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Frey1On January 13, 2017, Cal Arts presented The Path and the Expanse, a concert of music by Jürg Frey, a member of the Wandelweiser collective. A modest crowd braved Friday the 13th traffic to gather at The Wild Beast for an evening of intense concentration and state of the art experimental music. Five different pieces by Jürg Frey were performed by 15 alert musicians, including a world premiere.

Circular Music No. 7 (2015/16) was first and this began with soft, sustained chords in the violin and bowed vibraphone that produced a distant, solemn feeling. A series of hushed beats from the bass drum added to the mystical atmosphere. The violin of Erik Carlson carried the piece forward, accompanied by a bassoon and extensive percussion section that contributed a variety of subdued sounds. The occasional tutti passage raised the volume slightly, and added some nice coloring while a bowed cymbal and a light xylophone passage completed the pattern. A high, thin pitch from the violin marked of each set of phrases as the piece tiptoed forward to a quiet finish. Circular Music No. 7 is both peaceful and reserved, like the dawn of a foggy morning.

The second work, WEN 58 (2007), was a solo trumpet piece played by Ethan Marks. This opened with a long silence followed by two short, muted notes – and then more silence. Longer tones followed, quietly subdued, ending with a questioning feel. This pattern of brief notes and silence continued, the intermediate silences lasting a full 15 seconds or so. The overall effect was to create a sense of space and openness as the piece unfolded. Ambient sounds occasionally crept into the performance space from outside, but this only added to the expansive feel. Mr. Marks displayed admirable poise and good control of his intonation even as the dynamics of the piece never rose much above piano, and the many entrances were, of course, very exposed. WEN 58, as it is a solo trumpet piece, works against the listener’s expectation of a loud, brassy outburst and acts to focus attention on the interactions of silence and the more subtle sounds produced by this unlikely instrument.

In Memoriam Cornelius Cardew (1993) followed and this was a short solo piano remembrance performed by Nicole Ying. Two low notes heard as a chord in the lower register opened the piece, and these were played with great sensitivity and expressiveness. More quiet chords followed, introspective and subdued, and these had a sad, bluesy feeling, although never melancholy. Only a few minutes long, In Memoriam is an economical and ultimately elegant commemoration, played with warm empathy by Ms. Ying.

Although the oldest work on the program, the world premiere of Vielleicht bin ich wirklich veloren (1980, rev. 1993) was next, and the ensemble included flute, clarinet, trumpet, piano, violin and cello along with soprano Stephanie Aston. This began with a short, high-pitched dissonant tutti chord – followed by silence. This had an unsettling feel, especially when a single quiet piano note was heard and a soft violin tone steadied the atmospherics. Another tutti sforzando chord sounded, this time followed by a quietly sustained soprano note that lent an airy, ethereal quality to the aftermath. This pattern of a sharply loud chords, gently sustained tones and silence continued throughout, with the various instruments taking turns holding the longer pitches. The timing of each sforzando chord was needle-sharp, thanks to vigilant playing and the careful direction of conductor Nicholas Deyoe. The dynamic contrast and bright dissonance of the tutti chords acted to heighten their perception by the listener against the background of the quieter stretches – they seemed to explode out of the ensemble and into the audience. Vielleicht bin ich wirklich veloren  comes from an earlier stage of exploration by Frey into the relationship of sound, dynamics and silence, and this piece is instructive to his later works.

Read the rest of this entry »

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Photo: Britt Olsen-Ecker.

Photo: Britt Olsen-Ecker.

On Sunday, January 22nd at 7pm at National Sawdust in Brooklyn
(80 North 6th Street), composer and toy pianist David Smooke will celebrate the release of his New Focus CD Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death. Joined by album personnel loadbang, Karl Larson and Michael Parker Harley, Smooke will also perform and improvise on the toy piano. I recently caught up with him and discussed the new recording, compositional approaches, and some future plans.
Artwork: Alejandro Acierto.

Artwork: Alejandro Acierto.

  • What attracts you to composing for and performing on the toy piano?

The sound of the toy piano evokes an idealized childhood, the sort that no one I know actually enjoyed and yet many of us possess as a shared mental experience. I love having that association underlying my explorations of disturbing and unusual sounds. In addition, it’s relatively easy to travel with one—certainly compared to a cello—and I like that there’s a basic keyboard interface alongside all sorts of other ways to interact with the instrument. When I first started playing live, it was also a huge selling point to me that there isn’t a standard performance practice with the toy piano, so I could do what felt comfortable to me without feeling like there was going to be someone in the audience shaking their head at the way that I hold my hands or where I place my feet. I keep thinking that I’ll move on to other instruments, and have plans to build some original ones, but then I keep finding other things that I can make this little box do.

  • Did the macabre image of the title provide a jumping off point for the winds piece or was it incorporated latter on?

When I first discovered that the Nutshell Studies existed, before I even saw them in person, I knew that I would have to eventually use them as the title for a major toy piano piece. They are a remarkably close analogy to what I do with the toy piano in that they take something associated with childhood (dollhouses in this case) and treat them in a very adult manner. And even though they portray an extreme fascination with death, they are actual tools that are used to assist people studying forensic science, and so are not sensationalist or exploitative. So the title sets up the exact expectations that I want for the piece.

Photo: Britt Olsen-Ecker.

Photo: Britt Olsen-Ecker.

  • What microtonal tunings do you use in the wind ensemble piece? How did you manage to detune the banjo? What other tunings appear in your music?

Like you, I do enjoy lots of different temperaments! Since every toy piano is tuned differently from each other, and none of them are in anything close to equal temperament, I tried to place the toy piano within an environment where its unique scale wouldn’t sound too wrong. From the very first conceptualizations of the piece, I knew that I needed an instrument to link the toy piano to the ensemble, in this case, the banjo. Two strings of the five-string banjo are one quarter-tone sharp of their regular tuning, and in writing the part I was very specific as to which notes were played on which strings. And so we I created a continuum from the aleatoric tuning of the toy instrument, through the professional instrument with folk associations tuned in order to make it sound somewhat distorted, into the more standard concert instruments. In that piece, concert instruments use quarter tones as well. Some Details of Hell also uses a lot of quarter tones, in that case in order to explore resonance off of a single low pitch. In A Baby Bigger Than Up Was, I compose out the vowel formants from the repeated text, which required a more systematic approach to mictrotones, using naturally-tuned thirds and sevenths in addition to quarter tones.

  • Your text-setting often takes a deconstructionist or fragmentary approach. Tell us a little about how you view writing for the voice and texted scores in general.

I love words and writing! I love them so much that sometimes I can feel hamstrung when I try to set a text. And I think that the human voice remains the absolutely most beautiful and expressive instrument that we have yet created. So, for several years I avoided text entirely while writing for voice. Some Details of Hell is the last piece in which I took a published poem that I love and tried to set it as clearly as possible. In that case, I spent months analyzing the poem, including its line breaks, and figuring out exactly how I could do justice to Brock-Broido’s incredible sensitivity to language. A Baby Bigger Grows Than Up Was is my most recent work for voice, and marks my return to the idea of text setting. But the text for that piece is unique in that it’s a story with all of the hallmarks of a narrative but published in alphabetical order, beginning with 19 iterations of the word “a” and ending with nearly an entire page of punctuation. So, every word is set exactly as it was published, but the text itself is organized in a non-narrative manner. The excerpt on the CD brings us from “a” to “breathing” in five minutes, but the entire piece is nearly an hour long—it all gets pretty intense when we reach the ms and the 72 statements of the word “mom” and 442 of the word “my”!

  • The idea of looping appears in two different guises on the album: down.stream where you use a loop pedal on your toy piano and the overdubbed bassoons on 21 Miles to Coolville (bonus points for that title, by the way). Obviously, your music eschews a conventional approach to minimalism. But irregular sorts of repetitions prove to be a throughline, from your vocal settings to the aforementioned looping structures. How do you deal with repetition in your compositional language?

We never experience true repetition. Each time an event is encountered, we perceive it within a context, and any previous contact with that idea or similar ones colors the new experience. I’m fascinated by that idea and also by nature, where near repetition is quite common, but true repetition is almost unimaginable. I think a great deal about listening to the interaction between various bird calls, or predicting ocean waves, or watching rivers where the water is forever changing and forever the same. In my music, I try to play with these concepts by having ideas or words or motives recur but generally subtly changed. 21 Miles to Coolville (and thanks!) is completely written out, and has been played by four bassoons and also by Michael Parker Harley as a solo with prerecorded Harleys. The only difference in how I created to that piece from any previous compositions is that the quarter note pulse remains constant throughout. And my approach to looping pedal in my solo performances is a bit different from most people in that I generally am using it to create drones and sustained sounds, which are otherwise incredibly difficult to produce on the toy piano, and to allow for the buildup of more orchestral textures. When I was in high school, the music of the minimalist composers was one of my first entries into the classical music world, and I still adore minimalist and post-minimalist music and art. So, I feel the influence of that aesthetic very strongly, and try to be patient in my own music, allowing ideas to remain in place for as long as necessary, and I do sometimes enjoy unadulterated recurrence.

  • Tell us about the gig! How did you come together with National Sawdust to present a portrait concert? Who is playing and what will be on the bill?

With the new CD, I wanted to launch in New York, where so many of the performers live, as well as in my home of Baltimore. I’ve been hearing so many amazing things about National Sawdust, and I was fortunate enough to have them agree to host this concert. We’ll be presenting four of the six tracks from the CD, all performed by the players on the album: loadbang, the pianist Karl Larson, the bassoonist Michael Parker Harley, and myself. In addition, loadbang and I will improvise together to close out the show. I’m very excited to have this opportunity to share the stage with such amazing people and players!

  • What’s next for David Smooke? What projects are in the pipeline?

I’m going to be playing live quite a bit more than usual over the coming months, with shows in Boston on the Opensound Series on February 11 and in San Francisco at the Center for New Music on February 24, among others. And I’m working on a piece for the Baltimore-based Sonar Ensemble right now that uses a recording of a run on a nature trail near my home as the ground layer over which the ensemble will perform.

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Steve Reich

The ECM Recordings

Steve Reich and Musicians

ECM New Series 3xCD 2540-42

 

After some one-off studio LPs for a variety of imprints, composer Steve Reich found his first label “home” with ECM Recordings (his second, Nonesuch, came after this triptych of recordings). Initially known primarily as a jazz label, ECM had decided to diversify its offerings to include classical artists such as Reich and Meredith Monk. The first of Reich’s ECM recordings, Music for Eighteen Musicians, sold more than 100,000 copies, which certainly encouraged producer Manfred Eicher to continue to take on ambitious classical projects, ultimately starting the New Series in 1984 to present Tabula Rasa, the first recording in a long term collaboration with Arvo Pärt.

The Reich reissues contain an informative set of liner notes by Paul Griffiths, who helps to provide valuable context for these works as part of Reich’s output. Music for Eighteen Musicians is a totemic Reich work, and the performance here is authoritative, lively, and dramatically paced. Its successor, Music for Large Ensemble, luxuriates in an expanded sonic palette with a greater number of winds and strings. Violin Phase is a holdover from Reich’s early style of patterned “phase music,” while Octet hews close to Music for Eighteen, providing a taut sound world filled with contrapuntal excursions set against Reich’s ubiquitous ostinatos. Whereas Violin Phase is a backward glance, Tehillim looks forward to Reich’s many texted works of the 1980s and beyond. That said, its use of canonic drums and clapping also bring it full circle to the composer’s early experiments. Another connection: the titular psalm texts are rendered by four sopranos, put in a similar register to that of the singers in Music for Eighteen Musicians. While also sustaining substantial growth and departures, Reich’s repertoire is filled with connections such as these. The ECM box may not tell the full story of his music, but it sketches the outlines of its trajectory in admirable fashion.  

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mi0004140367

Mingus Mingus Mingus

I Am Three

Leo Records CD LR 752

The trio I Am Three, consisting of alto saxophonist Silke Eberhard, trumpeter Nikolaus Neuser, and drummer Christian Marien, interpret compositions by the late Charles Mingus on their debut release for Leo Records (Eberhard has previously recorded for the label with different configurations). Mingus is, of course, a totemic figure in jazz. But he was a musician whose work can be seen from many angles, ranging from the neo-traditional – blues and early jazz signatures abound in his work – to modern jazz and the “Third Stream” experiments of the 1950s and 60s. All of this coexists in a mélange of stylistic plurality that still retains an individual stamp.

Thus, one might rightly think that Mingus would be a difficult composer with whom to grapple. While at first the muscularity of some of his best pieces would seem to indicate a durability that would allow for an open approach, artists who distort or exaggerate one aspect of his compositions’ multifaceted nature do so at the peril of unbalancing his nearly inimitable sound world. That is, in part, what makes I Am Three’s interpretations of Mingus so remarkable. The group manages to capture the spirit of piece after piece from his output with detailed touches that show careful study of the originals. At the same time, they bring original flourishes to the table, mostly by pushing Mingus’s music a bit further “out” than its original conception might have been. All of this is accomplished without a bassist.

 

For example, if one places I Am Three’s rendition of “Orange was the Color of her Dress, then Blue Silk” alongside Mingus’ various recordings of it, in solo piano and full band settings, the sense of homage is clear. The syncopated chordal refrain is kept intact, as is the chirping treble register interjection – here by Neuser instead of Mingus’s piano –  juxtaposed against a loping swing saxophone solo by Eberhard. All the while Marien alternates between accentuating the refrains in unison with the horns and pushing the beat slightly ahead of them to better underscore the laconic character of the solos. This all eventually devolves into a tutti passage of free jazz howling, ironically capped off by a return of the refrain in slow swing time.

 

“Better Get Hit in Your Soul” loses the inimitable bass and piano parts. I Am Three dispenses the tune without imitating them, focusing instead on the enwrapped horn lines and revelling in the tune’s lively groove. Neuser’s growling muted trumpet intro is a memorable feature of “Fables of Faubus,” as his succeeding polyrhythmic duet with Eberhard.

 

On “Self Portrait in Three Colors,” Marien’s drumming takes on an almost rock-like heaviness. After a blistering upper register tutti, once again the horns play independently minded yet intertwining solo lines. “Canon” provides a natural album closer, demonstrating Mingus’ ability to employ rigorous compositional procedures while simultaneously placing them firmly in a traditional jazz vocabulary. Mingus, Mingus, Mingus was my favorite jazz release of 2016, one to which I continued to return with great pleasure for fresh insights. Recommended.

 

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img_0590We are a little spoiled here in Charleston, the biggest little city in America, so if the new music portion of Spoleto Festival USA 2017 is a little less adventuresome than last season’s 40th anniversary program (which featured a production of The Little Match Girl by Helmut Lachenmann as well as a ravishing new production of Porgy & Bess), it may be that our expectations have reached impossible limits.

Which is not to say there aren’t plenty of goodies still to be had.  Here are some of the programs, I’m looking forward to May 25 to June 12..

Quartett  May 28, 31, June 3
The US premiere of a Royal Opera House production, Quartett blends Italian composer Luca Francesconi’s score for two singers and two orchestras — one live and one pre-recorded — to German dramatist Heiner Müller’s 1982 play. Directed by John Fulljames and conducted by Spoleto USA’s own John Kennedy.

Music in Time / Tempus Fugit  May 28
New musical works from a new generation of composers from around the globe come together in a program featuring members of the Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra led by conductor Jeffrey Means. Included are Tempus Fugit by Argentina’s Jose Manuel Serrano, Abysses by Estonia’s Helena Tulve, and Encore/Da Capo by Italy’s Luca Francesconi.
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Music in Time / Sounding Peace May 31
A celebration of  the centenary of American composer Lou Harrison with some of his wonderful music integrating musical traditions from around the world, as well of the the work of younger composers Ted Hearne and Jonathan Holland.

Music in Time / Lecture on the Weather  June 5
John Cage composed his classic performance piece Lecture on the Weather as a celebration of the USA’s Bicentennial in 1976. Using texts by Henry David Thoreau, recordings of nature, and projections, Cage’s work is a prescient and timeless sonic rumination on environmental and social concerns. An excerpt from the work reads: “More than anything else we need communion with everyone. Struggles for power have nothing to do with communion. Communion extends beyond borders: it is with one’s enemies also. Thoreau said: ‘The best communion men have is in silence.’” Also on the program will be Canadian composer Anne Southam’s Natural Resources.

Music in Time / Dialogues with Pedja Muzijevic
Four Haydn sonatas are interspersed with three modern works by Jonathan Berger, John Cage, and Morton Feldman, to offer listeners a fresh landscape for hearing works anew.

Mahler 4 and Dreaming
John Kennedy leads the Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra in Gustav Mahler’s Symphony no. 4, as well as the US-premiere performance of Dreaming by Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir, which won the Nordic Council Music Prize in 2012.

For those or more conventional tastes, there is Tchaikovsky’s grand opera Eugene Onegin, based on Pushkin’s classic verse novel. Soprano Natalia Pavlova sings the part of Tatyana, among the greatest of female lead roles in the repertoire. The opera will be directed by Chen Shi-Zhen;  Farnace by Vivaldi, to feature countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo under the direction of festival alumna Garry Hynes, and Mozart’s  Great Mass.

And, of course, there will be plenty of New Music in Geoff Nutall’s Chamber Music series, details to come.

As my old poli-sci professor used to say in class 50 years ago; “Charleston? Put that city under glass.”

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Mater ora fillium: Music for Epiphany

Choir of Clare College, Cambridge; Michael Papadopoulos, organ; Graham Ross, director

Harmonia Mundi CD HUM907653

On the Christian calendar, tomorrow (January 6th) is the Feast of the Epiphany. There are several aspects to Epiphany. First, it is the “Twelfth Day” after Christmas, and so ends the celebrations of that merry season. Second, it is the commemoration of Jesus the Christ’s baptism by John the Baptist. Finally, in the spirit of ending a party with a magnificent and mysterious flourish, it is also commemorates the Visit of the Magi to the infant Jesus.

It is this third aspect of Epiphany that has most often drawn composers to create music commemorating the festival. On the Harmonia Mundi CD Mater ora filium: Music for Epiphany, Graham Ross presents a program of primarily sixteenth and twentieth century selections. It is Ross’s seventh such recording for HM that is based around one of the events or seasons on the liturgical calendar. Here the interested believer may find much music that, in addition to being entertaining, informs them about the history of the liturgy. However, Christian and secularist alike can enjoy the high level of musicality and sheer beauty of the voices of the Choir of Clare College, Cambridge.

The hymn singing alone, accompanied with rousing verve by organist Michael Papadopoulos, is remarkable. It includes favorites like “As With Gladness, Men of Old” and “Hail to the Lord’s Anointed,” as well as a lovely rendition of “O worship the Lord in the beauty of Holiness!” Renaissance era motets are well represented. Omnes de Saba by Orlande de Lassus is a particularly jubilant album opener. Purity of tone from sopranos and sepulchral notes from basses are on display, and carefully balanced, in Jean Mouton’s Nesciens Mater. Clarity of contrapuntal lines feature in Clemens non Papa’s Magi veniunt ab oriente and Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina’s Tribus miraculis ornatum. The varied tone colors brought to bear in William Byrd’s Ecce advenit dominator Dominus provide a sense of mysterious grandeur appropriate to the festival. Careful tuning of cross relations, as well as seamless alternation between the rhythms of chant and polyphony, supplies listeners to John Sheppard’s Regis Tharsis with a particularly evocative glimpse into another era’s harmonic and rhythmic sensibilities.

Balancing the early music selections are a number of fine pieces from the twentieth century. A standout is Long, Long Ago by Herbert Howells; an initially tender melody gradually rises to an exciting climax, juxtaposed with a steady buildup of added note chords. Another is Benedicamus Domino by Peter Warlock, in which an intricate swath of modal melodies is set against strongly articulated tutti chords. Despite the considerable challenges it poses, Illuminare, Jerusalem, by Judith Weir, is taken at a spirited gallop. Judith Bingham’s alluring Epiphany pits a colorful organ part against sinuous vocal chromaticism. Lennox Berkeley’s I sing of a maiden is delivered with haunting delicacy. All of this is capped off by the large-scale title work, a tour de force of choral writing by Arnold Bax.

Impressive performances throughout, combined with thoughtful programming, makes Mater ora filium the ideal recording for Twelfth Night!

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The idea for Nate Felix’s at home show, Classical Music Kegger, came to him when he saw an opera performance in a train station when he lived in Los Angeles. Felix decided to compose a show with only pianos. Despite the fact that he had never composed a piano piece, nor did he know how to play piano, when Felix returned to his hometown of Austin, he somehow snagged six free pianos off of Craigslist and got to work.  Felix wants to give his community more than just the music itself. so he donated the pianos to schools.

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Elizabeth Bell Friou, award-winning composer and co-founder of New York Women Composers, Inc., died on Monday, December 19, in Tarrytown at the age of 88. Known professionally as Elizabeth Bell, she served as a member of the Board of Governors of the American Composers Alliance (ACA) and was involved in numerous other music associations.

A direct descendant of the ninth US president, William Henry Harrison, she was born in Cincinnati in 1928 to William Procter Bell and Sophie Buckner Bell. She graduated from Wellesley College in 1950 and from the Juilliard School in 1953.

Ms. Bell served as the music critic of the Ithaca Journal and received commissions from a range of musical associations, including New York State Council on the Arts, the Bradshaw/Buono duo, the Inoue Chamber Ensemble, North/South Consonance, the Putnam Valley Orchestra, and Vienna Modern Masters. Her musical compositions have been performed world-wide in concert halls and cathedrals from New York to Eastern Europe, Russia and Armenia. A lifelong advocate for the role of women in musical composition, she was a leading proponent of the International Alliance for Women in Music, established in 1994 to unite three distinguished organizations, the International Congress on Women in Music, the American Women Composers, and the International League of Women Composers.

She married astronomer Frank Drake in 1953 and they had three sons. Following their divorce, she moved from Ithaca, NY, to Tarrytown, NY. In 1983 she married attorney Robert Friou.

She leaves three sons: Stephen David Drake of Nashville, (married to Kim Carpenter Drake), Richard Procter “Rippy” Drake of Oberlin, OH, (Alice Moore), and Paul Robert Drake of Cape Cod, MA, (Ellen Sullivan); two step-daughters, Elisabeth Friou Mote (Gary Mote) and Jane Friou Clemens (David Clemens); six grandchildren, Becky Barger Gauthier (Ronald Gauthier), David Allen Clemens, Amy Jane Clemens, Grace Cecelia Drake, Elizabeth Harrison “Harris” Drake, and Spencer Logan Drake; and two great-grandchildren, Ava and Wyatt Gauthier.

A memorial service will be held on Monday, January 16, 2017, from 4:00 – 6:00 PM at the Coffey Funeral Home, 91 North Broadway, Tarrytown, NY 10591, tel. 914-631-0983.

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vivala21stcentury2016

Our pal Marvin Rosen  says: “I am all packed and ready to leave home for WPRB. In a little over an hour, the 2016 VIVA 21ST CENTURY PLUS – “INTERNATIONAL EDITION” – 25-HOUR LIVE WPRB RADIO BROADCAST – goes on the air.
Hope that you can join me for at least for parts of program and please keep me awake at least over night. You can contact me on Facebook, Twitter @MarvinRosen or just call: 609.258.1033
On WPRB 103.3 FM Princeton NJ, or on the Internet at: http://wprb.com/

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Photo: Liz Linder.

Blue Heron. Photo: Liz Linder.

Blue Heron at Corpus Christi Church

Sequenza 21

By Christian Carey

 

NEW YORK – On December 18th, Boston-based early music ensemble Blue Heron appeared at Corpus Christi Church as part of Music Before 1800’s series there. Their program, titled “Christmas at the Courts of 15th century France and Burgundy,” featured polyphony and plainchant that celebrated the Advent and Christmas seasons. Led by Scott Metcalfe, the fifteen-person ensemble was frequently broken into subsets and often sang without use of a conductor. Metcalfe instead led much of the proceedings from behind a harp or alongside the singers, setting the pace in alternatim hymn settings by Guilliame Du Fay, antiphonal pieces with a large group of unison singers and a smaller group of soloists.

 

The first half of the concert featured music based on the O Antiphons, a collection of eight melodies that fall in the liturgical calendar as the chants that lead us from Advent to Christmas. Each verse of the famous hymn “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” features text from one of these antiphons. The polyphonic pieces that followed the chants employed material associated with the O Antiphons. Jacob Obrecht’s Factor Orbis quoted two antiphons, as well as a plethora of other texts and tunes, including a secular one bound to please the composer’s patron. Josquin Desprez’s O Virgo Virginum setting focused on just one antiphon, the eponymous eighth chant reserved for Christmas Eve in the Medieval Church (most denominations have since winnowed the number of O Antiphons from eight to seven in their respective liturgies). A six-part motet, O Virgo Virginum features stirring antiphonal passages for two trios and a veritable tapestry of interwoven short melodic motifs sung against the chant. Ave Maria gratia plena, by Antoine Brumel, was sung by three of the women of Blue Heron, providing an attractive timbral contrast to the preceding male-dominated selections.

 

In the Christmas section of the concert, split among the two halves of the program, the five-voice motet O admirabile commercium/Verbum caro factus est by Johannes Regis served as a centerpiece, with two other pieces that emulated it presented as well: the aforementioned Obrecht motet, and Brumel’s Nato canunt omnia. Like Factor Orbis, the other two motets featured multiple texts, chants, and interwoven melodies. Blue Heron presented these mélanges of material with enviable skill, allowing the complex counterpoint to come through with abundant clarity.

Scott Metcalfe. Photo: Liz Linder.

Scott Metcalfe.
Photo: Liz Linder.

To celebrate New Year’s Day, nobles from Fifteenth century French and Burgundian courts exchanged lavish presents, including commissioned vocal works. In a section spotlighting these gifts, called estraines, the audience was treated to an assortment of chansons by Dufay, Nicholas Grenon, Guilliame Malbeque, Baude Cordier, Johanna Tinctoris, and Gilles Binchois. For these selections, instrumentalists joined Blue Heron: Metcalfe playing harp, Laura Jeppesen vielle and rebec, and Charles Weaver lute. The variety of textures obtained by the various ensemble groupings in this section of the program was lavishly multifaceted.

 

Likely the earliest of the selections on the program (apart from the encore), Johannes Ciconia’s Gloria Spiritus et alme was redolent in Lydian cadences. The resulting raised fourths and heightened sense of dissonance gave Blue Heron the opportunity to show off their use of just intonation in particularly splendorous fashion. Chords shimmered and melodic lines underscored the slightly unequal nature of the temperament’s half steps. It made for an extraordinary sound world. On the other end of the chronological spectrum, Adrian Willaert’s Sixteenth century motet Praeter rerum seriem featured seven-voice counterpoint. The thickened textures contained chant in a three-voice canon and sumptuous doublings of chord tones from the other four voices. The performance was truly transportative. As Metcalfe’s informative program notes pointed out, the piece’s seven-voice texture had another component of showmanship besides the obvious requisite compositional virtuosity: it contains one more voice than Josquin’s motet on the same text.

 

The concert ended with an encore from the Fourteenth century: Laudemus cum Armonia. The entire cohort of musicians raised their voices in song, making a most thrilling sound. It was an impressive end to a superlative performance.

_________

The next concert on Music Before 1800’s series is on Sunday, January 15, 2017 at 4 PM, when baritone Jesse Blumberg joins instrumental ensemble ACRONYM in a program devoted to music by Johann Rosenmüller. Blue Heron returns to Corpus Christi on October first: the week before my birthday. I certainly plan to make it my business to hear them again.

 

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