New York Philharmonic, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

06.11.12
Colin Currie
Financial Times

By Martin Bernheimer

A change of venue and conductor for a showcase of contemporary daring in three bracing guises 

Dramatically labelled Contact!, it took place not in the wide open spaces of Avery Fisher Hall but in the intimate auditorium of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The conductor was not Alan Gilbert but a virtuosic guest, David Robertson. The transparent ensembles, varied in size, never reached full symphonic force. Happy talk, both enlightened and enlightening, preceded the music. The programme proved equally demanding of performer and listener.

The repertory sampled contemporary daring in three bracing guises. First came a world premiere by the grand old iconoclast Elliott Carter, still a creative wonder at 103. Mentally if not physically spry, he took the stage for some wry commentary. Next on the agenda: a severe US premiere by Michael Jarrell, still a relative baby at 53. Finally: a golden oldie by Pierre Boulez, finished in 1993 when the eternal enfant terrible was only 68.

Carter’s Two Controversies and a Conversation, co-commissioned by Aldeburgh and Radio France, emerges as a genial, economic rumination on percussive structures and strictures. Colin Currie and Eric Huebner, the soloists, trade snappy, tricky rhythmic impulses on a piano plus numerous tapping/stroking/banging devices. Supporting instruments add unpredictable commentary and echoes. As always, Carter ignores aesthetic concessions and stylistic compromises.

Jarrell’s Nachlese Vb (Liederzyklus) toys smartly with a sonnet by Luís de Góngora (1561-1627). It treats florid translations, French and German, to otherworldly flights of disjointed Sprechgesang, a lofty soprano embellishing the apparently expressionist orchestral fabric. For all its intentional obscurity, the piece is weirdly, daringly, coldly poignant. Charlotte Dobbs sang her eerie lines with breathless accuracy, even an illusion of ease. If the ultimate impression suggested Pierrot lunaire on acid, that may not be a bad thing.

Boulez’s . . . explosante-fixe . . . , dominated by the brilliant flautist Robert Langevin, remains an exquisite essay in compressed chaos, a climactic fusion of acoustic and electronic manipulation, a telling balance of vigour and rigour. It makes one forget popular theories about any changing of the avant-garde.