In planning his first season as Music Director of the New York Philharmonic, Jaap van Zweden has literally placed contemporary music at the top of his agenda. New works by David Lang, Julia Wolfe, and Louis Andriessen anchor the three major themes, or pillars, of the 2018–19 season: Music of Conscience, New York Stories: Threads of Our City, and The Art of Andriessen, respectively. Further, the two new-music series—Kravis Nightcap and GRoW @ Annenberg Sound ON—complement the Orchestra’s programming by offering contemporary works in more intimate spaces. But before all that begins, even in his first two Philharmonic weeks, he is leading World Premieres, each written for a specific occasion and context.
Maestro van Zweden explains the inspiration behind this pair of commissions from two emerging composers: “For Ashley Fure, it was to usher in a new era, embracing the audience and the Orchestra by using the stage and the whole hall as a performance space—basically generating a feeling of event. For Conrad Tao, it was to write a piece with the same instrumentation as the Bruckner Eight, which would be an introduction to the Bruckner.”
Fure, known for her immersive and experimental work incorporating architecture and electronics, only became aware that she would score the opening notes of the Jaap van Zweden era after she accepted the commission. But once she understood its auspicious circumstances, her vision for her piece also materialized.
“Because I was situated at this unique spot, the beginning of the beginning of the beginning, I had a bit more leeway,” she believes. “Because of the placement and the context I felt even more supported and free to push boundaries.”
The result is Filament, a bold, 14-minute work that is both a symbolic and concrete gesture of reaching out to communities of musicians and audiences beyond Lincoln Center. In addition to the orchestra, the piece calls for a trio—amplified bassoon, trumpet, and five-string double bass—and 15 singers, each outfitted with a tailor-made megaphone. Collaborating with a director and lighting designer, Fure choreographed a site-specific performance, placing the musicians among the David Geffen Hall audience. Together they generate a democratic network of sound, with each of the three ensembles reacting to each other’s cues, and not necessarily following one leader. As Fure writes in the score, the piece requires teamwork “by design.”
“I hope the piece does feel like an opening to the audience, a spreading of intimacy, and a transfer of power away from this singular hierarchical conductor and spreading that energy out through the hall,” she says. “I hope that this is a start of a new era of more openness on many fronts—stylistically, experientially.”
Tao, a rising pianist and composer, also found inspiration from the specifications given to him. For Everything Must Go, his new, ten-minute prelude leading seamlessly into Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony, he was inspired by the metaphor of the Bruckner symphony as a sonic cathedral. Using that image as a starting point, he imagined that structure coming to life and, in turn, decaying. He also refers to various curtain-raisers, ranging from classic French overtures to movie title sequences. And while he doesn’t consciously quote Brucknerian themes in his score, there are “happy accidents” when his work echoes the Romantic-era composer’s harmonic logic and dotted rhythms. He also takes advantage of Bruckner’s luxurious instrumentation, which includes three harps, for example.
“The deadliest brief is, ‘You can do anything you want.’ That is the most terrifying thing to hear,” Tao said. “Give me something to interact with! I think creativity is spurred on by boundaries.”
Amanda Angel, a writer based in New York City, has written for Time Out New York, WQXR.org, New York Classical Review, Glamour, O Magazine, ESPN The Magazine, and other publications.