Can Serious Music Be Funny? The New York Philharmonic, via Andrew Norman, Gives It a Try

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Norman and Kahane take their bows. Photo: Chris Lee

Humor may be the scarcest resource in contemporary music. But when the New York Philharmonic commissioned a new piano concerto from the California composer Andrew Norman, the orchestra knew it could count on a wild but sophisticated wit, and framed the piece in a program of clever fun. Split sat comfortably between Beethoven’s rug-pulling Fourth Symphony and Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks, tough acts to follow and precede. The concert crackled all the way through, thanks partly to the lively charm and nuance of James Gaffigan’s conducting, but also to a new score that conceded nothing to the big boys. 

Norman wrote Split for the pianist Jeffrey Kahane, and treated his effervescent personality as a musical ingredient, sprinkling it throughout the score. The piece announces itself with a backwards pow!, a brief reverberation building to a fortissimo snap. Immediately, the piano sounds both assertive and comically lost, strumming a swaggering high-register chord, then plinking it out again and again, each time slower and more tentative. It takes the whack of a slapstick to kick the piece into gear. 

The concerto form has always posed a psychological question: What is the relationship between one player and many? In the 19th century, the rapport often rested on stylized antagonism, a musical analogue to the individual’s struggle against an uncomprehending society. Since then, it has fractured into a thousand forms of sympathy and alienation. Norman’s piece invokes a world of fluid and fragmentary relationships, fueled by group chats and Facebook threads. A background of babble leaves room for moments of unexpected intimacy. 

The structure suggests an enormous improv group, in which everyone tries frantically to get in character and find some thread of logic before a director yells scene! and the actors leap into a completely different plot. In Split, the percussion calls the shots with a whiplike snap, propelling the piano from a lush romantic meditation into an aerobic frenzy or a lurching dance in which the beat keeps shifting around. The solo part prances, sings, dodges, and hammers. Sometimes the ensemble plays catch-up — a bassoon murmurs along with the piano, finishing a phrase a shade too late. At other times, the orchestra speeds out ahead, so that even relatively restrained passages have the antic quality of a passel of excitable children trying to be good. 

I wish Norman would ditch a dozen or so of the dominatrix whip-cracks, which become tiresome and unnecessary: Each episode glints clearly enough as it goes by not to need a percussive announcement. In real life, those shifts take place seamlessly and at even higher speed: An amusing tweet scrolls by, a horrific headline clamors, a video clip plays and is paused, a text pings for attention. Norman reproduces the effect of trying to concentrate in a world where everyone’s gizmos are constantly buzzing and pinging, and sustaining an unplugged conversation requires a huge act of will. And yet an overarching sensibility, a kind of trickster glee, glues the shards together, giving Split a personality that feels, if not exactly unified, at least reassuringly whole.