Archive for the “Classical Music” Category

Art by Margaret Dolinsky, Copyright 2011

Dear Colleagues,

If you are in the vicinity of Bloomington,  Indiana, come join us at the premiere of the 2011 version of Don Freund‘s PASSION with Tropes, scheduled for May 20 and 21 at the Ruth N. Hall Theatre of Indiana University. Originally conceived as a monumental oratorio for large forces, it was adapted by Freund for an immersive and interactive multidisciplinary production. In this 80-minute version, PASSION with Tropes is cast for actors, dancers, and an ensemble of  approximately 40 voices and  instrumentalists who take multiple roles as soloists,  chamber groups and even as a jazz combo. It has been a fascinating process to see how the work has gained unexpected layers of meaning under the lens of the interdisciplinary artists. For more information, visit: http://blogs.music.indiana.edu/passionwithtropes/

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Book Review

Listen to This

By Alex Ross

New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 384 pp.

Published in 2007, The Rest is Noise, Alex Ross’ first book, was an engrossing and thoughtful survey of Twentieth Century music, equally useful as an introduction to neophytes and a refresher to specialists (he’s since tweaked the paperback edition to be even more comprehensive, including updated info and a “go-to” listening list). By “classical music” standards, the book was wildly successful, and Ross subsequently garnered a number of honors, including a 2007 National Book Critics Circle Award and a 2008 MacArthur Fellowship. Its follow-up, Listen to This, doesn’t limit itself to contemporary concert music. Instead, it’s a wide-ranging survey of musical topics, including portrait essays of musicians as diverse as Radiohead, Marian Anderson, Sonic Youth, and Cecil Taylor, discussions of specific musical genres, and thought pieces on the state of music education, the record industry, and cultural consumption at home and abroad.

Ross has been a music critic on the staff at the New Yorker since 1996. While most of these essays are culled from his writings there, Listen to This never strikes one merely as a “greatest hits” compilation.  Rather, the volume is structured to tease out several overarching concerns. One of them is the working musician. In one chapter, he demystifies the grueling touring schedule of chamber musicians, pointing out that even acclaimed groups such as the St. Lawrence String Quartet have to hustle to make a living in today’s economic climate. Far from being another “death of classical music story,” Ross argues for the relevancy of these touring ensembles that, despite these challenges, bring music of a very high level of artistry to locations far and wide, many of them off of the beaten path. Another topic is globalization’s affect on postmillennial music, which is explored in a particularly fascinating travel essay detailing a concert-filled trip to China and in a jaunt to Carnival in Brazil with Björk.

While there’s no mistaking Ross’ erudition, a trait that allows specialists to prefer his writings to those of some of his journalist colleagues with less musical knowledge, Listen to This is an approachable collection. One of the ways in which it speaks to a wide audience is with an eagerness to share in what Leonard Bernstein called “The Joy of Music.” Indeed, Ross is that rare writer on music who can share his enthusiasms for an artist’s work with unabashed honesty. But even when backstage with Radiohead or following Björk through the streets of Salvador, he defuses any notions of fanboy journalism – a trend that, alarmingly, has infiltrated all too many publications of late. Instead, Ross seeks to put a human face on artistic process, detailing the origins of Björk’s eclectic musical tastes and providing a foil for the singer’s exotic costumes and playful demeanor by detailing a studio session in which, while humane, she is exacting in eliciting musical details from collaborators. There’s an emotional openness, even vulnerability, which runs through a number of these essays. His eulogy of the exquisitely talented mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson is one of the most affecting yet observant tributes to this recently departed artist (rereading it was made all the more poignant by the passing in April of her husband, the composer Peter Lieberson).

The state of music education is a frequent topic of discussion of late. Ross’ essay “The Crisis of Music Education” should be required reading for policy-makers, educators, and the parents of artistically motivated children alike. As one can tell by the title, it acknowledges the beleaguered state of arts and education funding; but Ross still provides several glimmers of hope for the future. He describes the unlikely and extraordinary flowering of a music program in the inner city at Malcolm X Shabazz High School in Newark, New Jersey. Another urban success story is detailed in Providence, Rhode Island’s Community MusicWorks, a program run by the Providence String Quartet, a group of graduates from major conservatories who prefer giving back to staking a claim for fame and fortune. Ross even gets in on the education act himself: part of his book tour for Listen to This has featured a performance/discussion of bass lines throughout music history ranging from Purcellian grounds to Delta Blues walking lines: it’s also made for a cult YouTube hit, in which Ross is joined by the Bad Plus’ Ethan Iverson and ex-Battles composer Tyondai Braxton.

A staff position at the New Yorker provides a platform from which can wield considerable influence. Some of the essays collected here have already had undeniable impact. Ross has done a considerable amount to raise the stock of Alaskan composer John Luther Adams, and his fascinating chapter on the composer’s works and working environments is another “must-read” excerpt. One wonders whether it’s mere coincidence that Providence String Quartet founder Sebastian Ruth received a 2010 MacArthur Fellowship. If Ross had a hand in this, more power to him: it’s nice to see a music critic on the side of the good guys!

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Now in their 10th season, the Jupiter Symphony Chamber Players have earned their special place in New York City music lovers’ hearts.

A stone throw from Lincoln Center’s main venues, the Good Shepherd Presbyterian Church on 152 West 66th Street provides a modest but intimate setting for the chamber music series, commemorating the powerful legacy of the founder and conductor of the Jupiter Symphony Orchestra, Jens Nygaard, who had performed for audiences at Alice Tully Hall, as well as the homeless and victims of natural disasters alike.

His passion for music not only glorified already celebrated works, but he sought out lesser known and neglected works or composers whose names had been forgotten, which he presented with great appeal. This charismatic personality in teaching and music-making touched many lives before he passed away in 2001. The Emmy Award winning documentary “Life on Jupiter,” has accounts of Nygaard’s highly spirited and relevant impact, told by his friends and colleagues.

Run by private funding, the enthusiastic efforts of the Chamber Players’ manager and Nygaard’s widow, Mei Ying, as well as former first bassoonist and now music advisor, Michael Volpert,  the series is dedicated to continuing Mr. Nygaard’s artistic quest for beautiful music and interesting performance. It also keeps on providing performance opportunities for some of the former orchestral musicians as well as talented guest artists.

A small but loyal and informed audience follows this quest on a very low budget. Tickets are not expensive. The performances are held on twenty Monday afternoons (2pm) and evening (7.30pm) programs.

Besides playing some of the standard gamut, the performers who come from a roster of first rate, internationally performing artists, notably explore a handpicked, highly selective repertoire.

Read the rest of this entry »

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Todd Reynolds photographed by Toni Gauthier

HOUSTON, TX – On February 17th, 6:30 pm at the Contemporary Arts Museum of Houston, the Houston music group Musiqa in collaboration with the Mitchell Center and CAMH present Answers to Questions with works by composers Bill Ryan, Michael Lowenstern, David T. Little, Ingram Marshall, and Nick Zammuto all performed by composer and violinist Todd Reynolds. The concert is produced in conjunction with and in response to the CAMH exhibition Answers to Questions: John Wood & Paul Harrison, the first United States museum survey of work in video by this British artistic team. Admission is free.

Composer, conductor, arranger and violinist, Todd Reynolds is a longtime member of Bang On A Can, Steve Reich and Musicians and an early member of Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Project. His commitment to genre-bending and technology-driven innovation in music has produced innumerable artistic collaborations that cross musical and disciplinary boundaries. As a solo performer, Reynolds continues to develop and perform a repertoire of works for his instrument in combination with the laptop computer and his main software weapon of choice Ableton Live. His forthcoming double CD Outerborough (Innova) features a CD of original works paired with a second disc of works composed especially for Reynolds in the past year. Reynolds will include two of his own works from Outerborough on the Feburary 17th concert. Outerborough is due out in March.

(Outerborough design, photography, and artwork by Mark Kingsley)

Reynolds says that while certain violinists impressed and inspired him from his very beginnings as a musician, including Stuff Smith, Stephane Grappelli, and electric violinist Jerry Goodman, more relevant to him as composer and soloist is guitarist Robert Fripp (“The first looper!”) and his Frippertronics performances, as well as composer singer Meredith Monk. Like Fripp and Monk, Reynolds has absorbed the musical techniques of many musical worlds, including country, blues, Indian music, jazz, and rock. As an independent instrumentalist, he reaches to fellow composers to compose pieces that utilize his formidable technique in combination with the edges of what is possible with digital technology. Other composer/performer/composer collaborations like Dawn Upshaw with Osvaldo Golijov, Helga Davis with Paola Prestini, and Pat Metheny with Steve Reich have similarly helped “strengthen the art” of both new music and its interpreters.

This is Reynolds’ first visit to and performance in Houston, Texas. He admits he has little knowledge of Houston’s artistic output, and is tremendously excited to get to know the city. With a music and multidisciplinary scene that includes experimental music hosted by the Houston Museum for African American Culture, Nameless Sound, and the aforementioned Musiqa, to the recently lauded production of Dead Man Walking by the Houston Grand Opera, creative programming by several smaller opera companies, chorale ensembles and chamber groups including the Grammy nominated Ars Lyrica, Houston should be a destination of choice for experimental musicians from other parts of the U.S. and the world. H-Town is beating the drum loudly. The question is, are you listening?

Musiqa presents Answers to Questions with violinist Todd Reynolds. February 17, 2011, 6:30 pm, at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, 5216 Montrose. Admission is Free.

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The job requirements of a working composer are elusive, perhaps especially for composition students enrolled in University degree programs that fail to provide graduates with the interpersonal and business skills necessary for survival outside the walls of academia. One student composer told me recently: “We are all being trained to teach.”Woody Allen famously said: “Those who can’t do, teach. Those who can’t teach, teach gym.” But those who compose and don’t teach do find ways to sustain themselves and their passion for music through a variety of collaborative and creative means, some perhaps less “traditional” than others. With this in mind, let’s have a chat with my friend composer Tom Myron.

The range of Tom Myron’s work as a composer includes commissions and performances by the Kennedy Center, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, the Portland Symphony Orchestra, the Eclipse Chamber Orchestra, the Atlantic Classical Orchestra, the Eastern Connecticut Symphony Orchestra, the Topeka Symphony, the Yale Symphony Orchestra, the Civic Orchestra of Chicago, the Bangor Symphony and the Lamont Symphony at Denver University. He works regularly as an arranger for the New York Pops at Carnegie Hall, writing for singers Rosanne Cash, Kelli O’Hara, Maxi Priest and Phil Stacey, the Young People’s Chorus of New York City, and the Quebec folk ensemble Le Vent du Nord. Le Vent du Nord’s new CD Symphonique featuring Myron’s orchestra arrangements is receiving an incredible amount of positive press throughout Canada and will be available for purchase in the U.S. soon. A video preview of the recording is included in this interview.

His film scores include Wilderness & Spirit; A Mountain Called Katahdin and the upcoming Henry David Thoreau; Surveyor of the Soul, both from Films by Huey. Individual soloists and chamber ensembles that regularly perform Myron’s work include violinists Peter Sheppard-Skaerved, Elisabeth Adkins and Kara Eubanks, violist Tsuna Sakamoto, cellist David Darling, the Portland String Quartet, the DaPonte String Quartet and the Potomac String Quartet.

Myron’s current projects include commissioned work for the Eclipse Chamber Orchestra and creating arrangements for Joe Jackson’s music-theater piece Stoker
inspired by the life of Bram Stoker author of 1897 Gothic novel Dracula.

Tom (I’ll call him Tom now) graciously took time out of his schedule to answer a handful of questions including several having to do with the “business” of making music.

Chris Becker: You arrange and orchestrate music for a variety of artists and have a career composing concertos, string quartets, and various settings for voice. Are these two separate careers that you have to juggle? Or do they intersect providing you with even more musical opportunities than if you were focused only one or the other?

Tom Myron: From a purely logistical point of view it’s a juggling act. Both types of work tend to lead to more opportunities within their respective areas, but there isn’t a lot of overlap. That said, they DO intersect for me on a more personal, creative level. I love getting to know all kinds of musical idioms in a very practical, mechanical way. I also love just about everything that goes into handling, preparing and rehearsing music for live performance. My training in composition and the orchestral repertoire has benefited my commercial work by giving me the flexibility to consider (and rapidly execute!) multiple solutions to specific problems. The commercial work in turn informs my composition by instilling a disciplined work ethic and keeping organization and clarity of intention foremost in my mind.

Read the rest of this interview.

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Houston, TX – There’s no question that Houston’s proponents of contemporary music are enthusiastically embracing creative marketing concepts and alternative venues for performances in an effort to expand and educate a new century of audiences. In an un-zoned city like Houston, I find that musicians and audiences will happily cross so-called genre and cultural boundaries especially if there’s promise of a good time (Texas barbecue can help too, but that’ll be another entry…). Much to my delight, I am seeing familiar faces when I’m out at performances of new music be it in a gallery in the Third Ward, a club in Montrose, or the Hobby Center’s Zilka Hall. Although I’ve only been living in Houston for short time, I feel a sense of connection to what is a pretty broad cross section of the city’s creative community.

Duo Scordatura violinist Nicholas Leh Baker

One of the familiar faces I see around town is Houston composer George Heathco, who hipped me to what will be an exciting concert of contemporary pieces for the violin and viola, including three (!) world premieres, performed by the duo of violinist Nicholas Leh Baker and violist Faith Magdalene Jones who call themselves Duo Scordatura. The concert takes place Saturday, January 29th at 6pm at First Presbyterian Church, located at 5300 Main Street. Tickets for concert are $10 for general audiences and $5 for students, children, and seniors.

The concert, titled COMMISSIONED, includes four works commissioned by Duo Scordatura, including works by Alexandra T. Bryant, Luke Dahn, George Heathco, and Dr. Daniel Kramlich. Part of the creative marketing for COMMISSIONED includes the Commissioned Project Interview Series featuring the duo and commissioned composers discussing the collaborative process that takes place between composers and the performing musicians.

Composer George Heathco

Heathco describes his programmed piece Turbine (2010) as “a bitch to play, but…a very entertaining work (or so I hope).” Also on the program are pieces by Jack Benson and Jodran Kuspa.

All of the composers on the bill either currently or have at one point called Houston their home and, according to Nicholas Leh Baker in his video interview, will all be present at the performance. Duo Scordatura is committed to presenting works “in a wide range of venues across the Houston landscape.” I look forward to hearing them next Saturday at First Presbyterian Church, and in the future wherever their mission takes them.

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As Daniel Wakin reported today in the NY Times, Alan Gilbert has been announced as the incoming Director of Conducting and Orchestral Studies at the Juilliard School. He replaces James DePriest, who will remain on the faculty as Principal Conductor and Director Emeritus. Gilbert will also get some help from James Ross (currently at the University of Maryland), who will serve as his assistant, providing a “more permanent presence” than that of a frequently touring maestro.

Gilbert plans to integrate his work at the New York Philharmonic, where he assumed the post of Music Director in 2009, with his teaching duties at Juilliard. According to the Times article, he will require conducting students to attend rehearsals and will allow them opportunities to meet with members of the orchestra and undertake internships at the Philharmonic.

I’m of two minds about this. I think it will be a tremendous opportunity for Juilliard students, both conducting and performance majors. Gilbert has already shaken things up at the Phil, frequently in ways that have benefited contemporary music. Juilliard may grow in as yet unforeseeable ways as a result of Gilbert’s energetic presence and vision.

On the other hand, as we’ve seen recently with James Levine’s experiences at the Boston Symphony and the Metropolitan Opera, spreading oneself too thin can create problems at both of one’s organizations. While conductors routinely juggle multiple appointments, both of these are high profile and demanding positions. I’m not saying Gilbert can’t manage them, but it’s at least cause for concern. Also, I’d imagine that aspiring orchestra musicians attending graduate school at NEC, Eastman, and other major conservatories are gnashing their teeth at what they may perceive to be too cozy a relationship going on at Lincoln Center.

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(Visual Abstract, First Movement, Music by Pierre Jalbert, Film by Jean Detheux)

On January 8th, 2011, at 7:30 p.m. in Zilkha Hall of The Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, the Houston TX new music group Musiqa presents Real and Imagined – a concert collaboration with Aurora Picture Show featuring Theo Loevendie’s Six Turkish Folk Songs as well as music by Eve Beglarian, Paul Frehner, and Evan Chambers. Houston-based composer Pierre Jalbert’s Visual Abstract for flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano, and percussion will be performed live to a film created by Jean Detheux. The concert will be conducted by Houston Symphony Assistant Conductor Brett Mitchell.

Led by five composers (including founding member Pierre Jalbert) Musiqa is receiving a great deal of notice for its innovative multi-disciplinary concert events (dance, visual art, and theater are always integrated into Musiqa performances) as well as its educational programming that annually reaches thousands of Houston area students. Next season, Musiqa will celebrate its ten-year anniversary.

Pierre Jalbert graciously responded to a few questions about Visual Abstract:

Chris Becker: Did Jean Detheux create his film before, after, or during the composition of Visual Abstract?

Pierre Jalbert: He created the film after the piece was written. The music was commissioned and premiered by the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble a few years back. Jean and I worked on a project last year in which he created a film first and I wrote the music to the film. That work was entitled L’œil écoute (The Eye Listens), and was also premiered by PNME. This time around, we decided that we would reverse the process, and he would do his film to the already existing music.

Chris Becker: In performance with the film, is the conductor watching the film for the timing of some of your musical events? I’m thinking of the third movement where rhythmic hits coincide with abrupt changes in the film.

Pierre Jalbert: Yes, the conductor is looking at the film for cues from time to time, and we rehearse many times through to get the timing down. As you can imagine, it’s very difficult as each performance is slightly different. But Jean made the film to not have too many abrupt changes. But still, there are a a few that make it challenging.

Chris Becker: The layers of images in Detheux’s film are very rich and tactile. They remind me of natural phenomena, weather, or even what we “see” when we close our eyes and listen to the sounds around us. Speaking as a composer, what do you think makes an “abstract” work of visual art successful?

Pierre Jalbert: I think when one looks at the film and hears the music as a single entity, and one does not dominate over the other, but each enhances the other, then we have something interesting.

Chris Becker: Next season, Musiqa will celebrate its ten-year anniversary. As one of the people who founded the organization, how does it feel to look back on all Musiqa has accomplished?

Pierre Jalbert: It’s amazing to look back and see how the organization has grown. I remember a few of us meeting at Tony Brandt’s house 10 years ago and brain-storming about what the organization could be. We wanted to get new music out into the community and into downtown and offer up repertoire that wasn’t being heard in Houston. All of the composers on the Artistic Board work really well together (Anthony Brandt, Karim Al-Zand, Rob Smith, Marcus Maroney, and myself), and that has been crucial in keeping things going through the years.

Tickets for Real and Imagined – including discounted tickets for seniors and students – are available for purchase on the Musiqa website.

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Russian composer/theosophist/sensualist Alexander Scriabin (1872-1915) spent a lot of his life dreaming of a kind of sensory extravaganza, pieces that would submerge the audience in swirling sound, dance, colored light, heady aromas… Yeah, kind of like the 60s, but a little more Old-World refined. One result of Scriabin’s musical synasthesia was that he held very specific views on which colors were inextricably tied to each key and note. As Wiki tells it:

In his autobiographical Recollections, Sergei Rachmaninoff recorded a conversation he had had with Scriabin and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov about Scriabin’s association of colour and music. Rachmaninoff was surprised to find that Rimsky-Korsakov agreed with Scriabin on associations of musical keys with colors; himself skeptical, Rachmaninoff made the obvious objection that the two composers did not always agree on the colours involved. Both maintained that the key of D major was golden-brown; but Scriabin linked E-flat major with red-purple, while Rimsky-Korsakov favored blue. However, Rimsky-Korsakov protested that a passage in Rachmaninoff’s opera The Miserly Knight supported their view: the scene in which the Old Baron opens treasure chests to reveal gold and jewels glittering in torchlight is written in D major. Scriabin told Rachmaninoff that “your intuition has unconsciously followed the laws whose very existence you have tried to deny.”

Scriabin’s grand schemes barely came to fruition during his life, but that’s never stopped later generations from debating, analyzing or even attempting realizations of his ambitious vision. One such attempt is in store for New Yorkers this coming Monday and Tuesday, Oct. 25th and 26th., at the Jerome Robbins Theater (located within the Baryshnikov Arts Center, 450 West 37th Street). Georgian pianist Eteri Andjaparidze and lighting designer/Macarthur Grant “genius” Jennifer Tipton will be mowing through a wide swath of Scriabin’s piano music, all accompanied by lighting inspired by his ideas on musical colors. More information on time and tix here; And to warm up your ears here’s a recording of Vladimir Sofronitsky playing Scriabin’s Sonata No.4, which will be on the concert:

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After all this music, maybe a hike?

Three Concerts in One Day! Twelve pieces, including two one-act operas: 6 1/2 hours of music.

Here’s what we heard:

10 AM

Fantasia for String Trio …Irving Fine

Ten Miniatures for Solo Piano … Helen Grime

Circles … Luciano Berio

Piece pour piano et quatuor de cordes … Oliver Messiaen

Since Brass, nor Stone … Alexander Goehr

Design School … Michael Gandolfi

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2:30 PM (BSO in the Shed)

An American in Paris … George Gershwin

Seven Studies on Themes of Paul Klee … Gunther Schuller

Prelude, Fugue, and Riffs … Leonard Bernstein

Piano Concerto in F … George Gershwin

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8 PM Two one-act operas

Full Moon in March … John Harbison

Where the Wild Things Are … Oliver Knussen

Christian’s Top Three

Knussen – a momentous experience to hear this live!

Fine – Beautiful performance. Makes me want to know his work better.

Schuller – His best piece: hands down.

Kay’s Top Three

Knussen – I loved how he evoked the different locations & moods — and the barbershop quartet near the end!

Gershwin – An American in Paris – It transports me to Paris every time I hear it. It was stunning to hear it played so beautifully by the BSO (in terrific seats!)

Messiaen – Unexpected sound qualities from the instruments – hearing a piano quintet played in such an exciting, colorful, and fresh way.

We both also enjoyed Helen Grime’s music a great deal. She’s a special talent – keep an eye out for her!

Tomorrow – Elliott Carter premiere!

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