Archive for the “Concert review” Category

Photo: Liz Linder.

Blue Heron. Photo: Liz Linder.

Blue Heron at Corpus Christi Church

Sequenza 21

By Christian Carey

 

NEW YORK – On December 18th, Boston-based early music ensemble Blue Heron appeared at Corpus Christi Church as part of Music Before 1800’s series there. Their program, titled “Christmas at the Courts of 15th century France and Burgundy,” featured polyphony and plainchant that celebrated the Advent and Christmas seasons. Led by Scott Metcalfe, the fifteen-person ensemble was frequently broken into subsets and often sang without use of a conductor. Metcalfe instead led much of the proceedings from behind a harp or alongside the singers, setting the pace in alternatim hymn settings by Guilliame Du Fay, antiphonal pieces with a large group of unison singers and a smaller group of soloists.

 

The first half of the concert featured music based on the O Antiphons, a collection of eight melodies that fall in the liturgical calendar as the chants that lead us from Advent to Christmas. Each verse of the famous hymn “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” features text from one of these antiphons. The polyphonic pieces that followed the chants employed material associated with the O Antiphons. Jacob Obrecht’s Factor Orbis quoted two antiphons, as well as a plethora of other texts and tunes, including a secular one bound to please the composer’s patron. Josquin Desprez’s O Virgo Virginum setting focused on just one antiphon, the eponymous eighth chant reserved for Christmas Eve in the Medieval Church (most denominations have since winnowed the number of O Antiphons from eight to seven in their respective liturgies). A six-part motet, O Virgo Virginum features stirring antiphonal passages for two trios and a veritable tapestry of interwoven short melodic motifs sung against the chant. Ave Maria gratia plena, by Antoine Brumel, was sung by three of the women of Blue Heron, providing an attractive timbral contrast to the preceding male-dominated selections.

 

In the Christmas section of the concert, split among the two halves of the program, the five-voice motet O admirabile commercium/Verbum caro factus est by Johannes Regis served as a centerpiece, with two other pieces that emulated it presented as well: the aforementioned Obrecht motet, and Brumel’s Nato canunt omnia. Like Factor Orbis, the other two motets featured multiple texts, chants, and interwoven melodies. Blue Heron presented these mélanges of material with enviable skill, allowing the complex counterpoint to come through with abundant clarity.

Scott Metcalfe. Photo: Liz Linder.

Scott Metcalfe.
Photo: Liz Linder.

To celebrate New Year’s Day, nobles from Fifteenth century French and Burgundian courts exchanged lavish presents, including commissioned vocal works. In a section spotlighting these gifts, called estraines, the audience was treated to an assortment of chansons by Dufay, Nicholas Grenon, Guilliame Malbeque, Baude Cordier, Johanna Tinctoris, and Gilles Binchois. For these selections, instrumentalists joined Blue Heron: Metcalfe playing harp, Laura Jeppesen vielle and rebec, and Charles Weaver lute. The variety of textures obtained by the various ensemble groupings in this section of the program was lavishly multifaceted.

 

Likely the earliest of the selections on the program (apart from the encore), Johannes Ciconia’s Gloria Spiritus et alme was redolent in Lydian cadences. The resulting raised fourths and heightened sense of dissonance gave Blue Heron the opportunity to show off their use of just intonation in particularly splendorous fashion. Chords shimmered and melodic lines underscored the slightly unequal nature of the temperament’s half steps. It made for an extraordinary sound world. On the other end of the chronological spectrum, Adrian Willaert’s Sixteenth century motet Praeter rerum seriem featured seven-voice counterpoint. The thickened textures contained chant in a three-voice canon and sumptuous doublings of chord tones from the other four voices. The performance was truly transportative. As Metcalfe’s informative program notes pointed out, the piece’s seven-voice texture had another component of showmanship besides the obvious requisite compositional virtuosity: it contains one more voice than Josquin’s motet on the same text.

 

The concert ended with an encore from the Fourteenth century: Laudemus cum Armonia. The entire cohort of musicians raised their voices in song, making a most thrilling sound. It was an impressive end to a superlative performance.

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The next concert on Music Before 1800’s series is on Sunday, January 15, 2017 at 4 PM, when baritone Jesse Blumberg joins instrumental ensemble ACRONYM in a program devoted to music by Johann Rosenmüller. Blue Heron returns to Corpus Christi on October first: the week before my birthday. I certainly plan to make it my business to hear them again.

 

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Tallis Scholars at St. Mary’s: Bass Hit

Sequenza 21

By Christian Carey

 

NEW YORK – On December 10th, the Tallis Scholars found themselves in a bit of a quandary. Scheduled to give their annual Renaissance Christmas concert as part of Miller Theatre’s Early Music Series at Church of St. Mary the Virgin, the ten-voice ensemble was decimated to nine. Long-time member bass Robert Macdonald was ill and had been rendered voiceless. Peter Phillips, the Tallis Scholars’ director, quipped from onstage that unless he sang, which the rest of the singers “felt unwise,” the group’s other bass, Tim Whiteley, would have to go it alone. MacDonald did not appear to be the only member suffering. During the course of the concert, there were several sniffles onstage and far more water being chugged than is the group’s usual practice. Gamely they had decided to appear regardless.

 

There was yet another wrinkle to the story. During the first half of the concert the Tallis Scholars had planned to feature Cipriano de Rore’s Missa Praeter rerum seriem, a composition that includes many divisi, including a number of passages where each bass has his own part. A substitution was in order, and the solution was a welcome one: Giovanni Perluigi da Palestrina’s Missa Assumpta est Maria. One of the composer’s last works, it demonstrates his movement from a more modal to a quasi-tonal harmonic method of organization. Although outnumbered, Whiteley never seemed vocally outgunned. Indeed, the Tallis Scholars’ long association helped them to rebalance their forces in seemingly effortless fashion. The clarity of lines and fine-tuned chords which resulted were truly remarkable sounding.

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Although the audience had been deprived of De Rore on the first half, the second provided some compensation with a sprightly, joyous rendition of his Hodie Christus natus est setting. Magnificat Primi Toni, by Tomás Luis de Victoria, features antiphonal division of the choir into two four-part units. Fortunately for this occasion it doesn’t include bass divisi, but there are some stellar passages for high sopranos that arched angelically upward, as well as sturdy tutti declamation.

 

Victoria, Palestrina, and even de Rore are familiar composers to many Renaissance listeners, but the next two selections on the program, both Salve Regina settings, were composed by figures who aren’t yet “household names.” Based on the quality of these works alone, they should be. Claudin de Sermisy’s Salve Regina was filled with imitative counterpoint, including four-voice canons and fetching duets, which were delivered with abundant precision by the Tallis Scholars. Hernando de Franco, a Spanish composer who resided in Mexico, must have enjoyed setting the Salve Regina text – or at the very least been frequently requested to do so – there are five of them attributed to him. Here, chant was weaved into the fabric of the piece, interspersing thick-voiced passages of contrapuntal activity.

 

The concert concluded with O Splendor Gloriae, a composition that appears to have been a collaboration between John Taverner and Christopher Tye. The piece never feels like a ragtag assemblage, but there are significant differences among its various sections. O Splendor has a long-ish text, describing the Creation story from the Fall to Christ’s Resurrection and Ascension. Even after such a taxing program, and under harried circumstances, the Tallis Scholars brought a warm sound to bear here. This is no mean feat, as the work contains a number of high-lying lines. In addition to the sopranos who sustained these, Whiteley must be commended for his efforts. The bass brought sonorous support to the work’s chordal passages and hardy declamation during sections for subsets of the ensemble. It was a testament to the Tallis Scholars’ consummate professionalism that, despite challenging circumstances,  they made such stirring music.  

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panicduo1Panic Duo, consisting of violinist Pasha Tseitlin and pianist Nic Gerpe were featured in a People Inside Electronics concert on December 10, 2016 at Throop Unitarian Universalist Church in Pasadena. The event was held in the roomy church auditorium and a full size crowd braved the weekend holiday traffic to hear seven contemporary pieces, including a world premiere. With one exception, all the pieces were by Los Angeles area composers and five were in attendance.

The first piece was The Alchemy of Everyday Things by Jason Francesco Heath, inspired by the Villa Aurora, the cultural center and artists’ residence in Pacific Palisades. This opens with lush tones from the electronics accompanied by sustained violin notes above. In a most unusual form of piano preparation, a fishing line is drawn across the piano strings and amplified, filling the performance space with the most amazingly deep and resonant sounds. The combination of the electronics, violin and piano string produce some lovely harmonies and a warm, soothing texture. There is no perceptible pulse and the piece floats dreamily along with a feeling of nostalgic introspection. About midway through, the piano is played from the keyboard and the violin becomes more restlessly active. This purposeful feel soon gives way to the slower pace of the opening while the sound of surf, wind and quiet whispering is heard from the electronics. The line is drawn once again across the piano string, restoring the mystical ambiance at the close. The Alchemy of Everyday Things is an extraordinary piece that perfectly captures the sense history present in the Villa Aurora.

Who Cares If You Listen, by John Frantzen followed, and the title was based on the famous 1958 High Fidelity magazine article written by Milton Babbitt. In his remarks prior to the performance of this piece, Frantzen explained that he was inspired by the sounds of some of the famous quotes about music, starting with Babbitt and including sayings by Busconi and Ives. Solemn electronic sounds begin the piece, soon joined by the solo violin. The pounding of construction equipment was heard through the speakers and trills in the violin introduce an element of anxiety. Faster violin runs give way to repeating passages having the same rhythm and cadence as the speaking of the phrase “Who cares if you listen.” This was reminiscent of the vocal patterns heard in Steve Reich’s string quartet Different Trains, but in this case no recorded voices were heard. The Busconi quotation was less concise and illustrated with rapid violin phrases – precisely played by Pasha Tseitlin – along with a dance-like pizzicato section. The final quotation came from Charles Ives: “Why can’t you stand up before fine strong music like this and use your ears like a man?”, apparently in response to a heckler at a concert he was attending. This was accompanied by increasing volume in the electronics and a much faster tempo for the violin, resulting in a dramatic finish. Who Cares If You Listen is an artful blend of electronics, masterful violin playing and the sounds of speech patterns that combine to produce an intriguing extension of the sentiments expressed in the underlying quotations.

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Ensemble Lux

Austrian Cultural Forum New York

November 17, 2016

NEW YORK – Austrian Cultural Forum New York makes part of its mission supporting chamber musicians from Austria, bringing them to the United States for concerts. One of the best of these concerts I have attended was this past Thursday’s New York debut of Ensemble Lux, a string quartet with formidable technique and ambitious tastes in programming. Their concert ranged across a century’s worth of music, from Anton Webern’s 5 Movements for String Quartet (1909), to la pureté de l’envie blanche, a piece from 2010 by the Lux’s second violinist, Thomas Wally.The concert opened with Olga Neuwirth’s settori, a showcase for extended techniques: alternate bowings, rapping on the wood of the instruments, Bartôk pizzicatos, altissimo register filigrees and harmonics. Neuwirth uses this expansive palette as the means to fascinating, expressive ends. Hans Erich Apostel (1901-’72) was a student of Arnold Schoenberg and Alban Berg. The musical materials and aesthetics of the Second Viennese School are on display in Apostel’s 6 Epigramme. While the pieces are well constructed miniatures, his last name is telling of his relative place in the 12-tone pantheon.

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More engaging was Schoenberg’s String Trio. Written after the composer’s heart attack, a program reflecting this experience is often ascribed to the work. Whether one thinks it appropriate to do so, the piece is a remarkable late work by Schoenberg, juxtaposing the techniques of twelve-tone music and neoclassical phrasing with some of the visceral gestural language of his earlier Expressionism. Lux’s performance paid note both to the work’s Apollonian and Dionysian features. Correspondingly, Webern’s 5 Movements, aphoristic vignettes written at the beginning of atonality’s appearance, were played with exquisite care by the quartet.

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la pureté de l’envie blanche juxtaposed periods of silence with angular runs nearly at the instruments’ bridges. There were also tremendously quiet sustained passages. One was struck by the dynamic range the quartet had been able to deploy in ACFNY’s small performance space, from thunderous outbursts in settori to the extreme pianissimos of Wally’s work. Ensemble Lux’s precision and control mark them as a group with a promising future. Hopefully, their next visit to New York will be soon.

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mcintosh1On Tuesday, October 18, 2016 at The Wild Beast on the Cal Arts campus, a faculty recital by Andrew McIntosh featured no fewer than six different violins and violas, five sections of the Rosary Sonatas with period Baroque tuning, four contemporary pieces, and two world premiers. A good-sized crowd turned out mid-week to experience a wide range of music employing tuning practices from the 16th to the 21st century.

Embellie (1981) by Iannis Xenakis was first, a solo viola piece. Xenakis is quoted in the program notes: “I wrote this piece… trying to think only of the viola, with its low, beautiful notes and its particular voice lying in between those of the cello and the violin like a patch of more clement weather, a moment of calm during a storm…” The opening of Embellie was strongly assured, although perhaps tinged with a touch of anxiety, its complex texture and slight dissonances adding up to a sense of dissatisfaction. Lightly delicate phrases alternated with more forceful passages and McIntosh provided a finely controlled contrast in dynamics and color. At one point, a series of declarative phrases were succeeded by slow, continuously descending tones, unwinding like a far off siren. Rapid, skittering runs followed – requiring rock solid technique – and then some rougher, unsettled phrases that culminated in a high, wispy sound, like the soft whistling of the wind, as the piece quietly concluded.

Next was vla (2007) by Nicholas Deyoe. A version of this – vln – was written for violin, but this was the premiere performance for solo viola. Unlike the Xenakis piece that featured strong contrasts and a variety of textures, vla artfully occupied just a small subset of possible viola sounds. Deyoe noted that “The material is derived entirely from natural harmonics and pizzicato open strings on a retuned instrument.” Vla began with a continuous series of light, squeaky notes that floated insubstantially into the air, often leaving behind a questioning feel. The high, needle-like pitches were accompanied by similarly high pizzicato, deftly realized by the left hand of McIntosh, even as he bowed the arco parts. All of the familiar, rich tones of the viola were absent, but the dancing shimmer of pitches engaged the listener throughout. Vla convincingly evokes the hard sparkle of glass shards in a bright sunlight – from a most unlikely instrument.

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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.

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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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