NYPO’s Contact! at Symphony Space

Musicians of the NYPO, Alan Gilbert, and Sean Shepherd (photo: Stephanie Berger)

The New York Philharmonic has made significant strides to renew its commitment to contemporary classical music this season. Curated by composer-in-residence Magnus Lindberg and conducted by music director Alan Gilbert, Friday April 16th’s Contact! series performance was a compelling program stirringly performed.

Sean Shepherd’s These Particular Circumstances proved a vibrant opener. A bassoonist as well as a composer, he’s a fine orchestrator. Its also clear that, while at Cornell for his DMA, he learned a lot about Lutoslawski from Steven Stucky, as his language incorporates insights from both composers. Shepherd’s music has a wonderful way of making the orchestra shimmer. He took advantage of the chamber orchestra’s lither scoring, providing deft contrapuntal passages for winds and solo strings. At the same time, These Particular Circumstances displays considerable power in its tutti passages, reminding us that the ensemble for Contact! is a formidable assembly.

Nico Muhly made a point of complementing his former Juilliard classmate from the stage, pointing out that Shepherd’s high-lying passages create such a signature sound that, when he learned he was following him on the program, he decided to ‘give the violins a break.’ True, with a darker hued string section led by the violas, his work Detailed Instructions takes on a sound world that stood apart from the other pieces on the program. Muhly is post-minimal in orientation. And while a couple of the composers in the audience who sat near me groused at intermission that his work is ‘indebted to Philip Glass,’ what they didn’t seem to hear was Muhly’s playful departures from mainstream minimalism.

Instead of Glass’ symmetrical use of ostinati, Muhly’s repeating figures dart in and out of the ‘expected phrase lengths,’ creating delightful surprises and heady syncopations. In the more reposeful central section, he channeled an appealing lyricism from his recent pop-based excursions into a spacious orchestral mold. The third section gave the NYPO musicians a chance to up the bpm quotient, in a breakneck paced, dazzling finale. Make no mistake, Muhly is no mere retro-minimalist; quite the contrary, he’s a compelling new voice on the scene.

Matthias Pintscher composed Songs from Solomon’s Garden for the NYPO’s artist-in-residence, baritone Thomas Hampson. A setting of texts from the Song of Solomon in Hebrew, the work was simultaneously sensuous and inquisitive. Pintscher deftly juxtaposes cantabile passages with spikier ones, creating an impressively varied orchestral palette. And while Solomon’s Garden never even flirts with neoromanticism, it has a far more lyrical impulse than some of Pintscher’s other, in this writer’s opinion less congenial, vocal writing. Hampson sang the challenging, chromatic, and wide ranging  part with commitment, subtlety, and musicality. At a stage in his career when he certainly needn’t take on learning new works, Hampson’s willingness to participate in Contact! so enthusiastically is admirable.

Alan Gilbert and Thomas Hampson (photo: Stephanie Berger)

Alan Gilbert and Thomas Hampson (photo: Stephanie Berger)

Gilbert has done a remarkable job in a short amount of time crafting a fine contemporary ensemble with these Philharmonic members. He elicited powerful, clear, and engaging performances throughout the program. Its worth noting that the NYPO is getting into the spirit and has been very supportive of Contact!. The organization went all out to publicize the show, in the process making a zealous case for new music’s relevancy in the broader cultural life of the city. And they did a good job incorporating multimedia into the PR mix; we posted some of the flipcam videos on the front page in advance of the performance.

Enlisting WNYC’s John Schaefer as host and onstage interviewer was a nice touch. Schaefer kept things moving breezily while eliciting both bon mots and aesthetic observations from each artist and composer. WNYC/WQXR’s contemporary internet station, Q2, will be broadcasting the concert on Thursday, April 22 at 7 p.m. or Saturday, April 24 at 4 p.m.

After the concert, the whole audience was invited to stay and chat at a reception.  Everyone was even treated to a free beer. What’s not to like?

League of Composers/ISCM: Concert Review

Orchestra of the League of Composers/ISCM. Photo credit: Ron Gordon
Orchestra of the League of Composers/ISCM. Photo credit: Ron Gordon

Wednesday night was the debut of the Orchestra of the League of Composers/ISCM “” an improbable eighty-five years after the organization’s founding. As Jerry pointed out earlier, the NY Times included strangely sweeping and sadly misinformed coverage leading up to the concert. However, this did little to dissuade an enthusiastic audience from attending the performance. They were treated to quite an evening. Below are a few highlights:

-Lou Karchin: An excellent choice as conductor. Lou did a fine job leading the orchestra in a varied and challenging program.

-Musicians: Anyone acquainted with new music in New York was apt to recognize a number of the area’s finest participating. It showed.

-John Schaeffer: Despite appearing a bit rumpled onstage, the radio host lent star power, a sense of flow, and good-natured humor to the proceedings. His interviews with composers before each of their pieces were played combined user-friendly setups of the music with questions designed to let the audience get to know a bit about each composer’s approach and personality.

-Elliott Carter: Having one of the venerable co-chairs of League of Composers/ISCM’s represented on the concert was a classy move. The evening included a stunning performance of In the Distances of Sleep, Carter’s first settings of Wallace Stevens for mezzo-soprano and small orchestra. Soloist Kate Lindsey shined in these songs at the Tanglewood Carterfest last summer. If anything, her performance here was even more lovely; assured, nuanced, and tremendously attentive to every detail of diction and dynamic.   Schaeffer interviewed Carter before the performance. In response to a query about his continued productivity, Carter replied, “I’ve become fanatic about it. I don’t have any jobs to do any more. I can sit in a room and write music all day, and there’s nothing that pleases me more!”


-Gharra: Christopher Dietz’s sheepish admission that he knew little about ISCM prior to winning their composition competition(!) demonstrated that the organization still needs to do more to get out the word during this time of revitalization and re-branding. Still, Dietz’s captivating music is likely to have made the audience forget the gaffe rather quickly. He came up with the title (meaning “desert storm”) after composing the piece – with the help of Google and in consultation with an Egyptian-American cab driver. But Gharra’s strikingly dramatic formal design and fluidly varied pitch language – which encompassed everything from extended minor-key passages to supple microtonal bends – was worthy of the appellation.


-Alvin Singleton’s After Choice was simpler in design, but eloquently so. A string orchestra piece, it consisted of intertwining arco melodies and pizzicati, often in two-part counterpoint or – even starker – played in unisons or octaves. Written in homage to jazz violinist Leroy Jenkins, it didn’t feature anything so overt as jazz inflections. Rather, Singleton based the piece on string parts from a previous orchestral work that Jenkins had admired.


-Julia Wolfe’s The Vermeer Room is filled with beautifully sculpted, imaginatively scored verticals. The harmonic language and orchestration proved quite persuasive. I’m not sure I ‘grok’ the piece’s pacing just yet; I want to give it a second hearing before weighing in.


-Charles Wuorinen’s Synaxis featured four soloists in a sinfonia concertante that draws on the Orpheus myths as loose touchstones, Schaeffer was eager for Wuorinen to more precisely describe the connections between musical and extramusical inspiration; but the composer made it clear that this was no piece of program music.   Instead, the audience was treated to a showcase for four superlative soloists: oboist Robert Ingliss, clarinetist Alan Kay, French horn-player Patrick Pridemore, and double bassist Timothy Cobb. Cast in four movements, Synaxis gave each a chance to play with abundant virtuosity. The bass part displayed particular flair, and required more than a bit of courage: jaunty leaps, high-lying passages, and fleet bowed flurries. With its combination of careful ensemble coordination and bravura showmanship, Synaxis seemed an apt – and appropriately ambitious – way to end the 85th season of League of Composers/ISCM. Let’s hope for more orchestra concerts during their 86th year!

Happy 201st half-birthday Elliott

Seems like just yesterday Kay and I were celebrating Carter’s 100th birthday at a conference in Paris.



But today is Elliott Carter’s half birthday. My feeling is that anyone who hits the century mark should celebrate the half birthdays with equal enthusiasm!

ISCM agrees with me. Last night, the debut of the Orchestra of the League of Composers/ISCM — an improbable eighty-five years after the organization’s founding — included a stunning performance of In the Distances of Sleep, Carter’s first settings of Wallace Stevens for mezzo and small orchestra. Soloist Kate Lindsey shined in these songs at the Tanglewood Carterfest last summer. If anything, her performance here was even more lovely; assured, nuanced, and tremendously attentive to every detail of diction and dynamic.

WNYC’s John Schaeffer interviewed Carter before the performance. In response to a query about his continued productivity, Carter replied, “I’ve become fanatic about it. I don’t have any jobs to do any more. I can sit in a room and write music all day, and there’s nothing that pleases me more!”

Should  Providence be so kind, I’d be glad to say the same when I turn 100 1/2!

An Hispanic Festival


New Paths in Music presents


An Hispanic Festival

Elebash Recital Hall

Graduate Center – CUNY

New York


On Friday June 5th, New Paths in Music presented a concert of composers from Mexico, Argentina, and Spain: two of each. While the program centered around national identities, it contained music in disparate styles and for varying forces. DAVID ALAN MILLER, conductor of the Albany Symphony, led the New Paths Ensemble, a chamber orchestra of crackerjack contemporary players from the New York area.


ENRICO CHAPELA’S “Irrational Music” was a perfect curtain-raiser. The piece is based on Chapela’s explorations of irrational numbers; but this was in no way indicative of a dry or cerebral surface. On the contrary, “Irrational Music” pulsates with vibrant energy. Its frequent time changes and energetic tutti pileups were deftly negotiated by New Paths. What’s more, Chapela’s music set the stage for the rest of the concert; serving as a foreshadowing of elements grappled with throughout the concert. The evening was often about music of deft negotiations – balancing massed orchestration versus delicate linear writing and intricate metric shifts with visceral “dancing” rhythms.


Colliding Moments” by ALEJANDRO VIÑAO, was for a smaller subunit of the ensemble. Composed for a 2005 concert in Paris, its chamber textures exhibited a Francophilic ambience. Some of the flourishes played by Christopher Oldfather were reminiscent of Messiaen, while violinist Sunghae Anna Lin, flutist Valerie Coleman, and clarinetist Alan Kay were given Impressionist solo turns. Viñao’s work also demonstrates a supple, varied metric layout; but it is a piece one’s likely to remember for delicate pirouettes rather than colliding timescales.


Spanish composer DAVID DEL PUERTO is also a guitarist; his knowledge of the intricacies of the instrument’s capabilities were well-displayed in Zephyr.” A guitar concerto cast in a single movement, with fast-slow-fast subsections, it was a delightful showcase for the excellent soloist OREN FADER. Del Puerto excelled at making space in the orchestration for Fader’s solos, supplying fleet scalar passages as well as a central section of considerably supple lyricism. That said, there was plenty for the ensemble in the piece as well; transparent accompaniments were contrasted with powerful verticals. Once again, there was a marked emphasis on frequent, fluidly rendered time changes. “Zephyr” is a persuasive, attractive work; one hopes Fader keeps it in his repertoire.


GABRIEL ERKOREKA’S “Trance” draws upon American trance films as a touchstone, likening their post-surrealistic tone and simulated dream states to the piece’s musical explorations. The result was a tempestuous, expressionist, and volatile tone poem, more illustrative of disordered sleep than the meditative or transported states one often associates with trance in popular culture.


More appealing was GABRIELA ORTIZ’S “Amber Stained Glass Windows.” The piece charts the trajectory of a Monarch butterfly, migrating from the composer’s native Mexico to Montreal. Ortiz is a skillful orchestrator, creating limpid, shimmering textures that made particularly fine use of New Path percussionist John Ferrari’s formidable virtuosity. Miller deserves mega-kudos for preserving abundant clarity in this challenging piece.


Argentinean composer ESTEBAN BENZECRY was fortunate to have violinist ROLF SCHULTE performing the solo part in his “Evocations of a Lost World.” Schulte’s nimble execution of dizzying passage work and his ever present flair for the dramatic helped to distract from Benzecry’s frequently mawkish orchestration. Tribal “drums of death” and overblown winds, designed to be evocative of folk materials, instead gave the concert’s closer a bombastic, hackneyed flavor.


Still, the New Paths Hispanic Festival had a lot going for it; dedicated performances, stylistic diversity, and a program featuring several composers who deserve to be better known stateside.


Visit to the Village

Visual/Aural/Personal Discovery

 Bleeker Street Records

Kay and I went down to Barrow Street to hear the second Keys to Future concert last night. In addition to some pieces with which I was very familiar, the program also included works that were new to me. Discovering a new piece or previously unfamiliar composer in a live venue can be thrilling; especially when Amy Briggs and Stephen Gosling are playing! It was an excellent show; my review of it should post on Musical America later this week.

We got to the Village a little early, and had time to enjoy a preconcert dinner and stroll around the shops on Bleeker Street. A browse through Bleeker Street Records reminded me of one of the reasons why I’m so glad that there still are a few brick ‘n mortar stores around; and why I’d be sad if they went away. ‘Digging’ for vinyl or CDs can reveal sought-after treasures; but it can also lead to pleasant digressions and discoveries. While looking for something else, one of the CDs I grabbed off of the rack struck my visual fancy. I have no idea who the band is, what style of music they play, or whether they are any good. The artist who rendered their booklet cover, on the other hand, had such a vivid imagination that it was worth the five bucks just to see if the music could compare.

One of the debates as we ‘go green’ and cut costs is about the efficacy of digital distribution; whether we really need artifacts or whether digital copies, with all their conveniences (and foibles) instead suffice. I have grudgingly converted to obtaining some recording acquisitions via digital download. Even with the current sonic compromises of MP3, the convenience and comprehensiveness factors of many digital stores are seductive. And the 30-second sonic snippets can be handy for triaging selections.

Still, the experience of digging through shelves of recordings in person and having some album art catch your eye, paging through the storybook of lyrics and wondering if the musical rendering will compare – that’s magical!

One of my favorite places to browse in the digital domain is Silber Media. The imprint specializes in experimental artists, particularly of the alt-electronica persuasion. A number of their artists are on tour this summer; dates below!

The mystery CD from Bleeker Street is in the changer. I’m about to press play – wish me luck!

Silber Artists on Tour
Aarktica ( www.myspace.com/aarktica )
May 21 2009 8:00 PM
AARKTICA w/ Mark Van Hoen (Seefeel), Millimetrik, Luxa (Loveless Music Presents) New York

Northern Valentine ( www.myspace.com/northernvalentine ) – indie ambient
May 26 2009 9:00 PM
 Northern Valentine @ Greenline Cafe Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Hotel Hotel ( www.myspace.com/hotelhotel ) – post rock
May 22 2009 9:00 PM
 hotel hotel @ rgrs denton, Texas
May 23 2009 9:00 PM
 hotel hotel @ the foundation kansas city, Missouri
May 24 2009 8:00 PM
 hotel hotel @ nomad pub minneapolis/st. paul, Minnesota
May 25 2009 9:00 PM
 hotel hotel @ LEMP st. louis, Missouri
May 26 2009 8:00 PM
 hotel hotel @ tba columbus, Ohio
May 27 2009 9:00 PM
 hotel hotel @ bela dubby cleveland, Ohio
May 30 2009 9:00 PM
 hotel hotel @ friendship cove montréal, Quebec
May 31 2009 8:00 PM
 hotel hotel @ tba boston, Massachusetts
Jun 1 2009 9:00 PM
 hotel hotel @ goodbye blue monday bushwick, brooklyn, New York
Jun 2 2009 9:00 PM
 hotel hotel @ the khyber philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Jun 3 2009 8:00 PM
 hotel hotel @ the good cherry forest, Virginia
Jun 4 2009 9:00 PM
 hotel hotel @ caledonia lounge athens, Georgia
Jun 5 2009 9:00 PM
 hotel hotel @ kavarna decatur, atlanta
Jun 6 2009 9:00 PM
 hotel hotel @ the blind mule mobile, Alabama
Jun 7 2009 9:00 PM
 hotel hotel @ tba new orleans, Louisiana
Jun 9 2009 9:00 PM
 hotel hotel @ superhappyfunland houston, Texas

Remora ( www.myspace.com/remora ) – post apocalyptic pop
May 25 2009 9:00 PM
 Remora @ The Nightlight Chapel Hill, North Carolina
May 30, 2009 – 8:00 PM
 Remora @ BFF Bog   Chapel Hill, North Carolina

Small Life Form ( www.myspace.com/smalllifeform ) – aggressive ambient
May 31 2009 8:00 PM
 Small Life Form @ Badgerhaus Raleigh, North Carolina

Observations about Works & Process

It was Donald Hall’s night at the Guggenheim on Monday. Works and Process feted the eighty year-old former Poet Laureate of the United States with a program of music, readings, and conversation. The evening included five premieres, all commissioned by W&P.


Sarah Rothenberg interviewed Hall onstage, discussing his two most recent books, White Apples and the Taste of Stone: Selected Poems 1946-2006, and the 2007 memoir Eagle Pond. Although he’s a bit grizzled and rumply in appearance, Hall was still a lively interview subject. His readings and insights on the life of a poet were simultaneously entertaining and edifying. Rothenberg also moderated a roundtable discussion with the featured composers: Drew Baker, Joshua Schmidt, George Lewis, David Del Tredici, and Charles Wuorinen. Each briefly described their reactions to Hall’s poetry and approach to text-setting.


The music was a mixed bag, stylistically speaking; but the disparate selections were, for the most part, well-performed. Baker set “The Sea” for mezzo soprano (Mary Nessinger), cello (Fred Sherry), and electronics. The tape part incorporated snatches of sea sounds and a recording of Hall reading the poem; the musicians were amplified as well. While creating an ambiance, the amplification and electronic adornments also tended to blur the words. Conversely, Wuorinen’s setting of “Moon Clock” was incisively clear; baritone Thomas Meglioranza and bassoonist Peter Kolkay gave it a superlatively well-prepared rendition.


David Del Tredici combined two poems written over four decades apart, “The Poem” and “The Master,” into an “introduction” and an “aria” meditating the mediation between artistic inspiration and its creator. Del Tredici played the Straussian, hyper-romantic accompaniment; soprano Lauren Flanigan gave an over-the-top performance, mugging a bit with gesticulations towards Hall.


George Lewis set “The Painted Bed” for tenor (Robert Frankenberry) and viola (Lois Martin). Frankenberry seemed a bit taxed by both the tessitura and chromaticism of the vocal line; Martin, on the other hand, nimbly executed a challenging and florid accompaniment. Schmidt took a short poem, “Routine,” and elongated it through repetition, seeking to imitate the refrain of the daily grind. Meglioranza negotiated the angular, rangy vocal part with suavity; bass clarinetist Moran Katz did similarly with the catalog of special effects employed in her part.


There’s frequent sadness in Hall’s poetry; many of his recent works mourn the untimely death of his wife, the poet Jane Kenyon. But in person, he seemed upbeat and engaged, discussing poetic technique, enduring friendships, and abiding interests with enthusiasm. His ability to transcend vicissitudes and channel them into eloquent artistic expression is inspiring.