For devotees of new music, the past few weeks have presented almost too many choices in New York. The predominant composer is probably Louis Andriessen, the focus of events at Carnegie Hall over the span from April 9 to May 10—covered by fellow SundayArts bloggers Daniel Felsenfeld and James C. Taylor. But there were also some names to watch at two down concerts this week. At Le Poisson Rouge, the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) performed works by Philippe Hurel, John Zorn, Du Yun, and Dai Fujikura. At the Skirball Center for the Performing Arts, the New York City Opera’s Vox Contemporary American Opera Lab presented ten new operas-in-progress over two days, for free.
ICE’s April 27 concert at Poisson Rouge was an evening devoted to pushing boundaries, both with what instruments can be made to do, and how readily the audience can respond to the textural, harmonic, and other challenges that music throws at them. Flutist Claire Chase, executive director of ICE, was the nominal emcee of the concert. Her playing and that of flutist Eric Lamb were on spectacular display in Loops for Flute, the opening piece. Chase and Lamb performed fiendishly difficult ascending, twirling … loopy lines in tight intervals, in perfect unison; several passages evoked giant gusts of wind picking up leaves that then twirled in the air. The International Contemporary Ensemble, by the way, has been named winner of the 2010 Trailblazer Award from the American Music Center and the 2010 ASCAP/CMA Award for Adventurous Programming, has performed more than 400 world premieres since its founding in 2001.
At Le Poisson Rouge, I confess I did not know what to make of Air Glow for flute, clarinet, trumpet, cello, guitar, with electronics, by Du Yun, a young composer born and raised in Shanghai who has been attracting some attention lately. Its pointillistic sonic explorations reminded me of any number of new pieces that I never seem to be able to remember the minute they’re over. However, just a few nights later I was blown away by her opera Zolle at the Vox Opera Festival.
Zolle features the free-form expressions of a ghost struggling to make contact with her living family, and the related themes of alienation and the immigrant experience. It presented extreme vocal challenges for soprano Hai Tin Chinn, who was completely up to the challenge, skittering up and down a wide range, making flutter effects, and using a walkie-talkie in one section to give a scratchy effect. This tiny, lithe singer threw herself into the piece with abandon, so that somehow the whole ghost experience seemed plausible. Behind her, a chamber orchestra of standard instrumentalists (violin, viola, etc.) was put to extra use occasionally playing a red-and-yellow plastic harmonica, and there were many nice, spooky effects such as sounds coming from what looked like a couple of tin cans and a prepared piano/harpsichord that was not quite in tune with the orchestra. An almost-aria toward the end featured Chinn with tenor Brian Anderson—I say “almost” because it was more fragments that evoked an Italian aria without actually getting all the way there. On the opposite side of the stage from Chinn, Hila Plitmann served as narrator, and her quiet but intense delivery pulled the whole thing together. Plitmann’s wild, panicked eyes alone vividly conveyed the ghost’s sense of panic and disconnection. Du Yun wrote in her program notes that the piece alluded to spoken-text soundworld created by William Burroughs, Tom Waits, Diamanda Galas, and Laurie Anderson, with several other influences including Chinese Kun opera, tangos, and Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du soldat. It’s pretty hard to throw in that much stuff, and actually pull it off.
The other opera-in-progress I got to hear at the Vox festival was Missy Mazzoli’s Song from the Uproar. Mazzoli, who lives in Brooklyn, has like Du Yun become something of a star composer, and three sections from her new opera about Swiss explorer Isabelle Eberhardt (1877-1904) were promising. While Du Yun’s text-dense piece had almost more words than the human ear could absorb in one sitting, Mazzoli’s Song from the Uproar was economical in the extreme. Mazzoli, whose ability to orchestrate seems well beyond her 30 years, does not seem to have any problem writing recognizable melodies, either—there were several lovely ones, mostly sung by Nina Yoshida Nelsen, who played Isabelle. I’d like to hear more from Ariana Chris, a singer I’ve not seen before, who performed beautifully in the small part of the Mother. Song from the Uproar was performed with a black-and-white film projected at the back of the stage by Stephen Taylor, depicting various parts of Eberhardt’s life.
George Steel, the New York City Opera general director, said he intends to bring the Vox American Opera Lab “more into the core” of what the company does—rather than being an “independent outlier,” which is how he says Vox started off eleven years ago. There was good turnout for this event, and Skirball is the right kind of space for it: not too big, and downtown. The crowd could wander in and out between pieces. It was free. It’s the kind of thing City Opera should be doing, as a counterweight to the Metropolitan Opera.