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Anja Lechner and François Couturier Greenwich House, NYC February 18, 2017. Photo by Claire Stefani

Francois Couturier and Anja Lechner

Greenwich Music House

New York

February 18, 2017

By Christian Carey

Five Things to Like About Francois Couturier and Anja Lechner in duo performance

  1. Versatility — These are two musicians who are able to play in a plethora of styles: classical, jazz, world music, et cetera. I first interviewed cellist Anja Lechner for a Signal to Noise feature about the bandoneonist Dino Saluzzi. I was impressed with her versatility then and remain so today. Pianist Francois Couturier is an eminently qualified performing partner for Lechner.
  2. Ensemble — Even though most of their set consisted of composed pieces — Couturier had sheet music on the piano throughout — the improvisational directions that they took the works featured a plethora of surprises and sharp turns into different musical terrain. The duo hardly needed to look at each other to turn on a dime into a new section or tempo.
  3. Variety — The concert included pieces by Couturier, with the back-to-back presentation of Voyage and Papillons creating a swirl of timbres and techniques. Federico Mompou also featured prominently, with renditions of three of his works on the program, including Soleil Rouge, a sumptuous encore. Komitas, Gurdjieff, and a transcription of an Abel piece originally for viola da gamba were other offerings. But the standout was Anouar Brahem’s Vagues, a work that the duo had previously performed with the composer. It brought out a tenderness and poise that was most impressive.
  4. Technique and effects — Both Couturier and Lechner demonstrated abundant performing ability. However, conventional playing was just a part of their presentation. The duo used a host of effects, Couturier playing inside the piano, Lechner supplying all manner of harmonics, pizzicatos, and alternate bowing techniques. This gave the abundant lyricism of their performance just the right amount of seasoning.
  5. Tarkovsky Quartet CD — Happily for those who missed this intimate event, or for those who heard it and want more, Couturier and Lechner appear as members of the Tarkovsky Quartet (which also includes soprano saxophonist Jean-Marc Lerché and accordionist Jean-Louis Matinier) on a new ECM CD, Nuit Blanche.


2 days ago | |
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Hi All. This fell off the blog for some reason. I am re-hosting it today.

New York Philharmonic Premieres H.K. Gruber

New York Philharmonic

Photos: Chris Lee

Avery Fisher Hall, New York

January 7, 2017

By Christian Carey

Five Things to Love About the NY Phil’s January 7th Concert

  1. Kurt Weill’s Kleine Dreigroschenmusik (Little Threepenny Music) for Wind Ensemble: A truly charming work that also demonstrates the composer’s affinity for early jazz orchestration, Little Threepenny Music showed off the wind section of the Philharmonic at their very best, and it was wonderful to hear banjo in the mix. Mack the Knife alone is worth many three-pennies!
  2. Emmanuel Ax playing H.K. Gruber: As Ax himself admits (see video embed below), his training is classical, not jazz-oriented. That said, he acquitted himself well in the premiere of H.K. Gruber’s Piano Concerto, spinning swinging fistfuls of notes into the air at a nearly relentless pace with his characteristic musicality.
  3. H.K. Gruber’s Piano Concerto: It is audaciously orchestrated, cast for a large orchestra with tons of contrapuntal imitation thickening the texture — yet somehow the piano comes through in brilliant fashion. There are elements of Weill’s early jazz, notably “shimmy music” from his opera Tales from the Vienna Woods. But the piece contains an even more pronounced strain of modern jazz: one could imagine the late Eric Dolphy fitting right in, taking a seat among the winds.
  4. Thoughtful programming: H.K. Gruber has performed works by Kurt Weill as a chansonnier. Schubert’s early Second Symphony hasn’t been performed since Kurt Masur was Music Director of the NY Phil (I saw that performance too; more about it momentarily).
  5. Alan Gilbert conducting Franz Schubert: When I heard Masur’s performance of Schubert’s Second Symphony in 1994, I was convinced that the teenage composer had the capacity to be a proto-Brahms with high Romantic spirits. Gilbert’s interpretation of the piece stands in stark contrast. It is much quicker, putting the strings through fleet-footed paces and distilling Schubert’s admiration for Mozart into each of the work’s movements. I wouldn’t want to be without either rendition, and am grateful to have heard them both. That said, January 7th’s masterful performance is just going to make me miss Alan Gilbert at the helm of the NY Phil even more.


6 days ago | |
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Photo: Steve J. Sherman

Kronos Quartet

Carnegie Hall – Zankel Hall

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Christian Carey

Six Things to Like About Kronos at Carnegie Hall

  1. Fifty for the Future Commissioning Project — Kronos used Saturday February 11th’s concert to showcase some of the early entries in their “Fifty for the Future” project. Not only is Kronos recording all of the pieces for young quartets to hear; their website also includes free to download PDFs of scores and parts. Thus, they are creating a new repertory for quartets eager to learn about contemporary music.
  2. Garth Knox — Some of the pieces, such as renowned violist Garth Knox’s “Dimensions” from Satellites, take on a didactic function. Knox features all manner of bowing techniques, including the surprisingly potent hissing sound of “air bowing.” It is a piece that is a catalog of special effects, but they are organically incorporated and the music is a brisk tour: it doesn’t overstay its welcome and stretch one’s appreciation of its charms.
  3. Malian percussionist Fode Lassana Diabate’s Sundata’s Time: The master balafonist joined Kronos onstage for the first completed “Fifty For the Future” composition: Sundata’s Time. Each movement spotlighted a different instrument, along with a few extra cadenzas for balafon thrown in. These were most welcome. Diabate plays with an extraordinary grace and fluidity that not only was stirring in its own right, but brought out a different character entirely in Kronos’s playing. It was a most simpatico collaboration.
  4. Kala Ramnath’s Amrit contains major scale ragas that craft a poignantly stirring work combining Eastern and Western gestures in a bold attempt to bring the two hemispheres’s musical traditions together.
  5. Rhiannon Giddens’s At the Purchaser’s Option brought blues and roots music to the fore, genres that Kronos has played eloquently since their inception. Perhaps the most attractive piece on the program in terms of musical surface, its message went deeper, serving as a sober reminder of slave trade in 19th Century America. Giddens has a new Nonesuch CD out this coming Friday, titled Freedom Highway.
  6. If Giddens’s piece was the most attractive on a surface level, Steve Reich’s Triple Quartet remained the weightiest in ambition and most thoroughly constructed of the programmed works. Written for Kronos, it features two virtual quartets on tape that accompany the live musicians (Kay and I are lobbying for more live performances of all three quartets, as that would really be something!). Overlapping ostinatos and stabbing melodic gestures provide a serious demeanor that resembles another piece played by Kronos with tape (of human voices): Different Trains. The rhythmic contours and syncopations provide ample amounts of challenges, but Kronos played seamlessly with the avatar-filled tape part. While “Fifty for the Future” is an important mission for Kronos, it is also heartening to hear some of their older repertoire being revived. The encore for the concert: an arrangement of “Strange Fruit,” the jazz protest song made famous by Billie Holiday.


6 days ago | |
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Gidon Kremer and Kremerata Baltica

McCarter Theatre Center

Friday, February 3, 2017

By Christian Carey

PRINCETON – I’ve wanted to hear violinist Gidon Kremer perform Estonian composer Arvo Pärt’s iconic work Fratres live since I was a teenager. Back then, Kremer’s rendition of the work on an ECM Records New Series CD was transfixing and game changing: it became an almost totemic art object for me as a composition student. On February 3rd, I got my wish at McCarter Theatre in Princeton. Unlike the recording, here Kremer pushed the proceedings forward, taking a quicker tempo and engaging in more taut phrasing than he did on the CD. The work is still transfixing, but it was moving to hear its story retold in a new way.

Kremer and Kremerata Baltica, the chamber orchestra of Eastern European musicians that he leads, have a new ECM CD out, this one of the Chamber Symphonies of Mieczyslaw Weinberg, late works that sit astride Mahlerian late Romanticism and modernism that is a close cousin to the works of Shostakovich. Clarinetist Mate Bekavac, who also appears on the recording, was a sterling-toned soloist, unwinding breathless phrases and coordinating and blending seamlessly with the strings.

The second half of the concert had an interested concept that provided a bit of dramatic flair. Kremer began it with Tchaikovsky’s Serenade Melancolique, leaving the stage on the last note, which led directly into Kremerata Baltica’s rendition of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. This was resolutely played, but the absence of brass and winds led to some strangely attenuated passages (Andrei Pushkarev, a percussionist, performed formidable gymnastics to reach all of the score’s instruments). At the piece’s conclusion, Kremer returned to the stage, playing Valentin Silvestrov’s solo Serenade nearly attacca.

There were yet more surprises to come. Two encores, Stankovich’s Lullaby and Alfred Schnittke’s Polka gave the audience distinct flavors of music-making – one poignant and one buoyant – to send them home.

This is Kremer’s seventieth birthday year. To celebrate, he has not only released the Weinberg disc on ECM, but has also recorded Rachmaninov’s Piano Trios and the Philip Glass’s Violin Concerto (available on vinyl!) for DG.

kremer trios

glass kremer

8 days ago | |
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zoek2On Saturday, February 11, 2017 Zoë Keating made a Southern California appearance as part of the ongoing Real New Music concert series at Whittier College. A large crowd filed into the Ruth B. Shannon Center for the Performing Arts for an evening of improvisation combined with electronic looping and exceptional cello playing. The performance followed an hour-long demonstration session by Ms. Keating, held earlier that afternoon in the concert hall.

Tetris Head was the first piece on the program, and this illustrated something of the methods and form of Ms. Keating’s music. The cello was fitted with a small microphone and her chair was surrounded by a large mat with foot switches, a computer and another electronic box or two. There were a few neatly run cables to be seen, but not the excessive clutter common to so many systems. The first notes from the cello were short and spikey and these were recorded by the looping software and re-played into a speaker system. This formed a regular, rhythmic track and Ms. Keating then began adding a series of longer, smoother tones from the middle register of the cello that made for an agreeable contrast. As this second layer was looped, some double-stopped harmonies appeared adding a sense of depth. As new, faster melodies were built up, there was an overall feeling of purposeful movement as the piece proceeded. The looped segments would often reappear in a new combinations, subtly shifting the perspective and mood. Tetris Head concluded as the layers were gradually disabled by the foot switches, tapering down the texture and density of the sound before quietly trailing off.

Successive pieces increased in complexity, and this required new levels of precision to accurately interleave the layers. By the second and third pieces in the concert, intriguing counter melodies were heard against the looped sections. The variety of colors and emotions that were conjured from the looping process was also impressive. In Seven League Boots, a piece about her home near the coast in Sonoma County, Ms. Keating was able to evoke that appealing combination of rural redwood serenity and easygoing mellowness that we associate with the best Northern California sensibility. In Frozen Angels, the tone was decidedly darker, with dissonance and tension infused within the layers. Another piece, composed while Ms. Keating was staying in Quito, Ecuador, has all the images of the scene from her hotel window – clouds boiling up against the towering Andes and the vibrant movement of people in the market square below. The textures, tones and counterpoint created from the looped segments afford a rich musical palette with Ms. Keating always in complete control of their deployment.

Later in the concert even more intricate constructions were heard involving fast runs of pizzicato notes and rapid arco passages. The layers piled up, with a skill level that seemed to increase exponentially. There was no score evident for any of these pieces and Ms. Keating seemed to have the basic musical ideas for each segment committed to memory. She then worked out how they fit together by playing them and it was like watching someone improvise a fugue – always thinking a few steps ahead and in three dimensions. The combination of improvisation, rhythm, melodies and counterpoint is fascinating to hear and the appreciative audience responded with sustained applause at the end of each piece.

The final piece of the concert, by way of an encore, was an experimental work-in-progress that pointed to the future. A series of extremely high, thin pitches, followed by stronger tones in the middle registers, gave a remote, lonely feel to this. A rapidly syncopated pizzicato layer added complexity to the sense of isolation, while a low rumbling in the bass registers threw an ominous shadow across the texture. This final piece seemed to be drawing from the same well of inspiration as other contemporary composers lately, perhaps reflecting the tension and uncertainty of our present social circumstances. A prolonged and enthusiastic standing ovation followed.

Apart from the masterful playing and artful leveraging of looping to multiply the expressive power of her instrument, Zoë Keating is also in the forefront of 21st century promotion and career management. A long line of her followers formed up after the concert, filling the lobby, and Ms. Keating generously stood chatting with them for a long time. There was a table piled high with CDs – and she was giving these away to those who subscribed to her mailing list. Ms. Keating seems to have a keen sense of what works in today’s volatile performance marketplace; she understands her audience and they respond with genuine affection.

Photo by Shane Cadman (used with permission)

8 days ago | |
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Composer Portrait – Beat Furrer

Miller Theatre

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Either/Or Ensemble; Richard Carrick, conductor

By Christian Carey

NEW YORK – Miller Theatre has long had plans for a Composer Portrait evening of Beat Furrer’s music. In 2001, the event was disrupted by 9/11, which made it impossible to bring in the musicians slated to perform. After a long hiatus, the American ensemble Either/Or, conducted by Richard Carrick, was invited to undertake the first Miller portrait event in 2017, finally featuring Furrer’s compositions. The concert was masterfully performed and artistically satisfying. Alas, this time out, it was Furrer who could not attend. The Swiss-born, Austrian-based composer had taken ill and his doctors advised him against flying. One felt sorry that Furrer had missed a chance to hear his work at Columbia not once, but twice. What’s more, audience members were denied a planned onstage conversation with the composer about his work. Thankfully, Miller has continued to employ Paul Griffiths, one of the foremost writers on contemporary music, as their program note writer. Griffiths supplied a great deal of biographical background and information about the pieces, giving listeners a fine entryway into Furrer’s compositional aesthetic.

Carrick conducted the largest work on the program, the nonet linea dell-orizzonte (2012), which includes winds, brass, strings, piano, percussion, and electric guitar. Propulsive rhythmic activity underscored frequent glissandos. Rollicking gestures from Taka Kigawa’s piano, string harmonics, and guitar distortion, courtesy of Dann Lippel, created a hazy sound world, which gradually receded into syncopated brass, from trumpeter Gareth Flowers and trombonist Chris McIntyre, and percussion outbursts offset by rests, from Russell Greenberg and Dennis Sullivan.

Ira-Arca (2012), a duo for the unusual combination of bass flute and double-bass, was given a characterful performance by flutist Margaret Lancaster and bassist Ken Filiano. The piece frequently had the two mimic each other’s gestures, creating a nimble duet leavened with copious effects: exhalations, key clicks, flute and bass harmonics, slaps, and all manner of pizzicatos.

The quintet Spur (1998), for piano and string quartet, is one of Furrer’s most popular works. Kigawa played its repeated note gestures with fleet-fingered dexterity, while the quartet – violinists Jennifer Choi and Pala Garcia, violist Erin Wright and cellist Erin Popham – haloed the octaves, sevenths, and ninths of the piano part with pizzicato and altissimo lines, their sense of ensemble nicely complementing the keyboard ostinatos. In several places, the overall ascent of this central line breaks down into more diverse textures and gradual processes, but it is the piece’s inexorable drive and propulsive character that make it a strong entry in the composer’s catalog.

The second half of the concert was devoted entirely to the US premiere of one of Furrer’s most recent pieces – the clarinet quintet intorno al bianco (2016). It was in this piece that the composer most clearly demonstrated his affinity for spectral harmonies. Extended passages built out of overtones shimmering brightly. Clarinettist Vasko Dukovski blended seamlessly with the aforementioned string players, at times seeming to find the breath support to buoy impossibly long lines and performing with an enviably dulcet tone. The climax of intorno al bianco chimes chords with stratospheric highs before receding into a sumptuous denouement. It showed a different facet of Furrer’s music entirely. One felt that both his gestural and overtone-based pieces reveal potential avenues of further inquiry. While Miller tends to give composers a single portrait concert, another of Furrer’s music, this time with him in attendance to talk about it, would be most welcome.

10 days ago | |
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Photo: Simon Powls

Photo: Simon Powls

Last night I heard the latest incarnation of the Juilliard String Quartet in recital at Alice Tully Hall. The program included performances of Mendelssohn’s first String Quartet and the juggernaut that is Beethoven’s Op. 130 with the Grosse Fuge finale, both pieces performed with suavity rather than abundant risk-taking. The highlight was the quartet’s New York premiere of Mario Davidovsky’s Sixth String Quartet, “Fragments.” 

Davidovsky’s description of the quartet is accurate in that it includes fragments of motivic material that are juxtaposed in a variety of ways. However, it is anything but fragmentary in terms of the consistent feeling of a long line’s presence and persistent through thought. The Quartet demonstrates the composer’s early experiences as a string player and knowledge of contemporary techniques, with all manner of harmonics, dampening, tapping, slapping, and regular pizzicatos set against the famous Bartók pizzicato. Davidovsky’s 6th is a beautiful piece that deserves a place alongside Carter’s 5th Quartet and Shapey’s 9th as a stirring example of a composers’ late style in the current era.

17 days ago | |
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southland-2-17On Saturday, January 28, 2017 the Southland Ensemble convened in the China Town district of Los Angeles to present a concert of the works of poet Jackson Mac Low. Every seat was occupied in the cozy Automata venue at Chung King Court, while outside Lunar New Year revelers filled the night air with the sounds of firecrackers and cheery celebration. Five works by Jackson Mac Low were presented, exploring the interface between poetry and music as directed by random chance.

The first work, Tree Movie (1961), was simplicity itself, as the program notes explained: “Select a tree. Set up and focus a movie camera so that the tree fills most of the picture. Turn on the camera and leave it on without moving it for any number of hours…” Accordingly, the image of what looked to be a scrub oak tree was projected on the wall overhead for the duration of the concert, lending an iconic continuity to the proceedings. The room was otherwise immersed in complete darkness and this focused visual attention to the image, promoting a more acute listening experience.

Young Turtle Asymmetries (1967) was the first work performed, and this was a complex amalgam of spoken words and phrases combined with musical tones. Asymmetries are defined by Jackson Mac Low in the program notes as “…nonstanzaic poems of which the printed formats are notations for solo or group performance. They are ‘asymmetrical’ in that they have no regularly repeating stanzaic or other patterns. They are ‘notations’ in that most aspects of their format can be translated into performance. Notably, the lengths of the blank spaces before, between, & after single words or words strings, & between lines, stand for ‘temporal holes’ – durations in which readers keep silent or produce single, prolonged tones.”

Accordingly, Young Turtle Asymmetries started with sporadic spoken words accompanied by sustained tones from the various instruments scattered among the performers. Dice were dropped into small wooden bowls at intervals to provide the element of chance in the direction and reading of the score. The words and phrases comprised a fragmentary account of the hatching of baby sea turtles on the beach, and their return to the sea. Just enough of this was intelligible to gain a sense of the story, which served as a focal point while musical tones and spoken phrases flowed out into the audience. The musical accompaniment was similarly splintered and while this added a welcome coloring to the words, the power of this piece resides in the text. The words enlist the mind to build a mental image – as if piecing together a jigsaw puzzle – of turtles making their mysterious way to unknowable destinations. Young Turtle Asymmetries combines several disparate elements into an engaging experience driven by chance associations.

Is That Wool Hat My Hat? (1980) followed, and this was inspired by an unlikely mix-up of headgear at a New York poetry festival. The rhythm of this phrase forms the basis of this piece, and chance variations in the sequence and number of the words are used to create a series of changing patterns. There are no musical instruments in this and all of the performers begin by speaking the words in unison. Depending on the roll of dice, each performer continues with different sets of words or segments of the phrase. This creates interesting variations in the rhythm and texture of the resultant sound and confronts the listener with the choice of parsing the words into a message or hearing the overall contours of sound. As the variations increase, a sort of counterpoint develops in the speaking cadences, suggesting a musical component to this even in the absence of instrumentation. Is That Wool Hat My Hat? operates at the intersection of words as message and words as the shaping of sound, expanding the listener’s perception in both directions.

54th Light Poem: For Ian Tyson (1978) was next and this piece combined three unusual poetic techniques. The idea of a ‘Light Poem’ is based on a table, devised by Jackson Mac Low, of some 288 different names or terms for light. Names were randomly chosen from this table and selected such that their first letters spell out the name of ‘Ian Tyson.’ ‘Ian Tyson’ is also spelled out in the pattern of the words and letters in the poem as read diagonally, or in other ways, between the stanza lines. Finally there is the score that allows for a number of spontaneous choices by the performers. A single voice began the piece, but soon the others joined, each reciting a line or two of the poem. At times, some would hum or sing a pitch, but there were no musical instruments involved. Fragments of the lines were often repeated and the time and date of the writing was included in the text, providing a sort of deconstructed framework for the listener. There was a great deal of variety in the different patterns and silences, and bit by bit the poem was built up as the listener assembled the fragments into a coherent image. 54th Light Poem: For Ian Tyson is another example of Low actively engaging the listener to organize the patterns and words into an organic whole.

The final work on the program was Numbered Asymmetries (1980), similar in form to the opening piece. This time the performers were rearranged into two groups – male and female – on each side of the space and equipped with instruments. Words and phrases were heard at random with sustained tones in the instruments. The words, the length of the silences and tones were again chosen by the rolling of dice by the performers. The spacing of the two groups gave a dimensional perspective as the voices arrived from opposite directions with different pitches.

The words and phrases were in no particular order and so the listener was continuously engaged in assembling the poem from the fragments being received. The harmonies created when two or more instruments sounded together was quite moving at times, and added an eloquent coloration to the poetry. The phrases occasionally acquired an unexpected intensity – words like “American” and “Nation” seemed to put a charge into the listening atmosphere – especially when accompanied by unusual harmonies from the instruments. No doubt this was inspired by the emotional politics of the present time.

Numbered Asymmetries and the other Jackson Mac Low pieces in this program manifested intriguing new ways to deliver poetry, using silences, word patterns and random chance that actively engage the listener, while at the same time the overall sound forms a separate sonic experience that extends the performance to another level.

The Southland Ensemble is:

Casey Anderson
Jennifer Bewerse
Eric KM Clark
Orin Sie Hildestad
James Klopfleisch
Jonathan Stehney
Cassia Streb
Christine Tavolacci

21 days ago | |
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Photo: Steve Pyke

Philip Glass turned eighty years old today. A celebration was held at Carnegie Hall tonight, a concert by the Bruckner Symphony Linz, led longtime Glass collaborator conductor Dennis Russell Davies in the premiere of the composer’s Eleventh Symphony and Three Yoruba Songs (with vocalist Angélique Kidjo).


In Nashville tonight, I’m not hearing any live Glass alas, but I am enjoying a brand new recording by Icelandic pianist Víkingur Ólafsson. Philip Glass – Piano Works, his debut for Deutsche Grammophon, features interpretations of the Études and excerpts from Glassworks. The Siggi String Quartet joins the pianist on some of the music, reworked to incorporate strings. Both here and in the solo selections, Ólafsson brings to bear a supple sense of phrasing and wide-ranging gestural palette. His playing stands starkly at odds with the seemingly irrepressible notion that ostinatos serve as motoric cogs in a supposedly limited minimalist vocabulary. He finds 1,000 flavors of repetition. Anyone who wants an point of entry to or refresher course on Glass’s music need listen no further than here to find bold, dramatic interpretations of his work.

24 days ago | |
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29 days ago | |
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