Knussen conducts Maderna. Photo credit: Hilary Scott
The 2010 Festival of Contemporary Music at Tanglewood has moved away from its recent model of having a solo curator conceive the festival. Instead, the curatorial duties are shared by three of its longtime faculty members: Gunther Schuller, Oliver Knussen, and John Harbison. The focus this year is on Tanglewood’s past and present faculty composers. Far from feeling like ‘old home week,’ the programming has demonstrated a wide range of stylistic diversity among those who’ve taught at Tanglewood. In addition, one can observe how each successive generation of Tanglewood students has benefited from their instruction here and, in several cases, returned to mentor the Festival’s next generation of up and coming composition fellows.
Thursday August 12’s concert felt the curatorial presence of Gunther Schuller looming large, although the composer himself wasn’t present (apparently, he has a conflicting commitment at the Edinburgh Festival). One could hear why he might be attracted to George Perle’s Concertino for piano, winds, and timpani (1979). Though Perle isn’t generally known for jazziness in his music, the Concertino mixes some lushly voiced verticals – recalling Gershwin or, indeed Schuller in Third Stream mode – amidst the otherwise prevailingly neoclassical ambience. William McNally played the solo piano part with dextrous execution. Both he and the ensemble, led by Cristian Macelaru, provided a well prepared account of the Concertino, sensitively shading its complex harmonic palette.
Theodore Antoniou’s Concertino for Contrabass and Orchestra (2000) was a virtuoso showcase for soloist Edwin Barker. Rhythmically propulsive and harmonically eclectic, it demonstrated a host of playing techniques for the instrument. Barker rose to every challenge, suggesting that the bass fiddle is not just some lumbering beast to be kept confined to anchoring the orchestra’s low end. Rather, in Barker’s hands, it proved nimble, wide-ranging, and capable of thrilling effects: one especially noticed the brilliant glissandi harmonics.
Schuller’s Tre Invenzioni (1972) an angular piece for five spatially dispersed chamber groups, was conducted by Oliver Knussen, who artfully shaped its often punctilious, angular surface. One didn’t envy the students for having to tackle some of the exposed and punishing altissimo lines Schuller put in their paths. But it was an impressive rendering of this unforgiving and formidable piece.
Written in 1922, it’s somewhat curious to find Paul Hindemith’s Kammermusik No. 2, an incisive but conservatively neoclassical work, on a festival devoted to contemporary music. But Hindemith did indeed serve on Tanglewood’s compositional faculty back in 1940-41. That connection alone might not suffice for some, who might wonder why they couldn’t program one of his more daring works. But the piece was well worth hearing if only to enjoy pianist Nolan Pearson, who played with dazzling virtuosity and impressive, almost Mozartean, elegance, as well as the fine support he received from an ensemble conducted by the youthful up and comer Alexander Prior.
The highlight of the evening was a thrilling performance of Bruno Maderna’sIl Giardino religioso (1972), led by Oliver Knussen. Dedicated to longtime Tanglewood patron Paul Fromm (the title’s religioso is a pun on the meaning of Fromm: “devout”), this chamber orchestra piece contains quasi-aleatoric complexity and bold theatricality.
Things began with a bit of a snag. In the midst of the work’s hushed introduction for antiphonally seated solo strings, an audience member took a cell phone call, interrupting the proceedings. Sans histrionics, Knussen stopped the performance, tramped offstage, and returned after a moment. “Let’s try again,” he said.
One was certainly glad that he did, as the delicate balance of the resumed opening brought the now raptly attentive audience into a fascinating labyrinth of sounds. Knussen got to do double duty as a performer, first playing chimes, then drums, and finally celesta. The piece builds to a ferocious climax which is punctuated by two large cymbals being flung to the ground. In a gradual denouement, it returns to gently haunting antiphony. Incantatory music, magically rendered. Makes me want to hear much more Maderna!
The festival continues through Monday, August 16th. Stay tuned for more dispaches from Lenox.
Ken Ueno appeared with Joan Jeanrenaud at BAM last month. I missed the gig, but was excited to see the YouTube footage.
When I met Ken, in the graduate program at Boston University, he hadn’t yet started to sing; he was primarily a guitarist. Although he’s written a wide range of compositions, including Shiroi Ishi, a beautiful choral piece for the Hilliard Ensemble, in recent years he has carved out a distinctive identity as a throat-singer. Combining techniques from multiple traditions as well as some effects and ideas of his own, Ueno is now slugging it out toe to toe with Jeanrenaud!
Talus, on BMOP/sound
You can hear more of Ken’s recent efforts, including a bunch of his throat-singing, on Talus, his disc for the BMOP/sound label.
The 52nd Annual Grammy Awards are on Sunday night, here’s the list of all the classical music-related categories and nominees, and here are the composition-related categories and nominees. Let’s give a shout-out to the Boston Modern Orchestra Project and to Derek Bermel for their nomination in the category of Best Instrumental Soloist Performance with Orchestra.
I was able to spend some time talking with BMOP Artistic Director Gil Rose (audio here), and BMOP violinist Gabriela Diaz (audio here) about their experiences working with composers and about what music they are excited about… or at least were excited about back in October when we spoke.
I also noticed that Meet The Composer is making another push for their Music Alive program, which matches up composers with orchestral residencies around the country. There are not many of these residencies available, but if you work for an orchestra that’s thinking about creating a composer residency, you should visit the Music Alive site. The reason I mention all of this is because our friends at BMOP have a video up where Gil talks about their three-year collaboration with composer, Lisa Bielawa. This link should also take you straight to that video.
Amanda Palmer is a bona fide rock star. She first made her name as half of The Dresden Dolls, and has since struck out on her own with a solo album called “Who Killed Amanda Palmer.” In June of 2008 she teamed up with the Boston Pops for two nights, and this December they’re doing it again for a New Year’s Eve concert. Amanda has also been pioneering new models of how the rock music industry can work (staying in nearly constant contact with her fans via Twitter plays a key role), and I wanted to see if that ingenuity could be translated into advice for the classical scene. I interviewed her by phone last week, and we talked about the upcoming Pops show, her musical background and training, and her impressions of the classical music industry:
Amanda is performing in Singapore right now, and when she returns she has a series of shows along the Eastern Seaboard which culminate with the Pops concert on December 31.
P.S. Here’s the link to the Shadowbox repertoire discussionAmanda mentions.
Seda Röder is a Turkish pianist who currently teaches in Boston. Those of you who are interested in electroacoustic music may remember her performance back in April during the New York City Electroacoustic Music Festival at the CUNY Graduate Center. If you live near Boston, take a look at her website: she will be playing four concerts in the area between September and the end of the year.
Seda has been very active recently, performing and recording works by young Turkish composers including Tolga Yayalar and Hans Tutschku. She believes that most Americans don’t know much about young Turkish composers — I believe she is correct!
First, a quick introduction and thank you are in order. My name is James Holt and I am a composer living in New York. I started a podcast where I interview musicians specializing in performing contemporary music, and I ask them about their experiences with composers. Simple. I want to thank Sequenza21 for inviting me to come on the site every couple weeks as a recurring feature to tell you about the new episodes.
This week is my interview with Evan Ziporyn…I’m sure that he’s someone who needs no introduction to most of the s21 audience, but just in case: Evan is probably best know as the clarinetist in the Bang on a Can All-Stars and as director of Gamelan Galak Tika. He is also producing a new music festival in Boston called the Beeline Festival which happens to begin today if you’re in the area.
The easiest way to listen and subscribe to the podcast is through iTunes. You can search the iTunes Store for “my ears are open” or click here to go there directly. If you have any suggestions for musicians you’d like me to interview you can do that here (you’ll need a google account though).
I hope you enjoy this project as much as I do. Coming up on April 19: Alex Lipowski, percussionist.
Wendy plays Ken’s viola concerto with BMOP! Hear harmonies analyzed from Wendy’s ankle bone!
Friday, November 14, 2008 / 8:00pm – 10:00pm
Jordan Hall at New England Conservatory
290 Huntington Avenue, Boston, MA
The amazing violist Wendy Richman plays Ken Ueno’s concerto Talus, with the Boston Modern Orchestra Project and the incomparable Gil Rose.
Here’s the program:
Martin BoykanConcerto for Violin and Orchestra / Curtis Macomber, violin
Robert EricksonFantasy for cello and orchestra / Rafael Popper-Keizer, cello
Arnold SchoenbergConcerto for String Quartet and Orchestra / BMOP Principals
Elliott SchwartzChamber Concerto VI: Mr. Jefferson / Charles Dimmick, violin
Ken UenoTalus,concerto for viola and orchestra / Wendy Richman, viola
Tickets for this concert are available at the Jordan Hall Box Office. Call (617) 585-1260 or visit the box office at New England Conservatory (30 Gainsborough Street), Monday – Friday 10am-6pm, Saturday 12pm-6pm. The box office opens at 6:30pm on the day of the concert.
In 1973 my mother bought me my first toy piano at Harvey’s Department Store in Nashville. This is not quite the heartwarming tale of a little tyke that it might at first seem to be, since I was at the time a student at New England Conservatory, and she was getting it for me so I could play the Cage Suite for Toy Piano in a concert in Jordan Hall. It turned out that, completely inadvertently (only operating according to her generosity), she had got me the Steinway of toy pianos, a Schoenhut. I’ve continued to play the Cage over the years, and last summer my toy piano more or less just fell apart.
As I thought about buying a new one, it occurred to me that I should do an inaugural concert on it. I began to ask people to write pieces for me, and mostly they agreed to do.
The concert is on Sunday, April 8 at 8:00pm in the Marshall Room in the Music Building at Boston University (855 Commonwealth Avenue).
The concert includes–in addition to the Cage–pre-existing pieces by Kyle Gann, Eve Beglarian, Richard Whalley, and Dai Fujikura (for toy piano and violin pizzicato–the violinist will be Peter Zazofsky). There are new pieces, which will be having their first performances, by Lyle Davidson, Pozzi Escot, Stephen Feigenbaum, Michael Finnissy, Philip Grange, John Heiss, Derek Hurst (with electronic sounds–i.e. on my boombox), Matthew McConnell, Matthew Mendez, Nico Muhly, Ketty Nez (for toy piano and piano–Ketty will be the pianist), Dave Smith, Jeremy Woodruff, William Zuckerman, and me (for clavichord and toy piano–the clavichord player will be Peter Sykes). (I’m pretty sure that’s everybody.) The pieces are all really good and all really different from each other.
I hope you can come to this (what can only be described as an) unusual concert.
If you read something contrary here previously, consider this an update. The Lily Pad in Cambridge has been closed temporarily to obtain proper codes and licenses; they hope to re-open soon. Therefore, the Earle Brown FOLIO event scheduled for tomorrow night, Oct. 20, by the Callithumpian Consort will be rescheduled on a future date.
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One conclusion that a body might draw from the Callithumpian Consort’s outing last week in Boston is that what some contemporary music needs — and richly deserves — is a near-empty concert hall.
No, seriously. Would Earle Brown’s “Sign Sounds” and John Luther Adams’s “songbirdsongs” have been anywhere near as atmospheric if the New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall had been — sickening thought — full? Ah we happy few, all forty (40) of us.
The point comes up because of the way that “songbirdsongs” in particular relies, first, on silence, both in itself and as background; and second, on space, not just in the sense of there being a sort of aerating nimbus around the sounding notes (i.e., good acoustics) but room enough, measured in linear feet, for a pair of piccolo players to go wandering about inside and outside the auditorium making like birds.
These weren’t Messiaen birds, they were Adams birds. A nice thing about an Adams bird, if one can generalize, is that if it feels like modulating a bit that’s what it will do — just a little. And that’s as far in the direction of grandiosity as they ever get. Jordan Hall being three storeys high and with lots of doors to enter and depart from, there was a blessed abundance of perches.
So described, “songbirdsongs” might have you wondering about what’s been helpfully labeled the Cringe Factor. Yes, the titles that the piece’s sections bear — “Morningfield Song,” “Apple Blossom Round,” “Wood Thrush,” “Joyful Noise,” “notquitespringdawn,” “Mourning Dove,” “Meadowdance,” “August Voices” — do suggest a New Agey niceness that will not appeal to all tastes. And there were moments when you felt the composer was really pushing it (must all this be so calm, sparse, and Alpha-wavey?) but then what should land on us but an expertly timed, shock-cut, irruptive coup de theatre — so that’s what all those percussionists were on hand for.
Forget about the Cringe Factor then. Cumulatively, there turned out to be a much greater variety of tone color and strategy in “songbirdsongs” than might first have appeared. Examples: the quiet vibraphone roll teetering on the edge of audibility — you had to crane to see where it was coming from — that produced the oddest, near-electronic sort of hum; “Mourning Dove,” with its literalist sighing bent notes; the “Apple Blossom Round”; and the noisy bits, which in this context had the feel of natural disturbances.
How much of this sort of thing is too much? Reactions will differ, but evidently not a very great deal. “Relaxing but not insignificant” (John Schaefer) is one take on Adams’s music, “You either love it or like it” (Evan Johnson) another.
Finally, a matter we’re not exactly sure that the composer consciously intended. Toward the end of “songbirdsong,” as event placidly succeeded event, your reviewer became aware of a steady, silent pulse beneath it all — something like 50 ticks to the minute. The instrumental attacks were variously on or to either side of the pulse, but mostly on. It was there, wasn’t it? Or was it the brain that was supplying it? Or both?
The performers, excellent all, were: Nana Aomori, Jessi Rosinski (piccolos), Jeffrey Means. George Nickson, Joseph LaPalomento, Daniel Zawodniak (percussion), Stephen Olsen (celesta), Gabriel Diaz (violin).
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Earle Brown’s “Sign Sounds,” which mobilized some 18 players plus conductor, raised certain questions if you thought about them as the music was going on, but somehow didn’t if you didn’t. The questions would have been: What, precisely, is in that score, and of what kind and how much, and did it matter?
It’s irresistible to quote Paul Griffiths, that indefatigible and learned pro, on the subject of Brown’s music:
“His aim was not the empty space of Cage, nor the quiet space of Feldman, but the decisive object — not the extinction of the composer, nor the liberation of the performer, but the creation of a well-made piece, one that would have a sure identity for all the variability of form and detail introduced by means of indeterminate notation. The more indeterminate the notation, the more the identity of the piece would have to be visual …”
— “Modern Music and After: Directions Since 1945” (Oxford University Press, 1995).
In this particular performance of “Sign Sounds” there was a sense of the piece being assembled and set up out of blocks of air, right there in front of you — and in that loveliest of musical work places, Jordan Hall. How everything did sound — the sprinklings of celesta, some very in-tune string harmonics, the lyre-like punctuations of the harp, a swinging brass choir, and the quartet of mallet-wielding percussionists who, when the texture allowed, created one doozey of a great splash (like New York Modernist flung paint? Just a thought.)
Near-stasis then a flutter of activity — it was at these extremes, it seemed, that all these colorful sonic possibilities were being realized. At one point a series of staggered entrances had you listening for, of all things, a fugue. A fugue! But shouldn’t ghostly traces of such things be appearing in Brown? His worklist does include after all, though from early on, a fugue and a passacaglia.
In any event, the piece went over like you wouldn’t believe (40 pairs of hands clapping, all belonging to the right people), and there was an encore: a fragment of what had gone before, sounding pretty much as we’d heard it the first time.
The heroes and heroines of this performance were: Jessi Rosinski (flute), Will Amsel (clarinet), Amy Advocat (bass clarinet), Adam Smith (bassoon), Andrew Stetson (trumpet), Dylan Chmura-Moore (trombone), Hester Ham (piano), Minji Noh (celesta), Franziska Huhn (harp), Ethan Wood and Heather Wittels (violins), Ashleigh Gordon (viola) David Huckaby (cello), David Goodchild (bass), Jeffrey Means, John Andress, Joseph Becker, William Holden (percussion) and Stephen Drury (conductor).
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First on the program was Alvin Lucier’s “Ever Present,” which as a late arriver (accursed Harvard/Dudley bus) we were reduced to experiencing from outside one of the windowed doors leading in to the auditorium. The flutist, sax player, and pianist all looked quite at peace with themselves, not having very many notes to play and perhaps for other reasons as well. Anyway, we didn’t hear any. But wait, was it the overhead lighting in the corridor that was giving off that high-pitched technological noise? Or ventilation gone haywire? No, silly, it was one of Lucier’s beloved electric gizmos.
The Callithumpian Consort is at work again at 8:30 pm tomorrow night at NEC’s Jordan Hall in a slightly premature celebration of the 80th anniversary of Earle Brown’s birth (it’s actually December 26).
They’ll be playing Brown’s Sign Sounds, a rarely heard masterpiece of open form from that resides somewhere on the frontier between serialism and improvisation. They will perform the piece several times, and have assured us that no two performances will be alike.
And they’ll also be continuing their exploration of Alvin Lucier with his Ever Present, for saxophone, flute, piano, and sine waves (which they describe it as “infinitely slow expansion of the music between your ears”) and John Luther Adams’s songbirdsongs, a JLA masterwork from the 1970s.
The Callithumpian Consort has just recorded the complete songbirdsongs under the direction of the composer. Watch for the CD release.
And don’t miss Evan Johnson’s review of the latest Earle Brown recording on the CD Review page.