To inaugurate the new year, the North Carolina Symphony’s almost-new music director Grant Llewellyn programmed in Raleigh two in-your-face concerts of all-contemporary music, the first featuring composers from the US, the second from the UK. Acknowledging the suspicious, if not phobic, prejudices of audiences to music without singable tunes or clear-cut tonality, the NCS also programmed a mini-symposium in advance of each concert, in which a panel of composers, critics, symphony players and Llewellyn himself discussed the challenges of new music for all the people who participate in it, from composers to players, to audiences. Perhaps the most important idea that came out of these discussions was the emphasis on the virtually limitless possibilities available to composers since the demise of the near stranglehold on modern music held by the serialists from the post-World War II period until the 1980s. Llewellyn made sure that his two all-contemporary programs reflected that enormous variety in new musical languages.

The British program consisted of works dating from 1980 to 2004 by composers with whom few Americans are familiar: Robin Holloway, George Benjamin, Nicholas Maw and James MacMillan. Although listeners were thrown into deep water, the program offered a few significant flotation and navigation aids that indicated how thoughtfully Llewellyn had designed the concert: each of the four works has a program, or extra-musical idea around which it centers; two of the works are based on older music; and the soloist, percussionist Evelyn Glennie, combines her ever stunning musicianship in a rarely heard medium with theatricality and fascinating visual effects. With these features, not to mention the sheer difficulty and mastery of the Symphony players, the audience couldn’t help but respond positively – even if they might not have “liked” all the music. But, according to the panelists, it’s the response that counts, not necessarily approbation of every note.

The concert opened with Robin Holloway’s (b.1943) orchestration of Claude Debussy’s set of three piano pieces En blanc et noir. In remarks from the podium, Llewellyn stated that although Holloway’s work is technically an arrangement, his use of the orchestra so transforms Debussy that it might be considered a separate composition in its own right. It’s a little like attributing Pictures at an Exhibition to Ravel, but let’s face it, Ravel did put Pictures among the classical warhorses. Composed in 1915 during the depth of World War I, Debussy’s original work is also programmatic, its second movement portraying the German onslaught with musical quotes from “Eine feste Burg” and reflecting his own sense of helplessness at not being able to fight for his country. Holloway’s orchestration is indeed effective and true to the Debussy ambience, although we’re not sure whether it should really be considered a separate piece. It was a gentle easing into the more hard-core sonorities to come. (Incidentally, North Carolina owes a debt of gratitude to Robin Holloway for summarily dismissing 18-year-old Llewellyn’s first attempts as a composer and none too gently suggesting that he devote his career to other people’s music.)

George Benjamin (b.1960), one of Llewellyn’s fellow students at Cambridge, had better luck under Holloway. Llewellyn had seen the manuscript score of Ringed by the Flat Horizon and the photograph that inspired it when the two were still students at Cambridge, in the early ’80s. The product of an era only barely emerging from under the serialist yoke, Horizon is a spiky atonal musical description of one of those erratic, scattered thunderstorms so typical of the New Mexico and the Southwest high mesa. While the orchestral colors are effective, we found this the least successful of the four works, largely because it lacked a certain cohesion – almost as if Benjamin had been too taken by the unpredictability of the meteorological phenomena. We’re certain, however, that the “hook” of the programmatic element made audiences attend to it more closely than had it been called “Untitled.” And, yes, closer attention is required of the unfamiliar and/or the difficult in both art and life.

The patriarch of the four composers on the program was Nicholas Maw (b.1935), the only one who was present at the performance. Maw composed The World in the Evening, subtitled “Lullaby for Orchestra,” in 1988 for the orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. It is an atmospheric piece mixing atonal and tonal passages, which, according to the composer, reflects not only the time of day but also the twilight of life and the dark state of the world. Its outer sections are two lullabies, while the middle episode is a turbulent fantasia, reflecting the more pessimistic aspect of Maw’s world-view, as he revealed during the pre-concert lecture. Atonal lullabies? Why not? A significant percentage of non-musically gifted moms around the world manage to put their infants to sleep by them.

For musical, theatrical and logistical reasons, James MacMillan’s Veni, Veni Emmanuel, a concerto for percussion and orchestra, ended the evening’s performance. Evelyn Glennie has long recognized that her battery of dozens of percussion instruments of all types is a rare feast for the eyes as well as for the ears. And she makes the most of it with careful positioning of the instruments for visibility and dramatic lighting effects, not to mention her own intense and often balletic movements as she plays and moves from one instrument group to another. Since this review focuses on the music rather than the performance, we’ll just say that Glennie was marvelous; people should go out and buy or rent her DVDs if they haven’t had the opportunity to see and hear her live.

Glennie’s contribution to contemporary music is astounding. She has commissioned over 100 works, pioneering a whole new genre featuring instruments that all too often get short shrift in the classical orchestra – if they appear at all. Her virtuosity, however, almost inevitably inspires composers to display her entire bag of tricks, sometimes making it difficult to focus on the compositions as a whole.

In Veni, Veni, MacMillan uses the familiar medieval plainchant for Advent, which we know in English as “Rejoice, rejoice Emmanuel,” as an underlying theme. The plainchant unifies the piece both musically and in its deliberate religious significance as well, making it accessible from a variety of perspectives. Composed in one continuous movement – although in six distinct sections, each featuring its own percussion grouping – the Concerto is construed as a large arch (perhaps some further religious symbolism there as well). The orchestra plays fragments of the plainchant – even employing a variety of medieval contrapuntal techniques against the soloist (cantus firmus, hocket, isorhythm). In the section entitled “Dance –Hocket,” orchestra and percussion engage in a type of medieval counterpoint that involves sharing a melody among several contrapuntal voices, creating a jerky, even jazzy rhythmic effect. Through much of the piece, the percussion part stands in various kinds of affective and contrapuntal opposition to the orchestra with frequent disparity in tempo and rhythm between them. At times the slower plainchant fragments set against rapid, often violent, drumming, recall those 13th-century motets with one or two French secular texts in rapid notes bouncing over a slow liturgical Latin cantus firmus. One of our less esoteric association while listening was “Why doth the heathen rage?”

A devout Catholic, MacMillan creates a holistic resolution between orchestra and soloist; after a final series of slow, steady attacks on a pair of congas, angry at first but steadily decreasing to a whisper, Glennie, accompanied by the orchestra, now all playing their own bell-like percussion instruments (brought from home), mounts a stairway to strike the concluding notes on chimes high above the stage.

We were present at the dress rehearsal Friday morning, and so had the advantage of hearing the works twice. We had mixed reaction to Maw’s work, for example, after the first hearing but appreciated it more after the second and after getting a clearer sense of its background. The point is that new music deserves more than one hearing.

At least it needs one hearing. Although the program was headed up by a superstar soloist, Meymandi was by no means packed. Too many of us are still afraid of contemporary music, even though no single concert could have more aptly demonstrated the richness and variety of the contemporary composer’s palette. This was not music that needed to be analyzed by graduate students in composition and music theory to be understood and appreciated. Extra-musical programs help, but most of the time there isn’t one. Program notes do matter; even if they can’t provide a detailed roadmap, good ones point out important features of a new piece. What the composer says about his or her piece can be interesting but can also be a trap. In the final analysis, it’s between you and the notes.

And – oh yes – the notes have to be played correctly, well and with conviction. Contemporary music is difficult to play, especially because so many symphony players haven’t grown up training their muscle memory and counting skills to accommodate the barrage of disparate scores that now come their way. In the panel discussion preceding Friday’s program, assistant principal violist David Marschall openly admitted that he and his colleagues were scrambling to learn two back-to-back concerts worth of difficult music. The payoff? Composer Jennifer Higdon, whose Concerto for Orchestra was played on the first of the two programs of contemporary music (January 19-21), told us and the orchestra that they’d “gotten it” faster than the Philadelphia (who had premiered the work in 2001).

Llewellyn set the bar high for the NCS in these two programs, and the audiences were enthusiastic. Let’s hope that the NCS will program more such contemporary concerts. So far, they have been well accepted and may well have begun to break down the barriers of new-music-phobia. And the NCS should continue to strengthen outreach and marketing to both its regular audience, as well as to potential younger audiences who, ironically, may appreciate it more than they do Brahms.

For more information on composers mentioned in this review and Evelyn Glennie, please see:

Nicholas Maw:,%20NICHOLAS [inactive 8/08]

George Benjamin:

Robin Holloway: [inactive 3/07]

James MacMillan:

Evelyn Glennie: