Yale composers perform new orchestral works

The Yale School of Music’s “New Music New Haven” concert series opened its season Thursday night in Woolsey Hall with a safe and predictable program. The Philharmonia Orchestra of Yale performed new orchestral works by School of Music professor Martin Bresnick and three composition students.

American orchestral music is in a difficult spot right now. Most new works heard by the public are commissioned by orchestras who are more concerned about filling seats (or, more precisely, not emptying them) than promoting artistic value and advancing the art form.

This concert was an opportunity to see what student composers do before they become entangled in such considerations. Yet the results would not seem out of place in any reasonably progressive orchestra’s season: harmonically advanced, but framed in a sound comfortably familiar to most listeners.

Opening the evening was Bresnick’s “Sinfonia,” a collection of four short orchestral movements that form part of a series of compositions entitled “Opera della Musica Povera.” The first, second and fourth pieces are full of repeating grandiloquent figures in the brass and percussion, backed by dramatic string gestures which sounded a bit muddy in performance.

The most interesting movement of “Sinfonia” was the third, “Pigs and Fishes,” in which Bresnick shows a different approach to the orchestra. Soft, intersecting wind figures expand into the strings and then take over the whole orchestra. The brass section asserts its importance in this movement too, as expected, but by and large “Pigs and Fishes” showed a wider range of subtle and unusual texture than the other movements.

“Sinfonia” was followed by “The Celestial Clockwork” by Robert Manthey MUS ’01. The work opens with a hyperkinetic switching between different gestural patterns, creating an occasionally confusing dizziness. The central passage features a slower rate of surface change, after which the textural complexity slowly rebuilds. According to the composer’s program notes, the piece is about how “the two aspects of reality — are manifestations of the same life-force,” but that aside, the work was essentially a study in textural pacing.

Keith Murphy’s MUS ’02 “Amok” was next. Ostensibly a depiction of the progressive emotional states of a mentally unstable Southeast Asian murderer, the work builds on small scalar fragments to build dense clouds and driving, repetitive rhythmic phrases.

Like “Amok” and “The Celestial Clockwork,” Gregory Spears’ MUS ’02 “Circle Stories” is built out of small musical fragments. Spears’ building blocks are stylistically diverse chunks of as little as a few seconds’ duration that he builds into a colorful and convincing whirlwind of musical impressions. The gestures are often conventional in themselves, but Spears manages to blend, juxtapose and contextualize them so that they always seem fresh.

Due to the last-minute cancelation of a scheduled work, the program closed with a repeat performance of Bresnick’s “Sinfonia.” This was standard practice in the 1920s, when new works provoked boos and fistfights, and conductors sought to educate the public by repeating the music over their protests. But in the case of Bresnick’s work, which speaks a fundamentally familiar language, this programming strategy seemed merely unbalanced.

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