NEW YORK – Austrian Cultural Forum New York makes part of its mission supporting chamber musicians from Austria, bringing them to the United States for concerts. One of the best of these concerts I have attended was this past Thursday’s New York debut of Ensemble Lux, a string quartet with formidable technique and ambitious tastes in programming. Their concert ranged across a century’s worth of music, from Anton Webern’s 5 Movements for String Quartet (1909), to la pureté de l’envie blanche, a piece from 2010 by the Lux’s second violinist, Thomas Wally.The concert opened with Olga Neuwirth’s settori, a showcase for extended techniques: alternate bowings, rapping on the wood of the instruments, Bartôk pizzicatos, altissimo register filigrees and harmonics. Neuwirth uses this expansive palette as the means to fascinating, expressive ends. Hans Erich Apostel (1901-’72) was a student of Arnold Schoenberg and Alban Berg. The musical materials and aesthetics of the Second Viennese School are on display in Apostel’s 6 Epigramme. While the pieces are well constructed miniatures, his last name is telling of his relative place in the 12-tone pantheon.
More engaging was Schoenberg’s String Trio. Written after the composer’s heart attack, a program reflecting this experience is often ascribed to the work. Whether one thinks it appropriate to do so, the piece is a remarkable late work by Schoenberg, juxtaposing the techniques of twelve-tone music and neoclassical phrasing with some of the visceral gestural language of his earlier Expressionism. Lux’s performance paid note both to the work’s Apollonian and Dionysian features. Correspondingly, Webern’s 5 Movements, aphoristic vignettes written at the beginning of atonality’s appearance, were played with exquisite care by the quartet.
la pureté de l’envie blanche juxtaposed periods of silence with angular runs nearly at the instruments’ bridges. There were also tremendously quiet sustained passages. One was struck by the dynamic range the quartet had been able to deploy in ACFNY’s small performance space, from thunderous outbursts in settori to the extreme pianissimos of Wally’s work. Ensemble Lux’s precision and control mark them as a group with a promising future. Hopefully, their next visit to New York will be soon.
On Tuesday, October 18, 2016 at The Wild Beast on the Cal Arts campus, a faculty recital by Andrew McIntosh featured no fewer than six different violins and violas, five sections of the Rosary Sonatas with period Baroque tuning, four contemporary pieces, and two world premiers. A good-sized crowd turned out mid-week to experience a wide range of music employing tuning practices from the 16th to the 21st century.
Embellie (1981) by Iannis Xenakis was first, a solo viola piece. Xenakis is quoted in the program notes: “I wrote this piece… trying to think only of the viola, with its low, beautiful notes and its particular voice lying in between those of the cello and the violin like a patch of more clement weather, a moment of calm during a storm…” The opening of Embellie was strongly assured, although perhaps tinged with a touch of anxiety, its complex texture and slight dissonances adding up to a sense of dissatisfaction. Lightly delicate phrases alternated with more forceful passages and McIntosh provided a finely controlled contrast in dynamics and color. At one point, a series of declarative phrases were succeeded by slow, continuously descending tones, unwinding like a far off siren. Rapid, skittering runs followed – requiring rock solid technique – and then some rougher, unsettled phrases that culminated in a high, wispy sound, like the soft whistling of the wind, as the piece quietly concluded.
Next was vla (2007) by Nicholas Deyoe. A version of this – vln – was written for violin, but this was the premiere performance for solo viola. Unlike the Xenakis piece that featured strong contrasts and a variety of textures, vla artfully occupied just a small subset of possible viola sounds. Deyoe noted that “The material is derived entirely from natural harmonics and pizzicato open strings on a retuned instrument.” Vla began with a continuous series of light, squeaky notes that floated insubstantially into the air, often leaving behind a questioning feel. The high, needle-like pitches were accompanied by similarly high pizzicato, deftly realized by the left hand of McIntosh, even as he bowed the arco parts. All of the familiar, rich tones of the viola were absent, but the dancing shimmer of pitches engaged the listener throughout. Vla convincingly evokes the hard sparkle of glass shards in a bright sunlight – from a most unlikely instrument.
On Saturday, October 8, 2016 Jacaranda Music presented a pre-season event titled Intimate Letters featuring the Lyris Quartet in a concert preview of their new CD by the same name. Intimate Letters contains newly-commissioned pieces by four different composers, each writing a work of musical commentary and reflection on String Quartet No. 2 (1928) by Leoš Janáček. “Intimate Letters” is the nickname given by Janáček to this piece, inspired by his long and close friendship with Kamila Stösslová, a married woman some 38 years younger with whom over 700 letters were exchanged during a span of 11 years. The practice of commissioning new works that look to the past has lately become fashionable, and this project by Jacaranda and the Lyris Quartet involved composers Bruce Broughton, Billy Childs, Peter Knell and Kurt Rohde. The four world premieres comprised the first half of the concert, and a performance of String Quartet No. 2 by Janáček followed the intermission. The spacious sanctuary of First Presbyterian Church of Santa Monica was mostly filled for the concert and the event included an after-party that was held in the adjacent courtyard.
The first piece in the program was Fancies, by Bruce Broughton, who wrote in the program notes: “Fancies is essentially a rhapsody/fantasia built upon the opening figures [of String Quartet No. 2 ], the most obvious being a motor rhythm that reappears throughout the piece.” Accordingly, Fancies began with a strong, repeating tutti figure, complete with rapid runs and lively trills. The tempo was brisk, but not frenetic, and the clean playing by the Lyris Quartet gave a solid coherence to the ensemble. The busy sections morphed and mutated as the piece progressed, alternating, at times, with slower stretches that often had a tinge of questioning doubt. Of all the new pieces on the program, Fancies seemed the most closely related to the early 20th century music of Janáček in form and gesture. Mr. Broughton is a well-known composer of film scores and TV themes; his versatility and craftsmanship make Fancies a vivid re-imagining of the Janáček style.
Intimate Voices, by Peter Knell, followed and in many ways this was the converse of the Broughton piece, opening with a slow, soft chord and sustained pitches. Intimate Voices is built around four notes, G, C, F# and D, that appear as the viola solo heard in the first minute of the first movement of String Quartet No. 2. This has a delicate, nuanced quality that is calm and settled, like drifting along at sea on a windless day. As the piece progressed the tempo occasionally moved ahead, but always returned to the slower, more deliberate pace of the opening. The long tones allowed for some lovely harmonies to develop and the playing by the Lyris Quartet was full and balanced. Intimate Voices is a serene and peaceful work, artfully developed from just a tiny fragment of the Janáček composition.
Steve Reich turns 80 today. I can’t think of a better way to fete the composer on record than DG’s recent reissue of the 1974 recording of Drumming. Performed by Reich and “Musicians,” it presents one of the seminal works in his catalog. Drumming rounded out the first “phase” of his career (sorry, couldn’t resist), and it was followed by pieces that explore intricate pitch relationships and, from the 1980s onward, an increased interest in historical context and dramatic narrative. The triple LP set also contains the vital works Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices, and Organ and Six Pianos.
A new piece by Reich will be unveiled at Carnegie Hall on November 1st. Thus, he remains an imposing presence in the field of contemporary classical music. Happy birthday Mr. Reich, and many more.
One of the noteworthy recordings released in 2016 is the Kepler Quartet’s third volume of string quartets by Ben Johnston (New World Records). Johnston, who turned ninety this year, is well known for his work in unconventional tuning systems, namely extended just intonation. The complexity of some of his works in this system, notably the Seventh Quartet, included on Kepler’s volume 3, ranks up there with some of the toughest chamber works in the literature. Even a seemingly more straightforward piece, such as his Fourth Quartet, a trope on “Amazing Grace,” can provide both formidable pitch and rhythmic challenges. Recently, I was in touch with the violinists of the Kepler to discuss Johnston’s work and the new recording.
Eric Segnitz, 2nd violinist for the Kepler Quartet and producer
When did you first become familiar with Ben Johnston’s work?
I was aware of the original Fine Arts Quartet’s 1964 recording of Ben’s 4th Quartet (Amazing Grace) as a student in the late 70″s, from studying briefly with Leonard Sorkin–the FAQ 1st violinist who commissioned the piece. I subsequently played it several times for the Present Music concert series in Milwaukee, as well as Calamity Jane and her Daughter, Ben’s transcription of Harry Partch’s Barstow, and a few other works.
When you decided to go about recording the quartets, did you have any idea how long it would take to realize the project?
No idea whatsoever. But we made the commitment to Ben, to New World Records, and to ourselves to complete it–damn the torpedoes!
An article in the N.Y. Times (and other writers) have called Johnston’s Seventh String Quartet “the most complex ever written.” Do you agree? Why do you think it is so hard?
The crazy crawling harmonies, that’s obviously extremely complex. The challenge that is not-so-obvious is that he is dealing with the way time passes, movement by movement; time passing so quickly that it leaves you in the dust, time elapsing at a normal pace– but with a surreal 3D layering of palindromes offset by various cell lengths, or time dragging so slowly that it’s hard to fully comprehend the rigorous structure which exists. To me, that is the underlying brilliance of the piece.
How does the Seventh Quartet compare to the others in terms of difficulty?
In the sense of the sheer number of pitches involved, yes, #7 is the most difficult. But that is only one type of challenge posed by Ben. In Quartet #6 (also on this 3rd CD) for instance, every chord overlaps with the one both before and after it. Given the nature of the chords to begin with, that’s extremely challenging in it’s own right.. And I could cite multifarious examples of uncharted waters, throughout his 10 quartets.
I was recently speaking to a friend who heard your recording of the Fourth Quartet, loved it, and decided to work on it with a student quartet. He said that he was surprised that something that, audibly and on the surface, seemed so accessible to players was actually quite hard. Do you find that too – that “appearances can be deceiving” in terms of the complexity of these pieces.
Yes and no… he uses a genius-level grasp of musical craft to achieve a music that everyone can relate to in a spiritual/emotional way, if they give it that chance. It’s a music that resonates because, once again, it’s founded upon the natural order of acoustics.
Now that you’ve climbed this Parnassian mountain, what’s next for the Kepler Quartet? Which composers are you interested in performing and recording?
Even though we all play a lot of contemporary music, it might be useful to draw some connections to where this music came from. It’s easy to think of Ben as a maverick composer, a unique innovator, a specialist. He is, but also much more than that. He’s really a great composer in the traditional sense, and his music will only become truly appreciated in that larger context.
Sharan Leventhal, 1st violinist for the Kepler Quartet
How did you go about learning the quartets?
We dealt with them one at a time. There is a certain amount of work that needs to happen before the playing begins. Each pitch must be defined according to its role in the harmony within the just intonation system. Ben’s notation provides a tool for establishing the relationships in every chord, no matter where he has taken the progression. Adding and subtracting his accidentals places a pitch. The ultimate judge is your ear, because every note is determined by its function. Once you understand your role within a given chord, you will hear how to place your notes. Of course, as with any piece, we study the score, to understand its structure and the emotional intention behind the music. Rehearsing is a slow painstaking process of tuning and balancing each chord while gaining an intellectual grasp of the harmonic journey. As the sonic world comes into focus, it informs our choices about the timbre and shape of individual phrases. We worked through every single note of every single chord with the composer, uncovering copy errors, and getting his input on musical decisions.
Why do you think that the Seventh Quartet is so hard?
The 7th quartet is especially daunting because it has a hugely expanded pitch group. Ben travels so far along the spiral of pure harmonic progressions that there are over 1,200 discrete pitches in the octave. Actually, in some ways I didn’t find the 7th quartet the most difficult. For example, the 6th quartet is more musically obscure and difficult to grasp. The 7th quartet makes sense, but you have to be able to work (and hear!) the system.
How would you go about teaching these pieces to the next generation of string quartet players? Moreover, for those who want to learn Johnston’s tuning system, where would you suggest they turn?
I already teach Ben’s music at The Boston Conservatory. Every once in a while an adventurous quartet wants to make the attempt. Invariably, for the students it is a transformative experience. As one cellist said, “nothing will ever be the same.” Learning these works is a matter of learning how to hear—to be wholly immersed in vertical relationships, attuned to the harmonic series, and completely committed to the present moment. At the same time, one must listen forward and backward—anticipating root movement of chords to hear where pitches will belong ahead of time, or relating back to what has just happened. It is incredible ear training, and requires rethinking what pitch is, how it works, and how it can be manipulated.
When teaching these works, I like to start with #9. The first movement is a clearly defined C Major just tuned scale (with a cameo appearance by that interesting anomaly, the syntonic comma). Young players find it rhythmically challenging—the rhythmic complexities are based on the same ratios that define the intervals of the just tuned scale. The third movement is a simple hymn-like melody, with clear almost traditional harmonies. What makes it so fantastic and emotionally potent is the harmonic slide down two syntonic commas (from F Major to F- Major to F – – Major) and back up within the first phrase. This modulation is part of opening the tempered ‘circle of fifths’ to its naturally occurring spiral. Hearing it has a strong, visceral effect.
I have written an article (“An Introduction to the String Quartets of Ben Johnson,” American String Teacher, Volume 64, Number 3, 8/2014) that details how to approach these scores—how to tune the instruments’ open strings, how to do the math required by Ben’s accidentals). I think the article will also be made available on Kepler’s website, and that is definitely a good place to start. Without those preparatory steps, the score can’t be realized as the composer intended. Next, the players must tune and balance each chord, working back and forth between harmonies to understand progressions and internalize relationships. All this ultimately supports the interpretation of the music, making a much more powerful, visceral statement.
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TMC Fellows perform Barbara White’s “Learning to See.” Photo: Hilary Scott.
The Pierrot Ensemble, named after Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire and consisting of flute, clarinet, violin, cello, and piano, has, since its inception, been a signature assembly for contemporary music. The preferred version of the ensemble also includes a percussionist: the “Pierrot plus Percussion” grouping is the default core membership for many new music groups. Even after dozens, if not hundreds, of pieces have been written for “P+p” ensembles, there is still plenty of vitality left in the genre. This was abundantly in evidence on the Saturday afternoon concert on July 23 at Tanglewood’s Festival of Contemporary Music, where several of the pieces employed this instrumentation or an augmented variant of it.
Barbara White’s Learning to See takes as its inspiration several works of visual art by Tinguely, Brancusi, Hesse, and Johns. The use of movements inspired by Brancusi’s Bird sculptures, of which he made fifteen, as a refrain in the piece allows for subtle variations on a pool of similar materials. Meanwhile, the other movements explore syncopated rhythms and ricocheting counterpoint. There’s timbral variety too, briefly including a prepared piano. Learning to See takes on a melange of musical material, but fits it together in fascinating ways.
Visual Abstract by Pierre Jalbert is connected to art as well, but in a different way from White’s piece. After its composition, video artist Jean Detheux made a computer-generated series of images to accompany the piece. Its individual movements are based on three different overarching images. “Bells – Forwards and Backwards” gives the ensemble the chance to play with a complex array of pealing sounds replete with overtones. “Dome of Heaven” contains luminous harmonies and lyrical string duos. “Dance” is a contrasting closer. Bongo drums articulate mixed meters while the other instruments engage in an elaborate game of tag.
Donald Crockett’s Whistling in the Dark adds a few instruments to the P+p grouping: an extra percussionist, a viola, and double bass. It has a quirky cheerful refrain, called “boppy music” by the composer, that is contrasted with passages of considerably greater heft. The work is strongly undergirded by its percussion component, which includes unorthodox instruments such as suspended flower pots. The piano’s percussive capabilities are played to maximum advantage as well. Over this, corruscating string and wind lines dart in and out in various combinations. Just when you think that the piece will whirl into a maelstrom, the cheery “boppy” refrain, the piece’s “whistling in the dark” brings it back from the edge.
Arthur Levering employs a variant of the P+p grouping too, with viola and double bass augmenting the complement in place of percussion. One of several “bell pieces” Levering has composed, Cloches II focuses on overlapping the limited pitch oscillations of bells. The repetition of these figures gives the piece a consistent feeling of momentum. Despite the absence of percussion, there are plenty of gonging sounds provided by the instruments: Levering has cited a particularly low cello riff towards the end of the piece as imitative of “Big Ben.”
Erin Gee’s “Mouthpiece 29.” Photo: Hilary Scott
Two other works on the program employed ensembles that are removed from the P+p context. Elizabeth Ogonek’s Falling Up (love the Shel Silverstein reference), is for a trio of winds — flute/piccolo, English horn, and clarinet — and two string players: violin and cello. In addition to Silverstein, Ogonek has indicated that a quite contrasting poem — Rimbaud’s Enfance — served as a contrasting inspiration for the piece. Thus we see two disparate types of music, one embodying Silverstein’s whimsy — complex rhythms, trills, altissimo register playing, and angularity — and Rimbaud’s sensuousness — slow-moving, sostenuto passages with frequent punctuations from different subsets of the ensemble — that provide rich contrasts and imaginative textures. Erin Gee’s Mouthpiece 29, commissioned by the Tanglewood Music Center, featured the composer as vocalist alongside three string players: violin, viola, and double bass. Gee is adept at incorporating all manner of mouth sounds and extended techniques into her music. Thus, microtones, pizzicatos, and glissandos from the strings were well matched against Gee’s own sliding tones, lip pops and trills, and phonetic (rather than texted) vocal lines. Mouthpiece 29 was the most “out there” piece on this year’s FCM, but it was greated by the audience with an enthusiasm that suggests that Tanglewood might be ready for more post-millennial avant classical offerings in the future.
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On Friday, violinist Miranda Cuckson and pianist Blair McMillen release their ECM debut CD. It contains the Hungarian Béla Bartók’s Violin Sonata No. 2 (1922), the Russian Alfred Schnittke’s Violin Sonata No. 2 “Quasi una Sonata” (1968) and Polish composer Witold Lutoslawski’s Partita for Violin and Piano (1984). One can hear sound excerpts via ECM’s website. All three are interpretations of searing intensity, rhythmic vitality, and impressive ensemble cooperation.
One can hear works from the CD live at Le Poisson Rouge on May 10, where ECM will be hosting a release party for the two artists. Each will also take a solo turn with short pieces by Americans: Cuckson playing Carter and McMillen playing Stucky. Doors open at 6 PM; concert starts at 7 PM. More info can be found at LPR’s website.
This Thursday, the Danish Piano Trio will make their US recital debut at Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall. The group – Katrine Gislinge,piano, Toke Møldrup, cello, and Lars Bjørnkjær, violin – will present piano trios by Niels Gade and Felix Mendelssohn (one of my personal favorite chamber works, the swoon-worthy Piano Trio in D minor). The group will also present the premiere of Bent Søresen’s Abgesänge. Pianist Steven Beck guests, joining Møldrup in the world premiere of Geoffrey Gordon’sFathoms (Cello Sonata).
The group’s DaCapo recording Danish Romantic Piano Trios is out now.
Danish Piano Trio
Weill Recital Hall
December 17 at 8 PM
Student/Senior tickets: $10. available in person at box office only.
Carnegiehall.org | CarnegieCharge 212-247-7800
Box Office at 57th and Seventh
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Last night marked the launch of Pulitzer Prize-winning composer John Luther Adams’ weeklong residency at the University of Michigan. Adams’ time in Ann Arbor, which will include performances as well as lectures on environmental advocacy, began with an evening of his chamber music at the University of Michigan Museum of Art. The museum’s apse has been site of may memorable concerts over the years, but none may have taken advantage of this setting as well as yesterday’s program of Adams’ resonant and ravishing compositions. In one of the handful of interstitial interviews between Adams and University of Michigan Musicology Professor Mark Clague, the composer described his music as, “all about sound and space.” And, Adams later added, “I want to make strange and beautiful new places…make them empty, without my footprints in them…so the audience can find their way through them.”
From left to right: conductor Oriol Sans, composer John Luther Adams, conductor Jerry Blackstone (photo credit: Patrick Harlin)
The hundreds in attendance Monday night had a terrific opportunity to experience these characteristics in Adams’ works Strange Birds Passing, Dark Wind, The Farthest Place, In a Treeless Place, Only, and in four selections from his massive choral work Canticles of the Holy Wind. In between the pieces, Adams shared evocative and endearing anecdotes related each work’s origins. These included the revelation that the Strange Birds Passing was inspired by the paisley wallpaper decorating Adams’ Alaskan cabin’s refrigerator in the 1980s, or that the selected movements from Canticles of the Holy Wind reflect his more recent observations of parhelia and other celestial phenomena in the sky above the arctic and Mexico.
The concert’s program was, essentially, chronological, and enabled Adams to recount his sense of his growth as a composer. Fond of and familiar with his music, I listened for large-scale similarities and differences across the evening’s offerings. Certainly, The Farthest Place and Dark Wind – which Adams denoted as two of his, “color field pieces,” – work through deeply similar designs. The oldest piece, Strange Birds Passing, was the most overtly melodic composition, yet it evinced the same ambling, symmetrical form expressed by In a Treeless Place, Only Snow and Canticles of the Holy Wind. Altogether, Monday’s concert was a terrific aperitif to the culmination of Adams’ time in Ann Arbor: the University Symphony Orchestra’s performance of Become Ocean, which represents the work’s Midwest premiere. Even that piece, Adams’ most recent and celebrated, had ancestors of last evening’s program, as one could here embryos of Become Ocean in Dark Wind’s trembling opening.
In the end, as much as Adams’ music amazed, the setting of its performance was almost more stunning. At the very least – and as Adams admitted – the museum’s acoustics had as much a hand in the beauty of the evening’s performance as did the talented instrumentalists and vocalists of Michigan’s School of Music, Theatre, and Dance, or Adam’s compositional artistry. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the concert was Adams’ willingness to collaborate with, and have his listeners’ experience so heavily influenced by, the space surrounding the performance. As Adam’s described, it seems he tries, in all his pieces, to remove himself as much as possible from the music, from the center of the audience’s attention. I think many composers aspire towards the humility needed to even consider this kind of rhetorical positioning, but few live in it like Adams seems to. And, though I doubt it is even possible for any composer to disappear fully from a listener’s experience of their music, Adams’ efforts to this end, like his compositions, are, indeed, superlative.
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RighteousGIRLS will be celebrating their new disc gathering blue with a release party at Joe’s Pub at 7 P.M. this Friday, August 7th. Flutist Gina Izzo and pianist Erika Dohi will, of course, be there to throw down with their exciting and inventive program and they will be joined by Kendrick Scott & Andy Akiho as well!
RighteousGIRLS collected an exceptional collection of genre-blending works using flute, piano, electronics, guest performers, improvisation, and all the things that make today’s contemporary music engaging and exciting.
A video of Pascal Le Boeuf’s piece GIRLS as well as audio of Andy Akiho’s KARakurENAI can all be found on the gathering blue site.