Classic Arts Features   Making CONTACT!
Courtney Smith explores the excitement surrounding CONTACT!, the New York Philharmonic's new-music series, now in its second season, which is transforming the framework of how audiences connect to modern classical music.


When the New York Philharmonic announced its groundbreaking contemporary music series CONTACT! in the fall of 2009, modern classical music audiences buzzed about Alan Gilbert's bid to add the organization's signature to New York's active contemporary classical music scene. As just one of the multifaceted initiatives that the new Music Director introduced in his inaugural Philharmonic season, the series was showered with stellar reviews and sold-out shows.

Alan Gilbert's programming coadjutant is the Philharmonic's Marie-Jos_e Kravis Composer- in-Residence, Magnus Lindberg. The 52-year-old Finnish composer dips into the lush legacy of his formative years (he attended Finland's legendary Sibelius Academy and studied under some of the heavy hitters of modern composition) and contributes to CONTACT! as curator and composer.

CONTACT! rolled out its debut in December 2009 with two back-to-back concerts of world premieres, conducted and hosted by Magnus Lindberg, giving voice to a balance of emerging and established contemporary composers (Marc-Andr_ Dalbavie, Arthur Kampela, Lei Liang, and Arlene Sierra). Four months later, Alan Gilbert hosted and conducted the second program, which featured world premieres by Nico Muhly, Sean Shepherd, and Matthias Pintscher.

Just as Alan Gilbert is redefining the role of Music Director as the first native New Yorker in the New York Philharmonic's legendary register, his CONTACT! series is altering the way audiences are connecting with contemporary classical music. Stripped of protocol, CONTACT!'s performances take place in intimate venues that are far from the grand scale of Avery Fisher Hall. Abandoning the Orchestra's usual concert hall for different settings and a relaxed dress code sends a clear message that he is reaching out to the broadest possible audience. CONTACT! has demystified contemporary classical music by presenting it in a common language: at each concert, Magnus Lindberg and Alan Gilbert participate in Q&A sessions between the composers and the audience, manifesting the New York Philharmonic's investment in these newer works. This season WNYC's John Schaefer is hosting the first of each dyad of concerts.

The second outing of CONTACT!, presided over in both programs by Alan Gilbert, began last month. The concerts presented the world premiere of Magnus Lindberg's Souvenir (in memoriam G_rard Grisey), a 25-minute Philharmonic commission for a sinfonietta-size ensemble, and Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil by the late G_rard Grisey, who had taught Lindberg in the early 1980s. This, the last work Grisey completed before he died in 1998 at age 52, was sung by Canadian soprano Barbara Hannigan, fresh off her triumph last May as Gepopo in the Philharmonic's fully staged, sold-out production of Ligeti's Le Grand Macabre.

The second CONTACT! program of the season follows this month, on December 17 and 18. The program presents the world premieres of James Matheson's True South and Jay Alan Yim's neverthesamerivertwice. American composer Yim has crossed paths with Alan Gilbert since they were both students at Harvard. In his new work for CONTACT! Yim calls upon his knowledge of "extended circular melody," in which orchestration is marked by linear continuity. His highly conceptual piece is composed for a chamber orchestra of 20-odd players and every single measure features a different orchestration. The Matheson premiere is marked by the aesthetic of beauty, as the American composer strives to embrace the breathtaking aspects of attractive harmony. By shaping his True South with contrast ("simple and complex, consonant and dissonant"), he reaches for equilibrium and the sublime.

Rounding out CONTACT!'s second season is the U.S. premiere of British composer Julian Anderson's score from his Comedy of Change. The ballet for which this music was written is inspired by Darwin's scientific 19thcentury manifesto of evolutionary biology, On the Origin of Species. The composer told The Financial Times that the piece "is inspired by Darwin's observation of nature as a moving force, ambivalent and fluctuating : a concept well-suited to music and dance." The score is an exploration of gradual change : the complex, elliptical evolution of a single chord.

CONTACT!'s agenda : to demystify contemporary classical music : changes the concert experience and enhances the developing landscape of new-music programming. Alan Gilbert's appointment as the Orchestra's 25th Music Director was touted by The New York Times as bringing "an adventurous new era," and CONTACT!'s proactive measures bring new explo rations of classical music to audiences. Mr. Gilbert holds the key to advancing the organization's : and the City's : inherent musical rhythms, romanticized in Walt Whitman's billet-doux to New York City, Mannahatta: "The parades, processions, bugles playing, flags flying, drums beating."


Courtney Smith is the young, American, Milan-based writer behind the Opera Chic Website. She has also contributed to W Magazine's Editors' Blog,, and BBC Music Magazine.

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