Yalies make some beautiful music

It’s a rare event for an orchestra to play a new work by a living composer. After all, it’s a dangerous and unpredictable use of time and money — nobody knows how the audience will react, if critics will like it, if the orchestra’s patrons will become alienated and tight-fisted. At last Thursday’s New Music New Haven concert at Woolsey Hall, the Yale Philharmonia threw caution to the wind and treated us to an entire evening of contemporary music, including five brand-new pieces by second-year Yale School of Music composers.

Ryan Howard’s “Chain” opened the concert with an unsettled fabric of constantly shifting harmonies. With no melody to speak of, the music achieved a melancholy beauty through stasis — pure orchestral texture carried the piece from beginning to end. “Liquid Song” by Mark Dancigers was also built from stunningly little material, spinning its bright, disjunct melodies across the entire orchestra. The trick has worked well for the prolific composer in the past; much of his recent music combines colorful instrumental writing with unrestrained rhythmic energy. What struck me about “Liquid Song” was Dancigers’s newfound grace and charm, like a cross between Mozart and minimalist guru Terry Riley. The fizzy glockenspiel solos of James Deitz MUS ’05 added a concerto-like virtuosity to the immensely enjoyable work. Though wildly different, the first two pieces made an apt study in contrasts.

But what followed was completely unrelated. Sarah Kirkland Snider’s “Disquiet” demonstrated that the composer has found her voice in a sort of modernized late-romantic bombast. The inspiration for the piece, she says, came from “the anguish that results when we are deprived of the opportunity to communicate with someone we love before the opportunity has passed.” “Disquiet” opened with a Brucknerian tutti in B-flat minor, which quickly descended to the depths of the orchestra, where it brooded like a wounded animal for most of the piece. While Snider’s emotional immediacy and sense of narrative were arresting, especially following “Chain” and “Liquid,” the piece suffered from time constraints. Her attempt to cram a large, romantic symphony into 10 minutes left the entire piece feeling unresolved.

The second half of the night’s program began with Ellen Taaffe Zwilich’s “Concerto for Horn and String Orchestra.” One of the two non-student composers represented, Zwilich is one of the leading women in a strikingly male-dominated field. (She was the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize in music, in 1983.) Her “Concerto” is reminiscent of middle-period Stravinsky in its crisp thematic definition and sparse harmonization. Playing with a genial stage presence and a bell-like tone, Philarmonia hornist Adam Ward gave a commanding performance of Zwilich’s likable work.

The two student works that followed bore a strong resemblance to each other in that they felt more old-fashioned than the other pieces. It’s no coincidence that they were also the only atonal works on the program. Douglas Fisk’s “Prelude: Temps Perdu” was strongly reminiscent of Debussy’s impressionist masterpiece, “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Fawn,” (even if the title was an homage to Proust, as Fisk explained). A delicate and nostalgic mood pervaded the entire work, which never resorted to syrupy sentimentality.

Martin Suckling’s “Sing” is based on a typically modern concept — it doesn’t actually “sing” until the very end. Unlike Snider, Suckling presented his piece as a purely musical drama — choosing not to relate it directly to human experience — yet it is marked by a sense of overcoming tragedy. The piece revolves around a moment midway through: A long A — the first time the piece uses the note, Suckling said — intoned by a flute, trumpet, and electric guitar placed in the back of the balcony. More than a gimmick, the technique took advantage of Woolsey Hall’s cavernous space, perpetuating itself throughout the orchestra, transforming into a diffuse melody. An ascending violin solo closes the work, like a fragment of some long-forgotten tune. Though it couldn’t have lasted more than five seconds, the moment was so touching and unexpected that applause felt almost vulgar afterwards. John Adams’s popular orchestral fanfare, “Short Ride in a Fast Machine,” brought the program to a close in a brazen orgy of minimalism.

I came home wishing this kind of event happened much more often. Conductor Shinik Hahm seems to have a natural gift for interpreting new scores, belying his mostly conservative programming at the Philharmonia (and previously at the Yale Symphony Orchestra). The musicians also seemed to relish the challenge of playing something they’d never heard before, giving all the works convincing and accurate performances. The night’s concert made it easier to be optimistic about the future of composing.

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