About Us
Essential Library
Read Past Issues Resources Composer Links
  April 08-April 15, 2003
An Interview with

Tobias Picker

Photo: Xavier Guardans
Tobias Picker was born in New York City in 1954, and by the age of 8 had begun to play the piano and compose. After studies with Charles Wuorinen at the Manhattan School of Music, with Elliott Carter at Juilliard, and with Milton Babbitt at Princeton, Picker launched a dazzling career. By the time he turned 24, his music had already earned public and critical acclaim, and The New Yorker hailed him as "a genuine creator with a fertile unforced vein of invention."  Before the age of 30, he had received awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Guggenheim Foundation, and the American Academy of Arts and Letters. 

Today he is considered one of the most important and most original American composers whose wide spectrum of works include 3 (soon to be 4) operas, 3 symphonies, 3 piano concertos as well as concertos for violin, viola, and oboe, song-cycles, a concerto for actor and orchestra and an extensive catalog of chamber music.  You’ll find a complete biography at www.tobiaspicker.com

S21:  Do you remember the first moment that you realized that you had what George Rochberg calls "a fire on the brain," that is, the ability to turn sounds in your head into a structured composition?  Can you describe how that felt?  For those of us who don't possess this gift, this process is very mysterious and mystical. 


Picker:  I'm not sure what he meant by a "a fire on the brain". It sounds like something from a movie about a composer rather than real life. I've heard  that to run for President a person has to have "a fire in the belly". I had a very high fever when I was 6. The composing started shortly after that illness. But, I doubt the fire  on my brain had anything to do with it. 

(Although, I believe it was Honneger who said "composing is an illness" ) I'd rather try to demystify this whole idea than add to an already cluttered myth . People are born with all kinds of gifts. The best gifts are the ones that keep on giving. Composing for me is such a gift. I'm still trying to turn the sounds in my head into structured compositions. I like to think that with every piece I write, I get better at controlling large forms and solving other musical problems. Papa Haydn on his death-bed said, "I finally just figured out how to really write for the oboe and  now, I must leave this life." 

S21:  What were your early musical influences?

Picker:  My parents were great devotées of Kurt Weil. I loved listening to Lotte Lenya's recordings of  Weill songs in German and in English. I learned how to put the record in the Hifi very early and I knew by heart the words to Mack the Knife in German by the time I was four.  They had a recording of the Mark Blitstein Theater De Lys version of  Threepenny Opera which I listened to all the time. My Grandfather, a German Jew, was a Wagnerite. For him, there was simply no other composer who compared. Mozart, he said, wrote "deedle deedle dee musik. Wagner was the greatest who ever lived."  I remember as a boy of four being very proud that I'd learned to dress myself. But, I could never grasp why my socks should match. They never did.  When we'd go to visit my German Grandparents my grandfather would come out to greet us, suddenly point to my feet and announce;  "Ah zo. Two different socks.   Wagner always wore two different socks.  ze sure sign of a genius!" Then he'd take me into his study and play his Kirsten Flagstadt records for me. 


Keys to the City; And Suddenly It's Evening; Cello Concerto
Composer: Tobias Picker
Conductor: Thomas Sanderling
Performer: Jeremy Denk, Paul Watkins
Chandos - #10039 
What's Recent
 Handmaid Tale's Debuts in English
Rautavaara Joins B&G 
Who's Afraid of Julia Wolfe
Derek Bermel's Soul Garden
 The Pianist: The Extraordinary 
True Story of Wladyslaw Szpilman
John Adams' Atomic Opera
A Bridge Not Far Enough
Turnage Signs With B&H
Sophie's Wrong Choice
Copland's Mexico
On Being Arvo
Rzewski Plays Rzewski
Praising Lee Hyla
David Lang's Passing Measures
Three Tales at BAM
Naxos at 15
On the Transmigration of Souls
Dead Man Walking
David Krakauer's The Year After
Steve Reich/Alan Pierson

Our writers welcome your comments on their pieces.  Send your witty bon mots to jbowles@sequenza21.com and we might even publish some of them here.  And, don't forget--if you'd like to write for Sequenza21 (understanding that we have no money to pay you), send me a note. JB

Houston Symphony Musicians End Strike Musicians of the Houston Symphony have ratified a new contract, ending their 23-day strike. "The players made significant financial concessions. They include a reduction in annual minimum salary in the first three seasons covered by the agreement, achieved via unpaid furloughs of from one to three weeks per year. The agreement expires Sept. 30, 2006. However, the two sides agreed that salaries will return to the median of all full-time United States orchestras in the following contract." Houston Chronicle 04/01/03 

Classical Chill? Throw It Back In The Deep Freeze Rupert Christiansen ventures to a London club to sample the new phenomenon of "chill" music. "It sounded vile. I hasten to add that I write this without prejudice. I may be the paper's opera critic, but I am not a musical purist. Some opera bores me rigid, and there's plenty of rock and pop, from the Beach Boys to Coldplay, that I adore. But, as demonstrated by Anne Dudley and the BBC Concert Orchestra, classical chillout struck me as execrable. The Trades Description Act should be invoked: classical fallout would be a more appropriate and accurate title. Essentially, the two-hour performance consisted of nothing more than a medley of tunes mangled through samplers and synthesisers and then spewed out at a pitch of amplified volume associated with nuclear explosions." The Telegraph (UK) 04/01/03 

Fistful Of Bohemes In the past ten years, American opera companies have staged 189 productions of Puccini's "La Boheme". This weekend, New Yorkers have their choice of three Bohemes - at the Met, at New York City Opera, and on Broadway... Anthony Tommasini checks off the goods and bads... The New York Times 04/04/03 

Getting Down With Classical Music "Recently, there have been signs all over the place that the wall between classical and rock music is finally beginning to crumble. If much of this development is due to the rise of a better class of rockers who have warmed up to Olivier Messiaen, a lot of it is also owed to an eagerness by young classical musicians to get down and lighten up. Not surprisingly, the classical prime movers are two California maestros — [LA Philharmonic conductor Esa-Pekka] Salonen in Los Angeles and his counterpart with the San Francisco Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas—and the Golden State’s unofficial composer in residence, John Adams." New York Observer 04/02/03 

Nervous Tension It had been 30 years since Roy McDonald had played as an extra in Ottawa's National Arts Center Orchestra. So when he was asked to audition for an extra role in Symphony Nova Scotia, he was flattered...and a lot nervous. But "I was told the audition would be casual, which I incorrectly interpreted to mean friendly. I pictured me and the conductor in a brightly lit rehearsal hall - introductions would be made, smiles, a couple of handshakes, and then someone would say, 'OK, Mr. McDonald, let's hear you take a whack at the Beethoven.' I had also imagined I would steadfastly avoid falling into the trap of getting nervous: I had nothing to lose." Boy was he wrong. National Post (Canada) 03/31/03 

Music And Meaning - These Notes Mean Something As good a movie as Roman Polanski's "The Pianist" is, it fails in representing the music, writes David Patrick Stearns. "How could anybody emerge from five horrific years of hard labor and starvation in World War II Warsaw with such clean, crisp, emotionally unclouded renditions of Chopin?" The answer? They couldn't, and the real-life Wladyslaw Szpilman, whose memoir was the basis of the film, was profoundly changed, and with it his performances. "Such performances gain impact because the music's lack of specificity allows it to be invaded by meaning in unpremeditated ways. Popular music, in contrast, has a verbal element that can serve as a political rallying point, but one that can render the music obsolete." Philadelphia Inquirer 03/30/03 

Paris Opera Pulls Newspaper Ads Over Bad Reviews The Paris Opera has been getting bad reviews from critics of the newspaper Le Monde. So the company has pulled its advertising from the paper. "Le Monde appreciates almost none of our productions, with its critics describing the Opera's current productions as 'old-fashioned' and lacking all spirit of innovation. In these conditions it would be inhuman to impose paid advertisements on Le Monde inviting the public to see shows it condemns so forcefully." Expatica 04/02/03 

Courting Diversity in Dallas There are so few African-Americans and Hispanics in the classical music world that almost no one is willing to even talk seriously about the problem, let alone make any real effort to change it. But in Dallas, the Young Strings program, founded by members of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra with the aim of providing mentoring and professional training to young minority musicians, is starting to pay dividends. Young Strings alumni are pursuing degrees at Juilliard, Oberlin, and other top conservatories, and the program is still going strong in Texas. Dallas Morning News 04/02/03 

 Last Week's News
Advertising and Sponsorship Info

Tod Machover and the MIT Media Lab's Toy Symphony will be featured on a PBS Scientific American Frontiers TV documentary, hosted by Alan Alda, to air at 9 PM (8 PM Central) on Tuesday, April 8th.

Toy Symphony is a three-year global venture that radically alters how children are introduced to music, and bridges the gap between professional musicians and children, audience and performers. 

 Using groundbreaking, hi-tech Music Toys designed by Machover and the MIT Media Lab (including  Beatbugs, Music Shapers, and Hyperscore), Toy Symphony lets children engage in sophisticated  listening, performing, and composing alongside world-class adult virtuosi, conductors, composers, and
 symphony orchestras from around the world. Music Toys encourage expression and creativity in  advance of technical mastery, eliminating years of practice while rewarding imagination and feeling. 

Toy Symphony soon makes its U.S. premiere in Boston (April 26) and  New York (May 17/18).  Further information and schedules

Machover's latest CD, Hyperstring Trilogy, will be released later this 
month on Oxingale Records

New Online Resource For
        Ireland's Contemporary  Music
Ireland's Contemporary Music Centre is to re-launch its web site on Tuesday with an array of new features to showcase Irish contemporary music. The new site is to be officially launched by pianist Joanna MacGregor at an event in Dublin.

The web site is a groundbreaking resource for Irish music. It aims to deliver the Irish new music scene to
the world and demonstrate that Irish artists excel not just in rock and pop, but in contemporary music as

From April 2003 the new resource will replace the current site  and will feature:

* Comprehensive searching of the Centre's unique collection of more than 3,000 Irish compositions.
* News updates and a calendar of events.
* Interviews, including video and audio clips, with composers and new music specialists.
* Comprehensive data on each composer, including biographies, work lists, photos and articles.
* Secure shopping facilities for online purchase of Irish contemporary music CDs and publications.
* A special 'Education and Outreach' section for school students and their teachers.

'This is the only specialised collection of
20th and 21st Century Irish music anywhere in the world, and cmc.ie makes it accessible worldwide.  Until now, Ireland's contemporary music has remained largely unknown because there hasn't been an information resource like this. We expect the new site to have a major impact on the way the world views and accesses new Irish music,' said Eve O'Kelly, director of the Contemporary Music Centre.

Ireland's Contemporary Music Centre has supported and promoted the work of Irish composers since its foundation in 1986. It represents composers from both the Republic and Northern Ireland and is funded by the Arts Councils of both jurisdictions. CMC's web site was one of the first Irish arts-based sites
when it originally went live in 1995 and it has been used extensively ever since.

The Contemporary Music Centre is Ireland's national archive and resource centre for new music, supporting the work of composers throughout the Republic and Northern Ireland. The Centre is used nationally and internationally by performers, composers, promoters and members of the public interested in finding out more about music in Ireland. CMC engages in an ongoing programme of development work to promote new Irish music at home and abroad and is a member of the International Association of Music Information Centres. 

NWEAMO 2003: The Exploding Interactive Inevitable 
October 3-5, 2003: Portland, Oregon (B-Complex) October 10-12, 2003: 
(San Diego State University) 

Miller Theatre: 
2002-03 Season at a Glance

Previous Interviews/Profiles
Simon Rattle, Michael Gordon,Benjamin Lees, Scott Lindroth, David Felder, Mark-Anthony Turnage, Erkki-Sven Tüür,John Luther Adams, Brett Dean, Judith Lang Zaimont, Meyer Kupferman, Evan Chambers, Poul Ruders, Steven R. Gerber, Gloria Coates

Previous Articles/
Busoni The Visionary
The Composer of the Moment:  Mark-Anthony Turnage
Electronic Music
Voices: Henze at 75
Henze Meets Emenim
On Finding Kurtag
Charles Ruggles:  When Men Were Men
Ballet Mécanique
The Adams Chronicles

Record companies, artists and publicists are invited to submit CDs to be considered for our Editor's Pick's of the month.  Send to: Jerry Bowles, Editor, Sequenza 21, 340 W. 57th Street, 12B, NY, NY 10019  Also, feel free to nominate your favorite composer-- even if it's you--for Spotlight of the Week.



             EDITORS PICKS - April 2003 (In Progress)

Gigantic Dancing 
Human Machine
Composer: Louis Andriessen
Performer: Bang on a Can
Dutch composer Louis Andriessen stands American minimalism on its head with edgy, pulsating works filled with inner drama that are more likely to induce a dancelike rather than trancelike response.  The results are exciting, even downright racuous and overpoweringly aggressive. Andriessen is from the what architect Robert Venturi might call the  "less is not more, less is a bore" school of composition. Hoketus - the landmark of European minimalism - takes its name from the medieval art of hocketing, splitting a single melody between two groups of instruments separated in space. Earth-shattering and tribal in its elemental power, Andriessen described this piece as a "Gigantic Dancing Human Machine." Its recording is an international collaboration of the Bang on a Can All-Stars, members of London's Icebreaker ensemble, and musicians from Andriessen's own group.


Composer: Gideon Lewensohn
 Ecm Records - #461861 
The  ECM debut of Israeli composer Gideon Lewensohn is an unveiling of an important compositional voice. "Odradek," which apparently doesn't mean anything in any language, is comprised entirely of premiere recordings of pieces that defy
 categorization. His work is sometimes playful, sometimes serious but always hinting at a beauty too fragile to be long sustained.   In his compositions, Lewnsohn pays tribute to Kurtág, Kancheli, Lutoslawski, Shostakovich, Bartók, Mahler, Rochberg, the Hilliard Ensemble, ragtime composer Scott Joplin and many others but in spirit and style his work reminds me most of that of Valentin Silvestrov--music from a strange but beautiful spiritual world of timeless drifting.


Poul Ruders Edition, Volume 3 - Concerti
Composer: Poul Ruders
Conductor: David Starobin
Performer: David Starobin, Mette Ejsing, et al.
Bridge - #9122
 Ruders,  (b. 1949 in Denmark) will be having a "career" year this season, with new orchestral works due for  premiere by the Berlin Philharmonic and The New York Philharmonic.  His opera, "The Handmaid's Tale" is set for new productions by the English National Opera  (April, 2003) and the Minnesota Opera (May, 2003), and the CD of The Handmaid's Tale received two 2001 Grammy nominations–for "Best Opera"; and "Best Contemporary Composition".  This CD features premiere recordings of three Poul Ruders concertos, including Paganini Variations, Ruders's second guitar concerto, a high spirited romp through Paganini's famous 24th Caprice, and a brilliant display vehicle for the brilliant guitarist David Starobin.  The City in the Sea is a dramatic setting of Edgar Allan Poe's gothic poem about a lifeless decaying city, sung with enormous power by Mette Ejsing.  Anima, Ruders's second cello concerto, is a work of true lyric beauty and is played here by the Czech cello virtuoso, and Tchaikovsky competition prize winner, Michaela Fukacova.

Orchestral Works
Composer:): Bright Sheng
Performers: Gondek, Qiang, Wong,
Hong Kong Phil
 Naxos #8555866
Following on to its Michael Torke release last month, Naxos delivers another of the bright young stars of American music.   Born in China in 1955, Bright Sheng moved to New York in 1982 to study music at Queens College and Columbia University, George Perle and Leonard Bernstein being among his teachers. Chiina Dreams was composed between 1992 and 1995, and each of the four movements are dedicated to various conductors and orchestras in the States, finally brought together after each of their first performances to form a symphonic suite. Each movement is a vivid and dramatic picture of regions in China; the work's title is taken from the idea for the last movement that came to Sheng in a dream. Though there is a sense of Eastern music, the orchestration is purely from the Western world, and employs a large orchestra.  Compelling music, masterfully played.

Untaming the Fury
New American Music for Guitar and Violin
Summit Records  SMT-346
As  Duo46, guitarist Matt Gould and violinist  Beth Ilana Schneider  make exciting music together. On this CD, they work their magic on ten pieces specially commissioned from composers who are not household names yet--but all of whom display great potential. Gould and Schneider are polished players who imbue these short works with a full-range of emotional context.


Baltic Voices 1
Composers: Arvo Pärt, Einojuhani Rautavaara, et al.
Conductor: Paul Hillier
Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir
Harmonia Mundi Franc - #907311
Paul Hillier leads the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir in Volume 1 of Baltic Voices — a three-year project to explore the choral riches of the Baltic Sea countries. With a special attention to the choir’s native Estonia, these recordings will highlight the mainstream tradition of the past hundred years, complemented with music of earlier periods and commissions from younger composers. Volume 1 features haunting secular and sacred works by 20th-century composers Cyrillus Kreek, Arvo Pärt, Einojuhani Rautavaara,  Sven-David Sandstrøm, Peteris Vasks, and Veljo Tormis.  Cool, ethereal, other worldly music from a hot bed of great contemporary composers.

Awakening at the Inn of the Birds, etc.
 Composer: Michael Byron
 Performers: FLUX Quartet, Sarah Cahill, Joseph Kubera, and Kathy Supove
Cold Blue Music CB0012
Michael Byron blends  minimalist and maximalist techniques and rigorous processes with freely composed music to create works that range from the hynotic to the boisterous.  Continents of City and Love and Tidal, written 20 years apart, are both arch-form pieces scored for two pianos, synthesizer, string quartet, and doublebass. This new CD collects four of Byron’s very recent works and a new recording of a piece from 1981, all performed by some of today’s most-respected new-music champions, including Sarah Cahill and Joseph Kubera on pianos, Kathleen Supové on synthesizer, and the FLUX Quartet.

Level 7 
Composer: Evan Ziporyn, et al. 
Performer: The Robin Cox Ensemble
The Robin Cox Ensemble is a unique new music group that combines violin, cello, percussion, and live electronics to create vivid performances of new music. In its first three years, this quartet with a one-of-a-kind instrumentation has already staged more forty performances and collaborated with many prominent choreographers and composers, including on this--the group's second CD--the marvelous Evan Ziporyn. 

Orchestral Works 4
Composer: Krzysztof Penderecki
Peformers: Chee-Yun, violin; Wit, 
Polish Nat'l Rso,  Naxos 
The two violin concertos presented here are from the 1970s when Penderecki returned from strict modernism to more traditional modes of composition. The first concerto dates from 1977, and was written for Isaac Stern, its solo writing containing prodigious technical difficulties. The second is not much easier but both violinists on this CD produce lively, impressive accounts.

Albert Herring
Composer: Benjamin Britten
 Performer: Bedford, Northern Sinfonia
 Naxos - 
In which young Albert Herring, the May King (apparently no female virgin could be found to serve as Queen) is taken into hand by the lovers  Sid and Nancy, fortified with rum, and treated to a night on the town where he does--or does not--lose his virtue.  Wonderful, gay comedy and beautifully sung.

Complete Orchestral Works 3
Composer: John Carbon
Conductor: Vladimir Valek, Marin Alsop, et al.
Mmc Records - #2120 
Recent recordings of Carbon's dazzling Violin Concerto, performed by Violinist Peter Zazofsky with Gerhardt Zimmermann conducting the Warsaw National Philharmonic Orchestra; also a marvelous reading by Richard Stoltzman of Carbon's Clarinet Concerto, and Notturno for Trumpet, Harp, and Strings, performed by Gerard Schwarz (with Jeff Silberschlag on trumpet) and the Seattle Symphony.  Valuable recording of an unjustly neglected composer.

Works for Wind Band 3 
Composer: John Philip Sousa
Performer(s): Brion, Royal Artillery Band
Born in Washington DC on 6 November, 1854, the father of American march music was the son of a trombonist with the United States Marine Band and a true prodigy.  He began music lessons at age six and by the age of eleven he organized and led his own ‘quadrille orchestra’. The rest of his orchestra consisted of seven grown men and quickly became a popular dance orchestra in the Washington area. At the age of 25, he was chosen to become Director of the United States Marine Band in Washington. He began leading the Marine Band in January 1880, beginning a fabled 52 year career as a bandmaster. 

Left to His Own Devices
Composer:  Eric Chasalow
 New World Records - #80601 
 Eric Chasalow is Professor of Composition, and Director of BEAMS, the Brandeis Electro-Acoustic Music Studio. Two of the seven electro-acoustic works on this disc--Left to His Own Devices and Suspicious Motives--pay homage to his Columbia-Princeton mentors; the former is built from vocal samples of Milton Babbitt and the sound of the RCA synthesizer while the latter incorporates two motives from Davidovsky’s music—primarily the opening to Synchronisms #6. 
Notable also are two purely acoustic chamber pieces, In the Works and Yes, I Really Did, which reveal a consistency of vision across both musical frontiers.

Concierto De Aranjuez / Fantasia Para Gentilhombre
Composer Joaquin Rodrigo
Performers:  Socias, Pons, Orquesta Ciudad Granada
Harmonia Mundi Franc - #901764
A superb recording of one of the best-known pieces of music of the 20th century.  Finished in 1939, the Concierto de Aranjuez made Rodrigo famous overnight. It is presented here with its ideal coupling, the Fantasía para un gentilhombre, along with two much more rarely performed works. The performers here, all of them Spanish, bring an authentically Iberian coloring to these sunny, romantic works.


Etudes Books I & II
Composer: Gyorgy Ligeti
Performer: Idil Biret, piano
Naxos - #8555777
Ligeti wrote this series of fifteen studies over a period of ten years beginning in the 1980s and the result is  one of its great masterworks of the keyboard. Not for the timid, these pieces take the pianist's skill to levels that border on the impossible.  Idil Biret meets the challenges head-on and delivers an extraordinary performance.  Highly recommended.

An Hour Out of Desert Center
Composer: Chas Smith 
Cold Blue Music CB0013
Chas Smith is a composer, inventor, instrument builder, and performer from the Harry Partch tradition who creates his own musical world, complete with its own instruments he makes himself or finds. as well as a "language" His is a  world of carefully sculpted textures that never sit absolutely still, textures that evolve and are always in the process of a slow change of aural perspective. Critics have frequently compared Smith’s sometimes beautiful, sometimes brooding compositions to those of Ligeti. The three pieces on this new recording feature the composer performing on pedal steel guitars, composer-designed-and-built crotales and sound sculptures, zithers, and a 1948 Bigsby lap guitar.

Search WWW Search www.sequenza21.com 

Sequenza21/The Contemporary Classical Music Weekly is part of
Classical Music Web Ring
The free linking service provided by Classical Music UK
[ Previous 5 Sites | Previous| Next | Next 5 Sites | Random Site | List Sites ]
SEQUENZA21/is published weekly by Sequenza21/, 340 W. 57th Street, 12B, New York, NY 10019
Publisher:  Duane Harper Grant  (212) 582-4153
Editors:    Jerry & Suzanne Bowles   (212) 582-3791
Contributing Editor: Deborah Kravetz 
(C) Sequenza/21 LLC 2000