Review: Carnegie Hall makes an intimate space more intimate

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Review: Carnegie Hall makes an intimate space more intimate
yMusic performing at Zankel Hall Center Stage at Carnegie Hall, in New York on Jan. 19, 2023. Zankel Hall has been temporarily reconfigured so that audiences can sit in the round. (Vincent Tullo/The New York Times)

by Seth Colter Walls

NEW YORK, NY.- The city’s classical music powerhouses would like to get closer to you.

Mere months after the New York Philharmonic’s stage at David Geffen Hall was shifted 25 feet out into the audience, with seating added behind the orchestra, as part of a gut renovation, Carnegie Hall has followed suit. If more economically: It has reconfigured its second stage, the subterranean Zankel Hall, and rearranged it so that audiences can sit in the round.

To make that happen inside such a steeply raked space, Carnegie has raised the Zankel stage. This has reduced distances for everyone: the critics in prime seats, and the bargain-hunting customers in the balconies. It’s all part of initiative that Carnegie is calling “Center Stage,” with programming, from Thursday night through Jan. 27, designed to take advantage of the enhanced proximity.

The Thursday concert, a richly enjoyable performance by the group yMusic, could be seen as a validation of Zankel’s temporary change. And yet what was best about the evening was more along the lines of business as usual for the hall. This vivacious and canny sextet — an idiosyncratic combination of cello, violin, viola, clarinet, a trumpeter who doubles on horn and a flutist-vocalist — debuted two Carnegie co-commissions: the world premiere of Allison Loggins-Hull’s nine-minute “Supply,” and the American unveiling of Andrew Norman’s 24-minute “Difference.”

Helping to fund new work from younger American composers is part of what Carnegie’s Zankel wing does well. And that part of the machine is humming along just fine.

In “Supply” — inspired by a tale of extramarital office romance — Loggins-Hull makes stirring use of the multiple talents of flutist-vocalist Alex Sopp (who was lightly but effectively amplified). There was seductiveness in her singing of lines like “Tell me your dreams and I’ll show you the way.” More fragmentary bits of text (“Can I get a pass?” and “I want what I can’t have”) were more aggressive. The work moves between these emotional poles with smart instrumental writing, including some ferocious yet melodically supple passages in rhythmic unison.

Norman’s “Difference” was likewise a showcase for yMusic’s abilities in both precision and abandon within the same piece. As in some of his recent orchestral works, Norman here alternates between hushed stasis and manic volleys of virtuosic eruption. In those extremes, CJ Camerieri’s muted trumpet brought a quizzical, mellow edge to some moments, while Nadia Sirota’s sinewy viola (and headbanging stage presence) took the lead in nervier ensemble episodes.

Norman’s score, as is often the case, was exquisitely paced. Ideas don’t overstay their welcome, but even when that threatens to become the case, he tends to pile on fresh material just in time (and long past the point where another composer might stop). As the patterns deepen and the lengths of phrases extend, to the point of beggaring belief, Norman’s music makes you want to cheer for him — as well as for the artists who bring it to life.

Both of those pieces would probably have come across just fine in Zankel’s regular configuration. The real barrier to intimacy with audiences might not be the space’s design, but the fact that music like this most often comes to town for a single night, then disappears.

What if audiences were allowed to find this music over the course of a week, or even a full month, like they can with orchestral and operatic programming? What if yMusic had a residency that featured the newly commissioned works multiple times? They certainly wouldn’t have trouble filling out additional programs; the rest of Thursday’s concert featured yet more novelty in a half-hour of miniatures composed by the group’s members. (That happened thanks to some encouragement from Paul Simon, one of the pop musicians who have collaborated with yMusic in the past.)

As yMusic wrote in program notes for the concert, original group composition is expected in pop but unusual in classical music. Some of the results in the nine-section suite were tentative — not quite songs, even with Sopp’s vocalizations. But there was also promise, such as the dense chords and almost-bluesy trumpet writing of “Sober Miles” and the occasionally minimalist-influenced miniatures like “Zebras” and “Three Elephants.”

A recording of all this music is unlikely to be released within the year. I know I’d like to revisit the Loggins-Hull and Norman pieces much earlier. And the same goes for seeing yMusic’s creativity and ensemble spirit again — no matter how the Zankel stage is situated.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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