The music world had its eyes on Jaap van Zweden on September 20, 2018—his inaugural concert as the 26th Music Director of the New York Philharmonic. And Jaap turned around and looked right back. Literally.
It was the conclusion of Filament, a new work by Ashley Fure commissioned by the Philharmonic for the occasion, involving such novelties as a bassoonist in the middle of the audience and singers moving down the aisles, vocalizing through megaphones.
“I can’t recommend Filament enough,” The New York Times’s Joshua Barone acclaimed. “It made me aware of my place as an audience member.” Bingo. The composer wrote that one of her goals was “to activate a theater of the social—toying with the codes of access and intrusion that bind the orchestral ritual.”
“Theater” is the most apt word Fure could have used for the piece that launched a season with milestone staged performances. In January 2019 Maestro and Orchestra premiered Julia Wolfe’s Fire in my mouth, memorializing the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire through such dramatic and aural effects as chorus members wielding scissors. In June Jaap van Zweden and the Orchestra will premiere a work in an intrinsically theatrical genre—opera—but with the musicians visible onstage: David Lang’s prisoner of the state, a retelling of Beethoven’s only opera, Fidelio, about a woman who poses as a man to rescue her husband from unjust political imprisonment. Without giving too much away, the audience can expect a staging that emphasizes, in the words of the production’s director, Elkhanah Pulitzer, “the psychological space of prisons and imprisonment, the graphic quality of iconic spaces related to prisons, and the surveillance that pervades our current culture.”
But why premiere an opera at the New York Philharmonic? It is unexpected, unconventional, and undefinable—and that is exactly the point.
“What’s beautiful about these kinds of circumstances is that it’s not one genre or another,” says Pulitzer, who has directed numerous productions with orchestras, opera companies, and theaters. “Orchestras with an adventuresome spirit that are moving into this kind of work are living outside of traditional models. All of these formal boundaries are being made more fluid and ambiguous. It’s very exciting and part of the bold programming approach that is happening right now at the New York Philharmonic.”
Philharmonic President and CEO Deborah Borda has been leading this approach alongside the Music Director: “This Orchestra recognizes that we’re looking to the future for different ways to engage with our audience, and sometimes that’s not just 106 people on the stage playing music,” she says. Assistant Principal Viola Cong Wu agrees: “I like this idea of finding new ways to engage with the audience. They’re part of the music-making process.”
At an opera house the orchestra sits in the pit, hidden from view. When the New York Philharmonic stages prisoner of the state (through June 8), “the Orchestra being onstage is critical to the work itself,” explains Pulitzer. “The Orchestra is present and ambiguously cast: they’re observers of the story unfolding and simultaneously participants inside of the prison, vacillating between performance as punitive requirement and performance as a creative act of defiance.” In fact, adds David Lang, “the characters can see the Orchestra—they can interact with the musicians. The Orchestra becomes part of the prison community. The prison is crowded to overflowing and there can be no privacy.”
Casting the musicians in this dramatic role also pervades Fure’s and Wolfe’s music. For Fire in my mouth, Wolfe called for 146 women and girl vocalists—the number of Triangle Shirtwaist fire victims, many as young as 14. As for Fure, she told The New York Times: “The player behind these scores is in some ways invisible, subservient to the musical image that they produce. I’m interested in digging behind that veil, putting their exertion onstage.”
Van Zweden is also interested in the physicality of music performance. “People often listen with their eyes, even in symphonic concerts. When there is direct contact with the audience, something extra on top of fantastic music—like the chorus walking into the audience while singing in the Wolfe and the Fure pieces—it can make a composition that much stronger.”
At the beginning of his second season, in September 2019, the maestro will conduct two operas in the same evening—Schoenberg’s Erwartung and Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle—in a new staging created specifically for the concert hall rather than for the opera house.
The curtain has been raised on a new normal at the New York Philharmonic.
Elana Estrin, Publications and Content Editor at the New York Philharmonic, has written for The Strad, The Forward, and other outlets, and is co-principal second violin of the Greenwich Village Orchestra.