pianist Matthew McCright
At the risk of sounding like an Internet meme, one does not simply perform Olivier Messiaen. A performer must take certain risks, and prepare for the very real possibility that the performance may not show the mysteries of the piece. Minnesota-based pianist Matthew McCright, a member of the piano faculty at Carleton College and pianist for the new music group Ensemble 61, has proven to be an intrepid explorer of new music, and knows where to go to find the inner machinery of Messiaen’s works. In his fifth CD release, Contemplations: The Music of Olivier Messiaen (available from Albany Records), McCright tackles six of the Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus (Twenty contemplations of the infant Jesus), as well as the eight Préludes from Messiaen’s early output.
The six Regards chosen by McCright work well as a sub-unit of the full collection (which would take nearly two hours). McCright opens the CD with the ten-minute “Regard du Père” (“Contemplation of the Father”). This piece, the first of the Vingt Regards, requires a deft, sustainable touch, and McCright proves equal to the task, never letting the sound overwhelm the listener. This is Messiaen at his most introspective, and McCright lets the music breathe and meditate. McCright does get a chance to show off impressive technique with the sixth track, “Noël” (“Christmas Day”), which depicts the joy of the Nativity and the sounding of bells throughout all Christendom. The pianist has done his homework throughout the Vingt Regards, bringing Messiaen’s many leitmotivs to the listener’s attention without being pedantic.
In the Préludes of 1929, Messiaen is paying tribute to Debussy, but goes beyond Debussy’s vocabulary to lay the foundation for the language and mysticism we find in the later Vingt Regards. The backwards chronological focus of the CD provides a nice contrast to the “this happened then this happened then this happened” path that many performers have taken in the past with recordings of these works. McCright approaches the Préludes in a manner that is both appropriately athletic and musical; this is most obvious in the final section of the third movement, “Le nombre léger” (“A light number”). McCright proves that for Messiaen, “light” need not mean “insubstantial.”
McCright gets Messiaen, and that is no small feat.
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Posted by Wes Flinn in Contemporary Classical, Review, tags: Ann DuHamel, ensemble: Périphérie, George Crumb, Joseph Dangerfield, Karim Al-Zand, Kumhee Lee, Libby Larsen, Luke Dahn, Michelle Crouch, Rebecca Ashe, Stephen Fine, Tomasz Skweres, Yasmin Flores
(image source ensemble: Périphérie)
A common theme in my reviews is that new music is what and where you make it. ensemble: Périphérie ascribes to the same philosophy. The group, founded in 2010 by composers Luke Dahn and Joseph Dangerfield, contains performers from all over the United States; they get together a few times a year for a week of intense rehearsals and a short tour. Make no mistake, though; while the rehearsal time may be brief, these musicians are skilled and the performances are high-quality.
The group started its Fall 2014 tour at the University of Minnesota Morris, where pianist Ann DuHamel is on the faculty. (Full disclosure: So am I.) The concert opened with Karim Al-Zand‘s work Hollows and Dells (2010) for viola and piano, played by violist Stephen Fine and DuHamel. The work, cast in three movements, is based on the composer’s recollections of attending an English-style boarding school, and features paraphrases and arrangements of stacking songs, hymn tunes, and a reel that can only be described as a moto perpetuo. It is a fun and exciting work, and was performed with a high level of fun by Fine and DuHamel.
The second piece, Tomasz Skweres‘s Direkt (2006), is a setting of Psalm 14 for soprano, flute, and cello. One of the longer pieces on the program, it taxes the skills of all performers, with substantial use of extended techniques for the players. Soprano Michelle Crouch ably negotiated the intense vocal line, which required both control and power, and flutist Rebecca Ashe and cellist Kumhee Lee tackled their difficult parts with aplomb.
Co-founder and co-artistic director Dangerfield was represented by Broken Obelisk (2013). Originally for saxophone and piano, this version was played by clarinetist Yasmin Flores and DuHamel. The work was inspired by Barnett Newman’s sculpture of the same name. This effective piece showcases the sound of the instruments beautifully, and uses modes and little bluesy licks to great effect.
If it’s Minnesota, you’ll find some Libby Larsen. Flores, Fine, and DuHamel presented two movements of Black Birds, Red Hills (1987). This work, which draws inspiration from Georgia O’Keeffe’s paintings of New Mexico, provided a solid close to the first half of the program.
After intermission, co-founder and co-artistic director Dahn’s Confessions of St. Augustine (2009, rev. 2014) was performed by Crouch, Flores and DuHamel. Originally for soprano and orchestra, this adaptation for soprano, piano and clarinet used two texts by the 4th-century theologian for a work that was by turns austere, intense, and expansive. Dahl did a fine job condensing the orchestral textures for the reduced forces; the interplay between the players signified a great familiarity with each other.
For any other group, a program this ambitious would have been sufficient for a full evening of exciting and interesting music. In this case, however, the organization also presented George Crumb‘s Vox Balaenae (1971), which counts as a venerable war-horse in new music circles. For this performance, flutist Ashe and cellist Lee were joined by Dangerfield on piano. The trio handled the extended techniques with grace and style, and gave the work a solid, powerful interpretation.
For a group that only rehearses and performs in short bursts, ensemble: Périphérie (which draws its name from a quote by Henri Dutilleux) shows a maturity and skill that should serve as an inspiration to other ensembles. The group played Carnegie Hall in October 2013 to outstanding reviews, and their devotion to quality performances of challenging music should resonate with other composers and performers. Here’s hoping they come to your town sometime soon.
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Posted by Wes Flinn in Opera, Premieres, Review, tags: American Lyric Theatre, Caroline Worra, Christopher Burchett, Deborah Brevoort, Edgar Allan Poe, Fargo-Moorhead Opera, Jeff Myers, Jennifer Feinstein, Jonathan Blalock, Lawrence Edelson, Nathan Stark, North Dakota State University, Patrick Soluri, Quincy Long, Sam Helfrich, Sara Gartland, Zack Pihlstrom
There is an audience for new opera out here on the prairie. Fargo-Moorhead Opera staged two world premieres this past weekend: Buried Alive (music by Jeff Myers, libretto by Quincy Long) and Embedded (music by Patrick Soluri, libretto by Deborah Brevoort). Both are part of American Lyric Theater’s Poe Project, in which creative teams were commissioned to write operas inspired by the works of Edgar Allan Poe. The operas staged in Fargo used a group of six singers and a chamber orchestra.
Buried Alive is a paraphrase of Poe’s short story “The Premature Burial,” with modern twists. Baritone Christopher Burchett brought a powerful voice to the role of Victor, an artist haunted by nightmares that he would be mistaken for dead and buried alive. Soprano Sara Gartland was his wife Elena, deeply concerned about her husband’s descent into madness. Musically, Myers’s score was deeply affective, with special mention for the trio in the embalming scene (a darkly humorous gigue sung with great panache by mezzo-soprano Jennifer Feinstein, tenor Jonathan Blalock, and soprano Caroline Worra) and Victor’s aria “O death.” On stage but silent for most of the proceedings was bass Nathan Stark’s gravedigger, who provided the narrative frame. (The general manager apologized on behalf of Stark just before the opera, saying he was under the weather. You would not have known this from the performance, however.) Long’s libretto captures the feel of Poe’s original, and in some cases uses words drawn explicitly from the story.
Embedded takes “The Cask of Amontillado” and spins it into a satirical look at TV news, fame, and aging. Caroline Worra showed considerable skill as news anchor Sylvia Malow, the “most trusted name in news.” Jonathan Blalock brought humor, clarity, and a huge makeup case as Sylvia’s assistant Maurice. Sara Gartland was the up-and-coming “reporter on the go,” Victoria Reilly, whom Sylvia (rightly so, as it turns out) views as a threat. Christopher Burchett was the producer for the newscast (and an implied paramour for Victoria, helping her move up the ranks to dethrone Sylvia). Jennifer Feinstein did double duty as the camerawoman for the newscast and as the voice of the GPS (without giving away too much of the plot, a GPS is involved). Rounding out the cast, Nathan Stark played the Italian terrorist Montresor (a nod to the narrator/protagonist of Poe’s short story). This was grand opera in miniature, with Soluri’s inventive score flowing seamlessly to and from cheesy cable-news promo music, a witty and inventive tango involving Sylvia, Montresor, and cell phones, and a soaring aria. This is Sylvia’s story; indeed, the opera is almost a monodrama for soprano, and it was done with amazing skill by Worra, who should be a household name in the world of opera. Librettist Breevort inverts Poe’s original plot – without giving away too much, the alleged victim achieves a triumph of sorts over the killer and other demons.
Both works showed skillful direction both on stage (Lawrence Edelson directed Buried Alive, Sam Helfrich directed Embedded) and in the pit (where maestro Kostis Protopapas led a chamber orchestra of eighteen players). The staging, by Zane Pihlstrom, was contemporary without being overwrought or gimmicky. A group of suspended screens and one larger, more rectangular surface were used to great effect in both works, with Victor’s madness shown in abstract designs and close-ups of a human eye in the first work, and wonderfully meta newscasts in the second (I wish CNN would run a story on a fight for the remains of Edgar Allan Poe!).
As many major American opera companies are leaving the scene, perhaps it will be up to these smaller companies (F-M Opera’s annual budget is less than $500,000) to maintain the long tradition of commissioning new operatic works. Audience response was overwhelmingly positive, and the Reineke Festival Concert Hall on the campus of North Dakota State University was filled to near-capacity. There was nothing parochial or low-rent about this production. There is an audience for new opera, and perhaps it is in unexpected places like Fargo.
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(A few introductory words: I teach theory and composition at The University of Minnesota, Morris. I’m originally from Pinhook, IN – pop. 19 – and hold degrees from Morehead [KY] State University and the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. I blog on matters musical, political and random at Walk In Brain. I’ve been composing for nearly three decades, and occasionally some of it gets heard. I want to thank Steve for giving me the space. There’s some good stuff happening out here in the hinterlands, and if you’re doing something interesting within, oh, 3 – 6 hours of Morris, MN let me know about it. – Wes Flinn)
When I took the job at UMM, I was concerned that I wouldn’t be able to find fellow composers and new music. (We are pretty far out here, after all.) I need not have worried. Last night I drove over to Central Square (a converted high school) in Glenwood to hear “Water Music,” a performance by Ensemble 61, a new-music group out of the Twin Cities led by composer Kirsten Broberg and percussionist Erik Barsness.
There’s something wonderfully “only in America” about contemporary music in a small-town high school auditorium. I immediately thought of Charles Ives who, though not represented in the composers last night, would no doubt have approved. The show opened with what is now standard new-music repertoire – George Crumb‘s Vox Balaenae. Linda Chatterton deftly tackled the flute/vocal opening, and cellist Joel Salvo (a colleague at UMM) nailed the seagull effects. Pianist Matthew McCright handled the extended inside-the-instrument challenges effectively, and apart from some minor synchronization issues Crumb’s work was given a solid reading.
Soprano Carrie Henneman Shaw performed two songs for unaccompanied singer by Jarrad Powell – “the rain of the white valley” and “i am rain.” The songs, chosen for their connection to the larger theme of the evening, were quite haunting. Unaccompanied voice is always a risk, and Henneman Shaw rose to the challenge. The hall’s acoustics weren’t much help to her, unfortunately. I was seated toward the front, and even as close as I was the enunciation was problematic. Given that I could hear how clearly she was pronouncing the words, I can only chalk it up to the hall.
The first half closed with Magnus Lindberg‘s Steamboat Bill, Jr. for clarinet and cello, a post-modern tour-de-force inspired by the Buster Keaton movie of the same name and performed with considerable verve by clarinetist Paul Schimming and cellist Salvo.
The second half opened with former Minnesotan Jesse Langen playing Morgan Krauss‘s I Water, I Night for solo guitar. As with the solo voice works, it was beautifully done and possibly swallowed up in the back of the hall. Langen pointed out beforehand that the dynamic never exceeded mezzo forte; I do hope the back was able to hear how well he performed the work.
The final piece was co-founder Kirsten Broberg‘s The Waters of Time, a setting of six sonnets – in the original Spanish – by Pablo Neruda. The instrumentation was Pierrot-plus-percussion, so in addition to the above players the ensemble featured violinist Emilia Mettenbrink and Barsness on percussion. I did not know Broberg’s music beforehand, but now I want to know more of it. This was a sensitive, beautiful work that took advantage of the capabilities of the ensemble. I would like to single out Henneman Shaw and Schimming in particular for their contributions.
I have been out here on the prairie for exactly six weeks today. If I get the chance to hear new music once every six months, I’m thrilled. Broberg mentioned the group was taking this concert on a tour of Minnesota (they have just a couple more stops, including one in Fergus Falls in mid-October). It’s exciting to be in a state where even more isolated areas like here have a thriving music scene. Between all the concerts at UMM and groups that come out of the Twin Cities and Fargo, I don’t think I’ll ever want for the good stuff.
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