo cello (played by Gabriel Cabezas) and Berio’s Sequenza for piano solo, with Sirota interviewing Dessner between each piece. Sirota joined Cabezas and violinist Rob Moose to play the bracing final work, Dessner’s Skrik Trio, which was commissioned by Steve Reich for his 80th birthday celebration. Dessner completed the work in November of 2016, in the wake of both the presidential election and the birth of his first child. A 2010 YouTube video of Yoko Ono screaming provided some inspiration; (skrik is Norwegian for scream, and the title of Edvard Munch’s iconic painting of a woman crying out in horror). The work’s restless hocketing figures and the relentless crescendo toward the finale suggest Dessner’s turbulent emotions as he worked on the piece.

In this intimate atmosphere, like a jazz club but without chatter during the music, a listener could lean in to pay close attention. I felt more engaged with the music than as passive audience member in the concert hall seated among hundreds of people in various states of concentration — there was no snoring in the penthouse even as the hour grew late. The experience was an indisputable reminder of the power of chamber music to bring listeners and performers together, and in the case of contemporary repertoire, to make listening an act of participation in the music making.

Under the leadership of president and CEO Deborah Borda, the NY Philharmonic has increased its commitment to new music. This year, the institution is presenting 15 world or New York premieres, including the first eight of 19 commissions from the multi-year Project 19 commissioning program for women composers. With these initiatives, the orchestra is finally moving to make the excitement of its programming match that of its playing.

The next New York premiere at the NY Phil will be Reich’s Music for Ensemble and Orchestra, with three concerts beginning Dec. 5. For tickets, go here.

Reich will curate the next Nightcap concert after the Dec. 7 orchestra concert. For tickets, go here.

Susan Brodie writes about music, the arts, and life from New York City and Paris. Follow her at @Susan Brodie (Twitter) and Toi Toi Toi!