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).

Boston Bound

On Thursday I’m travelling to Boston, one of my favorite cities and a place I haven’t had occasion to visit in far too long. On Friday and Saturday, I’m moderating a two-day event organized by East Coast Contemporary Ensemble (ECCE) and held at the Goethe-Institut that features composer Hanspeter Kyburz  (details here). He will be lecturing and leading workshops with a small group of emerging composers. ECCE will give a Kyburz Portrait Concert on Saturday evening. If you are a reader from Boston, I hope that you will try to make the concert and, if possible, some of the other festival events: it would be great to see you there!

Schedule of Events (all events take place at the Goethe-Institut Boston)

Open Composer Workshops:
Friday, September 21, 9am – 12pm
Saturday, September 22, 9am – 12pm

Open Rehearsal:
Friday, September 21, 3-5pm

Lecture Presentation by Hanspeter Kyburz:
Saturday, September 22, 6:45pm

Portrait Concert:
Saturday, September 22, 8pm

Networking reception following the concert sponsored by swissnex Boston.

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.

Tanglewood Highlights 3: Humoresque and Homages

Fred Ho's Fanfare. Photo: Hilary Scott.

Fred Ho, Fanfare for the Creeping Meatball: This brief yet buoyant brass fanfare got played at the beginning of every FCM concert. But its jazz noir ambience, jocular rhythms, and even its campy “B-movie scream” (which, on Sunday night, caused unsuspecting Tanglewood fellows assembling onstage to leap out of their seats!) never wore out their welcome. New music gatherings tend to take on a somber demeanor and earnest programming needs to be leavened with a bit of humor. Ho’s piece fit the bill perfectly.

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Milton Babbitt, It Takes Twelve to Tango and No Longer Very Clear: During the Festival of Contemporary Music, Tanglewood celebrated recently deceased composer Milton Babbitt (1916-2011) with several performances in his honor. Alas, we arrived too late in the week to get to hear Fred Sherry’s rendition of the late cello composition More Melismata. But judging by Babbitt memorials earlier in 2011 at which Sherry has shared the work, we would have gladly heard it again.

It Takes Twelve to Tango (1984) was Babbitt’s contribution to Yvar Mikhashof’s tango collection. Pianist Ursula Oppens included it on her FCM solo recital on August 7th. The piece is more explicitly referential of a regular dance rhythm than is Babbitt’s usual wont; even more so than the veiled references to swing era jazz that sporadically occur throughout his catalog. Still, the piece provides plenty of twists and turns that upend the usual tango form in favor of bustling counterpoint and playful misdirection. And yes, true to the punning title’s promise, Babbitt doesn’t dispense with dodecaphony, allowing his rigorous approach to commingle with a bit of witty humor in this occasional work.

At the morning concert on Sunday, August 7th, Soprano Adrienne Pardee and a small ensemble led by conductor Stefan Asbury performed Babbitt’s No Longer Very Clear (1994), a setting of a poem by John Ashbery. This piece isn’t heard as much as some of Babbitt’s other vocal pieces: a pity, as it a thoughtful and nuanced treatment of an intriguing poem, with shimmering instrumental textures and a delicately spun vocal line. Pardee, a TCM fellow, demonstrated a lovely tone, impressive control, and rapt attention to the score’s myriad details: wide-ranging dynamics, tricky rhythms, varied articulations, and abundant chromaticism.  Both she and the instrumentalists did so well that Asbury, remarking that it was, after all, a short piece, asked them to repeat it; which they did, making the work’s charms even more abundantly clear.

Tanglewood FCM Highlights Part Two

David Fulmer plays his Violin Concerto at FCM. Photo: Hilary Scott

David Fulmer, Violin Concerto: Written in 2010, Fulmer’s chamber concerto revels in complexity. Those who have heard his performances of the music of Brian Ferneyhough or that of his teacher Milton Babbitt, which sizzle with hyper-virtuosic playing, can readily understand such predilections. Fulmer’s performance as soloist on the Sunday morning FCM concert (on 8/7) was imbued with similar intensity.

Compositionally, it’s an abundantly promising work: but it isn’t perfect. Occasionally, one feels that a bit of crowd control might be brought to bear on the thickly scored busyness of the orchestration, to better clarify the angular counterpoint that propels the proceedings. Also, the inclusion of three keyboard instruments for one player – piano, harpsichord, and celesta – (without terribly extended parts for either of the latter two) seems an impractical choice that may limit the number of ensembles who will mount the piece. That said, Fulmer’s compositional language and performance demeanor exemplify an edginess and gutsiness notably in short supply among many of his contemporaries in the emerging composer realm.

Marie Tachouet plays the solo part in Felder's Inner Sky. Photo: Hilary Scott

David Felder, Inner Sky: Tanglewood is blessed with excellent student performers. And while there were a number of fellows who distinguished themselves on the festival, the standout for me was flutist Marie Tachouet. A member of the New Fromm Players, Tanglewood’s SEAL Team Six equivalent for contemporary music, Tachouet played on several FCM concerts. But she took her solo turn on its finale, an orchestra concert held in the evening on Sunday, August 7th.

The flutist was featured in David Felder’s Inner Sky. Composed in 1994 and substantially revised in ’99, this piece requires the soloist to perform on four flutes: piccolo, concert, alto, and bass flute. The trajectory of the piece is charted by the move from high to low flutes, which is registrally mimicked by a supporting quadraphonic electronics part that features both distressed flute samples and synthetic sounds. An “analog” surround effect is also created by an even distribution of strings and percussion across the stage.

Inner Sky is an immersive listening experience. It’s also a highly sophisticated colloquy between soloist, ensemble, and electronics; one that achieves a carefully choreographed balance of elements, both acoustic and musical: a balance that is all too rarely found in works for orchestra plus electronics. It certainly helped to have Tachouet’s sensitive performance and Robert Treviño’s fine direction of the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra.

Later this year, Inner Sky sees release in both stereophonic and surround-sound formats. I’m looking forward to checking it out again (hopefully in both versions!).

Tanglewood Festival of Contemporary Music: Highlights Part 1

Those who’ve read File Under ? for a while may know that, two years ago, my wife and I went on our honeymoon to Tanglewood. We celebrated our first anniversary at the 2010 FCM (composers take note: if your prospective partner doesn’t mind taking in a contemporary music marathon as part of your honeymoon, he/she is a keeper!) Due to work obligations, Kay and I weren’t able to attend the first three days of the 2011 Festival of Contemporary Music. Those who’d like to read excellent coverage of the beginning of the festival should head on over to New Music Box for Matthew Guerrieri’s review. But we did make it up to Lenox, MA for the final two days of the festival. And our short weekend was action packed; we heard five concerts and saw a play (a rather uneven performance of Romeo and Juliet by Shakespeare and Company).

Kay at Shakespeare and Company.

Pierre Jalbert, Music of Air and Fire: The Boston Symphony often does a contemporary work on one of its concerts during the week of FCM as a nod to the festival. This year, it was Pierre Jalbert’s Music of Air and Fire (2007), which the orchestra, lead by BSO assistant conductor Sean Newhouse, performed at the Shed on August 6.

Jalbert was a Tanglewood fellow back in the 1990s. A professor at Rice University, he’s now in demand as a composer, both of works for large orchestra and for smaller forces, as this month’s NMB profile attests.

This six minute overture was premiered by the California Symphony; it is Jalbert’s first piece on a BSO program. Music of Fire and Air is a lively and well-paced curtain-raiser, with deft writing for percussion and vivid neo-tonal harmonies from strings and winds. Apart from a small excerpt available for streaming on Jalbert’s website, it is as yet unrecorded. Given the bang-up job the BSO did with the piece, dare we hope they’ll commit it to disc sometime soon?

Karchin leads TMC Fellows. Photo Hilary Scott

Louis Karchin, Chamber Symphony: Karchin’s Chamber Symphony (2009) was the closer of FCM’s 10 AM concert on August 7 (one of three given in Ozawa Hall on the festival’s final day). Cast in three movements, its  features limpid, flowing francophilic lines, daubed with tart counterpoint, as well brilliantly colorful verticals and bold Straussian horn calls. Despite leading an ensemble comprised primarily of student performers (albeit very talented student performers), Karchin’s conducting elicited a bright and assured rendition that rivaled its premiere by pros that I heard back in 2010. FCM should invite Karchin to return, both to hear his own works performed and to work with the students on contemporary repertoire.

Smooke’s “nonopera” premiered in Brooklyn on Friday

Rhymes with Opera

This Spring, Baltimore-based composer David Smooke composed Criminal Element, a “nonopera” in a fabricated language, for Rhymes with Opera, a company devoted to presenting opera in nontraditional spaces. Alongside works by Martin Zimmerman, Ryan Jesperson, and George Lam, it premieres Friday, June 17th in Brooklyn at Cafe Orwell. The program, titled Criminal Intent (hopefully Dick Wolf won’t sue), will be repeated in Baltimore, Hartford, and Boston.

As if it weren’t hard enough to compose an opera, non or otherwise, in the midst of a busy semester teaching at the Peabody Institute, where Smooke is a faculty member, the composer decided to create his own libretto, in a made-up language built out of IPA no less! To help us translate this phonetic construction and its backstory, I asked for some further information about the piece, which he shares below.

Smooke says, “In this nonopera, I consider the fraud—the unveiling of which helped spark the recession of 2008—perpetrated by Jérôme Kerviel, the rogue trader from France’s Société Générale who appeared to me to function as the archetypical white-collar criminal. Like his British counterpart Nicholas Leeson, who brought down the venerable Barings Bank in the 1990s, Kerviel was an interloper in the European banking society. These men were among the first working-class hires within traditionally upper-class departments and both appear to have perpetrated their crimes as part of their vain attempts to please their superiors through outworking and outsmarting their colleagues. Here, scenes of trading—number arias—recur throughout, with each growing progressively more tense. Life beyond the office is represented by a lullaby sung by paternal and maternal figures (Kerviel’s parents were a blacksmith and hairdresser in Pont-l’Abbé, Brittany), and by snippets of city life that include an invitation from friends to join their revelry. Although this piece creates theatrical scenes with some referential elements, it is a meditation on class differences and on the germinating factors in exorbitant criminal events, and is not intended to portray the life of any specific individual.”

“There is no text; the action is conveyed through an invented language notated in the International Phonetic Alphabet. The action therefore remains relatively ambiguous and non-specific. I ask the singers and the string quartet to explore many unusual performance techniques, which force them to stretch beyond their normal comfort zones.”

Criminal Element in rehearsal

CRIMINAL INTENT

Featuring the West End String Quartet
Orphée Redux and Someone Anyone directed by Elspeth Davis

Friday, June 17 at 7pmCafé Orwell
247 Varet St, Brooklyn, NY 11206

Saturday, June 18 at 6pmWindup Space
12 W North Ave, Baltimore, MD 21201
*A party for Friends of RWO after the show!*

Friday, June 24 at 7:30pmReal Art Ways
56 Arbor St, Hartford, CT 06106

Saturday, June 25 at 2pmYes!Oui!Si! Space
19 Vancouver St, Boston, MA 02115

  • RYAN JESPERSON Orphée Redux
  • MARTIN ZIMMERMAN and GEORGE LAM Someone Anyone
  • DAVID SMOOKE Criminal Element (2011, premiere, commissioned by RWO)

Christian Tetzlaff talks Bartok

As we reported earlier this week, despite losing their music director James Levine, the Boston Symphony is still playing at Carnegie Hall on March 15 (info here). The program features the extraordinary violinist Christian Tetzlaff pulling double duty, performing Bela Bartok’s Second Concerto and premiering a concerto by Harrison Birtwistle. He discusses the Bartok work in the video below.