NY Phil "American Triptych," Oct 21, 2021
I heard the New York Philharmonic in a concert on Oct 21, 2021. The concert was called "American Triptych" and consisted of music by three contemporary American composers: Missy Mazzoli, Anthony Davis, and John Adams.
I know Mazzoli mostly by reputation - - she's a rising opera composer, she did an opera of *Breaking the Waves* (based on the Lars von Trier film) that's been making the rounds. She's been commissioned by the Met to write an opera based on the novel *Lincoln in the Bardo.* The NY Phil played her piece *Sinfonia (for Orbiting Spheres).* It had its premiere in 2014 by the LA Phil, conducted by John Adams.
The mask situation onstage was notable. The string players were wearing masks, that wasn't a surprise. The wind players were not wearing masks, which also wasn't a surprise, but they were also not socially distanced and had no kind of protective barrier between each other. Also the percussionists weren't wearing masks, and clearly they're able to play with masks on. And the conductor was wearing a mask throughout the concert - - I thought she'd take it off when she got onstage, but no, she wore it the whole time.
The conductor was Dalia Stasevska, a young Finnish conductor making her NY Phil debut. She was lively yet precise. I loved watching her and hope I'll see her again.
The Mazzoli was radiant, luminous, fascinating. It started hushed but soon stepped forward to become something more overt. Gorgeous to listen to. At the start of the piece the brass players were playing harmonica, rather than their brass instruments. I saw them playing the harmonica but didn't really hear it, I guess it was just one sound in the mix (later the harmonica sound became more prominent). The piece developed into controlled chaos, which was an overriding theme of the concert. I often heard something and couldn't figure out what it was I was hearing. To quote Jessye Norman, "You certainly don't get that from *Aida.*"
Here's a 2019 performance from Stony Brook University:
I first encountered Anthony Davis through a recording of his 1986 opera *X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X* (which is going to be done at the Met next season). I heard the premiere of his opera *Amistad* at Lyric Opera of Chicago in 1997. He's the friend of a friend so I heard many of his other pieces including an opera about Patty Hearst called *Tania.* He's a uniquely gifted composer. His opera *The Central Park Five* won the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2019.
The NY Phil played his 2007 piece *You Have the Right To Remain Silent,* a sort of clarinet concerto, with the solo played by the Phil's principal clarinetist, Anthony McGill. The piece was inspired by an incident from the 70s - - Davis and his wife were driving to a concert that he was playing in (he's a jazz pianist) and they were pulled over by the police because they said he looked like a robbery suspect at large. The police had their guns drawn. The experience was confusing and frightening.
Here's an excerpt from the piece, played the McGill and the Phil:
It was abstract and highly expressive, the variety of sounds was continually engrossing and beautifully mapped out. I was expecting the tone to be angry or defiant but the general tone of the first movement was more contemplative. The second movement had McGill playing contra-also clarinet. There were some deliberately harsh and ugly sounds from the clarinet and synthesizer (played by Earl Howard), laid out over a lush carpet of sounds in the orchestra. McGill and Howard played a spooky improvised solo in the middle of this movement. McGill's playing throughout was extraordinary but this will be the sequence that will stick with me the longest. It gave me chills. This spooky solo was followed by an elegiac solo for the clarinet with the cellos, a solo trombone coming in later to make it sound downtown and blue.
The third movement was agitated and restless. The final movement sounded like a final movement when it started, it presented itself as a sort of summation. The mood was calm and rational, with occasional flashes of defiance. A mournful chord at the end was both sweet and sour.
The final piece on the program was the only one I knew, the John Adams *Chamber Symphony.* I LOVE this piece and was so excited to hear it. I first heard it on a concert by the Milwaukee group Present Music, sometime in the 90s. It was conducted by Adams and paired with the piece it was modeled after, the Arnold Schoenberg *Chamber Symphony* (another piece I've come to love). The piece was fairly new when I heard it, he wrote it in 1992. Here's what Adams wrote about the inspiration behind the piece:
"I originally set out to write a children's piece, and my intentions were to sample the voices of children and work them into a fabric of acoustic and electronic instruments. But before I began that project I had another one of those strange interludes that often lead to a new piece. This one involved a brief moment of what Melville called 'the shock of recognition': I was sitting in my studio, studying the score to Schoenberg's Chamber Symphony, and as I was doing so I became aware that my seven year old son Sam was in the adjacent room watching cartoons (good cartoons, old ones from the '50s). The hyperactive, insistently aggressive and acrobatic scores for the cartoons mixed in my head with the Schoenberg music, itself hyperactive, acrobatic and not a little aggressive, and I realized suddenly how much these two traditions had in common."
Here's a 2018 performance from Tel Aviv:
The piece is wildly virtuosic for all 15 players. The first movement is manic, bristling with vitality and wit. The second movement opens with a walking bass and lyrical line for trombone. Other parts came in (noble trumpet, raspy violin, whiny clarinet), adding new and odd colors. There were moments in the third movement that made me laugh out loud, often a surprising change in patterns from the drummer, who had a prominent role in this piece. His part was written to be played with such power and force, it made me think Adams must be a Gene Krupa fan. The violinist had a hilariously thrilling solo near the end of the piece.
I had anticipated that returning to live performances would make me teary. That was not the case with the recent performances I saw at the Met, the Armory, and on Broadway. They made a big impact and it was exciting, but they didn't make me cry. The NY Phil DID make me cry, and it was because of the realization that it had been a year and a half since my hands had been sore from applauding.