Music director Alan Gilbert offered a courageous and nonconformist program with the New York Philharmonic on May 19. Part of his final Farewell Concerts, the evening offered a majority contemporary repertoire, balanced with a safe classic in Brahms’s Violin Concerto. Soloist Leonidas Kavakos offered a strained interpretation of the Brahms, which oscillated between moments of unabashed showmanship and occasional stretches of restrained intimacy.
The overt virtuosity of the classical concerto model contrasted greatly with the subtle artistry of Aeriality, a glacial work by the Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir. The composer herself introduced her piece to the audience, softly explaining her influences of natural proportions and perspective. Zooming in and out of sonic detail over the course of eleven minutes, Aeriality is in absolutely no hurry to develop or impress. The textures fluidly morph, pulling the listener across placid ice sheets and through warm, undulating microtonal blooms. The strings, divided into 17 parts, are micromanaged into dense heterophony that provides a surprisingly clear sense of the simultaneously microscopic and macroscopic.
It takes an extreme amount of precision and care to create something so delicate and nuanced, and an intense awareness of form and pacing to pull off the construction of such a short piece of sound art. One was left wishing that Thorvaldsdottir’s diligent writing had been met with an equally meticulous performance by Gilbert and the orchestra.
But whatever the Philharmonic lacked in contemporary ensemble-style precision was more than made up for with dedicated expressivity and Gilbert’s downright giddy school-kid enthusiasm for the work. The clearest takeaway from an otherwise muddy performance is that Thorvaldsdottir’s music is so profoundly other, so incredibly removed from the canon. She has managed to arrive at a completely fresh definition of sound.
And quite frankly, this is what happens when we hand the microphone over to someone who does not fit the mold. Thorvaldsdottir is young. She is female. She embodies the new. She is not afraid of the delicate, the subtle, the stereotypically feminine. She is not afraid to say that which has not yet been said. And the fact that institutions like the New York Philharmonic are embracing her is a wonderful step towards humanizing and redefining the composer as someone who is not necessarily white, straight, cis, male, and upper-middle class. The more major institutions take these kind of steps towards inclusive programming and commissioning, the wider our perspectives as an audience will grow.
In March we saw the new-music community speak out against discriminatory programming and commissioning through the efforts of social-media campaign #HearAllComposers. Many institutions, such as the Cleveland Orchestra, have refused to respond to the times, programming exclusively white cis-male composers for their 2017-18 season. The sad thing is, Cleveland is not unusual among American orchestras in this regard. Music is a powerful tool for catalyzing change, and providing for composers from many backgrounds is nothing short of empowering for society as a whole. If only out of self-preservation, it seems increasingly important for these institutions to bring in new concertgoers through innovative, young, relatable artists, as the New York Philharmonic has done in naming Thorvaldsdottir its second Kravis Emerging Composer.
As if to accentuate the importance of Thorvaldsdottir’s unique voice and position, the piece to follow could not have provided a more contrasting conclusion. Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Wing on Wing, which was written for the dedication of Walt Disney Concert hall in Los Angeles, was described by Gilbert as an “orchestral showpiece,” and made use of wind machines, electronics (featuring the mating call of the male plainfin midshipman fish), two antiphonal sopranos, and the kitchen sink.
The orchestra and the sopranos, sisters Anu and Piia Komsi, performed with grace and alacrity, though the lack of text in the soprano parts had the unfortunate result of stripping the vocalists of their agency. This, coupled with the somewhat sexual vocal outbursts in the final minutes of the piece, created a sense of stale, entitled objectivation that was musically and morally off-putting. But the epic piece sought to provide a grand finale of sorts to the highly eclectic program, and to this end it most certainly succeeded.
While odd and perhaps a bit clunky, Gilbert’s program achieved something that many music directors have not: change. The New York Philharmonic has taken a huge, though somewhat ungraceful, step forward. And one can not only hope, but also ask for others to follow suit.
Annika Socolofsky is a composer, avant-folk vocalist, and fiddler. Her music stems from the timbral nuance and inwards resonance of the human voice, and is communicated through mediums ranging from orchestral works to unaccompanied folk ballads. She has collaborated with artists including Donald Sinta Quartet, JACK Quartet, Latitude 49, Mobius Percussion, shakuhachi grandmaster Riley Lee, and the University of Michigan Symphony Orchestra, among others. New projects for the 2016-17 season include works for the Albany Symphony Orchestra, Third Coast Percussion, Emissary Quartet & The Fromm Foundation, Shattered Glass, sean-nós singer Iarla Ó Lionáird, and bassist Evan Runyon. www.aksocolofsky.com
On June 12, National Sawdust hosted the culminating event of its inaugural Hildegard Competition, which seeks to encourage inclusivity in the arts through the mentorship of women and non-binary composers.