American Mavericks: Cage Songbooks (Review + Video)

At least on paper, one of the more fascinating collaborations of the 2012 installation of American Mavericks brought vocalists Jessye Norman, Meredith Monk, and Joan La Barbara together with Michael Tilson Thomas and members of the San Francisco Symphony for a performance of John Cage’s Song Books. Complete with lighting, sets, stage business, camera work, and sound design, this was an ambitious undertaking. Unfortunately, it raised as many questions about performing Cage as it answered.

In the performance of the work last night at Carnegie Hall, Jessye Norman sang like Jessye Norman. Meredith Monk did Meredith Monk. MTT made a smoothie and tore up newspapers. But Joan La Barbara: now she performed a John Cage piece. Here she is doing the same work in 2011, with Ne(x)tworks at Greenwich Music House.

Hats off to Monk and Norman for reaching outside their comfort zones. But they were placed in a difficult situation. My wife, a director and playwright, described it thus: “It felt like all the things ripped off from Cage by bad experimental theater were donated back for one night only. And it seemed like the design team were having much more fun than the audience.”

It’s great that San Francisco is giving the American Mavericks another airing. And I’m really looking forward to hearing what is, for me, a dream program at Carnegie Hall tonight: Ruggles, Feldman, and Ives orchestrated by Brant!

But their Cage presentation left me with questions about how those interested in interpreting his music are to proceed. The challenge: creating a performance practice for Cage that doesn’t become its own museum piece of cliches. The scores deserve it. There’s plenty of music in them and, indeed lots of ways to present Cage entertainingly, but without so much shtick.

Kronos Quartet at Zankel (Musical America)

“From the Sublime to the Ridiculous”

My review of Kronos Quartet’s concert at Zankel Hall ran this past Friday on Musical America. The program featured a “one night only” reunion with former Kronos cellist Joan Jeanrenaud, performing music by Vladimir Martynov, which was marvelous, and “Secret Word,” a piece dedicated to Pee Wee Herman, which was not so marvelous…

If you missed the concert (or even if you didn’t!), I strongly suggest checking out Kronos’s latest Nonesuch CD, a Martynov portrait.

NY Phil’s “Contact!” Leans Away from US (Musical America)

My article today in Musical America reviews the NY Philharmonic’s Contact! Concert on 12/16 at the Met Museum. While I enjoyed the music – hearing HK Gruber perform Frankenstein!! was a particular treat –  I took issue with the announcement at the event of Alan Gilbert being awarded Columbia University’s Ditson Prize, which recognizes a conductor for his advocacy for American composers. This season, the Contact! series includes only one American: Elliott Carter. It’s a far cry from their inaugural season just two years ago, when they featured Sean Shepherd, Nico Muhly, Arlene Sierra, and others. Perhaps Maestro Gilbert will take the opportunity of being acknowledged for past programming decisions to reinvest future seasons of Contact! with a commitment to emerging American composers.

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.

Ekmeles performs Randy Gibson on 11/18

Ekmeles at the Italian Academy

Last month at Columbia University’s Italian Academy, I was formidably impressed by an evening of madrigals old and new performed by the vocal ensemble Ekmeles. One of the revelations of the evening began with an idea ofensemble director Jeff Gavett. He thought that the madrigals of Carlo Gesualdo might benefit from Nichola Vicentino’s 31-tone equal tempered scale, most famously employed in the tuning of an instrument of his design, the archicembalo.

While, as Gavett admitted in the concert’s program notes, there is not direct evidence that they were ever performed this way in the presence of Gesualdo, there is some documentary evidence that Vicentino’s writings and an archicembalo were available to the composer. But here, the proof was in the singing. Gesualdo’s music sounds glorious in 31-TET. Indeed some of its idiosyncratic cross-relations and chordal voicings glisten: equally, wonderfully, strange, but somehow refocused.

Ekmeles contains several youngish singers with winsome voices: Gavett, soprano Mary Mackenzie, and countertenor Eric Brenner are notable standouts. Their interpretative maturity and skill in preparing the challenging works on the program bely the freshness of Ekmeles’ sound. The group also brought in a “ringer of ringers” for the second act. New music superstar soprano Lucy Shelton joined Ekmeles for a spirited rendition of Elliott Carter’s late Ashbery setting Mad Regales.

The program also featured several deconstructions of the madrigal aesthetic. Peter Ablinger’s Studien der Natur,in which sounds of nature and commerce alike are recreated using only voices, was a rather charming one-upping of Josquin’s El Grillo. Johannes Schöllhorn and Carl Bettendorf took the madrigal into postmodern, often craggy, territory. Martin Iddon’s hamadryads required the group to play water-filled glasses and employ headsets to grok its very expanded Pythagorean tuning,  notated down to 100ths of a cent! Incredibly challenging to perform. But then, Ekmeles revels to be challenged.

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This Thursday, composer Randy Gibson’s work will be in full force on the Music at First series. The concert features the world premiere of Gibson’s Circular Trance Surrounding the Second Pillar with The Highest Seventh Primal Cirrus, The Utmost Fundamental, and The Ekmeles Ending from Apparitions of The Four Pillars (fit that title on a postcard!), a concert length work in just intonation for sine wave drones and seven voices. Also on the bill is a set from Canadian harpsichordist Katelyn Clark.

    Performance details

Date: Friday, November 18th 2011
Time: 7:30pm
City: Brooklyn, NY
Venue: First Presbyterian Church of Brooklyn
Address: 124 Henry Street
Admission: $10

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.