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Hilary Hahn has a really cool new album called  Silfra out today.  Recorded in Iceland with the Düsseldorf-based composer and pianist Volker Bertelmann, who goes by the name Hauschka, the album’s producer is Valgeir Sigurðsson, who normally works with people like Björk and Feist.

The big surprise  is that when Hahn and Hauschka entered the studio for their 10-day session, they hadn’t prepared a note. Almost all of Silfra is the product of improvisation.  If you hurry, you can listen to it free today at NPR.

Hahn and Hauschka recently interviewed each other about the project.  Here’s part 1:

Part 2

Part 3


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On Thursday evening, March 26, the New York Philharmonic will debut Marc Neikrug’s Concerto for Orchestra, which was commissioned for the NYPhil last year:

When Alan Gilbert was at Vail with the Philharmonic a couple of summers ago, and Marc Neikrug was Composer in Residence at the Vail Music Festival, they began to discuss the possibility of a commission. The composer thought possibly a wind concerto, but Alan Gilbert said that’s not what he had in mind; he wanted something “with more flash”…something a little more “sparkly.” Neikrug suggested that a concerto for orchestra might fill the bill. Traditional concertos for orchestra (by Bartók, Lutoslawski, for example) tend to highlight sections of the orchestra as virtuoso entities, but rarely pick out individual instruments or players, the way a solo concerto would. By contrast, the present work will build the concerto from multiple layers to show off the Philharmonic: the brilliance of the entire orchestra playing together; sections of the orchestra (e.g., strings, winds, percussion); smaller groups of musicians (a trio of strings, for example); as well as individual players.

You can be there. All you have to do to have a chance to win a pair of tickets is leave a comment below naming a Concerto for Orchestra that is not by Neikrug or Bartok. On Wednesday, I will put all the entries in an empty mayonaise jar from Funk & Wagnall’s porch and pick the winners. I have two pairs.

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The great ones don’t look for music; music finds them.  Ordinary people can learn to play and maybe even perform but the great ones are born with it. They live it…and perfect it. No matter the genre or style,  no matter where they try to hide–even a dirt farm in Turkey Scratch, Arkansas–music finds the kids with the spark and, for better or sometimes worse, it consumes them. And it makes the world a better place for all of us.

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I prefer to say that I consider myself a writer of music more than a composer. I just try to tell stories through the music narrative. I do this in the simplest, almost naive way possible. However, if there is something that leads me when I start writing a piece, it is to avoid communicating something tiring and boring. I want people to find my music sentimental and moving and also, as far as possible, to fancy listening to it again. I am talking about being accessible to the listener and the performers. In other words, I do not write for composers.  –  Jorge Grundman (1961- )

Maybe it’s because I am hopelessly retro or maybe it’s where I am in my life right now but I was blown away by a new CD that drifted in the other day called God’s Sketches by the Brodsky Quartet featuring the work of the Spanish “music writer” Jorge Grundman.  Putting aside the possibility that denying you’re a composer when you write music is probably more pretentious than admitting that you are,  what do we think of this guy?  Is he for real or have I fallen victim to to a New Age claptrap guilty pleasure?

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Igudesman & Joo, Carnegie Hall, April 17

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Help me out here.  A couple of my acquaintance are celebrating their 40th anniversary in New Orleans in a couple of weeks and asked me where they should go for a “special” night of music.  I haven’t been there in years and don’t have a clue but I said I would ask around.  I’m asking around.  Bear in mind that these are folks who think that Al Hirt and Pete Fountain are probably the greatest jazz players who ever lived.  And, I’m guessing that too loud or too grungy would not be good.  Who has some recommendations?

As long as we’re talking Nawlins, there are three–count  ’em–big Dr. John shows at BAM coming up in April.   And anybody know a piano player/singer from New Orleans (now living in New York) named Brian Mitchell?  Saw him gigging with Levon Helm a few months ago and really liked his stuff.  If you see him, please tell him I’m looking for him.

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I was sitting in the S21 headquarters–Starbucks on 57th Street between Eighth and Ninth Avenues–sipping a latte and trying to guess which of the several attractive Asian-American women in the room was Sugar Vendil,  founder/artistic director/pianist of The Nouveau Classical Project, when a helpful message popped up on my iPhone:  “I’m the one with the black bowties on my shoes,” it said.   But, of course, I thought, that makes perfect sense.  This is a woman who has been producing three or four concerts a year since 2008 that bring together the unlikely combination of composers, performers and fashion designers  to create performances that are as much fun to look at as they are to listen to.  Of course, she wears bowties on her shoes.

Sugar–a combination of Suzanne and Edgar, her parents’ names–is a 29-year-old Filipino-American from the Bay Area who started playing the piano at 3 1/2 but didn’t get really serious until she heard a classmate playing Lizst’s Hungarian Rhapsodies–the one made famous by Bugs Bunny–at around 6.  She knew immediately it was time to step it up a notch.

“I didn’t have the typical Asian ‘Tiger Mom’ or anything like that,” Sugar says. “My parents were more laid back.  They never pressured me at all.  If I practiced a lot it was because I wanted to practice.  They let me develop at my own pace and I’m was happy for that.”

Sugar arrived in New York in 2001, enrolled at NYU, and settled into life in the music and fashion capitals of the world.  She has posed for fashion shoots herself and admits that “fashionista” is not a term often used to describe most denizens of the new music demimonde where geekiness is often the aspired to look.  But she sees nothing strange about inviting emerging designers to create clothing that matches the music program.

“Music and fashion have always been my passions,” she says.  “I see fashion as simply another way of expressing myself.  The idea of combining classical music with creative clothing may sound a little superficial but it’s really not.  We play serious music at our concerts but the fashion elements add touches of theater and style and  provide some context for the music we’re playing.”

Case in point:  The Nouveau Classical Project’s next concert at Symphony Space  on Thursday, April 5 is a salon event, Wearing the Lost Generation which Sugar describes as a “reimagining the Parisian Avant Garde.”  The musical program is Ravel’s Piano Trio in A minor and  the world premiere of Lost Generation, an electro-acoustic work by Trevor Gureckis.  The performers will be wearing music-inspired pieces  by milliner and designer Heidi Lee, who has a reputation for producing “quirky” hats. St-Germain is sponsoring the post show reception with complimentary cocktails.

Like so many young people with vision who come to New York determined to make an impression, Sugar is tireless in her ambitions.  She organizes The Nouveau Classical Project programs, comes up with themes, finds the venues, finds the right designers and composers, selects the programs, and usually does the promotion.  This is not even to mention the rehearsals needed to play professional level concerts in public.   I asked her if with all that she still had time for a personal life.  She assured me that she does.

“I have a boy friend that I’m crazy about and I play a mean game of volleyball,” she says.  With that, she dashed off to tackle Ravel.  Poor man doesn’t have a chance.

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ISSUE Project Room is looking for a Marketing Coordinator to fill a part-time contracted position. The position requires coordination of the website and multiple modes of print, in order to outreach to the community to build audience and membership for ISSUE Project Room’s programs. A large part of the position consists of coordinating marketing materials from the Curatorial and Development staffs, and working directly with the Executive Director to produce the final products. This position is the manager and driver for all marketing projects, therefore, keeping on top of deadlines is essential. In addition, this position plays a key role in meeting ticket sale goals and toward those efforts, strategizes and carries out targeted marketing campaigns. As the Marketing Coordinator is responsible for finalizing content and outreach, excellent copy editing and interpersonal skills, as well as keen sense of ISSUE’s mission and language are required.   Read more

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At a dinner party in the Hamptons attended by your correspondent many years ago, the late and legendary editor Willie Morris averred–this was at a point in the evening when his beverage had been refreshed several times–that “things would have been a lot different if the South had won the war.”  I assumed he was being ironic but the notion came back to me other night during the first of two concerts organized by the Library of Congress in tribute to Dina Koston, a prominent force in DC classical music for many years who died last year and– along with her husband– left the Library an endowment called the Dina Koston and Roger Shapiro Fund for New Music.  The thought  I had:   So,  this is where new music might have gone if there had never been a Terry Riley or Steve Reich or Philip Glass,  if there had been no Internet or cheap recording technologies to allow almost anyone to circumvent the musical “establishment,” if a few of the trains to Princeton had not been diverted to New Haven (to mangle Wallace Stevens), if “high modernism” had prevailed in the marketplace of music ideas the way it did in academia.

Before you academy types pounce, let me be clear that I’m not making a value judgement about “quality” (whatever that is but I know it when I hear it).  The concert, which featured the superb Cygnus Ensemble  playing Dina Koston’s final composition—paired with the short play called Ohio Impromptu by Samuel Beckett that inspired it–a premiere of the endowment’s first commission and several other new pieces, was brilliantly staged and performed and thoroughly entertaining.  (Charles T. Downey has his usual bang-up review here. )

Nor am I suggesting that the living composers whose work was performed at the concert are old-fogeys who never crawled down from Uncle Milton’s knee.  But, several of them were bounced there a few times and their journey into heresy is one of the things that distinguishes their later work. From what little I know about Dina Koston, I’m fairly sure she would have hated Frank Brickle’s Farai un vers (which he calls Neo-Medieval Psychedelia) and David Claman’s Gone for Foreign, both of which are warm, witty and thoroughly non-dogmatic.  Harder to understand was the selection of Mario Davidovsky as the winner of the Koston-Shapiro fund’s first commission.  His Ladino Songs were solid and elegant but the seventy-something winner of the 1971 Pulitzer Prize and many other honors is hardly in need of additional recognition.  (They could have given the award to George Crumb, whose Ancient Voices of Children should have won the 1971 Pulitzer.)

For New Yorkers, the good news is that an extension of the Library of Congress/Cygnus Quartet  program, called Sounding Beckett, will performed here at the Classic Stage Co. on two weekends in the Fall–(Fri-Sun): September 14-16 and 21-23.  Three Beckett pieces will be staged–Ohio Impromptu, Footfalls and Catastrophe–and each will have two new works composed in response to it  commissioned for this occasion by The Dina Koston and Roger Shapiro Fund for New Music.

But, enough music politics.  What surprised me most pleasantly about the visit was what a lively and ambitious concert program the Library of Congress maintains.  Most concerts are staged in the LOC’s Coolidge Auditorium, a comfortable mid-sized venue, that was filled both nights I was there.  Anne McLean, who runs the concert series (with only a couple of people to help), is a warm and generous woman with an empathy for composers. musicians and other lost souls.  She  spotted me alone leaning against a pillar slurping my noodles at the reception, and pegged me for the Sequenza21 publisher and a man who needs a lot of hugs these days.  I really like this woman.

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Dina Koston was a unique figure in the Washington music scene.  A composer and pianist, she was the Iron Lady behind the Theater Chamber Players, a pioneering ensemble that tackled an eclectic blend of old and new chamber music in DC from 1968 to 2004–well before the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center came along.   Her friend and collaborator, pianist Leon Fleisher described her as “complicated, compulsive, wacky and wacked out,” (sounds  like my kind of woman).  The Library of Congress is staging two events this week to honor her life and legacy.  On Wednesday night  Joy Zinoman directs a production of Samuel Beckett’s ephemeral short play Ohio Impromptu as a prelude to Koston’s last composition, Distant Intervals, and other new works from the Cygnus Ensemble. On Thursday night,  Fleisher, Koston’s longtime artistic partner and friend, performs and conducts an evening of Ligeti, Koston, and Brahms, featuring the Liebeslieder Waltzes.


“Dina Koston had the most acute musical ear of any musician I have ever known.”

Leon Fleisher, pianist, conductor and co-founder of Theater Chamber Players with Dina Koston


“Many of us on the staff at the Library of Congress knew Dina Koston in many contexts for a number of years. We admired her as a pianist and were inspired by her thoughtful programming and her integrity in her work for the Theater Chamber Players, whose concerts made a hugely important contribution to Washington music lovers. We knew her as a fine composer who was commissioned by the Library’s McKim Fund, and also as a serious researcher we often saw in our Performing Arts Reading Room. She was both a performer on our Coolidge Auditorium stage–and a superbly knowledgeable concertgoer here, for several decades. We are immensely grateful to Dina not only for her unexpected and extremely generous bequest, but for her confidence in the Library. We will work hard to earn it in the future programs and projects made possible by her gift to us.”

Anne McLean, Senior Producer for Concerts and Special Projects, Library of Congress Music Division


“While Dina could be difficult to work with, the end results in our performances were always worth it. I still use her insights in my own teachings of the songs of Wolf and Webern, to name a very few. Her programming of the new and the old remain unmatched in chamber music programs of today.”

Phyllis Bryn-Julson, soprano


“Dina Koston was a model for all of us. She seemed to embrace effortlessly a quality that is essential for authentic composing: she believed completely in, was on intimate terms with, her own muse.”

Frank Brickle, composer


“Working with Dina Koston was a true learning experience.  Dina was demanding of herself as well as those around her, expecting us to rise up to our very best.  Her knowledge of music and the connection between composers and works was astounding. As a result, her concerts were at a different level in the programming and performance.  She had a definite idea of what she wanted to hear, how a particular work should sound.  She loved new music, and she was dedicated to Bach.  But just to hear Dina play her warm-up, to Chopin, was breathtaking.”  

Sherry Goodman, former Manager of Theater Chamber Players & publicist to Dina Koston


“I played 10 seasons with the Theater Chamber Players, and then after TCP’s final concert, I continued to perform Dina’s music–solo, and with Cygnus. I am also pleased to have brokered the NYNME commissioning of Dina’s Quintet With Claves. I am greatly enriched through my exposure to Dina’s extraordinary musical sensibility. She did not hesitate to say everything that was on her mind in rehearsals, and I learned a great deal.

Dina was exposed to music that she would never have heard if not for her work with Cygnus. She was smitten by Dylan Lardelli’s oboe and guitar duo. She rediscovered Wuorinen through the Sonata for Guitar and Piano, which she began programming in Washington, bringing me and Joan Forsyth to Washington and Baltimore to perform that Sonata. I am grateful for her willingness to forgive Cygnus for our interest in certain latter-day musical movements. There were certain things that she simply could not abide.

Dina’s music was conceived entirely in her head. She could hear it better than a computer. No one had better training than Dina, who studied with Boulanger, Berio, attended the Darmstadt festival, and studied piano with Leon Fleisher.

Dina had a Chemex coffee maker. (I grew up with one of those.) On her coffee table she had a facsimile of Ezra Pound’s comments penned into an early version of The Wasteland. She loved Beckett, and wrote her last work for the Cygnus group + 3, entitled *Distant Intervals*, which is a musical reflection of Beckett’s Ohio Impromptu. These were points of connection for us. Moreover, we both devoted most of our lives to running ensembles–curating. We both put our composing second.

For the moment musical modernism is being portrayed by name brand critics as an outmoded relic of the cold war. I am ok with the characterization, and I am not concerned because such characterizations are always transitory. In 18th C. Opera, the witch sang in a quasi-baroque style, employing the power of the *quality of being out of fashion* to paint a character musically. (Remember the violin playing in Mel Brooks’ *Young Frankenstein*.) Mozart and Mendelssohn would rediscover Bach; and the Baroque eventually becomes bathed in nostalgia (slow movement of Brahms, op. 88!). I have come to embrace and celebrate the music that has seized the center, for the moment. Dina, on the other hand, was not in a position to embrace things like minimalism. Dina could be difficult–a modernist witch! Some find her music difficult. Why not? It is about 85 years out of fashion! She would not care. While Varese can come to mind as an aural predecessor, I love the moments of musical recession, following her scary, Varese-like tuttis, the intimate, quiet moments of insight that happen in the shadows of those brutal blocks of sound–I find in such moments her authentic and personal voice, while the concrete walls of sound seem to be a necessary frame for those personal moments.

I defend the ethos of artistic authenticity and high ambition that characterized cold war aesthetic values. I add, moreover, that despite government support for the RCA synthesizer and the Darmstadt festival (points that are coming to light at the moment, causing quite a stir) artistic values are always *psychologically overdetermined*.

Dina’s music is ambitious, authentic, yet in no way doctrinaire. She wrote what she heard, and it is very difficult to say what governs the development of her compositions. She was truly an improvisor.”

William Anderson, founder of Cygnus Ensemble

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