BOSTON — Cast your eye over the orchestral landscape, and the big picture could be seen as one of institutional malaise: deficits, labor strife, cowardly programming. All of which makes it imperative to celebrate those ensembles that, through luck, skill and diligence, pull off what the symphonic behemoths too rarely achieve: diverse repertoire and financial equilibrium.
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We'll call it in the air: 2015 is going to end up being a great year for music. The albums that have impressed us the most over the year's first six months are a varied lot. There's enormous ambition on display here, epic works crafted to bust boundaries or reshape at will (check out that three-hour debut album), but also intensity in small gestures: a pair of devastating albums about loss, two more anchored in the sounds of sisterly harmonies. As we reach the year's mid-point, take a moment to listen with us, ears wide open to a great six months of music.
"Curious, isn’t it, that the last really great symphony…was Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements, date 1945, exactly coincident with the end of World War Two? It is as though that apocalyptic bomb had demolished not only Hiroshima but, as a side effect, the whole tonal symphonic concept as well.
And so for the last thirty years we have had no real symphonic history."
Andrew Norman (b. 1979) studied at USC, where he currently teaches, and then at Yale. He lives in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, traditionally the most dangerous part of the city (I guess it's been gentrified by now). He has been a contributor to New York's Bang On a Can group as well. The combination of those locales tells a great deal about Mr Norman's work, for which he was a recent Pulitzer Prize finalist.
I have already mentioned a few times here of the extraordinary work of the Boston Modern Orchestra Project and its leader Gil Rose and its label (41 discs since 2008!). This time, it offers us the music of Andrew Norman, an explosive composer in his mid-thirties, which was developed during a two-year residency with the orchestra. The 46-minute Play explores brilliantly the possible modes of play of the orchestra, playing the musicians either together or against each other, for example.
“Play,” which the Boston Modern Orchestra Project commissioned from the fast-rising composer Andrew Norman in 2013, is being talked about as the most important long orchestral work of the 21st century. That kind of hype can often be misleading, but in this case it’s quite likely accurate. The 45-minute, three-movement work, which encompasses various meanings of play — some lighthearted, some sinister — begins in an almost spastic fit of energy; musical ideas ricochet off one another furiously, almost too quickly.
If you’d like a glimpse of the future of symphonic music — or if you just want to know what devilish majesty the New York Philharmonic will shortly unleash — this two-year-old YouTube video from the Proms in London is a good place to start. It shows the world premiere of Thomas Adès’s Totentanz (Dance of Death), which the Philharmonic will perform March 12 through 14.
... Speaking of energizing, we also have the debut recording of up-and-coming composer Andrew Norman's symphonic essay Play (which you can read more about in our Composer Spotlight post on Mr. Norman). ...
1.) Maurizio Pollini, Beethoven: Piano Sonatas Opp. 31 & 49
2.)Boston Modern Orchestra Project, Andrew Norman: Play
3.) Steve Reich, Radio Rewrite
4.) New York Philharmonic, Hadyn, Christopher Rouse, Wagner
5.) Wadada Leo Smith, Ishmail Wadada Leo Smith: Taif – Prayer in the Garden of Hijaz (Live)
Imagine the orchestra as this sort of complicated 19th-century futurist machine, all moving parts and cogs and gears, and little people. I find that sort of fascinating. But every now and then, I just want to throw a wrench in and see what will happen.
Andrew Norman is ready to show you — at least through sound — just what happens when he tosses a wrench or two onto the concert stage.
What is the worst thing that would happen if you publicly admitted to being in throbbing love with the oeuvre of Phil Collins or the decidedly non-artisanal bite of Evan Williams bourbon? The pasty guy at the record store counter may mutter, “Typical…”, but it would be freeing, right? Andrew Norman’s Play is no such “guilty” pleasure, but the score reads as though written by a composer unrestrained by any hint of self-consciousness. It is also one that is acutely aware that audiences trek in and shell out bills to see a show not to hear music, but to watch it performed.