Thomas Kotcheff: bang Z
Stephen Hartke: The Blue Studio
Nina C. Young: Rising Tide
Steven Stucky: The Stars and the Roses
Christopher Stark: Mercy Bell
Esa-Pekka Salonen: Catch and Release
As the NY Phil Biennial kept on unfolding its many appealing offerings this week, my next stop was the Whitney Museum of Art's intimate multi-use Susan and John Hess Family Theater, where I have been enjoying quite a few enlightening talks, but no concerts yet. I could hardly have hoped, however, for a better occasion than a program featuring New York premieres of contemporary chamber music works written by new and established composers and performed by young musicians from the highly regarded Aspen Contemporary Ensemble. The untimely death of Steven Stucky deprived us from his conducting magic, and we were very grateful for equally adventurous Timothy Weiss for stepping in.
So on Wednesday evening, as the rain has finally stopped, the clouds cleared up and the sun was coming out, I eagerly made my way to the still damp Meatpacking District for the unusual 7 PM starting time, which would then leave plenty of time for the post-concert play-date with the artists.
The concert started with the shortest number of the program, which in seven minutes turned out to be one of the most inconspicuous and enjoyable musical escapades of the evening. Using the small Chinese wood block called bangzi to provide the central timbre, Thomas Kotcheff's bang Z seemed to go into many different directions at once in the most spontaneous fashion, except that the playing was obviously way too precise to have been left to chance. In the end, all this controlled chaos felt joyful and fun.
Inspired by Matisse's Studio with Goldfish, whose mesmerizing deep blue shade is similar to the one in the composer’s own studio, Stephen Hartke's The Blue Studio was definitely a more classical endeavor with its traditional violin-cello-piano trio. On Wednesday evening, the composition warmly invited the audience to leisurely browse through an expertly colored art portfolio, all five movements representing completely unique and readily attractive images.
The mood grew even more organic with Nina C. Young's Rising Tide, an engaging piece that skillfully focuses on climate change – as well as a passage from Shakespeare's Julius Caesar – with a fascinating collage of ethereal and earthy sounds. The seven musicians delivered a strongly assured performance under the diligent baton of Timothy Weiss in just eight minutes.
One of the major works on the program, Steven Stucky's The Stars and the Roses was a gentle three-song cycle for tenor and orchestra. Based on poems by Polish writer Czeslaw Milosz, thoughtfully sung by Spencer Lang and delicately backed up by the orchestra, the songs were poetic and lyrical, definitely pretty, but not overly sweet.
During intermission, the background curtain came up and we were suddenly facing a rather impressive view over the Hudson River just as the sun was setting. The dazzling vista stayed with us for the rest of the evening, including Christopher Stark's Mercy Bell, whose sources of inspiration are as wide-ranging as the Misericordia bell in Giotto's Campanile in Florence for the childhood memories, Stravinsky's The Soldier's Tale for the seven-piece instrumentation and Miles Davis' Birth of the Cool for the jazzy overtones, all of which converged into an infectious and virtuosic performance.
Last, but by no means least, Esa-Pekka Salonen closed the concert with Catch and Release, which, while rather modest when compared to the rest of his œuvre, was the longest and most substantial work of the evening. Keeping the same instrumentation as Mercy Bell and The Soldier's Tale, Salonen came up in with a delightful little jaunt that, within 22 minutes and three movements, brilliantly sparkled with uninhibited playfulness, quick wit and stylish nonchalance. An irrefutable proof that mature talent can still remain fresh and inquisitive.