[Ed. note: Welcome our newest contributor, conductor / percussionist / vocalist / composer Jordan Randall Smith. A Dallas native, Jordan is the Co-founder of the Dallas Festival of Modern Music and the festival's sister ensemble, Ars Nova Dallas, serving as Conductor and Artistic Director. Jordan's just moved on to Baltimore to pursue a Doctorate of Musical Arts in orchestral and operatic conducting at the Peabody Conservatory. ]
Last weekend, Opera Hispánica concluded their first festival and third season with Astor Piazzolla‘s María de Buenos Aires, his 1968 tango “operita,” or what might be called chamber opera by the wonkish. However, this Sunday, the chamber was filled not with nobility ancient or contemporary, but with beer and wine, and the people who like to consume them, at New York’s Le Poisson Rouge. (Although, some opera nobility, including one of Plácido Domingo’s sons, were spotted at the Sunday evening show.) In truth, the word “opera” is only useful in that it brings to mind how openly this drama defies the classical notion of what opera is supposed to be. Instead of conforming to tradition, it provokes a re-examination of convention. This sort of provocation proved to be the theme for the work and for the night.
With a tango band occupying fully 60 percent of a stage which is already rather limited in dimension, production design was a daunting task expertly fulfilled by Stage Director Beth Greenberg of City Opera fame. Greenberg managed to turn the cramped, uncooperatively spare stage to her advantage, projecting into the space a smokey, claustrophobic Buenos Aires alleyway positively dripping with sinful lust and criminality, where “Hustlers, pimps, and devils appear at every turn,” as Greenberg wrote in the program. And the claustrophobia was palpable. The audience was repeatedly intruded upon by El Duende (ghost poet), a spoken role played by Gerardo Gudiño. The tragic heroine María, performed by Solange Meridinian, also came to a portion of a table in the middle of the audience to penetrate both the 4th wall and the comfort zone of the audience with the surrealist poetry of librettist Horacio Ferrer. In an interview for Sequenza21, Greenberg admitted, “you spend a great deal of time with a work with symbolism as dense as this, you spend time looking for a door in. The poetry is so rich that it can actually at times seem impenetrable, but you look for a door in, and it always rewards you in the end.” The audience was rewarded with the fruit of these artists’ diligence in what came out as a heady mix of musical riches, rhythmic banality, and dramatic density that somehow reached in and grabbed each of us.
Solange Meridinian, Mezzo-Soprano
“Forgotten among women,” the text reads, upending the biblical Mary, an archetype this diminutive operita pokes, prods, and ultimately breaks. The text is not purely in spanish but often in a lower class Buenos Aires dialect called Lunfardo, spoken in “the Tango underground,” as Meridinian called it in correspondence with Sequenza21 for this review. The work is rife with religious imagery and references: from the Virgin Mary, to the baby Jesus, to the wicked, the latter which in Ferrer’s and Piazzolla’s world seem often to go through life unpunished. Meanwhile, wide-eyed orphan María pays for her innocence and naiveté with her virginity and her life, set to the unrelentingly sensual rhythm of the dance.
Solange Meridinian, who is herself from Argentina, had been waiting nearly ten years for the right opportunity to finally perform María, and happened to have not one but two chances crop up, the first having been with the Lexington Philharmonic this past February. Meridinian gave a startlingly resonant account of her character, difficult in a work which even embeds its own internal psychoanalysis into the latter scenes. It was doubtless a taxing work for the highly-capable mezzo-soprano, who consistently had to perform in the lowest parts of her already extensive vocal range. She handled each phrase and scene with care and culture, remaining mindful of the tango style. The other musicians and dancers performed excellently, although there was an unpolished instrumental solo in the beginning of the fugue from “Fuga y misterio.” As a whole, the musical ensemble served the drama admirably throughout the work’s sixteen numbers as a sort of commenting Greek Tango Chorus, even interjecting sensational bandoneónistaJP Jofre as an ad hoc cast member during one episode.
At this point, the music and the name of Astor Piazzolla is widely-known among musicians and music-lovers. In recent decades, his music has become something of a crossover sensation in symphony halls, cabarets, and every venue in between. Unfortunately, the popularity of his tango-infused compositions has ironically caused them to often receive unfair dismissal in terms of emotional or musical depth. After a night with María in the hands of Opera Hispánica, the audience left with no such misapprehensions.
On Friday, February 22 the week-long 2013 residency of Tom Johnson in Los Angeles was capped off with a concert of his music at the wulf, an experimental performance space deep in the gritty heart of industrial downtown. Featured was the Los Angeles premiere of ’Clarinet Trio’ and four other works, plus the occasion was also marked by the release of a new CD of Tom’s works titled ‘correct music’ from Populist Records. About 50 people crowded into the reclaimed factory loft to attend the event and what thewulf lacks in amenities was more than compensated by the enthusiasm of the young audience. The concert was free and there was an ice chest full of Tecate beer – what’s not to like?
Tom Johnson’s time in Los Angeles this past week was spent giving lectures on mathematics and music at Cal Arts, hosting an exhibition of his drawings in the Art Share LA gallery and presiding over concerts of new music. Tom has deep minimalist roots and, according to the concert notes, “works with simple forms and limited sonic materials, utilizing logic and mathematical models in both his music and his drawings.”
The concert began with Clarinet Trio, performed by Jim Sullivan, Brian Walsh and Damon Zick. This piece consists of a series of short passages with changing sets of three note chords separated by short pauses. Tom Johnson uses mathematics and sets of drawings to describe his intended sequence of the various permutations of musical sound and these are then translated into the written score and parts. Clarinet Trio was constructed to explore the possible ways of playing seven different three-note chords and this took about 20 minutes to unfold. The different segments varied in rhythm, attack, dynamic and tempo but the ensemble playing here was very tight and each phrase was cleanly played with good intonation. The acoustics of the small space at the wulf were well-matched to the musical forces and those listening were very attentive during the Trio – even the 5 second pauses between phrases became familiar after a few minutes. The occasional horn blast from the nearby freeway made its way inside during the silences, but this was not a distraction. The premiere was well-executed by the performers and well-received by the audience.
The second piece was Eggs and Baskets, a narrated piece that is similar in construction to Tom’s Narayana’s Cows. The idea in Eggs and Baskets was to musically describe all the possible ways to put six eggs in two baskets. The two baskets were represented by a viola, played by Andrew McIntosh and a clarinet played by Brian Walsh – as the narration progressed each player sounded a series of notes representing the number eggs in his ‘basket’. The interplay between the viola and clarinet thus became increasingly varied as the permutations grew, with notes trading rapidly back and forth within the same phrase – but this was cleanly done and very effective. The narration by Douglas Wadle nicely connected the playing to the concept, making for an enjoyable piece.
Trio for Strings followed and this set out to play “all possible 3-note chords adding to 72 where C = 24” – some 280 combinations altogether. This was a smooth legato sound of rapidly changing tone combinations, often dissonant. I found that my ear would follow one or the other string players for a time, the chords that sounded were brief and constantly changing. The pitch discipline of the string players was impressive as each tone typically did not bear any familiar relationship to those around it. Hearing this piece is like listening to a computer roll through the possible permutations of a pitch set and it gives a striking example of just how small a subset our traditional tonalities are of all the possibilities that are available in the equal-tempered scale.
Tilework for Piano followed and this was played by Dante Boon, the Dutch composer and pianist. This was similar to Clarinet Trio in that it consists of a series of short phrases built from a limited number of tones, separated by short pauses. The piano gives this piece a more introspective feel and I found my ear tended to concentrate more on the patterns than the pitches or timbre. A concert presented by Mr. Boon will be given at the wulf on February 28.
The concert concluded with Eight Patterns for Eight Instruments, and the musical forces used for this performance were sax, piano, violin, clarinet, accordion, guitar, flute and oboe. There is a video of this piece on YouTube as played mostly by strings but the use of winds here yielded a brighter, more accessible sound. ‘Eight Patterns for Eight Instruments’ consists of eight short segments of scales and simple chord patterns. This music is as close to the classic minimalist style as was heard during this concert and the eight instruments played tightly together, filling up the space with a well-balanced sound. A sort of warm optimism radiates from this piece that is appealing and, if anything, too short.
This concert was a good illustration of just how fully grounded is the music of Tom Johnson on the mathematics of combinations and permutations. Rarely has a music been so rigorously architected – the drawings that Tom uses to structure his work look very much like a set of drafted plans or a chemical diagram for a complex molecule. Other minimalist composer’s of Tom’s generation incorporated repetition and gradual changes in rhythmic patterns to realize their music. Tom’s music stands out because of his use of an entirely different mathematical space to guide the structure of his works.
Further information about upcoming events at the wulf is available here.
More about the exhibition of Tom Johnson’s drawings at Art Share LA can be found here.
[Ed. note: Kurt Rohde, Professor of Composition at the University of California at Davis, sent us this report on the recent Music and The Art of Migration Festival there. The weeklong series of events combined a number of approaches to the concept and practice of migration across the arts, with an emphasis on music.]
Sometimes it feels like new music has a way of finding places to collect, gather and pool. Not surprisingly, a number of important US cities (LA, NY, Chicago, etc.) have traditionally been the gravitational centers around which everything else orbits. In our current culture of immediacy and unimpeded online access, the reach of new music being produced in smaller communities is increasing at an astounding rate…or maybe it’s just that we are hearing about it more than ever before. Regardless, there is no question that that vibrant, inventive new music can now be found in more towns across the country. Enter the town of Davis.
Located in the Sacramento River Valley between the cities of Sacramento and San Francisco, Davis is a bucolic college community. It is the home to the University of California at Davis. UCD is home to the Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts, which opened in 2002. During the week of January 30th to February 3rd, a “flash flood” of new music took place. The UC Davis Department of Music hosted Worlds of Discovery & Loss: The Art of Migration and Music Festival, with support from the Mondavi Center and the Davis Humanities Institute. UCD faculty and composers Sam Nichols and Laurie San Martin organized the five-day festival with a depth of vision. By bringing together visiting ensembles like the Calder Quartet and Rootstock with UCD resident groups Empyrean Ensemble and the UC Davis Symphony Orchestra, Nichols and San Martin exquisitely executed a festival that explored the role of migration in music and how it intersects with visual art, cultural studies, and storytelling. In effect, the festival became a migratory “stop” for everyone involved, a way station in between points where ideas were exchanged and shared before moving onward.
I joined San Martin and Nichols as their assistant during the festival: It was a fantastic way to experience firsthand all the events. At the core of the festival was the presence of composer-in-residence Lei Liang and seven Festival Composition Fellows (Kari Besharse, David Coll, Elliot Cless, Annie Hsieh, Nicholas Omiccioli, Ryan Suleiman, Tina Tallon). Around this center were a series of concerts, public talks, and private colloquia. Since there were so many incredible events scheduled throughout the week, I thought it might be most useful to share what I though were the highlights.
Perhaps the most obvious example of how the festival showcased art’s intersection with the migration of people and culture came in the form of a panel discussion moderated by UCD sociologist David Kyle. Guest panelists Anthony Sheppard (musicologist and professor of music at Williams College), Maria Elena González (Cuban-American sculptor), Philip Kan Gotanda (playwright and filmmaker at UC Berkeley), Peter Kulchyski (Native Studies at University of Manitoba), and Chan Park (Korean P’ansori expert and professor of Korean language, literature, and performance studies at Ohio State University), took part in a lively discussion detailing how various cultural collisions impacted the full range of their work. What I took away from this conversation was the intriguing notion that nomadic culture, diaspora, and willful immigration all contribute to the formation of an identity in their work that was inseparable from their identity as people. There was a blurring of the conventional binary definitions (THIS vs. THAT, or GOOD vs. BAD) surrounding concepts about nomadic life, or the urge to immigrate, or the pull of being part of a diaspora. It felt reassuring to know that in our hyper-digital age, artists are ever more sensitive in identifying the thread that runs through their lives, connecting them and their work with their ancestors, predecessors, to those that will come after them. It was complicated. It was heartening. Read the rest of this entry »
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 »
Just before intermission of the opening concert of the Beyond Cage Festival on October 22, I pulled out my iPhone to see if the Giants were beating the Cardinals for the National League Pennant, and was disoriented to see that it was 9:49pm. It seemed like there must have been a massive network malfunction, because the extraordinary performance of Atlas Ecpliticalis with Winter Music that I and the rest of the audience had fervently applauded could not possibly have gone on for an hour and forty-five minutes. The duration had felt assuredly like a leisurely performance of an early Romantic symphony, say the Beethoven Pastorale, something that was stimulating and enveloping but that never demanded a hint of endurance from the ear or mind.
But it was so, Petr Kotik had just led the Orchestra of the S.E.M. Ensemble, with Joe Kubera and Ursula Oppens simultaneously playing Winter Music, in almost two hours of some of the most resolutely avant-garde music, and the listening experience was such that the sensation of time was lost completely inside the performance. The extraordinary became the unbelievable.
Kotik had already presented this piece twenty years ago, in a historic concert that became a memorial to the recently deceased composer. And he and the ensemble have recorded it twice, on a recently reissued Wergo album and a great and unfortunately out of print Asphodel release, and these are not only the two finest recordings of Atlas but also two of the finest recordings of Cage’s music available. But the concert exceeded these, reflecting the understanding of such a profound work of art that can only come through time spent examining and thinking about it.
When I took the job at UMM, I was concerned that I wouldn’t be able to find fellow composers and new music. (We are pretty far out here, after all.) I need not have worried. Last night I drove over to Central Square (a converted high school) in Glenwood to hear “Water Music,” a performance by Ensemble 61, a new-music group out of the Twin Cities led by composer Kirsten Broberg and percussionist Erik Barsness.
There’s something wonderfully “only in America” about contemporary music in a small-town high school auditorium. I immediately thought of Charles Ives who, though not represented in the composers last night, would no doubt have approved. The show opened with what is now standard new-music repertoire – George Crumb‘s Vox Balaenae. Linda Chatterton deftly tackled the flute/vocal opening, and cellist Joel Salvo (a colleague at UMM) nailed the seagull effects. Pianist Matthew McCright handled the extended inside-the-instrument challenges effectively, and apart from some minor synchronization issues Crumb’s work was given a solid reading.
Soprano Carrie Henneman Shaw performed two songs for unaccompanied singer by Jarrad Powell – “the rain of the white valley” and “i am rain.” The songs, chosen for their connection to the larger theme of the evening, were quite haunting. Unaccompanied voice is always a risk, and Henneman Shaw rose to the challenge. The hall’s acoustics weren’t much help to her, unfortunately. I was seated toward the front, and even as close as I was the enunciation was problematic. Given that I could hear how clearly she was pronouncing the words, I can only chalk it up to the hall.
The first half closed with Magnus Lindberg‘s Steamboat Bill, Jr. for clarinet and cello, a post-modern tour-de-force inspired by the Buster Keaton movie of the same name and performed with considerable verve by clarinetist Paul Schimming and cellist Salvo.
The second half opened with former Minnesotan Jesse Langen playing Morgan Krauss‘s I Water, I Night for solo guitar. As with the solo voice works, it was beautifully done and possibly swallowed up in the back of the hall. Langen pointed out beforehand that the dynamic never exceeded mezzo forte; I do hope the back was able to hear how well he performed the work.
The final piece was co-founder Kirsten Broberg‘s The Waters of Time, a setting of six sonnets – in the original Spanish – by Pablo Neruda. The instrumentation was Pierrot-plus-percussion, so in addition to the above players the ensemble featured violinist Emilia Mettenbrink and Barsness on percussion. I did not know Broberg’s music beforehand, but now I want to know more of it. This was a sensitive, beautiful work that took advantage of the capabilities of the ensemble. I would like to single out Henneman Shaw and Schimming in particular for their contributions.
I have been out here on the prairie for exactly six weeks today. If I get the chance to hear new music once every six months, I’m thrilled. Broberg mentioned the group was taking this concert on a tour of Minnesota (they have just a couple more stops, including one in Fergus Falls in mid-October). It’s exciting to be in a state where even more isolated areas like here have a thriving music scene. Between all the concerts at UMM and groups that come out of the Twin Cities and Fargo, I don’t think I’ll ever want for the good stuff.
This venue was the location of this past Sunday’s concert featuring Iktus Percussion (Cory Bracken, Chris Graham, Nicholas Woodbury, and Steve Sehman), pianist Taka Kigawa, and toy pianist Phyllis Chen. According to Iktus member Cory Bracken, one of the missions of the evening (focused entirely around composer John Cage) was to take some of his pieces that are almost exclusively performed in academic settings, and begin to inject them into the public concert repertoire. What the audience encountered, therefore, was a healthy mix of both often and not-so-often performed pieces by John Cage.
Last year I decided to try my hand at liveblogging the Bang on a Can Marathon concert and had so much fun doing it, I figured I’d come back and do it again. Held in the World Financial Center, the marathon will begin at noon and last till midnight and is FREE, so y’all have plenty of time to get here, find a spot to sit, and enjoy the huge lineup of performers and composers the Marathon is bringing forth today (the day’s schedule can be found here). If you attend, I’ll be sitting in the front row corner in the press section – feel free to come up and say howdy!
Musicians on the outskirts of Libbey Park performing Inuksuit (note the percussionist playing water gong in the upper left hand corner)
They say a picture is worth a 1000 words, so consider this photo album a 26,000 word review until I file my story. Inuksuit was one of the most extraordinary pieces of music I’ve heard since–well, John Luther Adams’ orchestra and tape work, Dark Waves. (On Sunday, we’ll hear JLA’s two-piano version of Dark Waves.)
To give you some idea of what the performance was like, here are some crude videos I made on my not-designed-for-filming camera. The mike on the camera did a reasonable job of capturing the changes in sound as you moved from one spot to another, as I did throughout the performance.
If you’re reading this before or around 11 a.m. PST June 9, hop on over to the live stream from Ojai to watch/hear Marc Andre Hamelin, Christianne Stotijn, and Martin Frost perform Alban Berg, as well as an orchestral work by Eivind Buene. Watch it here.
The 66th annual Ojai Festival was kicked off with the West Coast premiere of Inuksuit, the 2009 composition by John Luther Adams. Staged outdoors and directed by Steven Schick, some 46 percussionists and 3 piccolo players performed the 60 minute piece amid a large crowd in Libbey Park. The audience was encouraged to walk among the many scattered percussion sets, making the experience more like visiting a sound installation than attending a concert. Inuksuit is named after the distinctive stone markers of the Arctic Inuit peoples and the printed score has the outline of one such sculpture.
The piece begins quietly, the players imitating the sound of a soft breeze using cardboard megaphones, others rubbing rocks together and some with rattles – all moving outward from a central point through the crowd. At first the audience was not sure what to make of this – cell phones were answered and conversations continued – but eventually everyone quieted down as wind tubes were swung overhead simulating the eerie whistling of the wind through rocks or cliffs.
Distant horn calls from around the perimeter of the crowd followed, sounding a bit like moose calls. Drum beats, like the random thudding of rain drops, began to sound all through the assembly increasing in frequency and tempo much like an approaching storm. Cymbals followed and by now the crowd was fully engaged and circulating among the players. The drumming increased in intensity, along with loud cymbal crashes and rolls, as if standing on the banks of a roaring river.
The entire first half of the piece was essentially one long crescendo that could be reasonably heard as a convincing percussion sketch of a walk in the Alaskan wilderness. But just at the halfway point and at the peak of intensity, Adams introduces a series of sirens and bells into the mix – a distinctly urban sound. This departure from a strictly pastoral viewpoint is a masterstroke – it connects the urban listener with the environment most familiar to them. The sirens gradually abated and the second half of the piece declined in volume and intensity as the loud drumming slowly subsided.
At about 50 minutes into the piece, players holding triangles appeared around the edges and began moving inward through the crowd to the center. Their airy sounds created an ethereal quality, like the sprinkling of a light rain shower after a storm. The crowd followed, converging on three oak trees where piccolo players had been placed, standing above everyone on the lower branches. What followed was impressive: the piccolos issued a series of soft, bird-like calls that were answered by a few rapid bars of xylophone from several of the percussion stations. There was a sort of magical quality to this after all the drama of the heavy drumming. As the time between the piccolo calls and answers gradually lengthened, the sounds of children playing and cars making their way along the Ojai Avenue gradually became an integral part of the piece. In its final minutes Inuksuit manages to blur the distinction between performance and ambient life, achieving a sort of Cagean ideal by intersecting the musical arts with the outside environment– an impressive accomplishment.
The evening program was staged at the Libbey Bowl, an outdoor performance shell that was significantly upgraded in 2011 with improved , lighting, stage area and seating. Thankfully the upgrades included a decent sound system that proved its worth in Red Arc/Blue Veil, a 2001 composition by John Luther Adams scored for piano, percussion and processed sounds. This was ably performed by pianist Marc-Andre Hamelin and the aforementioned Steven Schick on percussion. Red Arc/Blue Veil features processed sounds that rumble and swell in and out of the foreground while the piano and percussion counter with rapid arpeggios. All of this creates an engaging texture and pleasant harmonic structure that reaches toward a sort of mystical quality, often succeeding. Credit here to the sound engineer who kept the balance between the recordings and the players to an agreeable level – the acoustic instruments could have been easily swallowed up. The outdoor ambiance of the Libbey Bowl did intrude, however, at the very end of the piece as it gradually dies away – some street noise broke the spell prematurely. Still, a credible outdoor performance for a piece better heard in the concert hall.
Following Red Arc/Blue Veil was the formidable Six Poems of Marina Tsvetaeva (Op. 143a) by Dimitri Shostakovich. This was written in 1973, well after the trials and tribulations that Shostakovich had suffered under Stalin, but it reflects the anger and frustration of a life lived in difficult political circumstances. The work was performed by mezzo Christianne Stotijn and pianist Leif Ove Andsnes. The Six Poems of Marina Tsvetaeva are, by turns, solemn, melancholy, defiant, sad or resigned and these emotions were powerfully expressed by Ms. Stotijn who sang marvelously. Credit again to the sound system for bringing each nuance out to the lawn seating.
The concert closed with Piano Sonata No. 2, “Concord” by Charles Ives. This was performed with a fine touch and expressive feeling by Marc-Andre Hamelin. The ‘Concord Sonata’ is written in four sections, dedicated to Emerson, Hawthorne, the Alcott family and Thoreau, New Englanders who together shaped Ives’ thinking. This piece was written 100 years ago, and admittedly Ives revised it all during his lifetime, but it seems completely contemporary to our time and place. It is elegant, playful and nostalgic music, but it is right at home in the 21st century. The appreciative audience gave Hamelin a standing ovation for his carefully controlled, yet intense reading of this challenging work.