Matthias Pintscher

Go See: Miller Theater 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.
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!

CONTACT! Live Blogging; “Songs From Solomon’s Garden”

9:27PM . . .  Schaefer and Gilbert are speaking prior to this last piece, with text in Hebrew from the Megillah . . . the great Thomas Hampson singing for the premier, Pintscher must be ecstatic . . . I would be; man-crush on Hampson is totally acceptable . . . Hampson even taller than Gilbert, okay no more gossip, time for music . . . opens a capella . . . the music is quiet, bracing, astringent, a bit spectral in it’s idiom . . . mysterious, evocative timbres, clouds of sound . . . apologies I can’t follow text and comment on what Pintscher says about the words with his music, too many things to do! . . . langorous feeling has now become agitated and intense as the text sings of the objects of desire; this desire is fervid, aggressive, even angry, perhaps self-consuming . . . chattering oboe brings us back to a point of exhalation, but not relaxation . . . Pintscher has established an underlying tension that is quite powerful, I am quite actively interested in hearing how he resolves it, or even if he bothers to . . . Hampson really committed to the music, it’s new so clearly cannot be totally incorporated, but his concentration on the part is balanced with real ideas about expression and interpretation, such an impressive musician . . . the instruments, especially woodwinds, are now commenting more actively on the singing, the idea seems to be taking place very much in an internal, mental space, this is very much like an extended operatic monologue, with the character searching himself, it’s dramatic and gradually becoming ever more gripping . . . a short, echt-Romantic string line there, and the uncanny sound of a wah-ing trumpet, I’m thinking of Berio now . . . this is music where the ear, and listening, must take some moments to adapt, but now it sounds natural, logical and is developing real power . . . quiet yet intense, Hampson in falsetto, string harmonics and a whispering growl from the contrabassoon, don’t want to breath and miss any moment . . . wow, this part is so good it could go on forever . . . and what a way to end!  An alluring, entrancing work, full of secrets, really needs to be heard again and again.

Quite a concert, different and as impressive as the first one in the series, probably tighter and freer playing with Gilbert conducting, a great range of music and determined focus. You can still hear these pieces in concert, Saturday night at the Metropolitan Museum, and you can tune in next week to Q2 for the rebroadcast.  Now, time for a beer . . .

CONTACT! Live Blogging, 1

Nicely mixed crowd, young and old coming in.  Haven’t spotted any of my fellow cranks . . . er, critics tonight.  There’s more Andriessen at Carnegie tonight, of course.  I had been planning on attending the Andriessen concert at Zankel Saturday night, but then this happened:

But that’s what us live bloggers are for, to fill the gaps.

Maestro Gilbert has now taken the stage to address some remarks to the audience.  The gist: he’s excited about leading a concert of contemporary music as part of the New York Philharmonic.  John Schaefer is offering some opening remarks as well. The program is as follows:

  • Sean Sheperd; These Particular Circumstances (a seven section work)
  • Nico Muhly; Detailed Instructions, for orchestra
  • Matthias Pintscher; Songs from Solomon’s Garden; featuring Thomas Hampson singing

Sean Sheperd is now onstage to talk about his piece, and there’s a bit of flirting with feedback.  Next post will be as the music is playing.

CONTACT! Live Blogging: Prelude

Ensconced in a cozy balcony seat, watching people file in. . . About fifteen minutes until the stated curtain time. . . Musicians warming up onstage include harp, vibes, clarinet, bassoon and cello. . . no way to know what they are playing, but I keep hearing fragments of what sounds like Le Sacre du Printemps . . . but that’s actually not for a few more weeks during the Russian Stravinsky Festival