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Layers of Skin

Alan Gilbert has affirmed his commitment to contemporary music with his innovative programming at the New York Philharmonic. This month, Gilbert conducts the U.S. premiere of the most widely acclaimed opera of recent years, George Benjamin’s Written on Skin, at the Mostly Mozart Festival. He discusses the work’s structures and challenges with JOSHUA ROSENBLUM.

Layers of Skin Alan Gilbert hdl 815
Gilbert conducting the New York Philharmonic, 2015
© Hiroyuki Ito/Getty Images 2015

Although Alan Gilbert has two years remaining in his term as music director of the New York Philharmonic, it is already clear that his commitment to contemporary music will be a vital part of his legacy. Gilbert made his proclivity for new and innovative works immediately apparent when he named Finnish composer Magnus Lindberg the Philharmonic’s composer-in-residence in 2009 and programmed Lindberg’s new work EXPO as the opening piece of his first concert as music director. At the end of that season, which included a total of eleven world premieres, Gilbert earned universal raves for his stewardship of Ligeti’s radical, often outrageous Grande Macabre, in a semistaged production that featured a spectacular design by Doug Fitch. A gorgeous, immersive presentation of Janácˇek’s Cunning Little Vixen followed in 2011. 

In that first season, Gilbert also introduced the consistently impressive Contact! series, which places Philharmonic players in intimate venues around New York to play a wide variety of new music. Then there is the NY Phil Biennial, another ambitious Gilbert initiative, which swept through town over the course of eleven days in May and June last year, offering a dazzling display of musical innovation. One work presented during the festival, Julia Wolfe’s Anthracite Fields, went on to win the Pulitzer Prize in music for 2015.

This month, Gilbert ascends the podium to lead the Mahler Chamber Orchestra in the Mostly Mozart Festival presentation of British composer George Benjamin’s opera Written on Skin. This run of three performances (Aug. 11, 13 and 15) is the first installment of a new Lincoln Center–New York Philharmonic initiative to present full productions of significant modern operas not yet seen in New York. Although Written on Skin received a concert performance at Tanglewood two summers ago, this will be its first fully staged presentation in the U.S. 

“I think it’s a logical step,” Gilbert says, “both for what we do in our approach to programming at the Philharmonic and also in terms of connecting the orchestra to other Lincoln Center organizations.” 

Written on Skin is only Benjamin’s second opera, and his first full-length one. (His first, Into the Little Hill, is a chamber opera that clocks in at around forty minutes. It will also be performed at Mostly Mozart, on Aug. 16.) Written on Skin has enjoyed staggering success since its premiere, at the Festival d’Aix en Provence in July 2012. Reviews were ecstatic, with several declaring it the best new opera of the twenty-first century. Faber Music, Benjamin’s publisher, lists an astonishing sixty-eight performances of the work on its website, including three anticipated in 2016 in Barcelona, Madrid and London. Opera houses and concert halls just can’t seem to book it quickly enough. 

“George Benjamin is a modern master, and the collaboration with [librettist Martin] Crimp is just brilliant,” says Gilbert. “To bring it to New York is something I’m very proud of.”

Part of Written on Skin’s success is certainly due to its subject matter, a lurid medieval tale of unleashed passion, adultery and violence. The story concerns a wealthy, self-satisfied landowner (the Protector) who hires a young illustrator (the Boy) to create a book illuminating the Protector’s exemplary life. The Boy moves in, sets to work and soon falls into an affair with Agnès, the Protector’s alluring wife. The Protector discovers the betrayal, kills the Boy and, in a gruesome penultimate scene, feeds his unsuspecting wife the dead Boy’s heart for dinner. Agnès, defiant and unrepentant, declares chillingly, “Nothing I ever eat / nothing I drink / will ever take the taste of that boy’s heart / out of this body.” Crimp’s libretto is taut, harrowing and incisive, with a clever narrative device — the story is told by three Angels from a twenty-first-century vantage point — that permits the simultaneity of past and present perspectives. In addition, the principal characters habitually refer to themselves in the third person, so they participate in the narration even as they live their experiences. (“You’re in my light, says the Boy” is sung by the Boy himself.) Benjamin’s gripping score illuminates the text with insidious, sure-handed intensity, using a fully modernist harmonic language and uncannily evocative orchestrations that subsume the listener in a distant yet menacing world. 

“It’s a fascinating, sort of horrifying story,” says Gilbert, “but it’s also a very simple story, one that has been told many times — the love triangle, jealousy and revenge. And the way the libretto kind of melds this medieval-type moment with a contemporary lens through which the story is presented is fascinating. We get the story in both an intellectual way and also a passionate and erotic way, so it’s not a surprise that it speaks to so many people.”

Regarding the music, Gilbert has particular praise for the vocal parts. “The vocal writing is unusually successful for a contemporary opera, because it’s fully modern, and it’s not compromised at all, but at the same time it has a kind of natural vocal beauty and uses the voice in an expressive way that I think is also very traditional. They can really sing.”

Benjamin, also an accomplished conductor, particularly of contemporary works, conducted the world premiere himself, as well as several subsequent performances (including the U.S. concert premiere at Tanglewood). Thus, the composer thoroughly understands the work’s daunting challenges. “The score needs a high degree of precision to sound as it was imagined, and yet I also want it to be presented with dramatic intensity and spontaneity,” Benjamin wrote in an e-mail. 

Gilbert concurs. “That’s exactly what my time with the score has been about, trying to admire and support the precision that he employs in writing things down, but making sure that it doesn’t sound rigorous. That’s what I’m thinking about — trying to bring it to life so it sounds composed in the moment and not predetermined.”

The score is indeed notated with extreme rigor, with shifting time signatures of 4/4, 3/4, 5/8, etc., and fiendishly complex overlapping polyrhythmic lines. In performance, however, much of it sounds unmetered. Even in the rhythmically active passages, some of which pound vehemently, it’s rarely easy to discern a regular pulse. Often the music seems to float hypnotically, rotating slowly rather than moving through time in discrete increments. Especially in the heightened, erotically tense scenes between Agnès and the Boy, this extraordinary effect both disorients and envelops the listener. A closer look at the score reveals that the first beats of many measures, usually the strongest part of any bar, often contain only notes that are tied over from the previous measure, without any rearticulation to indicate the beginning of the new bar. This obscuring of the beat contributes to the unmoored feeling the listener experiences throughout. One might say that the music is, to appropriate Kurt Vonnegut’s phrase, “unstuck in time.” Benjamin acknowledges this floating quality: “This may well relate to my desire to have the work inhabit a dream world, simultaneously medieval and modern, narrated and acted.” 

“He’s been very sophisticated in the way he has created natural speech rhythms and found a way to write them down,” says Gilbert. “But ultimately, I think there is a definite pulse that George is feeling. What I like about his changing meters is I find a reason for them. Sometimes with composers you get the feeling that they change rhythms simply because they can, to add a layer of complication that somehow validates them, but that’s never the case with George. If there’s an extended dotted eighth or dotted sixteenth or triplet or whatever, it’s because that’s actually how he hears it — he actually wants it to sound that way, so there’s a reason to have a 5/8 bar instead of a 2/4 bar.”

Right after our interview, Gilbert is headed to the Avery Fisher stage for a rehearsal of Honegger’s extravagant Jeanne d’Arc au Bûcher, an epic, multi-force oratorio. A week after the final performance of Written on Skin, he will be at the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival to perform Messiaen’s awe-inspiring, twelve-movement orchestral work Des Canyons aux Étoiles. When asked how he learns so many large, challenging scores during an extremely busy season, Gilbert speaks about the importance of both concentrating and planning ahead. 

“What’s important is you have to concentrate fully when you’re doing something, so I try to use my time extremely efficiently. And I’m not a believer in multitasking — if I’m doing something, I focus my attention on that to the full extent possible. But you also try to plan ahead so that when you do your concentrated study, it’s not a brand new experience. I make sure I will never open a score at the very last minute for the first time, so even if the bulk of my study is done within the last days before I have to rehearse a piece, I’ve looked at it months before.” With Written on Skin, he says, he first looked at the score two years ago.

“I always tell people — I’m fundamentally lazy. They say, ‘Oh, that’s not possible, you work so hard,’ and I say, ‘Yeah, but the only reason I do is that the only thing that’s stronger than my natural inclination not to do anything is a pathological need to be one hundred percent prepared whenever I stand in front of an orchestra.’ That’s hugely powerful.” spacer

JOSHUA ROSENBLUM, a composer, conductor and pianist, teaches Composing for Musical Theater at Yale University.

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