Frank Dodge talks Bob Helps (interview; ticket giveaway)

Spectrum Concerts Berlin visits New York

Last week, I met with cellist Frank Dodge at Lincoln Center to discuss the upcoming concert his ensemble Spectrum Concerts Berlin is giving in New York.

At 8 PM on December 7th at Weill Recital Hall, Dodge and his colleagues will present a program that celebrates the works of composer/pianist Robert Helps (1928-2001).

Helps was a virtuoso performer adept at both contemporary repertoire and warhorses from the classical music canon. He also relished championing works that had been overlooked and crafting (often fiendishly challenging) transcriptions for the piano.  More than once, I heard Milton Babbitt suggest that Helps “made the unplayable playable.”

Born in the United States, Dodge relocated to Berlin in the 1980s. But he didn’t forget about his first encounters with Helps: in the late 1960s in Boston as a student at the New England Conservatory of Music.

He says, “Bob (Helps) liked to champion pieces that needed looking after. His performances of the music of John Ireland, Felix Mendelssohn, and Poulenc and, of course, his own music were truly very special to hear. We were fortunate to have him visit and perform with us in Berlin twice. I only wish that, before his passing in 2001, we could have collaborated more frequently.”

Dodge’s stewardship has cultivated a group of champions of underrepresented repertoire. Spectrum Concerts Berlin is currently giving its twenty-fourth season of concerts. They have recently released their second recording devoted to Helps’ music: Robert Helps in Berlin (also featuring the ATOS Trio and Helps; Naxos 8.559696-97). A double CD set, it features a number of Helps’s important chamber works, including one of his first mature pieces, the 1957 Piano Trio, as well as one of his last, Piano Trio No. 2, written shortly before his passing. It’s interesting to note his return to the genre after forty years’ absence. My initial impression of the piece is one of leave-taking. I hear its angular lines, brittle articulation, and acerbic harmonies as a defiant kind of valedictory statement. Dodge, on the hand hears the trio showing evidence of new potential directions in Helps’s music; alas, unrealized.

He says, “The second Piano Trio and some of the other late pieces, such as Shall We Dance (1994) and the Piano Quartet and Quintet (both 1997), provide glimpses of Bob considering his compositional approach afresh. I find the discoveries he makes in these works to provide some of his most exciting music.”

The CD also includes a live recording of Helps at the piano; performing a recital that includes some of his aforementioned favorites: Mendelssohn, Ireland, Poulenc, Shall We Dance, and Godowsky’s Studies on Chopin’s Etudes (or, as one of my professors used to like to call them, Chopin on steroids!). One is struck by his exquisite touch and seemingly effortless virtuosity of Helps’ playing.

The impressive array of compositions and music-making displayed on the Naxos disc raises a question. Why isn’t Helps a household name here? Why don’t American-based ensembles perform more Helps and why don’t more composers know him as an important figure?

When I pose this question to Dodge, he says, “Bob did zero self-promotion: none. Even though he taught all over and was very well respected, he had a difficult time with the conventional ‘career building’ activities that many musicians take for granted as part of the business. And he also had considerable personal struggles during his lifetime, with illnesses and other challenges. There were long periods of silence, where he didn’t play or compose at all. Fortunately, these gave way to great bursts of creativity.”

“So, Helps isn’t a household name … yet! Things will change. Sometimes, when a figure is hyped during his or her lifetime, but their work is nothing special, they fade away rather quickly. With Helps, the opposite can be true. It is durable work, and its legacy will only grow. The strength of his music is what will bring performers and listeners to it over time.”

My take: if you’re in the New York area, don’t miss out on this chance to hear Spectrum Concerts Berlin on 12/7. They will make you a convert to Helps’s music in nothing flat.

Ticket Giveaway

In a very generous gesture, the ensemble is offering 20 FREE tickets to S21 readers.  If you’re interested in attending the show, email Paula Mlyn at: paula@a440arts.com with your name. She will put aside a ticket for you for the December 7 performance.

Guest post: Clarice Jensen and Nadia Sirota

Clarice Jensen and Nadia Sirota

Clarice: So, ahem, Nadia it was pretty remarkable when we switched from reading from the score to parts when we were working on Hayes’ piece (ed.: Steal Away by Hayes Biggs). It’s like the music took on a different meaning.

Nadia: I know!! I find that stuff so incredible. Sometimes I forget that a massive portion of our jobs as musicians (especially of the new music persuasion) is essentially translating visual material into sound. We’re kind of like professional map-readers. Do you have any notational pet peeves?

Clarice: Page turns of course… But other than that, just spacing in general. If notes look all bunched up, then it’s hard not to make them sound that way! What about you?

Nadia: My super-dork pet peeve is spelling; I hate it when chords are spelled out in ways that have little regard for traditional chord structures. It’s sometimes really hard to wrap your brain around a whole bunch of sharps and flats living together all higgledy-piggledy without regard for implied harmony. I know I know: super-dork. That having been said, I kind of love how notation is a kind of personal, no two alike sort of thing. It gives the performer so much insight as to how the composer may be thinking. Oh! And I can get kinda frustrated with things that are notated with very small durations (64th and 128th notes) which are then in a super-slow tempo. I understand a kind of freneticism may be what the composer is going for, but it just seems to add so much time to the rehearsal/parsing process.

Clarice: Totally agree on that one. Pretty amazing how this abstract system of symbols and lines and dots can be subject to so much scrutiny and discussion regarding interpretation. And how dots and lines paired with scrutiny and discussion results in beautiful music! Amazing!

Nadia: Yay! So, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the type of music and programming that translates well live vs. that which is great to listen to on the radio or on a recording. There are so many types of gestures which are fascinating to watch people achieve, which cannot be really understood in a recording. Like even a pregnant pause, for example.

Clarice: For sure – the physicality of achieving a musical gesture just can’t be heard in a recording, and sometimes seeing that gesture is what makes the music translate to the audience. However, would you say that there is any music that makes more sense recorded rather than live? What about music in the rock/pop world?

Nadia: Oh decidedly. Stylistically that’s an idea Classical peeps kind of “borrowed” from the pop world to begin with, even going so far back as Musique Concrète territory. Like, think about how many times we’ve heard the exact same performance of a song like “Louie Louie.” That performance IS the work itself. Everything else is a “cover.” This can seem like a weird, alien counterpart to the Classical model (like, do I only do covers???), but yeah, there’s a lot more of that type of thinking these days, from things like John Adams Light Over Water to Nico Muhly’s The Only Tune, a piece I’ve performed a lot. When that piece was conceived it was as a recorded collage. When we play it, we are trying our damnedest to approximate the recording. It’s sort of the opposite type of problem from what we were talking about above, the “why does this music lack the visceral impact it had live on this record” type of problem.

Well, I’m super into the diversity of voices on this program. I get to wear a lot of different hats! (Jagged hat, lyrical hat.)

Clarice: Yes, I think the variety of pieces we ended up with is pretty emblematic of the wide range of excellent writing and composition that’s happening now. And as a performer, it really is rewarding to wear all of these hats! I mean, I’ve always considered lyrical playing to be a personal strength of mine, but over the years I’ve worked so hard on rhythmic accuracy through playing intricate music, and now I consider that to be a strength as well. It’s amazing how all of this diverse writing is in fact shaping the performers who are often playing music in the contemporary world. Do you think your focus on new music has changed you intrinsically as a performer?

Nadia: Oh, totally. Whenever you work on some weird skill, it changes the kind of mental space in which you think about everything else, really. The rhythmic idea you bring up is super apropos; I also kind of came from a lyrical place as a kind of a default, but the more I work on concepts of groove and flow, the more these ideas end up creeping their way into even the most lyrical stuff. Knowing more things as time goes on rules.

Well, lovely to chat with you, C, I can’t wait for the show!!

Clarice: Yep yep, it’s gonna be a good one!

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Tickets to the Sequenza 21 Concert are free (the venue charges a $12 food/drink minimum).

October 25 at 7 PM

Joe’s Pub in NYC

Tickets and Tables are still available by phone.

Call 212.539.8778 to make your reservation

Eckardt’s Undersong (CD Review)

Jason Eckardt

Undersong

Fred Sherry, cello; International Contemporary Ensemble; Steven Schick, conductor

Mode Records CD 234

Composer Jason Eckardt is one of a small but growing number of composers adopting the aesthetic viewpoint of “Second Modernity.” Briefly described, this approach involves a renewed embrace of abundant virtuosity, compositional and conceptual rigor, and dedicated exploration of new playing techniques and interdisciplinary applications in contemporary music. All of this may sound like a very intellectual approach to an artistic discipline. But Eckardt’s music is anything but sterile. Instead, it is kinetic and vigorous, as inspired by the enthusiasm for heavy metal with which he began his musical journey as it is by the top notch players who now champion his work.

Indeed, one couldn’t ask for better advocates in this repertory than the ones appearing on Undersound, Eckardt’s latest release Mode release. This group of pieces, based on Laura Mullen’s text of the same name, is thematically unified by the concepts of decrying oppression, corruption, and dispossession. Its cornerstone work The Distance features Mullen’s words sung by soprano Tony Arnold, who negotiates its high tessitura, extensive chromaticism, and angular melismas with a graceful fluidity that few other vocalists can muster in such challenging fare. Simply put, she’s a rock star in this genre. Her accompanists – stars in their own right – are members of the International Contemporary Ensemble, conducted by Steven Schick. Their performance exudes a confidence that belies the myriad challenges that they face when realizing Eckardt’s score.

ICE flutist Claire Chase is also featured in two other works on the disc. “16″ references the sixteen regrettable words in G.W. Bush’s 2003 State of the Union address (those about WMD in Iraq): words that helped to later cause so many recriminations and, worse yet, casualties. Parlando techniques, breathy attacks, and stuttered mouth sounds turn the flute into a metaphorical mouthpiece for troubled communication. It is accompanied by percussive attacks and furtive gestures from a string trio. Chase’ playing bridges the gap between these deliberately halting sounding effects and fetching, albeit fleeting, snatches of melody, as if yearning for an eloquence that, in this score, is deliberately avoided.

Meanwhile, on Aperture, Chase is part of a Pierrot ensemble in a work that indulges both the noise and effects end of the sound spectrum as well as more pitch focused passages. Sustained single lines are pitted against pointillist excursions and busily angular sections. The whole creates a diverse, labyrinthine compositional architecture, full of twists and turns and engaging surprises.

Cellist Fred Sherry performs the glissando-filled and devilishly tricky solo  A Way (Tracing) with characteristic flair, attacking its quickly evolving formal terrain with mercurial suavity.

Undersong is a mind-blowing and aesthetics-expanding journey. Recommended.

Jody Redhage album release party tonight

Jody Redhage has had a busy year touring as a member of Grammy award winner Esperanza Spalding’s band. But she still found time to prepare Of Minutiae and Memory (New Amsterdam digital and CD), an album of eight electroacoustic pieces for singing cellist. The disc features works by Joshua Penman, Anna Clyne, Paula Matthusen, Wil Smith, Missy Mazzoli, Ryan Brown, Stefan Weisman, and Derek Muro.

Tonight at DROM, Jody celebrates the release Of Minutiae…, performing selections from the recording. Her opening act is sterling as well: Corey Dargel and Cornelius Dufallo perform a set of art pop songs for voice and violin.

CD RELEASE SHOW
JODY REDHAGE’S Of Minutiae and Memory
with Corey Dargel and Cornelius Dufallo
Monday, September 12, 2011
doors 6:30, show 7:30 pm
DROM
85 Avenue A (@ E. 6th St.)
New York, NY 10009
www.dromnyc.com
$10 cover

Avant Cellist’s Ideas Worth Spreading (Video)

Maya Beiser, everyone’s favorite ex-Can Banging All Star downtown cellist, was an invited presenter at the March 2011 TED conference. The TED site recently released a high quality video of her lecture recital, and it’s already garnered over 80,000 views!

TED’s slogan: “Ideas worth spreading.” We’re glad that Maya’s getting the chance to spread the word about Steve Reich’s Cello Counterpoint and David Lang’s World to Come far and wide!


The Six Realms by Peter Lieberson

Peter Lieberson. Photo credit: Becky Starobin

Peter Lieberson’s record label, Bridge Records, has been kind enough to share some of his music with us: an excerpt from The Six Realms, one of his later and larger works and a piece that has an explicitly Buddhist programmatic element.

Here is movement 5, performed by cellist Michaela Fukacova, the Odense Symphony Orchestra, and conducted by Justin Brown. The recording is from Bridge 9178, The Music of Peter Lieberson.

The Six Realms V. The Human Realm

The Six Realms for Cello and Orchestra (2000)

Program Note:

In addition to silk and other precious goods, the Silk Road helped disseminate Buddhism, one of its earliest, and most valuable, cultural exports. For almost thirty years, Peter Lieberson has been a devout Buddhist, having studied with the great Chogyam Trungpa, a Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhist master he met in 1974. Says Lieberson, “Buddhism’s appeal to me in the early 1970s was that it was not a religion in the conventional Western sense. Buddhism did not posit the existence of any external deity or savior or, for that matter, an individual personal ego…The basic message of the great Buddhist masters was: Be brave enough to experience existence without dogma or beliefs of any kind.”

Lieberson left New York City in 1976 for Boulder, Colorado, to absorb the Tibetan master’s wisdom, especially the concepts, experiences, and views of the Shambhala tradition as presented by Trungpa in his book Shambhala: the Sacred Path of the Warrior. “I went to a Buddhist seminary where I studied intensively for three months,” Lieberson has said. “When I started writing music again, my style had changed…There was less sense of struggle…the horizon expanded. It’s as if you had tunnel vision, and then you have panoramic vision. Studying Buddhism also affected my approach to composing [in that] I understand there’s a kind of journey that’s made.” After completing his studies, Lieberson directed Shambhala Training, a meditation and cultural program, for a number of years, both in Boston and in Halifax, all the while building an international reputation as a composer. Observed writer Victoria Roth in 1989: “Since Lieberson’s commitment to Buddhism is intensely personal, it is not reflected in compositions that sound ‘Eastern’.” Lieberson has devoted his time exclusively to composition since 1994. Although his musical language has not changed greatly, most of his works now deal with Buddhist subjects or concepts. It is a philosophy as life-giving for Lieberson as air itself.

At the request of Yo-Yo Ma, who had played in the 1992 premiere of King Gesar, Lieberson conceived a concerto for amplified cello and orchestra, entitled The Six Realms, that outlines a key Buddhist teaching: that differing states of mind and emotions color our view of the world and shape human experience. This philosophy is reflected in the piece’s formal structure (see diagram below); each of the concerto’s six continuous sections represents a different state of being.

The Six Realms is structured as follows:

1. The Sorrow of the World (introduction)
2. The Hell Realm (aggression: acute, self-perpetuating anger at the world and ourselves)
3. The Hungry Ghost Realm (passion: the need to possess or continually consume; we are never satisfied because we can never get enough)
4. The Animal Realm (ignorance: an obsessive need to control or to find security)
5. The Human Realm (passion: the desire for something better, and a lessening of self-absorption, allows for the possibility of our becoming dignified humans who long for liberation from these six realms of existence. It is only from this realm that we are able to move on to achieve Enlightenment: the right way to view, and interact with, the world.)
6. The God Realm (ignorance: blissful self-absorption of our godlike powers, until doubt sets in and shatters our confidence) and The Jealous God Realm (aggression: extreme paranoia and competitive drive; we never trust anyone or their motives)

Put simply, Buddhists believe that humans cycle back and forth, endlessly, through these six states, experiencing the concomitant afflictions that attach themselves to each level. In Lieberson’s Six Realms, the cello soloist acts as emotional protagonist and the orchestra’s “guide” — a cousin to the Romantic concerto’s “hero” — leading all of us from realm to realm until we finally are able to liberate ourselves from this misery-inducing cycle. By simply letting go of the neurotic attachments in our lives, we become fully aware of our self-destructive behavioral and thought patterns, thereby achieving spiritual fulfillment as the realms collapse upon themselves. Counterbalancing this concerto’s Eastern philosophy is Lieberson’s Western, modernist musical language. Although not programmatic, the piece’s subtle use of musical imagery allows the listener without any previous knowledge of Buddhist tenets to grasp its depiction of universal human experiences.

Maya Beiser at the Rubin Museum tonight!

In the current economy – particularly in the recording industry –  expediency can sometimes trump artistry. All too often, classical artists with a recent CD release can’t afford to worry too much about the curatorial vision of a concert series on which they  appear: they’ve got to make their album’s program fit somehow in order to promote the product. Happily, there are times when an artist’s work and a venue’s vision come together seamlessly.

The Rubin Museum’s Resonating Light music series continues tonight  with a concert by cellist Maya Beiser. Her recording Provenance, released last year on Innova, explored music from disparate faith traditions, reflecting cultures that coexisted during the Middle Ages on the Iberian Peninsula.

Her program tonight takes a similar approach, bringing together music inspired by different religious traditions. But rather than just featuring music from Provenance in a “close enough” curatorial approach, Beiser studied the artworks in a recent exhibit at the Rubin entitled Embodying the Holy.

In response to the pieces on display, Bhe has programmed together works reflective of Orthodox Christianity (Arvo Pärt’s Fratres and John Tavener’s Lament To Phaedra) as well as Tibetan Buddism and other Easter philosophies (Even Ziporyn’s Kabya Maya and Douglas Cuomo’s Only Breath). Beiser’s arrangement of Max Bruch’s Kol Nidre represents Judaism. Rounding things out, Beiser is joined by accordionist Guy Klucevsek for Sofia Gubaidulina’s In Croce, arranged for cello and bajan.

Resonating Light: Maya Beiser

Rubin Museum of Art

150 W. 17 St., NYC 10011 · 212.620.5000

Sunday March 13, 2011 @ 6:00 PM (galleries open at 5:15)

Price: $35.00

Member Price: $31.50

Hudson leads Genre benders/blenders in debut CD

Galactic Diamonds
Steve Hudson Chamber Ensemble
Groovaholic Music CD

New York based composer and pianist Steve Hudson performs his compositions with several groups. He’s currently working in a quartet setting with violinist Zack Brock, singing cellist Jody Redhage, and percussionist Martin Urbach. The group just released their debut CD and will be touring in Europe in March 2011.

All of the members of the Steve Hudson Chamber Ensemble are skilled genre benders and genre blenders, able to adroitly move between styles such as jazz, tango, and avant classical – and many points in between. “Tune with Tango” (video below) is a signature example of their simpatico sense of ensemble and deftly phrased, gently articulated, yet still zesty sense of rhythm.

A more eclectic offering is the title tune, which moves from fusion tinged modern jazz to a lushly harmonized neoromantic coda. There are tender stretches too, like the ballad “Song for John Lennon.” It’s one of Hudson’s most affecting solo turns; he combines impressionist post-bop chord voicings with wistful waltzing.

Galactic Diamonds is indeed a versatile outing; and by no means does it only showcase its leader. Brock lends a bluegrass fiddle’s inflections and gentle swing to “Keep it Simple.” Redhage crafts a cantabile, double-stop laden solo on “Moving On” and doubles her cello line with supple vocalise on “PG.” Urbach never swamps the acoustic instruments, but still makes his presence felt in fulsome grooves, as on the effusively syncopated “Speak Out.”

Meanwhile, Hudson doesn’t restrict himself to just playing piano. He plays cafe jazz solos on melodica on the lilting “Para.” On “Funky Hobbit,” he tears it up on a Fender Rhodes electric piano, moving the ensemble closer to ‘out improv.’ Both Brock and Redhage are encouraged to shred a bit in response to Hudson’s enthusiastic acid jazz riffing.

Whether pushing the envelope with energetic improvisatory exertions or crafting more gradually developing essays, the Steve Hudson Ensemble is consistently engaging. Galactic Diamonds is a thoroughly enjoyable recording.