This past Saturday night, Kobacker Hall, on the campus of Bowling Green State University, came alive with the sounds of Jennifer Higdon’s compositions for wind ensemble and orchestra. The culminating performance of Bowling Green’s annual New Music festival, Saturday’s concert marked a rare opportunity to hear a program of large ensemble music focused on the works of a single living composer, and both Higdon, and her compositional craft, were aglow in the spotlight. As the featured guest composer of this, the 36th annual new music festival at BGSU, Higdon shared herself, and her music, with students are audiences in numerous performances, per-concert talks, and lectures. In a conversation during intermission, Kurt Doles, who directed the festival from his post as head of the MidAmerican Center for Contemporary Music, praised Higdon for her warmth and generosity as a guest, noting, “she has been a wonderful presence all week long.”
Me (left), Jennifer Higdon (center), and soprano Hillary LaBonte (right), who performed earlier in the festival, after Saturday’s large ensemble concert (photo credit: Carolina Heredia).
The concert’s program featured three works of Higdon’s, the flashy wind ensemble work Fanfare Ritmico, the virtuosic Oboe Concerto, and the absolutely masterful Violin Concerto, which earned Higdon the Pulitzer Prize five years ago. Each piece was terrific, thanks to the talents and hard work of Bowling Green’s students, faculty soloists Nermis Mieses (oboe) and Caroline Chin (violin), as well as wind ensemble director Bruce Moss and orchestra director Emily Freeman Brown. Chin, a new addition to BGSU’s school of music, also performed Carolina Heredia’s Dujarte Caer, for violin and and electronics, earlier in the afternoon, and could not have been more impressed with the quality of the festival’s other concerts. “All the performances were excellent,” Chin shared with me after the concert, in the midst of a stream of well-deserved congratulations from other audience members and players.
As much as Chin was the star of the evening (after all, she delivered a thrilling and dominant performance), her tour-de-force was made possible by the superlative quality of Higdon’s Violin Concerto. For me, the work hits every mark of a great concerto. The first movement is stunning and almost coy with the way in introduces the listener to Higdon’s design for the solo violin part, a destiny that unfolds in the most brilliant way in the successive movements. Empowered by the composer’s genius, Higdon’s Violin Concerto blends vibrant imagination, along the lines Jacob Druckman’s Viola Concerto, with stately grandeur, in the manner of Barber’s Violin Concerto, into a work that seems both modern and timeless. At a time when so many high-profile American composers are writing violin concerti, or works that pit violin soloists against a large ensemble, Higdon’s Violin Concerto represents, in my estimation, the undoubted gold standard (Kristin Kuster’s Two Jades, for violin and symphony band, is also extraordinary, though smaller in scale).
When Jennifer Higdon ascended to the stage to receive her standing ovation, and congratulate violinist Caroline Chin and conductor Emily Freeman Brown on a truly spectacular performance, it became clear to me that I had witnessed a very special event. Higdon’s music and the splendor of Bowling Green’s New Music Festival are both treasures in the landscape of American contemporary music. The University, Kurt Doles, and all the students and faculty members who made this year’s festival possible, all deserve to be heralded for their personal and institutional commitment to this important tradition.
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Last night marked the launch of Pulitzer Prize-winning composer John Luther Adams’ weeklong residency at the University of Michigan. Adams’ time in Ann Arbor, which will include performances as well as lectures on environmental advocacy, began with an evening of his chamber music at the University of Michigan Museum of Art. The museum’s apse has been site of may memorable concerts over the years, but none may have taken advantage of this setting as well as yesterday’s program of Adams’ resonant and ravishing compositions. In one of the handful of interstitial interviews between Adams and University of Michigan Musicology Professor Mark Clague, the composer described his music as, “all about sound and space.” And, Adams later added, “I want to make strange and beautiful new places…make them empty, without my footprints in them…so the audience can find their way through them.”
From left to right: conductor Oriol Sans, composer John Luther Adams, conductor Jerry Blackstone (photo credit: Patrick Harlin)
The hundreds in attendance Monday night had a terrific opportunity to experience these characteristics in Adams’ works Strange Birds Passing, Dark Wind, The Farthest Place, In a Treeless Place, Only, and in four selections from his massive choral work Canticles of the Holy Wind. In between the pieces, Adams shared evocative and endearing anecdotes related each work’s origins. These included the revelation that the Strange Birds Passing was inspired by the paisley wallpaper decorating Adams’ Alaskan cabin’s refrigerator in the 1980s, or that the selected movements from Canticles of the Holy Wind reflect his more recent observations of parhelia and other celestial phenomena in the sky above the arctic and Mexico.
The concert’s program was, essentially, chronological, and enabled Adams to recount his sense of his growth as a composer. Fond of and familiar with his music, I listened for large-scale similarities and differences across the evening’s offerings. Certainly, The Farthest Place and Dark Wind – which Adams denoted as two of his, “color field pieces,” – work through deeply similar designs. The oldest piece, Strange Birds Passing, was the most overtly melodic composition, yet it evinced the same ambling, symmetrical form expressed by In a Treeless Place, Only Snow and Canticles of the Holy Wind. Altogether, Monday’s concert was a terrific aperitif to the culmination of Adams’ time in Ann Arbor: the University Symphony Orchestra’s performance of Become Ocean, which represents the work’s Midwest premiere. Even that piece, Adams’ most recent and celebrated, had ancestors of last evening’s program, as one could here embryos of Become Ocean in Dark Wind’s trembling opening.
In the end, as much as Adams’ music amazed, the setting of its performance was almost more stunning. At the very least – and as Adams admitted – the museum’s acoustics had as much a hand in the beauty of the evening’s performance as did the talented instrumentalists and vocalists of Michigan’s School of Music, Theatre, and Dance, or Adam’s compositional artistry. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the concert was Adams’ willingness to collaborate with, and have his listeners’ experience so heavily influenced by, the space surrounding the performance. As Adam’s described, it seems he tries, in all his pieces, to remove himself as much as possible from the music, from the center of the audience’s attention. I think many composers aspire towards the humility needed to even consider this kind of rhetorical positioning, but few live in it like Adams seems to. And, though I doubt it is even possible for any composer to disappear fully from a listener’s experience of their music, Adams’ efforts to this end, like his compositions, are, indeed, superlative.
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Tomorrow evening, composer and pianist Gregg Kallor will continue his stint as SubCulture’s inaugural composer-in-residence with a performance of songs that will also feature acclaimed mezzo-soprano Adriana Zabala and renowned baritone Matthew Worth. The concert corresponds with a celebration of National Poetry Month and the 150th anniversary of William Butler Yeats’ birth, whose work Kallor sets in many of the songs included on the evening’s program.
Again, the performance is tomorrow, April 28, at SubCulture (45 Bleeker Street, Downstairs), and tickets are $25 in advance, $30 the day-of. Doors open at 6:30 PM and the concert begins at 7:30. More information on the program and the night’s featured artists can be found here, at SubCulture’s website.
Tomorrow’s concert marks the second showcase of Kallor’s two-year residency, which will ultimately result in five world premiere performances. The next event on Kallor’s docket as SubCulture’s composer-in-residence is later this year, in June.
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A week from today, the American Modern Ensemble will bring a brand new program to SubCulture‘s stage. Entitled, “BLUE”, this upcoming performance celebrates the release of AME’s latest album, Powerhouse Pianists II, which features pianists Stephen Gosling and Blair MacMillan performing works for two pianos by leading living composers including John Adams and John Corigliano.
The program AME will perform at SubCulture will feature an array of the group’s talented players performing works by Margaret Brouwer, George Crumb, Robert Paterson, and Frederic Rzewski, among others. The evening’s music is arranged around the theme of “blue”, and spans from nautical evocations in Crumb’s Vox Balanae, Brouwer’s Lonely Lake, and Paterson’s Deep Blue Ocean, to stylistic suggestions of “blue” in Amanda Harberg‘s Tenement Rhapsody, Laura Kaminsky‘s Full Range of Blue, and the concert’s closing piece, Rzewski’s Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues.
To put all the particulars as clearly as possible: the show starts at 8 PM on March 3 at SubCulture. Advance tickets are $20; day-of tickets are $30. More details and program information can be found at SubCulture’s website and the American Modern Ensemble’s website.
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In two days, the American Modern Ensemble joins forces with Del Sol, JACK and PUBLIQuartet to tackle a dynamic program of premieres and 21st-century stalwarts involving string quartet. Members of AME will start the evening by premiering Jacob Bancks‘ String Theory, for string quartet, and return to deliver premieres of Sidney Boquiren‘s in a mirror dimly, for string quartet and harp, and Robert Paterson‘s I See You for string orchestra and “tape”.
Del Sol will play Chinary Ung‘s Sprial X “In Memoriam”, which violinist Charleton Lee describes as, “a powerful cry for the common people suffering continuing atrocities throughout the world.” Next, PUBLIQuartet takes the stage in advance of their Carnegie Hall debut to play founding violinist Jessie Montgomery‘s work Breakaway and JACK will perform John Zorn‘s The Dead Man. Finally, the evening will close with all the players retaking the stage to perform John Luther Adams‘ Dream In White On White.
The concert takes place a SubCulture this coming Thursday at 7:30 PM. Tickets are $20 in advance and $30 the day of the performance. More information about the program and purchasing tickets is available on SubCulture’s Website.
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Dan Graser, the soprano saxophonist of the award-winning Donald Sinta Saxophone Quartet, asked me to help announce the group’s 2014 Composition Competition. This looks like a very exciting opportunity!
Here are the basic facts (taken from the group’s online posting):
Eligibility: All student composers enrolled in the United States as of Spring 2014.
Piece requirements: An un-premiered work for SATB saxophone quartet, 6-10 minutes in length.
Application fee: None!
Prize(s): One first-prize winner will receive $500 and have their piece premiered at the quartet’s Carnegie Hall recital in November, 2014.
Five composers receiving honorable mention will have their works premiered at an all-world-premiere recital in December, 2014 at the Kerrytown Concert House in Ann Arbor, MI.
All winning works will receive a live recording by the Donald Sinta Quartet and be added to the group’s repertoire for the 2014-15 season.
Submission Process: E-mail a bio, CV, and PDFs of the work’s score and parts to firstname.lastname@example.org
Deadline: Submissions must be received by August 1, 2014.
You can verify and double-check all this information here, on the quartet’s website.
Good luck to all those who apply!
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Kevin Noe performing Kieren MacMillan’s Drunken Moon with the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble
Last Tuesday, April 16, I trekked to Snyder Hall on the campus of Michigan State University in East Lansing, MI to see a performance by the Musique 21 ensemble, an immersive ‘Theatre of Music’ Production entitled Drunken Moon. The piece was conceived and created by conductor Kevin Noe and composer Kieren MacMillan, and features the merger of MacMillan’s eponymous monodrama for two voices with an English version of Arnold Schoenberg’s legendary Pierrot Lunaire.
Drunken Moon is more than a concert performance, it is a theatrical unfolding where the music and storyline are deeply intertwined and overlap on many occasions. I chose the descriptor ‘immersive’ deliberately, because Drunken Moon is more inviting to its audience than standard chamber operas. This is the touch of Kevin Noe, who has become renowned for his innovative programming with the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble. In fact, Drunken Moon began as a PNME production, one of that group’s many fully staged programs, which push the boundaries of traditional concert presentation to create an audience experience that is undeniably memorable and powerfully meaningful.
Even though he was armed with students from MSU’s College of Music, Maestro Noe’s designs hit their mark Tuesday night. The show began immediately as the audience entered the theatre, in that the performers and actors were dancing, drinking and chitchatting in an imagined bar, ‘La fin bleu’, set up on the stage. Walking in on the onstage commotion like this set a refreshing and relaxing tone, at least compared to the prescribed ceremony of most Classical or Contemporary music concerts. Although the ‘Fourth Wall’ was not manipulated to any extreme, the attitude of the performance made observing Drunken Moon feel like being a part of it in some small way.
The intimate audience experience I enjoyed Tuesday night was not only a product of the small theater, sets, costumes, lighting and music. My compatriots in the audience and I were drawn into the performance by the stellar acting and singing of soprano Lindsay Kesselman and baritone Robert Peavler who brilliantly portray the main characters in Drunken Moon – dubbed only “she” and “he”. The couple’s interaction is the focal point of the performance’s narrative and the link that connects MacMillan’s Drunken Moon with Pierrot Lunaire.
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The Donald Sinta Quartet, performing here in 2010 with the University of Michigan Symphony Band in Shenyang, China
It is my pleasure to announce the Donald Sinta Saxophone Quartet’s first ever Composition Competition! The Donald Sinta Quartet (Dan Graser, Zach Stern, Joe Girard, Danny Hawthorne-Foss) is based in Ann Arbor and was handpicked from Donald Sinta’s Classical Saxophone studio at the University of Michigan, the same studio that produced the world-famous PRISM Quartet.
This competition coincides with the DSQ’s Paris debut in April, and the winning pieces will be performed at the Paris Conservatory, the Selmer Show Room in Paris and at other domestic performances. The competition’s deadline is February 15th, there is no application fee and more specific details regarding submissions can be found here on the DSQ’s website.
The members of the Donald Sinta Quartet have demonstrated a strong commitment to new music and living composers as long as I’ve been in Ann Arbor. Ron Amchin, a senior composition student whose work, Hot Foot, is part of the DSQ’s Spring tour commented, “They’re awesome! They will play anything you write and love challenges.”
I caught up with the DSQ’a frontman, of sorts, Dan Graser (soprano saxophone) and asked him about the group’s goals for this competition, along with the importance a new works by American composers to the growth and strength of saxophone quartet repertoire. Our conversation presented below.
Enjoy, and don’t forget to submit your best saxophone quartet piece to the Donald Sinta Quartet’s Composition Competition!
S21: What are your goals and parameters of the competition?
DG: The primary purpose of the contest is to generate several great new works for saxophone quartet from young American composers. When we were given the opportunity to perform in Paris for one of the finest saxophone studios in the world, we wanted to showcase everything that both American saxophonists, and American composers are capable of. While there is a great tradition of French saxophone repertoire that all saxophone quartets perform, our purpose with this contest is to begin establishing a greater repertoire from American composers and create a renewed national interest in writing for saxophone quartet.
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By now, I imagine most everyone in Sequenza21’s audience has learned that Elliott Carter passed away yesterday at the age of 103. Basically every news outlet covering music has already run a retrospective on Carter (except for Sequenza21, ironically). I don’t exactly intend to add to the din of the New York Times‘, Alex Ross‘, or NPR‘s or whomever-your-music-writer-of-choice’s reflections on Carter, but, as a community of composers and thoughtful listeners, whose tastes either align with Carter’s work or the music that was influenced by or reacted against him, we can honor his fresh memory by sharing our experiences with his music and/or person.
Being the youngest of Sequenza21’s contributing editors, I have considered Carter a legendary individual – more a figure of history than flesh and blood – for a long time. But, discovering the news of Carter’s passing last night, I realized that I’ve had many personal and poignant interactions with Carter’s music that make him much more important to me and my experience than I had previously thought.
I saw Carter’s music performed four times, which isn’t all that impressive; yet, the performances are among the most vivid concert memories I have. The most recent was at a recital of Houston-based Fischer Duo in February of this year, where they played Carter’s Cell Sonata from 1948. The Duo’s cellist, Norman Fischer, explained excellently how the work represents the crystallization of Carter’s decisively complex and idiosyncratic musical vocabulary, and I remember thinking how convincingly the piece demonstrated the beauty of Carter’s compositional sensibility.
I had the same reaction to the second Carter concert I attended. This was a performance in Houston by the Pacifica Quartet in 2009 where they did the first and last Carter Quartets. To be honest, I don’t remember much about String Quartet no. 1, but I will never forget how beautiful I thought String Quartet no. 5 was. A couple of years passed before I listened to that piece again and I remember being surprised at how the striking eloquence of the work’s slow sections emerged at no cost to the intensity of the more energetic material in the piece. In other words, it was clear that Carter had not softened at all in his advanced age, something many people have asserted in their recollections of him and his music.
The last two concerts I attended with Carter’s music on the program are memorable because of the people I knew personally who were involved in the event. The first I will discuss was a 2009 performance of Carter’s second quartet by a group led by my good friend from Rice University and a new member of ETHEL, Tema Watstein. Her quartet’s performance was valiant and effective, though the overwhelming challenge of the work was certainly palpable in the recital hall. I remember talking to her as they prepared the piece, possibly helping her tape photocopies of the score to big pieces of cardboard so she could play off the score, and being taken aback by her and her quartet-mates’ dedication to the piece. This belief in the music was a gripping presence during their ultimate performance, and, as a composer, I will always applaud Carter for being able to inspire such dedication in those who perform his music while forcing them to confront so demanding a terrain of musical ideas.
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From Ernst Lubitsch’s “The Loves of Pharaoh”
We’re approaching the heart of the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s 30th annual Next Wave Festival, and one of it’s more unique offerings is right around the corner. This Thursday through Saturday, composer Joe C. Phillips, Jr. will lead his ensemble, Numinous, in the premiere performances of his newly composed score for Ernst Lubitsch’s long-lost silent film, The Loves of Pharaoh.
I think the project presents a fascinating challenge for a composer – how do you respect the history of an artifact like The Loves of Pharaoh, while still expressing your 21st-century artistic perspective? I won’t speculate on how Mr. Phillips addressed this scenario because I don’t have to.
This weekend I tracked down Numinous’ fearless leader and asked him about his mindset while scoring Lubitsch’s historic film:
Since the film was released in 1922, obviously there has been much development in musical language and technique, and it felt right to reflect that in the new score. Not in a self-conscious, “look at how modern and cool I am” way but rather as a natural extension of my own musical thinking and expression. Like all composers, my musical language is a product of sieving influences and thoughts into one unique voice and in [Pharaoh], I believe you’ll hear this. There are echoes of my past work but also new, formerly latent, ideas come to the fore and more fully explored in this score. And this idea to explore newer territory in music, to bring the film into modern times so to speak, was one of the reason Joseph Melillo was looking for a new score for the screening.
Mr. Phillips is very excited for this week’s performances, and feels very grateful for his association with BAM, who he describes as being, “incredibly supportive throughout the development of the project.” Straddling the Next Wave Festival’s film and music programs, I have the feeling The Loves of Pharaoh will be a major stand out even against the ridiculously vibrant mixture of genres and disciplines on the slate at BAM this Fall.
Tickets and more information about the upcoming performances of The Loves of Pharaoh are available here. If you’re in Brooklyn from Oct. 18-20, head on over to the Next Wave Festival and hear what Joe C. Phillips, Jr. and Numinous have drummed up to accompany this 90-year-old silent movie.
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