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Breaking news from Cuernavaca, Mexico–Stefano Scodanibbio has passed away, a tremendous bassist, a fearless improviser, and a gifted composer. Faced with ALS, he decided to spend his last days in Mexico, a country he loved. I haven’t found any reports in English, but for those of you who speak Spanish, here’s the report. Google translation (not too bad) here.

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Steve Reich and Music for 18 Musicians comes to Disney Hall on Jan. 17

For the LA Weekly, I compiled a list of what appear to be the best classical music events next year in Los Angeles. (Of course, the 2012-13 seasons haven’t been announced yet, so there will likely be events in the fall that I’ll be crazy about, and REDCAT had not published its Winter/Spring concert schedule by the time I turned my copy into my editors)

Just about all my picks involve 20th/21st century music (there’s lots of pre-20th century music at Ojai, and although Mahler may not seem 20th-century to many classical music mavens, over half of his output was composed after 1901).  Here they are, in order of Most-To-Least Amount of Regret One Will Have For Not Attending The Event:

1) Steve Reich played by the Bang on a Can All-Stars and red fish blue fish, Jan. 17

2) The LA Philharmonic’s Mahler Project, but in particular the rarely performed 8th Symphony

3) The Ojai Festival–lots of new music, but especially the West Coast premiere of John Luther Adams’ Inuksuit on June 7

4) Jacaranda’s March 17-18 concerts, featuring the LA premiere of Christopher Rouse’s astounding String Quartet no. 3, played by the group which commissioned it, the Calder Quartet

5) Violinist Shalini Vijayan will perform Cage’s One6 and One10 with musical sculptures by Mineko Grimmer (which Cage approved as appropriate companion works to his music), as the opening concert of Cage 2012

My story, along with lots of links and videos, can be read here.

Some observations and amplifications I couldn’t squeeze into a 500-word story:

  • REDCAT is doing a 2-night Cage Festival, including performances of 103 and Fifty-Eight on the first evening. But from what I can see right now, that and Southwest Chamber Music’s Cage 2012 are the only big birthday celebrations going on for Cage in his native city. Green Umbrella will present Cage’s Concerto for Prepared Piano, performed by Gloria Cheng and conducted by John Adams; the other works scheduled for that program include Stockhausen’s Tierkreis (the “Carnival of Venice” for new music groups) and a new work from Oscar Bettison which is more likely to be in Cage’s spirit than Stockhausen’s goofy Zodiac pieces.
  • The all-Andriessen Green Umbrella concert looks very promising–2 multimedia works, (the lurid Anais Nin and Life) plus the US premiere of La Giro. It’s worth attending just to see the riveting Cristina Zavalloni, who’s become one of Andriessen’s chosen interpreters
  • I feel sorry for all the other composers on the above Jacaranda program (Richard Rodney Bennett, William Schuman, and Leon Kirchner)–memory of their music will be completely obliterated by Rouse’s compositional juggernaut, his Third Quartet. There’s a video of the Calder Quartet ripping it up (the West Coast premiere) here. The Calder will also play Rouse’s Second Quartet, but the ending to that work has always struck me as contrived
  • Jacaranda has 2 other exciting programs coming up: the American premiere of Terry Riley’s Olson III, a work from the time of In C, and a January concert of chamber music by Dutilleux, Takemitsu, Ung, and Saariaho. It was a real coin toss for me to choose between Olson III or Rouse Third Quartet, but I ultimately went with Rouse because the Calder knows the work cold, and a successful performance is certain (unlike Olson III)
  • In addition to Inuksuit, JLA’s Red Arc/Blue Veil and the two-piano-plus-tape version of Dark Waves will be heard at Ojai. Marc-Andre Hamelin, a pianist I would not associate with JLA’s music, will be performing in the latter 2 pieces–I look forward to hearing what he does with the piece. I imagine he’ll get authoritative guidance from Steve Schick, his partner in Red Arc, and from JLA himself. Amusingly, John Adams’ Shaker Loops will be on the same program as Dark Waves. I wonder how many inattentive audience members will think they’re works by the same composer? Much more up Hamelin’s alley: Ives’ Concord Sonata and Berg’s Four Songs, op. 2, and following his performance of Dark Waves with Leif Oves Andsnes, the pianists will play Stravinsky’s 4-hand arrangement of Rite of Spring (done on 2 pianos, because the hand crossings and elbow bumpings are ridiculous)

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Why did you have to burn your symphony, Jean?

Sketches for an untitled orchestral work dating from the time Sibelius was writing his Eighth Symphony

Big news from Finland: Sketches of what appear to be Sibelius’s Eighth Symphony (long thought destroyed by Sibelius) have emerged. Here’s a clunky Google translation of the Finnish web site announcing this incredible discovery, along with an orchestral reading of those sketches. At the original Finnish link, you can access a video and hear the realization of the sketches. Those of you who don’t speak Finnish will want to jump ahead to ca. 2:00, where the music actually begins. Yes, it sounds like Sibelius, but a more chromatic and fragmented Sibelius than we’re accustomed to.

A more comfortably written article on the discovery and the musicology supporting the claim can be found here.

And a great big Thank You to Sibelius booster Alex Ross, who hipped me to this at his web site.

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Composers, performers, or music-lovers looking for an interesting day job: PostClassical Ensemble needs a manager for their group. Contact Joseph Horowitz at jh AT josephhorowitz DOT com for more information.

Here’s a brief job description:

Managing Director, PostClassical Ensemble. Cutting-edge, 8-year-old DC-based chamber orchestra seeks half-time administrative director. The director will work with Artistic Director (Joseph Horowitz) and Musical Director (Angel Gil-Ordonez). Wide-ranging responsibilities include: budgeting, contracts, web management, marketing, artistic/strategic planning, fund-raising, radio broadcasts (WFMT; Sirius XM), Naxos recordings and DVDs, touring, etc. Our thematic programming incorporates dance, theater, film. Close collaboration with National Gallery of Art, Georgetown University (our Educational Partner), Strathmore Music Center.

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If you’re in the LA area this Sunday, and can spare 4 hours and then some (4 hours for the concert, then some for the commute and parking), 3 young musicians attending the Music Department at University of California, San Diego will perform Morton Feldman’s For Philip Guston.

While Feldman performances at UCSD are common enough, the sheer scale of For Philip Guston makes any production a rare event: 4 hours of late Feldman. Rachel Beetz will play flute (can you imagine playing a wind instrument for 4 hours with no breaks outside of the rests the composer gave you?), Dustin Donahue will play percussion (he has to stand for 4 hours), and Martin Hiendl will be the pianist (doubling on celesta). You can read an essay by Petr Kotik on the difficulties in performing this composition here.

I don’t know much about The Wulf, but readers will perceive it to be on the right track as a venue, presenting some of the far-out works on Michael Pisaro’s Dogstar Orchestra series this year.

Feldman always credited visual artists as having the biggest influence on his music: Rothko, Rauschenberg, Johns, and Guston.   Guston’s daughter remembered Feldman thus:

Morty Feldman was a tall, heavyset man with a thick shock of almost black hair over an absent forehead, and eyes that were obscured by glasses with lenses like the bottom of a bottle… His morose, sardonic demeanor concealed a quick and biting critical intelligence. He was a man whose appetites more than rivaled my father’s They both loved to eat and drink and smoke, and they loved doing it together. The two men prowled the city for movies and good cheap restaurants. My memories of Morty have him stretched out and snoring on our wicker chaise, following some feast the two friends had shared.

Read more by Guston’s daughter, Musa Mayer, about Feldman and her father, here.

Philip Guston’s portrait of Morton Feldman may be viewed here.

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Full disclosure: I co-founded San Diego New Music in 1994, served as its first Executive Director, and have been a board member since 2000. This isn’t a review or a comprehensive report so much as some of my impressions and observations about what’s going on at The Athenaeum in La Jolla, California, this weekend. If you think I overlooked anything, please feel free to contribute more in the comments section below.

After core members of NOISE, the resident ensemble of San Diego New Music, dispersed across the continent (flutist/director Lisa Cella to Baltimore; percussionist Morris Palter to Fairbanks), it became more and more expensive and time-consuming to do an entire season with the ensemble in San Diego. The ingenious solution NOISE came up with was to do an annual festival in June.

This year’s installment is the 5th year of San Diego New Music’s festival, soundON. From the beginning, it’s been impressive for the wide range of musical styles represented on the festival and for the high caliber of their commissions and score submitted through a semi-annual call. Unlike other competitions, there’s no entry fee. The musicians themselves wade through the entries and determine which scores they want to play on the festival.

Last night, the first of the festival, had impressive commissions and nice finds through the calls for scores. Several of the composers in attendance this year have been composers with whom NOISE has developed a relationship over the years: Christopher Adler (who doubles as the Executive Director of San Diego New Music), Stuart Sanders Smith, Matthew Burtner, Madelyn Byrne, and Sidney Marquez Boquiren.

Madelyn Byrne is represented by a video installation by Lily Glass, to which Byrne supplied a soundtrack. I can’t comment on it now, as I spent most of the last night catching up with old friends, but the lovely sounds I did manage to overhear and the colorful still or slow-moving abstractions on the screen invite further exploration tonight and tomorrow. (Update: turns out I heard this two years ago at a new music conference. It’s included on a DVD of works by lesbian composers, Sounding Out. Yes, it is worth experiencing again.).

Time Comes Full Circle, for violin and cello, struck me as completely unique in the output of Stuart Saunders Smith. Framed by an opening and closing spoken dialogue between the instruments the work begins with a mournful modal lament for both instruments, a prismatic minor key duet somewhat reminiscent of Pärt or Schnittke; I’ve never heard anything like this before in Smith’s music. This first section continues exploring this haunting music, only to abandon it for an extensive middle section which is in a vein more typical for Smith: independent, thorny harmonic and rhythmic counterpoint, marked by striking moments where the violin and cello come together in unisons—one, an A 5 spaces above the treble clef. It’s not a perfect unison—at times one instrument drops out and the other takes over, or a heterophonic melody splinters away. The minor-key lament returns in the final section, splintered in new combinations.

Any critic describing Smith’s music is in trouble searching for an easy category in which to pigeonhole him. If he belongs to any school, it’s probably the individualist, intuitive New England branch of experimentalism begun by Ives and Ruggles, later branching off in an intellectually rigorous way by Elliott Carter. Smith’s music, though, strikes me as highly intuitive, seasoned with the acceptance of sounds and free forms of the New York School composers Cage and Brown. Invoking any of these names tells you, only in the vaguest, broadest sense, what his music resembles. He is sui generis. What I can report is that this is an expansive work, a significant contribution to the infrequently explored combination of violin and cello. It was given a wonderful performance by cellist Franklin Cox and violinist Mark Menzies, and Smith seemed genuinely delighted with their interpretation.

A recent solo flute work by Nicolas Tzortzis, Incompatibles III, was dropped from the concert. The program notes are intriguing: “The whole work is based on the idea of ‘going towards something else,’ coming back each time, leaving again, and so on, before reaching the moment of the revelation.” Tzortzis was represented by a frenetic ensemble piece last year which appeared to ring some new changes on the New Complexity style (a distinguishing feature was the amount of repetition and return in the work). I hadn’t encountered his music at all before the Festival last year, and I was looking forward to hearing more. Alas, in its place was Berio’s Sequenza I, given a sharply delineated reading by Lisa Cella. I know it’s a major landmark in flute repertory, and yet taken in the context of all of Berio’s Sequenzas, it is the most dated, the least interesting to 21st century ears. The later Sequenzas developed a modern manner of prolonging dissonant harmonies through a solo instrument; today Sequenza I seems more caught up in the rapid turnover of all 12 tones, as many European composers strove to do in the 1950s.

Christopher Adler
is my favorite San Diego composer after Chinary Ung. Aeneas in the Underworld, Act I: The Caves of Cumae suggests a new direction in his music—a music theatre work for reciting guitarist. Chris has two consistent strains in his music, the ethnomusicological (he’s an expert on Thai music) and the mathematical, and Aeneas appears to lean towards the latter. In four “scenes,” guitarist Colin McAllister recites Virgil’s poetry in Latin, while playing a prepared guitar. Like Cage’s prepared piano music, the guitar is more of a percussion instrument here than a melodic/harmonic device, so the focus in the music is on expanding and contracting rhythmic patterns. Over these regimented rhythms, McAllister orates with what I assume is a more natural spoken delivery.

I heard the premiere a month or two back, and was frustrated by the inability to read the text in the dimly lit hall. The music, in general terms, delineates the broad themes of the poetry. Last night’s performance was far more assured, the rhythms crisper, the declamation more confident, and it was greatly helpful to be able to read a translation of Virgil’s text as McAllister recited.

You may have seen this cartoon going around—it’s pretty much an inside joke by Christopher Adler part describing the work to an incredulous guitarist, although in broader terms the interaction between composer and performer is rather true, if cloaked in humorous exaggeration.

A surprise event had been announced for the festival, and after a brief intermission Frank Cox was plunked down in a chair front and center facing the performance area, and serenaded with seven compositions dedicated to him by Claus-Steffen Mahnkopf, Stuart Saunders Smith, Colin Holter, Steven Kazuo Takasugi, Sidney Corbett, John Fonville, and Brian Ferneyhough. The real surprise was Ferneyhough’s piece, titled Paraphrase on Antonin Artaud’s “Les Cenci,” unusual for being the only purely electronic work by Ferneyhough anyone present could recall. It appeared to be constructed entirely from samples, and yet the densities and microtones distinguished it from the average MIDI composition.

SoundON in the past has done “Chill-Out” concerts, which are what you might expect them to be: performances of more meditative, quiet, and/or serene works. Tension Studies I by Samuel Carl Adams, a West Coast composer still in his 20s generating lots of buzz, was scheduled for a Chill-Out performance, yet was withdrawn. In its place was a lovely electroacoustic composition by Matthew Burtner, whose title I do not now recall, composed for Colin McAllister. McAllister is a mountaineer, and recorded sounds of his ascent up the tallest volcano in Mexico; Burtner used these sounds and slowly-changing diatonic harmonies to supply an acoustic foundation over which McAllister played gently oscillating notes, ringing harmonics, and melodies which sounded quasi-improvised. Many folks commented later on how beautiful this work was, and I agree. I had heard it previously, and hearing it for a second time was a pleasant experience.

David Toub will be known to Sequenza21 readers. He submitted a trio for violin, cello, and vibraphone to the call for scores. Christopher Adler, in a preconcert talk, described how Toub’s score—dharmachakramudra—leapt out from all the others, in its being a more austere form of minimalism, a style Adler did not see at all in any of the other 400+ submissions. It is a quiet piece, featuring chords in the violin and cello rocking back and forth with four-note vibraphone chords. If you can imagine Morton Feldman writing a rhythmically regular and shorter piece, or Steve Reich writing a dissonant, slow work, that might give you an idea of the piece.

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The concert ended with the ocean inside by Frances White, another composer new to San Diegans. Her work was composed for Eighth Blackbird, and incorporated a tape part. It was consonant, lyrical, and a lovely way to end the evening.

And the performances? First class, throughout the night. These performers take their commitment to the music of our time extremely seriously. Doing this festival is a labor of love, and the concern and passion is always evident in everything they play.

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Jochen Kowalski (center) and the Long Beach Opera Chorus in Akhnaten by Philip Glass

If you have the slightest interest in contemporary opera or modern drama, you must see Philip Glass’s Akhnaten, scheduled for one more performance by Long Beach Opera on Sunday, March 27. It is a brilliant update of Wagner’s idea of the Gesamtkunstwerk, in which Glass’s music, staging by Andreas Mitisek, choreography by Nanette Brodie, and video projections by Frieder Weiss all combine into one amazing whole.

At the heart of the work is Glass’s monolithic score and libretto. The story itself is a series of tableaux depicting the rise (Act 1) and fall (Act 3) of Akhnaten and his dangerous idea—there is only one God, Aten, the Sun. (Act 2 is devoted to Akhnaten’s implementation of monotheism). Glass’s repetitive music, with its Brucknerian phrase lengths and static textures, creates a deep sense of ritual underlying each scene.

The modern operas favored by most American companies strike me as unsatisfactory hybrids in which a recent contemporary musical vocabulary is poured into a 19th-century dramatic form. With the typical American opera libretto adapted from a novel, film, or conventional play, the narrative is linear, the presentation of material straightforward, rarely employing any 20th-century dramatic innovations. What Glass did with his Einstein/Gandhi/Akhnaten operatic trilogy was to bring opera up to date with contemporary dramatic thought. Even though Akhnaten is almost 30 years old, it seems fresh and novel compared to the retooled verismo of so much recent American opera.

Another problem for me in contemporary opera (although it’s a problem over 100 years old) is that of vocal parts consisting of continuous recitative or through-composed arias or whatever you want to call them. In the Baroque through Romantic periods, an aria sung by a character operated according to clear structural principals—the da capo aria or classical number aria. What has replaced that organizing device in modern operas? Complete formal freedom—in many contemporary operas, the characters sing in a continuous recitative. Berg solved the problem by shaping the scenes in Wozzeck according to the principals of multi-movement instrumental music.

Glass came up with a somewhat similar solution in his operas—the sung vocal lines are an integral part of the musical process. The vocal parts in Akhnaten are like instrumental lines, an essential part of Glass’s overall musical fabric. The intellectual rigor of his writing allows orchestral instruments to be substituted for the voices in the Akhnaten excerpt of Jerome Robbins’s ballet, Glass Pieces, (Act 1, Scene 1) without any loss of musical sense or drama.

This vocal writing flies in the face of the American operagoer’s expectations. What, no high C for the soprano? No cadenza for the tenor? (The lack of big stage moments for singers is probably one of the reasons Akhnaten and similar operas are rarely produced in the U.S.).

This is not to say that there aren’t highly dramatic moments in Glass’s vocal parts. The first note sung by Akhnaten is one of the most startling entrances in all of opera. We see Akhnaten for an entire scene during his coronation, but it is not until the last scene of Act I that we finally hear Akhnaten sing; what comes out of his mouth is not the heroic tenor or deep bass we expect from an operatic king, but rather a hooty A above middle C sung by a countertenor. Yes, we knew Akhnaten was a countertenor when we first took our seat, but that does not mitigate the unnerving violation of our expectations when this figure of grandeur opens his mouth and issues forth a sound which would be more appropriate for a giant boy soprano.

Jochen Kowalski sang the title role with a vibrato so wobbly that he could be an honorary member of the International Workers of the World. Paul Esswood, who created the role of Akhnaten for the Stuttgart premiere and the subsequent recording, sang with little vibrato in a style more typical for an early music concert than an American opera stage. Akhnaten was a physically deformed man, yet Kowalski looked like, and played him, as an imposing authority figure. Kowalski’s attitude was firm, his blocking well-defined, his postures exact; it was too bad that his sense of pitch did not share these characteristics. Let’s hope his singing is more disciplined on Sunday afternoon.

The other two prominent roles were ably sung by alto Peabody Southwell as Nefertiti and tenor Tyler Thompson as the Amon High Priest (not “Amon” as the program identified him—Amon was the god). A recent graduate, Southwell already possesses a solid tone and a confident stage presence, and one suspects audiences will see even more of her as her voice matures. Read the rest of this entry »

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Miss Music Nerd (AKA composer/keyboardist Linda Kernohan) recently had an opportunity to chat with Sir Harrison Birtwistle after hearing his Violin Concerto premiered by Christian Tezlaff and the Boston Symphony Orchestra.  In the course of their conversation, Birtwistle discussed the impetus for writing a violin concerto, his difficulties with precompositional schemes (“I get terribly bored…by the time I’ve got 200 yards down the road”), and how he handles getting “stuck” while writing a work.

The entire interview (with some interesting links to other Birtwistliana) can be found here.

Ms. Hahn, if you’re looking for a new concerto to learn (hint, hint)….

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Literally. This is Audio Lodge, a collective based in London, Ontario. For more information, check out the Spring issue of Musicworks.

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