Levine resigns from BSO; Birtwistle premiere still a go

We’re saddened to learn of James Levine’s cancellation of the rest of his appearances this season at the Boston Symphony Orchestra and his resignation from the post of BSO Music Director. Levine has been in that position since 2004, but has had to cancel a number of appearances during his tenure due to a variety of health problems. In an interview published today in the New York Times, Levine indicated that he will retain his position as Music Director at the Metropolitan Opera. Apparently, conversations between Levine and the BSO about a possible future role with the orchestra are ongoing.

The BSO plans to keep its season underway with minimal changes apart from substitute conductors. They’re even going to premiere a new work this week under the baton of Assistant Conductor Marcelo Lehninger. In Boston’s Symphony Hall on March 3,4,5, and 8, and at Carnegie Hall in New York on March 15, the orchestra and soloist Christian Tetzlaff will be giving the world premiere of Harrison Birtwistle’s Violin Concerto.

It’s bittersweet that Levine is stepping down during a week when an important commission, one of several during his tenure, is seeing its premiere. I made a number of pilgrimages from New York to Boston (thank goodness for Bolt Bus!) to hear him conduct contemporary music with the BSO,  including pieces by Harbison, Wuorinen, Babbitt, and Carter. He helped a great American orchestra (with a somewhat conservative curatorial direction) to make the leap into 21st century repertoire and was a terrific advocate for living composers.

Many in Boston and elsewhere have complained that by taking on the BSO, while still keeping his job at the Met, Levine overreached and overcommitted himself. Further, when his health deteriorated, some suggest that he should have stepped aside sooner.

I’ll not argue those points. But I will add that, when he was well, Levine helped to create some glorious nights of music-making in Boston that I’ll never forget. And for that, I’m extraordinarily grateful.

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I’ll admit that I was a bit surprised to hear that Birtwistle was composing a violin concerto, as it seemed to me an uncharacteristic choice of solo instrument for him. After all, the composer of Panic and Cry of Anubis isn’t a likely candidate for the genre that’s brought us concerti by Brahms and Sibelius (and even Bartok and Schoenberg!).

But then I thought again. Having heard his Pulse Shadows and the recent Tree of Strings for quartet, both extraordinary pieces, I can see why he might want to explore another work that spotlights strings. Perhaps his approach to the violin concerto will bring the sense of theatricality, innovative scoring, and imaginative approach to form that he’s offered in so many other pieces.

I’m hoping to get a chance to hear it when it the orchestra comes to New York. No pilgrimage this time. My next Bolt Bus trip to Boston will likely have to wait ’til next season to hear the BSO in its post-Levine incarnation.

Unsuk Chin’s Cello Concerto gets US Premiere

Unsuk Chin

Unsuk Chin (b. 1961) is a decorated composer and  an important figure on the international scene. But even though she’s won the prestigious Grawemeyer Prize, one could still argue that she isn’t programmed nearly enough as yet in the United States. I was very taken with the Ensemble Intercontemporain’s 2009 performance of Akrostichon-Wortspiel at Alice Tully Hall. It sent me in search of scores and recordings to study. Sadly, I haven’t since had the opportunity to hear more of her work live. Fortunately, events this month in New York and Boston provide excellent opportunities for US listeners to become better acquainted with her beguiling and imaginative music.

The big event occurs up in Boston. Her Cello Concerto (2009) will receive its U.S. premiere with the Boston Symphony Orchestra under the baton of conductor Susan Mälkki with cellist Alban Gerhardt on February 10-12, 2011.

Chin describes the work as “antithetical to (her) other concertos… While in my concertos for violin, piano and percussion I was seeking to merge a solo instrument into a virtuoso super-instrument, here it’s all about the competitive approach between cello and orchestra… In my cello writing, I often ask the soloist to become a kind of illusionist, disguising the nature of this instrument. However, I feel also strongly that the cello has a kind of intrinsic emotional character, which can’t be denied.”

Right on the heels of the concerto’s premiere, the Talea Ensemble and guest pianist Taka Kigawa will perform an Unsuk Chin Composer Portrait at New York’s Bohemian Hall on February 16, 2011 at 8:00 p.m. The concert includes selections from her Piano Etudes (1999), and the New York premieres of Chin’s ParaMetaString (1996), Allegro ma non troppo (1994), and Fantaisie Mécanique (1997). Ms. Chin will be present for the concert and featured in an onstage interview with Dr. Anthony Cheung, Talea’s Artistic Director.


Where’s Gunther?

A number of attendees at the Tanglewood 2010 Festival of Contemporary Music were puzzled by the absence of one of its three co-curators: Gunther Schuller. In a pre-concert lecture on Monday featuring the festival’s other two curators, Oliver Knussen and John Harbison, his name was only briefly mentioned, despite the fact that he helped to program the festival.

So, why was Schuller absent from the FCM? Apparently, he accepted a conflicting conducting engagement at the Edinburgh Festival. On 8/14, he conducted an All-American program with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra: Aaron Copland’s Lincoln Portrait, the jazz band version of George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue (with Steven Osborne as soloist), and Charles Ives’ Fourth Symphony.

While Schuller’s been in Edinburgh, his fellow co-curators have been very busy: nearly omnipresent. To the credit of both Knussen and Harbison, they’ve been at every festival performance, either appearing as conductors or listening from the audience. As Knussen put it during the pre-concert talk, “I don’t generally find myself as an audience member much these days, in fact I usually avoid it, but I’ve been enjoying hearing all of the music on these programs.” They’ve both also been involved in preparing the performances, listening in on rehearsals and coaching the various chamber ensembles.

The pieces singled out for praise by both Knussen and Harbison weren’t necessarily by composers with whom they’re generally associated. Much of the talk focused on works by Bruno Maderna, Lukas Foss, and on the one composer who they most regretted omitting from the FCM programs: Luigi Dallapiccola. (The latter composer appeared elsewhere this summer on a TMC program.)

While the curators’ self-effacement was gentlemanly, one wished that they’d have discussed their chamber operas, Harbison’s Full Moon in March and Knussen’s Where the Wild Things Are, which were performed on Sunday night’s concert. Perhaps the BSO should take a cue from the New York Philharmonic’s recent employment of YouTube as an educational tool. Before everyone departs, they should get some interview footage up on the web about this extraordinary week of contemporary music!

Knussen Marches to his own Drum at Tanglewood

Knussen conducts Maderna. Photo credit: Hilary Scott

The 2010 Festival of Contemporary Music at Tanglewood has moved away from its recent model of having a solo curator conceive the festival. Instead, the curatorial duties are shared by three of its longtime faculty members: Gunther Schuller, Oliver Knussen, and John Harbison. The focus this year is on Tanglewood’s past and present faculty composers. Far from feeling like ‘old home week,’ the programming has demonstrated a wide range of stylistic diversity among those who’ve taught at Tanglewood. In addition, one can observe how each successive generation of Tanglewood students has benefited from their instruction here and, in several cases, returned to mentor the Festival’s next generation of up and coming composition fellows.

Thursday August 12′s concert felt the curatorial presence of Gunther Schuller looming large, although the composer himself wasn’t present (apparently, he has a conflicting commitment at the Edinburgh Festival). One could hear why he might be attracted to George Perle’s Concertino for piano, winds, and timpani (1979). Though Perle isn’t generally known for jazziness in his music, the Concertino mixes some lushly voiced verticals – recalling Gershwin or, indeed Schuller in Third Stream mode – amidst the otherwise prevailingly neoclassical ambience. William McNally played the solo piano part with dextrous execution. Both he and the ensemble, led by Cristian Macelaru, provided a well prepared account of the Concertino, sensitively shading its complex harmonic palette.

Theodore Antoniou’s Concertino for Contrabass and Orchestra (2000) was a virtuoso showcase for soloist Edwin Barker. Rhythmically propulsive and harmonically eclectic, it demonstrated a host of playing techniques for the instrument. Barker rose to every challenge, suggesting that the bass fiddle is not just some lumbering beast to be kept confined to anchoring the orchestra’s low end. Rather, in Barker’s hands, it proved nimble, wide-ranging, and capable of thrilling effects: one especially noticed the brilliant glissandi harmonics.

Schuller’s Tre Invenzioni (1972) an angular piece for five spatially dispersed chamber groups, was conducted by Oliver Knussen, who artfully shaped its often punctilious, angular surface. One didn’t envy the students for having to tackle some of the exposed and punishing altissimo lines Schuller put in their paths. But it was an impressive rendering of this unforgiving and formidable piece.

Written in 1922, it’s somewhat curious to find Hindemith’s Kammermusik No. 2, an incisive but conservatively neoclassical work, on a festival devoted to contemporary music. But Hindemith did indeed serve on Tanglewood’s compositional faculty back in 1940-41. That connection alone might not suffice for some, who might wonder why they couldn’t program one of his more daring works. But the piece was well worth hearing if only to enjoy pianist Nolan Pearson, who played with dazzling virtuosity and impressive, almost Mozartean, elegance, as well as the fine support he received from an ensemble conducted by the youthful up and comer Alexander Prior.

The highlight of the evening was a thrilling performance of Bruno Maderna’s Il Giardino religioso (1972), led by Oliver Knussen. Dedicated to longtime Tanglewood patron Paul Fromm (the title’s religioso is a pun on the meaning of Fromm: “devout”), this chamber orchestra piece contains quasi-aleatoric complexity and bold theatricality.

Things began with a bit of a snag. In the midst of the work’s hushed introduction for antiphonally seated solo strings, an audience member took a cell phone call, interrupting the proceedings. Sans histrionics, Knussen stopped the performance, tramped offstage, and returned after a moment. “Let’s try again,” he said.

One was certainly glad that he did, as the delicate balance of the resumed opening brought the now raptly attentive audience into a fascinating labyrinth of sounds. Knussen got to do double duty as a performer, first playing chimes, then drums, and finally celesta. The piece builds to a ferocious climax which is punctuated by two large cymbals being flung to the ground. In a gradual denouement, it returns to gently haunting antiphony. Incantatory music, magically rendered. Makes me want to hear much more Maderna!

The festival continues through Monday, August 16th. Stay tuned for more dispaches from Lenox.

BMOP CD: Rakowski's Serious Fun

Serious Fun

David Rakowski

Winged Contraption; Piano Concerto; Persistent Memory

Marilyn Nonken, piano; Boston Modern Orchestra Project; Gil Rose, conductor

BMOP Sound CD

Composer David Rakowski’s jocularity is well known. His many piano etudes (88 at last count) feature a number of sly allusions to other styles and works, as well as more overt zaniness; one even requires the performer to play pitches with their nose! His previous concerti have featured various subterfuges in which the soloist is upstaged by the orchestra. And, famously, goofiness abounds on his website. But alongside Rakowski’s penchant for light-hearted expression are consummate craftsmanship and music of considerable poignancy. BMOP’s recording features three ensemble works that highlight both Rakowski’s eloquence as an orchestrator and his ability to evoke a wide spectrum of emotions in music.

Persistent Memory was written while the composer was a fellow at the American Academy in Rome: a period in which the composer experienced adversity and loss on several fronts. Cast in two-movements, it features an elegy suffused with considerable melancholy and long arching melodies reminiscent, without overt homage, of the Copland “Americana school.” This is juxtaposed with rejoinders: tart brass punctuations and, in the second movement, a defiant scherzo – featuring tour de force writing for the winds – and a series of variations that refract the elegy’s material through a multi-colored prism.

The CD’s title work was composed as a sixtieth birthday tribute to Martin Boykan. The pre-compositional conceit for the piece is that it is exactly sixty pages long – again a glimmer of Rakowskian witticism. But composer imparts considerable gravitas here as well. The texture features angst-laden horn-writing and Bergian dissonant string verticals that belie any notions of Winged Contraption as an occasional bouquet. Amid these serious signatures lie percussive adornments and a propulsive clock: an ostinato that manifests variously as repeated note figures (a frequent Rakowski device) and burbling arpeggiations.

Marilyn Nonken has been one of several tireless champions of Rakowski’s solo piano works. It seems particularly fitting that he has fashioned a concerto for Nonken that references several of the etudes composer for her – resulting in a work of ambitious scope and a near-frenetic events structure. Easily one of Rakowski’s finest pieces to date, it features a host of playing techniques – thereby allowing Nonken to exercise both her conventional chops and explore some avant paths along the way.

The first movement’s opening is a master class in the “one-note” introduction. A-natural is treated to dampening, plucking inside the piano, various chordal harmonizations, and gradual haloing by the instruments of the orchestra until it is revealed in relentless repetition as an ostinato – a self-contained first theme group! Repeated single pitches once again provide a motoric canvas upon which a host of coloristic devices and harmonic divergences are imposed. The plucked A-natural returns at the beginning of each movement of the concerto as a centering and invocational device.

While the piano writing is tailor-made to Nonken’s abundant capabilities, she’s also given a chance to exercise a bit of whimsy in several asides for toy piano. The concerto also features a few other unconventional touches, such as the inclusion of a novelty percussion item called chatter-stones. And although one is glad for Rakowski’s occasional digressions into humor and his imaginative textural additions to the proceedings, the most striking moments in the concerto feature elegant writing for the conventional instruments in the band. Wind solos and keening string sostenuto passages accompany piquant, colorful verticals in the piano – and that irrepressible plucked A! – in a gorgeous slow movement.

The scherzo, on the other hand, focuses on short rhythmic cells and terse orchestral interjections. It also revels in adroitly jazzy piano-writing. The orchestra answers these swinging signatures with sassy horn blats and suavely articulate strings: hallmarks of a bygone era of cinematic music warmly recreated here.

The repeated note device reappears in the last movement, leading to a quote from Rakowski’s first piano etude, “E-Machines.” The quote references still another quote (a quote within quote!) of Beethoven’s Für Elise. Nonken records Rakowski’s cadenza for the CD, but it’s worth mentioning that the composer let her create her own for the premiere – such is the trust and close working relationship of creator and interpreter here.

The other interpreters on the scene, Gil Rose and the BMOP, are sterling in their preparation and superlatively musical. The disc is one of the orchestra’s best thus far, and the weightiest and most satisfying in Rakowski’s discography to date. Serious fun indeed!