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Stepping Away from Classics, NY Philharmonic Celebrates New Music

Alan Gilbert conducts the New York Philharmonic  at Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, New York City, March 3, 2014. (Chris Lee)
Alan Gilbert conducts the New York Philharmonic at Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, New York City, March 3, 2014. (Chris Lee)
If your idea of a symphonic concert is a program of music by dead classical European composers, think again. 

The New York Philharmonic is presenting an 11-day festival of new music. Its first-ever Biennial Concerts will be held at the Philharmonic’s home in Lincoln Center and all around New York City. The program features new works by established and emerging composers.

Alan Gilbert, music director of the New York Philharmonic, is not scared of new music and he does not think audiences should be either.

"Frankly, the reason I do new music is I like a lot of it," he said. 
 
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In addition to playing their own concerts, the Philharmonic is sharing the bill during the festival with some surprising partners, like Bang on a Can All-Stars. The six classically-trained musicians do not actually bang on cans.   

"With Bang on a Can, we’re looking at certain kinds of wild and crazy adventurous music that doesn’t fit so neatly into the box, so we’re ecstatic to be a part of it," said composer Julia Wolfe, one of the group's founders. 

The ensemble is going to perform Wolfe’s multi-media oratorio Anthracite Fields inspired by Pennsylvania's coal country, near where she grew up.

"I wanted to honor the people that worked there," she said. "And so on one hand I am looking at...how do I honor them? It certainly wasn’t about, 'Oh, coal is awful.'  There are things about coal that are awful, but it wasn’t reduced to that." 

The renowned Juilliard School and the Metropolitan Museum of Art are presenting HK Gruber’s opera Gloria - A Pig Tale.  
Alan Gilbert directs the rehearsal of Gloria - A Pig Tale, at Juilliard School, New York City, May 23, 2014. (Chris Lee)
Alan Gilbert directs the rehearsal of Gloria - A Pig Tale, at Juilliard School, New York City, May 23, 2014. (Chris Lee)
Visual artist and puppeteer Doug Fitch is directing it. He has also designed costumes that are sort of wearable art, for a story about a blonde pig, a wild boar, and avenging sausages.

"There’s a phalanx of nasty pig’s relatives and there is a chorus of frogs, of course, and a couple of be-bopping kind of oxen, with a couple of prophesy-spouting birds. So, it’s your regular opera," Fitch said with a laugh.

Juilliard grads Carlton Ford and Kevin Burdette could not resist croaking and be-bopping in one of the school’s practice rooms.  

"It’s fascinating music, because it’s intensely difficult," said Burdette, who sings the role of Roderigo, the wild boar. "But when it clicks in, it gets this kind of groove that sort of propels itself and it’s a hoot to sing, and I think, it’s probably for the audience, I think they’ll think it’s a gas."

Austrian composer HK Gruber’s work has been performed around the world, but one of the programs features completely unknown composers.

Last week, students at New York's Special Music School High School gathered to rehearse Beyond Outer, by 15-year-old Zachary Detrick.      

"I wanted to try to write a very atmospheric orchestra piece that kind of combines my feelings," Zachary said. "It ended up combining my feelings about the high school and, I don’t know, a little bit about how it feels to write music."

For New York Philharmonic music director Gilbert, making students' work part of the festival mix is absolutely crucial to his mission.

"Back in the 19th century, almost every concert was a new music concert," he said. "And I think that it’s so important for music to continue to encourage people, to give them the sense that they can compose."

He plans to make it a habit. In two years, Gilbert will again take a musical snapshot of the state of the art.

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