Archive for the “Classical Music” Category

Pianist and composer Kris Becker (photo by Bhavin)

Pianist and composer Kris Becker (photo by Bhavin)

(Houston, TX) “Ah! Expression!” That’s the first thing that came out of my mouth when I cued up and heard “Elegy,” the poignant, yet unsentimental first track on Houston-based pianist and composer Kris Becker’s new recording Expansions. Becker is a classically trained pianist and composer with a passion for both 19th century and prog-rock piano and a compositional vision well served by his formidable technique. Like the song says, “Oh, yeah! The boy can play!” But it’s the range of expression in Becker’s playing and writing that ultimately resonates with me.

Real quick, let me explain the name thing. Kris and I are not related, although we are definitely brothers in spirit. We’ve even performed on the same bill, albeit separately, me on laptop cuing and mixing electronic and sample-based sounds to accompany avant-garde films, and Kris on Nord playing both what he calls his “nu-classical” repertoire and rock influenced songs. When I first relocated the Houston, the local press managed to mix the two of us up at least once (my photo appeared above Kris’ name in an ad for a gig with his rock band Frozen Heat). So just to clarify, it’s Kris with a “K,” okay?

Okay. Now back to the music. Expansions features 13 tracks, 11 of them compositions for solo piano. “Covenant” is a feisty dialogue for clarinet (played by Sarunas Jankauskas) and piano, and the title track is a seven and a half minute theme and variations for solo flute beautifully performed by Victoria Hauk.

There’s no question Becker’s formidable (that word again) piano skills have everything to do with generating the compositional material he has shaped into an award-winning, body of work. But there’s heart and soul in the man’s music, not just technical fireworks. His compositions, especially the compositions on Expansions, are intensely programmatic and poetic, a fact one can gather not only from Becker’s liner notes but the expressive and dynamic directions you see in his scores (a couple of my favorites include “scintillating and terrifying” and “twisted”).

Expansions closes with a four-movement monster of a of a piece “Piano Sonata No. 1,” which is dedicated to Becker’s Rice-era piano instructor Robert Roux. Becker appreciated my description of this piece as a “monster,” and told me that in fact that’s how the piece struck him after he first heard it back in its entirety. Several tempo and meter changes, as well as the breadth of expressive demands on the player, sets the piece firmly outside of the camp of this generation’s latest batch of post-minimialists. It’s a hell of a lot of fun to listen to. At times, especially in the first movement, I’m reminded of Louis Moreau Gottschalk, though Becker is quick to name check Keith Emerson as he is Chopin and of the usual 19th century long hairs. “Piano Sonata No. 1″ deservedly won the 2012 National Federation of Music Clubs Emil and Ruth Beyer Composition Award.

Like any good romantic, Becker is determined to realize his music, his way, maintaining what a friend of mine calls “aesthetic ownership” of a very personal musical vision. Sure, Becker can tear up Mozart and Beethoven, but why play it safe? His drive compels him to a road a little less traveled. It’s a hard road, but many classically trained musicians these days are similarly deciding to forgo the traditional and instead cut their own artistic path. So Kris with a “K” is in good company!

Becker’s Expansions is available now on CD Baby and iTunes.

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Trio Oriens_Becker_Tsai

(“Composer Talk” co-hosts Chris Becker and Hsin-Jung Tsai with Trio Oriens)

Howdy pardners!

Some of you may remember that a little over two years ago I relocated from New York City to Houston, TX. Since then, I have been enjoying what is truly a lively and diverse music and arts scene (clap, clap, clap, clap) “deep in the heart of Texas!” This past year in particular has been especially stimulating and busy for me as a composer, performer, writer, and DJ.

Yes, DJ. As in radio DJ. As in, “Tune in Saturday, December 29th, 2012, 4:30 p.m. to 7:00 PM central time for Composer Talk at 90.1 HD2 KPFT and streaming live on the web at ktru.org!”

“Composer Talk” is a spin-off of KTRU’s contemporary music program Scordatura which airs Saturdays from 2:00 PM to 7:00 PM CT. The current Scordatura hosts include composer Paul Connolly, bassist and composer Thomas Helton, and pianist and composer Hsin-Jung Tsai. Awhile back, Hsin-Jung interviewed me for an edition of Scordatura, and she and I had so much fun talking about music that we decided to make it a regular thing. Hence, “Composer Talk,” a monthly radio show that features the two of us playing recordings of and talking about contemporary music. Just music and talk, you know, no big whoop.

For each edition of “Composer Talk,” Hsin-Jung and I bring in whatever music we think needs to be shared with the world that month (we always bring more music than we have time to play) and just let it roll. There’s no script. We play raw recordings of premier performances, unreleased recordings by friends far and wide, deep vinyl cuts, and CDs that come to us from great independent labels including Innova, New Amsterdam Records, American Modern Recordings, Cantaloupe Music, and many others.

We’ve had the pleasure of interviewing guest artists in the studio for “Composer Talk,” including Houston’s own Trio Oriens, marimba player Wei-Chen Lin, composer Joseph Phillips, and pianist Robert Boston.

Some of our listeners enjoy just checking in for a few minutes at a time, while others let the show play in its entirety. Unfortunately, the show isn’t archived, so any unplanned alchemy that happens only happens once, kind of like music: ephemeral and (we hope) fun.

“Composer Talk” airs this Saturday, December 29th, 4:30 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. (Central Time) in high definition at 90.1 HD2 KPFT and streaming live on the web at www.ktru.org.

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An evening of chamber music by Beth Anderson will be presented this Saturday, November 17 – 7:00 PM, at St. John’s Episcopal Church, 139 St. John’s Place in Park Slope, Brooklyn.

Flute and piano works to be performed are The Bluebird and the Preying Mantis, Dr. Blood’s Mermaid Lullaby, September Swale and Kummi Dance. The program also includes her Eighth Ancestor and Skate Suite for baroque flute, alto recorder, cello and harpsichord.

Performers will be the composer on piano and Brooklyn Baroque – Andrew Bolotowsky, baroque flute, David Bakamijan, cello, Gregory Bynum, alto recorder and Rebecca Pechefsky, harpsichord.

This concert is free and open to the public, however a free will offering will be taken to support the replacement of the church boiler. For directions to St. John’s Church and more information about the concert, call 718-636-6010 or visit http://www.facebook.com/ConcertsOnTheSlope.

The Bluebird and the Preying Mantis is the first piece Ms. Anderson composed for Andrew Bolotowsky, from about 1979. He’s the bluebird. The accompaniment is the mantis. She writes about Dr. Blood’s Mermaid Lullaby, “One night I had a very bad dream about Dr. Blood stealing my blood. I woke up and wrote what felt like the antidote to this dream – a kind of underwater lullaby with mermaids and a music box. Since the imaginary Dr. Blood was the “cause” of the dream, I gave him credit in the title. I felt much better afterwards.”

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XTlZW_Vb2vo&feature=plcp[/youtube]

September Swale (seen above) combines various oriental scales with Satie-like lyricism and was premiered in Ghent, Belgium. Kummi Dance (in this version for flute & piano), was commissioned by String Poet and based on the poem of the same name by Pramila Venkateswaran.

Beth writes, “The Eighth Ancestor is a character that I read about in a zen book entitled Selling Water By The River. This ancestor’s message is that it does no good to be angry. The music, in an attempt to reflect this message, is not angry music. It resembles a lullaby and a hora…Skate Suite was commissioned by Diane Jacobowitz & Dancers. The dance was related to skating in some way and so I used that idea to compose the music.”

Visit Beth’s YouTube channel at http://www.youtube.com/user/135east?feature=mhee#g/f. For more information about her, including a bio, list of works, discography and much more, please visit http://www.beand.com.

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If one listens to some of the Piano Mavens in attendance at Russian pianist Nikolai Lugansky’s recent performance of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor, Op. 30 at Avery Fisher Hall, it would seem that he did not show enough feeling.

Although Lugansky played the concerto alongside the New York Philharmonic under the baton of Charles Dutoit with utmost technical perfection, some critics complained. “He was too fast!” “It was too cold, too mechanic,” and “not luscious enough – and Rachmaninoff can be soo luscious!” were some comments within New York’s community of concert attendees, most of whom play piano at different levels themselves.

Critique from one’s ‘own rows’ is certainly not to be taken lightly, though I wonder why I experienced the concert so differently from many of these critics.  After the piece, the applause of the general audience seemed overwhelmingly devoted.

The concert took place on November 2nd in the aftermath of Sandy, a storm that had devastated many regions of the Tri- State area, leaving half of Manhattan without electricity and subway connections, yet many concert-goers braved the turbulent moods of nature out of respect to Dutoit’s legacy, and that of Lugansky, for whom this performance marked a New York debut; was it perhaps because of this psychologically fragile situation, New Yorkers demanded a more emotionally affecting response?

The hall was not at all filled to capacity, perhaps adding to the performance’s somewhat “cold” acoustics , dampening the piano’s ability to project lusciously, a situation on which Lugansky himself commented, at our meeting the next morning. Read the rest of this entry »

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The critically-acclaimed Palisades Virtuosi presents a very special 10th Anniversary Concert the first concert of their 2012-2013 season on Friday, November 9 – 8:00 PM at the Unitarian Society of Ridgewood, 113 Cottage Place in Ridgewood, New Jersey. The evening will also include a pre-concert composer and performer talk at 7:15.

Flutist Margaret Swinchoski, clarinetist Donald Mokrynski and pianist Ron Levy began their series of concerts in Ridgewood, New Jersey in 2003, when there were relatively few works composed for their instrumentation. So, their “Mission to Commission” was born. 10 seasons later, there are an additional 60 works of concert repertoire for their ensemble as a direct result of their mission. They include a commissioned work in each of their concerts.

Composers who have written for the group include Eric Ewazen, Carlos Franzetti, Paul Moravec, Melinda Wagner, Gwyneth Walker and Lee Hoiby.  See the complete list at http://www.palisadesvirtuosi.org/pvcomposers.html.

November 9 concert repertoire will include the World Premiere of composer Jeff Scott’s Poem for a Lost King, commissioned by The Palisades Virtuosi.

Composer Jeff Scott

The composer writes, “Lost King is a musical poem that has been written as a metaphorical homage to the countless African kings, chiefs and village elders expelled and abducted from their homeland during the middle passage.” Visit Jeff Scott at http://www.imaniwinds.com/artist.php?view=bio&bid=1941.

Repertoire will also include Franz Danzi’s Sinfonia Concertante, Maurice Emmanuel’s Sonate and PV’s first commissioned work Lep-i-dop-ter-o-lo-gy [2003] by Aaron Grad.

Tickets for the November 9 concert are $20, $15 for students and seniors and $10 for children age 12 and under. For tickets or more information, call 201-488-4983, visit http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/286276 or email reservation requests to the Palisades Virtuosi at palisadesvirtuosi@gmail.com. For directions, go to this link.

Volumes One, Two, Three and Four of the Virtuosi’s New American Masters CD series are available from Albany Records.

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Last Thursday evening, just before the lights dimmed at the Kimmel Center’s Verizon Hall, the audience purred in anticipation of the evening’s forthcoming concert. Tonight was to be a momentous occasion – the official inaugural concert with Yannick Nézet-Séguin being installed as Music Director.

I expected a concert full of classical music royalty highlighting the event as one of the most important in the Philadelphia Orchestra’s history. What was delivered was an all-around humble performance delivered by, as Mayor Michael Nutter of Philadelphia introduced them, the “greatest orchestra in the world” – the Philadelphia Orchestra.

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Young composer Mohammed Fairouz is not fooling around. Recently hailed by BBC World News as “one of the most talented composers of his generation,” his music melds Middle-Eastern modes and Western structures. A concert on Thursday evening will center around Fairouz’s compositional output. It is being presented by the Issue Project Room at Our Lady of Lebanon Cathedral and will feature pianists Kathleen Supové, Blair McMillen, and Taka Kigawa, mezzo-soprano Blythe Gaissert, soprano Elizabeth Farnum, the Cygnus Ensemble, and the Borromeo String Quartet in their only New York appearance this season.

This concert will include the New York premiere of Fairouz’s The Named Angels, a new 28-minute work in four movements. The Borromeo String Quartet will be performing this premiere. About this piece, Fairouz says, “The Named Angels refers to those angels that are named and recognized in the Islamic, Christian and Jewish traditions: Michael, Israfel, Gabriel and Azrael. Each of the four movements represents a character portrait of a specific Angel.”

The concert is presented by Issue Project Room at Our Lady of Lebanon Cathedral at 113 Remsen Street in Downtown Brooklyn, just a few blocks from IPR. Tickets are $30, $25 for members and students, available at Issue Project Room’s website.

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If you were having a conversation with fellow music lovers about the great American composers, Carl Ruggles would not be the first person to come to mind. The “Great American Composer” honor is most often bestowed upon Copland, Ives, or even depending on the company you are with, Bernstein.

Courtesy of SONY Music & Other Minds Records

This is not to say, however, that a popularity contest equates to greatness. An equally adept and creative composer, Carl Ruggles produced a small yet intriguing output of pieces for a variety of ensemble types. It is only fair, then, that when recording the complete works of a lesser known composer such as Ruggles, top-tier musicians should be brought in to lead the process. This recording does not disappoint, and the Buffalo Philharmonic, under the leadership of Michael Tilson Thomas, have produced an earnest and committed recording of Ruggles’ entire catalogue.

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Updated : 9/6/12 with added thoughts from Laura Kaminsky.

Every so often we have a conversation that changes us for the better. Sometimes, we have this type of conversation with our mothers, our fathers, our close friends and allies, our colleagues, or with an artist. Last weekend I had a profound conversation with the latter, an artist named Laura Kaminsky.

Laura Kaminsky, composer, is also the artistic director of Symphony Space, the renowned performance venue in New York City. She has received commissions, fellowships, and awards as both a composer and presenter from over twenty organizations including the Koussevitzky Music Foundation and the Aaron Copland Fund. Ms. Kaminsky also plays a large role in the operation of many musical and arts organizations including Chamber Music America, and, in the past, New Music USA (formerly the American Music Center), and as a member of the Artistic Advisory Council of the New York Foundation for the Arts, among others. Laura Kaminsky is an important and influential voice in the arts world today. Having the chance to speak with her by phone, I first asked her about her musical upbringing.

Laura Kaminsky (LK): I grew up in New York City, and was surrounded by musicians, painters, writers, and actors. As a very young child I thought I was going to be a painter when I grew up. But I started taking those typical piano lessons at about age ten or eleven, and quickly decided that practicing wasn’t nearly as much fun as making up my own music. This led me to start trying to figure out how to write down that which I made up. So, I was composing at a very young age, untrained, just writing the things that occupied my imagination. Still, I just thought of it as a fun thing to do. [Around this time] I began tormenting my younger sisters because I used to create family musical evenings that I insisted they participate in. We would perform these programs on the weekend for our parents. I think this is probably where I got my passion for producing.

When I was about 13, it was that time in New York when, if you were a public school kid, you could test and audition to go to a special high school. I wanted to go to [LaGuardia High School of] Music and Art, and originally I thought I was going to audition with an art portfolio. As I got closer to the day of the testing, however, I realized I was more passionate about my time spent in music, and requested that I switch my art audition to a music audition. I got in not because I was a particularly good pianist or clarinetist (that was my second instrument) but I think because I presented music that I wrote, and performed one of my own compositions. My four years at M&A were profound and formative; many of my friends today still date from that time, and many are living active lives in the arts. Read the rest of this entry »

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Today is the last day you can hear Derive 2 at the BBC’s web site–they stream for one week after the concert. There was a CD released earlier this year that contains this same version (which supersedes the earlier version released by DGG in 2005). I don’t generally think of double reeds in Boulez’s music, but he really gives the oboe and bassoon some wonderful music in Derive 2. It’s conducted by Daniel Barenboim, whose Boulez performances are always colorful and invigorating. You can listen to it here.

Some wonderful recent works heard earlier on the Proms: Canon Fever by Mark-Anthony Turnage (premiere), Laterna Magica by Saariaho (the strongest work of hers that I’ve heard in some time — I’m not a fan of her recent music, preferring her work from the 80s and 90s), and a tight, expressive performance of City Noir, conducted by its composer, John Adams, leading an orchestra featuring students from Juilliard and the Royal Academy of Music.

I’m still trying to catch up to this week’s concerts, which include more Boulez, Steve Martland’s Street Songs, and a Kronos Quartet recital. The home page for the 2012 Proms on BBC is here.

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