Saddening news. Gunther Schuller has died at the age of 89. A musical polymath, Schuller was active as a composer, conductor, arranger, historian, educator, arts administrator and, earlier in his career, French horn player. He pioneered the concept of “Third Stream” music: works that combine influences and materials from jazz and classical music.
In Schuller’s honor, today I’m listening to a Boston Modern Orchestra Project recording of his pieces for jazz quartet and orchestra. Given all of the attempts over the years to synthesize jazz and classical, it is amazing how fresh these pieces remain, how effortlessly Schuller (and BMOP) move from one style to another, and how seamlessly they blend the two.
I was looking forward to this summer’s tribute to Schuller at the Festival of Contemporary Music at Tanglewood. Now this concert, with Magical Trumpets, a new work by Schuller, as well as his formidable Concerto da Camera, will serve as an elegy in memory of an extraordinary man of extraordinary talents.
On Monday, July 21st at 8 PM, the last concert of Tanglewood’s 2014 Festival of Contemporary Music is a well-stocked program of orchestral works. The centerpiece is Roger Sessions’s Concerto for Orchestra, a work commissioned by the BSO thirty years ago. Steven Mackey’s violin concerto Beautiful Passing will feature as soloist Sarah Silver, one of Tanglewood’s New Fromm Players. Music by John Adams has not in recent memory frequently been featured on FCM programs, but this year his Slonimsky’s Earbox makes an appearance. The sole work by a younger composer, The Sound of Stillness by Charlotte Bray, piqued my interest – it is an impressive piece. (Check out a video about it here.) Thus, this year’s FCM ends the way that many of its seasons are curated: with nods to tradition as well as explorations of new, unfamiliar, and underrepresented corners of contemporary repertoire.
Mogwai’s eighth studio album, Rave Tapes, has to be taken with a handful of ironic humor. The thought of the Glasgow collective hosting raves leads one to imagine the horrified attendees, mellow thoroughly harshed, streaming away en masse in search of various 12-step program meetings. That said, Rave Tapes does incorporate a few elements that resonate with rave culture, albeit thoroughly re-purposed. Analog synth sounds abound, as do heavy beats, amalgamated into doom-laden grooves. Thus, Mogwai’s brand of “rave” doesn’t channel or celebrate the ecstatic. Rather, it extols resilience and seems tailor made for the grimly obstinate.
In addition to the usual fierily dynamic instrumentals, such as “Mastercard” and “Remurdered,” there are some gorgeous darkly hued songs here; in particular, “Blues Hours,” in which hushed vocals are juxtaposed against powerful guitar riffs and cathartic crescendos. Spoken word commentary, about the lyric content of Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” of all things, is similarly accompanied on “Repelish.”
However, some of the most thrilling music-making on Rave Tapes is found on “The Lord is Out of Control,” built with a layered approach that starts with a ground bass that is embellished with layer after layer of heavy rock melodies and angrily distressed synths. It might not get woolen cap clad heads bobbing in unison, but Mogwai’s music is eminently stirring in other ways.
A bit of cheering for the “home team,” as ACME played on our last Sequenza 21 concert.
Last Friday, December 13, Symphony Space’s In the Salon Series celebrated Lutoslawski’s centenary with American Contemporary Music Ensemble (ACME) – for this concert comprised of Caleb Burhans and Caroline Shaw, violins, violist Nadia Sirota, and cellist Clarice Jensen – and Lutoslawski scholar and composer Steven Stucky. Symphony Space’s Artistic Director Laura Kaminsky was on hand for an onstage conversation about Lutoslawski with Stucky.
As I mentioned in my Musical America review of In the Salon’s previous installment, a concert featuring piano music by Bernard Rands, these events are my favorite kind of outreach: the programs are well-curated with fine music, and the conversational tone of the interview doesn’t lead to the participants ever talking down to the audience. Instead, they had substantive things to say about the music. Like Rands, Stucky is an excellent talker; the many residencies he’s held have served him in good stead; he knows how to connect well with an audience. It was also impressive to learn from someone such as Stucky, who has the details of seemingly each piece in a composer’s catalog and the biographical details surrounding them at his fingertips. Kaminsky was well-prepped too.
ACME played three pieces by Lutoslawski and two by Stucky. Stucky acknowledged that the works selected, a string quartet titled Nell’ombra, nella luce and Dialoghi, a set of variations for solo cello, owe a debt to Lutoslawski: but not in any sort of overt troping or near-quotation. Instead, both composers are interested in exploring texture, in evolving timbral events, and both have the capacity for great delicacy contrasted with ferocious musical passages.
Dialoghi, in particular, with its myriad effects and considerable technical demands, was an excellent showcase for Jensen.
The cellist was still more impressive in Lutoslawski’s challenging and mercurial Sacher Variations, embodying the work with commitment and impressive authority. Occasionally I found the composer’s earlier, folk-music inspired duo for viola and cello, Bukoliki, to be rendered a bit coolly. ACME’s performance of Lutoslawski’s String Quartet, a punctilious and often craggy high modernist masterpiece, was in contrast a visceral experience; in its best passages, redolent with searing intensity.
One hopes that Kaminsky will continue to organize In the Salon events; they are a bright spot on the Upper West Side’s musical landscape.
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A new video (posted yesterday) of New York Polyphony live in midtown Manhattan at St. Mary’s. We have been playing the quartet’s latest BIS recording, Times go by Turns,in heavy rotation. The disc includes Renaissance masses by Tallis, Byrd, and Plummer as well as contemporary pieces by Gabriel Jackson, Andrew Smith, and one of the last works written by Sir Richard Rodney Bennett. “A Colloquy with God”, gifted by Bennett to NYP, is, simply put, a knockout.
The website eClassical is sharing a bonus track from the album, Tallis’s beloved motet “If Ye Love Me,” for download here.
Monday at the DiMenna Center, New York New Music Ensemble presents a program of works by Lukas Foss (1922-2009). Lukas (with whom I studied in the 90s when I was at BU) was a man of many musical talents with a near-omnivorous interest in a host of musical styles. Rather than try to present a comprehensive portrait of them all (a tall order in a single evening!), NYNME will focus on pieces from the mid-sixties through the mid-eighties, the period during which he was in his most experimental phase. In Echoi (1963), Foss made use of vast swaths of serial-inspired charts – there are pictures of them taking up whole walls of his studio. However, his performance directions add a measure of postmodern theatricality and there’s more than a bit of aleatory at work too. These seemingly disparate elements come together in a piece that is a masterful melange. Paradigm (1968), is more ebulliently chaotic still. Incorporating clangorous percussion and vociferous shouts alongside quasi-rock riffs from electric guitar, it channels more than a bit of the cultural and political revolutions afoot in the year of its composition.
Solo Observed (1982), began its life as a virtuosic solo piano piece, Solo, which found Foss experimenting with minimalism and maximalism at the same time. Solo Observed (1982, in versions for both orchestra and chamber ensemble), adds additional instruments, who observe, comment on, and sometimes even obstruct the pianist’s solo. The last work on the program, Tashi (1986), written for the star-studded chamber ensemble of the same name, is one of my favorite of Foss’s chamber works. Abundantly virtuosic and sumptuously harmonically varied, it is one of the best syntheses of the various styles and varied materials that fascinated Foss. Hunt down Rendezvous, the group’s 1989 recording on which it appears. Better yet, catch it live tonight.
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Full disclosure: Caroline Shaw has played my music, so I make no claim to objectivity here.
The day after Paul Moravec won the Pulitzer prize, John Adams started shooting from the hip about the Pulitzer going to “academic composers.” I was annoyed. But I figured, “Okay, he’s being a jerk, but Paul is an established composer writing quality material: He doesn’t need Adams’s permission to be successful.”
Recently, however, Adams has been sniping at younger composers. Yesterday in the NY Times, he took a thinly veiled swipe at Caroline. I know that she doesn’t really need JCA’s permission to be successful either. However, it really ticks me off that Adams is willing to burn the bridge behind him.
So let’s break the cycle of composers eating their young. Emerging and just-emerged composers: remember to pay it forward and to not get crotchety before your time.
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Tanglewood capped this year’s Festival of Contemporary Music with the U.S. premiere of George Benjamin’s Written on Skin. After an initial brief hiccough (Mr Benjamin forgot his baton when he first came on stage), the orchestra negotiated the technically complex score with no apparent difficulty and, though very large, never overwhelmed the vocalists. This was aided by the light and inventive orchestration; with the exception of a few well-placed monstrous tuttis, most of the time there were only a handful of instruments sounding. The Medieval setting also allowed for occasional light Early Music references: senza vibrato, perfect intervals, and the inclusion of a pair of Mandolins, a Verrophone, and a solo Gamba.
Evan Hughes gave a superlative performance as the Protector, convincingly portraying both domineering patriarch and devastated betrayed husband. Lauren Snouffer was excellent as the Protector’s wife Agnès, particularly during her character’s more dramatic moments, although I found myself occasionally glancing at the title screens to catch the text. Tammy Coil and Augustin Mercante were both superb in their double roles as Angels and as Agnès’ sister and brother-in-law. Isaiah Bell was fine in his double role as the Boy and the third Angel, but again I found myself reading more than I would have liked. All received a well-deserved extended standing ovation.
Staging was minimal – this was a concert performance – but effective; the music alone was quite descriptive, particularly the purely instrumental murder scene (no death aria here!). The front of the stage was divided into three areas: to the left, under yellow lighting, were the Angels; in the center, under red lighting, was the main home; to the right, under blue lighting, were all other locations. The orchestra was so large that the vocalists were forced to pass between the conductor and the orchestra in order to move from the center area to the right. Here’s hoping an American opera company will present a staged version soon – it is certainly deserving.