Signal plays Reich at Miller Theatre

Opening Night at Miller Theater

Steve Reich Photo: Jeffrey Herman

Steve Reich
Photo: Jeffrey Herman

On September 15, Ensemble Signal, conducted by Brad Lubman, presented an all-Steve Reich program to open the season at Columbia University’s Miller Theatre. There was a sold out crowd, populated both by contemporary music devotees and over 200 Columbia students. Reich turns eighty later this year, and this is one of the many birthday concerts that will fete the composer.


Signal has recorded several albums of Reich’s music, including a 2016 release on Harmonia Mundi that features his Double Sextet and Radio Rewrite, recent works that demonstrate the undiminished energy and invention of their creator. The Miller Theatre concert focused on two sets of “variations,” composed in the prior decade: Daniel Variations (2006) and You Are Variations (2004). The amplified ensemble featured a superlative small complement of singers, a string quintet, a quartet of grand pianos, and a bevy of percussion and wind instruments. They were recording the concert, one hopes for subsequent release.


Daniel Variations is, in terms of instrumentation, the slightly smaller of the two. Alongside the aforementioned piano/percussion group, Reich employs a quartet of vocalists (two sopranos and two tenors, singing in a high tessitura for much of the piece), string quartet, and two clarinets. There are two textual sources for the piece. The first are the words of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, who, while reporting on the conflict in Pakistan in 2002, was captured and killed by Islamic extremists. These are offset by quotations from the Book of Daniel, a text from the Old Testament of the Bible. The texts underscore Pearl’s Judaism and also his love of music (he was an amateur string player). Indeed, the last movement of the piece, “I sure hope Daniel likes my music, when the day is done,” is a trope on a Stuff Smith song, “I Sure Hope Gabriel Likes My Music,” found in Pearl’s record collection after his death.


You Are Variations finds Reich exploring texts from his spiritual roots, including Psalm 16, quotes from the Talmud, the Hasidic Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, and Wittgenstein (Reich’s undergraduate thesis subject). Musical quotes are diverse as well, ranging from L’Homme Arme to a song by James Brown. The harmony is prevailingly in D mixolydian but unorthodox bass progressions and layering often give it a polytonal feel. From where I was sitting, the vocals seemed a little recessed in favor of the winds, something that I am confident can be worked out in subsequent mixing of the projected recording. It still worked live, giving the impression that the singers were sometimes supported by the ensemble and sometimes vying in a struggle for discernment of the weighty texts.


Lubman conducts Reich’s work with the authority of someone who has both an intimate knowledge of the scores and of the formidable musicians at his disposal. Reich seemed to approve. Taking the stage with trademark baseball cap firmly planted on his head, he volubly demonstrated his pleasure to everyone from Lubman to the sound designer. The percussionists, in particular, beamed as they accepted his greetings: they had done right by Reich.

Sep. 6: Symphony Space Celebrates Joan Tower

On Thursday, September 6th, New York Chamber Music Festival celebrates Joan Tower’s seventy-fourth birthday with an All-Tower concert. Performers include flutist Carol Wincenc, violinist Emma Steele, pianist Blair McMillen, the Da Capo Players, and the Escher String Quartet: all commissioners of or longtime collaborators with Tower.

Click here to purchase tickets for the Happy Birthday, Joan Tower concert at Symphony Space

Thursday, September 6 at 6 PM

Peter Jay Sharp Theatre at Symphony Space
2537 Broadway at 95th Street, New York, NY 10025-6990
Phone: 212-864-5400
Fax: 212-932-3228

Joan Tower page at Schirmer’s website.

Lukas …

Today would have been Lukas Foss’s ninetieth birthday, and I’m remembering him fondly. Linked  here is a piece I wrote for NewMusicBox, commemorating him after his passing in 2009. Thanks to Frank J. Oteri for digging it out of their online archives.

Thirteen Ways of Looking at Lukas Foss

1)     Lukas Foss was not one for pigeonholes. An accomplished pianist, conductor, and composer, his path charted an ambitious geography, including Europe, Israel, and numerous locations in the US: New York, California, Buffalo, Milwaukee, Brooklyn, Bridgehampton.  His early career included studies with Hindemith at Yale and a wunderkind era of appearances throughout the country as a piano soloist and up-and-coming composer.

2)    Lukas was a college professor for much of his career, at UCLA, SUNY Buffalo, Carnegie-Mellon, and Boston University. I studied with him at BU during 1995-6. Lukas packed all of his teaching into one day a week, flying up from New York to work with composition students and, sometimes, to conduct the university orchestra. Every other week, he met with students for private sessions. Lukas was a phenomenal pianist. One of my favorite things about the lessons was hearing him blaze through my drafts, perfectly sight-reading them up-to-tempo; sometimes faster! Lukas frequently played Beethoven excerpts too; talking with great enthusiasm about technical details, as well as the great composer’s sense of drama and humor.

3)     On alternate weeks, Lukas and his assistant, Apostolos Paraskevas, would arrange for readings of student pieces, usually of solo works. During the course of the year, students in Foss’s studio would be required to write a new piece every two weeks. We’d meet as a group to hear each others’ compositions read. Foss would discuss each instrument’s capabilities and comment on our efforts.

4)    Some composition teachers will encourage their students to extensively edit and rework their music: Lukas took a different approach. He tended to comment on what he felt worked and didn’t work in a piece. Then, he would encourage you to apply those principals to the next thing you composed. “Keep writing!” he’d say.

5)    It was fascinating to watch Lukas in action at a week-long celebration of his music given at Avery Fisher Hall by the New York Philharmonic in 1995, conducted by Kurt Masur. Lukas took copious notes throughout the rehearsals, but was gracious to both the conductor and musicians, choosing his battles wisely and his criticisms carefully.

6)    About Lukas as a conductor: his technique was never the prettiest, but he knew how to get results. One of the best performances I’ve ever heard of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony was Lukas leading the BU student orchestra. He brought out more spirit, musicality, and yes, details, than one ever would have thought possible with an amateur group, making an old warhorse seem fresh and vital again.

7)     Perhaps Lukas’s greatest contributions as a conductor were in somewhat modest settings. He helped a number of emerging professional orchestras develop into fine ensembles. While this was certainly true of his time in Buffalo and Milwaukee, he’s probably best known for transforming the Brooklyn Philharmonic into a top-notch group capable of assaying challenging repertoire, incorporating a great deal of contemporary music into their programs.

8)    Works: Symphony #4, String Quartet #5, Tashi, Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird, Time Cycle, Renaissance Concerto: choosing favorites among Lukas’s pieces is not easy. Many have commented on the difficulty of evaluating his catalog in any kind of systematic way; its creator was such a compositional polyglot; an enthusiastic composer in many, many styles. That in itself serves as a kind of composition lesson. Too often, today’s composers are defined by their stylistic profile, their relative merit weighed against the trends of the day. Lukas was more than happy to try out different styles – Americana, neoclassicism, aleatory, avant-garde, minimalism – but not due to the whims of fashion. Rather, he was spurred by a genuine curiosity, eager to explore music in many forms and create pieces that reveled in the inspiration of the moment, rather than worrying about how a particular piece “fit” in his catalog or bolstered his profile.

9)    Echoi: Improvisation played an important role in Lukas’s activities and output from the 1950s and 60s. It was another facet of his inquisitive nature; another musical problem to be assayed; and a joyfully simultaneous expression of his enthusiasms for performance and composition. The quality of the works from this period varies, as does the degree to which improvisation is successfully integrated. At its best, in the piece Echoi, there is a spontaneity and organic character to the wedding of improv and composed music which provides a beautiful result. Lukas’s engagement with the practice was a bold maneuver, and a fruitful one. It helped to free his music from its somewhat conservative previous bent and ever imbued it afterwards with a sense of surprise. One never knew quite what each successive work by Lukas might have in store; but one always knew that it would be interesting. Indeed, groups like Alarm Will Sound, Icebreaker, and Bang on a Can owe a debt to Lukas. His forays into free improvisation in a concert music context mark Lukas as a kindred spirit and worthy predecessor for the current, fertile Downtown scene.

10)  At BU, Lukas would frequently pass by the students at work in the lounge area of the music building, poring over scores or correcting parts. He’d peer over the composers’ shoulders, playfully make faux sweeping comments:”Too diatonic! Put in more dynamics! Where’s this phrase going?” On the way back from the beverage machine, Lukas would often pass along an extra cup of cocoa or coffee.

11)   The last time I saw Lukas was in 2004. The Music Festival of the Hamptons had programmed Mourning Madrid, my piece for live locomotive and orchestra. Lukas was a fixture of the festival: advising on the programming, conducting, and appearing as a piano soloist.

12)  Bach: another touchstone for Lukas. The concert in the Hamptons also included a performance of Brandenburg Five with Lukas as soloist. Even as an octogenarian, his Bach was thrilling to hear. Lukas’s Bach would not have wooed some early music buffs: his use of ornamentation was restrained and he played the piano like a big concert grand, with no intimations of the harpsichord. Of ornamentation in Baroque music, Lukas said, “One can use plenty of ornaments in some of the lesser Baroque composers; but I don’t think that Bach requires too much more than what he wrote!”  Hearing Lukas play the Brandenburg was like watching an affectionate conversation between old friends; Bach informed his compositional and performance decisions throughout his career.

13)  In a conversation after the Hamptons concert, I thanked Lukas for his generosity at our first meeting, when he’d listened to a tape of an early piece of mine for string quartet. Even though there were glaring shortcomings in the music, he cared enough about the fragile confidence of a fledgling composer to give words of encouragement that would inspire me to go on. As he would so often in the future, Lukas had told me to “keep writing.”

In parting, he said with a smile, “Remember what I told you? I was right.”

Lukas Foss: 1922-2009.

Happy 80th Birthday Pauline Oliveros

Best wishes to Pauline Oliveros, who turned eighty today!

Important Records has just released a generous sized acknowledgment of Oliveros’ wide ranging influence and imaginative experimental creations: a 12 CD boxed set that is the completest compilation to date of her early electroacoustic music. I’ve only just begun to dig in to a digital version of the set – but can already attest that it is heady and mind-opening stuff!

Happy 80th Birthday John Williams!

Composer and Conductor John Williams turns eighty today. To help him celebrate, the Boston Pops, an orchestra with whom he’s long been associated, has created a “choose your favorite theme” webpage.

It includes Soundcloud embeddable widgets for some of Williams’s most famous film music themes, such as:

My theme is the March from “Raiders of the Lost Ark” by Boston Pops

My theme is the Main Theme from “Star Wars” by Boston Pops

and let’s not forget:

My theme is the Theme from “Jaws” by Boston Pops

Soundcloud widgets can be shared via blogs, web pages, and most social media platforms, and the Boston Pops is glad to have fans of film music join in the celebration by streaming these excerpts.

Happy 75th Birthday Philip Glass!

Philip Glass is 75 today. The American Composers Orchestra gives the American premiere of his 9th Symphony at Carnegie Hall tonight.

My interview with Dennis Russell Davies, who is conducting the ACO concert, is up on Musical America’s website (subscribers only).

If you’re looking for a terrific way to celebrate PG’s birthday, Brooklyn Rider’s latest CD on Orange Mountain Music includes Glass’s first five string quartets. The earthiness with which they play the music may surprise you at first, but it provides a persuasive foil for some of the more motoric, “high buffed sheen” toned performances of minimalism that are out there.  In a 2011 video below, they give a performance of a more recent work, a suite of music from the film Bent.