Originally Published by The New York Times
By Phillip Lutz
Over the years, the Caramoor Center for Music and the Arts in Katonah has opened its summer stage early, and often, to notable premieres, from the American debut of Benjamin Britten’s trilogy of operatic church parables in the 1960s to the inaugural performance of David Ludwig’s “String Quartet No. 1: Pale Blue Dot” last year.
But this year’s summer festival, the 70th, promises to rank with the best. It will feature three world premieres, a diverse and reflective lot that includes an orchestral divertimento by Christopher Theofanidis and string quartets by Aaron Jay Kernis and Patrick Harlin — all works by Americans whose aesthetics capture a sense of both tradition and innovation.
“As we’re approaching our 70th anniversary, we want to balance looking back and looking forward,” Jeffrey P. Haydon, chief executive officer of Caramoor, said.
For his part, Mr. Theofanidis said he knew from the start that his piece, which will open the festival on Saturday, would not be a heavy tone poem. The work, “Making Up for Lost Time,” was commissioned with the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, Caramoor’s de facto resident symphonic ensemble, which is itself celebrating its 40th anniversary. “For an occasion like this,” he said, “the worst thing I could think of writing would be a dark, brooding work.” Rather, the piece, which will be performed by 50 musicians and paired with Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, is a 12-minute, three-movement work that is at once playful and provocative.
“I started thinking of looking at it not in terms of style but more broadly,” Mr. Theofanidis said, “in terms of feeling of musical time, the idea of catching up, of jumping ahead in time.”
Over lunch recently, with his working manuscript arrayed before him, Mr. Theofanidis, 47, pointed to the opening bars, in which the drums introduce a naïve rhythmic motif, which, when picked up by the ensemble on the offbeat, is soon at odds with a displaced version of itself. Later, the drums reappear, providing rhythmic underpinning to layers of melodic ideas that play against themselves at different speeds. The overall effect is intended to be a pleasant sense of disorientation. “Part of the joy for me in music-making are those moments when you think you understand something a certain way. And then you take one step and back and realize it’s not what you thought it was.”
Mr. Kernis’s piece, “String Quartet No. 3 (River),” also employs some compositional sleight of hand. But the work, to be performed by the Jasper String Quartet on June 28, is less upbeat in tone than Mr. Theofanidis’s and considerably longer. It also involved at least one moment when the writing came to a halt.
Drawing inspiration from the Rhine River, as depicted in a novel of his youth, Romain Rolland’s “Jean Christophe,” Mr. Kernis, 55, said his composing proceeded swimmingly through four movements, even the knotty third. That section incorporates a shifting of speed within tempos as well as a kind of mirror-imaging in which pitches ascend and descend in successive passages, an allusion to the shimmering effect of light on water. But when he reached the fifth and final movement, “Mouth/Estuary,” the process stalled. “I was trying to figure out how to transform the language of the piece into something a little calmer,” he said, “even though my image of an estuary — more wildlife, a meeting place between fresh water of the river and salt water of the ocean — seems like it should be a very clashing kind of thing.”
“As the shape of the piece developed,” he added, “and I wanted to end it in a conclusive way, the whole series of solutions that I thought I had required me to throw away a lot of stuff. It just wasn’t coalescing.”
Uncharacteristically, Mr. Kernis took a few days off to collect his thoughts. When he returned to composing, ideas slowly began to reassert themselves in somewhat altered form. Like the river that inspired it, the work began to flow, he said, in a language “denser, more abstract.”
Mr. Harlin, too, was inspired by nature, namely, the silent Book Cliffs that border Utah and Colorado, and the teeming Amazon Basin, in Peru, where, as part of his doctoral work, he had been recording the soundscapes. While his piece, “Grand Pause,” evokes those recordings, the interpretation of the 15-minute work to be performed on July 17 will be wholly that of the Calidore String Quartet and their instruments, unplugged and not augmented in any way. Mr. Harlin will not incorporate the recordings into the score.
For Mr. Harlin, 30, a larger conceit is in play: “I want to find a way that really ties the concert hall and the natural world together,” he said. “The challenge is that the way we perceive music in the concert hall as developing and moving forward can be at odds with the way we listen to the music in the natural world, where it tends to be static. It’s about integrating the two and finding a middle ground.”
His solution, in part, is to layer the sound, combining long, languid lines with busier ones laid on top of, or bubbling under, the surface. Whether the middle ground will be found is unclear; before any conclusions are drawn, the piece will work its way through some fairly drastic changes in temperament, reflected in the titles of its four movements: reverence, irreverence, static and ecstatic. What is clear is that, on a personal level, Mr. Harlin is breaking new ground.
“I wouldn’t use the word experimental,” he said, “but I’m definitely trying different things than I have in the past.”