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The birthdays of Harrison Birtwistle and Peter Maxwell Davies, both of whom turn 80 in 2014, is one of the major focuses of this year’s Proms. Each has a complete Proms Portrait matinee concerts in Cadogan Hall dedicated to their music on August 30 (Davies) and September 6 (Birtwistle), and Davies’s birthday, on September 8, is marked with a late night Prom in the Albert Hall. Unfortunately I will not be around for any of those concerts, but I have heard other concerts marking the birthdays.

On August 9, in Cadogan Hall on a Saturday matinee concert combined the birthday strand with another theme of this summer’s Proms, presenting orchestras new to the festival and from far afield. The Lapland Chamber Orchestra, conducted by John Storgårds, presented a concert which included Birtwistle’s Endless Parade, with Håkan Hardenberger as the trumpet solo, and Davies’s Sinfonia. The Birtwistle, for trumpet with vibraphone and strings, written in 1987 for Hardenberger, was intended by Birtwistle, who had, he said in the short discussion before the performance, cubism on his mind, as a study in discontinuity, cross cutting six kinds of music, with different tempi, figuration, and textures, in disconnected and apparently illogical ways. Birtwistle also apparently had Stan Kenton on his mind, and there is from time to time a sort of whiff of jazziness in the music, although that may be as much an effect of the sound of the vibraphone as the actual notes.

The Davies Sinfonia was written in 1962, after he had studied in Italy with Petrassi, but before he had gone to Princeton to study with Sessions and before he had begun work on Taverner, the central work of his early career. It was written under the influence of the Monteverdi Vespers and makes use of procedures from that work. The work is in Davies’s earlier, post-Webernesque Euoprean modernist style, but nonetheless has in it the beginnings of the isorythmic cantus firmus procedures that one recognizes in slightly later and possibly more characteristic piece such as Antechrist.

Both of these works received very strong, very strongly characterized, and highly persuasive performances. The concert began with a Symphony by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, and also offered, between the Birtwistle and Davies, Honegger’s Pastorale d’été, and ended with Rakastava by Sibelius, a very beautiful piece for strings and percussion, of whose existence prior to this concert I had been completely unaware.

Storgårds conducted the BBC Philharmonic on August 14 in Proms concert at Albert Hall that featured Davies’s Fifth Symphony, along with works of Sibelius (Finlandia and the Second Symphony) and Frank Bridge (Oration for ‘cello and orchestra, with Leonard Elschenbroich as the soloist). Written in 1994, when Davies performing career had moved from working with The Fires of London to conducting orchestras, mainly the BBC Philharmonic and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, the Symphony is in one movement and reflects Davies’s involvement at the time with the Sibelius Sixth and Seventh Symphonies, which had figured in his repertory. The Symphony which at first seems to be in discontinuous shards, consists of the braiding of a fast music with increasing intensity and emphaticness and an equally impassioned and forward moving slow music with a motionless music providing moments of stasis in the overall progress, which in certain respects resembles the arc of the Sibelius Seventh Symphony. It is a highly dramatic piece and it received a very dramatic and impassioned, although somewhat under-shaped performance. This Prom was preceded by a Composer Portrait concert at the Royal College of Music in which Davies talked to Andrew McGregor about his chamber works Antechrist, Runes from a Holy Island, and Six Sorano Variants, which were given excellent performances by Musicians of the London Sinfonietta Academy.

Two nights earlier The BBC National Orchestra of Wales, conducted by Thomas Søndergård, presented the suite from the second act of Davies’s ballet Caroline Mathilde, along with the Violin Concerto of William Walton and more music of Sibelius, The Swan of Tuonela and the Fifth Symphony. Walton’s rather elegant and glamorous concerto is just the sort of piece that one would have written for Heifetz, who, in fact, commissioned it and gave its first performance, and it received a suitably luxurious performance from James Ehnes. Davies’s ballet is about the misadventures and eventual downfall of the title character, the sister of George III of England who, at the age of 15, was married to the Danish king Christian VII and who became the lover of his person physician, with attendant unfortunate personal and political consequences. The music from the ballet is, compared to more austere and abstract works such as the Fifth Symphony, relatively easy listening and depicts fairly clearly the story line of the choreography. The performance mirrored the clarity and sonorous beauty of the orchestral writing.

Davies’s birthday is also being celebrated by other festivals. The North York Moors Chamber Music Festival in North Yorkshire between August 24 and August 30 features a work by him on each of their concerts. I heard the concert on August 25 in the beautiful Victorian Gothic Church of St. Helen’s and All Saint’s, in Wykeham, in which the Quartetto di Cremona began the concert with the Beethoven Quartet, Op. 74 and ended it with Davies’s 6th Naxos Quartet. In the between another quartet, consisting of Zsolt-Tihamér Visontay, Simone Brown, Meghan Cassidy, and Jaimie Walton played the Berg Lyric Suite. The 6th Naxos Quartet is a big, thirty minute long, impassioned piece which interpolates into a fairly traditional four movement layout, two short “arrangements” of plainsong hymns for the third Sunday of Advent and for Christmas Day, the day the piece was finished. All of the performances on this concert were outstanding.

The Proms was also marking the 80th birthday of the British born American composer Bernard Rands with the first UK performance of his Piano Concerto performed by Jonathan Biss and the BBC Scottish Orchestra, conducted by Markus Stenz. The Concerto is an imposing work which presents the soloist as a predominant member of the ensemble rather than, as Paul Conway’s program note said, “a protagonist striving heroically for supremacy over massed accompanying forces.” After a bright and lively first movement, entitled Fantasia, the second and third movements, were not clearly enough differentiated, especially in terms of tempo, as opposed to speed of figuration, to remain as separate impressions on this listeners memory.

On August 17, the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and Andrew Manze presented a concert entitled “Lest We Forget,” to commemorate the centennial of the First World War. The first half consisted of works written by composers who died in the war. The German composer Rudi Stephan (1887-1915), who died in the trenches of Galicia on the eastern front, was represented by Music For Orchestra from 1912, which was steeped in the language of late German romantics particularly Strauss. The Elegy for Strings in memoriam Rupert Brooke (who had himself died in the Navy in the war) by Frederick Kelly (1881-1916), who died in the last phase of the battle of the Somme, reflects more of the language of Debussy. Both of these works were indications of great potential as yet unrealized, especially the Stephan. A much stronger and more personal impression was made by the Six Songs from ‘A Shropshire Lad’ by George Butterworth (1885-1916), who also died on the Somme. He was a more fully developed composer, and several of his works, including these songs, which he wrote with piano accompaniment, but were performed here in a orchestration by Phillip Brookes, are fairly well known and not infrequently performed. Two of them, Loveliest of Trees, and The Lads In Their Hundreds, are, I think, particularly good. They were sung, more of less perfectly, by the baritone Roderick Williams, with a beautiful sound and perfect British English diction; it is hard to imagine anyone ever doing them better. The concert ended with the Vaughan Williams Third Symphony, written after the war, but formed by his experiences as an ambulance driver in France during the conflict. I was very excited to hear this piece, which I’ve know since I was in high school, but had never heard live. The performance was all that one could wish for. There were a number of other Vaughan Williams pieces on the Prom presented by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Sakari Oramo, on August 13: The Overture to the Wasps, The Lark Ascending, and his big ballet (or as he called it ‘a masque for dancing’) Job. These performances were rather less radiant than that of the Symphony, but they did bring to mind what a very good composer Vaughan Williams was, and, especially in pieces like Job, people often don’t remember, a modernist.

All of the Proms concerts can be heard at

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Not only is it hard to describe Benedict Mason’s Meld, which was given it’s first performance on the late night Prom given by the Aurora Orchestra and the choral group Chantage, conducted by Nicholas Collon, on August 16, it’s hard even beginning to think about how to describe it. All of the advance notices of the concert were particularly, and unusually, vague about the details of the work, and even the program claimed to be not at liberty to divulge much information about it. In the concert itself, which began with the Mozart 40th Symphony (played from memory) and also included Dobrinka Tabakova’s Spinning a Yarn, a short and very attractive piece for violin and hurdy-gurdy, played (also from memory) from the organ loft by Alexandra Wood and Stevie Wishart, the fact that something was up was indicated by the emptiness of the arena and gallery of the Albert Hall, the domain of the promenaders. One noticed a number of people who are continually there as promenaders in very good seats in the stalls.

Once it was underway it was clear that Meld was going to use all of the Albert Hall, up, down, inside, and out. It began with a mysterious and halting throbbing music coming from some place outside of the hall which turned into a march for a parade of players across the gallery at the top of the hall. Suddenly there were four bass players in the lower tier of boxes, echoing a group of ‘cellos and basses in the gallery, and then, suddenly without one having noticed their getting there at all, the entire upper tier of boxes was filled with pairs of players and singers, who sent volleys of pizzicato notes ricocheting around the hall, succeeded by skittering and scurrying flurries of notes. After a period of time when different kinds of groups with different instrumentation would seem to simply appear in lots of different places, a bevy of horns started moving over the arena area and the stage, and eventually through the audience, followed by other people, playing various percussion instruments, sometimes moving very fast, pursuing, as the poet says, urgent voluntary errands. Then there were some small groups of players in the arena, seemingly menaced (I’m not sure if there’s another word for it) by one or two people wearing some kind of stoles of clacking blocks. The sequence of events is somewhat hazy in the memory, although the events themselves were striking and memorable. During all of this, the music–the actual notes being played–which had a fairly high level of complexity, was always full of detail and held one’s interest.

After a while the delight and excitement about what would happen next began to ebb somewhat, but not so much that anything ever got, for lack of a better word, boring. I found myself, though, wondering about what the shape of the piece being presented in this all enveloping environment and its structural argument might be. I was reminded of a place in the final scene of The Years by Virginia Woolf where one of the characters asks herself whether, if one could get far enough above life, one might be able to see a pattern in it. After a while longer I found myself thinking of another Woolf and wondering if Meld wasn’t a pageant, in some ways like the pageant in Between the Acts, including in its outlining some kind of (unspecified–in the case of the Mason) loosely historical progression. Pageants are a series of more or less static and not necessarily closely connected tableaux whose larger scale succession, thematic in some way, but not plot based, rather than the immediate flow of the individual moments give the work’s structure and continuity. At some points in Meld we seemed to be in fact offered some kind of excerpts of a pageant, in the bit with the clacking stoles, and also in a segment where most of the chorus and some players coalesced in the arena, first rolling balls of some kind and appearing to play some kind of game (cricket?), then formed several small groups doing what appeared to be some kind of folk dancing, and then made one big ring around the perimeter, before forming two groups that then sat for a few moments in seats in opposite sides of the stalls, muttering. At a certain point one began to wonder when and how it was all going to end, and eventually it did, but I can’t remember how, although I think it was more with a whimper than a bang.

There was never any point in this almost hour long work which was not engaging or at which the material, musical or otherwise, seemed anything less than first class. The performance, by 93 players and 49 singers, was astounding–completely committed and assured. They were playing without music, although everybody seemed to have receivers and earphones, and some of them seemed to be wearing cameras, so its hard to know exactly what information they were getting from that. The program listed a person responsible for staging and choreography (Mason), a movement director (Chris Tutor), and two people who did a click-track (Felix Bastian Dreher and Griff Hewis). The work involved in planning and executing the whole effort must have been mammoth, and it was brilliantly accomplished.

The recording of this Prom is available at

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For sixteen years now the BBC, as one of its many activities connected with the Proms, has run a program which it calls Inspire, comprising of a competition and several workshops for composers between the ages of 12 and 18. On this last Sunday, composer Fraser Trainer, who chaired the committee of judges for the competition, led a workshop for about two dozen young composers whose activities were related to the works on that night’s Prom, which was presented by the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain. Trainer was joined by six artist instrumentalists, violinist Anna Smith, saxophone player Simon Haram, double bass player Ben Markland, trumpeter Bruce Nockles, percussionist Hugh Wilkinson, and flutist Rosanna Ter-Berg, who began the day as colleagues of the participants and by the end of the day were performers of works that had been written for them in the afternoon. The day began with the whole group, extemporaneously working out elements of a short piece which they performed with clapping, stomping, and finger snapping, followed by smaller groups, this time using instruments, devising works more specifically focused. In the afternoon each of the composer wrote a short duo for some combination of the artists performers which were read at the end of the day. The level of musical sophistication of the participants was impressive, as was the quality of music played at the end of the day, which they had produced in very little time. There are two other workshops to follow focused on electo-acoustic music and popular music arranging, each also connected to a Proms concert. There is also a concert of the competition winners on the August 20.

In the time between the two sessions of the Inspire day, at King’s Place, at another end of central London, Jane Manning was conducting another kind of workshop, billed as Jane’s Contemporary Clinic, as part of the annual festival of Tete a Tete Opera Festival, during the course of which she sight read excerpts of operatic and vocal works which had been submitted that morning. She was assisted by the composer and pianist James Young. Manning read music of fearsome complexity both of pitch and of rhythm with the unflappable ease and performance-ready accuracy of someone who regularly does six impossible things before breakfast, offering comments of great intelligence, insight, and common sense with down-to-earth simplicity, and displaying a simply astounding technical command and beauty of sound.

That night the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, conducted by Edward Gardner, presented a concert including Petrushka by Stravinsky (in the original version) and the Lutoslawski Concerto for Orchestra, which along with Sonance Severance 2000 by Harrision Birtwistle, some of whose compositional issues had provided the focus for the earlier Inspire workshop. The orchestra, as many youth orchestras tend to be, was enormous, and seemed to have twice as many of everything as scores called for. The sound they made was large and rich and beautiful and in the final tableau of the Stravinsky was enough to bring tears of joy (which the music does anyway). The number of players, though, was no impediment to realizing either the accuracy of the playing or the intricacy or clarity of ensemble work.

There must have been a good reason for putting the Birtwistle piece at the beginning of the second half of the concert, rather than at the very beginning where it belonged, but it’s not clear what it might be. Commissioned by the Cleveland Orchestra for the reopening of their home, Severance Hall in January of 2000, it is a three minute elaborate flourish, conceived of by Birtwistle as a sort of call to arms, or sonance, for consisting of a series of waves of sound welling up through the orchestra, with abrupt halts (or severance) of the sound, most especially at the very end, where after a big crash, prolonged by a tam-tam, is followed by a four note trumpet call.

The Lutoslawski, written in the earlier years Poland’s post war communist government and in the wake of the banning of his First Symphony on the grounds of its ‘formalism,’ is an imposing bravura display piece, both for the orchestra and the composer, steeped in Polish folk music and clearly modeled after the Bartok Concerto for Orchestra. It has a structure of considerable intricacy, so one wonders if it was merely the folky melodic qualities that kept it from being declared formalistic. Earlier in the concert the orchestra was joined with Louis Schwizgebel in a performance of the Prokfiev First Piano Concerto.

Earlier in the week another Youth Orchestra, the European Union Youth Orchestra, conducted by Vasily Petrenko, persented a concert consisting of the Berio Sinfonia and the Shostakovich Fourth Symphony. This orchestra is a very fine group and has a very high technical level. One couldn’t fault their playing at all. However the performance of the Berio was a great disappointment. The Berio is undoubtedly the archetypal 60s piece and is a sort of rock star among pieces, and, for me, at least, its quality and glamor and importance and breath-taking beauty are undiminished. This performance has several aspects which mitigated its full effect, though. First of all the amplification of the voices was too high. The idea seemed to be to try to make all the words audible all of the time, as opposed to the voices being a part of the general texture with occasional words and phrases coming through to the surface. In the second movement, the jabbed notes were not sufficiently loud enough and different enough from the rest of the music to make the texture clear, so its effect was of a certain aimlessness. The performance of the third movement, on its immediate surface didn’t have the swing and liveliness that one would hope for in a performance of the Mahler which is its shell. On top of the there was the balance problem with the voices, and there seemed to be no recognition of, and certainly no attempt to bring out, the various quotations that flow through it. So basically what one got was a sort of not terribly energetic, not terrible well differentiated mush. The Shostakovich, which is a much more traditional piece, got a more satisfactory performance, but still lacked the clarity of texture and desperate life and death intensity of dynamics and general affect to make it really memorable. In all of this the level of playing was never anything other than first rate. I think the fault was in our Petrenko.

The Proms concerts are available for listening at

18 days ago | |
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A reminder of the muscular, haunting style of Peter Schulthorpe, who passed away a couple of days ago.

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I’m happy to be returning to posting here at Sequenza21.  It has been a while.

Recently, a quote from David Byrne was brought to my attention by Joe Benzola in a Facebook post. (The original Byrne post may be found here.)  Although the quote is from 2008, it’s new to me; besides, Byrne was responding to “modern music” written in 1957 as if it was new, so I feel okay with my discussion here.

Essentially, Byrne’s comments amount to “why don’t these composers act normal?”  I’ve heard comments like this from my undergraduates, usually non-music majors in my electronic music class. When we get to Cage and Stockhausen, there’s always one kid who thinks he’s either being funny or brilliant by asking either of the following questions:  ”Is he on drugs?” or “Did he make any money from this?”

Both my students and Byrne share a similar misconception about ‘classical’ music; really, about music genres outside the larger umbrella of mass-marketed pop music.  That is, the very odd idea that one can create a piece of music, indeed a whole body of works, not for hopes of financial gain.  Sure, many of us receive commissions to compose works, but for the most part, the money generated is meager in comparison to even a modest success in the pop world.  One can also point to the few highly-paid artists like Glass or Adams, but they are a rarity.  Many of us are creating works out of our own artistic desires, whatever they may be.

This brings us to the next point – the often-repeated idea that contemporary composers deliberately try to alienate their audiences.  First of all, I’ve never heard any composer say that.  And I knew Cage, and Babbitt, neither of whom created ‘audience-friendly’ music.  More accurately, they knew that what they wrote would appeal to a limited audience, nothing compared to the vast crowds listening to pop genres.  You could say the same thing about, say, Thelonious Monk.  This is akin to ‘narrowcasting’: targeting a message to a specific audience, like when a college radio station has a hour-long show all in Italian.  In all cases, the messenger knows and indeed revels in the fact that he or she is not going to reach a huge percentage of the audience at large.

On a side note, I am reminded of a quote from Cecil Taylor, which I heard in Ken Burns’ Jazz documentary.  (Okay, I have a LOT of issues with the tone of the post-1945 portion of the documentary, but still…) When asked why his music was so difficult to follow, Taylor responded (I’m paraphrasing here) “I spend many hours practicing before a concert.  Why can’t the audience do the same?”  Okay, that’s harsh.  One can say that he’s not exactly accommodating.  Yet, he’s asking his audience to prepare for the experience.  How, I’m not sure.  Perhaps by learning how to be open-minded, allowing the music to flow rather than trying to control it or pigeon-hole it into a pre-conceived notion.  Don’t expect to hear tunes based on “What is this Thing Called Love?” or the blues (at least not past the mid-60s, from what I know).  That’s where audience members, including Mr. Byrne, get lost.   They’re expecting an experience similar to what they already know, and it is simply not there in this case.  I will agree, however, that some artists take this to an extreme, leaving the audience little to grasp on to.  I don’t find this with the composers mentioned in the Byrne article.  Schoenberg is quite traditional in many ways, especially when it comes to motive and structure.  In many ways, he is a Neo-Classical composer, with a twist!

One last point:  opera is about spectacle.  Whether you’re talking about bringing in half the zoo for a production of Aida, massive sets for Wagner, or the staging in the Zimmerman, it’s all about the wow factor.  It’s a huge multi-media event, so it’s no wonder that more recent operas have made use of technology.  And that operas continue to be written.  And, yes, Mr. Byrne, sometimes there is a long gap between the creation of a work and its first performance.  It takes a long time for a work to be produced in general; when larger forces are involved there is more preparation needed.  Sets have to be built, costumes designed, and musicians rehearsed; even for a commissioned work, it is not uncommon for a few years to elapse between the composer putting down the pen and the conductor holding up the baton.

Yes, composers are not always the most practical in a business (or pop-music) sense.  We create music that makes our performers work a little (some more than others), and we expect our smallish audience to engage in active listening.  Is that truly a horrible thing?

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Vijay Iyer and the Brentano Quartet in a live performance of sections from Mutations at Greene Space

Over the past two decades, Vijay Iyer has recorded some 18 albums of bold, genre-defying and original music that navigates the fine line between composition and improvisation, between jazz and New Music.  Although his restless musical imagination roams easily through both Carter and Monk territory, unearthing insights that evolve and morph over time, the gestures have largely been identifiable as jazz.   His new and first ECM recording—Mutations—unveils more of the composer side of the 42-year-old New Yorker’s prolific bag.  The title composition–for string quartet, piano and electronics—was written nearly 10 years ago but is recorded here for the first time, with considerable care, by Iyer and top chamber players Miranda Cuckson, Michi Wiancko, Kyle Armbrust and Kivie Cahn-Lipman,  under the magic ear of Manford Eicher.

Is Mutations jazz or is it contemporary classical or some sort of Third Stream, as envisioned by Gunther Schuller?  Does it matter?

“I find myself at the intersection of several music communities where people have different understandings and assumptions about what music is,” he says.  “When you talk about genres you’re really talking about different communities of people each of which has people who have a shared understanding of music.  But, those assumptions shift as we are exposed to different approaches and sounds so we are constantly redefining what music is. ”

In other words, he isn’t much interested in labels or categories.

“As you can imagine, from the perspective of an artist who makes music and has lived pretty intimately in both the jazz and classical worlds it is not useful think about labels or categories.  It’s more useful to think about what can I do with these particular people.  Because when you talk about genres you’re really talking about communities and people who have a shared understanding about what is music.  When you’re exposed to something new, that can expand or alter your perceptions.”

Lately, Iyer has become the Pharrell Williams of the New Music community—a musician who has worked over 20 years to become an overnight success.   Although Iyer’s music is unlikely to dominate the planet in the same resistance-is-futile way that Williams has, he has plenty to be “happy” about, too.  In the last two years, he’s won a MacArthur Genius Award, gotten a tenured teaching position at Harvard, landed a big commission and retrospective at BAM this coming December and released an extraordinary new album on ECM.

“I’m a kind of late bloomer in terms of becoming a professional musician,” Iyer told me after a performance of Mutations  at The Greene Space a couple of weeks ago. I had intended to get into physics and got an undergraduate degree in math and physics at Yale.  After that I went to Berkeley to work on a Ph.D.  The music was always there and I never stopped playing.  I just wasn’t sure I could make a living at it.  I wound up getting an interdisciplinary Ph.D. in Technology and the Arts, focusing on music cognition.  Fortunately, I had some success in performing and it encouraged me to keep going.”

What makes that success even more remarkable is that despite having studied the violin for 15 years, beginning at age three, he is virtually self-taught as a pianist.

“I began to gravitate toward the piano when I was six although I didn’t approach it in a formal way.  I was drawn more by the physical connection.  I didn’t find the jazz interest until high school and particularly after discovering Thelonious Monk.  He’s my all-time favorite composer and musician.  I’ve learned, and continue to learn, so much from him–about rhythm, and tempo and immersion into the music.”

Iyer was born in Albany in 1971 and raised in nearby Fairport. He played in the Rochester Philharmonic Youth Orchestra and took improvisation and music theory courses at Eastman School of Music while in high school. His parents were science technicians who had immigrated from Tamil Nadu  but he grew up in a prosperous “conventional” American environment.  Although he is interested in Indian music and culture and has incorporated some elements into his music, his jazz “roots” and influences are distinctly African-America.

Listen to the sublime “Spellbound and Sacrosanct, Cowrie Shells and the Shimmering Sea” and the other jazzish pieces on the Mutations CD and you’ll find yourself immersed in the sonic world of Monk and Randy Weston, as channeled through a devoted and gifted student/master.  The center piece–Mutations 1-10–is something else entirely.

Commissioned by Ethel in 2005, the 10-part composition for piano, electronics and string quartet is a gnarly kaleidoscope of timbres and asymmetrical rhythms, anchored by occasional droplets of melody from Iyer on piano and electronics, and enlivened by steady—if a little tentative—bursts of improvisation by members of the wonderful recording quartet.  In the program notes, Iyer writes:   “With Mutations, and with all of my music, I am interested in probing this loose constellation of concepts: change, stasis, repetition, evolution, attraction, repulsion, composition, improvisation, noise, technology, race, ethnicity, hybridity.”  I suppose he had to write something.

Written in the period when the 9/11 tragedy still gripped New York and not long after Iyer and his wife, Christina Leslie, a computational biologist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, and their new daughter settled in New York.  Mutations reflects some of the edgy feelings of alienation, fear and despair of that period, leavened by moments of hope.

In the original program notes, Iyer writes:   “With Mutations, and with all of my music, I am interested in probing this loose constellation of concepts: change, stasis, repetition, evolution, attraction, repulsion, composition, improvisation, noise, technology, race, ethnicity, hybridity.”  I suppose he had to write something.

Iyer’s classically-oriented pieces like Mutations  and Time, Place, Action, a new piano quintet he wrote for the Brentano which is not on the ECM CD but had its New York premiere recently at the 92Y,  present special challenges.  It is one thing for Iyer, a born improviser, to add unexpected piano or electronic rifts against the backdrop of a notated string quartet; it is quite another to ask musicians who are trained to play notes exactly as written to improvise.

“Having been an improviser and having studied and played the violin for many years, I have a kind of insider sense of what it feels like on both sides of the boundary,” he says.  “Classical musicians don’t take improvised solos like jazz musicians but they do make choices and decisions—they’re very good at interpreting, they’re interacting all the time;  they choose how tempos breathe, for example, and how to play in tune so they do make many moment-to-moment micro-decisions.  I was interested in what could classical musicians “choose” to do when presented with passages where they get to decide what to do.  For example, there are places where they are instructed to repeat this as many times as you like or choose how to play a rhythm

In the past, Iyer has produced, or co-produced, his own recordings.  For Mutations, he worked directly with ECM’s legendary founder and producer Manford Eicher, who is reputed to be something of a perfectionist.

“There are what I call ‘producer’s knob’ producers,” Iyer says.  “They turn the volume up or down and feel like they’ve done their part.  Manford is not that guy.  He was involved in every aspect of the production, even to the music itself.  It was great to work with someone who has the knowledge and experience to be involved to that level.”

Things seem to keep getting better and better for the soft and carefully-spoken Iyer, (whose diffidence is either very charming or very annoying.  I can’t decide.)  In January he became the first Franklin D. and Florence Rosenblatt Professor of the Arts in Harvard’s Department of Music.   Harvard’s catalog describes his course, “Creative Music: Critical Practice Studio,” as “an intensive, research-oriented workshop environment for advanced improviser-composers” meant to “engage with a range of contemporary musical perspectives and practices.” Part of his mission, he says, is to fill in the blanks for young musicians about what has happened in jazz over the past 50 years or so since the era of bebop.  (There is no hope for those of us old farts who believe jazz died with the appearance of “Bitches Brew.” Ok, I make an exception for Steve Lacy, who was a personal friend.)

Perhaps the thing that animates Iyer most when you talk to him is the progress his nine-year-old daughter—who began, like dad, at three—is making on the violin.

“She’s awesome,” he says.  Coming from someone as achievement-oriented as Vijay Iyer, that’s high praise indeed.

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On Monday, July 21st at 8 PM, the last concert of Tanglewood’s 2014 Festival of Contemporary Music is a well-stocked program of orchestral works. The centerpiece is Roger Sessions’s Concerto for Orchestra, a work commissioned by the BSO thirty years ago. Steven Mackey’s violin concerto Beautiful Passing will feature as soloist Sarah Silver, one of Tanglewood’s New Fromm Players. Music by John Adams has not in recent memory frequently been featured on FCM programs, but this year his Slonimsky’s Earbox makes an appearance. The sole work by a younger composer, The Sound of Stillness by Charlotte Bray, piqued my interest – it is an impressive piece. (Check out a video about it here.) Thus, this year’s FCM ends the way that many of its seasons are curated: with nods to tradition as well as explorations of new, unfamiliar, and underrepresented corners of contemporary repertoire.

1 month ago | |
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Marc Day and Patrick Fennig in

Marc Day and Patrick Fennig in “Brother Brother”

In June I sat on a panel organized by Opera Cabal, in their visit to the Kitchen to produce Georg Haas’ Atthis, with two other critics, John Rockwell and Zachary Woolfe. While the audience was sparse, they were generally attentive and the talk, which began with the question of whether or not we missed City Opera, was varied and interesting.

I was surprised, though, by how much we ended up talking about the Metropolitan Opera, and how Rockwell and Woolfe’s critical thinking is so involved in the context of not only what the Met produces, but the general standpoint that the long-standing repertoire is the thing that matters. The Met demands that much attention in terms of both time and money, and the professional critics (I’m making a value-free distinction between those who are paid for every review they write and those who are paid for some of the reviews we write) pay that much more attention to the Met and that house’s peers: it’s their job.

This is certainly no criticism of Rockwell and Woolfe, especially the former, who has done so much to advocate for contemporary opera. It actually made my contributions more valuable, because while I certainly see plenty of things at the Met (almost a dozen performances this past season), what happens outside that house matters to me more. Nothing against good productions of operas of lasting value (though the grand opera tradition, as seen on stage, includes too many mediocre works), but as a composer I’m most concerned with the state of the form now, what other composers and companies are doing with it.

When I answered the opening question, I was even more surprised to realize that I didn’t miss City Opera. The loss of the company is still painful, but what involved me the most with them was what George Steel was doing to produce modern and contemporary work, and this past season, starting with City Opera’s swan song of Anna Nicole, I saw enough new work (on a necessarily smaller scale), and missed so much more new work, that it was clear to me in retrospect that contemporary opera is in decent enough shape. Smaller companies like Gotham Chamber Opera, Beth Morrison Projects, HERE Arts Center and Experiments in Opera are making new work, and they are free of the burden of having to maintain a redundant version of the repertoire that the Met has a lock on.

What does it take to produce an opera? Experiments in Opera has an infinitesimal fraction of the Met’s budget, easily less than 1,000,000th, so the composers who formed the organization—Aaron Siegel, Jason Cady and Matthew Welch—work together to produce each other’s pieces. I saw their season finale, Siegel’s Brother Brother, in the beginning of May at the Abrons Arts Center, and while the opera didn’t come off as a successful music drama, it has two important things going for it: it tries to expand the repertory and it made it to the stage—that itself is a success.

Siegel is trying to move narrative structure beyond linear story telling, something the world of contemporary opera desperately needs (as I said at the panel, I’m amazed that in a world with comic books, Pulp Fiction and long form dramatic TV, there is almost never any variation to the Verdian model). He is trying to convey a drama about the Wright brothers by telling the story of an additional pair of brothers, abstracted as Red and Blue. An interesting idea, but unsuccessfully executed.

Siegel wrote the libretto, and could probably have used some critical distance: the words don’t amount to much meaning. They don’t do much to provide human flesh to the Wright brothers (sung by countertenor Patrick Fennig and tenor Marc Day), and the fragmented, abstract dialogue for Red (Julian A. Rozell, Jr.), and Blue (Danyon Davis) make them poetic figures and put them out of the context of the drama. Red and Blue are also speaking parts, and although they are accompanied by music, they seem to belong to an entirely different piece.

Siegel fills in a lot of the narrative with a chorus, but this also works against his drama, because this is music the Wright brothers could sing, and by singing bring us closer to their experience and dramatic realization. They pop up, Day sings heroically at one point, everything goes up in flames. It doesn’t work. Siegel also doesn’t completely get beyond the challenge of his own minimalist idiom—the repetitive music relies predominantly on vibraphone (the accompanying ensembles were Mantra Percussion and the Cadillac Moon Ensemble, conducted by David Bloom), and as lovely as it often is, there is too little changes in quality and harmony to indicate that some kind of narrative transformation has occurred: the music doesn’t convey the dramatic idea.

Production- and performance-wise, the event proved that there is no lack of capable singers, musicians and directors (Mallory Catlett). The actors were miked, probably because the instruments were miked, but in the tidy acoustic of Abrons this should never have happened, and the vibes overpowered the actors and the singers too many times. Perhaps tight budgets mean insufficient tech rehearsals.

But the problems with Brother Brother are those of commission, people trying to do something new. No money means nothing much to lose, and an unsatisfying but honest attempt at something different is more welcome than another acceptable and predictable production of Strauss.

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ojai2014-12The 2014 Ojai Music Festival opened on Thursday June 12 to begin 4 days packed with informative talks, movie screenings, parties and concerts. The Festival’s Music Director this year is Jeremy Denk and the resident musical groups included The Knights orchestral collective and the Brooklyn Rider string quartet. Friday night’s concert was built around an examination of the Classical period and featured a Haydn string quartet as well as the world premiere of a new opera – “The Classical Style” – by Jeremy Denk and Steven Stucky that was commissioned by the festival for the occasion.

The concert began with Haydn’s String Quartet in G minor, Op. 74, No.3 (1793), performed by Brooklyn Rider. Right from the opening passages of the 1st movement the light, bouncy rhythms combine with the classical harmonies and familiar Haydn wit to produce a lively and optimistic feel. As the instruments took turns developing the theme there was a sense of increasing fussiness that added to the fun. The playing was light and precise, setting just the right mood for the evening.

The second movement was more stately and slower – almost hymn-like – but easy and flowing. This turned a bit darker towards the middle, but soon returned to the lighter feel of the opening, giving a sense of resolution. The ensemble playing was impressive here and the ornamentation in the upper parts nicely done.

ojai2014-3 The third movement, in the traditional triple meter, was faster and featured close harmony. The balance and dynamic control were outstanding and the bright feel reinforced the sense that this was music that does not take itself too seriously. The final movement was faster still and had a dramatic feel that turned brighter with a series of bouncing rhythms that suggested a sort of gallop, hence the nickname of this Haydn string quartet as the “Rider”. This work is typical Haydn – bright, optimistic and not too serious. The precise and agile playing by Brooklyn Rider caught the essence of this piece exactly and it was an ideal prelude to the opera that followed.

Not being able to make it to Ojai, I listened to the concert as it was streamed on the Internet. The quality, both audio and visual, was excellent and there were no drop-outs or interruptions of consequence. The seeing and hearing are much like being in one of the back rows of the Libbey Bowl and was actually an improvement over my usual seating out on the lawn.

The streaming provided another benefit – a televised interview of Steven Stucky during intermission by Fred Child of American Public Media. The subject of the interview was the music for The Classical Style: An Opera (of Sorts). This is a comedy based loosely on The Classical Style by the late Charles Rosen, a textbook first published in the early 1970s and widely influential in the field of musicology. The libretto, by Jeremy Denk, was taken in part from the Rosen book but the opera also includes the personalities of Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn, Robert Schuman, Charles Rosen, and characters like the Tonic Chord, Dominant Chord, Sub Dominant Chord and the Tristan Chord as well as a host of supporting characters. The plot revolves around Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven returning to earth to reclaim their musical relevance and to rescue the classical style from academic over-analysis by appealing to musicologist Rosen. There are also scenes involving the several musical chords in a bar, and other assorted comic vignettes and sketches derived from musical theory and history.

Apart from the varied collection of characters, one of the challenges Mr. Stucky pointed out was the need to write music in the classical style, using the sonata form where appropriate, or in the romantic style during the Tristan Chord scenes. Another challenge was that much of the comedy was based on knowing something about music theory, and this needed to be put across in a way that all audiences could enjoy. The character of Charles Rosen, a close personal friend of Jeremy Denk, was portrayed as something of a hero, bringing order to the comedic chaos around him, and this necessitated a more serious musical sensibility when he was on stage.  Steven Stucky, while confident and articulate, nevertheless betrayed the look of a man who had spent the last two years of his life on a large-scale work to be premiered on Friday the 13th. He needn’t have worried.

For The Classical Style: An Opera (of Sorts) the orchestra was situated on the stage and was comprised of the Knights with the addition of the Brooklyn Rider string quartet. The singers and scenery were mostly in the foreground but there was some creative staging required to work within the friendly confines of the Libbey Bowl. The singers wore microphones and the normally reliable sound system worked as expected so that the music and the libretto were clearly heard. Unfortunately there was no listing I could find for the cast of singers who were all excellent.  Mary Birnbaum directed and Robert Spano was the conductor.

The opening scene is in heaven where we find Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven in various stages of boredom and dissatisfaction. Mozart (sung by a soprano but with just the right amount of breeziness) busies himself with writing a letter to the Hollywood producers of Amedeus, inquiring about possible royalty payments and future scoring possibilities – this sent a loud giggle through the audience. Beethoven is mostly lost in thought but delights in running up huge scores in their scrabble games with enormous German words. The music is elegantly classical but turns profound when Beethoven (a bass) is singing. Haydn (a baritone) seems frustrated, and lacking any work to do, worries about his musical legacy. All are alarmed when Haydn reads from a New York Times article stating that ‘classical music is dead,’ and the music here suddenly turns from smoothly classical to faintly dissonant, as if a foreshadowing of the future. They sing together in harmony – “It is shocking how time has made us into caricatures of ourselves.” But then they pick up a nearby book – it is The Classical Style by Charles Rosen – and the music swells to an heroic theme as Haydn exclaims “It’s all about how great we are!” The three composers depart, seeking out Rosen on earth to persuade him to restore their legacy and relevance.

ojai2014-7The scene changes to the Rosen home. Charles Rosen is engrossed in cooking but is actually supposed to be going to an academic symposium. Here Rosen sings of the elegance of the sonata form and the music swells to a pleasing grandiosity. Meanwhile in a nearby bar the Dominant Chord is having a drink and an existential crisis; she doesn’t feel ‘resolved’. The Tonic Chord swaggers in and begins singing about ‘Me, Me, Me,’ and this provoked a knowing laugh from students of tonality. Dominant is attracted to Tonic who replies that he “isn’t sure he wants to be in a relationship.” A sultry Sub Dominant Chord walks in and Tonic is immediately attracted to her, but she seems cool and aloof. This scene with the three chords is entertaining as well as educational – and way to dramatize their harmonic functions. At length Rosen appears, and explains the circle of fifths.

More such scenes follow. The composers appear in the bar and Mozart is attracted to Sub Dominant. Rosen explains Mozart’s music and a scene from Don Giovani breaks out played by Sub Dominant and Tonic. Henry Snigglesworth, a musicology student from UC Berkeley appears with questions and an endless supply of statistics about Beethoven’s music. There are several inside jokes about music and Beethoven announces that he wants to go to the Sonata Symposium to meet Rosen.

The Sonata Symposium scene opens with heavily dramatic Beethovenesque music, but there is no sign of Charles Rosen. The attendees all sing an explanation of the sonata form, in sonata form. This is convincingly classical music and Mozart, Beethoven and Haydn enter to endure a pedantic academic explanation of the sonata form ending with a big finish by all the singers. Just as this is concluding a blast of Wagnerian music is heard and the Tristan Chord, the ‘saddest of all chords’ enters dressed in a wanderer’s coat and hat, complete with a Wotan eye patch. The Tristan Chord embarks on an extended solo – in wonderfully expressive Wagnerian style – about the dark future in store for the chords that is coming in the romantic era. As Tristan departs, Dominant, Sub Dominant and Tonic chords, alarmed by what they have heard, reconcile in a short aria.

Back at home Charles Rosen is finishing a late dinner. Beethoven, Mozart and Haydn enter, entreating his help after the discouraging events of the symposium. But Rosen refuses and states that their music is what must make their legacy and keep them relevant. In the final scene Robert Schuman appears to a lonely Rosen and explains how styles must always change. In a final statement Schuman sums up by declaring that the sonata form was “ …a miracle, Charles, that can never be repeated.”


The Classical Style: An Opera (of Sorts) has a lot of singers and a lot of moving parts to the plot. The music, even with the many styles and requirements, was well matched to what must have been a tricky libretto. The singers, musicians and of course Steven Stucky did a fine job to bring it all together. If the goal was to produce a piece that will see wider performance, Denk and Stucky may have already succeeded but perhaps a little streamlining would make for a less sprawling and more cohesive production. But, all in all, it was an enjoyable experience and well suited to the festival atmosphere..

Although this piece was intended primarily as a comedy – and succeeded as such – it is remarkable how seeing Beethoven, Mozart and Haydn, even as broadly drawn characters acted on stage, can provoke such an empathetic response. We know these composers from their music but to see them concerned about the relevance of their work in the 21st century was surprisingly touching. The Classical Style: An Opera (of Sorts) manages to make light of the current uncertain state of classical music, but also reminds us – through the words of Charles Rosen – of its ultimate value.

This performance is archived on UStream video here:

2 months ago | |
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