Archive for the “Concert review” Category

lyris10-8-16On 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.

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noon-100Saturday, October 1, 2016 was the Noon to Midnight event at Disney Hall consisting of a series of new music concerts, many by local groups. The event ran more or less continuously – here are some observations on what I was able to see and hear.

At 3:30 PM wasteLAnd set up shop in the BP Hall area to perform three pieces, including a world premiere by Nicholas Deyoe commissioned by the LA Philharmonic. The first piece was Invisibility (2009) by Lisa Lim for solo cello, performed by Ashley Walters. The opening section began with Ms. Walters holding a bow whose hair had been twisted into a coarse rope and this gave rise to a series of rough, skittering runs that immediately challenged the listener’s expectation of how a cello should sound. Ms. Lim writes, “The ‘invisibility’ of the title of the piece is not about silence, for the work is full of sounds. Rather, I am working with an idea of the invisible or latent forces of the physical set-up of the instrument. What emerges as the instrument is sounded in various increasingly rhythmicized ways is a landscape of unpredictable nicks and ruptures as different layers of action flow across each other.”

The result was musical, but with a density and texture that explore completely new territory. The acoustics of the BP Hall space, however, were not up to the task of transmitting the subtle details of this to the large audience, and the ambient noise of passersby on the adjacent walkway obscured many of the finer nuances. Midway through Ms. Walters changed to a standard bow, and the piece became much smoother, more delicate and more familiar. The rhythms increased a bit in complexity and the resulting sound seemed somewhat stronger out in the hall. Finally, Ms. Walters grasped both bow types – one in each hand – and continued with an amazing show of virtuosity by using them simultaneously. This produced a wonderful mix of rough and smooth textures as the “… different layers of action flow across each other.” Invisibility expands the sonic language of the cello in new and intriguing ways and this deft performance by Ms. Walters was received with strong applause.

Tout Oreguil… by Erik Ulman followed, featuring Èlise Roy on woodwinds and soprano Stephanie Aston. Ulmann is the featured composer for wasteLAnd during the current season. Ms. Roy and Ms. Aston began Tout Oreguil… with interweaving lines – a stabbing and thrusting feel from Ms. Roy – whose cutting sound seemed to dominate in this space – and a smoother, more connected sound from the voice of Ms. Aston. This interplay produced a gently haunting feel and midway through Ms. Roy switched to a bass flute whose deep notes added a sense of mystery. The longer, more connected notes now coming from the soprano might have enhanced this, but the acoustics of the BP Hall space were working against subtlety. Towards the finish, a nice counterpoint in the voice restored some balance. Tout Oreguil… is an intriguing work with artful passages and fine phrasing, deserving of a more intimate venue.

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noon-30The first Green Umbrella concert of the season was held on Saturday, October 1, 2016 at Disney Hall in downtown Los Angeles. The LA Philharmonic hosted Noon to Midnight, a series of ‘pop-up performances’ and events that included works by numerous local contemporary composers and music ensembles, two sound installations, and an evening concert by the LA Phil New Music Group titled Four World Premiers. Some 16 different events were scheduled over the entire day, starting at noon, and were sited at various venues within the Disney Hall complex. The combination of a sunny fall morning, minimal downtown traffic and a large, enthusiastic crowd made for a festival atmosphere, with everyone moving cheerfully about, partaking of the various presentations.


Nimbus, a sound/performance installation created by Yuval Sharon and Rand Steiger, was invariably encountered first, suspended as it was in the space above the long bank of elevators that lead from the parking structure deep beneath Disney Hall up to the lobby. Described in the program as “…an installation that transforms a transitional space into a performance site…” Nimbus is a fanciful simulation of a rain cloud – the fluffy, cotton-candy variety – whose interior lighting and music accompaniment change with time over the course of the day. Twenty-plus sections of music were written for Nimbus by Rand Steiger and recorded by members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, (or created from recorded samples), sung by guest vocalists and even electronically extracted from filtered escalator noise. The mystical sights and sounds of Nimbus perfectly set the mood as people ascended upwards to the lobby. The soprano voices of Kirsten Ashley Wiest, Ashley Cutright and Hillary Young singing in just intonation were especially memorable for their feathery, ethereal glory. An added touch was the continuous procession of uniformed performers holding hand bells and striking solemn tones as they rode up and down the escalators among the entering patrons.

Because the scattered events of Noon to Midnight overlapped somewhat in their starting times, it was impossible to see everything. Here is a summary of some of what was happening during the day.

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juststringsOn Wednesday, September 21, 2016 the innovative Soundwaves concert series continued at the Santa Monica Public Library featuring the music of Lou Harrison and John Luther Adams as performed by the group Just Strings. Alison Bjorkedal, John Schneider and T.J. Troy comprise Just Strings, who specialize in performing music in just intonation. Ms. Bjorkedal brought two harps – one orchestra-sized instrument tuned in Pythagorean temperament and a second smaller Celtic harp also tuned in JI.  John Schneider came equipped with two guitars and there were an array of percussion items surrounding T.J. Troy.

The concert opened with Yup’ik Dances (1995), a collection of short pieces by John Luther Adams. An active environmentalist, Adams has spent most of his composing career in Alaska, inspired by both the landscape and the people there. Although not precise transcriptions of Native indigenous music, Yup’ik Dances is informed by their sturdy directness. He writes : “These little pieces are part of a larger cycle based on traditional dance songs of Alaska’s indigenous peoples. It is my hope that they convey something of my deep admiration for Native cultures, as well as my love of the forests, rivers, lakes and mountains of this place.” Invitation to the Dance begins Yup’ik Dances and a light percussive drumming lays down a solid beat. The harp dominates with an appealingly exotic, but never alien melody. Overall, this has a warm and welcoming feel. Jump Rope Song followed, and this featured a simple back-and-forth between the guitar and harp, trading playful passages. The percussion was tacet, but the rhythm was ably carried along in the strings.

Shaman’s Moon Song was next, and this had a more purposeful feel as the drumming rejoined the ensemble. A dramatic melody from the strings added to the sense of importance as the piece proceeded, leading up to a nicely executed ending. Juggling Song featured the guitar and harp interweaving rapid phrases and rhythmic patterns so that even without the percussion there was a convincing sense of balance and motion. Yup’ik Dances concluded with It Circles Me and this had repeating, syncopated harp passages offset with a strong guitar counterpoint in the lower registers that was very effective. There was a slightly vexing feel to this, even as the light drumming contributed a reassuringly regular beat to the texture. Yup’ik Dances is an artful sketch of indigenous Alaskan music, elegant in its simplicity and yet realized with fullness by the players.

Harp Suite #1, by Lou Harrison followed and this is a collection of miniatures composed from 1964 to 1972. Jahla (1972) was first and this opened with finger cymbals and a lightly tapped tambourine. The harp joined with a quick rhythmic figure that established a nice groove as the piece progressed. The intricate development in the melody gave this a light, airy feel. Music for Bill & Me (1967) followed and for this Ms. Bjorkedal took up the smaller harp. A slow, deliberate melody arose that evoked a quiet, introspective ambiance. The distinctive character of this had all the markings of Harrison’s well known Asian influences. Avalokiteshvara (1964) was next and this featured two sets of small xylophones played by T. J. Troy and John Schneider that issued a complex set of repeating patterns. This established a solid, purposeful groove, and the orchestral harp entered with a syncopated melody that was most effective. Avalokiteshvara was precisely played by Just Strings, who imparted all the virtues of classic minimalism in good form.

The suite concluded with Beverly’s Troubadour Piece (1967) and for this the finger cymbals, bongos and the smaller harp wove a series of different rhythms in and around each other in a delightful pattern – all projecting a courtly, almost formal feel that was perfectly suited to the title. Harp Suite #1 is a brightly beautiful group of pieces, expertly played in this performance, and a telling example of how much Lou Harrison could extract from even small musical forces.

Another Lou Harrison piece, Lyric Phrases (1972) followed, and this began with the scraping of a stick on a gourd by T. J. Troy. A light knocking here also set a steady beat. The guitar joined in with the melody and the orchestral harp repeated a two-note repeating rhythm underneath. All of this had a light, easy feel with an overall sound that was reminiscent of near eastern music. The optimistic character of this piece filled the room with a cheerful buoyancy, abetted by the fine ensemble playing.

The concert concluded with Athabascan Dances (1995) by John Luther Adams and this series of five short pieces formed a natural book-end with the opening suite. Grandpa Joe’s Traveling Song was first, and this included the orchestral harp, guitar and what looked to be a group of rattles from the percussion that set down a rhythmic groove. There was a rural, almost country music feel to this – a sound more familiar than that of the Yup’ik Dances. A nice harp solo was heard towards the end followed by a da capo finish. They Will All Go was the next piece and here bongos were played with a mallet to set the beat while the harp carried a light melody above counterpoint in the guitar. This graceful lyricism here clearly revealed the influence of Lou Harrison, longtime  mentor to JL Adams.

Deenaadai’ followed, slower and more dramatic. The harp, guitar and what looked to be a small dulcimer all contributed separate melodies – barely connected – and yet the sum of them coalesced nicely. Deenaadai’ sets a serious mood, crowned by the sounding of mystical bells at the end. By contrast, Grandpa Joe’s Hunting Song had a bright, happy feel, and a more dance-like rhythm. The joy of time spent in the outdoors and in nature was clearly evident and it seemed, again, like our own country music but with a generous Asian influence. Potlatch Song of a Lonely Man completed this set and conveyed a solemn, declarative sense that also felt a bit distant. Odd rhythmic figures were scattered throughout in a way that increased the solitary feel. As this piece progressed, it became more animated with the addition of a strong, rattling percussion. The guitar and orchestral harp engaged in a lively duo, as if duplicating the potlatch gift-giving ritual. As Potlatch Song of a Lonely Man approached its conclusion the drumming and strongly syncopated harp produced a more plaintive feeling, as if summarizing the plight of a lonely man in the clannish Athabascan culture.

All of the works performed by Just Strings in this concert were skillfully played and the alternate tuning smoothly realized. The small scale of these pieces by Lou Harrison and John Luther Adams served to highlight the importance of the craft and detail so artfully employed in the creation of this music.

A recording of many of the pieces performed in this concert is available from Microfest Records.
The next Soundwaves concert is Wednesday, November 16, 2016 at 7:30 PM and will feature pianist Vicki Ray.

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Opening Night at Miller Theater

Steve Reich Photo: Jeffrey Herman

Steve Reich
Photo: Jeffrey Herman

On September 15, Ensemble Signal, conducted by Brad Lubman, presented an all-Steve Reich program to open the season at Columbia University’s Miller Theatre. There was a sold out crowd, populated both by contemporary music devotees and over 200 Columbia students. Reich turns eighty later this year, and this is one of the many birthday concerts that will fete the composer.


Signal has recorded several albums of Reich’s music, including a 2016 release on Harmonia Mundi that features his Double Sextet and Radio Rewrite, recent works that demonstrate the undiminished energy and invention of their creator. The Miller Theatre concert focused on two sets of “variations,” composed in the prior decade: Daniel Variations (2006) and You Are Variations (2004). The amplified ensemble featured a superlative small complement of singers, a string quintet, a quartet of grand pianos, and a bevy of percussion and wind instruments. They were recording the concert, one hopes for subsequent release.


Daniel Variations is, in terms of instrumentation, the slightly smaller of the two. Alongside the aforementioned piano/percussion group, Reich employs a quartet of vocalists (two sopranos and two tenors, singing in a high tessitura for much of the piece), string quartet, and two clarinets. There are two textual sources for the piece. The first are the words of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, who, while reporting on the conflict in Pakistan in 2002, was captured and killed by Islamic extremists. These are offset by quotations from the Book of Daniel, a text from the Old Testament of the Bible. The texts underscore Pearl’s Judaism and also his love of music (he was an amateur string player). Indeed, the last movement of the piece, “I sure hope Daniel likes my music, when the day is done,” is a trope on a Stuff Smith song, “I Sure Hope Gabriel Likes My Music,” found in Pearl’s record collection after his death.


You Are Variations finds Reich exploring texts from his spiritual roots, including Psalm 16, quotes from the Talmud, the Hasidic Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, and Wittgenstein (Reich’s undergraduate thesis subject). Musical quotes are diverse as well, ranging from L’Homme Arme to a song by James Brown. The harmony is prevailingly in D mixolydian but unorthodox bass progressions and layering often give it a polytonal feel. From where I was sitting, the vocals seemed a little recessed in favor of the winds, something that I am confident can be worked out in subsequent mixing of the projected recording. It still worked live, giving the impression that the singers were sometimes supported by the ensemble and sometimes vying in a struggle for discernment of the weighty texts.


Lubman conducts Reich’s work with the authority of someone who has both an intimate knowledge of the scores and of the formidable musicians at his disposal. Reich seemed to approve. Taking the stage with trademark baseball cap firmly planted on his head, he volubly demonstrated his pleasure to everyone from Lubman to the sound designer. The percussionists, in particular, beamed as they accepted his greetings: they had done right by Reich.

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haroldbuddOn August 21, 2016 the Ruth B. Shannon Center for the Performing Arts at Whittier College was the venue for a much-anticipated appearance by the distinguished composer Harold Budd. A fine Sunday crowd filled the auditorium, with many coming from a considerable distance to be part of this rare event. Mr. Budd was joined by Bradford Ellis and Veda Hille and the concert consisted of a single piece, Aurora Teardrops, that extended for 75 minutes. Prior to the beginning of the concert, a video of some California desert scenes by Jane Maru was projected on a large screen above the stage.

Harold Budd and Bradford Ellis arrived on stage and seated themselves behind separate keyboard/synthesizers while Ms. Hille took her place seated in front of a music stand and a boom microphone. The opening video complimented the music perfectly, which began with pure electronic sine tone, soon joined by a another in harmony. A series of cool, sustained pitches followed, creating a thin, ethereal feel – like looking at the stars in the clear desert night. There was no beat to the music and only a very slow-moving melody, but it cast a precise sense of distance and isolation, yet was absent of any trace of melancholy. After some minutes of this Veda Hille began the poetic narration with the words “Sundown, dark and dreamy…” capturing the mood exactly. The words were distinct and clearly heard above the soft background, like distant mountains in the desert etched against a gauzy blue sky.

The specific and concrete nature of the spoken verse added a sense of balance and structure to the free-form flow of the music. The poetry, written by Mr. Budd, continued in sections of a few minutes each, followed by an interlude where only the music was heard. Each segment of poetry sketched out a short vignette of a reminiscence – of living and loving in an earlier time – as if the composer was looking back on his life in a dream. The music was constant in character, though never tiresome, and framed the spoken memories with a warm glow. All of this was in accord with the insightful description of Budd’s music given in the program notes: “Like a number of Californian composers of his generation he has an interest in the more meditative forms of music, in the idea of a controlled musical environment, and in a sense of non-doctrinaire spirituality.” Ms. Hille occasionally sang a few words or hummed along with the music, adding an intimacy to the spoken verse.

The most touching poetry dealt with the relationship between Budd and his significant other. These sections are filled with a longing for a deeper connection – perhaps like the relationship a composer has with his art – but a relationship that is unattainable with another human. There is no sense of resentment in this, but rather a sadness in the realization that even the closest human relationships can only be conducted at a certain distance. In “So many centuries and I still think of you…” the feeling becomes even more poignant, reflecting loss, and deep bass tones are heard at intervals giving a darker and more profound color to the music. Towards the end of the piece “In tears and tatters” seemed to cry out with emptiness and longing, cementing the strongly empathetic connection with the audience, who remained completely engaged throughout. At the quiet conclusion of the work there was a prolonged silence, followed by a standing ovation.

As the performers returned for a well-deserved curtain call, Shane Cadman, manager of the Shannon Center described the complicated series of events that brought this concert to the stage. Mr. Budd had withdrawn from performing and composing, but was prevailed upon by his son to complete the poetry and music of Aurora Teardrops. With Cadman’s help this was realized in Southern California at Whittier College, despite a number of setbacks and postponements. Aurora Teardrops touches a common emotional chord in all of us, from a perspective that only a man of Harold Budd’s age and experience can provide. We are indeed fortunate that he has made the effort to bring this extraordinary work to us.

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wulfexteriorThe Last Dance series of events at the wulf continued on Wednesday, August 17, 2016 with experimental music offerings by Carmina Escobar, Casey Anderson and Scott Cazan. The wulf will be moving to new quarters in the fall, closing out a successful eight-year run at the Santa Fe Avenue address in downtown Los Angeles.  A good-sized crowd of enthusiasts gathered for an evening of friendly chatter and three pieces of new music.

Carmina Escobar opened, equipped with a microphone, colored lamps and a camera connected to a computer. According to her website: “Her work focuses primarily on sound, the voice, the body and their interrelations to physical, social and memory spaces.”. Rough ambient sounds began the piece, perhaps the roar of a passing jet. Humming was heard, soon joined by more sounds that were variously alien and industrial in character. Images from the PC camera were projected on a screen – indistinct and flesh colored – while the lamp issued a cool green light that flooded the darkened space of the wulf. Singing tones appeared in the audio and these evolved into indistinct words and the occasional shriek.

As the piece proceeded the lamp turned to a blue color and the images on the screen became a bit clearer – parts of a face that proved to be Ms. Escobar, who was holding the PC camera a few inches away from her head. As her voice increased in pitch and volume, these purer tones provided a nice counterpoint to the ambient and alien sounds in the background. An unintelligible speaking voice was heard in the audio that, combined with the fuzzy and partial images on the screen, created a sense of disoriented uncertainty. It was as if your mind and your senses were struggling to arrange this into some kind of context. The images, different colored lamps and new audio continuously arrived in various combinations, challenging the comprehension of the observer in multiple ways. The singing voice of Ms. Escobar stood out as the brightest and most lucid sound, offering a welcome connection to the familiar. As the piece neared its conclusion the indistinct sounds dropped away, leaving a loud electronic tone that abruptly ceased. Carmina Escobar succeeds in creating a world of sounds and images that float just beyond our comprehension and grasp, and then gives us the critical vocal landmark to find our way.


Next up was The Argument, a piece by Casey Anderson, who appeared with five other performers in a rough circle, all holding portable transistor radios. Anderson began by reading aloud from a poem – “A Wave” by John Ashberry. The performer to his immediate right listened closely, picking out phrases or fragments and repeating them, even as Anderson continued reading. The next performer in the circle listened to the person on his left and did likewise, so that a sort of ringing of words and phrases took place as the piece progressed. When nothing was being repeated in the circle, the performers played their portable radios. The success and texture of this piece depended on the careful listening and sharp memory of the individuals. An interesting variety of words surged around the circle, sometimes an entire sentence and sometimes just a word or two. Often a phrase would shorten as it worked its way around, diminished by the hearing and memory of those repeating it.

The concentration of the performers and the repetition of the words gave a sense of activity and common purpose to this. The patterns and cadences of the voices suggested an earnest conversation or perhaps an ancient incantation. The sound of the portable radios – tuned to various local stations – added an emotional space to the otherwise intimate feel of the conversation and projected a sense of wider importance onto the proceedings. The Argument is an interesting study of how the sounds of the spoken word can transmit feelings and emotion, even when divorced from context or content.

The final piece for the evening was Network Dilation by Scott Cazan and this was realized with a violin, a computer and two large speakers placed about 20 feet apart. The piece began with a series of electronic beeps and chirps that was soon joined with a sort of clatter that gave a strong sensation of movement and energy. It was a bit like being inside an old school pinball machine. Although this was loud, it did not overwhelm and the addition of a booming bass tone lessened the sense of randomness by producing a regular beat. The violin was fitted with a pickup and the energetic bowing by Cazan produced a continuous series of complex squeals and squeaks that resembled the sounds of a working metal lathe. These higher pitches formed a nice melodic counterpoint to the bass and the overall feel was brightly optimistic.

As regular increases in pitch and volume continued, there was a sense of mounting excitement along with the feeling that the whole process was going slightly out of control. Yet even as the sounds intensified, the various elements held together in a kind of primal harmony. After peaking with a very powerful sound, the piece decelerated and gracefully slowed to a stop. Network Dilation is crafted from sounds that are partly alien, partly electronic and partly identifiable – but the sum of these – remarkably – is completely musical.

The Last Dance series continues through the end of this month. New concerts are being programmed for the fall and the wulf will continue to provide events and music in various venues around town. A permanent home for the wulf is planned, and new locations are being investigated. For eight years the wulf on Santa Fe Avenue has been an integral part of the new music scene in Los Angeles. Thanks to Mike Winter and Cal Arts for their support and stewardship of this important venue. September will begin a new chapter, continuing a fine tradition.

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SoundFury4Saturday afternoon, July 23, 2016 and a fine weekend crowd braved the heat and smoke of downtown Los Angeles to gather at Art Share LA for a generous helping of piano music presented by Sound and Fury Concerts. Grammy-nominated Nadia Shpachenko was the featured performer, with Christine Lee and Christian Dubeau also on hand to perform original works. Spanning some two hours, the concert included solo piano pieces as well as works incorporating various forms of electronic accompaniment and images projected overhead.

Crystal Glass (2015) for piano and electronics, by Christine Lee opened the program, performed by the composer. This began with a strong, sharp sound from the keyboard that was picked up by the electronics and reverberated over several seconds before decaying into silence. More piano notes followed, multiplying and cascading agreeably outward in an active wash of sound. At times Ms. Lee would pluck the strings of the piano, generating softer electronic sounds that, along with some conventional chords, gave an appealing variation to the texture. There was bold, futuristic feel to all of this, but never aggressive or intimidating. As the piece continued some high electronic pitches suggested breaking glass and a series of upward chords added a bit of tension. Strong rumbling in the lower registers alternated with softer stretches but eventually the room was filled with powerful electronic sounds that increased with great energy and dynamism, finally fading at the finish. Crystal Glass strikes a good balance between electronics and the piano, incorporating the new and the familiar in just the right proportions to effectively impart both the futuristic and the profound.


Four Preludes (2016) for piano and electronics, by Christian Dubeau followed, also performed by the composer. Four Preludes represents the first of twelve such pieces, all inspired by the geography and history of the San Gabriel mountains. The first of these was influenced by the rivers and streams of the area and began with lively opening chords that gave way to a quieter and more fluid melody. This had a familiar, organic feel and featured a strong counterpoint in the lower registers. Variations followed, full of flowing phrases that built into a stronger current of sound – much as a river grows from the streams feeding it.

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vickr10Friday, July 8, 2016 at Boston Court in Pasadena found Vicki Ray featured in a concert presented by Piano Spheres, the long time champion of new music in Los Angeles.. Fifty Shades of Pianissimo was the fitting title for the concert which consisted of a single piano work, For Bunita Marcus (1984), by Morton Feldman. A sizable audience gathered to hear this extraordinary piece, filling the larger Main Stage performance space at Boston Court. A video by Clay Chaplin accompanied the 75 minute work that was played continuously, without intermission.

As Ms. Ray took her seat at the piano the entire theater was darkened, and a prolonged period of meditative silence established the mood before the first notes were heard. A series of soft single notes then sounded, and a slow, meandering melody arose that carried an air of quiet mystery. This continued with the occasional appearance of a two-note interval or – more rarely – a single chord. After a few minutes of quiet playing the video appeared on a large screen behind the stage, consisting of an edgewise view of the keyboard. As the piece progressed, faint ghost-like shadows of moving hands could be made out. This morphed into a series of successively more abstract views of the piano, with the images multiplied across the screen. All of this complimented the music perfectly.

The later music of Morton Feldman is famously quiet, subtle and always in the moment. The composition of this piece hinges on the metering, as described by Feldman in the program notes: “For Bunita Marcus mainly consists of 3/8, 5/16 and 2/2 bars. Sometimes the 2/2 had musical importance, like at the end of the piece. Sometimes the 2/2 acts as quiet, either on the right or the left or in the middle of a 3/8 or a 5/16 bar, and I use the metre as a construction – not the rhythm – the metre and the time, the duration which something needs.” In addition to the quiet, contemplative feeling – which in itself commands concentration – the phrasing of For Bunita Marcus unfolds by what seem to be two independent but parallel lines of single notes, whose interactions of pitch and time invite the listener to evaluate the sounds of that brief instant. These interactions recur every few seconds, keeping the ear focused and the hearing constantly engaged. The audience responded accordingly, with undivided attention and complete silence for the duration of the work.

New music concerts are normally held in the Branson room at Boston Court, a smaller space with generally reliable acoustics. The larger Main Stage is used primarily for theater productions and the performance of a subdued work such as For Bunita Marcus doubtless caused concern for the Piano Spheres brain trust. The piano was situated in the center of the stage, with the lid completely removed. There was a microphone just above and over the center of the piano interior, but it was unclear if this was for amplification or recording purposes. In any event, everything worked out satisfactorily. Each note was clearly heard and rang out cleanly into the silence of the audience, without loss of detail or nuance. The lighting and projection of the video were flawless and while there was some acoustic competition at times from the low hum of a ventilation motor, it was not a distraction. The Wild Beast at Cal Arts might have provided superior acoustics for a Feldman piece such as this, but the Main Stage at Boston Court met the challenge reasonably well.

By the midpoint of the performance the video shifted to a series vivid views of the night sky, often including thousands slow-motion trails of starlight. The effect was an amazing combination of the natural and the mystical. At times the star fields blended together in a sort of moving fog. At other times meteor trails could be seen arcing through the sky – it was very much like listening to the concert while sitting outside on a summer evening. The music also seemed to evolve at this point from spare sequences of single notes to a more fluid sound with a slightly faster tempo . The notes fell within the same upper and middle registers as previously and the dynamic remained a restrained pianissimo – Ms. Ray seemed to caress the keys as the quiet notes drifted upward and outward into the audience.


The stamina and concentration of the soloist was extraordinary throughout and For Bunita Marcus closed as it began, with the stage and house lights dimmed to complete darkness. A long silence of reflection followed, and the audience responded with enthusiastic applause, many standing in ovation. This performance of For Bunita Marcus was a remarkable realization in sight and sound of the classic late 20th century music of Morton Feldman. Piano Spheres continues to bring to Los Angeles the gift of contemporary piano music carefully curated and brilliantly played.

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Mac7616On Tuesday, June 28, 2016 at Monk Space in the Koreatown district of Los Angeles, the Microfest series concluded with Beyond 12, a concert devoted to the music of alternate tuning, present and past. A full house turned out to hear Aron Kallay and Andrew McIntosh perform seven varied works from six different composers.

The first piece was Fugitive Objects (2007) by Kyle Gann, and this was performed by Aron Kallay at a keyboard that was programmed for pitch sets outside the conventional 12 tone equal temperament. Fugitive Objects opened calmly, with a series of solitary ascending notes, conventionally pitched. This was repeated and by the third time through, new and less familiar notes were heard combined with a deep pedal tone that supplied a simple but effective harmony. All of this had a somber, reflective feel, well within the sensibilities of a listener unacquainted with alternate tuning. As the piece progressed the incidence of unconventional pitches seemed to increase, but the melodic line remained clear and direct while Kallay’s sensitive touch added to the quiet, introspective demeanor. Fugitive Objects proved, through its pragmatic approach, to be the ideal piece to begin this concert.

Intonation after Morton Feldman 1 followed, the first movement of Les Duresses (2004) by Marc Sabat and performed by violinist Andrew McIntosh. This piece is the result of an extensive study by Sabat to create an etude for string players that would allow them to master the famously subtle intonation so characteristic of Feldman’s later music. This began with slow, sustained tones with an altogether quiet and solitary feel. As the piece progressed some lovely harmonies emerged, and as the unconventional pitches made their appearance the intervals heard took on a very expressive coloring. This was played with great confidence by Andrew McIntosh who had to contend with both the quiet intonation and the unfamiliar tones. Towards the end a bit of tension crept in, especially in the higher registers, but overall, this movement of Les Duresses is an excellent study of the supremely understated Feldman style.

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