Last night at The St. Regis San Francisco, Nicholas McGegan, Waverley Fund Music Director of the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra (PBO), introduced an new approach to programming to the attendees of the 2017 Winter Gala. Through the New Music for Old Instruments initiative, PBO will provide a platform for the creativity of young composers and the new music that results. Emerging composers are products of an approach to music education that is far more eclectic than what their predecessors experienced. They are as informed about both the instruments and practices of the pre-Classical periods as they are about the latest innovations in audio hardware and software. The New Music for Old Instruments initiative will provide an opportunity for those composers to explore new ways to work with those pre-Classical instruments.
This does not mark the beginning of a relationship between PBO and living composers. That commencement took place in November of 2006, when PBO performed “To Hell and Back,” a one-act opera that offered a contemporary rethinking of the Persephone myth. Gene Scheer provided the libretto for that reconception, working with composer Jake Heggie. Then last May PBO presented the world premiere of “Red, Red Rose” by Caroline Shaw at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles; and this summer the Edinburgh Festival will present the world premiere of The Judas Passion, composed by Sally Beamish with a libretto by David Harsent. McGegan will conduct the work, written on a co-commission by PBO and London’s Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. McGegan will then present the United States premiere at the first concert in the 2017/18 PBO season.
To provide a foretaste of this initiative, the program for last night’s Gala included the world premiere of another Shaw composition. Entitled “The Rose i,” this was a setting of a text by Jacob Polley scored for strings and oboe. The vocalist was soprano Dominique Labelle, who had been selected as this year’s Gala Honoree. Those familiar with the string instruments performed by PBO musicians are probably aware of the features of both sonorities and intonation that distinguish them from the string section of (for example) the San Francisco Symphony. It was clear that Shaw also appreciated those differences and was comfortable working with them and with the role of the period oboe as a solo voice complementing the soprano line.
I later learned from one of the performers that there were elements of indeterminacy, some provided through verbal instructions, in the score. Such indeterminacy is clearly not evident through a single listening experience; but it is definitely a sign of how a contemporary practice can serve a period ensemble just as effectively as it can serve an avant-garde chamber ensemble. (I was told about a few of those texts. They also seemed to capture the tongue-in-cheek ambiguity that can be found on some of the pages of the music of Erik Satie.) The layout of Polley’s words the program book suggested that there were a variety of ways that they could be read along either horizontal or vertical paths; and Labelle’s delivery of that text definitely did not begin in the “usual” place on the printed page.
The piece was only about five minutes in duration, which is why I invoked the noun “foretaste.” Clearly, a grand ballroom set up for a three-course dinner and free-flowing wine is not the best setting for a “first contact” experience with the work of a composer whose background takes in a wide diversity of stylistic approaches. Nevertheless, the experience provided at least a suggestion of things to come and more than a few suggestions of what motivated McGegan to launch this initiative.