NY Virtuoso Singers Celebrate 25th Anniversary

When a musical omnivore such as Harold Rosenbaum declares that the concert you are about to hear is “the most diverse program I have conducted in my forty year career,” hang on to your seat! On Sunday March 3rd, Rosenbaum led the New York Virtuoso Singers in the aforementioned amply diverse program in a concert at Merkin Hall. A baker’s dozen of new pieces, part of an ambitious commissioning project: 25 pieces to celebrate the group’s 25th anniversary.

While the selections were stylistically diverse, there was a unifying thread. All of the composers had done their homework, and composed with the formidable capabilities of NYVS in mind. The ensemble lived up to its reputation for peerless preparation, assaying all of the pieces with fortitude and an almost intimidating level of technical skill. Intonation and rhythm, regular pitfalls for mortal choirs, proved scarcely to be hurdles for the singers, even in the thorniest of passages. And there were plenty of those provided to them on Sunday afternoon.

Particularly impressive were works by David Felder and Augusta Read Thomas, which pushed at both the harmonic fabric with daring chromatic writing and at the capacities of the voices with parts written in punishingly high tessitura. Others, such as Roger Davidson, opted to revel in the group’s sound and suave divisi in a more straightforward setting.

One of the challenges in being part of a bouquet of occasional works: how expansive should one’s piece be? Both Thea Musgrave and Richard Danielpour opted for aphoristic yet attractive tributes, while Richard Wernick and Joseph Schwantner created evocatively atmospheric works that probably overstayed their welcome a bit. David Lang created a slowed down spiritual for the singers, poking fun at the perky arrangements of doleful texts by choral mainstays such as Alice Parker and Robert Shaw. For all of her protestations that setting text doesn’t suit her, Joan Tower’s memorial tribute to her recently departed sister was eloquent and unforced.

Sadly, I found another of the memorial works on the program, Memorial by Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, more problematic. In the midst of snatches of the requiem mass’ text, the use of children’s choir intoning the names of Sandy Hook victims is heavy handed and borderline exploitative. No doubt, some will argue that the work’s topicality and pacifistic message is moving. Indeed, it was moving, but, to me, manipulatively so. One could have gotten the subtext from a more subtle use of forces and an approach to the topic that was sensitive and less opportunistic.

Most of the works hewed to the celebratory mood of the occasion. William Bolcom provided a puckish setting of a Blake poem about Cupid; a footnote to his mammoth Songs of Innocence and Experience project, but a savory and supple one. Mark Adamo contributed the only work with piano accompaniment, in which the singers and instrument nimbly dance around the subtext of a grimly jocular Stoic postmortem. Aaron Kernis was on hand not only to introduce his piece (as did several of the other composers) but also to substitute as a “clapper” (hand percussionist) for his jubilant setting of the translation of a Hebrew spiritual poem.

All in all, it was a fine afternoon of singing. The commissions are being recorded for release on Soundbrush Records. Hopefully more choirs will hear them and want to program them.

 

Contact! at Symphony Space

andyakihowithsteeldrums

 

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.

Arts at the Park Celebrates Cage (Concert Review)

Concert Review: John Cage Centennial Celebration

Arts At the Park -Park Avenue Christian Church

September 29, 2012

 

By Christian Carey

 

2012 has been chock full of celebratory events marking John Cage’s centennial year. There have been a number of performances in Mr. Cage’s honor, several of them including his Sonatas and Interludes (1948) for prepared piano; there have also been a steady stream of new recordings and reissues of this work. What fascinates me is the durability of the piece, which withstands numerous interpretations; alongside a pliability in which each performer can supply an individual take on the piece. This is not so remarkable when one is considering a piece by a canonical composer, say, a sonata by Beethoven. But when one considers the dampening and percussive character brought out by the piece’s requisite preparations, the variety of interpretations seems striking.

 

Vicky Chow’s performance of Sonatas and Interludes at the Cage Centennial Celebration on the Arts at the Park series shared yet another way of performing the piece. Chow’s attention to details of dynamic nuance included delicately shaped hairpins and fastidious attention to the numerous markings in the score. The pianist also reveled in the gamelan-like textures that the preparations produce, gearing her articulations to render the maximum amount of percussiveness from the instrument. Thus, this was a Sonatas and Interludes that provided delicacy balanced by a zesty tang: an impressive and engaging performance.

 

Composed in 1978, Etudes Boreales is one of Cage’s pieces created using chance operations; its title comes from Cage’s use of a star chart from the Atlas Borealis as a chance element to determine some of the registral parameters of the work’s piano part. It may be performed either as a solo cello piece, solo piano piece, or as a duo for both instruments. Cellist Jay Campbell presented a solo version in which he inhabited the work with intensity, negotiating wide leaps and angular lines with pinpoint placement.

 

Supply Belcher’s book The Harmony of Maine (1794), a collection of part-songs in the vein of Billings, Read, and the other “Yankee Tunesmiths,” is the generating material for Cage’s Some of the Harmony of Maine (1978). The piece requires an organist and three assistants – one for each manual of the organ tasked with changing stops for the organist (sometimes rapidly!). Paul Vasile, along with three dutiful deputies, gave a short talk about what the audience would hear – quite an unconventional composition, especially when compared with service music – and then forged ahead. The piece’s frequent shifts between tunes from the book and stop combinations created a resplendent display of the timbral capabilities of the organ at Park Avenue Christian Church. And while their fragmentary deployment would cause one to struggle to pick out the tunes, Cage’s Harmony retains some of the grandeur and rhythmic swagger that exemplifies Belcher’s music.

27’10.554”, a piece for solo percussion, was played by Payton MacDonald to close the concert. One of Cage’s earliest chance pieces, its structure is derived from a poem by Lao Tzu. Instead of specifying which instruments to use, the battery of instruments is divided into wood, metal, skins, and “others,” creating the possibility of numerous interpretations of the piece. Thunderous drumming, thrown objects, crashing cymbals, and snippets of playback from a recording of a soprano singing were interspersed with moments of silence (made all the more palpable by the saturated musical passages).

 

Like the other pieces on the program, 27’10.554” demonstrates Cage’s penchant for taking materials, or enabling performers to choose them, and placing them in unexpected contexts: screws inside a piano, a cello leaping through a star chart, Supply Belcher played with a kaleidoscope of sounds, and a Lao Tzu poem banged out on percussion instruments. Besides the composer’s ingenuity, what makes the music work is due in no small part to the dedication and imagination of its interpreters, which was abundantly evident here.

Jonathan Harvey Review in Musical America

Dissonance Meets the Divine

My review of last Thursday’s Jonathan Harvey Composer Portrait at Miller Theatre, featuring Ensemble Signal conducted by Brad Lubman, was published today in Musical America.

You can read it here (subscription required, but the magazine offers a short term free trial – why not kick the tires?)

Concert Review: NY Philharmonic’s Contact!

Contact!

New York Philharmonic; David Robertson, conductor

Metropolitan Museum of New York

June 8, 2012

The end of the third season of Contact!, the New York Philharmonic’s contemporary music series at the Met Museum and Symphony Space, was led by guest conductor David Robertson; a staunch advocate for new music and specialist in modernist-leaning repertoire. The program, for chamber orchestra, featured two premieres commissioned by the NY Phil: NACHLESE Vb: Liederzyklus by Swiss composer Michael Jarrell and Two Controversies and a Conversation by the 103 year-old American composer Elliott Carter. It also included …explosante-fixe… a watershed work for multiple flute soloists, electronics, and ensemble by French composer Pierre Boulez.

Jarrell’s piece featured soprano Charlotte Dobbs singing translations in several different languages of a poem (originally written in Spanish) by Seventeenth Century poet Luís de Góngora. Its unifying concept: the idea of how texts are reflected and even changed when translated (the game of telephone as post-structuralism). Not only does the vocal part require polyglot linguistic flexibility; it features a wide vocal and dynamic range, demanding exquisite control: Dobbs handled it with impressive finesse. The piece’s musical language itself, while colorfully orchestrated, didn’t transform nearly as much as the texts it treated: Jarrell’s penchant for disjunct leaps and pervasive dissonance could have accommodated a bit more variation.

Carter’s post-centenarian works have been aphoristic, but bursting with creativity. Conductor Oliver Knussen heard an earlier version of this work,Conversations, and asked the composer to expand it. The resulting lightly orchestrated concertino for piano, percussion, and ensemble gave soloists Eric Huebner and Colin Currie a number of brilliant passages separately and in dialogue with each other. Despite Carter having already written several works for piano soloist and a recent piece for percussion ensemble, he still has wily tricks up his sleeve. A particularly brilliant passage saw Currie playing brilliant ascending arpeggios on a marimba and xylophone placed at right angles, moving seamlessly from one mallet instrument to another. IfControversies/Conversations will likely be seen as a diminutive companion piece to Dialogues, Asko Concerto, and even the Double Concerto, this interplay of sharply delineated characters is a welcome continuation of a distinctive compositional approach.

Robert Langevin, Alexandra Sopp, and Mindy Kaufmann were the flute soloists for the Boulez work (Langevin’s instrument outfitted with MIDI). The piece displays some of the fruits of Boulez’s labors in the early 1980s at the electronic music studio at IRCAM in Paris. Like the Carter work, it deals with instrumental interplay as well, but in a more coloristic rather than characteristic fashion. Shimmering slabs of orchestral harmonies, clouds of overlaid flute passages, and ricocheting angular gestures are haloed by interactive electronics, which refract musical excerpts into a swirling kaleidoscope that envelops the listener. …explosante-fixe… is important, even canonic, in that it suggests a way forward in which orchestras and electronics don’t just coexist onstage, but interact in organic fashion. The ensuing thirty years have found countless composers extending this idea, but few of them have created works as memorable as this.

Princeton Symphony performs Sarah Kirkland Snider

Sarah Kirkland Snider

Princeton Symphony Orchestra

Richardson Auditorium, Princeton, NJ

May 13, 2012

ChamberMusicianToday.com

PRINCETON – The Princeton Symphony’s final concert of its classical season included two repertory staples – Brahms’s Fourth Symphony and Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G Major – as well a revised version of Sarah Kirkland Snider’s sole work to date for orchestra, Disquiet. Although Snider is a rising star in the world of contemporary music, she has thus far made her name as a formidable composer of vocal works, notably the song cycle Penelope, as well as theatre music and chamber compositions for groups such as yMusic and NOW Ensemble.

She first conceived some of the material for Disquiet back in 2000, and the original version of the piece was premiered at Yale while she was a graduate student there in 2004. The revised version given by the Princeton Symphony, conducted by Rossen Milanov, is a single movement tone poem around a quarter of an hour long. Rather than depicting “disquiet” primarily via its pitch or rhythmic language, creating abundant dissonances or angularity, Snider takes another approach: uneasiness is primarily delineated by the work’s formal design. Thus, one may at first be surprised to hear the its often lush harmonies and strong melodic thrust. But as Disquiet unfolds, a labyrinth of disparate gestures and contrasting sections, often supplied in quick succession, imparts the title’s requisite restive sensibility.

Milanov brought out the piece’s wide dynamic shifts, exhorting brash tutti and hushed sustained chords from the orchestra. The piece’s quick sectional shifts allowed several performers brief turns in the spotlight: concertmaster Basia Danilow, clarinetist William Ansel, and flutist Jayn Rosenfeld noteworthy among them.

One hopes that, with this performance under her belt, Snider will get the opportunity to create more works for  orchestra. Given  Disquiet’s colorfully cinematic use of motives, one also wonders whether she might try her hand at film-scoring.

Concert Review: Sean Shepherd at Advent Lutheran

Sean Shepherd with the Claremont Trio. Photo: Michael Lutch

In the Kaleidoscope: the Music of Sean Shepherd

April 23, 2012

Music Mondays at Advent Lutheran Church

NEW YORK – Sean Shepherd’s music was featured in last week’s Music Monday concert at Advent Lutheran Church on New York’s Upper West Side. One of the fast rising stars of contemporary classical music’s thirty-something set, Shepherd has already been performed by the New York Philharmonic, on their Contact contemporary music series, and is currently in residence with both the orchestras Cleveland and Reno. Upcoming performances of his works are this summer at the Tanglewood Festival of Contemporary Music and in the Fall with the National Symphony (both under Oliver Knussen). His publisher – a little house you may have heard of – Boosey and Hawkes.

Although the aforementioned accomplishments indicate that Shepherd is making a name for himself as a composer of orchestral music, the concert at Advent Lutheran demonstrated that he’s also creating compelling works for chamber forces. The centerpieces of the program were two oboe quartets – Mozart ‘s K. 370 paired with a new piece by Shepherd. In discussing the work in an onstage interview, the composer mentioned his undergraduate degree in bassoon performance as an entry point into composing for winds and as a reason for his selection of the Mozart work as a companion piece to his own music on the concert. Another inspiration surely was oboist Liang Wang (of the New York Philharmonic), whose superlative control in the Mozart buoyed a supple performance with many lovely dynamic shadings.

Shepherd’s Oboe Quartet (2011), which received its New York premiere, takes inspiration from the Mozart; but not in any direct or referential sort of way. Rather, the graceful balance of elements found in the earlier piece serves as a totemic point of reference, allowing Shepherd’s postmodern language to be imbued with large-scale formal clarity. Wang adopted a more mysterious tone quality here, befitting the arcing filigrees that characterized his more virtuosic passages. His collaborators, violinist Miranda Cuckson, violist Jessica Meyer, and cellist Julia Bruskin were also impressive in the work’s darting counterpoint and frequent tightly coordinated entrances.

Cuckson, joined by pianist Aaron Wunsch, gave a performance of Shepherd’s Dust (2008) that underscored its variegated moods, ranging from diaphanous Impressionist verticals to fierily angular melodic ricochets. Dust encompasses both Shepherd’s flair for the dramatic and his capacity for fetching lyricism.

The Claremont Trio was on hand to give the New York premiere of a brand new piano trio, written for them by Shepherd. Some of the signature elements found in the evening’s earlier pieces were here too: quickly rendered angular passages in rhythmic sync, wide contrasts of mood between more ruminative sections and those busily attired with nervous energy, and a varied harmonic palette that encompasses passages that, while not exactly tonal in orientation, provide a sense of lyricism and centricity, as well as places where the pitch language is replete with dissonance. But more heightened here than elsewhere on the concert was the sense of multiple time streams and a catalog of metric shifts that I presume may be architectural in design (I hope to get my hands on a score to verify this presumption). Regardless, it’s one of Shepherd’s most thoughtfully constructed works to date. The Claremont Trio plays it throughout with assuredness and enthusiasm. Collectively and as soloists, Shepherd has given them many places to shine: and shine they do. Dare we hope that a studio recording is forthcoming?

Incidentally, Music Mondays hosted a packed crowd for this event. While it doesn’t hurt that admission is free, whatever they are doing to get out the word is working!

Stile Antico at St. Mary’s (Concert review)

Stile Antico. Photo: Tom Allwood

Stile Antico

Saturday, April 21, 8:00 PM

Church of St. Mary the Virgin

Chambermusiciantoday.com

NEW YORK – Miller Theatre’s Early Music series, which regularly presents concerts at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin in midtown Manhattan, concluded its season with a concert by the English vocal ensemble Stile Antico. It was the group’s last concert of their Spring American tour, and featured a program that was described from the stage as a “whistle stop tour through the music of the Renaissance.” Indeed, in a single evening the group covered a wide range of repertoire that encompassed the entire chronology of Renaissance polyphony. The program included a number of works that choral music aficionados would consider its chestnuts. These were  complemented by less famous, yet still musical engaging, pieces and several works by lesser known composers who seem undeservedly underrepresented on concert programs and recordings.

Two of the latter were Spanish composers Rodrigo de Ceballos and Sebastian de Vivanco, whose Hortus Conclusus and Veni, dilecte mi, stood toe to toe with fellow countryman Tomas Luis de Victoria, despite his representation on the program being the superlative – and superlatively sung – O Magnum Mysterium. Two other Continental standouts were Nicolas Gombert’s Magnificat primi toni and Clemens non Papa’s Egos flos campi. The latter was particularly sumptuous (below, I’ve included a YouTube video of the group performing it in 2008).

Stile Antico excels in their presentation of English Renaissance repertoire, which was abundantly present on the program. Often, composers were represented by two contrasting works, demonstrating their responses to different texts and, during the Tudor era, their differing responses to Catholic and Anglican liturgical settings. Thus, William Byrd’s affirmative Laetentur coeli contrasted with Vigilate, a work that would seem to be a covert nod towards the suffering and tribulations of recusant Catholics during the Elizabethan era. Likewise, Thomas Tallis’ O Sacrum Convivium (another gorgeously blended performance) was later contrasted with Why Fum’th in Fight, one of Eight Tunes from Archbishop Parker’s Psalter (probably best known for its reincarnation in Vaughan Williams’ Fantasy on a Theme by Thomas Tallis - or, as some of my less astute students recently said, “The theme from Master and Commander). John Sheppard was represented by a single work, but his Lord’s Prayer (with an earlier version of the wording that was quite moving) was another work performed with particular clarity and beauty of tone.

Commissioned for the ensemble, John McCabe’s Woefully Arrayed, a visceral and rhythmically charged Passion motet, was the program’s sole representation of non-Renaissance music, but it indicated theatStile Antico is more than up to the task of assaying challenging and chromatic repertoire. Generally speaking, here and elsewhere, the group’s intonation and diction were superlative. Their approach is faithful to current performance practice research, while embodying an immediacy and effulgent expressivity that is quite stirring. For example, the crisp consonants and tightly interwoven phrases they lent to Byrd’s Vigilate, when compared to the sensuous luxuriance of Stile Antico’s performance of Lassus’ Veni, dilecte mi demonstrated a broad range of approaches that were both imaginative and stylistically faithful. One area in which the ensemble might endeavor to improve is their diction in works with many divisi: some of the texts were difficult to decipher in their performances of Thomas Tomkins’ O Praise the Lord and the concert’s closer Tota pulchra es by Hieronymus Praetorius. But to dwell overlong on these minor infelicities would be hairsplitting: Stile Antico provided a wonderful evening of rousing singing.

They even shared an encore by Thomas Campion – a teaser from their latest CD on Harmonia Mundi, Tune thy Musicke to thy Hart. A collaboration with early music consort Fretwork, the disc is a collection of Tudor and Jacobean music for private devotion. This less formal, and more intimate, repertoire is approached by the groups with refinement, delicacy, and characteristic musicality. Both the CD, and Stile Antico’s next visit to a venue in your area, are wholeheartedly recommended.

Stile Antico performs Clemens:

Here they are on NPR’s Tiny Desk Concerts series:

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