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.
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.
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.
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.
Last Friday, I attended a performance by the Chicago-Based Fifth House Ensemble in Detroit, MI. As I melodramatically declared in my announcement for the concert, this was not a traditional performance, at least for me. The audience sat at cocktail tables, not an auditorium’s seats, there were drinks and snacks, the lights were dimmed, not darkened and anyone could get up at anytime to walk around the space or get a refill on their glass of wine.
Culpability for the evening’s laid back and unusual character lay both with Fifth House and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, who brought the ensemble to town as part of the Mix @ the Max series, which always features a club-like atmosphere for its concerts regardless of the genre of the program. As Fifth House’s flutist Melissa Snoza explained, the group is used to and, in fact, prefers playing in flexible spaces – venues where people can mingle, nosh and drink before, during and after the concert.
On its own, this decision – to present a chamber concert in a context more relaxed than the standard concert hall – is nothing new to the music scene (though, this was my first interaction with this species of musical presentation). What is quite unique, however, is Fifth House’s style of programming, namely, how they tell a story with animations that is accompanied by a hand-selecting score of pieces. Essentially, Friday’s program was a collaboration between Fifth House and graphic artist Ezra Claytan Daniels. To put it simply, Mr. Daniels and members of Fifth House conceived the storyline and script, the music was chosen to correspond to the narrative’s scenes and illustrations were created to convey the story. The end product is a multimedia experience equally dependent on its visual and musical components for success.
After the show Friday evening, Ms. Snoza told me how excitedly Fifth House’s audiences have received their ‘narrative’ programs, particularly Black Violet. She described how people attend their concerts with their eyes closed as to only focus on the ensemble’s virtuosity, while others hardly blink as to enjoy Mr. Daniel’s fantastic illustrations to the fullest. The party at my table Friday precisely embodied this bifurcation. One of my friends hardly noticed the third movement of Brahm’s Horn Trio because she was so smitten with the story’s protagonist – an indescribably cute black cat. I, on the other hand, missed parts of the plot because my ears, and eyes, were drawn to the performers.
The event is not a traditional concert. It begins at 6 PM with a cocktail and hors d’oevres hour, which sets the mood for a more informal presentation of the evening’s program and creates an opportunity for concertgoers and the performers to mingle before and after the performance.
I got in touch with Fifth House’s flutist, Melissa Snoza, and asked her about the groups experience with these kind of laid back concerts. She told me:
[T]he cocktail format is definitely something we’re familiar with, especially for this show! When we first presented this series in Chicago during the 2009-2010 season, we staged it at SPACE, which is a flexible cabaret-style venue with a bar, tables, and chairs that we could arrange in any format we liked to suit the experience we wanted to create for the evening…We’re a group that really loves to perform in unexpected spaces and to design concert experiences with our audience at the center of our programming, so we’re delighted that the DSO has staged this performance in the same way that we originally conceived it!
The program tomorrow night is called “Black Violet Act 1″, it is a compilation of several pieces from different time periods presented in Fifth House’s famed ‘narrative’ programming style. Among the works on the docket are two by living composers: Jonathan Keren‘s Hungary is Far Away and my colleague Greg Simon‘s Kites at Seal Rock.
If you are in the Detroit area tomorrow, go check out what is sure to be a fantastic evening of mingling and music. Tickets are $25 in advance, $28 at the door and can be purchased here.
I talked to Sarah about Friday’s concert, her career, working in Europe and other topics related to contemporary music on my web-based music show/podcast, We Are Not Beethoven on Washington Public Radio. You can stream/download our conversation here.
Once again, violinist Sarah Plum is giving a recital at the Firehouse Space in Brooklyn this coming Friday at 8 PM. Tickets are $10, and the Firehouse Space is located at 246 Frost Street in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. More information about the event can be found here.
I talked to Mariel a couple weeks ago and have just published our conversation as the latest episode of my audio web-series/podcast, “We Are Not Beethoven” on Washington Public Radio. As you’ll hear, Mariel is as charming and articulate an advocate for contemporary music and composers and there is, and there are several fascinating conceptual topics related to the creation and design of Nonextraneous Sounds that are definitely worth your time to explore.
If you’re free this Sunday, go see Symphony Z, Danielle Eva Schwob and Tania Stavreva at Dixon Place. Or, if you’re curious about the musical stylings of William Zuckerman, look for Music In Pluralism on Spotify, Amazon and CD Baby.
I’m pleased to announced that I have begun producing episodes of a new music show/podcast called “We Are Not Beethoven”. This is my contribution to NPR music critic Tom Manoff’s new venture, a start-up public radio network called Washington Public Radio.
The goal of “We Are Not Beethoven” is to talk about music like no other music show: evening the playing field of listening to and talking about music by humanizing composers and musicians, disregarding genres and categories, focusing heavily on listening, and confronting the barriers of entry that discourage people from exploring new kinds of music.
You can find a link to the first episode here, and below is a video preview of what I talk about in the first episode: