Photo by Dewey Neild
With a name like Steven Stucky, he has to be good, and so he is. Since his arrival at the Philharmonic in 1988, his official titles have included composer in residence, new-music adviser and, at present, consulting composer for new music. He is actually a composer in nonresidence; his day job is as a professor of composition at Cornell, and that’s all to the good, since he serves as a pipeline from the orchestra to life beyond the mountains and counteracts any imputation of provincialism at either end. His essays on the phenomenon of new music — what it means to create out in front of popular taste and expectation, what composers and their audience “owe” one another — have made the printed Green Umbrella programs over the years documents worth pondering and saving; I have several times urged him to submit them for publication. The list of new works he has created for the Philharmonic — for full orchestra or various component groups — forms a considerable repertory. His Second Concerto for Orchestra, which had its world premiere here last week under Esa-Pekka Salonen’s exuberant leadership, is a distinguished addition to that list.
I write of Stucky and his music in good faith and with genuine admiration. I think we are past the time of judging music as a branch of politics, liberal versus conservative, non-tonal radical versus defender of the C-major scale. There is too much bad, aimless, non-tonal showoff music around, and too much enthralling neo-tonal stuff from the John Adams gang et alii to make those old categories stick. The composer nowadays who has something to say, we can generally assume, has a pretty good handle on the language in which to say it. (There are exceptions, but we’ll get to her later.)
By that assumption, Stucky’s new piece shows him as an easy master of polyglot. He confessed as much in the pre-performance rituals at last week’s premiere, part of the Philharmonic’s First Nights series. Debussy and Stravinsky rank high among his household gods, as does Witold Lutoslawski, his onetime teacher. That in itself forms a fascinating amalgam: color, rhythm, propulsion. On the strength of one hearing, plus a few days with the score, the new work’s strongest music is its slow movement, a set of variations that range broadly across a vista of both land and sea, with bright solo instrumental writing and breath-stopping dark sonorities. There are glimpses, sure enough, of Debussy’s seascape — not as thievery but as tribute, which is a very different matter. The work is full of tributes, in fact Stucky refers to them as “friends”: musical puns wherein the notes themselves spell out names through a complex referring system more to be seen than heard. An opening movement, not much more than a fanfare with a short romantic interlude midway, and a boisterous, ovation-
generating finale frame this slow movement,
but the latter is the music I would most want to live with.
The First Nights have been popular; management tells me that the series was the first to sell out. Each of the events has been built around a premiere — Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, the Beethoven Fifth and now this — with some dramatic effects onstage, some well-chosen bits of other music to complement the work in question, but also — alas — a copious outpouring of old-school music-appreciationese written and delivered by the actor John de Lancie in a manner that, last Friday night, raised such terms as “insufferable” to expressive heights. Festivities included an album of Stucky-family snapshots projected on the screen and a visit from an old school buddy (“This Is Your Life, Stevie Stucky”). Three local composers, after hearing the inconclusive first movement, got to come onstage and go “gee whiz” about the music in a gathering of clichés strained and embarrassing. About halfway, Stucky himself was finally vouchsafed the microphone, and, from then on, with the help of Salonen and the orchestra, actually explained and demonstrated some of the melodic and contrapuntal mechanisms of the new piece. Why there hadn’t been more of this genuinely valuable material, and less of the baloney, is something beyond my powers of explanation.
It had been, in fact, something of a Stucky week, to our greater pleasure. Monday’s Green Umbrella offered the world premiere of a song cycle, To Whom I Said Farewell. These are settings of four poems by A.R. Ammons: elegiac meditations on death from immediately inside the grave, set for mezzo-soprano (the marvelous Janice Felty, too long away) and 15 players. Solemn, melodically graceful pieces, these are Stucky’s best kind of music; they reflect the same impulses that, written somewhat larger, surge through the slower parts of the orchestral work. They also have its same sense of instrumental color. The texts were printed, in the program book, in black against a gray background; the house lights were kept low to render them illegible. Words like “inconsiderate” come to mind; also “stupid.”
Pianist Xak Bjerken, a faculty colleague of Stucky at Cornell, began the program with a set of attractive miniatures by Stucky and György Kurtág. Stucky’s Four Album Leaves of 2002 are no more than their title suggests: miniatures in, perhaps, the Schumann mold, with No. 3 — a slow-moving harmonic sequence — a particularly appealing small interlude. Eight Kurtág pieces from a set called Games were something more, however: small, self-contained explosions, intense and teeming with thoughts unsaid but swirling beneath a turbulent surface. Bjerken returned after intermission in Judith Weir’s Piano Concerto, which he has also recorded.
Try as I might, I cannot come away from Dame Judith’s music unwounded — in spirit and sometimes also in lower spine. She has previously crossed my path with musical evocations of Chinese opera and the Bayeux tapestry; on the matter of the concerto, in program note and pre-concert chat, she had the gall to pass off this twiddly small concoction as something Mozartian — pinpointing the Piano Concerto K. 449 as the specific target. Is there no justice? Dame Judith’s aspirations have elevated her this time not to anything remotely dreamed of in Herr von Köchel’s catalog, but something closer to the tea-and-crumpets manner of Cécile Chaminade, with a naughty wrong note here and there to tickle the peasantry. Christopher Rouse’s Compline was the attractive ending work, music inspired by the bells of Rome’s churches but actually scored for the instrumentation of Ravel’s Introduction and Allegro: harp, winds, string quartet. Smart coattail riding, that, and smart music as well.