Best of 2012: BMOP

Boston Modern Orchestra Project, continues to be persuasive advocates for American composers: both live and on CD. Under the direction of Gil Rose, BMOP is one of the few orchestras devoted to American music that regularly – and prolifically – records. Their imprint, BMOP sound, released several noteworthy recordings in 2012. Among my favorites was a double CD of John Harbison’s opera Winter’s Tale, a relatively early work that boasts a wonderfully pungent and engaging score.

Stream: Winter’s Tale, opening (via File Under ?’s Tumblr page).

Contact! at Symphony Space

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Andy Akiho. Photo: Aestheticize Media.

I had mixed feelings about the Dec. 22nd Contact! concert at Symphony Space. The first concert curated by the New York Philharmonic’s current composer in residence, Christopher Rouse, it featured two commissioned works for sinfonietta and a New York premiere, all by fast rising composers, as well as Counterpoise by Jacob Druckman (1928-’96). Having studied with and sung music by Druckman, I was glad to hear the Philharmonic revisit his music: a superb orchestrator who knew how to control the balance and pacing of an orchestra piece better than most in recent memory.

One was reminded by comparing Counterpoise to some of the newer music on the program just how difficult it can be to cultivate these skills. This is particularly true today,  an era in which, even for very talented composers, opportunities such as Contact! are few and far between. My favorite moments came in Andy Akiho’s Oscillate, a commission for the NY Philharmonic that featured imaginative writing for the sinfonietta’s percussion cohort. Akiho himself is a virtuoso percussionist and he supplied dazzling parts for pitched and un-pitched percussion instruments and also had pianist Eric Huebner perform inside his instrument with fistfuls of credit cards: perhaps a more constructive use for them than holiday overspending! In places, the string writing was less successful, but Oscillate’s attractive harmonic palette and gestural ebullience contained flashes of brilliance.

American Mavericks: Cage Songbooks (Review + Video)

At least on paper, one of the more fascinating collaborations of the 2012 installation of American Mavericks brought vocalists Jessye Norman, Meredith Monk, and Joan La Barbara together with Michael Tilson Thomas and members of the San Francisco Symphony for a performance of John Cage’s Song Books. Complete with lighting, sets, stage business, camera work, and sound design, this was an ambitious undertaking. Unfortunately, it raised as many questions about performing Cage as it answered.

In the performance of the work last night at Carnegie Hall, Jessye Norman sang like Jessye Norman. Meredith Monk did Meredith Monk. MTT made a smoothie and tore up newspapers. But Joan La Barbara: now she performed a John Cage piece. Here she is doing the same work in 2011, with Ne(x)tworks at Greenwich Music House.

Hats off to Monk and Norman for reaching outside their comfort zones. But they were placed in a difficult situation. My wife, a director and playwright, described it thus: “It felt like all the things ripped off from Cage by bad experimental theater were donated back for one night only. And it seemed like the design team were having much more fun than the audience.”

It’s great that San Francisco is giving the American Mavericks another airing. And I’m really looking forward to hearing what is, for me, a dream program at Carnegie Hall tonight: Ruggles, Feldman, and Ives orchestrated by Brant!

But their Cage presentation left me with questions about how those interested in interpreting his music are to proceed. The challenge: creating a performance practice for Cage that doesn’t become its own museum piece of cliches. The scores deserve it. There’s plenty of music in them and, indeed lots of ways to present Cage entertainingly, but without so much shtick.

This Weekend: Brooklyn Village at Roulette




The hot ticket this weekend is in Brooklyn, about Brooklyn, and performed by Brooklynites. Check out the trailer for Brooklyn Village below.



A multimedia piece starring the Brooklyn Phil and Brooklyn Youth Chorus, it features repertory standards, new pieces by David T. Little, Sarah Kirkland Snider, and Matthew Mehlan, and a tale as old as the Brooklyn Bridge. In fact, slightly older: its story concerns the buildings razed to make way for said bridge. All that plus Mellissa Hughes and Sufjan Stevens: talk about bringing out the star power!


Event details

Saturday, March 24, 2012 at 7:30 PM
Sunday, March 25, 2012 at 7:30 PM

Roulette, 509 Atlantic Avenue
Tickets: $20-$35 (www.roulette.org)

Performers:

Brooklyn Philharmonic; Alan Pierson, conductor

Brooklyn Youth Chorus, Dianne Berkun, director

Mellissa Hughes & Lauren Worsham, sopranos

Program:

Beethoven: Scherzo from Symphony no. 3 (1804)

Copland: Prelude to Symphony no. 1 (1924/8)

Sufjan Stevens: The B.Q.E. mvt. 6: Isorhythmic Night Dance With Interchanges (2007)

Shape Note song for chorus with audience participation (early 19th century)

Plus three world premieres:

Sarah Kirkland Snider: Here (2012, commissioned by Brooklyn Youth Chorus)

David T. Little: Am I Born (2012, co-commissioned by Brooklyn Phil & BYC)

Matthew Mehlan: Canvas (2011/12)

Anonymous 4: “The Cherry Tree” (CD Review)

Anonymous 4
The Cherry Tree: Songs, Carols, and Ballads for Christmas
Harmonia Mundi SACD/CD

On their latest holiday recording, The Cherry Tree, Anonymous 4 brings together two of their principal musical interests: the chant and polyphony of early English and Irish music alongside repertory from the American spiritual and shape-note singing tradition. This shift between musical eras is accompanied by appropriate shifts in style. The quartet remains impressive in their ability to capture a variety of affects: the suppleness of chant, the vibrancy of early carols, the formalized music-making and rounded tone of polyphonic church music, and the varied inflections of Anglo-American folk music. Thus, fans of their earlier recordings, Wolcum Yule and American Angels alike, will find much to enjoy here.
What’s more, the diversity of the programming poses few problems in terms of cohesion. This is, in part, due to careful curating by the ensemble (certainly helps that they have trained musicologists and folklorists among their number!). But the recording is also unified by themes from the miracle ballads of “Joseph and Mary.” This story is first found in the apocryphal Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, and is famously set in the Coventry Play (c. 1400). It has remained a part of folklore, providing fuel for legends, ballads, and songs since the 15th century. Indeed, it’s fascinating to see how many musical responses there have been to the Cherry Tree legend over the years, making the CD both a history lesson and musical delight.

Summer Course Description

WESTMINSTER CHOIR COLLEGE OF RIDER UNIVERSITY

SUMMER I 2010

MH433: AMERICAN COMPOSERS AS INNOVATORS

Course Description

From the beginning of America’s history, its composers have displayed a remarkable capacity for experimentation, invention, and innovation. Early efforts by part-time composer Benjamin Franklin and Yankee tunesmith William Billings displayed ingenuity and a willingness to explore and expand the boundaries of received musical conventions.

This trend has continued to the present day, with notable practitioners continuing a path-finding tradition of innovative music-making. This course will discuss the contributions of a number of American innovators, including Gottschalk, Ives, Cowell, Crawford Seeger, Cage, Harrison, Nancarrow, Carter, Partch, Riley, Reich, and others. It will also evaluate reasons for America’s inventive spirit in the musical domain, including societal, cultural, political, and educational factors that have served to support or conversely to provoke and challenge composers in America.

Course Objectives

  1. To learn more about innovative American composers;
  2. To improve oral communication about music history and to work with others in a group;
  3. To apply independent research, critical thinking and writing skills to music history; and
  4. To improve skills at analyzing and evaluating information. (“Information Literacy”)

Required Texts

Cage Silence and other writings Wesleyan
Key and Rothe American Mavericks UC Press
Duckworth Talking Music Da Capo
Cox + Warner Audio Culture Continuum

David Robertson

Today, one of my conductor-heroes, David Robertson, received an honorary doctorate at Westminster Choir College’s 2010 Commencement. He gave an excellent commencement address; his remarks were insightful and inspiring. As someone who’s passionate about contemporary classical music, I was particularly thrilled that Westminster acknowledged one of its leading lights with a degree.

Here’s a clip from his performance of the Carter Oboe Concerto at the 2008 Proms.