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While last weekend brought a memorable performance from one example of those most modern of musician collectives, the percussion quartet, this coming weekend has me thinking of another. With the explosion of music written for an ever-increasing array of percussion instruments both foreign and domestic, ensembles of percussionists have increasingly struck out on their own, commissioning new works from composers happy to do so and building careers out of playing them together.

Perhaps the most prominent of these ensembles on the West Coast is the Los Angeles Percussion Quartet, which is now entering its fifth season with its original line up of Matt Cook, Justin DeHart, Nick Terry, and Eric Guinivan. The group has played 20th and 21st-century works on most of the major stages around town but they passed a new landmark recently with the release of their first major label recording on Sono Luminus entitled, Rupa-khandha.



The recording is notable for many reasons, but first and foremost because it is focused heavily on the legacy that West Coast composers have left on the percussionists' art. Ensembles like Brooklyn’s So Percussion have made a name for themselves commissioning works from the likes of New York-based composers Steve Reich and David Lang. And while the LAPQ are no strangers to this work, the material on Rupa-khandha is decidedly different, featuring four newly commissioned works from composers working on the West Coast with an eye toward the percussion legacy left by those California giants of 20th-century composition Harrison, Riley, Harry Partch, William Kraft, and others.

One of those legacies is an interest in Eastern percussion instruments and their use in religious and folk settings. The first two pieces on Rupa-khandha refer to those elements in direct if not always specific ways. LAPQ member Eric Guinivan’s Ritual Dances imagines music for folk rites of some imaginary tribe of the Pacific Rim. African and Arabic drums are joined by “found instruments” over five movements that emphasize the ritualistic sounds of ceremonies both solemn and celebratory. This is immediately followed by a similar companion piece from Sean Heim, Rupa-khandha. The title refers to the first of Five Aggregates or “khandras” that constitute the human being in Buddhist philosophy. The allusions in this single movement are taken from a variety of other cultural traditions including the notion of the five basic elements and Native American musical traditions. The music evokes a sense of spirituality separate from the kind of urban transcendentalism common among works coming out of the late 20th century school of American Minimalism.

The Los Angeles Philharmonic’s current Principal Timpanist and composer Joseph Pereira follows suit with Repoussé, four movements inspired by his travels and instrument collecting while still playing with the New York Philharmonic. The title here, and those of the four separate movements refer to techniques of production in visual arts. Repoussé specifically refers to hammering out low-raised decorative embellishments in a malleable metal. It's an intriguing piece and it speaks to Perira's increasingly higher profile in this region as a composer. The recording concludes with a single movement from Jeffrey Holmes, Occasus.

2 years ago | |
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So Percussion play David Lang at The Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts in St. Louis Photo: mine
Music critic Alex Ross, among others, has noted the strange disconnect in the public’s mind when in comes to 20th-century art forms. As he so eloquently argues in The Rest is Noise and elsewhere, while art forms of many genres became deeply involved in various abstract and conceptual movements in the 20th Century, visual arts from the period now fill top tier museums selling tickets to legions of adoring fans, while Western art music has taken a very different course. Those same decentralizing, avant-garde trends that are beloved in the visual arts are seen by many in the public as anathema when it comes to music. Classical music audiences in the U.S. are still prone to prize works of the 18th and 19th Centuries above all else, although many in those same audiences would have no problem waxing poetic on the beauty of a Pollock or a Donald Judd sculpture.

So it was with great joy that I attended two of three programs while in St. Louis last weekend as part of Retrospectives and Innovations: A Celebration of The Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts. The mini-series was a look back at 8 years of music programming sponsored by The Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts in their Tadao Ando-designed museum in the heart of St. Louis. The music programming at the Foundation sprung from the mind of Richard Gaddes who recognized an acoustically desirable space in the museum’s galleries at the bottom of a wide descending staircase positioned strategically in front of Ellsworth Kelly’s Blue Black, a painting commissioned by the Foundation in 2000. With the support of the Foundation’s Emily Rauh Pulitzer, the museum’s board approached the St. Louis Symphony and their musical director David Robertson about a 20th-century and newer music series to be held in the galleries of the museum dedicated primarily to 20th-century and newer art.

David Robertson, of course, a brilliant music director and advocate of music from that period, jumped at the chance to bring more of this kind of music to St. Louis audiences. Robertson is one of the great American maestros and he was central to last weekend’s concerts which revisited works from concerts over the last ten years since the Foundation's physical space opened in 2001, while also including works new to the series and St. Louis. It was an inspiring set of shows not necessarily because of the specifics of any of the particular pieces or performances, but because of the unavoidable connection being emphasized in the galley between movements in both the visual and musical arts of the 20th Century. It was about an arts organization supporting art music from the same period without apology, a more revolutionary idea sadly than it should be in this country.

On Saturday evening, the series welcomed visiting percussion quartet So Percussion, who performed Steve Reich’s landmark works Clapping Music and Four Organs, as well as two of their own commissions: Reich’s Mallet Quartet and David Lang’s the so-called laws of nature. Robertson himself joined in on the clapping after some introductory comments welcoming the players to town emphasizing his personal involvement in the curation and presentation of the music programming at the Foundation. It was a show that not only highlighted percussion’s meteoric rise to prominence in Western art music in the last century but also captured both the raw primacy of the earliest minimalist works alongside the legacy those works left behind. Lang’s three movement piece which finds the ensemble moving with their mallets from blocks of wood, to metal tubes, to flowerpots and teacups was both witty and inspiring in its everyday resourcefulness. Lang has the four percussionists play identical patterns throughout the piece which each movement using a different set of mostly handmade instruments in a sort-of musical science experiment about the sound of different objects played under identical circumstances.

The following Sunday afternoon headed off in a much different direction with players from the St. Louis Symphony who began the final program with Donatoni’s equally cat-and-mouse game of a string quartet, La Souris sans sourire. This “mouse without a smile” alludes to Boulez Le marteau sans maître with an ironic if still reverent sneer as cellos and violas moan with decaying tones which are less Tom and Jerry and more Felix the Cat. The show ended with one of Olivier Messiaen’s monumental works, Visions de l’Amen, played by pianists Peter Henderson and Nina Ferrigno. This was muscular sounding Messiaen with the skies crying out from above that made the most of the indeed excellent acoustics of the Foundation’s space. But perhaps the most intriguing piece on the program that afternoon, and a highlight of the festival was Unsuk Chin’s Fantasie mécanique from the mid 1990s. Robertson conducted the small percussion, piano and brass ensemble, as he noted, less because of interpretive issues and more for simple guidance for a work that rapidly swerves and changes as it goes along from pounding machine like forces to bare stripped cries from various corners. As Robertson also pointed out, it reflected many of the same musical qualities that recommended the composer’s concurrently running Alice in Wonderland across town at Opera Theater St. Louis. It was exciting playing from members of one of America’s great if underrated orchestras. It, and all of the weekend’s shows, was also a testament to the great and forward-looking work that David Robertson is doing in St. Louis and around the country. And all in a singular, lovely architectural space in a city known for its singular artistic gestures.

2 years ago | |
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Simone Dinnerstein
The Philharmonic Society of Orange County closed its current season on Monday with a wild card – pianist Simone Dinnerstein. Much has been made of her rather DIY career trajectory. She came to wide acclaim, at least among the recording and ticket buying communities, following the release of a self-financed disc of Bach’s Goldberg Variations in 2007. More conventional success in the classical music field followed with a recording contract from Sony and appearances all over the globe. She has remained popular, and for good reason, more often than not as a solo performer who makes appearances on an eclectic group of stages both big and small. Monday was the first time she had appeared on a major stage in Southern California and it was to a mostly full house at the Segerstrom Concert Hall.

The program consisted entirely of her beloved Bach, French Suite No. 5, English Suite No. 3, and Partita’s No. 1 and 2. The French Suite here was one that I’d previously heard her play at the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival in 2010, a more intimate venue that played more to her strengths. She’s a quirky player and her performances do lie outside of the mainstream for most world-class soloists. She is unique, but her playing is also rather mannered. On Monday she exhibited neither an academic restraint that favored clarity nor a period sensibility that brought out the dance rhythms underpinning each movement in all the suites. Instead she takes an impressionistic tack that views Bach’s line as broad strokes of color as if it was something Debussy had written that was long since overlooked. At times, particularly in the faster movements, this approach can verge on cacophonous distortion towards unclear ends. At other times there is a beautiful glow and warmth although never much of a sense of stillness. Ironically this penchant for broadly colorful impressionistic playing may seem last suited for the music of the composer she is best known for. But it is also one of the things that sets her apart from the pack and keeps her so popular with audiences.

2 years ago | |
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l-r: David Trudgen, Ashley Emerson, and Aubrey Allicock Photo: Ken Howard/OTSL 2012
In 2007, James Robinson, the current Artistic Director of Opera Theater of Saint Louis, had the good fortune to see the world premiere of Unsuk Chin’s opera Alice in Wonderland while on a visit to Munich. According to his own report, he was mightily impressed and became convinced it was one of the most important operas written in the first decade of this Century. I was there too, and shared his convictions about this daunting, beautiful opera, which had been slated to premiere in Los Amgeles, but was later redirected with then music director Kent Nagano’s departure from L.A. to Munich. Fortunately, Robinson was soon in a position to get Alice to the U.S. and after asking Chin to adapt the opera for markedly smaller forces than those called for in the German premiere, the Saint Louis debut was set.

I was thrilled when I first hear about this, though admittedly before seeing Sunday’s performance, I had grown wary of the potential outcome. The world premiere of the opera had been staged by German artist Achim Freyer and was filled with his trademark visual tricks, masks, and perilously raked stage. It was a perfect fit for Chin and her librettist David Henry Hwang’s take on the story which focuses exclusively on the dream material of Lewis Carroll’s story eschewing Alice's life outside of Wonderland entirely. Freyer’s vision, which reportedly was not well-liked by Chin herself, was as vivid and visually powerful as a dream and looked nothing like you’d expect from a century’s worth of Alice adaptations. Freyer used the story as a springboard to talk about the lost innocence of youth which evaporates not unlike the most fantastic of dreams. In contrast, Robinson and his design team are't plumbing such great depths. Despite protestations to the contrary, Robinson and his collaborators have gone with a show that looks and feels very much like the Victoriana you’d pick out of dozens of films or printed versions of Carroll's story. Furthermore, the questionable marketing of the show focused on the performances as being something that the whole family might enjoy. Which I suppose could be true if you’ve got the kind of 12 year-olds who go to summer camp at IRCAM.

But, I’ll admit I was pleasantly surprised at first to hear and see this production of a musically adventurous and very smart opera. The set is filled with giant cupboards and dressers that are painted gray, but open to reveal any number of more fantastic rooms and interiors for characters to pop out of. All of the closed surfaces are used for elaborate filmed projections that indicate the most difficult events in the opera to stage such as Alice swimming in a pool of her own tears or her dramatic post-prandial size changes. The contrast between Chin’s amusing but very modern, dark score and a visually accessible and familiar staging was a brilliant contrast in the end. Robinson uses moments of pantomime and physical humor in clever ways to bring characters like the caterpillar to life as well. But this is a long show, with a fantastic and episodic plot and while Robinson leads the audience down the rabbit hole he doesn’t know what to do with them once he gets them there in this intermissionless two hours. The second half of the opera nearly unravels with bad decisions suggesting Robinson may have lost the strength of his convictions. The large crowd scenes toward the end of the show including the Knave's trial are far too big for the tiny cramped Loretto-Hilton Center stage. The cast is reduced to waving their hands about for acting and the dreamy flow of the show freezes up. Worse yet, signs of desperation set in and Robinson allows some characters including the dormouse and the Duchess to engage in mawkish pandering by serving up the kind of clichéd hip-hop inspired movements and delivery that produces applause and perfunctory laughter but kills the show by betraying trust in the source material’s ability to do its job without cheap stunts.

Chin’s reduction of the score continues OTSL’s recent string of successes of very listenable reduced versions of larger modern works including Corigliano’s The Ghosts of Versailles and Adams’ The Death of Klinghoffer. Michael Christie, the show’s conductor, continues here to build his reputation as one of America’s foremost advocates for contemporary operas. He easily maintains focus through turns in the score that go from sparse and economical to huge walls of black shimmering night. The whimsy is there too including the extended bass clarinet solo which serves as the voice of the caterpillar and Chin’s take of “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” for the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party. The huge cast is fronted by St. Louis favorite Ashley Emerson as Alice who is nimble and projects a necessary child-like pluck and sense of adventure. She handles both the sung and Sprechstimme passages convincingly. David Trudgen excels in the countertenor parts of the White Rabbit and March Hare. And that vanishing Cheshire Cat is never overlooked onstage as sung here by a winning, feline Tracy Dahl. When these performers are onstage in small groups with one another and the visual expanse of the dreamscape is given room to breath, the show is absolute magic. And that’s a big deal for an opera uninterested in presenting a logical narrative storyline, instead investing itself in the power of the illogical fantasized world of dreams. Chin’s Alice in Wonderland continues in Saint Louis through the end of next week and it’s a solid production worth seeing, especially for your hard-to-please Boulez-obsessed pre-adolescents.
2 years ago | |
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Rod Gilfry as Sweeney Todd Photo: Ken Howard/OTSL 2012
Sometimes, a new performance of a familiar piece of musical theater can be great for showing you something that you didn’t recognize before. But then again, there may be some things in this life that one really doesn’t need to know. Opera Theater Saint Louis is in the midst of their 37th season, and among the English-language Mozart and Carmen performances is Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s Sweeney Todd. The new production of Christopher Bond’s adaptation was directed by Ron Daniels and has a cast with Broadway star Karen Ziemba as Mrs. Lovett and Rod Gilfry as Sweeney Todd. The trend in staging this show in recent years has tended toward the lean, and very, very mean. Whether it’s Tim Burton’s movie or John Doyle’s bare bones mental ward, the show has gone creepy as can be. But not so for Saint Louis, where Daniels has cleaned up the streets of Victorian London a bit and gone for the big laughs. There’s nothing much changed with the text, of course, but while Daniels delivers something outside of the current practice, I’ll admit I’m not sure that the world needs a Saturday matinee type of chuckle-fest when it comes to the demon barber of Fleet Street.

Of course, it takes two to, well…, you know. And the audience I saw the show with on a self-same Saturday afternoon sounded ready for a good old fashioned musical and they weren’t about to have it any other way. I’d never noticed so many laugh lines in the opening number before, but there they were. In fact it wasn’t until Rod Gilfry got to the word “shit” (in reference to London and the world generally) that it seemed to occur to some viewers that this wasn’t The King and I. Even Sweeney’s eventual murders got big guffaws each and every time in Act II as the design team elected to go with forcefully spewing fake blood from the necks of his victims covering a good portion of the stage. The production is sparse, dominated by a back wall with an oven in it that is sometimes covered with a plastic blood-stained curtain. Even Sweeney’s infamous barber’s chair doesn’t quite function as it typically does with each body being pulled from the chair's farthest back reclined position by two costumed extras after each murder as the body is whisked offstage.

Karen Ziemba Photo: Ken Howard/OTSL 2012
But there are strengths here, particularly in the cast. At the top of the bill is Gilfry who can sound as warm and beautiful as he has at any time in his career. He glowers with the best of them, but the overall tone of the production sometimes works against him. (I’ll admit that it’s also somewhat strange that this particularly tall and devilishly handsome Sweeney is still so difficult for the denizens of his old neighborhood to recognize.) Ziemba, on the other hand, is lock-step in line with the show with a bubbly, attractive Mrs. Lovett who comes off as more whacky and bemused than predatory. She delivers a fantastic version of A Little Priest, however, and vocally was always up to Sondheim’s tricky, precision-demanding lyrics.

There were both veterans and new faces in the supporting roles. I was particularly thrilled about a young man named Nathaniel Hackmann who was a magnetic, sweet voiced Anthony Hope. He may be among the best I’ve seen anywhere in the role and came off sincerely earnest and in love. More of him, please. Deanna Breiwick was a clear, bright-voiced Johanna who stayed clear of some of the simpering and camp aspects of that thorny role. And Kyle Erdos Knapp, as the doomed young Tobias Ragg, gave an unnerving wiry performance of perhaps the darkest of all the show’s roles. Of the three, Erdos Knapp is a current Gerdine Young Artist. It speaks well of the company that they’ve amassed three such compelling performances in this staging.

The members of the Saint Louis Symphony that play in the festival orchestra continue to be one of the company’s biggest assets. Here they were conducted by OTSL music director Stephen Lord who could let things go a bit sluggish here and there, but the stage-pit coordination in this challenging score were always on target. And he did the most important thing in letting Sondheim’s most brilliant songs speak for themselves plainly and directly. You could do worse than this Sweeney Todd and if you don’t mind all the yucks in the middle of your Victorian bloodbath, it may be the show for you. It's onstage now through the 24th.
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Gary Eister, John Schneider and members of PARTCH  Photo: mine 2012
It’s become an annual rite at REDCAT - the late spring/early summer appearance by PARTCH, the ensemble that bears the name of California composer and perpetual musical outsider Harry Partch. The shows are always special occasions if for no other reason that they are the rare occasions where Partch’s music is performed on the group’s painstaking replicas of the composer’s unique instruments designed to challenge the tonal hegemony of his early 20th Century world. This year’s performance, entitled Bitter Music, was even further removed from what the players have presented in the past by honoring Partch the man and artist apart from his music. They accomplished this through a reading of Partch’s unexpectedly preserved diary from 1935-1936 which recounts not only his travels to Europe to work on a variety of his avant-garde microtonal projects, but also his years living as an itinerant “hobo” wandering the West Coast guest of the government-sponsored camps for the dispossessed, at times begging for food, and working whenever and for whatever he could.

It is this rough and unpredictable life that is reflected in the diary’s title and the intention in its performance, largely a dramatic reading by PARTCH’s John Schneider, is also meant to capture the composer’s interest in the everyday music of human speech. The text contains more than just written text, but also drawings, bars of music, a few songs, and specific intonations for some of the quoted dialog. Schneider’s reading was accompanied mostly by pianist Gary Eister, who joined in with segments of dialog he would sing and simultaneously sound out on the piano. On four occasions, the two were joined by members of the ensemble to perform full-fledged if brief compositions either referred to in the text or reflective of its content. Some of these, including the two vocal line version of Barstow that concluded the evening were some of the most poignant music the ensemble has brought to REDCAT over the years. The performance and music were recorded by the ensemble and released last year in an excellent set by Bridge Records under the same title, Bitter Music.



These diary entries and Partch's lovely, poetic writing impart an intensely personal view of the artist at a critical time in his development. In his own words, Partch sounds like a young man on fire with exploring the world, musical and otherwise around him. He cares passionately about music and changing the musical world. He is concerned about a uniquely American sound and tradition he sees bound up in the lives of everyday people, and there is no doubt from his tales of the Depression years that he is not speaking of them as an outsider. Partch’s drawings of the natural world and the men he lived with during these years have their own beauty, and they also reflect his homosexuality with a frankness not typical for the time. These were not always great times for Partch who could go days without eating and have his work ignored or rejected even when he had the financing to pursue his dreams for a period in Europe. But while this may have provided the bitterness in his music of the period and afterward, much of the diary reflects the composer’s joy for the world around him and his commitment and belief that music and art could be different than they were at the time. What was bitter for him, seems inspirational now and the audience quickly found themselves caught up in this two and a half hour reading with music which was daring for doing the one thing most composers dread – communicating with audiences about the world outside of their musical art. Partch himself thought the diary had mostly been destroyed and it is much to our benefit it survived, unexpectedly copied as part of another project, and given this life by those Californians dutifully keeping his work alive today.
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Leif Ove Andsnes and Marc-André Hamelin Photo: mine 2012

One of the hallmarks of Leif Ove Andsnes tenure as music director of this year’s Ojai Music Festival that wrapped up this past Sunday before heading north for a week full of shows in Berkeley as part of Cal Performances Ojai North, was how willing he was to share the spotlight. And by this I mean almost eschewing being center stage all together. This wasn't an act of artistic modesty. Instead, it showed a keen eye to integrated and collaborative programming that Andsnes picked up in his many years leading Norway's Risør Chamber Music Festival. In fact, Andsnes enlisted the services of another world renowned pianist, Marc-André Hamelin, to perform alongside him for much of the festivals’ six main stage programs. Hamelin is well known for his explorations of the more unusual corners of the solo piano repertory. He's just released the third volume of his excellent examination of the Haydn Piano Sonatas on Hyperion. But he also took a more often than not supportive role in the festival's many concerts. Hamelin and Andsnes each performed only one or two solo or starring performances over the weekend, Hamelin took on Ives’ “Concord” sonata on Thursday and Andsnes played Beethoven’s “Waldstein” sonata on Saturday morning with the solo part in Sørensen’s Piano Concerto No. 2 that same evening. Pianists can be some of the most notable lone wolves of the classical music world, but in Ojai either Andsnes or Hamelin were onstage nearly the whole festival typically in supporting roles of one of the many song cycles performed by Christianne Stotijn or as a as members of some trio or quintet.



Yet in the two concluding concerts of this year’s festival, the two came together in some of the most best moments of the whole weekend. Perhaps the highlight of the whole festival for me outside of John Luther Adams’ Inuksuit on Thursday, was a small chamber concert performed for a group of donor’s on Sunday afternoon. The program included 14 of Gyorgy Kurtág's musical miniatures form various collections interspersed with three short pieces from Kurtág's countryman Franz Liszt. Andsnes’ piano solos were set in contrast to other miniatures for viola played with a beautiful tone and touch by the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra’s Antoine Tamestit. Intermittently, Hamelin and other players from the orchestra would join in for an unbroken hour that was by turns brooding, playful, or jarring. It was the kind of program that felt like it had the whole world of human emotion tied up in it with the performance bookended with Kurtág’s Ligatura- Message to Frances-Marie (The Answered Unanswered Question). In each of these segments a pair of cellos is answered by offstage violins in yet another of the weekend’s invocations of Ives.

Members of the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra Photo: mine 2012
The two pianists were the central focus of the weekend’s final concert that craftily pulled the festival’s many loose ends back together. After Debussy’s Danse sacrée et danse profane the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra gave a moment to the other John Adams, (not to be confused with composer John Luther Adams) whose Shaker Loops was their parting gift to the festival. The work’s embrace of minimalism made my memory of the recent world premiere of his oratorio The Gospel According to the Other Mary seem like an even more radical invention by contrast. But the final word would belong to Andsnes and Hamelin who returned to John Luther Adams’ music which had also opened the festival. Dark Waves for two pianos and electronics paralleled the slowly arcing movement of both Inuksuit and Red Arc/Blue Veil from Thursday. It also provided a contrast to the showstopping festival closer, the duo’s adaptation of Stravinsky’s two-piano version of Le sacre du printemps. This adaptation is world’s away in some aspects from the familiar full orchestral version. It is by necessity more mechanical sounding with the two pianists acting as one against an external force as opposed to engaging each other in musical sparring. Like Adams’ Dark Waves the energy flowed outward together grabbing the audience and pulling them in. It missed some of the mournfully quiet touches of the bigger version but it brought the two artists out into the spotlight still collaborating but now in a combined starring role.

In the end, Andsnes version of the Ojai Festival was one of the stronger in recent years. True, it was not always packed with the latest and greatest of new music. But it did re-examine important relationships between 19th and 20th Century music and it did provide one of the most integrated and collaborative groups of artists the festival has seen in a while. None of the programs felt isolated or unconnected to the rest, and the logic of the overall festival program could be clearly seen from show to show. There are many reasons to love Ojai, but experiencing the musical festival when it is this well executed rivals most of the place’s other charms. Nearly all of the programs I’ve written about will arrive in Berkeley this week and are worth seeing. And, of course, it’s never too early to start thinking about next year when choreographer Mark Morris will take over leadership of the Ojai Festival with evenings that do promise something a bit different.
2 years ago | |
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Henryk Górecki
While I was out of town in Ojai, correspondent and man about time Ben Vanaman caught the concluding performance of the Los Angeles Master Chorale season and filed this report.

Henryk Górecki was the featured composer of the Los Angeles Master Chorale’s final concert of the 2011-2012 season. The program featured three a cappella pieces –Lobgesang, Five Marian Songs, and Miserere- each sharing the composer’s noted compositional style marked by dense yet delicate homophonic sonorities in building repetition. These works, like the composer’s famous Symphony No. 3, are haunting and elegiac. Their texts are devotional, but the sorrowful music evokes a lament for man’s suffering, no doubt a reflection of the composer’s hardscrabble upbringing in a repressive political environment. This undercurrent was most pointedly evident in Miserere which was composed as a protest against the Polish government’s crackdown against the “Solidarity” social movement of the 1980s when the piece was composed.

For the program’s first half, Lobgesang and Five Marian Songs, were paired with Brahms’ Psalm setting Schaffe in mir, Gott, en rein Herz sandwiched in between. Music Director Grant Gershon upended the usual configuration or choristers, placing the singers instead, male and female in all voice groups, amongst each other, creating an extraordinary blended sound. This arrangement was particularly effective in the motet-like Lobgesang (“Song of Praise”), which was commissioned by the city of Mainz in 2000 to celebrate the sixth hundred anniversary of its honored son Johannes Gutenberg, the inventor of the printing press. The composer’s text, a psalm of praise to God, is certainly a tribute to Gutenberg’s role in bringing the Bible more vividly to life. It’s a robust work, still infused with melancholy or solemnity: man’s humility against the divine.

The Five Marian Songs are musical gems, soon to be recorded by the LAMC for the first time, along with Lobgesang and the already-recorded Miserere, for the Decca label for a fall release. And if this concert performance was any indication, it will be a must own recording. Each of the five songs –all odes to the Virgin Mary- has a unique character while embodying the composer’s iconic sound. The first, “Mother of the Heavenly Lord,” is lilting and looping and spry, suggestive of a folk song, such tunes bearing an imprint on Górecki’s work from when he heard them as a child. The entrancing third song, “Hail Mary,” is almost a lullaby. The fourth, “Oh! How sad it is to part,” paradoxically ends on a note of major-key uplift as the chorus intones, “we wish to serve you always in this life and forever after.” The fifth song, “We shall sing your praises forever and ever,” continues in this spirit of jubilation. However, it is the dolorous second song, “Most Holy Mother,” that lingers, a beseeching cry for God’s mercy that gathers force through the iteratively downward trajectory of the musical lines.

The entire second part of the program was devoted to the eight-part Miserere, an epic appeal for God’s same mercy, here in the face of man’s inhumanity, that became the program’s emotional bookend to “Most Holy Mother.” The music, which evokes the first movement of the Third Symphony in its unrelenting and inexorable crescendo, grows from the ground up, basses providing the foundation for the entrance of the tenor and then alto and soprano voices. The chorus intones “Lord our God” over and over until the very end, when the piece ends with a whisper: “miserere nobis (have mercy on us).” It was a sublime moment, and the chorale has rarely sounded better, perhaps a reflection of the group’s commitment to their upcoming recording of this material. The more conventional harmonic structure of the Brahms piece was an effective contrast, yet both composers share an affinity for dense, dark musical textures. Conductor Gershon jokingly referred to the Brahms piece as a “cheese course,” if it’s a bit difficult to think of Brahms’ music as a palette cleanser.
2 years ago | |
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After the Romantic hue of the last few days, Saturday evening’s program at the 2012 Ojai Festival took turns into decidedly more modern territory with living composers occupying the major parts of the program. It also moved the spotlight toward clarinetist Martin Fröst. But just before that transition were two notable and entirely serious concertos. Haflidi Hallgrímsson’s Poemi a single movement violin concerto was played by the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra with Artistic Director and soloist Terje Tønnesen. The work references three Chagall paintings, all on Old Testament stories. Tønnesen has done pivotal work all weekend here as “leader” of this frequently conductorless ensemble, and Poemi was his moment to show off his own virtuosic skills. (There was a conductor for this performance, Per Kristian Skalstad.) This served as prelude to the U.S. premiere of Bent Sørensen’s Piano Concerto No. 2 subtitled “La Mattina” (morning). After the teasers of Sørensen’s lullabies on Friday night, it was exciting to hear this equally satisfying large-scale work. Sørensen’s morning isn’t a cheerful or sunny one. It’s fraught with uncertainty and from the opening moments, the orchestral part which ran in tandem with the piano solo reflected a certain decay. Tones drifted and collapsed under Andsnes’s searching solo part. Things get brighter as they go along, and there’s a suggestions that everything may turn out OK despite it all. This was especially true as Andsnes’s technical skills were called upon more and more toward the conclusion. Undoubtedly the piece was one of the highlights of this year’s festival.

Leif Ove Andsnes with members of the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra Photo: mine 2012
Another Nordic composer, Anders Hillborg, provided a very different concerto for clarinetist Martin Fröst, which followed after the break. Peacock Tales has proven popular enough that Hillborg has produced several versions of the piece (one of which you can take a look at in the video at the top of this post) for Fröst. Each version uses different orchestrations, but all maintain the clarinet solo part and the choreography Fröst performs over the course of his solo. Fröst is a fairly mobile performer to begin with often moving like a snake charmer. But this was something entirely different. The 10-minute version for Ojai called for him to don a three-horned mask which he wore for most of the solo. He twirls, poses, and points fingers at his head like some puckish prankster – Till Eulenspiegel with a clarinet solo on top of prerecorded tape. It elicited giggles at times from the audience, but no matter what else it was, Peacock Tales left no one doubting Fröst’s willingness to take some risks.

The rest of the evening, and all of Sunday morning’s program, focused on much lighter fare frequently featuring Fröst. There was Mozart’s Trio in E-flat Saturday evening followed the next day by two works written for Benny Goodman, Bartok’s Contrasts and Copland’s Concerto for Clarinet, Strings, Harp and Piano. All were well played and Fröst’s power as charmer and musician clearly affected the crowd. He sounds comfortable with Copland’s jazzy shadings as well as in the familiar Klezmer encores he repeated in Ojai. There was something rather light-weight about it all, though, on Sunday in particular, and the performers seemed ready to let their hair down. The Norwegian Chamber Orchestra players arrived in sun dresses and shorts for Grieg’s From Holberg’s Time: Suite in Olden Style. In the end, one of the bass players danced with his instrument downstage in a comical turn. Even Christianne Stotijn got in on the fun with a selection of Bolcom’s familiar Cabaret Songs with the support of Marc-André Hamelin. She seemed to be enjoying herself with songs like “Black Max” after so much Mahler and Wagner earlier in the weekend. It was an understandable morning of some levity, but after the previous night’s newer material, Sunday morning did find Fröst marking his time a bit. Stay tuned for a final report on the closing evening of the festival tomorrow.

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Reinbert de Leeuw and Lucy Shelton with members of the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra in Ojai 2012 Photo: mine 2012
As the 2012 Ojai Festival moved into its second day, the order of business was the continued legacy of German Romanticism in the 20th Century and beyond. Granted this is not a revolutionary theme here or elsewhere for music audiences, but if you want to hear whining about some lost idealized free-spirited California hippie community past, read the Los Angeles Times. Those of us not gnashing our teeth have enjoyed three programs so far where the greatest of Lieder have served as a stepping off point for 20th-century and newer work. On Friday night, members of the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra were joined by conductor, composer, and pianist Reinbert de Leeuw and soprano Lucy Shelton for that evening’s cornerstone performance, de Leeuw’s Im wundershonen Monat Mai. Yes, that is the same Lied that opens Schumann’s Dichterliebe and this is no off hand subtle reference. Instead, de Leeuw has crafted a large, almost 90 minute, song cycle out of Lieder not only from Schumann, but Schubert as well. But the guiding force here isn’t so much the long history of great Lied recitals as it is Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire. The 21 songs in Im wundershonen Monat Mai are expanded and altered with edits both in the text and score. The piece begins in the dark with de Leeuw playing the opening bars of the first song as with any recital, but as Mr. Shelton entered, he was joined by the dozen or so strings and winds of the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra whom he’d adapted parts for. This was not a radical reimagining of the music, and throughout the songs were recognizable and familiar with modernist touches here and there. The ordering and sampling of songs not only from Dichterliebe and Schubert’s Wintereisse allowed for some thematic changes with darker toned songs kept together and more sunny ones placed elsewhere often to more ironic effect.

But perhaps the most radical invention in de Leeuw’s new multi-part cycle was the elimination of the actual singing in favor of something closer to the acted Sprechgesang of Pierrot Luanire. Schumann and Schubert first and foremost were setting great poetry and de Leeuw wanted to capture the immediacy of that by enlisting an actress for the works premiere, the legendary Barbara Sukowa. (An early performance of de Leeuw with Sukowa and the Schonbert Ensemble has been filmed and is available on DVD.) Sukowa was originally announced to appear on this program in Ojai, but withdrew at the last minute to be replaced by American soprano Lucy Shelton. Though a professionally trained singer, Shelton is no light-weight at milking the dramatic potential out of texts and she threw herself into this rather last-minute assignment with abandon. However, while I greatly respected the project and performance, I must admit that it wasn’t necessarily all that engaging throughout. At times there was a dark, cabaret feel to the songs, and at others the music seemed to wander in no particular direction. Shelton relied on a score for the performance, understandably, given the circumstances. But I couldn’t help feeling there was something missing from these songs that were more orchestrated than their piano and voice versions but not necessarily more revealing than when they are well sung in their original context.

One of the new initiatives at this year’s festival besides the streaming webcasts of the performances the whole world can listen to, has been the addition of late night mini-concerts with the performers following the evening’s main program. On Friday night, Festival Music Director Leif Ove Andsnes returned with three pairings of quiet lullabies written by Bent Sørensen each played without pause with one of three other pieces- Busoni’s Berceuse élégiaque in the orchestrated version, Schnittke’s Piano Quintet, and Mahler’s Rückert Lieder. Christianne Stotijn returned as vocalist for the Mahler songs which served as the heart of the program. It was a beautiful, contained afterthought on the preceding evening. Each larger piece seemed to grow out of Sørensen’s quiet, child-like enducements to sleep with something decidedly more complicated and adult. Sleep becomes more complicated physically and metaphorically with age and these sly pairings hit nerves at every turn. Stotijn became most convincing at the end of the set with “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen,” where the overwhelming sense of letting go filled her voice, which displayed the most warmth.

de Leeuw, Stotijn, Andsnes, and Fröst with members of the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra in Ojai 2012 Photo: mine 2012
She was just getting started, though, and by Saturday morning she had returned for more of the German Romanticism again paired with more recent works for contrast. Saturday morning’s program was all about the legacy of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. No actual music from that greatest of scores crept into the program, but it haunted everything, frequently in direct if unsustained quotations. The show started with Eivind Buene’s 2003 Langsam und Schmachtend which referenced much more than the musical notation for Tristan’s overture. Buene follows the inevitable and logical decomposition tethered together so precariously in that landmark piece of music and the brief piece had more a sense of inevitability than nostalgia. Stotijn performed Wagner’s Wesendock Lieder with support from the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra - each song intercut with a movement from Alban Berg’s Four Pieces for Clarinet and Piano. Andsnes was joined by soloist Martin Fröst for these islands highlighting Berg’s debt to Wagner. Stotijn seemed more comfortable here than in the previous evenings with clearer phrasing and more even tone. She followed the Wagner with Berg’s Four Songs Op.2 accompanied by Marc-André Hamelin and sounded every inch a first rate Marie.

The morning concluded with a respite and a movement away from these later romantics by revisiting Andsnes’ current obsession and the forerunner of all that had gone before, Beethoven. He played the “Waldstein” Piano Sonata, which could not have sounded more polished or appropriate in the midday summer air of Ojai. All the world seemed to sing along with Beethoven, and Andsnes seemed to put a period on the music of the last 24 hours as if to say it’s time to move on. It wasn’t an evening and afternoon of breaking ground, but it was certainly one that revisited well known histories and linkages with lovely world class performances. It might not be scrappy and dangerous like some musical laboratory, but it was excellent playing from collaborative performers that engaged.
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