Go See: Miller Theatre 2010-11

The most prominent feature at Miller Theater is the superb Composer Portrait series, the best way to see and hear new and contemporary music in New York City. It’s an order-of-magnitude difference to experience a concert that focuses on the work of one composer, rather than the usual grab bag of concerts and recitals. The concentration means that the listener can hear enough to become familiar with the composer’s aesthetic in a single evening, like a new music seminar, but more fun.

But there’s more than that at Miller, and this season, the first entirely programmed by Melissa Smey, has a terrific balance between expected pleasures and enticing surprises. There are fewer Portraits than last year’s abundant season, but Miller has already opened the year with an ambition that was both outsized for it’s cozy ambience and an apt fit, a multi-performance production of Kaija Saariaho‘s ballet Maa.

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photo by Richard Termine
This was the US premiere of the work, and along with last season’s Saariaho Portrait it has made Miller the leading American venue for this important contemporary composer. The ballet is a relatively early work and had not been staged anywhere since 1991, so merely as an act of aesthetic archeology the performances were notable. The music and it’s abstract narrative are about physical states and the transitions between them, with the score beginning with purely recorded, electronic sound and moving through solo and ensemble instrumental music. Musically, the composition is stiff at first, the electronic part, with it’s whispering and water and footsteps sounds, surprisingly mundane and the preliminary instrumental writing perhaps overly concerned with examining the sound of spectral music without the incontrovertible flow of time that is a fundamental strength of Saariaho’s best music. That does come later, though, in the third of seven sections. A long violin solo (gripping playing by the International Contemporary Ensemble’s Erik Carlson) brings us into the world of her mature music, very simple phrases and gestures channelled through processing devices expressively balanced repose, agitation, mystery and the flow of time. From that point to the end, the piece was more skillful, interesting and meaningful.
The choreography by Luca Veggetti was abstract and seemed extremely sympathetic to the music. The dancers, an ensemble of current and recent Juilliard students, were in almost constant motion, flowing from one state to the other in a physical representation of the music. Carlson’s solo was accompanied by a gorgeous, enthralling solo dance turn by Frances Chiaverini. This production connected Maa directly to the tradition of Le Sacre du Printemps and is perhaps an unconscious response to that work, a ritualistic representation of states of the earth coming at the end of a century of music and art that Stravinsky’s work made possible, and if he gave us a prediction of the awful, industrialized barbarism to come, Saariaho is perhaps offering us a possible future of balance and comity.
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Matthias Pintscher by Thomas Roma
Maa is an early triumph in Melissa Smey’s full tenure, and this new season is the first that she has programmed entirely. She has made a point this year of having each composer present at their Portrait event, which adds a considerable amount of interest and satisfaction for the audience. The entire Portrait series is excellent, and I would identify the peaks as the ones for Matthias Pintscher, one of the most individual and interesting contemporary composers whose songs from Solomon’s garden from last year’s CONTACT! series is still haunting me, Julia Wolfe, who is writing fantastic music, Mario Davidovsky, a founder of electro-acoustic music, and the indispensable Pierre Boulez, whose 85th birthday will be celebrated at Miller on December 6.
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Pierre Boulez by Thomas Roma
The jazz programming at Miller has stuck to the middle of the road in the past, but this year it’s refreshingly moving farther afield with a double bill of Vijay Iyer and Craig Taborn Saturday, October 9, and an appearance by the group FEAR, playing a large scale work. All the Early Music concerts are worthwhile. The vocal ensembles coming are the finest around; New York Polyphony, Sequentia with a program of music from the 12th century Île de la Cité, La Poème Harmonique and two concerts of great works of Renaissance polyphony; on October 16 Stile Antico sings music from Lassus, Dufay, des Prez and Byrd (their new CD, Puer natus est , Christmas music from 16th century English composers is not only one of the finest sets of true Holiday music one can find, but is an exceptionally well thought, expressed and sung collection of masterpieces of vocal music, mesmerizing and satisfying anytime of year), and next April 2 The Tallis Scholars appear in a program dedicated to Thomás Luis de VIctoria, my choice for the greatest composer of his era the one whose music is most distinct.
If it’s ever difficult to decide what musical events to see, pick something at Miller Theater.
UPDATED: Don’t forget the Miller Theater free lunchtime concerts as well, all 20th century American composers!
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