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On Thursday, September 7, 2017 the Soundwave Concert Series in Santa Monica presented music from Trajectories, the new CD from Michael Vincent Waller released this month on the Recital label. Pianist R. Andrew Lee, in town from Denver, and cellist Seth Parker Woods from Chicago were on hand to perform, having recorded the album in Kansas City last year. A good-sized crowd assembled in the Martin Luther King Auditorium to hear this latest release from the New York-based Waller.

by itself (2016), for solo piano, was first up on the program and the album notes by “Blue” Gene Tyranny  state that this piece “…describes a quiescent state of solitude but leaves the specific image to the mind of the listener.” The opening notes fall quietly from a simple chord and have that gentle, inward-looking feel so characteristic of Waller’s music. No heavy-handed chords or bold declarative statements disturbed the smoothly tranquil texture. Subtle and almost nostalgic in prospect, the economy of musical materials and the Lydian mode scale combined to agreeably invoke a state of quiet contemplation. The acoustics in the hall complimented the playing by R. Andrew Lee, who perfectly realized the understated essence of the score. Not quite six minutes long, by itself carries the listener on an inward journey so intriguing that time seems to be in suspension.

Visages (2015) followed, a piano solo in eight short sections and on this occasion five were selected for performance. Each of the sections offered a different musical visage and these were variously flowing, animated and purposeful, dance-like, questioning or quietly introspective. As with by itself, Visages is typically quiet and reserved, but there are the familiar elements of strong melody, repeating chords and counterpoint that serve to set the tone and color of each of the sections. The sections are typically brief – just a few minutes in length – but always long enough to establish a particular point of view about the subject. The sensitive playing of R. Andrew Lee was always in complete control of the delicate contours and balance of each section.

Cellist Seth Parker Woods joined R. Andrew Lee for Lines (2016), a duo that also included a video by Richard Garet projected on the screen at the rear of the stage. This opens with a rich cello line and simple piano accompaniment; the video was filled with scenes of various East Coast watery places. The music is restful and nostalgic – like pleasant memories floating by – and perfectly complimented the images on the screen. The cello line dominated for most of the piece and this was confidently played, yet sensitive and expressive. A short pizzicato section changed the mood slightly, but the return to arco phrasing served only to increase the sense of underlying longing. In the final minutes the mood turned remorseful, enhanced by some lovely playing by Woods in the lower registers of the cello.  The piece finished on a beautifully shaped low cello note followed by a softly echoing piano arpeggio. Lines is wonderfully interior music, made from thoughts and memories as much as by notes and sound.

Breathing Trajectories (2016) followed, a piece in three parts for solo piano. Part I begins with a series of simple phrases consisting of single notes – typically starting with an open fifth or octave – and completed with a dissonant tone. All of this is softly subdued, focusing the listener’s attention on the interaction of the sounds in each phrase. The effect of the third tone on the sustained ringing sound of the first two adds an element of uncertainty and as this pattern is repeated, a kind of question and answer conversation ensues. There is no other form or structure, yet these sequences of solitary notes are quietly thought provoking.

Part II extends this concept, this time with chord arpeggios that are allowed to ring out so that their component colors refract into the listener’s imagination. The interactions of the tones again drive the perceived feelings, and these are generally warm and reassuring, but also distant or uncertain. A series of slow trills and rapid melodic lines brighten the mood before slowing again to a peaceful finish. Part III opens with stronger and more substantial chords, firmly grounded in the lower registers. Rapid arpeggios follow and this adds a bit of dynamism and grandeur. The texture is not as spare here, flowing more easily, with the melody and harmony interweaving into familiar patterns that feel like the logical outcome of the preceding parts.

The final piece on the program was Laziness (2015), a cello and piano duo in three parts. According to the CD liner notes the ‘laziness’ refers to “…the dispirited state of confusion brought on by mixed emotions..” This is manifested in Part I by a series of quiet chords in the opening that sometimes vary from major to minor modes within a given phrase. Combined with the expansive cello line, a sense of disquiet is established. Part I ends with three ominous notes in the deep piano register – not unlike a knock of fate. Part II begins with a much more optimistic feeling, a moving piano line filled with bright sunshine and a warm cello accompaniment that carries a sense of renewed purpose. However this soon turns gloomy and a bit portentous as the tempo slows and the cello line descends downward. Minor key phrases appear at times and a feeling of uncertainty and agitation persist to the end.

Part III begins with repeating piano phrases, uptempo and full of movement and determination. The sustained cello line floats below, content to let the piano dominate. About midway through, the piano and cello engage in a kind of conversation that is full of briskly intertwining notes and repeating figures. Slower phrases enter and exit, adding a certain ambiguity to the initial sense of ambition and heightening the sense of mixed emotions. Laziness pivots nicely back and forth between confidence and doubt, leaving the listener to decide which path to take.

Overall, Trajectories is music for the interior imagination. Sometimes music comes to us in a great symphonic fury, sometimes in bold declarative statements or in bright, vivid colors. The music of Trajectories comes to us quietly – almost as if we are hearing our private thoughts – and is all the more engaging as a result.

The CD has been carefully mastered and edited so that all the nuance and detail of the music has been precisely preserved. Credit for this is due to Sean McCann of Recital, Denis Blackham of Skye Mastering and Ryan Streber of Oktaven Studios. The CD cover booklet features photography by Phill Niblock.

Trajectories is available directly from Recital and also at Apple, Amazon, Spotify, and other digital outlets.

3 days ago |
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There are certain concerts where there is a new piece which is clearly not the main item on the program. Sometimes a visiting orchestra will include a work by a composer from its country; sometimes it seems to be more or less an afterthought; sometimes a more integral part of the program, but still not the most important or central part. The earlier Prom on August 30, presented by the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Sakari Oramo, began with the first UK performance of Liguria by Andrea Tarrodi, which clearly fell into the first category. Liguria commemorates a visit its composer made to the “Cinque Terre,” five villages on the Ligurian coast of Italy. She describes the work as a ‘walking tour’ of them. The work is very attractive; far from the least of its impressive and appealing aspects being the expert and highly polished orchestration; its notes are not at all bad, either. Despite the composer’s description, the work had very little local color. It could just as well, from the sound of it, have been about a place in Sweden. The titles of its six sections, which follow on each other without a break, are generic (Waves, Horizon, Blue Path, Colors, Mountains, Stars), rather than geographically specific. Neither the shaping of the sections nor the articulation of their ends is very clear. The first two or three have the same material, so it’s not easy to follow the progress of the whole work. The character of the music changes at one point, but it’s not completely clear which movement it might be. In the end, Virgil Thomson’s pronouncement on the Egmont Overture could apply to Tarrodi’s Liguria: It was “the classic hors d’oeuvre. Nobody’s digestion was ever spoiled by it and no latecomer has ever lost much by missing it.” In the case of this concert, the main event was Renée Fleming who sang Knoxville: Summer of 1915 by Samuel Barber as well and as movingly as the great recordings by Eleanor Steber and Eileen Farrell. The concert also included the Transformation Scene from Daphne by Stauss, also with Flemming, and the Nielsen Symphony No. 2.

The main event of the Prom presented by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Robin Ticciati was either the magisterial and beautiful performance of the Berg Violin Concerto by Christian Tetzlaff or the Schumann Third Symphony, but it also included the first UK performance of Nocturne–Insomnia by Thomas Larcher. Larcher is a very accomplished, to say the least, composer whose music is polished, meticulously composed, and beautifully heard–every thing about it is completely beyond reproach. This piece does absolutely everything that one would imagine that a piece called Insomnia would do, and does it with great style and expression, but nothing that one might not have thought of. Larcher’s program notes make statements about ‘tonal music,’ ‘the newer tonal music,’ and ‘tonal threads’ as though absolutely everybody knows exactly what he means. The piece itself makes Larcher’s meanings of some of these statements manifest.

Beethoven (Leonora Overture No. 3 and Symphony No. 5) seemed to be the big draw for the completely packed Prom on August 21, which was presented by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Mirga Gražinyte-Tyla, but it also included the Stravinsky Violin Concerto, played with elegance and vigor by Leila Josefowicz, who also played, as an encore, Lachen verlernt by Esa-Pekka Salonen, which is a very snappy and appealing piece, as well as the first performance of Canada! by Gerald Barry, which was a BBC commission, with vocal soloist (both speaking and singing) Allan Clayton.

Clearing security at the Toronto airport on his way back to Dublin where he lives, the text of The Prisoners’ Chorus from Fidelio by Beethoven, came into Barry’s mind (…What joy in the open air! Breathing freely again! Only here is life! Only here!). Those words, in English, French, and German, proceeded by the name Canada! are the bulk of the text of his work, which is, in the orchestra, a sort of frenetic and wacky set of folk dances from some imaginary country (probably not the Canada of real life, but possibly of his imaginary Canada). For a long stretch of the work the word Canada is deconstructed into its component syllables by the soloist and then repeated many times until it has no meaning at all. Finally the members of the orchestra, shouting and then, at the prompting of the soloist, repeating quieter and quieter, join in proclaiming Canada!, finally admonished by the soloist, “Speak softly! We are watched with eyes and ears.” The work is some combination deadpan humor and dead serious earnestness which is compellingly engaging and lingers strongly in the memory. Both Clayton and the orchestra performed the piece meticulously and brilliantly.

On August 26, one of the Proms away from the Albert Hall, was presented at the Bold Tendencies Multi-Storey Car Park, a disused Sainsbury car park (multi-storied) in Peckham which has been transformed into a community arts center, and the home base of The Multi-Story Orchestra. After the opening piece, Granville Bantock’s orchestration of Bach’s chorale prelude on “Wachet auf” BWV645, the orchestra, joined by the Multi-Story Youth Choir, comprised of local young people aged 8-12, in its inaugural performance, presented the first performance of I am I say by Kate Whitley, who with Christopher Stark, the orchestra’s conductor, is one of the founders of the orchestra. I am I say concerns itself with the valuing and protection of the world around us, setting a text by Sabrina Mahfouz with an additional stanza written by the choir. The choir sang clearly and beautifully, with perfect diction, which was not quite equaled by that of the two adult soloists, Ruby Hughes soprano and Michael Sumuel bass-baritone, although they were given music to sing which made clarity of diction a great deal harder to accomplish. Whitley’s music is in a sunny and handsome post-modernish style, and the work was convincing and enjoyable. It was followed by one of founding post-modern, maximal post-minimalist works, Harmonielehre by John Adams. The orchestra’s performance of this very intricate and difficult piece was committed and compelling and benefitted from and added to the sense of occasion and the beautiful sunny day. All the way through the concert there was a noise that also enhanced somehow, rather than distracted from, the performance. After a while I realized that it was the sound of passing trains on the very near tracks.

The late night Prom on August 30 also featured another admirable local orchestra Chineke!, which was founded to provide career opportunities for young Black and Minority Ethnic musicians. The concert opened with the first performance of The Spark Catchers by Hannah Kendall, which was a BBC Commission. The work takes the title of a poem by Lemn Sissay which commemorates an 1888 strike by women who worked in the factory of the Bryant and May Match Company. (The London Olympic Park is on the site of the factory). It follows an arc from a very lively opening, brimming with irregular nervous energy, through a suspended urgent lyric section, which gradually accumulates faster music, and after a return of a good deal of the earlier material combined, has a slightly inconclusive ending. The Spark Catchers is masterly and effective and Chineke! and their conductor, Kevin John Edusel, gave it a polished and convincing performance. The concert also included Lyric for Strings by George Walker, which is a short and very beautiful work. Following programming tradition of earlier days on the Proms, the program included three short pieces featuring the wonderful soprano Jeanine De Bique and two featuring the astounding young ‘cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason; it ended with a performance of Capriccio Espagnol by Rimsky-Korsakov. All the playing by the orchestra was first-rate and the concert was, all the way through, wonderful.

All of these performances are available for listening at http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b007v097/episodes/player.

13 days ago |
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Three works on the Proms in August raised issues of authorship and authenticity, among other things. Sir Edward Elgar in the last two years of his life was engaged in the composition of his Third Symphony, which had been encouraged by his friend George Bernard Shaw and commissioned by the BBC. When he died in February of 1934, he left 130 pages of sketches, mostly in short score with few indications of instrumentation, and for many years they were given little attention, and the work considered lost. Anthony Payne, a considerable composer himself, who has had a scholar’s interest in British music of that period, was engaged with the sketches for the Third Symphony starting in 1972, but only in 1993, when he did some work on realizing some of the work for a BBC workshop, did he engage seriously with the project of reconstructing the whole work. In 1996, after some initial resistance, and realizing that the sketches would come into public domain in 2005 anyway, the Elgar family, who controlled the copyright for the sketches, commissioned Payne to do a completion of the work. The completed work, (joining the rank of works such as the Mozart Requiem, completed, and with certain sections composed altogether by Süssmayr), officially called an elaboration, was first performed in 1998. The sketches gave hints of what Elgar’s intentions were for most of the work, but for the last movement, Payne had to more or less compose the bulk of it, and, for that matter, decide what its form was to be (“…I felt that the breadth of the expository material in the sketches pointed towards a sonata form.”). For this listener, the last movement is the least satisfying and, in fact, the least characteristically Elgarian. The orchestration in general seems a little less characteristic than one might expect. I thought at one point in the first movement, feeling that it was a little leaner than it should be, that it in a certain way was a parallel experience to hearing the 1947 version of Petrushka. As with other aspects, whether it might be characteristic of what Elgar might have himself done late in his career is anybody’s guess. In any case, the performance, by the BBC Symphony, conducted by Sakari Oramo, was committed and poetic and was certainly in high Elgarian style. The first half of that concert included Scènes historiques–Suite No. 1 by Sibelius and the Saint Saëns second piano concerto, with soloist Javier Perianes, both very well played, and both leaving me with a feeling that both of those composers were really good.

A different sort of reconstruction was represented by the late night Proms on August 15, presented by The Britten Sinfonia, Anoushka Shankar, Gaurav Mazumdar, Ameen Ali Khan, Nick Able, Ravichandra Kulur, Pirashanna Thevarajah, M. Balachandar, Sanjul Sahal, and Alexa Mason, conducted by Karen Kamensek. They played the first live performance of Passages, a collaboration between Ravi Shankar and Philip Glass from 1990. Recorded in a studio directly to disc, the work had never been given a live performance until this one. Each of the collaborators wrote three of the six tracks on the record, although who wrote which wasn’t specified, either on the album of in the program for this concert. The interview with Karen Kamensek quoted in the program speaks of large chunks of the Shankar movements having been re-barred to facilitate performance with a limited rehearsal schedule. The playing of this clearly rhythmically complex and sophisticated music was, all around, effortless and natural and enormously fluent and expressive. The content, to this listener, seemed negligible, if not non-existent.

The Prom on August 24 was focused on/dedicated to the music of Charles Mingus. It was presented by the Metropole Orkest, conducted by Jules Buckley, joined by Shabaka Hutchings, bass clarinet, Bart van Lier, trombone, Leo Pellegrino, baritone saxophone, Christian Scott, trumpet, and Kandace Springs, vocalist. Since jazz musicians are, as Gunther Schuller said, composing performers, the music even that the same players play will be different from performance to performance, and certainly from one performer, or one group of performers to another. So it is not surprising that the performances of Mingus’s works by a 56 piece orchestra, highly produced, mic’d and mixed, would have a different sound and texture and affect than the original recordings (which were certainly not the same as any other performance by the same performers) by Mingus and his, usually 5-7 associates. The end product of these very very fine players, I think, probably told us more about them and their very very fine playing than about Mingus’s music in any sort of faithful to the original way (achieved by the performance of the Glass/Shankar). In this case, of course, that wasn’t the aim. This is not to take anything away from the quality of the players involved or to disparage their playing in any way, but rather to state a perception, if not a fact. In any case, the playing was fine. It sounded beautiful and it swung. The program listed pieces by Mingus to be played in a certain order. At the beginning, Buckley, announced, very quickly and in an offhand manner that the order was going to be different. The program then proceeded without further commentary, so that if one didn’t know the specific Mingus pieces beforehand, and my guess is even if one did, it was difficult, if not impossible to tell which was which.

A fourth piece, Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder, which was performed on August 19 by Eva-Maria Westbroek (Tove), Simon O’Neil (Waldemar), Karen Cargil (Wood-Dove), Peter Hoare (Klaus the Fool), Christopher Purves (Peasant), and Thomas Quasthoff (spearker), with the CBSO Chorus, the London Symphony Chorus, Orfeó Català, and the London Symphony Chorus, conducted by Simon Rattle, might be included along with the other three, since, in a certain sense, the Schoenberg who conceived and began the work, in 1901, was not the same Schoenberg who took it up again in 1910 and finished it in 1911, due to the change in his outlook and in the style and character of the music he was writing. In any case the work’s excessiveness, its lusciousness of instrumental sound and harmony, the great craft of its composition, and its singlemindedness in pursuit of its composer’s vision are commonalities in the works of both those Schoenbergs. It is not all that often, due to the length, difficulty, and required forces, that one has a chance to hear Gurrelieder. Any performance of it creates what W. H. Auden called a high holy day of the soul. One as fine and devoted and beautiful as this one raises the level of that attribute even higher.

All of these concerts are available for 30 days after their broadcasts via the BBC Proms website.

21 days ago |
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John Luther Adams

Locrian Chamber Players’s mission is clear: they play the very newest contemporary classical fare: selections must have been written in the last decade to be programmed. This time out, the focus is on the music of John Luther Adams, including his setting of the late Alaskan poet John Haines’s “Cosmic Dust,” performed by the group’s regular vocalist, mezzo-soprano Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek (Anonymous Four, Ekmeles), and the New York premiere of the string quartet “untouched” (2015). “Fortunate Ones,” by the group’s director, David MacDonald, will receive its world premiere. The program also includes music by Adrienne Albert, Aaron Alter, Caroline Mallonee, and Andrew Lovett. As is Locrian’s custom, you will find out more about these composers, but only if you stick around: program notes aren’t distributed until the end of the show.

Event:

Friday, August 25 at 8PM
10th Floor Performance Space, Riverside Church
490 Riverside Drive,
New York, NY 10027
(212) 870-6700

The concert is free. A reception will follow.

Program:

John Luther Adams- Untouched***
John Luther Adams- Cosmic Dust Poem
Adrienne Albert- Daydreams***
Aaron Alter- Introspective Blues No. 1***
Caroline Mallonee- Clock It***
Andrew Lovett- Fortune’s Will
David Macdonald- Fortunate Ones*

* World Premiere ** U.S. Premiere *** New York Premiere

Performers:
Anna Elashvili and Cyrus Beroukhim, violin; Miranda Sielaff, viola; Greg
Hesselink, cello; Andrew Rehrig, flute; Emily Wong, piano; Jacqueline
Kerrod, harp; Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek, mezzo-soprano

27 days ago |
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The Prom presented on August 9 by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, conducted by Ryan Wigglesworth, featured the first performance of Brian Elias’s Cello Concerto, which was a BBC commission. It was written for and is dedicated to Natalie Clein, who had to withdraw from the concert due to illness. The soloist in her stead was Leonard Elschenbroich, who despite coming late to the party, gave no indication of any kind of lack of preparation. The Cello Concerto is an imposing piece in four continuous movements, lasting twenty five minutes. A grandly rhetorical first movement, is followed by a scampering scherzo in a rotating variation form modeled after that of the poetic form of the sestina, a still and intense slow movement, and a final movement which eventually disappears quietly and somewhat inconclusively into a reminiscence of the very beginning material of the piece in a much higher register. The whole work operates at a quite high level of intensity while incorporating many different moods, speeds, and textures. The orchestration is masterly, and deals completely successfully with the great challenge of writing a piece for ‘cello and orchestra: making sure that the soloist doesn’t get covered up by the orchestra. The soloist in this piece can always be heard, playing just about continuously in many different registers and at many different speeds of figuration. The intensity of the work, along with and despite its considerable variety is what lingers most in the this listener’s mind. The performance by both Mr. Elschenbroich, playing the very difficult solo part, and the orchestra was just about flawless.

The concert began with Britten’s Ballad of Heroes for chorus, in this case the BBC National Chorus of Wales, and tenor soloist Toby Spence. It is an early work, written to honor the British members of the International Brigade who fought in the Spanish Civil War, setting poems of W. H. Auden and Randall Swingler which give somewhat mixed messages. It may be those mixed messages that, despite its apparent technical flawlessness, make it in the end not completely successful or satisfying. The concert also included an arrangement/orchestration by Elgar of a Purcell anthem, Jehova, quam multi sunt hostes, and Elgar’s Enigma Variations, in which the orchestra gave full evidence of their complete technical as well as their wonderful expressive abilities.

In continuing a tradition of doing some Proms at locations other than the Albert Hall, the concert in the afternoon of August 12, by the BBC Singers and members of the Nash Ensemble, conducted by David Hill, was presented in Southwark Cathedral. There has been a cathedral building on the site for centuries, although the present building, I’m told by an art historian friend of mine, is mostly Victorian. In any case it is a beautiful building, giving the sense of isolation and quiet despite its being right next to London bridge and surrounded by Borough Market. The program consisted of a Mass (Confitebor tibi, Domine) by Palestrina, the motet by Palestrina to which it is related by text and material, and the first performance of In the Land of Uz, commissioned by the BBC from Judith Weir, continuing her long association with the BBC singers.

In the Land of Uz is a thirty-five minute work for chorus, tenor solo, and narrator, setting big chunks of and telling the story of the book of Job. Weir describes it as a “dramatic reading” of the text. The story is a contemplation of God’s ways to man, in which God, apparently for reasons of vanity mostly, allows Satan to subject Job to psychological and, eventually, physical distress, and then when Job complains, basically says, “Who do you think you are;” then, when Job repents of complaining, restores his health and fortune. In Weir’s work the singing and speaking is accompanied by a rather unusual ensemble consisting of organ with viola, double bass, soprano saxophone, trumpet, and tuba. The instrumentation might be in the tradition of the Schutz Kleine geistliche Konzerte, although the sound of the saxophone and some of the viola writing seemed to evoke, either intentionally or unintentionally, Vaughan Williams’s Job. In any case the organ is the constant and dominant instrumental sonority, the other instruments being used occasionally and never all at the same time–-the saxophone, for instance, appears in conjunction with Job’s friends (as in the Vaughan Williams), the trumpet with the voice out of the whirlwind, and the viola in association with Job, whose words are sung both by the tenor and the chorus. Both the Weir and the Palestrina made full use of the acoustic of the cathedral, and received excellent performances.

The Prom on August 14, given by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Kazushi Ono, included, along with the Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun and the Ravel Piano Concerto in G, the first European performance of Hibiki by Mark-Anthony Turnage. Although commissioned to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Suntory Hall in Tokyo, Hibiki, whose title means ‘resonance’ or ‘echo’ in Japanese, became a commemoration of the offshore earthquake and tsunami of March 2011. It is a substantial piece, in seven movements, scored for two female singers, children’s chorus, and large orchestra, and lasting fifty minutes. The first two movements, whose titles, Iwate and Miyagi, are the names of the two coastal prefectures struck by the tsunami, are for orchestra alone. The first consists of fast music made of a texture of syncopated fragments layered on top of each other, the second features slow brooding music interrupted by an increasing number of brutal tutti chords. The third and fourth movements introduce the singers, the two soloists singing a translation of a poem by So Sakon called ‘Running’ which describes the poet’s escape as a child in 1945 from an incendiary bombing raid on Tokyo in which his mother, who fell behind, was killed; followed by the children’s choir singing a setting of a translation into Japanese of ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star’. Those are followed by another orchestral movement, ‘Suntory Dance’, and then two other vocal movements, the first for mezzo-soprano, setting ‘On the Water’s Surface,’an English translation of a poem by Chikamatsu Monzaemon, and the concluding movement with all the forces whose text is the word ‘Fukushima” repeated many times.

Turnage is certainly a master of orchestration and orchestral writing and his great skill is abundantly clear and always impressive throughout Hibiki. There are some points, though, about which one might quibble: In the third movement, the poem implies a contrast between the frenetic activity of the running away from the bomb and a more slow-motion internal state, and the music of the setting acknowledges that a little towards the end, but could have benefitted by its being more central to the concept of the movement, and more immediately so early on in the piece. There are some places, the ‘Suntory Dance’ being the most obvious, where orchestration and texture seem to be being used to build intensity and energy, but without a corresponding harmonic movement, causing it to have a sense of staticness which I think was probably not what was intended. The last movement, which seems to evoke both the end of Das Lied von der Erde and the end of the Britten War Requiem, with the many repetitions of the single word, is, for this listener, the least successful. It’s a little hard to tell how well the piece works as a complete span, since Kazushi Ono pretty clearly took no pains at all, despite producing an otherwiese exemplary performance, to make any connections, dramatic or otherwise, from one movement to the next. Still, these are only quibbles. Hibiki is big expressive statement which keeps one interested and engaged through its entire length, as well as impressed by the masterly skill of its composer.

Since 1998 the BBC has, in connection with the Proms and at other times during the year, a program for pre-college composers which is called Inspire. Each summer during the Proms there is a concert of music by the winners of an annual competition. For the last few years, as was the case this year on August 14, the performances have been by the Aurora Orchestra, whose conductor, Nicholas Collon, introduces the works and their composers. This year’s winners were Chelsea Becker, age 13, Juiana Niu, age 17, Rebecca Farthing, age 17, Will Harmer, age 17, and Sarah Jenkins, age 19. In addition, the three of the winners from 2016 to write pieces for this concert. They were Jack Robinson, Sam Rudd-Jones, and Alex Jones. All of the composers on the concert, whose pieces received brilliant, lovingly prepared, and sympathetic performances, displayed a very impressive command of instrumental writing .

27 days ago |
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The extraordinary jazz guitarist John Abercrombie, has died at the age of 72. A player equally comfortable in acoustic and electric settings and in the roles of leader and accompanist, Abercrombie played in a variety of styles, encompassing free jazz, fusion, and standards. He was a consummately versatile, tasteful, and imaginative musician.

A large body of his work was recorded, from 1974, by ECM Records. His last release, Up and Coming,  playing in his regular quartet with Marc Copland, Joey Baron, Drew Gress,  was released earlier this year by the label. Other prominent collaborations include his Gateway trio recordings with Dave Holland and Jack DeJohnette, duo recordings with fellow guitarist Ralph Towner, and his appearance on Charles Lloyd’s recording “The Water is Wide.”

28 days ago |
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“The Sand Reckoner,”
by Nathan Davis.
Photo: Hilary Scott.

  • This year’s Festival of Contemporary Music at Tanglewood (in Lenox, Massachusetts) was curated by three youngish stars of the new music community: pianist Jacob Greenberg (ICE), cellist Kathryn Bates (Del Sol Quartet), and violist Nadia Sirota (Q2, ACME).  Each planned  a chamber music concert, consisting of commissioned new works and contemporary repertory selections. The curators combined forces with the BSO in selecting pieces for the festival’s finale, an orchestra concert conducted by Stefan Asbury and Vinay Parameswaran.
  • Commissioned works included vocal pieces by Nathan Davis and Anthony Cheung, a string quartet (with copious use of water-filled glasses and glass bowls) by Kui Dong, and Clip, a chamber ensemble work by Nico Muhly (for which I contributed program notes). These showed a diversity of musical approaches. Davis and Cheung took postmodern textual compiling as the jumping off point for stylistically varied and technically demanding singing. Dong revelled in glassine textures, both in the strings and with the water glasses themselves, while Muhly presented one of his most rhythmically intricate works to date, in places extending the language of post-minimalism towards the polyrhythms of late modernity.

George Lewis with the performers of “Anthem.”
Photo: Hilary Scott.

  • A standout on the concert curated by Greenberg on Thursday, August 10th was Columbia University professor George Lewis’s first appearance at Tanglewood (at age 65). Noteworthy for his work with AACM and a catalogue of compositions encompassing facets of concert music, jazz, improvisation, and electronics, Lewis was represented by Anthem, a 2012 piece originally written for Wet Ink Ensemble. At Tanglewood, Wet Ink’s vocalist Katie Soper, herself a prominent and creative composer, delivered a supersonic performance of a part written in Sprechstimme to Lewis’s own text about TV talking heads and subversive political commentary. Teddy Poll conducted, Greenberg contributed electronics, and the rest of the players, to a person impressive, were mostly guest musicians from ICE. Imaginatively scored and surpassingly energetic, Anthem was a rousing closer to FCM’s first evening.

Fromm Players perform
Johnston’s String Quartet No. 4, “Amazing Grace.”
Photo: Hilary Scott.

  • Friday afternoon featured a program of string quartets curated by Bates. A detailed and fine-tuned performance of Ben Johnston’s microtonal Fourth String Quartet by the Fromm Players (for which I was fortunate to contribute program notes) loomed large, but Bates introduced other fine pieces to Tanglewood audiences as well.
  • Croatoan II for string quartet and percussion by Moritz Eggert, supplied the proceedings with a welcome dose of humor, treating the mystery of a disappearing colony of early American settlers with more whimsy than tragedy. Percussionist Tyler Flynt, using what Bates described as a “suitcase’s worth” of hand percussion instruments, made the quick changes both in tempo and instruments seem effortless. Rene Orth’s Stripped (2015), a piece written in memory of the trumpeter Alex Greene, her Curtis classmate, began with noise-based sound effects and traversed an imaginative pathway to soaring harmonics. Although it didn’t quite gel in the Tanglewood performance, Terry Riley’s G Song is an attractive deployment of all manner of scalar patterns and jazzy cadence-points (look for Del Sol Quartet’s next CD to hear it more authoritatively rendered).

Eggert’s “Croatoan II.”
Photo: Hilary Scott.

  • Violinist Cameron Daly and cellist Chava Appiah performed Lei Liang’s Gobi Canticle, a piece that incorporates material and techniques from Mongolian string music. Liang visited the Nei Monggol region in 1996 to learn more about its music-making. This is deftly demonstrated in Gobi Canticle, which is at turns gently lyrical and boldly dramatic in cast.
  • I was most pleased to be introduced to the work of Jack Body (1944-2015),  the recently departed New Zealand composer whose works  synthesize ethnomusicology and composition. The wonderfully fleet and attractive Flurry (2002), in a version for three string quartets, opened Friday’s concert. Led by Bates, this all-too-brief work was immediately encored. One was glad to have the chance to hear it again and, unlike some encores, the performance was just as strong the second time around.

Kathryn Bates leads three string quartets in a performance of
Jack Body’s “Flurry.”
Photo: Hilary Scott.

  • Later this week I will be writing more about FCM, as well as the BSO concerts that coincided with the festival. The article will appear on both my blog and Sequenza 21.
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This week, The New York Philharmonic premieres their second commission by composer Julia AdolpheThe first, 2016’s Unearth, Release, was a warmly received viola concerto for Philharmonic Principal Violist Cynthia Phelps. The latest, White Stone, will be premiered July 26th as part of the orchestra’s Bravo! Vail series in Colorado. I recently had a chance to catch up with Adolphe about both of these collaborations, as well as her opera Sylvia. 

Who were/are your composition mentors at Cornell and USC? What is something that you’ve learned from each?

I’ve had two incredible mentors who’ve inspired me to become a composer. The first was Steven Stucky, who gave me private composition lessons for four years while I was an undergraduate at Cornell. I arrived at Cornell without any formal training in classical music and was very intimidated by the large group of (all male) doctoral students pursuing composition. Professor Stucky made me feel included and welcome, allowing me to take graduate level courses alongside his other students. Steven Stucky essentially taught me how to compose, to go from nothing on the page to crafting a vocabulary, playing with colors, and communicating ideas through music. At USC, I spent four years studying with Stephen Hartke, who taught me an enormous amount about writing for the orchestra and writing opera. With Professor Hartke, I learned how to write larger forms and develop a musical narrative. Hartke encouraged me to embrace my love of storytelling through my music. Most importantly, both Stucky and Hartke taught me specific compositional techniques and tools while encouraging me to trust and believe in my own voice.

 

You fashioned both text and music for your opera Sylvia. Tell me a bit about your work as a poet/librettist?

My first musical pieces that I wrote as a child were folk songs comprised of my own original lyrics. I always loved writing lyrics and stories as well as acting in plays and musicals. Opera seems like a natural extension of these early passions. I wrote Sylvia in 2012 and it is based on the real life experiences of my best childhood friend. The opera’s content was deeply personal and I wrote the libretto out of a need to tell Sylvia’s story. I love working with living poets and am currently setting a poem entitled Equinox by Elizabeth Alexander. For my next opera, A Barrel of Laughs, A Vale of Tears, based on the novel by Pulitzer Prize winning cartoonist Jules Feiffer, I will be working with librettist Stephanie Fleischmann. I am very excited to have such wonderful collaborators!

 

I have sung at Bargemusic and it can be a wobbly place to get your bearings. What was it like producing Sylvia there?

It was a lot of fun and an incredibly dramatic, yet intimate venue. I think the surreal setting and off-kilter feeling you experience on the boat fit perfectly with the dreamlike nature of the opera.

 

There are some great viola concertos in the literature, but the challenges facing composers of them is legendary: balance, orchestration, etc. Was writing for viola and ensemble an upfront part of the commission for Unearth, Release or did you choose to write for these forces?

The New York Philharmonic asked that I compose a viola concerto for their principal violist Cynthia Phelps. I was extremely excited about the challenge: the viola does not possess the same carrying power in terms of volume and brightness as the violin or the cello. It is a subtle instrument with dark tones and fragile qualities. Yet is has a singular expressive beauty. I worked closely with Cynthia, ensuring that every gesture was idiomatic and communicative for her instrument. During the rehearsals of the work’s world premiere with the Eastern Festival Orchestra, I was able to make revisions so that the viola could speak more clearly over the orchestra. Both Alan Gilbert and Jaap Van Zweden gave me feedback throughout the writing and rehearsal process and I learned an incredible amount about the orchestra along the way.

 

Did you know which pieces were going to be programmed alongside yours in Vail? If so, did that impact your composition of White Stone?

I knew from the beginning that my piece would be premiered alongside Gershwin and Dvorák, but I chose not to think about that. My goal when I write is to express my own voice and be as true to my own emotions, dreams, atmospheres and sounds as possible. Of course I am influenced by a host of composers, but to purposely seek out composers on the same program would make it harder for me to clarify my own thoughts during the writing process.

 

What else would you like for audience members in Vail to know in advance about the piece?

A white stone is an object that is both unique yet familiar, a jewel and a pebble, emerging from the dirt to become something treasured. The music rises from dark, murky textures, striving towards brightness and clarity. The cello and timpani are the first to surface from the discord, stirring action in other sections of the orchestra. The percussion serves to rally and activate the music, leading the orchestra upwards towards brighter harmonies and unified rhythms. White Stone captures the struggle to be resilient and powerful in the face of overwhelming obstacles and fear of defeat.

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experimental music since 1970

Book Review:

Experimental Music Since 1970

By Jennie Gottschalk

Bloomsbury, 2016

284 pp.

From the very beginning of Experimental Music Since 1970, author Jennie Gottschalk lets us know that her perspective is that of a “maker,” a composer. This is instructive as to the book’s approach and to its inclusion and, in some cases, exclusion, of experimental composers who have made an impact over the past five decades. These decisions are based on a particular composer’s vantage point rather than an attempt to construct an all-encompassing canon of “important” figures, which in the fragmented and various perspectives of the postmodern era no book could truly do without devolving into mere name-checking and cataloging. Happily, Gottschalk’s book is anything but a catalog — her portraits of various wings of experimental music are vivid and often detailed. It is the viewpoint of a fascinating “maker,” someone who embraces an array of imaginative approaches to musical experimentation.

Gottschalk suggests that one of the purposes of her volume is to serve as a continuation of Michael Nyman’s seminal Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond. Perhaps in response to the centrality of Cage in the earlier volume, she begins Experimental Music Since 1970 with a deconstruction of the composer’s 4’33”, pointing out the various pathways into experiment that the piece still affords today. Gottschalk identifies these central concerns as follows: indeterminacy, change, non-subjectivity, research, and experience. While it is quickly pointed out that not all experimental music engages all of these issues, they prove to be pivotal in the way that Gottschalk defines and describes experimentation.

With these initial precepts laid out, the book proceeds to further parse experimentation into particular spheres of activity, with each chapter tackling one or more of these. Thus we are spared a chronological overview and when concerns overlap in composers’ works, they may reappear throughout the volume. This does lead one to question certain choices of space allocation. For instances, even given all of his fertile creativity, why is Peter Ablinger so often referenced while microtonal composers Ezra Sims and Joe Maneri and hypercomplex composers Brian Ferneyhough and Claus-Steffen Mahnkopf are not mentioned even once? Apparently, the second modern school falls outside of Gottschalk’s purview. While one can fall back on her statement that she is a composer rather than a historian, it is somewhat disappointing that these significant types of experimentation seem “beyond the pale” (interestingly, there is similar neglect of American late modernism in Tim Rutherford-Johnson’s recent After the Fall: Music Since 1989). The presence of experimental jazz is also spotty, with a few references to artists such as Anthony Braxton and George Lewis but nothing about, for instance, Ornette Coleman, Alice Coltrane, and Sun Ra. Another challenge is some haphazard copy-editing, particularly in the book’s latter half.

These caveats aside, what is covered here is a splendor of imaginative music-making that will supply much food for thought. Gottschalk is particularly in her element when discussing the Wandelweiser collective, approaches to instrument-building, ad hoc electronics, improvisation, sound art, ecomusic in general and site-specific works in particular. The book’s inclusivity in terms of race, gender, and sexuality may, along with Rutherford-Johnson’s similarly sensitive treatment of these issues in Music Since 1989, help to slay a few stereotypes about composers. Gottschalk’s website, Sound Expanse, continues to build upon the achievements and aims of Experimental Music Since 1970, providing a valuable companion to the book and a “must bookmark” resource all by itself.

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Our Buddhist friends like to remind us that the idea that we are separate is an illusion and not a fact but try telling that to anybody anywhere these days desperately trying to “connect” by every mobile device known to man. And if that doesn’t spell separation/alienation we might need a new word for this state of mind. Leave it to French poet-artist-playwright-novelist-filmmaker Jean Cocteau (1889-1963 ) to set things right because the characters in his work are often desperately trying to connect as in his lyric tragedy with composer Francis Poulenc La Voix Humaine (1958 ) where the speaker is quite literally at the end of her tether. And let’s not forget the fact that Cocteau was always making war on established truths, and toying with what appearances mean or seem to mean. I walk around my block and nothing makes “sense” but that’s crazy because nothing really ever does. Cocteau, at any rate, rarely tried to make “rational” sense in his work, and composer Philip Glass began his Cocteau trilogy with Orphee (1992) in which he took the script of Cocteau’s 1950 film of the same name and made it into an opera for singers and chamber orchestra, and though crystal clear in construction and sound it was almost as dreamlike as its source. Francesca Zambello’s white-on-white original production which I caught at The Brooklyn Academy Of Music was impressive, though much more so in its second half. Glass went further with La Belle et la Bete (1994) in which he used Cocteau’s 1946 film of the same name as both visual environment and text. The film’s sound was turned off which meant losing the actors’ voices as well as Georges Auric’s original incidental — partial — score which Glass replaced with a wall to wall one of his own for singers, with Glass and his Philip Glass Ensemble playing live. The result was a remarkable fusion of image, words, and music which I caught in Charles Otte’s US premiere at BAM, and in a slightly different but equally successful production by the PGE in 2013 at www.ybca.org, and in an overly busy and diffuse one by Oakland Opera Theater minus the film. Glass went even further in his “dance/opera/spectacle” Les Enfants Terribles: Children of the Game (1996) which he and director-choreographer Susan Marshall derived from Cocteau’s eponymous 1929 novel and Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1950 film. The result was a highly theatrical work for singers, dancers, and three digital/grand pianos which foregrounded the reality which Elisabeth and her brother Paul construct as a substitute for their boring day to day life. Dance mirrors their animal natures, or as Glass put it in a program note for its original production which I wrote about for the defunct gay arts mag Provocateur — ” Here, time stands still. There is only music, and the movement of children through space”, which Opera Parallele re-imagined in surprising but perfectly apt ways They made the unreal real, and the real unreal and that’s catnip for opera. The snow which fell onto the BAM stage from above was here projected on a scrim with the cast behind it facing the audience, and when the scrim went up, they stepped forward and the drama hurtled towards its dark inevitable end. Paul felled by the “marble-fisted.. marble-hearted blow ” of a snowball with a rock inside it thrown by his male friend Dargelos whom he’s in love with. `Paul convalesces at home with his sister where they seal themselves off from the world in their “Room” where they play the “Game ” which devours them and everyone who enters it. Entrapment. Betrayal. Incest. Poison. Death. And let’s not forget that Cocteau was coming off opium when he wrote Les Enfants so every production of it has to have the perfervid force of a dream, and this one had that in spades. Amy Seiwert’s dancers doubled baritone Hadleigh Adams’ Paul and soprano Rachel Schutz’s Lise disturbingly; director Brian Staufenbiehl’s fluidly calibrated movement surrounded / opposed tenor Andres Ramirez’s Narrator / Gerard who’s Paul and Lise’s friend mezzo Kindra Scharich enacted both Dargelos — Cocteau on Paul’s view of Dargelos  — “He had imagined himself in thrall to an accidental likeness between a schoolboy and a a girl ” — and the siblings’ friend Agathe to ambiguous and exacting effect. Ambiguous because everything here is ambiguous yet clear as your face in the glass, and exacting because though Cocteau may have been on opium when he wrote it his French is dispassionately clear, precise, a sealed off language in which even the biggest flights of fancy don’t quite take off because French has always been about where you should touch down, and that means rules understood and obeyed to a tee. And this distance between the implied and the said is so very Cocteau, and so very Philip Glass which is here in his two against three rhythmic oppositions which hide and reveal his clear yet always moving harmonic structures, and it’s here when these three superb pianists build those structures one upon the other like floors in a building, utterly separate yet conjoined, indefinite space clearly defined, or as Debussy advised Satie — ” Music should stay where it is, not follow the play. It should be like a decor. A property tree doesn’t go into convulsion when an actor crosses the stage ” and it’s here where Staufenbiehl’s silent film isn’t an invention or an intervention but part of a barely glimpsed whole complete in its incompleteness. Or should we leave it to Cocteau who said ” style is a simple way of saying complicated things.” And to think that I saw the final dress of Verdi’s Rigoletto at www.sfopera.com just after Opera Parallele’s Glass Les Enfants. Two masters of our music theatre art operating at the very top of their respective games. We like to think we’re separate but we aren’t.

Music by Philip Glass

Libretto by Jean Cocteau 

Sung in French and English with English supertitles  Caroline H. Hume Hall www.sfcm.org  Directed by Brian Staufenbiehl Conducted by Nicole Paiment  Pianists : Kevin Korth; Keisuke Nakagoshi; Eva-Maria Zimmerman Choreography: Amy Seiwert Dancers: Steffi Cheong; Brett Conway Singers; Rachel Schutz; Hadleigh Adams; Andre Ramirez; Kindra Scharich www.operaparallele.org
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