Live: How Exciting Were The Premieres Of Arvo Pärt And Philip Glass's New Works? Someone Fainted!
American Composers Orchestra
Tuesday, January 31
Better than: A date with Justin Bieber for a 13-year-old girl.
Last night at Carnegie Hall, the American Composers Orchestra ("the only orchestra in the world" dedicated to music by American composers) celebrated Philip Glass's 75th birthday with a program that began with the New York premiere of Estonian-born composer Arvo Pärt's alternately sparse and bombastic Lamentate and ended with the U.S. premiere of Glass's Symphony No. 9. It was a magical evening, the kind of night where audience member Meryl Streep is not recognized as the star of the The Iron Lady (or even for being Meryl Streep) but rather just as that actress in the Glass-scored film The Hours, there to celebrate her friend's big night.
Even when someone fell unconscious during the performancean incident made all the more stunning by Carnegie Hall's legendary acoustics and the sparse nature of Part's composition at that momentthe band played on without missing a beat.
Pärt's Lamentate was the perfect showpiece for the hall's acoustics. Before it started, first violin Eva Gruesser took the stage, followed by piano soloist Maki Namekawa (wearing a stunning fluorescent pink cape and boots that looked like they'd be awfully hard to play a piano in) and conductor Dennis Russell Davies. Davies, Glass told us, has commissioned eight of his nine symphonies, and having watched him conduct the world premiere of Symphony No. 8 at BAM years ago with gusto, I was sad to realize he'd be largely hidden from view behind Namekawa's front-and-center grand piano.
Without being able to see Davies's baton, it was hard to know when Lamentate actually began. The initial rumbling of the bass drum was so subtleindeed, it was more of a feeling than even a sound initiallyit could have been mistaken for an underfoot subway. But slowly and forcefully, the piece came to life, the gentle sounds creating a similar sensation to traveling from sleep to consciousness with the help of dawning light of dawn rather than the glaring of an alarm clock.
But the alarm clock came in the form of Namekawa's playing, which provided a dramatic counter-point to the rest of the orchestra, her hands doing a delicate choreography above the keys during the (long) periods of time when she wasn't striking them dramatically. There is a crescendo in Lamentate which is strangely reminiscent of (and just as aggressive as) the on in the Beattles's The Fool on the Hill.
In the program notes, Pärt describes the piece being "marked by two diametrically opposed moods: I would characterize these two poles as being 'brutal-overwhelming' and 'intimate fragile.' " This is pretty accurate, and the piece worked most for me in the moments of fragility, reminiscent of the first piece of Pärt's I ever heard, Tabula Rasa.
When Pärt's music was so sparse that it made you focus on the silences as much as the sounds (the way a Giacometti sculpture makes you focus on the absence of space as much as the object itself), it truly accented what a fine hall Carnegie is, and how it really amplifies the silence. Unfortunately, the amount of silence was also accented by every cough-drop wrapper being opened and person moving in their seat, the woman who fell asleep and started snoring behind me, and, most dramatically of all, the personwho collapsed on an aisle seat on the left side of the house.
"Doctor!" someone called over the quiet music as a flurry of activity surrounded someone who appeared to slump from their seat onto the floor. It was a dramatic uptick of events for people who were bored (there were quite a few, judging from conversations during intermission); amazingly, Davies did not miss a beat conducting, despite the rush of activity just a few rows from the stage. (At intermission I found out that a man had merely fainted and was OK; however, upping the ante, he fainted on top of a pregnant woman, and people initially thought there was something happening to her. To be born or die in Carnegie Hall with a live score by Arvo Pärt would have been pretty dramatic; fortunately, neither happened.)