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A positive review by Dana Astmann of Richard Wilson’s opera, Aethelred the Unready, over at Parterre Box.

It’s scheduled for a Symphony Space performance on Tuesday, Jan. 25.

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The New Osvaldo Golijov

Queen Dawn says, "I dub thee Sir David Bruce." Ka-ching!

I had never heard of David Bruce until I was assigned to review a concert by Art of Elan, a local concert series affiliated with the San Diego Museum of Art which presents lots of 20th-21st century music. Bruce had a world premiere on the concert.

From what I can tell in my far-off corner of the United States, David Bruce is racking up an impressive concert track record on the East Coast: Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center commissions, performances by new music princemaker Dawn Upshaw, etc.

Bruce’s new piece, The Eye of Night, is simply one of the greatest compositions for flute, viola, and harp I’ve heard in years. It’s bound to be picked up and recorded by the other Debussy trios out there. Hear it for yourself here.  Then, read my review here.

The concert also featured terrific performances of Nicholas Maw’s Roman Canticle (with Susan Narucki as the vocalist), the chamber music arrangement of Jolivet’s Chant de Linos, and a performance of a neglected Copland rarity, Elegies for violin and viola. The entire concert can be heard here.

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They’ve been piling up, my reviews at, to be passed on to you here. Lots of good music heard the past three months:

San Diego Symphony plays Remembering Gatsby by John Harbison (1/15/11)

Harbison has an ear for arresting sonorities, an original way of arranging chords so that one hears harmonies in a completely new way (Stravinsky, Copland, and Britten all had this talent as well). It’s tempting to call him a conservative composer, but his music never sounds like it’s rehashing older styles. He has carved out his own original voice within the classical music tradition, one in which melody and harmony still prevail, but those melodies and harmonies are unique to Harbison. There is an admirable balance between the Apollonian and the Dionysian in his music; musical craft is evident, but it never gets in the way of expression. It’s usually a pleasure to hear his music live, and Remembering Gatsby is no exception to that.

San Diego Symphony premieres new concerto by Michael Torke (11/19/10):

Most concertos are heroic works, a soloist or soloists struggling against the orchestra to prevail. The rhetoric of Cactus is more intimate. Torke employs a chamber orchestra, and his soloists are given lyrical melodies. The harp and violin often initiate a gesture which the orchestra picks up and takes off in its own direction. Arpeggiated chords turn into sonic pyramids in the orchestra, with each note in the violin or harp sustained by a different orchestral instrument. Ostinatos churn along, but never really continue for that long. There is an element of Sibelius here, where the music is continuously evolving, perhaps a trace of Debussy in the unusual diversions taken from the emotional milieus which had been developed, only to be left behind for something else.

California Quartet and Timothy Durkovic play Bolcom’s Piano Quintet (12/4/10):

William Bolcom has written that his Piano Quintet is based on 19th century models like Schumann and Brahms. You might not guess that listening to Bolcom’s Quintet. Bolcom is probably best known for bringing ragtime and popular music styles into the concert hall, with unabashedly hummable melodies. However, Bolcom’s Quintet is in his thornier idiom—it’s unlikely many audience members will leave the concert whistling any tunes from it….Although Bolcom’s harmonies are rather chromatic, there’s always a sense of tonality lurking beneath the dissonances. Melodically, the motives which are imitated and repeated could be plainly harmonized, but the way Bolcom combines them and chromatically shifts them up or down makes the whole sonority seem more dissonant than the individual lines really are.

Coming soon: Reviews of a David Bruce world premiere and an impressive show by the Wet Ink Ensemble

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Magnus Lindberg before the show

[As part of my residency at the NEA Journalism Institute for Classical Music and Opera, I had to write an overnight review with a word limitation–something I hadn’t done in 15 years. What follows was my original story; an edited version appeared on our private web site where our reviews were posted.

I was very impressed with how the NY Phil turned a performance of a relatively obscure 25-year-old work into a must-attend event. The last time I saw that much excitement about a contemporary orchestral instrumental work was back in the late 1980s in San Diego, when a Soviet arts festival brought composers, musicians, and actors to town for a year-long festival. How did the NY Phil get the city so excited about an old work by its composer in residence?  When I get a chance between my current assignments, I hope to post an essay about that.]

Strident steel tintinabulations and dull metallic clanking invaded Avery Fisher Hall Tuesday evening (Oct. 12), where, minutes earlier, the music of Debussy and Sibelius, and the virtuosity of violinist Joshua Bell had delighted audience members.

That clangor wasn’t the 1 Train filtering up through the floor; it was the New York premiere of Magnus Lindberg’s Kraft. Fortunately the New York Philharmonic’s front office had prepared listeners for these sounds through videos and feature stories documenting Lindberg’s shopping trip at a local junkyard, turning this chapter of his two-year residency into a cause célèbre.

Alan Gilbert’s humorous but earnest explanations before Kraft also broke the ice for nervous patrons sitting near a 50-gallon storage drum or a large tam-tam suspended from the ceiling, providing them with aural signposts in Lindberg’s wild soundscape.

Lindberg’s style these days, although clearly modern, is also accessible to audiences, a polished language marked by rhythmic propulsion and dissonant but perceptible harmonies. Lindberg was an enfant terrible when he completed Kraft in 1985; its brute primitive force, imaginative orchestration, and exuberant theatricality immediately distinguished him from the droves of European modernists trying to emerge from the shadows of Boulez, Xenakis, or Ferneyhough.

Kraft is a contemporary concerto grosso, where the soloists not only play piano (magnus Lindberg), clarinet (Chen Halevi), cello (Carter Brey), timpani (Markus Rhoten), and percussion (Christopher Lamb and Daniel Druckman), but also hammer and scrape found objects from the New York area, most of them appearing to be old auto parts and iron gas cylinders. These solos are then spatialized on speakers (done skillfully by Juhani Liimatainen).

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I recently attended the NEA Journalism Institute for Classical Music and Opera. For 10 days two dozen or so writers from Alaska to Florida convened at Columbia University to talk about classical music, to write about classical music, and most importantly for me (a musician with no formal journalism education), to talk about writing about classical music.

We attended many concerts devoted to or containing contemporary classical music. We saw the Kronos Quartet at Le Poisson Rouge; watched Glassworks and a new David Lang dance work at New York City Ballet; heard AXIOM play Stravinsky, Xenakis, and Lindberg; had a private lecture and performance by Jeremy Denk on Charles Ives–he’s just recorded the two sonatas, and if the two movements he played are any indication of the rest of the CD, you should rush out and buy it upon release; went to BAM to see Evan Ziporyn’s A House in Bali; and we all had to review the NY Phil performance of Lindberg’s Kraft (everyone liked it except for one critic, and he explained rather eloquently what he disliked about the work).

A colleague’s reviews accurately captured details of the work and performance, and had a wonderful shape to her story–nice lede, good flow, and good conclusion. There were two words in her story, however, that I had to point out to her, because I knew that performers and composers would jump on those two words and use them to discredit what was otherwise a fine review. She wrote that Kraft “was formless.”

Every piece of music has a form, I explained. You can write “Kraft seemed formless” or “the form was near impossible to detect” or something which captured her inability to perceive the form of Kraft (in her defense, Kraft has a very opaque structure, obscured by multiple processes happening simultaneously); but when you make an analytic statement that the work has “was formless,” a statement which can be proven wrong, readers will use that against you to sabotage the rest of your review. It won’t matter to them that you got everything else right in your story; making that one critical mistake (with just two words!) will become justification to tear down all the valid observations you did make in your review. I could picture a composer that hates Magnus Lindberg saying, “What does this critic know? She said Kraft was formless. What an idiot. How can you trust anything else she said about Kraft? “

I came across a similarly self-destructive statement in a Kalamazoo Gazette review published yesterday:

Muzijevic proved to be a superb pianist despite the concert’s lack of the usual heavyweight solo repertoire. He showed a certain genius for making music out of extremely sparse, atonal works such as Feldman’s Intermission 4 and Arnold Schoenberg’s Six Little Piano Pieces, Op. 19.

I’m unacquainted with the score to Intermission 4—if it’s one of Feldman’s graphic pieces, then the pianist would certainly have a major role to play in “making music” out of the work. But all a pianist needs to do to “make music” out of Schoenberg’s Sechs Kleine Klavierstucke is to just play the music which Schoenberg notated so elaborately. Dynamics and articulations are all in the score. The only choice a performer has to make is to decide how many beats per minute are tempo indications such as “Leicht, zart.”

Of course, a performer brings plenty of other decisions to their interpretation of op. 19: tone color; pedaling; how extreme are the differences between p, pp, ppp, and pppp in the 6th work; how should the two “bell” chords in the 6th work be interpreted in the final measure when Schoenberg indicates they should sound “wie ein Hauch?” But these are the same considerations a pianist makes for performing any late 19th-century/early 20th-century work. The “music” already exists in Schoenberg’s notation. It doesn’t take any genius to bring it out, just a sensitivity to Schoenberg’s musical poetry.

One of the fellows at the NEA Institute, Sophia Ahmad, wrote such a great description of the offerings that I am linking to it here to satisfy reader curiosity about this wonderful program.

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Two more pieces of recommended listening from the BBC Proms concerts: Robin Holloway’s Reliquary transforms Schumann’s, er, problematic Gedichte der Königin Maria Stuart into a genuinely beautiful, affecting work. It’s reminiscent of reconstructions and expansions of 19th century music by Berio and Schnittke, and you can listen to it here until Thursday.

Jonathan Dove’s A Song of Joys for chorus and orchestra is a brief and buoyant setting of Walt Whitman. How appropos to see Galen’s post on the influence of John Adams, because that’s who I would have guessed composed this work if I heard it without knowing the composer. However, Dove isn’t an upcoming student composer–he’s 51 years old, and was influenced by Adams ahead of the curve of plenty of other composers his age. The BBC disagrees with me about Dove’s youth, however, where the announcer matter of factly describes him as a “young” composer. I guess Elliott Carter has raised the average age of composers. I turn 50 in November, and I just started writing pieces again. Wow, I’m a young composer!

You can listen to Dove’s A Song of Joys here (give it a try, it’s under 5 minutes).

Finally, Kathy Supove’s The Exploding Piano concert at Le Poisson Rouge from August is available in full at WQXR.  Just click here to listen to lots of piano and electronics and Kathy making what sounds to me like chipmunk noises (intentionally per composer Michael Gatonska’s request). While the streaming can’t convey Kathy’s brilliant red hair or whatever fantastic outfit she wore that evening, the whole concert is a nice preview of her new CD, The Exploding Piano. A neat feature about this page is that unlike other streaming broadcasts, you can isolate individual works on the program. My favorite was Missy Mazzoli’s Isabelle Eberhardt Dreams of Pianos. I don’t hear any Adams at all in her trippy work, so there’s at least one young star on the rise owing nothing to Big John.

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Perhaps I missed it if Rodney Lister posted about this, but fun spectral work, Lignes de fuite by Martin Matalon, heard at the Proms last Thursday, Sept. 2. You have approximately 19 hours left to listen to it free online here.  I don’t hear anything earth-shattering, but it’s well written with lots of electronic-music-like sonorities and a good sense of forward motion.

For anyone online tonight, check out San Diego New Music’s resident ensemble, NOISE, performing in Chihuahua this evening at 8 pm Mountain Standard Time. You can watch it live here. They will perform works by Sidney Marquez Boquiren, Christopher Burns, Matthew Burtner, Christopher Adler, Ignacio Baca-Lobera and Mark Menzies.

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Older readers may recall with fondness Edgar Bergen, a very popular American entertainer who poured his comic routines through ventriloquist dummies named Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd. Edgar so loved the performing arts, that he created an annual celebration to showcase classical music, dance, opera, and theater, which continues and thrives to this very day: the Bergen Festival.

Okay, that’s not really what the Bergen Festival is, but after hearing a modern composer with a strong Chinese musical identity—Bright Sheng—prop up Scandinavian folk tunes on his knee, and manipulate them to entertain the public, the spirit of Charlie McCarthy—a bourgeois puppet in top hat and tails, monocle in place, spouting low vaudeville patois—was in the air…

More about the American premiere of Bright Sheng’s Northern Lights and the world premiere of Anthony Newman’s Sonata Populare here.

I am very interested in reading your views on stylistic appropriation. Does it only creep out older dudes like me, or is it an affront to all contemporary composers? Why or why not?

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BOO! Don't be scared, it's just Christopher Rouse.

I’m looking forward to the West Coast premiere of Christopher Rouse’s String Quartet no. 3 by the amazing Calder Quartet. The enthusiastic gentlemen in the Calder Quartet have worked closely with Rouse, having recorded his first 2 quartets and his chamber ensemble work, Compline on this terrific CD.

I know there’s been Rouse-bashing by some visitors here in the past, but I admire some of his music, especially when he’s writing in his Sturm und Drang mode (as he did in the 1st Quartet and the middle movement of the 2nd). The 3rd Quartet promises to be his ultimate ultraviolent work. Here’s a quote from his program notes on the new work:

My overall description of the piece would be something akin to a schizophrenic having a grand mal seizure. This, at least, was the image to which I continually referred as I composed the music. The twenty-minute score is dedicated to the Calder Quartet and, after a slow introduction, follows a standard fast-slow-fast ordering of sections played without pause. The music is staggeringly difficult to play, and I believe this to be my most challenging and uncompromising work to date.

Those of you familiar with the fast movement from Rouse’s 2nd String Quartet have some idea of what he’s talking about when he describes “challenging and uncompromising” music.

Here’s a dirty laundry review of a Summerfest concert from the last time they programmed Rouse in San Diego, along with links to the very performance by red fish blue fish which I reviewed.

Also: More Eric Lyon! That’s what my blog visitors seem to want. So here’s a review of his work Typhoid, the black sheep at a modernist music festival back in 1993 (and the only piece with which I had a clear audio memory today from that festival 17 years ago).  And from a SONOR concert in the early ’90s, a review of Eric Lyon’s Splatter and David Lang’s Dance/Drop.

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