New York Philharmonic: The New Hear & Now

Classic Arts Features   New York Philharmonic: The New Hear & Now
This month inaugurates the third season of the New York Philharmonic's Hear & Now series, which kicks off January 30. There are some changes afoot, but the approach and aspirations remain the same.

The goal of the New York Philharmonic's Hear & Now series is to build a richer context for appreciating new works, both world premieres and recent classics. For two seasons we have done so through conversation, live musical demonstration, and visual elements, as well as through interaction with composers, conductors, and soloists, all of which has surrounded a full-fledged performance of one exciting work.

Hear & Now was launched on January 17, 2006, with a one-performance focus on John Corigliano's Violin Concerto, The Red Violin. Our enjoyment of the piece was enhanced through clips from the films The Red Violin and Altered States; the soloist's explanation of special features of the violin writing; the

Orchestra's performance of passages from Corigliano's Altered States film score; and the composer's own observations. Later that season we used similar methods to examine Elliott Carter's shimmering Allegro scorrevole, and the world premiere of a Philharmonic commission, John Harbison's Milosz Songs with soprano Dawn Upshaw. The series' second season followed the same structure: an intermission-less 75-minute span that began at 6:45 p.m. We again explored exciting new works: the world premieres of Philharmonic commissions by Kaija Saariaho and Esa-Pekka Salonen, and a modern masterpiece, the Ligeti Violin Concerto.

But we and‹more important‹the audience wanted more. So for this third Hear & Now season we have expanded the format to encompass a full evening. The adventure begins an hour before the published concert time, when I join composers and performers on stage to discuss a new work and to play related music. Then the concert itself begins, at a more traditional hour. We examine the piece again, this time with the benefit of the Orchestra's participation, and then perform it straight through, in the context of a complete program that concludes with an earlier symphonic masterpiece. We're expanding in another way too: instead of presenting only one performance of each "new music" program, this year every concert in the run will employ this format, making our Hear & Now explorations available to thousands more.

In 2007-08 we will introduce two world-premiere works: in March, a symphony by Marc Neikrug; in April, an eagerly awaited Piano Concerto by Tan Dun, composed for Lang Lang. But first, this month we examine a modern classic, Luciano Berio's Sinfonia. The selection could hardly be more appropriate: the work was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic for its 125th anniversary, and is returning now to its birthplace at Lincoln Center for its own 40th anniversary.

When Berio conducted the New York Philharmonic in the world premiere of Sinfonia on October 10, 1968, I was 18 years old‹the perfect, impressionable age to be hit hard by such a masterwork. I was a sophomore at a small college in the hinterlands, very far from the action both literally and metaphorically, and news trickled down to us slowly. Yet trickle down it did, and within a couple of years young composers like me were poring over the score and the Philharmonic's first recording (again conducted by Berio himself) as if together they were the Rosetta Stone of modern music. Years later, distinct echoes of Sinfonia were still resounding in my own music (I'm thinking of my first Concerto for Orchestra, 1986-87).

It is no exaggeration to say that this piece has acquired a mythic, iconic status. This is partly because of its sheer quality, but also, I think, because so many urgent cultural forces met in this one work at a particularly urgent moment in history. Berio faced head on the challenges of that era‹how to deal with the accumulated weight of musical history, from Mahler and Debussy to Berio's own contemporaries? How to make music a part of the larger cultural and political discourses swirling about us in those years? In Sinfonia you will hear echoes of the Vietnam War, the civil rights struggle, the Paris riots of 1968, the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., avant-garde theater (Samuel Beckett was a major source of Berio's text), and cultural theory (Claude L_vi-Strauss, another important source).

From January 30 to February 2, we will have a chance to trace many of these themes together. During the pre-concert "Premiere Preview," we will hear the original chamber, one-voice version of O King, which, in orchestral garb and with eight voices, became the second movement of Sinfonia. Once Lorin Maazel and the New York Philharmonic take the stage at concert time, we will have a rare chance to tease out some of the strands of Sinfonia's third movement, hear them separately, discover their hidden links, and then reassemble them into Berio's famous Mahler-based collage.

After intermission you'll hear another orchestral masterpiece, one from an earlier era: Brahms's Symphony No. 4. Because‹as Berio demonstrated in his all-embracing approach to composition, and as we believe in our interdisciplinary examinations of modern works‹music does not live in a vacuum.

Composer Steven Stucky, who won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize in Music, has been resident composer of the Los Angeles Philharmonic since 1988 and has hosted the New York Philharmonic's Hear & Now series since the 2005-06 season.

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