The music of Tchaikovsky loomed large in New York’s orchestral life over the past several weeks, but it was not always well served. At Carnegie Hall, Franz Welser-Möst conducted the Cleveland Orchestra in a freeze-dried performance of the searing Sixth Symphony; farther uptown, Lorin Maazel and the brass section of the New York Philharmonic blasted the Fourth Symphony onto the back of Avery Fisher Hall. I gladly fled the clutches of the aged and predictable for the embrace of the wild and new.
That newness, radiant with emotions dark and bright, was to be found at the city’s more intimate concerts, where the true musical creativity of the town is bubbling up with the force of a magic spring. Classical concertgoing really can have the emotional immediacy of a great novel—never more, perhaps, than when an actual novel is thrown into the mix.
Philip Roth’s Everyman (2006), like his most recent novel, Exit Ghost, is not exactly a barrel of laughs: A successful advertising man, having made a mess of most of the relationships in his life, faces retirement, illness and death with a dogged stoicism that, until the very end, fails to generate even a ray of redemptive light. But at the Takács Quartet’s concert on Oct. 23 at Zankel Hall—in which selections of Everyman, read by Philip Seymour Hoffman, played a crucial role—the audience confronted the book’s dark themes with an eagerness that approached exhilaration. Mr. Roth, who was present, joined the performers for a thunderous ovation at the end of the evening.
Edward Dusinberre, the first violinist of the acclaimed ensemble, read the novel in preparation for a visit to his 103-year-old grandmother’s nursing home, and Mr. Roth’s three cemetery scenes so impressed him that—with the support of the author, a chamber-music fan—he organized a concert around them. “Those scenes have a very musical quality,” Mr. Dusinberre told me, “like a composer developing a theme.”
It was Mr. Roth who recommended Mr. Hoffman. Sitting in a tall armchair, sometimes curled up around the paperback in his hands, the New York actor’s manner seemed at first somewhat casual and remote, but soon his reading became almost seductive, as he slipped elegantly and unobtrusively into each of the characters. The emotional shading of the third scene, where the unnamed Everyman confronts his own mortality by visiting his parents’ graves in a broken-down Jewish burial ground near Newark Airport, was devastating in its subtlety and force.
Surrounding these scenes were performances of brief, compelling works by the minimalist masters Philip Glass and Arvo Pärt. The longer its residence in America, the more the Anglo-American-Hungarian Takács seems to cultivate a fibrous Old World sound, completely different from the machine-drilled perfection of the Emerson Quartet: Hearing Takács play is like running your fingers over the color-flecked threads of a fine Harris Tweed.
I’ll not soon forget the image of the burly cellist, András Fejér, sounding out the bell-like pizzicato refrain of Mr. Pärt’s Fratres, which in its lonely grandeur (and ever spreading popularity) is the Barber Adagio of our time. A hellbent performance of Schubert’s String Quartet No. 14, Death and the Maiden, followed after intermission.
NEW CHAMBER MUSIC with voice—sung rather than spoken—enlivened two more concerts. Sequitur, one of the city’s smartest and most energetic ensembles, made an appearance at Carnegie’s Weill Recital Hall on Oct. 8. The mezzo-soprano Mary Nessinger gave a fetching performance of Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, her velvety vocalism matched by a delightfully gamine stage presence.
Soprano Tony Arnold, also onstage for the Sequitur performance, was the star of another concert three days earlier: the Miller Theatre’s “Composer Portrait” tribute to Esa-Pekka Salonen, the only composer-conductor since Leonard Bernstein who can claim major achievements both at the podium and as a composer.
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.