The New York Philharmonic’s Biennial is a bit like a presidential election: exciting, confusing, only partially satisfying—and before it’s over you already start eagerly handicapping the next one. With this first 11-day immersion in new and newish music, the orchestra has done what all orchestras should do, step outside its safe hall and start fomenting some change. By promising to repeat the experiment in 2016, the Philharmonic and its music director Alan Gilbert have turned themselves into a force of permanent revolution.
Not everything worked. The festival buffed a couple of reputations that already gleamed (Carter, Boulez) and tried to make a few dull ones glitter. But it also cranked out enough hours of music, ensured a high enough level of performance, and boosted enough deserving composers that it muted disappointments and amplified discoveries. The thing about new music is that audiences come without expectations, so even if only half the pieces earn listeners’ attention, that’s a pretty good rate of return.
For me, the event that encapsulated the whole was a late-evening recital by the Italian pianist Marino Formenti, a soft-spoken firebrand who hunched over the keyboard, staring owlishly at the score, as if he had lost his place. A few pianissimos feathered prematurely into silence, rhythms lurched, and fast notes occasionally crunched against each other as if in a stampede. But Formenti held an intimate audience rapt and immobile for an unbroken 90 minutes, while he careered across 140 years, a dozen composers, and an assortment of nominally incompatible styles.
He was making a historical argument: Navigate up virtually every stream of contemporary music, and you find Franz Liszt standing at the headwaters, dispensing original inspirations. In his little scenic watercolor of a piece, Au Lac de Wallenstadt, Liszt let the left hand linger aimlessly on the ripples of languid chords, and a whole generation of minimalists might have leapt from that moment right into mid-20th-century maturity. In Bagatelle Ohne Tonart, he detonated tonal harmonies and then tenderly tried to gather their fragments, anticipating the stinging modernism that took hold 60 years after his death. In Resignazione, he circled around extremes of quietude, setting on his way the silence artist Morton Feldman.
Formenti alternated brief but intense missives from the 19th century with 20th-century companion pieces by Ligeti, Rihm, Ustvolskaya, and Adams, showing that composers who had no conscious use for Liszt owed him more than they ever knew. All that lineage tracing could have made for a didactic program; instead Formenti produced a sublimely weird playlist of subliminally connected moments. He flattened history into an hour, compressing forerunners and heirs so that Liszt’s pieces often sounded as though they had been composed five minutes earlier, while the sole encore, a lovely little meditation by Brian Eno, had the sound of something fragile and antique.
That half a piano recital contained the Philharmonic festival’s aspiration: to make contemporary music feel urgent and alive. The composers did not always cooperate. Gotham Chamber Opera opened the festivities with a dramatically staged performance of Toshio Hosokawa’s The Raven, a one-woman setting of Poe’s famous poem. The score quivers with precious sounds, as glossy and beautifully crafted as a basketful of Fabergé eggs. But early in the 45-minute piece, Poe’s quiet creepiness flowers into full-blown psychosis. The incantatory trochees and obsessive rhymes don’t nestle snugly into Hosokawa’s slow-mo-then-scurry rhythms and hyperdramatic gestures, in spite of soprano Fredrika Brillembourg’s high-stakes brilliance.
The festival spread out across Manhattan, and Philharmonic musicians ventured downtown to their new Bleecker Street outpost at SubCulture, an underground room where, in some earlier incarnation of the East Village, leftist students might have spent long nights haranguing each other and brandishing mimeographed fliers. But now the venue has air-conditioning, good sound, and movie-house seats facing the stage, which make it an old-fashioned concert hall. The program featured a clutch of solo pieces, heavy on strenuous charm. To hatch his trombone piece As Above, So Below, Eric Nathan went up to the roof of the American Academy in Rome and imagined his music taking flight, skimming the cupolas and landing in a stand of umbrella pines. In Fandanglish, Chris Kapica gave the clarinetist Pascual Martínez Forteza a lung workout that must have left him dizzy. Ryan Brown contributed four intimately whimsical musical moments for solo piano, concentrated little capsules of prettiness.
Not every concert featured miniatures. Christopher Rouse, Matthias Pintscher, and Steven Mackey supplied big orchestral blowouts, and Julia Wolfe recalled the lethal sufferings of Pennsylvania coal miners in the agonized rumblings of Anthracite Fields, for the Bang-on-a-Can All-Stars and chorus. Pintscher also conducted “Beyond Recall,” a varied set of sweeping responses to large-scale public sculptures in Salzburg. The soprano Jennifer Zetlan could sing the Fibonacci sequence and make it sound expressive—and that’s exactly what she did in Olga Neuwirth’s Piazza dei Numeri, which draped the voice in an ornate brocade of sound. The concert took place at the Museum of Modern Art, in a first-floor space that most visitors speed through on their way to the sculpture garden. The sounds of hyperactive music ricocheted off the glass backdrop and black-granite wall, giving every short pop a long, reverberant tail. This was the cutting edge of contemporary music as seen from Salzburg, a bracing antidote to the gentle loops and drones that New Yorkers have gotten used to.
For much of the festival, Gilbert acted the beaming uncle, drifting from event to event but sitting in the audience. When he did take the podium, he obviously enjoyed himself hugely, especially during the Doug Fitch production of HK Gruber’s Gloria—A Pig Tale. The opera tells the story of life on a pig farm from a porcine point of view: It’s a tragedy, in other words, lightened by clever rhymes and adorable barnyard costumes. The title character doesn’t meet the knife; instead, she becomes a wife, boring her swaggering boar of a spouse to death while she squeals over her piglets. Forgive the cuteness—it’s infectious, though Gruber stirs it together with ground glass. The score sounds as if he’d smashed a Kurt Weill show on a rock and reassembled its shards, leaving seams and gaps and shredded edges. It’s a workout for the tuba, a tour de force of oompah-pah-pahing, with a few extra pahs thrown in here and there along with some rusty-gearshift dissonances to give the music that lurching, listing, post-binge blear. Gilbert, leading a scorching ensemble of Juilliard students, was in his element.
The Biennial was his baby, and its success suggests that a healthy self-examination is going on backstage at Avery Fisher Hall. Virtually all orchestras ply the same waters of 19th-to-early-20th-century romanticism, but the difference between a bold ensemble and a stolid one can be found in the margins. Five years into Gilbert’s tenure, it’s still possible to attend a dozen orchestral concerts in a season and avoid all music written after 1910—but you’d really have to try. More important, the Philharmonic’s leadership has clearly internalized the fact that an orchestra is not just a crew of musicians assembled to deliver the megaliths of the musical repertoire; it’s an elastic organization whose assets include curiosity and clout. No other organization, with the possible exception of Carnegie Hall, could have marshaled so many partners, or presented such a range of concerts. And nobody could have made the festival at once so cosmopolitan and so New York.