The brilliant Argentinian composer Osvald Golijov returns to Charleston, SC this year as composer-in-residence of SpoletoUSA’s wildly popular chamber music series. Golijov has been part of the festival’s chamber music series for 20 years through numerous performances of his compositions, including well-loved pieces and world premieres, and through several residencies, most recently in 2011. The 2016 series will feature world premieres of two of his new works–Anniversary Bagatelles (June 3) and Agamemnon’s Aria (June 5), as well as three of his well-known older works, Tenebrae (May 30 and 31), Lullaby and Doina (June 1 and 2), and Last Round (June 2 and 3).
Golijov’s seductive and haunting compositions defy easy categorization. The first couple of sentences in his online biography best describe their roots: “Osvaldo Golijov grew up in an Eastern European Jewish household in La Plata, Argentina. Born to a piano teacher mother and physician father, Golijov was raised surrounded by classical chamber music, Jewish liturgical and klezmer music, and the new tango of Astor Piazzolla.” Imagine a mixture of all those influences and styles in a single superbly-crafted work and you’ll get the gist.
Or better yet, listen to this prelude to The Dreams and Prayers of Issac the Blind, one of his early masterpieces. Go ahead. I’ll wait.
The St. Lawrence String Quartet, whose violinist Greg Nuttall, is the program director of the annual chamber music series, has had a rewarding musical partnership with Golijiv since 1992. The quartet (Nuttall, Owen Dalby, Lesley Robertson, and Christopher Costanza) has performed and recorded many of Golijov‘s compositions, including Lullaby and Doina for its celebrated recording Yiddishbbuk in 2002. (My favorite recording of contemporary chamber music, for whatever that’s worth.)
Nuttall, whose official title is the not at all cumbersome “The Charles E. and Andrea L. Volpe Director for Chamber Music for the Bank of America Chamber Music series,” is a perfect program director and host–knowledgeable, entertaining, funny, sartorially splendid–for the series. All told, 11 programs for the 33 concerts will be performed at this year’s Spoleto Festival USA from Friday, May 27 through Sunday, June 12.
Each of the 11 chamber programs in the 2016 series features Nuttall’s signature eclectic taste with compositions spanning more than 300 years, and his skill in assembling distinguished musicians from around the world. Returning artists include pianist Inon Barnatan, violinist Benjamin Beilman, baritone Tyler Duncan, bassoonist Peter Kolkay, double bassist Anthony Manzo, pianist Pedja Muzijevic, flutist Tara Helen O’Connor, clarinetist Todd Palmer, violinist/violist Daniel Phillips, pianist Stephen Prutsman, oboist James Austin Smith, violinist Livia Sohn, the St. Lawrence String Quartet (Nuttall, Dalby, Robertson, and Costanza), and cellist Alisa Weilerstein.In celebration of Spoleto Festival USA’s 40th season, the St. Lawrence String Quartet —the Arthur and Holly Magill Quartet in Residence—will be part of the Bank of America Chamber Music series for the entirety of the Festival.
Each of the 11 programs will be performed three times with two performances daily at 11:00am and 1:00pm in the 463-seat Dock Street Theatre at 135 Church Street. The series is also recorded and broadcast by South Carolina ETV Radio and syndicated nationally and internationally by the WFMT Radio Network. Check out the schedule, order some tickets, and get on down here.
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Helmut Lachemann, 80, this November, is one of the most important, original and influential living composers. To hundreds of younger composers whose ambition is to push the boundaries of music and sound beyond its presumed limits, he is a God-like figure, the reigning king of musical post-modernism. Think Stockhausen or Cage, tripled down. Extreme, thrilling, unexpected, visionary, painful, edgy. If he were a Zen master, his mantra would be “Who knows the sound of a beetle lying on its back?”
For listeners who prefer their “classical” music with a touch of consonance, he is one of those composers whose work is more fun to talk about than to actually listen to.
All of which makes John Kennedy, director of contemporary music for SpoletoUSA, a brave man, indeed, for making the American premiere of Lachemann’s opera Das Mädchen mit den Schwefelhölzern (The Little Match Girl) the centerpiece of this year’s Spoleto Music in Time Series. Conceived on a grand scale, Lachemann’s retelling of the tragic Hans Christian Andersen tale of the little girl who measures out her final hours by striking matches for a moment of warmth on the freezing street, employs 106 musicians and various other theater performers.
Lachenmann refers to his compositions as musique concrète instrumentale, basically a musical language that embraces the entire sound-world made accessible through unconventional playing techniques. According to the composer, this is music
“in which the sound events are chosen and organized so that the manner in which they are generated is at least as important as the resultant acoustic qualities themselves. Consequently those qualities, such as timbre, volume, etc., do not produce sounds for their own sake, but describe or denote the concrete situation: listening, you hear the conditions under which a sound- or noise-action is carried out, you hear what materials and energies are involved and what resistance is encountered.”
To take a simple example, guitarists generally try to limit the sound of nails clacking on strings or accidental glissandos produced by sliding their fingers up and down the strings between chords. Their goal is play as faithfully as possible only the notated sounds. In Lachemann’s musique concrete world, these scratches, squeaks and sighs are all part of the music. Through amplification and a plethora of techniques that he has invented for wind, brass and string instruments, Lachemann creates difficult, uncompromising works that are, like their creator, wholly original. His scores place enormous demands on performers. They may be only works in the modern repertory in which players may need a shower after the piece is finished.
Coming as it does in the 40th Anniversary Year of Spoleto with all the attendant “feel good” celebrations, the programming of such a controversial composer as Lachenmann is a welcome sign that SpoletoUSA that the nation’s best—and probably most financially successful–arts festival is still not afraid to take risks and push the boundaries of original performance. Founder Gian Carlo Menotti would be proud.
To appreciate Lachemann requires listeners and performers to forget whatever inherited notions they may have about beauty in music. “Try to like it,” he often tells audiences about to hear his work for the first time. For those willing to suspend their preconceptions, his music offers great listening experiences and, yes, even a strange kind of beauty.
Lachenman will be in attendance at the Festival and will participate in a conversation between Kennedy on May 27 (including a performance of Lachenmann’s piece Got Lost); a performance of Lachenmann’s Ein Kinderspiel and Kenndy’s Spoletudes on June 4, and a performance by Stephen Drury of Lachenmann’s monumental piano solo Serynade, plus Oscar Bettison’s 2014 work for small ensemble An Automated Sunrise (for Joseph Cornell).
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LSO Live is (are, if you’re English) releasing Sir Peter Maxwell Davies Symphony No 10 and Panufnik Symphony No 10, conducted by Sir Antonio Pappano, performed by the London Symphony Orchestra on August 28. You can get a 10% discount by pre-ordering before the release.
Here’s an interview with Maxwell Davis about his tenth symphony.
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JenniferHigdon’s first opera, Cold Mountain, premieres at The Santa Fe Opera on August 1, 2015 and runs until August 24. The August 24 performance was added due to interest leading to a sold-out run. Opera Philadelphia will give the East Coast premiere of Cold Mountain and a recording on Pentatone will be released in the 2015-16 season.
Cold Mountain takes an American story as its subject—the desertion of Confederate soldier W.P. Inman to return to his love in the mountains of North Carolina during the Civil War. Based on Charles Frazier’s best-selling novel, which was turned into an award-winning movie, it features a libretto by Gene Scheer (Moby-Dick; An American Tragedy), recounting Inman’s dangerous odyssey, trekking across North Carolina back to Cold Mountain. This Santa Fe Opera, Opera Philadelphia, and Minnesota Opera co-commission stars Nathan Gunn as the soldier Inman, Isabel Leonard as his lover, Ada, and Jay Hunter Morris as the villainous Teague in both Santa Fe and Philadelphia.
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize in Music for her Violin Concerto and one of America’s most-performed composers, JenniferHigdon taught herself the flute at the age of 15 and began to compose at 21. Of the 50 recordings of her work, Percussion Concerto, Higdon: Concerto for Orchestra/City Scape, Strange Imaginary Animals, and Transmigrationhave all won Grammy Awards. Her work blue cathedral has been performed more than 500 times since its premiere in 2000. Higdon also teaches composition at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia.
“I didn’t realize that I would be carrying these characters in my head and heart for about two and a half years,” Higdon told NPR Music. “But in many ways, living inside the opera, which it felt like I did, was not like anything I’ve ever experienced before. The entire group stayed with me day and night. I’ve been pretty absent from the present-day world for quite some time. That type of concentrated creativity has been amazing to experience.”
“I think Cold Mountain is going to be the great American operatic work,” said Gunn. “The music is beautiful and amazingly dramatic in scope.”
“Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain is a beautiful story filled with history, love, fear, and courage,” said Leonard. “JenniferHigdon and Gene Scheer have now turned that story into an incredible musical journey and I cannot wait to share it with the people of Santa Fe and Philadelphia.”
“The greatest moments, for me, are when I get to sing new music,” said Hunter Morris. “I love stepping into the character and stepping into the voice for the first time.”
It is a trusim that opera is a collaborative endeavor but it is also true that the lion’s share of the credit, or blame, for its success usually goes to the composer. We may choose to see an opera because we like a particular singer, or director, or librettist, but, for better or worse, the composer is the ultimate “owner” of the work. Nobody says John Adams and Alice Goodman’s Nixon in China, although Goodman’s libretto is essential to the piece. Few people say Philip Glass and Robert Wilson’s Einstein at the Beach. The Cave is described by Wikipedia as a multimedia opera in three acts by Steve Reich to an English libretto by his wife Beryl Korot when, in fact, it is at least as much her work as his.
It seem inevitable then that Paradise Interrupted, the installation one-act opera that is headlining Spoleto this year, will become known to future generations as Huang Ruo’s Paradise Interrupted. And he deserves lots of credit.The young Chinese-born composer’s composition masterfully blends 600-year-old Kunqu, one of the oldest forms of Chinese opera, with contemporary Western music to create a sound landscape that is mesmerizing and ethereal, capturing perfectly the hope, longing and ultimate resignation of The Woman (sung gloriously by Chinese opera star Qian Yi).
But, the truth is, Paradise Interrupted is mostly Jennifer Wen Ma’s opera. Wen Ma, a Chinese-born interdisciplinary visual artist conceived, directed and designed the work, as well as co-wrote the libretto. The idea came to her, she says, while she was standing beneath her own art installation called Hanging Garden in Ink, a 60-foot-long, 6-ton suspended garden made of live trees dipped in black ink , in Beijing. Suddenly she imagined the black garden as an arresting and beautiful setting for an opera.
Set against an ever changing backdrop of abstract digital images that reflect the singer’s mood shifts, the garden that greets the audience of Paradise Interrupted is an assemblage of laser-cut paper painted with black ink that is unfolded, accordian-like, and closed up again by the performers throughout the drama. The effect is that the garden appears to move in response to the singers’ voices. The effect is stunning. Eight feet in height, the garden’s stark presence creates a looming landscape that takes on a life of its own. With some many moving parts and such seemingly fragile material, the potential for a staging disaster seemed so ominous that I found myself holding my breath as if watching a tightrope walker.
The chances are good that you’ve seen Ma’s work before even if you’re not an opera goer. In 2008, she was one of the seven members on the core creative team for the opening and closing ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics, and the chief designer for visual and special effects. She won an Emmy for the US broadcast of the ceremony.
The story is drawn from Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden and and Du Liniang from the famous 1598 Ming Dynasty opera The Peony Pavilion. In a dream, a woman meets her lover and searches for an unattainable ideal–a return to paradise–as a vast interactive garden grows from an empty stage in response to her voice, only to disappear as her dream ends. With few movements and gestures, Qian’s lyrical, ethereal voice carried the story, ably abetted by bass-baritone Ao Li, baritone Joo Won Kang, tenor Joseph Dennis and countertenor John Holiday, whose singing especially stood out. Conductor John Kennedy has become an important go-to guy for New Music.
If you missed it at Spoleto, you’ll have to wait for it to come to the Lincoln Center Festival next year..
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It felt kind of like a Kennedy -meets-Weird-Al Yankovich-day at the opening concert of the 2015 Wells Fargo Chamber Music series at Spoleto. Series director Geoff Nutall, who is also first violinist of the superb St. Lawrence Quartet, is just as fashion-forward as his single-named British contemporary and was in mid-Festival sartorial form. This year’s composer-in-residence Mark Applebaum, whose startling and oddly mesmerizing piece Aphasia anchored today’s program, may be the only man–white or black–in America (other then Weird Al) to still sport an Afro. Almost certainly, he is the only composer to write a piece to be performed by a florist.
Aphasia is a scary word for people my age, meaning the loss of ability to understand or express speech, caused by brain damage, like that caused by strokes. Applebaum’s Aphasia is a 9-minute piece expressly written for a “singer” to perform without making a single sound. Premiered in February 2011, it consists of hundreds of transformed vocal samples derived from the voice of professional baritone Nicholas Isherwood and set to a score of nonsense hand signals coordinated to each sound.
Based on everyday activities, the hand gestures were recorded as a written musical score, using icons with names such as “give me the money” and “Post-it Notes.” Applebaum says these gestures are intended to reflect his own fascination with “absurdity that seems to be the consequence of tedious, obsessive attention to ridiculous things.” Or, in other words, how bizarre the actions of the mundane routine of activity seem when they are examined out of context. Applebaum performed the piece himself.
While the piece was inspired by a conversation between Isherwood and Applebaum, the idea to write a piece for a mute singer with hand motions was Applebaum’s own “obsession.” He says his intention was to have Aphasia come across as a metaphor for “expressive paralysis,” something that unnerves him every time he “confronts the terror of composing a new piece.
Applebaum, who teaches at Stanford, is sometimes called “the mad scientist of music” for his extensive use of technology, and “invented and found” instruments–but his pieces are also curiously rooted in human emotions like joy, boredom, fear, despair, generously laced with Woody Allen-level angst. A zest of narcissism here, a dash of paranoia there, a couple of sprigs of self-loathing on the side. The result is work that is highly personal and curiously “music-ish.” As Applebaum likes to say the interesting question is not “is it music” but “is it interesting?” That, it certainly is.
There’s more Applebaum to come at Spoleto in the next week-and-a-half. The Bank of America Chamber Music series consists of 11 separate programs that run about 1 hour and 15 minutes, presented three times each.
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On Sunday, April 19, my piece Rise was premiered in Washington, DC. A collaboration with the poet Tameka Cage Conley, the work bears witness to our country’s fraught journey from Selma to Ferguson and beyond. The morning of the performance, a young Black man named Freddie Gray died of severe injuries sustained while in Baltimore City Police custody.
Last week, Chris Shiley and I recorded the Invocation that opens Rise. The same music returns in the fifth movement, called for by Dr. Cage Conley’s words: “A horn tells us, / a brother has fallen, again…” I share it with you as a lament, a prayer, and a call to action, for Freddie Gray and for Baltimore.
You can stream the track for free, and buy it for $1 or more. All proceeds go directly to the family of Freddie Gray, and will be used to cover medical and burial costs.
Click here to listen and donate. Thanks so much, and please share if you are so inclined!
All Best, Judah
P.S. For those interested, I posted some thoughts on art and activism over the course of the past week in Baltimore. You can read them here and here.
The New World Symphony, America’s Orchestral Academy (NWS), has launched a free, online resource called Making the Right Choices: A John Cage Celebration, dedicated to the works of one of the 20th century’s most influential, innovative and provocative composers . Content for the website derives from New World Symphony’s three-day program Making the Right Choices: A John Cage Centennial Celebration (February 8-10, 2013), the most ambitious and comprehensive commemoration of the artist’s legacy mounted during the hundredth anniversary of his birth. The site, funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, represents works from throughout Cage’s career, with performance videos of some of the composer’s best-known pieces as well as works that have never before been presented or documented in this way.
At the core of the online archive are videos of 12 performances and behind-the-scenes discussions of Cage’s work by Michael Tilson Thomas; Fellows of the New World Symphony; world-renowned artists including new-music vocalist Joan La Barbara, pianist Marc-André Hamelin, soprano Jessye Norman; and dancers from the New World School for the Arts in choreography by Merce Cunningham. The performances drew on the extraordinary possibilities for staging and visual enhancement made possible by the New World Symphony’s campus–the New World performances extend that process, going beyond simple documentation to become creative realizations of Cage’s work. More than 25 behind-the-scenes vignettes of rehearsals and preparations for the performances take the viewer into the process of “making the right choices,” providing musicians, educators and audiences around the world with rare access to insights and conversations between NWS’ Founder and Artistic Director Michael Tilson Thomas, NWS Fellows, guest artists, and John Cage experts as they approached the delicate and nuanced task of preparing Cage’s works.
Also included on the site are extended essays by John Cage and Michael Tilson Thomas; interviews with Michael Tilson Thomas, Laura Kuhn (Executive Director of the John Cage Trust), guest artists and NWS Fellows; artist biographies; links to program information for each work performed; and materials related to Cage’s activities in poetry and visual art.
“The New World Symphony’s John Cage festival was an opportunity to stretch our imaginations to the fullest,” said Michael Tilson Thomas. “Over the course of the week we came to appreciate the amazing range of his music. The diversity of his music inspired us to use all the capabilities of our ensemble and of our building to present his works in installations designed for them. The videos on the website are, in some cases, reportage of those installations. In other cases they are new video works based on the experiences of the live performances. The process of performing and interpreting his works has been a transformative experience for all of us who were involved.”
The extraordinary richness of the videos on the site is made possible by the comprehensive documentation of the works during the festival by the New World Symphony’s audio and video team. The festival and the website was funded in part by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, ensuring that the works of John Cage would be documented and made available for future generations to learn about and appreciate his contributions to the fields of music, dance and artistic thought. Documentation of the event included multiple camera and audio crews who recorded hundreds of hours of video over a two-week period, documenting every aspect of the preparation and presentation of Making the Right Choices.
Highlights of the archive include the video realization of The Seasons (1947), Dance / 4 Orchestras (1982), in which images of Cage’s drawings and compositions are layered upon the views of the musicians in performance; Cheap Imitation (1969), performed with a portion of the original and rarely seen Merce Cunningham choreography, titled “Second Hand”; and She is Asleep, Part 1 (1943), which includes images that appear to be seen from within the instruments being played. Over the next year, additional videos, interviews and materials will be added to the site.
The website is New World Symphony’s most recent accomplishment in online music education. NWS is a leader in the experimentation and development of music applications for Internet2, a high-speed, next-generation Internet, connecting more than 200 U.S. universities as well as international universities and governments. To date, NWS has connected with more than 150 institutions in over 20 countries, in order for its Fellows to receive instruction from professionals around the world, and for its Fellows to share their own knowledge with young musicians as well, providing access to classical music instruction and mentorship that they may not otherwise have access to.
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The Minnesota Orchestra is off to Cuba. The historic May trip culminates with two performances in Havana, May 15 and 16 and will also include several musical exchanges between Orchestra musicians and students. These will range from coaching sessions with high school and university student musicians to rehearsing with a Cuban youth symphony and playing jazz music with professional Cuban musicians. The Orchestra announced in February that it would perform in Cuba as part of the 19th annual International Cubadisco Festival this May, becoming the first U.S. orchestra to perform in Cuba since President Obama took steps to normalize relations between the countries last December. The tour is being made possible by a generous gift from Marilyn C. and Glen D. Nelson.
The Orchestra’s opening performance on Friday, May 15, at the Teatro Nacional will feature Music Director Osmo Vänskä conducting the Orchestra in an all-Beethoven program, including the Egmont Overture; Symphony No. 3, Eroica; and Choral Fantasy, the latter with Cuban pianist Frank Fernández and choruses Coro Vocal Leo and the Cuban National Choir.
The second performance, on Saturday, May 16, at the same location will feature Cuban composer Alejandro García Caturla’s Danzón, Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from West Side Story and Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet Suite, conducted by Vänskä.
The Orchestra tour group will comprise 165 individuals, including 100 musicians, as well as stage crew, staff, community members participating in a “people to people” exchange and members of the media. Cargo for the trip will include 65 tour trunks, collectively weighing more than four tons, and the music for 16 musical works, totaling 2,000 individual parts.
The International Cubadisco Festival is an annual music festival that encompasses one of the most important recording competitions in the Cuban music industry. The theme for the 19th annual festival, running from May 15 to 24, is symphonic and choral music.
Following their arrival in Cuba on Wednesday, May 13, Orchestra musicians will visit Cuban high school and university music students on Thursday, May 14. At the Escuela Nacional de Música, a national high school for music study, Minnesota Orchestra brass, string, percussion and woodwind players will coach student chamber groups, hold master classes and exchange musical performances in a two-hour morning session. The Escuela Nacional de Música includes more than 500 students from across Cuba who focus on both classical and popular music studies.
At the nearby Instituto Superior de Arte, a university that focuses on the arts, Minnesota Orchestra musicians representing all the instrument families will meet with university student musicians, offering group master classes as well as practical coaching advice for students who are preparing for annual competitions, again in a two-hour session.
On the morning ofFriday, May 15, the Minnesota Orchestra will join the 80-member youth symphony, Orquesta Sinfonica Juvenil Amadeo Roldán, onstage at the Teatro Nacional for a side-by-side rehearsal. Sharing stands and music, the Minnesota musicians and high school-aged youth symphony members will rehearse Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Fantasy-Overture and Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances with Music Director Osmo Vänskä. (The students will perform this music the next day as part of the International Cubadisco Festival.) Composer and conductor Guido López Gavilán—who serves as the youth symphony’s conductor—will also lead the combined ensemble in a rehearsal of one of his own pieces: Guaguancó, a colorful work with complex Cuban rhythms.
Following the Minnesota Orchestra concert onSaturday, May 16, members of the Orchestra who also specialize in jazz performance will head to the Havana Café, where they will participate in a late night musical jam with Cuban musicians.
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The Guggenheim Foundation gives out annual fellowships in a range of disciplines including academia, the arts and science. The organization says they are “appointed on the basis of prior achievement and exceptional promise” and this year’s 175 scholars were drawn from a pool of 3,100 applicants. The organization’s website does not list the amount, saying that the grants vary, “taking into consideration the Fellows’ other resources and the purpose and scope of their plans.”
2015 Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellows for Music Composition:
George Lewis, Steve Lehman, Darcy James Argue, Matthew Barnson, Richard Carrick, Sean Shepherd, Rand Steiger, Amy Williams, Etienne Charles, Chihchun Chi-sun Lee and Andreia Pinto-Correia.
Past award winners in this category include George Antheil, Aaron Copland, Alex Mincek and Vivian Fung.