Signal plays Reich at Miller Theatre

Opening Night at Miller Theater

Steve Reich Photo: Jeffrey Herman

Steve Reich
Photo: Jeffrey Herman

On September 15, Ensemble Signal, conducted by Brad Lubman, presented an all-Steve Reich program to open the season at Columbia University’s Miller Theatre. There was a sold out crowd, populated both by contemporary music devotees and over 200 Columbia students. Reich turns eighty later this year, and this is one of the many birthday concerts that will fete the composer.


Signal has recorded several albums of Reich’s music, including a 2016 release on Harmonia Mundi that features his Double Sextet and Radio Rewrite, recent works that demonstrate the undiminished energy and invention of their creator. The Miller Theatre concert focused on two sets of “variations,” composed in the prior decade: Daniel Variations (2006) and You Are Variations (2004). The amplified ensemble featured a superlative small complement of singers, a string quintet, a quartet of grand pianos, and a bevy of percussion and wind instruments. They were recording the concert, one hopes for subsequent release.


Daniel Variations is, in terms of instrumentation, the slightly smaller of the two. Alongside the aforementioned piano/percussion group, Reich employs a quartet of vocalists (two sopranos and two tenors, singing in a high tessitura for much of the piece), string quartet, and two clarinets. There are two textual sources for the piece. The first are the words of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, who, while reporting on the conflict in Pakistan in 2002, was captured and killed by Islamic extremists. These are offset by quotations from the Book of Daniel, a text from the Old Testament of the Bible. The texts underscore Pearl’s Judaism and also his love of music (he was an amateur string player). Indeed, the last movement of the piece, “I sure hope Daniel likes my music, when the day is done,” is a trope on a Stuff Smith song, “I Sure Hope Gabriel Likes My Music,” found in Pearl’s record collection after his death.


You Are Variations finds Reich exploring texts from his spiritual roots, including Psalm 16, quotes from the Talmud, the Hasidic Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, and Wittgenstein (Reich’s undergraduate thesis subject). Musical quotes are diverse as well, ranging from L’Homme Arme to a song by James Brown. The harmony is prevailingly in D mixolydian but unorthodox bass progressions and layering often give it a polytonal feel. From where I was sitting, the vocals seemed a little recessed in favor of the winds, something that I am confident can be worked out in subsequent mixing of the projected recording. It still worked live, giving the impression that the singers were sometimes supported by the ensemble and sometimes vying in a struggle for discernment of the weighty texts.


Lubman conducts Reich’s work with the authority of someone who has both an intimate knowledge of the scores and of the formidable musicians at his disposal. Reich seemed to approve. Taking the stage with trademark baseball cap firmly planted on his head, he volubly demonstrated his pleasure to everyone from Lubman to the sound designer. The percussionists, in particular, beamed as they accepted his greetings: they had done right by Reich.

Saturday: Tallis Scholars at St. Mary’s (Concerts)

Tonight I’m covering the Tallis Scholars, who are performing “Masterpieces for Double Choir” at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin as part of Miller Theatre’s early music series. Selections include works by Lassus, Vivanco, Arvo Pärt (I’m interested to hear the Tallis Scholars sing this composer’s work!), and Praetorius. Below here a sample of their rendition of the latter’s “In Dulci Jubilo.”


Event Details
Saturday, December 1, 2012
8:00 PM
Church of St. Mary the Virgin (145 W. 46th Street)

To order tickets online: click 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?)

Thursday: Harvey Uptown and Fairouz in Brooklyn

Among Thursday’s offerings, two composer portrait concerts compete for the attention of New York audiences.

Photo by Maurice Foxall.

I’m writing about the Jonathan Harvey concert for Musical America. Performed by Ensemble Signal at Miller Theatre, it features two of his large scale, spiritually inspired ensemble pieces, Death of Light/Light of Death (1998) and Bhakti (1982) (event details here).

Bird Concerto with Plainsong, Jonathan Harvey’s recent CD on NMC, is one of my favorite discs thus far in 2012.

Mohammed Fairouz is having his portrait concert  at Our Lady of Lebanon Cathedral in Brooklyn. It is being produced by the folks at Issue Project Room. The program includes three world premieres and features the Borromeo String Quartet, Cygnus Ensemble, Elizabeth Farnum, pianists Kathleen SupovéBlair McMillen, and Taka Kigawa, and mezzo-soprano Blythe Gaissert. (event details here).  

Hot off the presses is Fairouz’s debut on the Bridge imprint, Sumeida’s Song, an opera about peacemaking and tolerance, written when the precocious composer was only twenty-two years old.

Composer Portrait Preview: Hilda Paredes (Video)

Much of the buzz around Manhattan this week is about Spring for Music at Carnegie Hall, and rightly so (we’ll be discussing it here as well). But there are several other noteworthy events going on. This coming Saturday, Ensemble Signal, conducted by Brad Lubman, presents a composer portrait of Hilda Paredes at Miller Theatre. Guest soloist: Irvine Arditti!

Saturday, May 12, 2012
8:00 PM
Miller Theatre

Corazon de Onix (2005)
Señales: Homage to Jonathan Harvey dedicated to Ensemble Signal and Irvine Arditti (2012), world premiere, Miller Theatre commission
Ah Paaxo’Ob (2001)

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

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:


Talea plays Zorn at Miller, Microtones at Merkin

Talea Ensemble performs Zorn at Miller Theatre. Photo: Matt Murphy

My article about John Zorn’s Composer Portrait at Miller Theatre is now up on Musical America’s website. While I had some reservations about the ADHD pacing of some of the piece’s on the program, I had no reservations about the performances, which were superb. Talea is an excellent group with a wide reach.

Amply demonstrating this, their next concert on 12/17 at Merkin Hall is devoted to Inharmonic/(X)enharmonic compositions. The program includes works by Tristan Murail, Enno Poppe, and Talea’s Artistic Director Anthony Cheung.

John Zorn plays … organ?

John Zorn will be featured on a Composer Portrait concert at Miller Theatre on Friday at 8 PM.

He’ll also be playing an 11 PM set, on the pipe organ at Columbia University’s St. Paul’s Chapel.

Here’s Zorn  below: talking about shaking the building with some of his registrations!

John Zorn Organ Improvisations Preview from Miller Theatre on Vimeo.

Elbow Room

The US premiere of James Dillon’s Nine Rivers, a three evening long contemporary classical epic, will open Miller Theatre’s 2011-’12 season (details below).

I’ll be writing about the first evening of the piece for Musical America. That said, I’ve been assured by those in the know that you probably shouldn’t take this Gesamtkunstwerk as if it’s three separate evenings of music: it’s kind of like having your Siegfried without your Götterdämmerung.

Is Nine Rivers a postmodern retort to the Ring? Perhaps not in terms of narrative, but in terms of its ambitious scope and extended genesis, its not an inapt analogy. A Scottish composer associated with complex scores of penetrating intensity, Dillon has spent years creating this work for electronics, voices, strings, and brass. Nine Rivers also includes a strong multimedia component, with lighting by Nicholas Houfek and video design by Ross Karre. Steve Schick will lead the performers, a group of fifty musicians from the ensembles red fish blue fish, ICE, and the Crossing Choir. Without giving too much away, audiences will be in for quite a finale: all of the musicians perform at once in the last section of Nine Rivers.

Now I must confess that I had some small misgivings when I heard about the massed forces for the piece’s conclusion: call it the logistician in me. After all, I’ve never seen even close to fifty musicians on the stage of Miller Theatre! Will they all fit?

Fortunately, it appears that elbow room, while at a premium, will be adequate. I’ve been assured – via Miller’s twitter feed – that having choral musicians in the mix has been a space saver in terms of stage choreography: after all, they won’t be lugging instruments onstage. That said, the Crossing (also via twitter) reports that they still must contend with big scores that will require music stands. So, it’s likely to be cozy up there!

Below is a video of Steve Schick discussing Nine Rivers.

Event Details

    Nine Rivers by James Dillon

    Wednesday, September 14, 8:00PM

    Friday, September 16, 8:00PM

    Saturday, September 17, 8:00PM
    Columbia University’s Miller Theatre is located north of the Main Campus Gate

    at 116th St. & Broadway on the ground floor of Dodge Hall.

    All-access passes for Opening Night are now on sale online at

    Single tickets can be purchased online beginning August 15.

    The public may also purchase tickets through the Miller Theatre Box Office

    in person or at 212/854-7799, M–F, 12–6 pm beginning August 29.

Happy 102nd Birthday Elliott Carter

Elliott Carter at Miller Theatre. Credit: Jon Simon

Boulez's 85th celebrated - a bit late - at Miller. Photo: Jon Simon

Elliott Carter turns 102 today! He was at Miller Theatre this past Monday night at the all Pierre Boulez concert put on by the Talea Ensemble. This was the last of many concerts celebrating Boulez’s 85th birthday (which occurred back in March).

The group played the US premiere of the latest version of Dérive 2: a work composed in 1988 to celebrate Carter’s 80th birthday. 22 years later, Boulez, now 85 himself, has expanded the piece to well over double its original length!

Talea Ensemble at Miller. Photo credit: Jon Simon.

As Raymond Bisha wrote on the Naxos Blog, Elliott Carter is planning to spend his 102nd birthday in Toronto, at a concert comprised entirely of works he’s written in the past two years!