The New York Philharmonic opened a concert with a new work: 1920/2019, by Joan Tower. The composer is one of America’s veterans, born in 1938. What does the title of her new piece mean, or refer to? In 1920, American women were granted the right to vote; in 2019, the #Me Too movement, which targets sexual harassment and sexual abuse, came to the fore. The Philharmonic’s program notes said, “Tower has long been recognized as a feminist voice in classical music.” Fair enough. But does music know it is feminist? Music without words, that is?

Because I know Tower’s title, and because I read the program notes, I know that her new piece is supposed to be “about” women’s rights. But nothing in the music tells you that. How could it, lacking words? The piece could be “about” a voyage, a romance, or a ham sandwich (a very good one). It is a piece for orchestra. Toscanini was once asked, “What does the first movement of the ‘Eroica’ Symphony mean?” He answered, “Allegro con brio in E flat.”

In a composer’s note—a written statement—Tower says the following about 1920/2019: “It is a piece largely about rhythm and texture (hopefully) set in a dramatic and organic narrative.” This is smart, and so is the piece itself.

It begins with percussion, right away—violent percussion. Percussion plays a prominent role throughout. I have often said that you could call the current era in composition “The Age of Anxiety” or “The Age of Percussion,” one or the other. Tower’s piece is colorful, transparent—chamber-like. The cello has an extended solo, as do other instruments. Important, exciting things are going on (things of an indeterminate nature). There is an inexorability—complete with timpani beats (that tried-and-true method of conveying inexorability). Toward the end, the music is almost anthemic, or celebratory.

The piece is the right length, too (about fifteen minutes), having an arc. It is expertly—I want to say brilliantly—crafted. It is a brainy work, and also a stirring one. Frankly, 1920/2019 is one of the best new pieces, in any genre, I have heard in recent years. I look forward to hearing it again. What a pleasure, to applaud a new piece, heartily.

Frankly, 1920/2019 is one of the best new pieces, in any genre, I have heard in recent years.

In the same hall—Alice Tully—the Chamber Music Society presented a program of six Baroque concertos. I will single out three players (if you accept that a writer or speaker can “single out” more than one person). Stephen Taylor, an oboist, soloed in an Albinoni concerto. Years ago, Itzhak Perlman said something candid and tart, speaking for many. He was talking about the “period-practice movement,” then all the rage. Perlman said something like, “Every time I turn on the radio, I hear scratch, scratch, hoot, hoot.” In the Albinoni, strings may have done a little scratching—but Taylor did no hooting. He sang on his instrument, beautifully and interestingly.

Sooyun Kim was the flutist of the evening. One of the concertos she was featured in was “Il gardellino,” i.e., Vivaldi’s Flute Concerto No. 3 in D major, Op. 10, No. 3. “Gardellino”—also “cardellino”—means “goldfinch” in Italian. Kim played with freedom and purity. There was no tightness whatsoever in her playing (and tightness is an enemy of music-making, as of athleticism). What’s more, she played with pleasure—a pleasure communicated to the audience. After she was done with the Vivaldi, a lady behind me said, “That was a crowd-pleaser.”

The last player to “single out” is James Thompson, a young violinist from Cleveland. He played a Locatelli concerto, and played it arrestingly. He did not scratch. He allowed vibrato in his sound, which was a public service. He played the music with great character. Even the rests were charged with musicality. As for his technical skills, he was not just “Baroque virtuosic” but “virtuosic virtuosic.” The cadenzas were extraordinary. He played like some mad Baroque Gypsy, with a polished technique.

I will again quote a patron behind me—a man who asked someone, “What’s his name again?” That name is “James Thompson.”

 “What’s his name again?” That name is “James Thompson.”

A concert in Zankel Hall started at nine o’clock—that was possibly the first sign the event was to be cool. Hip. On the stage was the So Percussion ensemble. One of the members praised the sound of the subway, which you can hear in this hall. Some of us have regarded this, over the years, as a flaw. The percussionist said, “I love New York. I mean, where else?”

The first piece on the program was Note to Self, by Nathalie Joachim, a musician born in 1983. (There is precedent for Joachims in music!) The piece has three movements: “Much More,” “Maybe,” and “Motivated.” The composer herself served as a singer, and she wore a striking pink dress. Her piece is loopy—on a loop, or loops. It is repetitive, and meant to cast a spell, I think. It is at times humorous. Once I gave in to the piece, I found it pleasant.

Later, there was Vodalities: Paradigms of Consciousness for the Human Voice. Sounds heavy. Sounds like the title of a dissertation. The piece is by Dominic “Shodekeh” Talifero, born in 1977. Our program notes described him as “a groundbreaking and highly adept beatboxer, vocal percussionist, and breath artist who pushes the boundaries of the human voice within and outside the context of hip-hop music and culture.” The terms “beatboxer,” “vocal percussionist,” and “breath artist” are closely related, I think: we’re talking about people who use their mouths in creative and unusual ways. Like Nathalie Joachim’s piece, Talifero’s is in three movements, and each of them has a dedication: to Bobby McFerrin; to Ella Fitzgerald; and to Doug E. Fresh, a.k.a. the “Human Beatbox.”

Talifero was the soloist in his own piece. That he has energy, talent, and imagination is clear. For me, Vodalities goes on too long, but, as regular readers know, a lot of things go on too long for me.

That he has energy, talent, and imagination is clear.

Caroline Shaw, born in 1982, won the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2013. Four years later, she composed Narrow Sea, a song-cycle borrowing texts of old American hymns. The hymns have to do with water. In the course of the song-cycle, the soprano soloist—or the singer, in any case (she may not have to be a soprano)—pours water from pitchers into bowls, in front of a microphone. Or so it seemed to me from my seat, in Zankel Hall. The music is pop-like and New Agey. It is also sincere, a quality that goes a long way.

The singer in Zankel Hall was Dawn Upshaw, the soprano born in 1960, one of the outstanding singers of our time: in songs and opera both. (Concert works, too.) A lot of us first saw her in 1988, when she appeared in Leonard Bernstein’s seventieth-birthday concert, broadcast on national television. With Lukas Foss at the piano, she sang Bern­stein’s “I Hate Music” (“but I like to sing”). Also appearing in Zankel Hall for Narrow Sea was Gilbert Kalish, the pianist born in 1935. Many of us know him, in particular, for his collaboration with Jan DeGaetani (1933–89), the mezzo-soprano.

For Narrow Sea, Upshaw sang into a microphone, and mainly in a lowish register. She is still Dawn Upshaw—I mean, you can hear her longstanding traits, no matter the music, no matter the circumstances. Kalish was at a piano in a back corner of the stage. Members of So Percussion strummed the strings within the piano.

If I may make a confession: I was a little sad seeing the great Dawn Upshaw pouring water into bowls, in front of a mic. And to see Gilbert Kalish poking at a piano, while others strummed. But everyone involved seemed quite content. There is a line from a Godfather movie, which people know as “This is the life we have chosen.” (In actuality, the character says, “This is the business we’ve chosen.”) So be it.

“We haven’t seen the organ in two years.” That’s what an usher in Alice Tully Hall said to a patron. The organ was indeed present, at the back of the stage: beautiful. The Chamber Music Society was putting on another concert, this one with no chamber music, strictly speaking. You could play the music in a chamber, all right. But the evening comprised nothing but solo works—solo works by J. S. Bach, including for organ.

It began with the lute: the Suite in G minor, bwv 995—transposed to A minor by our soloist, Paul O’Dette. (Bach’s music was originally in C minor, but we will not pause to delve into musicology.) Frankly, I think a lute suite was unfit for the hall—or the hall for a lute suite. The music was simply too quiet. One had to strain to hear, and not in a good way. The music, to my ear, was too remote. We had a mismatch between suite and hall.

We had a mismatch between suite and hall.

Next on the stage was a violinist, Bella Hristova. She played the Partita in E major, one of the best-loved works in all of Bach. It includes the Gavotte en rondeau, which is currently making its way through space. That is, it’s on the “golden record,” stowed on Voyagers I and II, launched in 1977 and still going. If aliens ever listen to the record, they will hear Arthur Grumiaux playing the gavotte. Hristova played her Bach with economy, definition, and confidence.

Then, a pianist: Gilles Vonsattel, who played the French Suite in B minor. He played crisply and sensibly, with a modicum of pedal. The concluding jig had its due pep.

The organ, at last, did more than look pretty: it was played by Stephen Tharp. The organ was inaugurated, by the way, in 1975, with a recital by E. Power Biggs. It was Biggs, more than anyone else, who made the organ—all organs, I mean—a “concert instrument” (beyond a church fixture). Tharp played Bach’s Partitas on “O Gott, du frommer Gott.” Here, a partita is not a suite but rather a variation. Tharp executed the work ably.

There was one more player, and one more suite: Colin Carr, who played the Cello Suite in D major. He is a worthy cellist and musician, a pro. I have a question, however, which I direct to myself as much as to anyone else: Was the concert, as a whole, a little on the sleepy side, or was I? I like to think the former, but maybe it was a combo.

At the 92nd Street Y, Marc-André Hamelin, the Canadian pianist, began a recital with Bach—but this was C. P. E., Carl Philipp Emanuel, one of the master’s (many) children. C. P. E. was fairly masterly himself. Hamelin, who champions him, began with a sonata by the composer, in E minor. Its movement headings may be familiar to you: “Allemande,” “Courante,” “Sarabande,” “Menuet,” and “Gigue.” Hamelin played the sonata with expertise and affection, serving up lapping or interlocking phrases, over and over.

He also champions Georgy Catoire. (Hamelin loves to present composers who have been hidden under a bushel.) Catoire was a Russian of French heritage, born in Moscow in 1861 and dying there in 1926. Hamelin played Quatre morceaux, the first of which is “Chant du soir.” Then there is “Méditation.” Then we are back to the night, with “Nocturne.” Finally, “Étude fantastique.” The pieces—the morceaux—resemble their headings. They are Lisztian and Rachmaninoff-like, yet they come from the hand of a distinctive composer. Hamelin played the pieces with his sweeping beauty, the kind of beauty that the late Earl Wild, too, deployed.

After intermission, Hamelin played one work: a familiar piece, a Beethoven sonata—the Sonata No. 29 in B flat, Op. 106, nicknamed “Hammerklavier.” Hamelin did a lot of good playing in this sonata. He also did some playing I could take issue with. But as I sat in the auditorium, I thought, “You know? Playing the ‘Hammerklavier’ is a little like climbing Mount Everest. You don’t feel like picking at a man as he climbs the mountain and reaches the summit. The undertaking itself is impressive.”

Hamelin, being a throwback of a pianist (high praise from me), writes his own music, and arranges other music. At encore time, he often plays one of his own compositions. I was hoping he would do so this time. Instead, it was back to C. P. E. Bach. Hamelin played a little piece with a wonderful title: La complaisante. It is in B flat, like the “Hammerklavier.” (I wager Hamelin had that in mind.) I will tell you a secret: Like everyone else, I have always been in awe of Op. 106, the “Hammerklavier.” But I can’t say I have ever loved it—not like, for example, the Sonata No. 31 in A flat, Op. 110, another Beethoven sonata that ends in a great fugue.

As it happens, Conrad Tao played Op. 110 on the same stage six days later. It was the final piece of his recital. He began with an improvisation of his own, which slid right into a John Adams piece: China Gates. Then it was a piece by Jason Eckhardt (born in 1971). Then a little Bach (a chorale prelude). Then another improvisation. Then, before intermission, Schumann’s Kinderszenen. Tao goes for the eclectic.

He also goes for talking—talking to the audience. This recital had the feeling of a concert-lecture. I often think of the slogan of a Detroit radio station, long ago: “Less Talk, More Rock.”

After intermission, Tao played a piece by Fred Hersch, a jazz composer born in 1955. In addition to Tao, Hersch is admired by Igor Levit, the Russian-German pianist. These are high commendations. After the Hersch, Tao played a new work of his own: Keyed In. Before he played it, he talked to the audience about it, concluding, “I hope you like it.” You may remember the title that High Fidelity gave an article by Milton Babbitt in 1958: “Who Cares If You Listen?” (Babbitt disliked the title and sought to disown it.)

Of Keyed In, I will give you a few impressions. The composer plays, or experiments, with sound. The piece struck me as half for study, half for performance. Tao pulverized the piano, in repeated notes. Most of the piece seemed to me fff. “Piano recital as heavy metal?” I thought. My ears hurt. I wondered whether the piano had been amplified.

I further wondered, “How is Tao going to transition to Op. 110 from this? What a jarring change this will be!” He did it. Deep into the sonata, when he played the Adagio, I jotted down one note: “Beethoven.” What I meant was, “This is real Beethoven. The genuine article.” And the fugue, I thought, was marvelous: beautiful, reasonable, balanced, thoughtful, and, finally, sublime. Conrad Tao has been a formidable pianist and composer since his teen years, and he is now twenty-seven. It will be interesting to see how he further develops.

“This is real Beethoven. The genuine article.” 

At the Y, he played a single encore, in honor of Stephen Sondheim, who had died a few weeks before. He said that Sondheim had meant a lot to him. Tao played something—arranged by himself, maybe—from Sunday in the Park with George, the Sondheim musical from 1983. He played it with great, great conviction.

At the New York Philharmonic, Philip Smith hosted an annual tradition: “Holiday Brass.” The Chicago Symphony Orchestra is known for its brass section, but all the top orchestras have commendable ones, and that certainly includes the New York Philharmonic’s. Smith was the principal trumpet here from 1988 to 2014. He now teaches at the University of Georgia, and he returns to New York for this Holiday Brass affair. I am not much for talking, as you know, and he is. But he is so amiable and so earnest, you can hardly begrudge him. I don’t know where he grew up, but it wasn’t Georgia. When he stands in awe, he stands in “awr,” and the Jewish Festival of Lights is “Hanukker.”

He can still play too, retiree though he is. He joined two fellow trumpeters in “Bugler’s Holiday,” Leroy Anderson’s quick-tonguing hit from 1954. It is not a Christmas piece—the only holiday it celebrates is the bugler’s one—but it’s such a delight to play, and listen to, who can resist? After it was over, Smith said, “Well, that was a gasser. That’s good stuff.” Yes, indeed, as was the concert in general.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 40 Number 6, on page 53
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