Best of 2012: BMOP

Boston Modern Orchestra Project, continues to be persuasive advocates for American composers: both live and on CD. Under the direction of Gil Rose, BMOP is one of the few orchestras devoted to American music that regularly – and prolifically – records. Their imprint, BMOP sound, released several noteworthy recordings in 2012. Among my favorites was a double CD of John Harbison’s opera Winter’s Tale, a relatively early work that boasts a wonderfully pungent and engaging score.

Stream: Winter’s Tale, opening (via File Under ?’s Tumblr page).

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.

Jörg Widmann: Elegie (CD Review)

Jörg Widmann
Elegie

Widmann, clarinet; Heinz Holliger, oboe;
Deutsche Radio Philharmonie, Christoph Poppen, conductor

ECM New Series 2110

39 year old Jörg Widmann is a virtuoso clarinetist and one of Germany’s rising stars in the realm of music composition. Both of these aspects of his talents are on display in a new portrait disc released by ECM Records. Christoph Poppen, one of the label’s mainstays (another multi-talented musician – a fine violinist and conductor) leads the Deutsche Radio Philharmonie in a program that displays Widmann as a musician with a diversity of interests and a multi-faceted compositional toolkit to match.

The disc’s title work features Widmann playing a plethora of extended techniques, haloed by orchestral writing that is primarily atmospheric with occasional fierce outbursts. Messe, despite its moniker and movement titles mirroring the Ordinary of the liturgy, is for large orchestra sans voices. Fastidious attention is given to contrapuntal details in several “contrapuncti” movements. Elsewhere a juxtaposition of weighty tutti and long-breathed angular melodies provide some surprising textural shifts.

Fünf Bruchstücke (1997) are early works that feature clarinet and oboe. The latter duties are fulfilled by oboist/composer Heinz Holliger (another formidable double threat!). The two are given many opportunities to display the extended technical capabilities of their respective instruments. But it is the sense of cat and mouse interaction and the energetic elan that typifies much of the compositions’ demeanor that make them far more captivating than many a virtuoso showcase.

Widmann weds musicality and technical facility seamlessly. While the episodic nature of this program gives tantalizing glimpses of his potential, one looks forward to the composer/clarinetist expanding his horizons to larger formal designs on a future recording.

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.

Tuesday: NY Phil celebrates Dutilleux

Tonight the New York Philharmonic celebrates French composer Henri Dutilleux, the recipient of the orchestra’s first Marie-Josée Kravis Prize for New Music.



Dutilleux has decided to use the prize money to commission three composers to write works for the Philharmonic in his honor. He’s already selected one – Peter Eotvos. Who would you recommend to Mr. Dutilleux as the other two commission recipients?



Alan Gilbert will conduct and Yo-Yo Ma is the featured guest soloist.

Program

Métaboles (1964)

Ainsi La Nuit for String Quartet (1976)

Cello Concerto — Tout un monde lointain (A whole distant world) (1970)

Tonight: NY Phil premieres Carter at Contact!

103 year old Elliott Carter has written a new work, Two Controversies and a Conversation, which will be premiered tonight at the Met Museum as part of the New York Philharmonic’s Contact! series. The concert, conducted by David Robertson, also includes a newly commissioned work by Michael Jarrell and Pierre Boulez’sexplosante-fixe…

Carter discusses the piece in the video below.

The Contact! program will be repeated on Saturday at Symphony Space.

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.

Thursday: Alabama Symphony at Spring for Music

Tonight, the Alabama Symphony, conducted by Justin Brown, appears at Carnegie Hall as part of Spring for Music, a week long celebration of out-of-town orchestras with adventurous programming aesthetics. Many of them are making their Carnegie Hall debuts; all of them are bringing programs of interest and demonstrating that, despite the oft-reported economic vicissitudes in the world of classical music, there remains a tremendous vitality of orchestral music making throughout North America.

Quattro Mani

In addition to a repertory standby, Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, the ASO presents two New York premieres of pieces they commissioned: Avner Dorman’s Astrolatry and Paul Lansky’s Shapeshifters. The latter work is a double piano concerto for the duo Quattro Mani.

The same forces recently recorded it, as well as two other pieces by Lansky, for Bridge . The disc, titled Imaginary Islands, shows off Lansky’s music at its most colorful, filled with virtuosic passages for the soloists and formidably propulsive post-minimal writing for the orchestra. The composer’s take on minimal figuration is a fascinating marriage of an “enhanced” harmonic palette, one evocative of Messiaen as often as it is of Adams, with crackling ostinati and pileups of syncopation.

The recording demonstrates how far the ASO has come in a relatively short period of time: less than twenty years ago (in 1993), the orchestra had declared bankruptcy and its future was very much in doubt. The musicians and Brown, who soon departs from his position as their music director, should be proud of the successes the ASO has enjoyed in recent years. The standard of playing has risen, the orchestra’s programming has included a number of new works including several commissions, and they have been featured on several recording projects. This week’s visit to Carnegie Hall: a well-deserved victory lap!