CONTACT!- Present at the Creation

Classic Arts Features   CONTACT!- Present at the Creation
The ink is barely dry on four World Premieres being performed at the inaugural concert in the Philharmonic's new-music series. Madeline Rogers checks in with the composers to see what's brewing. The CONTACT! series debuted Dec. 17. The next program is set for April.


Those who believe the conventional wisdom : that contemporary music is all about random noise, computer technology, and high-flown harmonic theory : are about to have their preconceptions overturned at the Philharmonic's CONTACT! series, which makes its debut December 17 and 19.

One composer is so awed by the birth of his first child that he makes the baby's name the harmonic basis of a new work. Competition and warfare among men and in nature inspires another composer to pit one orchestral section against another. A Brazilian mythic hero, who breaks all the rules, informs a work in which traditional orchestral roles are upended. A love of raw instrumental sound produces a piece whose melody emerges gradually from a wash of pure, otherworldly noise. Such were the inspirations of the four composers : Marc-André Dalbavie, Arthur Kampela, Lei Liang, and Arlene Sierra : whom the New York Philharmonic commissioned for the first program of this new-music series. (The second program : performed April 16 and 17 : will showcase three more World Premiere _New York Philharmonic Commissions, by Nico Muhly, Matthias Pintscher, and Sean Shepherd.)

The composers for this series : handpicked by Magnus Lindberg, the Philharmonic's Marie-Josée Kravis Composer-in-Residence, who is also conducting the first program : were all born between 1960 and 1981 and represent a new generation's take on concert music. While stating that he "didn't deliberately exclude extreme composers from different backgrounds, like techno or rock or electronic music," Mr. Lindberg clearly leaned : at least for this inaugural season of CONTACT! : toward composers who share his view that music must be rooted in tradition, deeply felt, and personal. "There are many others who would have been wonderful to include, but we had to draw the line somewhere," he explains. "One thing that is definitely a decisive criterion for me is the personality of the music. There must be personality in creation today."

CONTACT! is part of the Philharmonic's expanded commitment to new music, which is blossoming during the inaugural season of Music Director Alan Gilbert, whose critically acclaimed Opening Night Concert featured the World Premiere of Mr. Lindberg's EXPO, a Philharmonic commission. It was the first time a new work had opened the season since 1962. Mr. Gilbert's belief in the importance of presenting new works alongside the masterpieces of the past received a huge boost when the Philharmonic announced, in September, that it had received a $10 million gift from Henry R. Kravis in honor of his wife, Marie-Josée, to endow the Composer-in-Residence chair, another of Mr. Gilbert's initiatives.

When it comes to CONTACT!, the modest Music Director takes little personal credit. "There was an enormous amount of enthusiasm for new music on the part of the musicians of the Orchestra, and I wanted to bring their excitement and enthusiasm into the New York Philharmonic fold," Mr. Gilbert says. "The notion of creating an ensemble that was dedicated to the performance of new music seemed inevitable." Thus was born the CONTACT! series, which is being curated by a committee comprising five members of the Orchestra, along with Messrs. Gilbert and Lindberg.

The deeply personal nature of the works being presented this season is reflected in the scaled-down ensembles for which they were written : "sinfoniettas," Mr. Lindberg calls them : and the venues where the concerts take place. The pieces are scored for between 15 and 20 musicians, and each program will be performed twice, first at the 756-seat Peter Jay Sharp Theatre at Symphony Space on Broadway at 95th Street, and then at the 708-seat Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The intimacy of the venues will facilitate another key feature of CONTACT!: interaction among the composers, performers, and audience. All the composers have been invited to be present and to speak about their pieces in lieu of conventional program notes. "I know from my own experience," says Mr. Lindberg, "that having to face many new pieces in one evening is something that requires concentration." Having the composers present, he says, will help: "It makes the threshold lower for the audience if you get something from the composer about the piece."

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Lei Liang
photo by Carl Cao

This group of composers should have no trouble fulfilling that requirement. All of them are articulate and are keen to share their music and their ideas with a wide audience. "This is definitely a shift," says Mr. Lindberg, comparing this crop of composers with a previous generation. "In my time, in order to get your music distributed you hoped for a good contract with a publisher. That is still important, but now you also see young people with blogs and Websites. It's fantastic ... revolutionary, when you see the amount of material out there."

While postwar composers often turned their backs on a culture that produced the horrors of the Holocaust and the bombing of Hiroshima : writing music that was abstract, highly atonal, and sometimes downright incomprehensible : young compos- ers today, Mr. Lindberg says, are eagerly reconnecting with their roots, both personal and artistic. So it is with the four who wrote the works on this month's premiere of CONTACT! Lei Liang (b. 1972) says his music "has been driven by a passionate search for Chinese traditional culture that has been disrupted by violent chapters of 20th- century history." Arlene Sierra (b. 1970) is eager to connect with the issues of today, saying, "Even though I write classical music, I want to say something about the world." Arthur Kampela (b. 1960), who started his musical life as a popular guitarist in his native country (he describes himself as "a Frank Zappa-ish figure in Brazil"), writes "on the edge between two sound worlds, bridging contemporary and traditional music."

Marc-André Dalbavie (b. 1961) : the veteran of the December CONTACT! composers : insists that musicians must be aware of the past, but also live in the present: "We must participate in our time and in all the questions of the art of 'now.'"


Madeline Rogers is a creative-services consultant to non-profit organizations in New York City, and former Director of Publications at the New York Philharmonic.

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