There’s something a little hasty about some of Mr. Salonen’s works—surprisingly for such an astute performer, he sometimes doesn’t know when to just say his piece and get off. For all of his technical know-how, his music is best when he departs from the modernist style of such heroes as Luciano Berio and Witold Lutoslawski into a realm that’s simultaneously earnest, irreverent and very much his own.
If Mary Nessinger is the Jan DeGaetani of Generation X, then Tony Arnold is its Lucy Shelton. In Mr. Salonen’s Floof, a setting of a text by the Polish science-fiction writer Stanislaw Lem about an android that teaches itself to write love poetry using the jargon of higher math instead of the language of hearts and bodies, Ms. Arnold effortlessly alternated between lucid coloratura vocalism and the roughest, most guttural sounds; conductor Jeffrey Milarsky and the Miller musicians drove home Mr. Salonen’s punchy, rugged brand of postminimalism with assurance and aplomb.
Other works offered their own peculiar pleasures. Memoria, a wind quintet that begins by bathing in the elegant yet mercurial textures of Debussy and Janacek and ends with a weirdly Stravinskian chorale (played with great panache by the Imani Winds), was both touching and unexpected. In Meeting, two musicians playing utterly dissimilar instruments ardently, angrily talk past each other, only to unite in a goofy celebration at the close—the harpsichordist Blair McMillen and the clarinetist Benjamin Fingland made a commanding pair.
In a later “Composer Portrait” concert, on Oct. 18, the human voice had no place at all. It consisted of one work—Wolfgang Rihm’s Hunts and Forms, a blistering 50-minute chamber symphony from 1995-2001. Mr. Rihm is sometimes described as a Mahlerian neo-Romantic, but this work, with its dreadnought ostinatos and slaughterhouse chorales, seems more like a post-Cold War updating of the language of Berg’s Lulu. Whatever it is, it was performed with riveting expertise by Mr. Milarsky and his Manhattan Sinfonietta, with the violinist Aaron Boyd and the English hornist James Roe, among others, tackling parts that verged on the impossible.
The next “Portrait”—of Ireland’s Gerald Barry (Nov. 2)—looks equally enticing. The Miller Theatre’s intrepid director, George Steel, has become New York new music’s indispensable man.
Russell Platt is a composer and a music editor at The New Yorker.