Every spring, the Yale Philharmonia lets down its guard and teams up with the eclectic “New Music New Haven” series for an evening comprised entirely of new music. This year’s concert, which took place in Woolsey Hall last Friday, included five brand-new commissions from Yale School of Music composition students alongside music by two of their professors. The most surprising and rewarding orchestral concert of the year, it’s also the only one to include any world premieres.
The Philharmonia opened the evening with a work by Aaron Jay Kernis called “New Era Dance,” a brief, brash showpiece written for the New York Philharmonic. Kernis, the junior member of Yale’s composition faculty, staked out his reputation in the 1990s as both a young firebrand and unabashed neoromantic. These characteristics made him extremely popular on the orchestral scene, which usually risks scaring off its audiences with anything too “modern”. The program notes for the piece suggest that it incorporates “Latin salsa, crackmobile rap, and gypsy-camp folk” (I confess that I have never heard of the latter two genres; neither has Google, except in reference to “New Era Dance”). Virtuosic percussion writing proved to be the only highlight of “New Era Dance,” including parts for shotgun, whistles and siren. Otherwise, the piece revealed Kernis as merely an “uptown” composer trying to be hip.
After the assault of street noises, Ryan Vigil’s “[untitled]” was a blessing. Vigil presented his work as pure musical abstraction: “an exploration of color and texture.” The piece began with faint rainsticks and string harmonics, eventually building into a thick, horror-movie-esque soup. Triadic harmonies occasionally found their way through the slowly shifting chromatic mass; an especially beautiful section near the middle juxtaposed skittering string tremolos with fragments of woodwind melody and ringing vibraphone chords. The overall pacing may have owed a debt to maverick minimalist Morton Feldman, but Vigil’s sound-world was all his own.
In fact, much of the night’s music seemed to be responding to minimalism in one way or another. Missy Mazzoli’s “These Worlds In Us” filtered that influence through post-rock and electronica. Like much music in those genres, the piece was articulated by large sections in contrasting modes or keys. The opening was marked by a gentle and diaphanous violin melody, which gradually accrued more voices and rhythmic drive. An urgent climax and placid conclusion followed in turn. Though it may have failed to surprise, the piece was proportioned skillfully enough to make this heavily-used emotional trajectory genuinely affecting.
Robinson McClellan also used an arch as the backbone for “Gone Today,” an earnest meditation on death. While its elegiac tone brought to mind Samuel Barber’s “Adagio,” McClellan’s harmonic language sounded fresh and clean, allowing him to escape the hackneyed cliches now associated with Barber’s work. A recurring piano figure also brought to mind the eponymous trumpet figure in Charles Ives’s “The Unanswered Question.” Hinting at two such well-known works seemed to acknowledge that though musical trends may change, artists will continue to tackle large issues.
Like Vigil’s, Jennifer Fontana Graham’s piece, “Endurance,” revolved around a musical abstraction: all the musical material was derived from ascending or descending minor scales. In writing, this sounds like a bland concept, but in Graham’s hands, it became a churning, evocative soundscape. While its harmonies were reminiscent of certain “epic” movie scores, its construction managed to outdo them by several orders of magnitude.
Like much of Martin Bresnick’s music, “Grace”, a concerto for two marimba soloists, takes its inspiration from literature — in this case, an essay by 19th-century German Romantic dramatist Heinrich von Kleist on physical grace as it relates to humans, divinities and puppets. The marimba seems a perfect choice to explore grace in musical terms; soloists Robert van Sice (head of Yale’s percussion department) and his former student, Eduardo Leandro, darted with silent agility between the treble and bass registers of their lengthy instruments. In general, the music was hushed and pastoral, with an undercurrent of unrest reminiscent of Britten. The interplay between the two solo parts and the orchestra created a kind of choreography with phrases; Sice and Leandro’s were emphatic and well-defined, while the orchestra’s were murkily melodic.
The evening ended on a memorable high note. Jacob Cooper’s “Odradek” described a creature invented by Franz Kafka, an animated mass of tangled string and sticks. In the tradition of Ravel’s “Scarbo,” Cooper’s piece was full of startling, spastic outbursts. It encompassed a daringly wide stylistic range, with touches of Schoenberg and Debussy rubbing against postminimal harmonies. The brashness, however, is Cooper’s own; one of the few pieces on the program to incorporate humor (some deliciously ridiculous contrabassoon solos), it also contained some of the most deafening unamplified sounds I have ever heard.
The Philharmonia played gamely under conductor Shinik Hahm, though sparse rehearsal was sometimes obvious, especially in the Bresnick. Perhaps if the orchestra scattered new pieces throughout the season, rather than ghettoizing them to a single concert, they would be able to polish their performances more thoroughly. Maybe then every concert would be as newsworthy as this one.