Premiere Commission 10th anniversary concert at Le Poisson Rouge

The Premiere Commission 10th Anniversary Concert at Le Poisson Rouge, February 13th, 2012, featured one New York premiere and three world premieres, as well as more established pieces. Unlike some contemporary classical concerts, this evening at LPR featured a small array of instruments, including only piano, string quartet (the very “hot” Brooklyn Rider), soprano, and, at the very end, some electronic effects. This relatively restrained palette gave the concert a sense of unity that is often lacking in collections of diverse modern works.

Brooklyn Rider – Photograph by Sarah Small

The concert began with celebrated composer William Bolcom’s New York Lights, an adaptation for piano of a work from an opera. It’s a short, beautiful piece, with a very simple “Americana” chorale feel reminiscent of Copland. There is a brief and welcome moment towards the middle when the harmonies briefly grow richer and denser, before backing off once again to simpler chords. It did suffer a bit from its origins as a multi-instrumental work; although expertly performed by Premiere Commission series mainstay Bruce Levingston, the piece’s numerous trills, frills, and rapid registral switches were obvious stand-ins for a bigger ensemble. Nevertheless, New York Lights stood out as an emotionally effective work.

Composer and pianist Kimball Gallagher then performed his own Four Preludes. Although varied in their individual execution, all four combined expressive diatonic gestures with both chromatic and minimalist elements. Other than those few hints of their contemporary origins, these preludes felt like they came straight out of 19th-century Romanticism, because of both their tonal content and their sentimentality.

Lisa Bielawa – Photograph by Liz Linder

In an interesting twist, composer/soprano Lisa Bielawa began by performing The Blessed Virgin’s Expostulation by none other than 17th-century Briton Henry Purcell, accompanied by Gallagher continuing on the piano. They delivered a very sincere, straightforward rendition of this heartfelt bit of Marian mythology. This “throwback” choice, 300 years older than any other piece on the concert, was a lead-in to a performance of Bielawa’s own art songs; she sang three movements from Graffiti dell’amante, a multi-song discourse on romantic love. Brooklyn Rider accompanied Bielawa and using string quartet rather than piano as accompanist was a bold choice that required careful balancing of the dynamics of the forces involved. I found these pieces—individually titled “Devotion,” “Remembering,” and “Desire”—challenging rather than enjoyable, for the most part. Although the string quartet had some interesting scoring involving pizzicato, battuto, and other extended techniques, as well as contrasting textures among the four instruments, the vocal lines of the songs were atonal, awkward, and very registrally strained. “Desire” was the strongest of the three, with an exciting, even frenetic instrumental accompaniment, including some piercing harmonics, and a better integration of the voice part with the strings. Overall, however, Bielawa’s compositional choices interfered with, rather than enhanced, the songs’ intended emotional content.

Brooklyn Rider remained on stage to perform four movements of Suite from Bent by Philip Glass, pieces that were both exhilarating and frustrating. Glass is an easily and frequently mocked composer; Suite from Bent showcased both the best and worst aspects of his style. For instance, the fourth movement had a somber, sweetly elegiac violin melody that was frequently interrupted by the most clichéd arpeggio patterns imaginable. The most obvious flaw was the repetitiveness in both the moment-to-moment of the pieces and in their overall structure—we do this thing! Now we do another thing! Now we do the first thing again! OK, back to the second thing! Lather, rinse, repeat. Sometimes there were sudden changes in mood, tempo, or dynamics, indicating a genuinely new direction, only to have the piece end moments later. It is as if Glass is simply unwilling to create a piece that isn’t fundamentally static even when he has plenty of ideas. And yet… it should be noted that the performance was fantastic; Brooklyn Rider made the periods of most intense rhythmic energy, including swaths of the pizzicato-focused second movement, truly hum.  I would enjoy hearing them play similar pieces that had more harmonic development.

Next up was Toward Night, by Augusta Gross, a gorgeous solo piano piece that felt like an incredibly gentle lullaby remixed with the complexity and harmonic inventiveness of a Brahms intermezzo. Then, appropriately enough, Silent Night followed Toward Night, though it was a silly, distorted, chromaticized, “broken” version of the Christmas carol, repurposed for the “Valentine’s Day Eve” performance. Brooklyn Rider violinist Colin Jacobsen and pianist Levingston played the music, while an actor and a dancer enacted a black comedy of miscommunication and suicidal loneliness. The overall effect was a nice break from the serious and unfamiliar which dominated the show.

The centerpiece of the show was another piece by Bielawa, the premiere of Rondolette for piano quintet. While it did use rondo form, it also played with and transcended that structure. The episodes were endlessly varied and inventive, while the repetitions of the original theme were always unexpected, welcome, and subtly changed from their previous iterations. The lyrical lilting of that main theme contrasted beautifully with a certain dissonant edginess that defined the accompaniment. The scoring was enormously skillful as well, with similar material traded seamlessly among the instruments throughout; Brooklyn Rider perfectly executed the frequent use of extended techniques Bielawa called for. In short, Rondolette was the perfect mix of the modern and romantic, the sweet and the unrelentingly tense.

Christopher Tignor - Photo by Marilis Cardinal

Christopher Tignor – Photo by Marilis Cardinal

The concert concluded with South by Southwest, another world premiere, by electronic musician Christopher Tignor, who used his laptop and keyboard to join in with Levingston’s piano playing. It was a very disciplined, almost ascetic piece, with the piano languorously exploring dream-like chromatic passages for a long time before the electronics started up. The electronics were more like a wall of subtly-textured white noise than a collection of notes; their intersection with the more distinct sounds of the piano created a sort of aural “optical illusion” in which first one sound and then the other seemed more prominent, even as neither had really changed. South by Southwest left a haunting impression of seriousness and contemplation as it faded out.

Founded in 2001, Premiere Commission, Inc. is a non-profit foundation that promotes the commissions and premieres of new compositions by some of today’s most talented and thoughtful artists. Led under the artistic leadership of its founder, pianist Bruce Levingston, the organization seeks to explore and develop the work of emerging as well as established composers and artists from different mediums.

Matt Weber is a New York based composer, educator, and political slacktivist.