George Benjamin was the toast of New York after an astonishing success at this year’s Mostly Mozart Festival. Benjamin’s residency centred around the American stage premiere of Written on Skin, presented by the Mahler Chamber Orchestra under Alan Gilbert in Katie Mitchell’s original Aix production.
The Festival also featured Benjamin conducting the International Contemporary Music Ensemble in his 40-minute chamber opera Into the Little Hill (2006), and a recital by Pierre-Laurent Aimard showcasing Benjamin’s austerely seductive Shadowlines (2001).
‘It instantly became the Cultural Event of the New York summer season… It speaks the language of our time, offering a dramatic story in a way that a sophisticated audience can enjoy. Benjamin writes music that broods and seethes with a sort of dramatic modernism… The intelligent economy of Crimp’s libretto also plays a part: each word is there for a reason, and the language is often beautiful but seldom flowery. Benjamin’s music respects and supports the language, finding ways to bring out both its sound and its meaning.’
The Washington Post (Anne Midgette), 12 August 2015
‘Startlingly erotic and beautiful’
‘When [Hannigan’s] impassioned soprano combined with Mead’s stunningly pure, otherworldly countertenor, their connection was distilled into a startlingly erotic and beautiful moment of recognition. The whole opera is built of such moments, pearls on a 100-minute string of extraordinary theatrical tension. Benjamin’s music is both kaleidoscopic and laser-focused.’
The Wall Street Journal (Heidi Waleson), 12 August 2015
‘Benjamin’s music hooks you from the first sounds in the orchestra: a tangle of brassy lines that coalesce into a kind of grim fanfare and build to gnashing chords… Crimp has suggested, why not use artifice as a dramatic element? With Benjamin’s stunning music to support the narrative lines, this approach works hypnotically… The story is a love triangle… but Benjamin and Crimp invest that time-worn narrative with seething psychological newness and overwhelming sensual allure… Benjamin’s score represents a triumph for modernist musical languages. At a time when so many new operas, pander to audiences with accessible, tepid contemporary styles, Benjamin challenges listeners with dense harmonies, skittish lines and grating eruptions. Yet, in every measure, you sense a composer who has sweated over the details to make each element expressive and true. Long, dreamy stretches, even while conveying tension, come across as rapturously beautiful.’
The New York Times (Anthony Tommasini), 12 August 2015
‘Each element expressive and true.’
‘Stupendously original and thrillingly effective… Benjamin has produced an indisputable large-scale repertory masterwork that has earned him a place in history… Modernism can be accessible — in the hands of an inspired composer. The stylistic originality made the tonal-or-atonal argument irrelevant. It wasn’t a mere matter of sonic eclecticism, the composer making sure there were enough ugly moments to balance out the pretty ones. Rather, waves of consonance and dissonance, each teeming with energy, flowed effortlessly into one another with a seamless purity, even as the different departments of Benjamin’s orchestra seemed to be performing in two or more tempi at once…’
The New Yorker (Russell Platt), 18 August 2015
‘Into the Little Hill is eerily alluring… Benjamin’s rumbling, spectral and mysterious music, scored for an unusual ensemble including basset horns, worked its magic in Sunday’s taut, intense concert performance. That Benjamin’s work shared a program with two giants of 20th-century music seemed entirely fitting.’
The New York Times (Anthony Tommasini), 17 August 2015
‘Blending the rigor of the canon form with the impressionistic, improvisatory personality of the prelude, the six short works [that make up Shadowlines for piano] have Benjamin’s customary elegance, his paradoxical precise ambiguity, his gift for swiftly distilling mood. Complex, Shadowlines never feels anything but clear.’
The New York Times (Zachary Woolfe), 18 August 2015