Mackey: Ground Swell
Conductor: Karina Canellakis
Viola: Amanda Verner
Adams: Gnarly Buttons
Conductor: Gemma New
Clarinet: Vicente Alexim Nunes da Silva
Elliott Carter: Double Concerto
Conductor: Yuga Cohler
Conductor: Karina Canellakis
Harpsicord: Daniel Pesca
Piano: Yukiko Sekino
They say that the future belongs to youth, and so it was at Zankel Hall last Wednesday and Thursday evenings, where a select group of hand-picked young artists were blazingly offering the audience a comprehensive look at contemporary music. While their original talents were being richly honed by five days of being coached by John Adams and David Robertson, they also extensively explored the relationships between composer, conductor and musicians to eventually deliver highly accomplished, sometimes puzzling, but never boring performances.
Although I am the first one to confess that I am not a hard core fan of some of the most esoteric modern music out there, I can at least appreciate the effort to break the usual mold and move on to uncharted territories. After all, every single current household name was a contemporary at some point in time, and some of them were not always well received either. So, onward and forward with the new!
Wednesday's concert started with Ground Swell by Steven Mackey, whose accessible reputation generally has the significant advantage of not scaring people away. This time, however, the concert hall sadly contained many empty seats. Inspired by some of the composer's travels in 2006 - essentially Aspen, Colorado and Tuscany, Italy - the seven movements were presented in symmetrical pairs, culminating in the "Peak Experience" middle movement. But one did not have to get that technical to enjoy the pleasantly atmospheric evocations of, among others, the picturesque Italian coastline or the majestic Rocky Mountains. Violist Amanda Verner injected some beautifully soaring solo lines, reminding us all of the numerous possibilities of her often unfairly neglected instrument. Conductor Karina Canellakis kept the rolling musical snapshots under tight control while giving them enough room to develop and expand. Things had started well.
Presented by the composer himself, John Adams' Gnarly Buttons is a clarinet-centric work that he wrote to pay tribute to his father, who had been his clarinet teacher. Predictably, it has a definite tenderness to it, but each movement eventually goes berserk for a little while too. Beside the more or less standard musical instruments one would expect from a chamber ensemble - Well, maybe not the banjo - a synthesizer also made its appearance on stage in order to provide short pre-recorded samples of sounds from an accordion, a clarinet and... a mooing cow. Although the whole thing got pretty busy, it never lost sight of its vision and happily combined pretty melodies with unpredictable flights of fancy. Brazilian Clarinetist Vicente Alexim Nunes da Silva showed a deep knowledge of his instrument that would have made papa Adams proud, and conductor Gemma New made sure that the many parts came together in an appealing whole.
Moving even more back in time, next were Elliot Carter and his Double Concerto, maybe the more intriguing piece of the evening. Involving two separate ensembles, respectively led by a harpsichord and a piano, and consequently two conductors, the work may be qualified as inventive, complex, energetic and all that good stuff, but I have to say that its resolutely antiphonal nature made it occasionally hard for me to digest. The musicians and conductors obviously gave it their fiercely committed all and the experience itself definitely had a unique, bold quality to it, but the woodwinds, brass and percussion had a strong tendency to overpower the harpsichord (a little) and the piano (a lot). I have no doubt that this state of things was due to the score and not the playing, but that fact of the matter is it produced a mostly loud and chaotic, albeit attention-getting, result. Originally considered "unplayable", Carter's Double Concerto has recently been downgraded to "challenging", and I have a feeling that it will keep this label for a long time.