Program of ‘New Music from Nordic Countries’ hits the right notes, yet misses the mark
The NY Phil’s challenging program, part of the orchestra’s innovative ‘CONTACT!’ series, appeared to favor technique over expression
By Natalie Piontek
Goldring Arts Journalism program, Syracuse University
“This is not always the easiest music,” warned New York Philharmonic Music Director Alan Gilbert prior to Saturday’s CONTACT! concert of contemporary Nordic music held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Indeed, new music — a phrase oftentimes charged with polarizing meanings — can present great challenges for performers and listeners alike. For some, it’s synonymous with dissonance, cacophony, and esotericism; for others, it means progress, experimentation and growth.
For the crowd at the March 7 program, at least, opinions may have leaned toward the former — if only because the technically demanding program appeared to focus more on cold technical accuracy than the conveyance of deeper emotion and musical expression.
The New York Philharmonic’s CONTACT! series offer programs designed to connect audiences with today’s innovative music. The informal concerts, which include discussion by composers and performers, take place at intimate settings such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art and SubCulture, on Bleecker Street.
The program opened with the New York premiere of Per Nørgård’s Cello Concerto No. 2 (“Momentum”), a difficult work that experiments with the largely untapped realm of quarter-tones — those pesky in-between pitches that musicians spend countless hours in the practice room working diligently to avoid.
Cellist Eric Bartlett projected his warm tone effortlessly over the chamber-sized ensemble and executed the fiendishly difficult technical passages with deceptive ease. Bartlett lunged into the quarter-tone passages in a manner that was surprising and moving. But Gilbert and the orchestra appeared so focused on staying in-time as a synchronized ensemble, they seemed to lose sight of how to make the music sound expressive. Nørgård’s Concerto came off more like an amalgam of contradictory voices than cohesion of thoughts emanating from cohesive musical ideas.
Đuro Živković’s The White Angel, a U.S. premiere, posed yet another hurdle for the orchestra in that the diverse families of instruments rarely functioned as a homogenous ensemble. “The texture is made up of every instrument playing almost completely independently,” announced Assistant Conductor Courtney Lewis prior to the performance. Here, as before, the orchestra was so focused on executing the correct notes and rhythms, the larger musical vision did not quite come across.
These things said, there were some notable highpoints within the compositions presented. The piccolo trumpet — featured prominently in The White Angel — was played in brilliant fashion by Matthew Mackey, whose bright, glowing tone melded handsomely with the ensemble. In Saariaho’s Terra Memoria, the violins displayed jaw-dropping command of intonation in the altissimo register passages, played in unison.
I was pleasantly surprised to find that when I listened to recorded versions of the pieces later that evening I quite enjoyed them. I found Kalevi Aho’s Chamber Symphony No. 2, a work that during the concert had left me largely unmoved, to be deeply personal and moving with rich, soaring melodies in the strings and bold, Bruckner-like statements in the brass. Similarly, I thought Saariaho’s Terra Memoria displayed soulful development — another element that was largely absent from Saturday’s concert.
Although the live performance of these provocative pieces may not have provided listeners with a full measure of justice, the Nordic compositions unquestionably deserve repeated playing in the future. This time, perhaps, with a bit more rehearsal time allotted to such challenging works.
Natalie Piontek, a graduate of Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music in flute performance and English literature, is currently pursuing her master’s degree at Syracuse University’s Goldring Arts Journalism program, a division of the college’s renowned S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications.
Who: New York Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Alan Gilbert and Courtney Lewis
What: CONTACT! concert: New Music from Nordic Countries
Where: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Ave., New York
Performance reviewed: Saturday, Mar. 7, 2015
Program: Works by Đuro Živković, Kaija Saariaho, Per Nørgård and Kalevi Aho
Time: About two hours
Tickets: $20 to $30
Upcoming Contact! concerts: New Music from Italy 7:30 p.m. May 11 (92nd St. Y); New Music from Japan 7 p.m. June 5 (Metropolitan Museum of Art)