One of the most exciting areas for new music in recent years has been in the field of choral music. In the next two weeks, two choirs devoted to new music—one a veteran organization, the other an exciting, young rookie—will be presenting important programs of new choral works in both coasts.
The rookie is Baltimore’s Anima Nova Chamber Choir, which will present a concert of works by Eric Whitacre, Tarik O’Regan, Michael Rickelston, Sean Doyle, and Anima Nova founder and director, Jake Runestad. The concert, at 7:30 p.m. on Sunday, May 8 at St. Ignatius Church, 740 North Calvert Street in Baltimore, will benefit the Peabody Preparatory’s “Jr. Bach” scholarship, which provides opportunities for underprivileged students to attend the Peabody Prep.
The veteran ensemble is San Francisco’s Volti, which for the past 32 years has been at the vanguard of new choral music in the United States under the direction of its founder, Robert Geary. Their season finale will be presented three times (Friday, May 13 at 8:00 p.m. at the Berkley City Club; Saturday, May 14 at 8:00 p.m. at First Lutheran Church in Palo Alto; and Sunday, May 15 at 4:00 p.m. at the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco’s Presidio) and features works commissioned by Volti, two of which, Matthew Barnson’s Genesis and Elliot Gyger’s voice (and nothing more), are world premieres.
Barnson composed his Genesis, a re-interpretation of the biblical story of creation through poetry, at Volti’s Choral Arts Laboratory, its annual commissioning and residency program where composers under 35 work with Volti’s singers, Artistic Director Robert Geary and Composer in Residence Mark Winges to create a new work for choir in a workshop setting, culminating in its premiere at the end of a given season. Barnson describes Genesis as “three tableaux that are independent of one another but dependent upon the Book of Genesis to give them meaning. Each is a subversive exegesis upon the original story of creation and posits a slight, but vital alternative in the narrative, affecting the outcome of the myth in ways that are sometimes insignificant (but poignant) and sometimes darkly different. Each of the poets whose work I set refracted my original intentions. For instance, the outer movements of the triptych actually retell stories from the book of Genesis. In the second, middle movement I set Richard Siken, a poet whose ecstatic and anxious book, Crush is replete with Biblical images. Beyond the images of apples (knowledge but death) is the feature that the last two poems share: death deferred.”
Elliot Gyger’s voice (and nothing more) reflects the composer’s interest in “language and communication in their own right.” The original germ for what would become voice (and nothing more) was planted ten years ago, when Gyger was a graduate student at Harvard University, where he heard a lecture by musicologist Mauro Calcagno. “Occasionally as a composer,” one encounters by chance a piece of text (or other extra-musical stimulus) for which one may have no immediate use, but which makes such a strong impact that one files it away for future reference. Among the many fascinating sources which Calcagno discussed was a passionate diatribe on the transience of the voice from Emanuele Tesauro’s La metafisica del niente (The Metaphysics of Nothing). Read the rest of this entry »
Last Saturday night I caught a trio of Philip Glass‘s slightly more obscure music, performed by a well-rehearsed Pacific Symphony and Pacific Chorale (based in Orange County, California) as part of their annual American Composers Festival. Although lesser-known than its Los Angeles counterpart, the symphony is staffed with many fine Southern California-based musicians and performs in the recently built and acoustically impressive Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall.
The opening piece, “Meetings Along the Edge” from Passages (1990), featured Glass’s collaboration with Ravi Shankar, in which both agreed to each compose a melody for each other and write a new composition around it. Usually I cringe at the results at these attempts at cultural exchange and creative collaboration, but in this rare instance I was very taken with the way Shankar’s Indian melody combined with Glass’s signature contrapuntal and harmonic elements. It created a fascinating juxtaposition, that gave me new insights on how Shankar’s Indian musical elements integrated into his very recognizable compositional language.
The Concerto for Saxophone Quartet and Orchestra (1995) was written to serve dual purposes: first to be performed primarily as a saxophone quartet (here handled by the Prism Quartet), and secondly to be performed with an added orchestral accompaniment. Judging by the many recordings available of the quartet (sans orchestra), it has become a popular addition to the saxophone repertoire, but at Saturday evening’s performance it was hard to forget that much of this music was very similar or even repurposed from Wichita Vortex Sutra (1990), Glass’s song cycle collaboration based on Alan Ginsberg’s spoken-word poetry with solo piano. Reusing music has been widely accepted (besides borrowing heavily from Mozart and Purcell, Michael Nyman is a common recycler of his own music) and I think there is nothing inherently wrong with reusing one’s material, but in this case the unintended results were the equivalent of watching James Gandolfini from The Sopranos appear in another TV show. No matter how hard you try, it’s hard to see him as anybody but Tony Soprano. Comparing this secondhand saxophone showcase against the powerful combination of Glass’s music with Ginsberg’s poetry doesn’t really equate apples to apples, but more like apples to apple butter.
After intermission, just from viewing the assembled 140-member Pacific Chorale and orchestra, it might be easy to assume that Glass’s The Passion of Ramakrishna would feature a grand spectacle similar to his non-narrative operas like Akhnaten and Satyagraha. But for reasons I can’t fathom the assembled full chorus and orchestra wasn’t used to its full potential, at least in comparison to his similar vocal and operatic works.
The libretto, which recounted the final months and last words of the 19th-century Indian philosopher Ramakrishna, were surprisingly taciturn and the music was pleasant, but as the Passion of Ramakrishna was coming to a close I was struck that I had never been left so cold by a Glass vocal piece: It was basically 50 minutes of recitative with no aria (i.e. mostly all story and very little emotion). After the performance my concerns were confirmed when some of the performers said that Glass had mentioned he’d been hoping to eventually to flesh out the piece further, which was especially curious because the weekend’s performances were being recorded for a possible release on Naxos or Glass’s own Orange Mountain Music label.
Whether or not the piece performed Saturday night was the final version, it does leave me to think that in its current version, the Passion of Ramakrishna could use a few changes — namely, more “Passion” to balance out the exposition. As a composer who has learned much from studying and performing Glass’s music over the years the music presented Saturday night shows that even though many already are calling him a “living legend”, sometimes deadlines and professional obligations lead to music that was created by a mere mortal.
(Houston, TX) On February 25th and 26th at 8pm and February 27th at 2:30 pm (the third date added due to popular demand), the Houston Chamber Choir and Da Camera present Music for Rothko, a concert program of contemporary music in one of Houston’s most unique performance spaces. All three performances are sold out.
Presented in the interior of Rothko Chapel, the Music for Rothko program includes piano works by John Cage and Erik Satie, Tagh for the Funeral of the Lord for viola and percussion by Tigran Mansurian, and choral compositions by John Cage including Four. Feldman’s Rothko Chapel for soprano, alto, choir, celesta, and percussion, is the centerpiece of the program. The performers include the Houston Chamber Choir conducted by Robert Simpson, pianist Sarah Rothenberg, percussionist Brian Del Signore, and violist Kim Kashkashian in her first Houston appearance in more than 20 years.
New Yorker Magazine music critic Alex Ross recently tweeted: “It’s Rothko Chapel week” in reference to several performances taking place this week across the country of Feldman’s elegy for his friend painter Mark Rothko. It is exciting to find out via Twitter that this piece is receiving so much well deserved attention. Last Fall on Sequenza 21, I wrote about the Houston Chamber Choir and this upcoming concert. But I didn’t know at the time that several other performances of the piece would take place within a short span of time. And now I’m interested in contemplating what will set the Houston performance of Rothko Chapel apart from those taking place in other cities?
In his wonderful collection of writings Give My Regards to Eighth Street, Feldman describes Rothko’s paintings as “…an experience in depth…not a surface to be seen on a wall.” Music for Rothko will be complimented by the fourteen paintings Rothko painted for Rothko Chapel; and this setting is one that venues in other cities will not be able to approximate. Rothko’s paintings seem to move beyond the edges of the canvases, their surface appearances changing constantly thanks to the light coming through the chapel’s skylight and Houston’s unpredictable weather patterns. A fusion between the paintings, the architecture of the octagonal room, AND the live music is in store for the chapel’s capacity audiences.
Music for Rothko takes place February 25th and 26th at 8pm and February 27th at 2:30pm at Rothko Chapel. All three Music for Rothko concerts are sold out.
A standby list will be created beginning one hour before the performances, and if there are unoccupied seats, ticket will be sold for $35 at the door beginning about 10 minutes before the concert begins.
When the 2010 Composer Collaboration Awards call for proposals went out on May 10, 2010, music presenters, ensembles, and composers all over the San Francisco Bay Area called, paged, and emailed one another, then got together to put their dream projects down on paper in time for the deadline.
Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music – Laura Karpman and Independent Producers/Authors, The Kitchen Sisters
The Cabrillo Festival is one of the leading festivals dedicated to contemporary classical music. The work brings together Emmy award-winning composer Laura Karpman together with The Kitchen Sisters (authors and radio producers Nikki Silva and Davia Nelson) to create a multi-media, full evening length symphonic production titled The Hidden World of Girls.The Hidden World of Girls will focus on stories of lives shaped by the secrets girls carry with them into adulthood. The premiere is scheduled for July 28 & 29, 2012 at the 50th anniversary season of the Cabrillo Festival.
Corporation of the Fine Arts Museums (FAMSF) – Sarah Wilson and Aerial Dance Company, Catch Me Bird
Inspired by the incredible architecture, landscape and visual arts collections of the de Young Museum, Off the Walls will be a new jazz composition for aerial dance, which will be performed at assorted locations outside, inside and on the sides of the museum. It will be an evening length, site-specific work performed by composer Sarah Wilson, Catch Me Bird Aerial Dance Company, and an ensemble of 12-18 Bay Area musicians and dancers. The premiere is scheduled for March 2013.
Jewish Community Center of San Francisco – Mark Izu and Choreographer, Kimi Okada
The JCCSF’s Friend Center for the Arts aims to create a forum for innovative projects in multi-disciplinary and multicultural contemporary and traditional performance. It will commission a multi-media, multi-disciplinary work composed by Mark lzu and choreographed by Kimi Okada entitled Mu. Incorporating Korean, African, Indian, Japanese, and Hawaiian traditional music and dance, the piece heralds the end of the Mayan calendar and uses the legend of Mu, an ancient empire of blessings and noble values destroyed by materialism and greed, as a parable for today. The premiere is scheduled for December 2012.
Movimiento de Arte y Cultura Latino Americana de San Jose Incorporated (MACLA) -Guillermo Galindo and Chamber Ensemble, Quinteto Latino
MACLA is a San Jose-based contemporary arts space grounded in the Chicano/Latino experience. The company incubates new visual, literary and performance art in order to engage people in civic dialogue and community transformation. Guillermo Galindo and Quinteto Latino will create Voces del Desierto, a piece that will explore the journeys of unnamed immigrants who cross the Mexican-American border in search of a better life. The premiere is scheduled for late 2011 or early 2012. San Francisco Girls Chorus – Gabriela Lena Frank and Librettist, Nilo Cruz
One of the premier girls’ choruses in the U.S., the San Francisco Girls Chorus will commission Gabriela Lena Frank to create a cantata for treble chorus, chamber orchestra, and vocal soloists in collaboration with librettist Nilo Cruz. Marrying Western classical music tradition with Latin American folk music, Holy Daughters (working title) examines the cultural clash and interchange between European colonialism and indigenous tradition, and the role and perception of women in both worlds. The premiere is scheduled for June 2013.
Z Space Studio (Z Space) – Marcus Shelby and Co-Creator, Margo Hall
Known nationally as a premier performance development lab for artists, Z Space will create a new work by composer/musician Marcus Shelby and actor/director/singer Margo Hall. The new musical performance piece will explore the journey of a young black woman growing up in Detroit during one of the most exciting times for music and one of the most turbulent for civil rights. Loosely based on Ms. Hall’s life, Detroit represents a link to her childhood where her father was a well-known Detroit musician and as a child, she sang with her “aunties,” who were members of the Supremes band. The premiere is scheduled for January/February 2013.
On Tuesday 1/11, newish New York vocal ensemble Ekmelespresents a program of music by Martin Iddon, Alvin Lucier, and David Lang at The Tank. I caught up with Ekmeles’ director, baritone Jeff Gavett to learn more about the event.
Carey: Why did you form the group Ekmeles?
Gavett: “While New York is home to many exceptional instrumental groups dedicated to contemporary music, there is a relative paucity of new vocal music. Ekmeles was created to fill the gap, and bring adventurous new music for solo voices to audiences that otherwise have little or no chance to hear it.”
“Our first season so far has included a US premiere by Mauricio Kagel, New York premieres by Aaron Cassidy and Kenneth Gaburo, and new commissions by Troy Herion and Jude Traxler. We also performed as the vocal complement in a sold out performance of Knee Plays from Einstein on the Beach as part of the Darmstadt Essential Repertoire series at Issue Project Room.”
Carey: Tell us about the works on the concert?
Gavett: “First on the program is our commission, Martin Iddon’s Ἁμαδρυάδες (hamadryads). It’s a transformation of Josquin’sNymphes des Bois which involves retuning the intervals of the original in chains of Pythagorean intervals. These pitches, notated to the hundredth of a cent, are traversed mostly through extremely slow glissandi, requiring the singers to use sine wave reference tracks to achieve the tuning. We’ll also be playing tuned wine glasses, which blend eerily with the vocal textures.”
“Next is Alvin Lucier’sTheme, a setting of a poem by John Ashbery which shares some kinship with his most famous work. Lucier fragments the poem and distributes it between four speakers, who read the text into what he calls “resonant vessels.” These are vases, milk jugs, any empty container into which is placed a miniature microphone, which picks up the sound of the voice as filtered by the vessel, much like the room filters the sound of Lucier’s voice in I am sitting in a room.”
“David Lang’sthe little match girl passion rounds out the program. As the title suggests, Lang has taken Hans Christian Andersen’s moralistic children’s story and infused it with the Passion. The suffering and death of a poor little girl is thus directly and explicitly equated to that of Christ, amplifying the story’s emotional impact. The singers all play percussion instruments, and the glockenspiel is featured especially prominently, its crisp attack evoking the freezing night. The clear and sparse textures throughout the match girl text are contrasted beautifully with richer quasi-choral textures in the Passion-derived elements.”
Carey: What’s next for Ekmeles?
Gavett: “Upcoming performances include John Cage’sSong Books at the Avant Music Festival on February 12th, and Chris Cerrone’s Invisible Cities with Red Light New Music in May.”
Tuesday, January 11th, 2011, 7 PM - Ekmeles – Resonances
345 W 45th St, Manhattan, NY 212-563-6269
Estonian composer Arvo Pärt turned 75 yesterday. His record label ECM Records is celebrating his three-quarters of a century with two new recordings.
Pärt’s 4th Symphony is a long-anticipated follow-up to his 3rd – which was written back in 1971! In the interim, the composer has moved from a modernist style to an idiosyncratic version of minimalism; one the composer calls the “tintinnabuli” style of composition. From bell-like resonances and slowly moving chant melodies, Pärt has crafted a personal compositional language of considerable appeal. And while this has included a number of stirring instrumental works, such as Tabula Rasa and Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten, more recently Pärt has been known for his choral music. His return to symphonic form is thus an opportunity to explore his mature language in a different milieu.
Perhaps in part as an acknowledgement of the home of the orchestra commissioning the Fourth Symphony – the “City of Angels” – Pärt decided to use a text as a formative – if subliminal – device in his preparations of the piece: the Canon of the Guardian Angel. Thus, while this is certainly not merely a transcription of a vocal piece – it sounds idiomatic and well orchestrated – there is a certain chant-like quality which demonstrates the symphony’s affinity with the vocal music and chant texts that are Pärt’s constant companions.
The live recording is of the work’s premiere in Disney Hall in LA. Salonen and the LA Phil give a muscular rendition of the piece, emphasizing its emphatic gestures while still allowing for the symphony’s many reflective, meditative oases to have considerably lustrous resonance. And while one can certainly hear a palpable connection to Pärt’s chant-inspired tintinnabuli pieces, the symphony also allows for dissonant verticals and melodic sweep that recalls both Pärt’s own Third Symphony and the works of other 20th century symphonists, from Gorecki to Shostakovich.
Perhaps in order to clearly attest to the connection between text and symphony, the disc is balanced out with a fifteen-minute serving of fragments from one of his important choral works from the 1990s: Kanon Pokajanen. The composer has pointed out the relationship between the canon that was his reference point for the symphony and the texts upon which the latter choral work was based.
He says, “To my mind, the two works form a stylistic unity and belong together. I wanted to give the words an opportunity to choose their own sound. The result, which even caught me by surprise, was a piece wholly pervaded by this special Slavonic diction found only in church texts. It was the canon that clearly showed me how strongly choice of language preordains a work’s character.”
Kaljuste and the Estonian Chamber Choir are seasoned handlers of Pärt’s works, having made a number of recordings of his music. They do not disappoint here, providing a performance that juxtaposes the ethereal eternity found in the texts with an earthy and corporeally passionate rendering of the music.
In order to further fete Pärt, ECM also plans a lush reissue of their landmark 1984 recording, Tabula Rasa, complete with a generous accompanying book with newly commissioned essays about the composer.
Nico Muhly is set to appear at the Santa Monica Apple Store on the Third Street Promenade Wednesday, September 8th to mark two new releases from Decca. “A Good Understanding” will be released exclusively on iTunes on September 7, with physical copies available on September 21 alongside “I Drink the Air Before Me”.
Composer Nico Muhly
Muhly along with Los Angeles Master Chorale conductor Grant Gershon will take part in a Q&A session – where Muhly will demonstrate how he creates his compositions with GarageBand on his MacBook Pro. The talk will end with a performance by members of the Los Angeles Master Chorale featuring two works from “A Good Understanding” and two related works, “Like as the Hart” and “Wayfaring Stranger”.
John Clare spoke with Muhly about the works and event: mp3 file
Nico Muhly and Los Angeles Master Chorale conductor Grant Gershon appear at the Santa Monica Apple Store on Wednesday, September 8, 7:00 p.m.
Bonus – listen to the rest of the conversation as Muhly interviews Clare: mp3 file
A year ago at this time, Susan McMane, Artistic Director of the San Francisco Girls Chorus, had no idea what a hot-button issue immigration would be in June 2010. For her, the works of immigrant composers formed a compelling programmatic mix for her five-time Grammy-winning ensemble’s concert series, which she’d entitled A New Land, A New Song.
Now, in the midst of nonstop political debate and a deployment of additional National Guard troops to the border, SFGC will celebrate the contributions of immigrant composers to the choral music oeuvre. Composers come literally from all over the map, from Russia with Igor Stravinksy and his Four Russian Peasant Songs, from Cuba with Tania Léon and her work May the Road Be Free; and Austria with Ernst Krenek’s Three Madrigals. The Cypress String Quartet,SFGC’s 2010 Artists in Residence, will contribute Dvorak’s String Quartet No. 12 in F Major, Op.96, “American”. Choral pieces by Kurt Weill, Vernon Duke, and colonial Moravian composers are also on the bill.
But the centerpiece of the series will be a world premiere, commissioned by the Chorus from Chinese-born Chen Yi. The new work, Angel Island Passages, commemorates the 100th anniversary of Angel Island Immigration Station,known as “the Ellis Island of the West,” and evokes the experiences of Chinese immigrants. Artistic Director McMane came up with the idea for the work in 2009, and sent the book “Island, poetry and history of Chinese Immigrants on Angel Island, 1910-1940” — by Him Mark Lai, Genny Lim, and Judy Yung — to Dr. Chen for her reference as she began work on the commission.
The piece is written in three movements for treble voices and string quartet. The first movement, entitled “1882,” refers to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 passed by Congress to halt Chinese immigration into the United States. The music is based on a Cantonese folk ensemble piece, “Prancing Horses”, and contains a traditional scale in a sorrowful mode. Dr. Chen expands and develops the melody, and uses it horizontally and vertically throughout the movement. The second movement, “Longing,” continues in a slow, agitated and melancholy mood. The third movement contrasts small groups with the larger ensemble to symbolize the experience of assimilation into American culture. The text of the three movements includes nonsense syllables to convey emotional pain, and the words “We are America” sung in Cantonese, Mandarin and English.
Dr. Chen has already written for the San Francisco Girls Chorus – her piece, Chinese Poems, received its world premiere as part of the Chorus’ 20th anniversary season in 1998. Twelve years later, she says, “My experience writing…for the San Francisco Girls Chorus in 1998 convinced me that it is a world-class performing arts organization whose singers can handle any repertoire. I am confident that these young women have what it takes to bring this powerful subject matter to life.”
Angel Island Passages may officially be a piece for treble chorus and string quartet, but a compelling visual accompaniment, commissioned by the Chorus from documentary filmmaker Felicia Lowe, will be integral. Ms. Lowe’s past films include Carved in Silence, a documentary about the experience of detainees on Angel Island; and Chinatown, a short film about the history of the Chinese in San Francisco. She shared both films, along with her video production Road to Restoration, with Dr. Chen as Angel Island Passages was being written.
Dr. Chen relates the experience of the Angel Island immigrants to her own personal history. “I was born and raised in China and went through the dark period of Cultural Revolution 40 years ago, during which general education was interrupted and Western music was prohibited for 10 years,” she says. “My passion and hard work helped me overcome this hardship and to become the first woman to earn a masters degree in music composition in China. I’ve painfully learned about the history of Chinese immigration through Angel Island. Along with SFGC and Cypress String Quartet, I want us to use our music to share the true history, to voice our belief in equal rights, to improve our society, and to look forward to a brighter future.”
Performances of A New Land, A New Song will take place at 8:00 p.m. on June 4th and 5th at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, located at 50 Oak Street, San Francisco. Tickets are priced $18-$32 and are available for purchase by phone from City Box Office, by phone at 415-392-4400 and online at www.cityboxoffice.com.
One of the grand things about teaching at Westminster Choir College is simply walking across campus. A choral ensemble always seems to be rehearsing – sometimes more than one. Last year, I got to hear some absolutely thrilling rehearsals of Estonian composer Arvo Pärt’s music: both the Te Deum and Berlin Mass. Above is one of my favorite movements from the piece. A bright E major essay that’s both zesty & syncopated, its guaranteed to help turn the corner from bleak Winter to blossoming Spring, and, for church goers, from the stations of Passion Week to the hopeful promise of Easter. Whether one is of a secular or spiritual bent, Pärt here seems to be a postmodern corollary to that other piece in E major that signifies Spring, by Antonio somebody… (grin)