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Heads up, New Music fanboys and fangirls. There’s a good looking concert at Roulette on Thursday night called French/American Music in Dialogue that brings together the Boston-based new music ensemble ECCE with its Paris-based counterpart Court Circuit, which is currently on tour with dates in Buffalo, Pittsburgh and Worcester.

Founded by composer John Aylward, Clark University Professor, 2017-18 Guggenheim Foundation Fellow and winner of the 2018 Walter Hindrichsen Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, ECCE’s mission is to deliver its energetic performances of new music in multiple forms and collaborations with creative artists and thinkers across disciplines. Activities encompass an annual concert season culminating in the international Etchings summer music festival.

Philippe Hurel and conductor Pierre-André Valade created the ensemble Court-Circuit in 1991. “Created by a composer for composers”, Court-circuit from the outset was a place of experimentation, an art project promoting intense risk-taking in a spirit of total freedom. A strong commitment to contemporary music is the real cement of the ensemble. Court-circuit is led by Jean Deroyer.

Featured works include the world premiere of Aylward’s Narcissus, the final work in a series of ensembles pieces that culminates Aylward’s years-long exploration of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Christophe Bertrand’s
Sanh, Philippe Leroux’s Continuo(ns) and the U.S. premiere of his Prélude & Postlude à l’épais, David Felder’s Partial [dis]res[s]toration, and Philippe Hurel’s Figures libres. Tickets and more information here.

2 days ago |
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Violinist Janine Jansen performing with conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin and The Philadelphia Orchestra at Carnegie Hall, 3/13/18.
Photo: Steve J. Sherman

New York Premiere of Van Der Aa Violin Concerto

The Philadelphia Orchestra

Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Music Director and Conductor

Janine Jansen, Violin

March 13, 2018

Carnegie Hall

Published on

By Christian Carey

NEW YORK – Dutch composer Michel Van der Aa (b. 1970) is best known for his imaginative and formidably-constructed multimedia works that incorporate both film and electronics. Notable among these are the operas Blank Out (2016) and Sunken Garden (2012), as well as a music theater work based on Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet (2008). Even pieces for acoustic ensembles, such as the clarinet chamber concerto Hysteresis (2013), have frequently incorporated electronics as part of their makeup. Thus, when Van der Aa composed his Violin Concerto (2014) for soloist Janine Jansen and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, the absence of electronics was significant. (Interestingly, after the success of the concerto, his follow up piece for orchestra, Reversal (2016), also abstains from the electronic domain).  However, even in the analog realm, Van der Aa incorporates a sound world that acknowledges his interest in decidedly non-classical elements.

The score indicates that the solo violin part should be played with the vibrato, portamento, and usual techniques common to the instrument in contemporary concertos. The accompanying strings however, are asked to refrain from using vibrato in sustained passages, creating a kind of sine tone effect. Various styles are incorporated in the solo part, from bluegrass fiddling to more angular contemporary passages. Other aspects of the orchestration hearken to pop music terrain: near the end of the first movement, for instance, a climax approaches house music in its boisterous brass and percussion.

On March 13th, joined by Jansen, the Philadelphia Orchestra, conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin, delivered an energetic and assured performance of the concerto at Carnegie Hall. The violinist played with the supreme confidence of a soloist who has endeavored to make a work entirely her own. With its variety of solo demeanors, both shaded and nuanced and explosive and mercurial, Van Der Aa’s Violin Concerto seems the ideal vehicle for Jansen’s multi-faceted artistry. The Philadelphians matched her playing with equal confidence, with strings sensitively taking up the “sine tone” accompaniment of the sostenuto passages and winds, brass, and percussion gamely taking on roles in the electronica mimicry of wide swaths of the piece. Interpretively speaking, Jansen and Nézet-Séguin were on the same page throughout. In a dramatic conclusion to the piece, the violinist played her last gesture nose to nose with the conductor, eliciting surprised exhalation and then sustained applause from the audience.

Sergei Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony is one of my favorite of the composer’s works and I have seen a number of performances of it in concert. While I might quibble here or there with Nézet-Séguin’s tempo choices, the conductor’s tendency to press ahead during the potentially “schmaltzy” moments of the piece rendered it free of several layers of sentimental “varnish:”  still emotive yet utterly fresh-sounding. The Philadelphia Orchestra’s strings are justly renowned and were exemplary here, but the winds, brass, and percussion each contributed in both spotlight and ensemble moments as well. Thus, it was a touching exchange onstage when the conductor insisted on walking out to each of them in turn, bestowing embraces and well-earned praise.

Jansen and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, conducted by Vladimir Jurowski, have recorded Van Der Aa’s Violin Concerto for Disquiet Media. It is paired with the aforementioned Hysteresis, performed by Amsterdam Sinfonietta, directed by Candida Thompson, with Kari Krikku as soloist. The performances are detailed and evocative, giving an excellent sense of the composer’s approach to ensemble works. One hopes that both the recent high-profile performances of the Violin Concerto and this persuasive recording prove inviting to other soloists and ensembles: Van der Aa’s work is worthy of wider currency.

7 days ago |
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Geoff Nuttall

There aren’t many cities in the American south where it can be fairly said that chamber music is more popular than shrimp and grits and Charleston is one of them. Each year, beginning in late May (May 25, this year), the historic Dock Street Theatre becomes home to the Bank of America Chamber Music series—11 unique programs, 33 total concerts—performed over a two-week period during Spoleto Festival USA.

“The Dock Theater seats about 450 people. We perform to 33 different audiences during the Festival and there is rarely an empty seat during any of the concerts. I don’t know any other city in the world—big cities included—where that would happen,” says Geoff Nuttall, whose official title is The Charles E. and Andrea L. Volpe Director for Chamber Music.

Nuttall’s day job is co-founder and first violinist of the sensational St. Lawrence Quartet. Since he took over the Spoleto chamber programming from the venerable Charles Wadsworth in 2009, he has become much beloved by locals for his adventuresome programs, keen wit, musical knowledge, and radical hairstyle changes. The varied programs reflect Nuttall’s eclectic tastes and passion for music within and beyond the traditional canon–as well as new music and young performers.

New to the Festival this year will be the JACK Quartet, one of the world’s most in-demand string ensembles, known for their dedication to new American compositions. JACK will perform during Programs I – V, in works by such composers as Pauline Oliveros, Joshua Roman, and Philip Glass—including Glass’s new String Quartet no. 8, which the JACK Quartet premiered in February 2018.

On Programs II and X respectively, JACK Quartet and English trombonist Peter Moore, who, in 2014 at just 18 years old, became the youngest musician ever appointed to the London Symphony Orchestra as co-principal trombonist, will play in world premieres by this year’s Chamber Music series composer-in-residence Doug Balliett.

Doug Balliet

Balliett, whose music has been described by our friends at I Care If You Listen as “weird in the best possible way,” is also an accomplished and active double bassist, radio personality, and Juilliard School professor. Four of his works will be presented during the Festival, including two world premieres: Gawain’s Journey, an octet for St. Lawrence String Quartet and JACK Quartet, and Fanfare for Trombone, Double, Bass, and Bass Clarinet. Balliett will also play double bass on eight of the 11 programs.

And, if that’s not enough, he has arranged the 1986 Queen song, “Who Wants to Live Forever” for 12 musicians. Appearing on Program XI, the arrangement will feature vocalist Paul Groves, a decorated tenor who has performed with the Metropolitan Opera for 25 seasons.

Each of the Bank of America Chamber Music series’ 11 programs are performed three times with two performances daily at 11:00am and 1:00pm in the 463-seat Dock Street Theatre, located at 135 Church Street. The series is also recorded and broadcast by South Carolina Public Radio and syndicated nationally and internationally by the WFMT Radio Network.

Tickets to the 2018 Bank of America Chamber Music series can be purchased anytime at or by calling the Festival box office at 843.579.3100 from 10:00am to 6:00pm Monday through Friday and from 10:00am to 2:00pm on Saturdays. Beginning May 1, tickets will be available at the box office as the Charleston Gaillard Center.

Full Schedule

7 days ago |
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On March 20, 2018, Tuesdays @ Monk Space presented A Phenomenal Hum in Cracked Time. This was essentially two separate concerts: soprano Kirsten Ashley Wiest with pianist Siu Hei Lee were featured in the opening half, and the HOCKET duo in the second. A light rain didn’t dampen the turnout for this midweek performance and a good-sized crowd filled Monk Space for a full program that included a world premiere and works by several local composers.

The first half of the concert, titled DAWN, opened with Apples and Time Crack in October (2015), by Jack Van Zandt. This is a four movement work for soprano and piano, dedicated to Ms. Wiest who sang the premiere in September, 2017. The text was provided by the poet Jill Freeman. The opening movement began with rapid descending piano scale followed by a soaring vocal line that arced above an increasingly complex accompaniment. The piano playing was as precise as the voice was expressive, and a feeling of uncertainty mixed with mild anxiety established the sense of this piece right from the start. The active piano line was offset by a deliberately declarative voice, singing wistfully of the autumn. The final phrase was the perfect ending to this movement: “ Who knows what witch or wolf lies ’round the corner of November.”

“A Poem Sat Looking”, the second movement, was more subdued with a slower tempo and softer dynamics. This had a more reflective feeling and seemed to breathe a bit more freely with the relaxed pace. The balance between the soprano line and piano here was particularly impressive, given the close acoustics of Monk Space. Movement three, “The Nightingale”, opened with a series of rapid passages in the piano that convincingly evoked the agility of birds in flight. The soprano entrance was purposeful and dramatic, rising solemnly above the elaborate accompaniment and the contrast between the piano and voice in this movement was especially vivid. Lines such as “Outside our gate the nightingale soars on wing and song over trees here then gone…” skimmed gracefully over a rolling sea of sixteenth notes with rigorous discipline from both performers. At times a more automated feel prevailed, as imposed by the text that compared the perfection of a mechanical bird to nature. The final phrases were whispered – with nature prevailing – as the last notes slid into silence.

The concluding movement, “Helen’s Invocation,” is described in the program notes as ”…the piano version of the opening aria from Van Zandt and Freeman’s opera-in-progress, ‘A Thousand Ships,’ that explores different views of Helen of Troy’s role in the Trojan War.” This opens slowly with deep notes in the piano and a strongly dramatic vocal line, full of jumps in pitch and rapid rhythms. There is a mystical feeling here, like some pagan ritual; this aria is set just at the start of Helen’s voyage to Troy. The long, soaring vocal lines reach upward and make and fine contrast with the swirling piano passages in the lower registers. As this movement proceeds, the feeling gradually becomes more heroic, ending plaintively with the last lines of the text: “Stay this willing tragedy we have begun.”

Apples and Time Crack in October is an impressive collaboration of text and  music that in this concert combined piano and voice with extraordinary performance virtuosity.

A Sonatina (2016) by Bill Alves followed, based on a poem by Gertrude Stein “A Sonatina Followed by Another.” The composer writes that “Although the poem is filled with charming though fleeting images of her stay in southern France, I have extracted lullaby-like bits of the text that seem to refer to her life partner, Alice Toklas.” A Sonatina opens with a quiet repeating figure in the piano and a softly declarative entrance by the voice. After the storm and drama of the first piece, A Sonatina delivered a gracious and calming presence. The piano accompaniment has a pastoral and liquid feel, like a running spring brook. Ms. Wiest’s vocals were transparently pure of tone and virtuous in their simplicity, in keeping with the spirit of congeniality in the text: “Little singing charm can never do no harm, little baby sweet can always be a treat.” The piano pulled back just enough to give some room to the voice, and the gentle singing was perfectly matched to the lyrics. A Sonatina is a quietly introspective work that on this occasion was enhanced by a most agreeable and sensitive performance.

Fragments (2010) by Jeffrey Holmes was next, from a Latin text compiled by the composer from a variety of historical sources. “Horumque visum contegas”, the first of four movements, began with a loud, dissonant piano crash that immediately introduced a strong sense of anxiety and menace. The voice entered with sustained and sorrowful tones that suggested a lament, and the piano joined in underneath, building the tension. The trading off between piano phrases and solo voice was especially effective in the small sonic confines of Monk Space so that when the two were heard together the sense of terror was doubled. The tempest continued in the second movement, “Fera pessima”, following the grim lines of the text: “Most evil beast… you, whom the old fierce Dragon are called… “ About midway through a quiet vocal solo added a subtle anxiety to the emotional mix before building back to a more forceful feeling of distress.

The third movement, “Stella Maris”, began with a more subdued piano and a high vocal line that hinted at suspense and, ultimately, resignation. These emotions were artfully expressed and carefully balanced, especially at the lowest dynamic levels. A strong vocal line flashed above the roiling piano making a solid conclusion to this movement. “Qui Lux es et Dies” completed the piece with a long crescendo, the voice soaring and dominating with a potent sadness that bordered on despair. Soft piano notes followed, fading at the finish. Fragments is an unflinching look at the inner feelings of the disconsolate from a distant past, sharply drawn and artfully performed by Wiest and Lee.

Mysteries of the Macabre (1991) by György Ligeti closed out the first half of the concert and this began with unsuspectingly soft whispers, a few brief piano tones, and some short vocal notes. This was immediately followed by a short, sharp phrase in the voice and piano. Some vocalise was heard from Mr. Lee who simultaneously rapped on the outside of the piano. Ms. Wiest answered with a burst of rapid notes that jumped and soared with impressive range and power. The fireworks continued with piano crashes, trills and all manner of prodigious vocal gymnastics – precisely executed by the two musicians. As the piece progressed, soft vocal whispers were quickly followed by fortissimo blasts that included great leaps in pitch and dynamics, but these were always under full control. Mysteries of the Macabre is a minefield of extreme technical challenges –  successfully negotiated on this occasion by the two performers – and received with much cheering and applause at the conclusion.

Following the intermission, the second half of the concert opened with the world premiere of A Land Between (2018), by Bryan Curt Kostors. The stage was filled with two synthesizers, assorted speakers and foot pedals plus the usual tangle of wires and cables. Thomas Kotcheff arranged himself at the electronic console and the other half of HOCKET, Sarah Gibson, was at the piano. A Land Between began with some quiet electronic burbling that increased in volume and was followed by a loud piano crash. Low dramatic notes from the piano were accompanied by a pulsing, minimalist groove from the speakers and a high electronic counter melody that was very effective. At times the strings inside the piano were quietly plucked, providing a good dynamic contrast. The combination of the synthesizers and piano produced some lovely sounds and the steady pulse kept the audience engaged. At the finish there was a more assertive, swirling feel that filled the space with a great wash of sound before trailing off. A Land Between is a complex technical and artistic effort, tightly integrated, and performed with impressive precision.

Phenomenal Hum (2017) by Tonia Ko was next, performed by HOCKET. This opened with a low piano string that was struck from the keyboard while also stopped by a hand on the inside. The result was a sort of percussive knock, like hearing a ghost in the basement. A complex, four-handed melody followed, mostly in the middle registers and at moderate dynamic levels. The knocking sounds returned, building tension so that there was a mysterious, and even slightly ominous feeling overall. The melody returned, as if answering, with greater complexity, volume level and drama. The four handed passages now returned to dominance as HOCKET artfully weaved the many strands together. The piano line then pulled back slightly, just as the knocking returned, louder now and with greater insistence. The piano answered with a series of powerful runs and crashes, but the knocking persisted, ultimately prevailing at the end. Phenomenal Hum is an intriguing combination of a single extended technique and four-handed keyboard virtuosity – an entertaining contest between complexity and simplicity with the outcome in doubt right up to the finish.

Byrd/Cage (2016) by Derek Tywoniuk followed, and for this the composer joined HOCKET on stage as percussionist. Byrd/Cage opened with a single piano tone that hung in the air and was soon answered by a mallet striking one of the lower strings inside the piano. A thin, high pitch from a bowed vibraphone plate filled the space with a fascinating sound, while more solitary piano notes and the striking of strings were heard as the piece proceeded. Occasional low trills in the vibraphone added to the mystical atmosphere. Generally soft dynamics and a moderately slow pace throughout allowed the audience to focus. The sparse texture, extended techniques and a limited palette of pitches combined perfectly in Byrd/Cage to evoke a strong sense of mystery.

The west coast premiere of Together in Perfect Harmony (2014), by Joseph Michaels concluded the concert program, a four-hand piano piece performed by HOCKET. A thick, repeating phrase opened with a steady pulse – the harmonies sometimes static and sometimes with the chords rising in pitch. With twenty fingers on the keys and the occasional forearm tone clusters, Together in Perfect Harmony has an appealingly dense texture that falls outside the listener’s usual expectation for a piano. Soon, a rough, busy melody emerged that alternated with a few quiet bars, making for a stretch of nice contrast. A slower and quieter section followed, thickening the sound once again, and then after a bit the notes gradually spaced out to produce an almost empty feel. Loud, crashing tone clusters followed, filling the stage with a joyful roar and a strong pulsing groove. A grand pause marked the run to the finish as a shower of bright chords flew outward into the cheering crowd. Together in Perfect Harmony expands the sonic possibilities of the piano through the masterful use of four hands on the keyboard, creating an unexpectedly spirited and pleasing experience.

Photo courtesy of Jeff Summers

17 days ago |
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Kit Downes - Obsidian

Kit Downes, organ and composer; Tom Challenger, tenor saxophone
ECM Records

Prior to this recording, Kit Downes was primarily known as a pianist in jazz settings, notably leading his own trio and quintet. Obsidian is his debut CD as a leader for ECM Records; he previously appeared on the label as part of the Time is a Blind Guide release in 2015. However, Downes has a substantial background as an organist as well. The program on this recording consists primarily of his own works for organ, but there is also a noteworthy folk arrangement and engaging duet with tenor saxophonist Tom Challenger.

The organs employed on Obsidian are all in England, two in Suffolk at the Snape Church of John the Baptist and Bromeswell St Edmund Church, and Union Chapel Church in Islington, London. Instruments from different eras and in very different spaces, they inspire Downes to explore a host of imaginative timbres and approaches. Over an undulating ostinato, skittering solo passages impart a buoyant character to the album opener “Kings.” An evocative arrangement of the folk song “Black is the Colour” pits piccolo piping against ancient sounding harmonies in the flutes and bagpipe-flavored mixtures. “Rings of Saturn” is perhaps the most unorthodox of Downes’s pieces, filled with altissimo sustained notes and rife with airblown glissandos, an effect that is not found in conventional organ repertoire. The piece is well-titled, as it has an otherworldly ambience. Pitch bends populate “The Bone Gambler” as well, while vibrato and frolicsome filigrees animate “Flying Foxes.” “Seeing Things” is a joyous effusion of burbling arpeggios and the more usual fingered glissandos, demonstrating an almost bebop sensibility. Suitably titled, on “The Last Leviathan” Downes brings to bear considerable sonic power – with hints of whale song in some of the textures – and fluent musical grandeur.

Although some of the release seems inimitable, closely linked to Downes’s improvisatory and textural explorations, other pieces cry out for transcription; one could see other organists giving them a wider currency. “Modern Gods” is an exercise in modally tinged dissonant counterpoint, while “Ruth’s Song for the Sea” and the folk-inflected “The Gift” possess the stately quality of preludes.

The duet with Challenger is a tour de force, in which each adroitly anticipates and responds to the other’s gestures and even notes, as the fantastic simultaneities that occur at structural points in the piece attest. Once again, there is a supple jazz influence at work. While Downes provides room for Challenger’s solos, he also challenges him with formidable passages of his own. Obsidian contains much textural subtlety and fleet-footed music, but it is also gratifying to hear Downes and Challenger celebrating the power of their respective instruments. Heartily recommended.

21 days ago |
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George Perle

Orchestral Music 1965-1987

Jay Campbell, cello

Seattle Symphony, Ludovic Morlot, conductor

George Perle Vol. 4, Bridge Records 9499

A recording of five previously unrecorded pieces, Orchestral Music 1965-1987 supplies excellent renditions of an underserved segment of composer George Perle’s output. Best known for his chamber music – he received a Pulitzer for his Wind Quintet No. 4 – Perle (1915-2009) also had significant orchestra commissions, including a residency with San Francisco Symphony and a 150th anniversary commission from the New York Philharmonic. Those who know his work as a music theorist will also be aware of his significant contribution to the field of 12-tone theory, as well as publications on his own idiosyncratic compositional method, “12-tone tonality.” The latter practice, with its use of carefully cultivated chromatic collections that obliquely refer to pitch centers, is fully on display in lithe and elegantly proportioned works such as Dance Fantasy (1986) and Sinfonietta 1 (1987). A bit more astringent in harmonic language are Six Bagatelles (1965), which seem indebted to Alban Berg, a touchstone figure for Perle, in their use of forceful angularity.

An intriguing entry on the disc is Short Symphony, 1980, which seems to be something of a response to Copland’s own, early and modernist in design, work by that name. The contrapuntal nature of its woodwind components recall some of Perle’s best chamber music. Elsewhere the orchestration is more muscular, with heraldic brass and rich passages for strings. Short Symphony display the composer’s consummate craftsmanship.

The standout piece on the disc is the Cello Concerto (1966), played with suppleness and impressive virtuosity by soloist Jay Campbell (also of JACK Quartet). The Seattle Symphony, under the estimable leadership of Ludovic Morlot, plays with both verve and precision. The finale is particularly varied in its demeanor, contrasting fluid cello solos with complex chords and supple wind duos, and forceful brass punctuations. It neatly resolves the well-known issue of balance in a cello concerto by bridging solos, small sections in counterpoint, and full orchestral interruptions to create a form where cello and ensemble eloquently coexist. One could readily see this piece having a substantial rebirth, particularly if Campbell continues to serve as its persuasive champion.

23 days ago |
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The much-anticipated premiere of Daniel Corral’s new multimedia piece, Polytope, was staged in the snug spaces of Automata in the Los Angeles Chinatown district on March 18, 2018. Presented by Microfest LA and performed by the composer along with Erin Barnes, Cory Beers and Andrew Lessman, every seat in Automata was occupied. A year in the making, and built on previous Corral solo works such as Diamond Pulses and Comma, Polytope extends the same techniques to an  ensemble format.

Polytope is described in the program notes as “a multimedia musical performance for microtonal MIDI quartet, fitting somewhere between a string quartet, Kraftwerk, James Turrell, and an Indonesian dhalang (master shadow puppeteer).” The sounds were activated by four square MIDI keypads with a total of 64 buttons each. The buttons were mapped into tonality diamonds such that the numerator of the harmonic ratio was along the X axis and the denominator along the Y axis. In this way, all possible combinations were available to each player. The keys were also lighted and color-coded for pitch and timbre. A camera mounted above the four keyboards allowed the colors and patterns to be projected onto the wall so that the audience could follow along. Various subsets of the keys were programmed to be lit at different times as the piece proceeded, and this acted as a sort of visual score. The shadow of the performers’ hands moving over the lighted keys was also visible, adding a welcome human element to all the technology.

Polytope began with a few spare, sustained tones with a cool, electronic feel. After a few moments notes became more varied and rapid, and a nicely active repeating melody emerged. The lighted keys began to rearrange themselves – sometimes with a row being added or subtracted, or alternately, the lighted keys would form  into a completely new pattern. As the four players worked at the changing key presentations, there was a kaleidoscopic element to both the sights and the sounds. After a few minutes of observation, the color and position of the keys projected on the wall could be decoded into anticipated sounds, further engaging the audience.

The repeating melodies increased in complexity, most often resulting in a pleasantly minimalist texture. The steady, pulsing groove in these sections was a real credit to the performers, who had to actuate each tone by pressing the small buttons in the correct sequence. The players were experienced pitched percussionists, but the crowded keypads and unfamiliar tactile feel was surely a challenge. There was no written score score, but the players seemed to be guided by the changing combinations of lighted keys that appeared before them.

Polytope extends for about an hour and projects different sensibilities at different times. An optimistic minimalist groove generally prevailed, but this was sometimes replaced by pure electronic sine tones that cast a cool remoteness. There were also stretches with a strong primal beat in the lower registers, and occasionally the piece evoked a sense of mystery and uncertainty. That the players were observed only by the shadows of their hands added just enough of the human element to make this a convincing performance. The decision to keep the players themselves mostly out of sight on the darkened stage was a brilliant stroke – watching four people pushing buttons would have been a distraction. The lighted keys on the screen also removed any expectation of pitch and timbre that might have attended a performance with acoustic instruments. The total darkness freed the audience to concentrate on the music and the visual relationship of colors and tones.   Polytope is an extraordinary piece of musical and visual art that features just intonation tuning in a vivid presentation that is both accessible and compelling.

29 days ago |
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On a rainy Saturday night, March 10, 2018, Art Share LA hosted an all-brass concert of microtonal music performed by Trio Kobayashi and members of the CalArts Brass Ensemble. Six pieces were heard, including two world premiers, all presented by Microfest LA.

Plainsound Chorus (2017), by Wolfgang von Schweinitz was first, performed by Trio Kobayashi. This was a section of Cantata, a new work to be premiered in full at RedCat on May 23. Strong upward scales began the piece, and each of the three instruments – horn, euphonium and tuba – followed an independent line that gave this a busy, song-like feel. The alternate tuning was impressively realized with the valved instruments, and the predominance of low tones provided a solid foundation for the many unfamiliar harmonies. The warm brass sounds elicited a choral sensibility and the steady pulse focused the texture. As the chords moved in and out of the familiar, presenting various possible perspectives, the experience was reminiscent of viewing a cubist painting. Plainsound Chorus is a promising preview of the larger work to come.

Gravlax (2015), by Matt Barbier followed, and this was the world premiere. The composer was joined by a second trombone player and a trumpet, all muted. A static electronic recording that featured a continuous deep rumbling sound was heard through the speakers at the front of the stage, and the density and volume proved almost impenetrable. The instruments were played softly, so that they were were almost inaudible against the electronic background, and this served to focus the concentration of the listener. The muted trumpet was perhaps most effectively heard when it occasionally rose above the jumble, and these soundings provided a bright and welcome contrast. The trombones were also briefly heard, and served to add some color to the roar below. Gravlax is related to those very quiet pieces where the economy of sound magnifies its impression – in a similar way, the short flashes of brass tones rising out of the churning background multiply their effect, sharpening the listener’s acuity and expanding perception.

The premiere of Chaconne (2018) by Andrew McIntosh, was next, performed by Trio Kobayashi. This began with sustained tones in the tuba and euphonium, soon joined by the horn. The result was a series of warm, brassy chords that filled the room with some lovely harmonies. The presence of moving tones within the chord was most effective, nicely integrating the pitches selected from an alternate tuning. Seemingly disparate tones were impressively melded into the organic whole. The simplicity of this approach, combined with the cordial sensibility of the brass, made for a most pleasing combination. The intonation and tuning of the sustained tones by Trio Kobayashi was precise, with fluid dynamics in the texture that engaged the listener. This piece was finished by McIntosh concurrently with Shasta, a much larger brass ensemble work that received its premiere at Disney Hall three weeks ago. The two are very different in scope and palette. Where Shasta feels more like a narrative, Chaconne is an insightful exploration of the relationships between tuning, chords and their constituent pitches.

After the intermission, fragment, aviary, in progress (2017) by Icelandic composer Dav?? Brynjar Franzson was performed by Matt Barbier. This involved a muted trombone played into a microphone that processed the tones into something resembling a soft moan. This was combined with a static recording of a lightly running stream and sent through the two large speakers. The stage and audience were enveloped in complete darkness, and this nicely heightened the imaginative possibilities. The organic sounds of the flowing water were friendly at first, but as the piece proceeded the trombone part became more of a howl and the volume of the splashing water increased, inducing an instinctive anxiety. It was as if a simple hike in the wild had gradually resulted in becoming lost – the previously pleasant sounds of the stream and the wind were now alien and threatening. Ultimately, the stream became a raging torrent and the trombone produced a wild roaring that built the anxiety into a full-blooded fear. fragment, aviary, in progress is just a part of what will be a longer work. The sonic materials are very basic, but also very effective, evoking the sense of vulnerability that arises when one is exposed to raw nature in a remote wilderness.

Three (2016), by Stockholm-based composer Ellen Arkbro followed, performed by Trio Kobayashi. Matt Barbier and his trombone stood on the stage and opened with a long, sustained tone. The horn and tuba joined in from off-stage, creating some very alluring harmonies. According to Ms. Arkbo’s website, “Her sound work is heavily informed by her studies in just intonation tuning with La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela in New York and with Marc Sabat in Berlin.” All of this was in evidence as the piece elegantly unfolded; there was no beat or pulse, but rather a continuous wash of sound that evoked the contemplative. This was very much in keeping with the programmatic theme of this concert – that brass instruments can be at home with alternate tuning – Three is an ideal companion to Chaconne and Plainsound Chorus.

overlays/smear (2015), by Catherine Lamb concluded the concert program and for this the CalArts Brass Ensemble and Trio Kobayashi filled the stage in a large semicircle with an intriguing array of brass instruments. The long, opening tones were all very close in pitch – or on the octave – and zero beating could be heard. The brassy sound was accessible and welcoming, with each new set of sustained tones assembled from an unexpected mix of pitches. The piece proceeded in this fashion, solid chords – moving mostly upwards – with many different tones appearing and then fading out. Some splendid harmonies were heard, even as the pitches also ‘smeared’ together somewhat roughly at times. The contrast of the warmly familiar and the uncomfortably unorthodox was very effective, and highlighted the smooth and even playing of the ensemble. overlays/smear is an impressively large-scale examination of tones and tuning as realized in multiple brass instruments.

The performers in this concert were:

Trio Kobayashi:
Adam Wolf (guest)
Matt Barbier
Luke Storm

CalArts Brass Ensemble:
Megan DeJarnett
Eloy Neira
Evan Wendall
Zekkeraya El-megharbel
John Pisaro

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The latest installment of the LA Philharmonic Green Umbrella concert series rolled into Disney Hall on Tuesday, February 20, 2018. Music by Julius Eastman, Anna Thorvaldsdottir and a premiere by Andrew McIntosh were performed. A screening of the iconic anti-war piece L’s G.A. by Salvatore Martirano, with live performance art by Ron Athey as Politico, rounded out the program. Only a few empty seats could be seen as an eager audience settled into place.

The first piece was AURA, by Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir, performed by the Los Angeles Percussion Quartet. This was played completely in the dark – no stage lights or house lights in the entire space. The LAPQ was just barely visible in dim outline on stage, hunched over their percussion instruments. They wore lighted green wristbands on each arm so that their movements could be seen throughout the hall. AURA began with chiming sounds and a soft rattle followed by what sounded like a bowed vibraphone tone plate. More intriguing sounds followed. The darkness, the moving green lights and the mysterious tones instantly created an atmosphere that gave full rein to the listener’s imagination. It was as if we were observing some secret ritual in the dead of winter in pagan Iceland. Ms. Thorvaldsdottir is well known for building convincing sound worlds out of unusual musical materials, and it would be hard to overstate how effectively this was accomplished here. The playing by the LAPQ – who had performed this piece before – was nonetheless remarkable given the extended techniques involved, the many notes and instructions in the score and the total darkness of the stage. AURA is a captivating experience that, despite the modest musical forces and subdued dynamics, works on the imagination in  surprising and powerful ways.

Shasta, by Andrew McIntosh followed, an LA Phil commission and world premiere conducted by John Adams. The stage was filled with a brass ensemble, timpani, percussion, a piano and harp. The composer is an avid hiker and recently climbed Mount Shasta. He writes of this experience: “Mt. Shasta is a unique mountain among California peaks, since it is a massive isolated cone located at the southern end of the Cascade range. Most of California’s major peaks are in the Sierra, which are completely different in nature, since the high peaks in that range are all surrounded by other peaks of similar height. This gives Mt. Shasta panoramic views from the top unparalleled in any other place in California, as well as a peculiarly lonely and melancholy feel.”

McIntosh is a string player by training, but has written for various other ensembles; Shasta is his first major work for brass and the piece proceeds in several short movements. The opening is filled with upward moving scales, arcing glissandos and a strong melody in the trombones so that the feeling is one of climbing a perilous mountain trail. At one point, some bowed xylophone notes sting like a blast of icy air. A trumpet sounds above some sustained tutti chords as if to announce that the summit has been reached, and here the music takes on a more mystical feel with quiet notes in the horns and piano. Towards the finish, the dynamics further soften and muted trumpets provide a strong sense of standing atop the remote heights. Shasta is an evocative and convincing portrait of both the exertion and the exhilaration of mountain climbing, and was received with sustained applause.

John Adams next introduced a short film clip in which Julius Eastman described the nature of his music and explained the origins of the controversial title of the piece, Evil Nigger. Four pianos had been moved on stage and arranged in a square so as to face each other, with Michelle Cann, Dynasty Battles, Joanne Pearce Martin and Vicki Ray seated accordingly.

The work opened with rapid runs in the separate pianos, similar in rhythm but in different registers. Each set of phrases swept like waves through the ensemble, full of motion and energy. Counting was occasionally called out by Mr. Battles, and this was the signal for all to play in unison. The piece proceeded accordingly, with a surge of phrases, followed by a tutti unison, allowing the players to regroup and gather energy for the next cycle. These sections were intricately interconnected, with each building upon the other. The program notes quoted the composer: “…there’s an attempt to make every section contain all of the information in the previous sections or else take out information at a gradual and logical rate.” The score apparently contains lots of musical notes, but not many clues as to how the parts are to fit together; the work feels a bit like a four-way, simultaneous improvisation. The pianists for this performance were confident and decisive in their playing, and this produced a most satisfactory result.

This is powerfully kinetic music, but not intimidating or full of fury. Given the title of the piece, the listener might have anticipated a more aggressive or angry feel, but there was a sense of pathos that seemed to build as the piece progressed. Towards the finish the tempo slowed, the dynamics moderated and the sections seemed to dissemble. The piece coasted to its conclusion and was received with a long standing ovation.

The final work on the concert program was L.’s G. A., by Salvatore Martirano and this is a multimedia performance piece from the height of the anti-war protest era of the late 1960s. A large screen at the rear of the stage displayed a film clip with a series of strange images and a loud roaring sound in the overhead speakers. The original staging instructions called for a single performer to wear an amplified gas mask and recite Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address while inhaling a mixture of nitrous oxide and helium. Narrator Ron Athey, gas mask in place, crouched in the center of a circle of light, just in front of the screen, on an otherwise dark stage. His words were electronically modified – no gases were used – but the effects were just as dramatic. As the film clip churned up its mixture of shapes and shadows, Athey slowly got to his feet and began speaking in an incomprehensible rumble. Little by little the words became identifiable, and the impression was that Lincoln’s great speech was under tremendous stress and the performer in palpable agony.

The film clip was similarly intense and quite remarkable in that it was a product of 1960s technology; there were many short clips that all had to be spliced together by hand.  Ron Nameth’s projections for this performance were entirely in keeping with the spirit of Martirano’s work.  The rough images on the screen became more distressing and less abstract as the piece proceeded, and this was matched by the anxiety and anger of the spoken words coming from inside the gas mask. It was striking how much of an anti-war piece this is and not just a anti-Viet Nam statement – most of the combat images were from the two World Wars. At the finish, Athey lay sprawled out in front of the screen, seemingly drained by the effort of reciting the Gettysburg Address under such demanding circumstances. All of the terror and repulsion for war that was so prevalent in 1968 was skillfully transmitted intact to our 21st century. Cheering and loud applause rang through Disney Hall in appreciation.

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Tuesday: JACK/SO Tonight at Zankel

Performances at Zankel Hall on March 6 at 7 PM (note the early start time) will feature two of contemporary classical music’s estimable chamber ensembles. JACK Quartet and SO Percussion team up in a program that includes a string quartet premiere by Philip Glass, a pitched percussion work by Donnacha Dennehy, and a piece for the combined forces and prepared disklaviers by Dan Trueman. (Tickets here).


Open Source Music Festival 2017

Recently Open Source Music Festival was kind enough to send us some videos of JACK and pianist Joel Fan performing as part of the 2017 Festival. We’re still decoding the JACK offerings and will post them another day. But below, Fan plays two pieces by Augusta Thomas and Bernard Rands. Collectively titled ‘Two Thoughts about the Piano,’ they demonstrate the pianist’s virtuosity, with trills, repeated notes and angular gestures abounding to explore the entire compass of the instrument. Follow the YouTube link to hear the rest of the performances.

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