Archive for the “Concert review” Category
Those who’ve read File Under ? for a while may know that, two years ago, my wife and I went on our honeymoon to Tanglewood. We celebrated our first anniversary at the 2010 FCM (composers take note: if your prospective partner doesn’t mind taking in a contemporary music marathon as part of your honeymoon, he/she is a keeper!) Due to work obligations, Kay and I weren’t able to attend the first three days of the 2011 Festival of Contemporary Music. Those who’d like to read excellent coverage of the beginning of the festival should head on over to New Music Box for Matthew Guerrieri’s review. But we did make it up to Lenox, MA for the final two days of the festival. And our short weekend was action packed; we heard five concerts and saw a play (a rather uneven performance of Romeo and Juliet by Shakespeare and Company).
Kay at Shakespeare and Company.
Pierre Jalbert, Music of Air and Fire: The Boston Symphony often does a contemporary work on one of its concerts during the week of FCM as a nod to the festival. This year, it was Pierre Jalbert’s Music of Air and Fire (2007), which the orchestra, lead by BSO assistant conductor Sean Newhouse, performed at the Shed on August 6.
Jalbert was a Tanglewood fellow back in the 1990s. A professor at Rice University, he’s now in demand as a composer, both of works for large orchestra and for smaller forces, as this month’s NMB profile attests.
This six minute overture was premiered by the California Symphony; it is Jalbert’s first piece on a BSO program. Music of Fire and Air is a lively and well-paced curtain-raiser, with deft writing for percussion and vivid neo-tonal harmonies from strings and winds. Apart from a small excerpt available for streaming on Jalbert’s website, it is as yet unrecorded. Given the bang-up job the BSO did with the piece, dare we hope they’ll commit it to disc sometime soon?
Karchin leads TMC Fellows. Photo Hilary Scott
Louis Karchin, Chamber Symphony: Karchin’s Chamber Symphony (2009) was the closer of FCM’s 10 AM concert on August 7 (one of three given in Ozawa Hall on the festival’s final day). Cast in three movements, its features limpid, flowing francophilic lines, daubed with tart counterpoint, as well brilliantly colorful verticals and bold Straussian horn calls. Despite leading an ensemble comprised primarily of student performers (albeit very talented student performers), Karchin’s conducting elicited a bright and assured rendition that rivaled its premiere by pros that I heard back in 2010. FCM should invite Karchin to return, both to hear his own works performed and to work with the students on contemporary repertoire.
San Francisco Community Music Center, July 20 – 23, 2011
The first sound of the festival’s Wednesday night show was, perhaps appropriately, nothing. Theresa Wong started offstage, down front, with just a microphone. She circled it in front of her face, no sound coming out of her pursed lips. Fluid looping gestures, but no vocal to be heard for perhaps two minutes. Then, a “Woo.” Silence, the mic passing back and forth. “Hoo,” silence, then another and another. Hoots and cuckoos, then a low-flutter “Wo – wo – wo – wo” for thirty seconds, then putting the mic to ear and droning (can throat sounds pass out the ear canal?), long high tones splintering off whistling multiphonics, static noise, razzes, gulps, and hums, more microphone manipulation for Doppler effects, then an episode of something close to song-singing, ending on a slow tremolo submerging into underwater warbles.
Theresa Wong stands at a deeply resonating node where a number of Bay Area new music waves converge, and is thus an emblematic artist for the Outsound Summit. Wednesday night’s all-vocal concert was titled “Face Music,” and the audience was faced with four singular solo approaches to the first instrument. Wong’s approach comes from a deep human connection to music and a direct, unaffected performance mode. When she took up her ‘cello for the second piece, even the most “abstract” sound worlds somehow evoked song-based territories. The instrument itself, when bowed, seemed to sound directly as her voice.
Aurora Josephson went even deeper during a short, ritualistic reading of John Cage’s Experiences No. 2. All in black, kneeling among candles on the floor in front of the stage, she conjured a dark and mournful atmosphere. She allowed herself long pauses between phrases, giving the listener time to savor her exquisitely precise enunciation and powerful delivery which, unamplified, rocked the room.
Joseph Rosenzweig, whose set closed the first half, delivered a choppy, harsh live sample-driven piece, a Hiss Concerto as it were, all glitchy and jarringly loud much of the time, causing the audience to jump in their seats when he’d suddenly pop a scream. His digital manipulations would seek out the hidden harmonic artifacts within his scratchy drones and, at one point, he pulled out the always useful “reverse glottal fry.”
Raising “Face Music” to its multimedia apex for the evening, bran(…)pos, aka Jake Rodriguez, erected a makeshift projection screen out of an umbrella and some diaphanous cloth, and placed it between his rig and the audience, Wizard of Oz-like. All paid attention to this Man Behind The Curtain, for his face filled the screen while wet vocal pops and kisses danced around the room from loudspeaker to loudspeaker. Cheap electronics are one of his main soundwells, and, even though the materials and visuals suggest mass violence, escalation, and propaganda, it’s all somehow delivered in a cheerfully demented style that comes off as no more threatening than a swarm of angry pixies. Eventually, after a well-crafted arc of electronic disaster movie re-enactments, bran(…)pos’s face melted from the screen (replaced by a butterfly), and Jake stepped out from behind to take his bows.
On Friday night, local composer/performer Polly Moller curated “The Art of Composition,” featuring works by Krystina Bobrowski, Andrew Raffo Dewar, Kanoko Nishi, and Gino Robair. Showcasing the huge range and robustly idiosyncratic heuristics of the Bay Area new music scene is not an easy job, but Moller’s selection cut a deep slice, if not the widest possible range (although the latter could fairly be claimed for the festival as a whole).
Mr. Robair demonstrated his centrality to many of the sub-scenes that populate the worldwide out-sound landscape, being on stage for three of the four groups and performing diverse roles with nonchalant virtuosity throughout. First, he assisted composer and instrument inventor Krystina Bobrowski in “Lift, Loft and Lull,” which employed amplified balloons as resonators for thick steel plates and long tubular bells. The first part was a slow underwater procession, with the composer blowing a mournful kelp horn while Robair did the balloonatics; the second part, with the pair playing the long tubes, gradually expanded its phrasing and language into a kaleidoscope of bongs, scrapes, rubs and singing gong-like tones. The second piece had Bobrowski moving to the Gliss Glass and Robair applying his wet fingers to a set of wine glasses.
The Gliss Glass is Bobrowski’s most complex and compelling instrument: three open-topped vessels partly filled with water, suspended on height-adjustable tripods and connected with valved tubing. Using the principle of water seeking its own level, the glasses can be struck or finger-bowed then moved up or down, causing the tones to change as the water travels among the different vessels. The resulting sounds are guaranteed to haunt the ears for days afterward, and the set provided a bang-up opening to the night.
Andrew Raffo Dewar, formerly a Bay Area stalwart (now based at the University of Alabama), is a saxophonist and composer whose Interactions Quartet has performed in San Francisco before. Robair, again on percussion, was joined by Dewar on soprano saxophone, Kyle Bruckmann on oboe and English horn, and John Shiurba on nylon-string guitar. Typically for Dewar, every new composition for the group is miles away from its predecessors in sound and form. “Strata” sounded as if impressions of Dewar’s recent jaunt to far-off Ghana had rubbed off, the slow opening moments hovering between pointillism and hocketing, all in simple pentatonic harmonies. As it gathered speed, dissonance and density — settling into a sort of pulse for the middle section (Robair and Shiurba stomping feet, ankles wrapped in bell shakers), then moving beyond a simple pulse into polymetric, panchromatic complexity — the piece stayed suspended, timeless, as if one were swimming in adjacent dimensions of streaming gossamers.
Gino Robair led his own Ensemble Aguascalientes to finish the Friday concert through a suite “based on the politically charged engravings of … Jose Guadalupe Posada.” As with many of his compositions, Robair’s conducting [see the video above, from Robair's I, Norton workshop and concert footage @ the CAID (Detroit) and The Heaven Gallery (Chicago)] using hand cues and relying on the players’ spontaneous responses to the cues and the score, ensures that no two performances sound as kin. Shiurba was back on guitar, along with Scott Walton on bass, Joel Davel and Jim Kassis percussion, and Ms. Moller on bass flute, flute headjoint, and two sizes of ocarina. The choice of ocarina is a pivotal one in realizing Robair’s conception. “I definitely want to get away from standard tuning in this piece,” he says. “It’s all a bit unstable, pitch-wise. Which I happen to like.” The ocarina’s fragile tone and nomadic pitch —negatives in the European tradition — might be said to represent a “village” or even “revolutionary” approach (in the anti-imperialist sense), to music-making. If improvisation posits a direct-democracy alternative to the imperial composer/conductor/ensemble hierarchy, then the ocarina fires a sonic shot across the equal-temperament bow. Forgive the tortured analogies — such are the deep thoughts that Outsound concerts regularly evoke. (Besides, it’s Bulwer Lytton season.)
Kanonko Nishi’s piece (some explanation of her aims and methods may be found here), a graphic score realized by bassist Tony Dryer and guitarist IOIOI, seemed to be all about punishment of the ears, aided and abetted by a sound engineer who blasted the audience not once but four times with feedback before the thing even got started, then pegged the levels of Dryer’s droning bass-feedback section at stadium-rock levels — maybe fifteen minutes’ worth, although it went by like hours. IOIOI followed Dryer, dropping stuff on her electric guitar and banging on it occasionally, which was a little softer but more piercing and unpredictable. At least their racket drowned out the party carrying on next door. Somebody must’ve liked it — from my bunker I heard applause after it was over.
Saturday night of the Outsound Summit was dedicated to instrument makers. Co-curated by Outsound founder/quarterback Rent Romus and Edward Shocker, of the Thingamajigs group, the evening proved the maxim that the inventor is not always the most winning exponent of his or her invention. (Another point, demo’d by Walter Funk: It may not be the best idea to put a lasagna pan full of water onto a stage bustling with electric wires, computers and effects boxes, etc.) Among the presenters were new-instrument stalwarts Bart Hopkin and Terry Berlier (Her instruments are often quite beautiful sculptures). David Michalak played them in place of Ms. Berlier; unfortunately, the most impressive-looking one, a wooden dodecahedron riddled with sound-tubes and slapped with spatulas, was a sonic dud), Tom Nunn with Michalak and Stephen Baker, Brenda Hutchinson and Bob Marsh, Sasha Leitman and Walter Funk, and Sung Kim with Dan Ake. Ms. Hutchinson manipulated and sang into her long tube, enhanced by electronics and field recordings while Mr. Marsh, having donned a full-body suit covered in sliced-up water bottles, performed a pantomime to Ms. Hutchinson’s sounds that suggested Godzilla waking up to find he’s been genetically spliced with a jellyfish. It worked.
The highlight performance of the evening belonged to Tom Nunn, supported by Michalak and Baker. Mr. Nunn has been doing what he does for a very long time; he may be fairly said to be one of the granddaddies on the sonic sculpture family tree. His instruments are always a treat to look at and a delight to the ear. He favors nonharmonic, complex resonances such as are generated by metal rods and plates. His Skatchboxes generate insect and electronic sounds from mundane materials like combs, screws, and washers. Nunn debuted a new instrument on this night, a 3’ by 3’ stainless steel plate suspended by balloons in buckets and vibrated by cardboard tubes. Somehow the varying lengths of the tubes make different tones possible when rubbed along the steel. Mr. Nunn’s performing style is deeply rooted in his long, lanky body, never showing any doubt that he knows exactly what sound he wants and how to get it. The groaning sounds coming from the plate plunged the room under a mile-deep glacier, where blue echoes lightly glanced off the icy, inching walls.
Outsound.org’s New Music Summit has been around ten years, and granters like SF Friends of Chamber Music and The Zellerbach Family Foundation are just now beginning to pay attention. The programming that Outsound practices is vital in supplying fresh ideas and energy into the Bay Area’s music culture. Emerging and difficult-to-classify artists are given a forum. The value of these services cannot be overstated. Here’s to ten more years of Outsound.
Barriers between various musical genres continue to be gleefully destroyed by insightful musicians and collectives. One such divide that has been crumbling over the last few years has been any distinction between “bands” and “chamber groups.” Beyond the ensembles made up of visually traditional combinations (“string quartets” such as Kronos and Ethel) are more unusual outfits like Clogs, a bassoon-viola-guitar-percussion quartet.
The final, June 10th concert of the 2011 Tribeca New Music Festival featured SWARMIUS, a band from San Diego with an intriguing quartet configuration of violin, saxophone, percussion and laptop/electronics. Led by composer Joseph Waters (whose nom de band is Jozefius V. Rattus), SWARMIUS succeeds in producing some of the most dynamic, original, and compellingly infectious new music today. This is testament not only to Waters’ brilliant compositions, but to the formidable prowess of the three instrumentalists: violinist Fiddlus el Gato (aka Felix Olschofka), Saximus (saxophonist Todd Rewoldt) and percussionist Crotalius Redfoot (Joel Bluestone).
Taking place in the intimate confines of The Cell Theatre in Chelsea, the concert opened with Cali Karsimala, which took the rhythms and scales of a Gypsy couple’s dance as a departure point for an extended virtuoso expedition. The piece is highly evocative of its Eastern European and Persian models, but also moves beyond them to suggest energetic dance music of some new, imagined culture. Olschokfa and Rewoldt managed Waters’ sinewy and rhythmically tricky lines with verve and aplomb, and the timbral aspects of the piece (managed by Waters’ in real time from his laptop) were highly distinctive and memorable.
Drum Ride was another ultra-rhythmic traversal exploiting diverse exotic scales, this time over an almost omnipresent quintuplet ostinato. Despite its similar stylistic ingredients to Cali Karsimala, it more than managed to distinguish itself as being quite different, with melodic, harmonic and timbral material not at all reminiscent of the previous work. The only general similarity was that it again suggested ingrained folk music from a culture that doesn’t exist.
The title of the next piece removes the responsibility of the reviewer for providing any descriptive prose. Moonlight Beach Chaconne (The Beach Boys, J.S. Bach and Stevie Wonder Take A Trip To Nigeria, Where They Encounter The Ghost Of Richard Wagner, Impersonating A Shaman) delivers exactly what is promised by the title. Brilliantly, the result is not a pastiche at all, but an exuberant, multi-layered and at times very affecting synthesis of the idioms referenced in the title. Chromatic baroque harmony is always in the mix throughout the piece. What the title doesn’t tell you is that the work is basically a violin concerto, played with both virtuoso mastery and moving lyrical expression by Olschofka.
Dragon was a paean to Japanese video game music. With many recognizable themes swirling in high-spirited counterpoint, the piece exhibited bounteous imagination and sly humor, bringing the audience to audible laughter at various junctures. Lucas, the Bringer of Light was a completely different venture—a long and highly variegated tone poem inspired by Waters’ 7 month-old grandson. Using samples of his grandson’s vocalizations, Waters produced not only a deeply affecting portrait exploring the perceptions and temporality of an infant’s world, but an exploration of the machine-like aspects of human beings. The timbral universe of Waters’ sounds in this composition were vast but still unified; the structure appropriately and compellingly organic.
The concert’s finale was Grand Larceny, an enthralling toccata inspired by the fast tempi, timbres and ultra-precision of speed metal. For this number, the audience was asked to blow police whistles which had been distributed at the beginning of the concert at a climactic juncture, an effect that was both cathartic and hilarious.
In sum, the compositions of Joseph Waters and the musicians SWARMIUS produced a vibrant, highly memorable, gripping and deeply persuasive musical evening at The Cell. Here’s hoping that they will return to New York with their unique sonic presence very soon.
So I happened to be in the city over the weekend and didn’t have any interviews or other meetings today, so I figured “Hey, I’ve got a laptop…why not liveblog the Bang on a Can Marathon over at the World Financial Center? One press pass and sweet front row seat later, and here I am. I’m not sure if I’l be insane enough to make it to midnight, but I’ll try to give y’all a sense of as much of the festivities as I can. Started in 1987 by David Lang, Julia Wolfe, and Michael Gordon, the Marathon has turned into one of the biggest new music events in the country. I’ve never liveblogged anything before, so this should be interesting! I’ll keep the rest of the posts under the break so as to not take up a huge amount of space – if you have time and in the NYC area, come on down – it’s free, you can come and go as you’d like, and I’ll be in the front on the corner if you want to say hi! Read the rest of this entry »
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Full disclosure is necessary up front: last year I had the pleasure of studying composition with Don Freund at the Jacobs School of Music, Indiana University. Our working relationship was fruitful and inspiring, and I left his studio with new insight, skills, and quite a lot of new music. So what are some of the important things I learned from him? Passion, energy and confidence are infectious. Anything goes stylistically when instilled with passion, energy and confidence. Know thy instruments and use them with passion, energy and confidence. Take risks and don’t be afraid to fall flat on your face (with passion, energy and confidence), etc.
When one has the chance to experience the embodiment of such a laundry list in a living, breathing piece of art, the impact is much greater. So to witness the premiere of Freund’s PASSION With Tropes last weekend was truly fulfilling as a listener and a former student. Throughout the 80+ minute piece of music theater Freund’s espoused wisdom revealed itself to me in the form of “do as I say AND as I do”.
A little back story (more can be found at the link here): Freund’s PASSION was originally composed in 1983, and the revision underwent a distillation of the orchestration and re-sculpting of the narrative to direct motion towards the end of the piece. In the notes for the program, Freund describes the piece as “a theatre work about the experience of attending an oratorio (or, more specifically, a Passion)”. As far as an all-encompassing message, he suggests that PASSION “is about life as defined by suffering and love”. One of the most unique aspects of this piece is the manner in which it is told: instead of a linear narrative Freund opted to create a collage of musings by over forty poets, philosophers and playwrights for the libretto. Presented in almost a cut-up method, strands of Nietzsche flow into Beckett, Shakespeare segues to Sartre, and Vonnegut morphs into Dostoevsky, all of which are interspersed with actual liturgical text. The “…With Tropes” in the title takes on two meanings, with a trope as a word or expression used figuratively as well as the embellishment of parts of the Mass via insertion of a musical phrase.
The premiere of the 2011 version of PASSION took place at the Ruth N. Halls Theater at Indiana University-Bloomington to a packed house. It was such a multi-faceted production that it required participation between four university departments as well as support from the New Frontiers in the Arts and Humanities and the Institute of Digital Arts and Humanities at Indiana University. The orchestration was for a 20-person orchestra, members of the IU Contemporary Vocal Ensemble (as well as various combinations of soloists), and a children’s choir from the local St. Charles School. There were also dancers and actors from other departments at IU to enhance the drama and action, as well as visuals (animation and still images) and stage direction provided by talented local and faculty artists. The audience was seated in four sections on the stage, surrounded by choirs as dancers and actors walked down the aisles from all angles.
One of the most fascinating aspects of PASSION is how organically and effortlessly Freund’s narrative flows. I’ve experienced the same seamless unfolding in films by masters such as Fellini, Greenaway and Godard and the effect is mesmerizing. In PASSION, ghosts of medieval chant ingeniously morph into what could be a Staple Singers number followed by a modernist orchestral texture. The musical language is always stylistically supportive of the text, with the collage-like arrangement enhancing the sense of time travel. Although some chosen texts only appear as one-off segments, Freund created multiple continuities as other texts and their musical counterparts return and progress at different points throughout the piece. The overall effect is almost as if someone is changing the channels to watch several different things at once. Lesser composers would have had a hard time succeeding with such a narrative; Freund’s technical skills and fluency in multiple musical dialects enabled an unhindered flow throughout the intense, 80+ minute journey. The staging of certain dramatic scenes (i.e. Waiting for Godot and King Lear) provided repose and release from the scored texts, showcasing the bare sound of the human voice and the graceful motions of the dancers. And the on-stage seating enabled the attendees to be surrounded by the visuals, sounds and motions of all of the performers, thus enhancing the immersing nature of the production.
For those unfamiliar with the Jacobs School of Music, the performers here generally range from fantastic to amazing. The chamber orchestra and Contemporary Vocal Ensemble handled their duties with finesse, poise, and expertise, never overbearing and always adapting effortlessly to whatever was asked of them. The children’s choir probably melted some hearts, lending a sense of innocence and unconditional love to the performance, and the actors and dancers performed with elegance and grace. With all of these different factors contributing to the success of the piece, enough praise cannot be bestowed upon conductor Carmen-Helena Tellez. With so many different elements at play, her understanding of the score, restraint and self-assurance were evident throughout.
And with such a convincing performance it is necessary to acknowledge the masterful score that facilitated it. Freund’s ingenuity, creativity, and command of his craft were on display, leaving no doubt that he is an artist of the highest level and that PASSION is a high-water mark of a fecund career. It is a bold, imaginative, risky work full of brilliant orchestration, color, heart and soul. Judging by the tangible sentiment in the room, Freund’s passion, energy and confidence worked wonders.
Now in their 10th season, the Jupiter Symphony Chamber Players have earned their special place in New York City music lovers’ hearts.
A stone throw from Lincoln Center’s main venues, the Good Shepherd Presbyterian Church on 152 West 66th Street provides a modest but intimate setting for the chamber music series, commemorating the powerful legacy of the founder and conductor of the Jupiter Symphony Orchestra, Jens Nygaard, who had performed for audiences at Alice Tully Hall, as well as the homeless and victims of natural disasters alike.
His passion for music not only glorified already celebrated works, but he sought out lesser known and neglected works or composers whose names had been forgotten, which he presented with great appeal. This charismatic personality in teaching and music-making touched many lives before he passed away in 2001. The Emmy Award winning documentary “Life on Jupiter,” has accounts of Nygaard’s highly spirited and relevant impact, told by his friends and colleagues.
Run by private funding, the enthusiastic efforts of the Chamber Players’ manager and Nygaard’s widow, Mei Ying, as well as former first bassoonist and now music advisor, Michael Volpert, the series is dedicated to continuing Mr. Nygaard’s artistic quest for beautiful music and interesting performance. It also keeps on providing performance opportunities for some of the former orchestral musicians as well as talented guest artists.
A small but loyal and informed audience follows this quest on a very low budget. Tickets are not expensive. The performances are held on twenty Monday afternoons (2pm) and evening (7.30pm) programs.
Besides playing some of the standard gamut, the performers who come from a roster of first rate, internationally performing artists, notably explore a handpicked, highly selective repertoire.
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Jochen Kowalski (center) and the Long Beach Opera Chorus in Akhnaten by Philip Glass
If you have the slightest interest in contemporary opera or modern drama, you must see Philip Glass’s Akhnaten, scheduled for one more performance by Long Beach Opera on Sunday, March 27. It is a brilliant update of Wagner’s idea of the Gesamtkunstwerk, in which Glass’s music, staging by Andreas Mitisek, choreography by Nanette Brodie, and video projections by Frieder Weiss all combine into one amazing whole.
At the heart of the work is Glass’s monolithic score and libretto. The story itself is a series of tableaux depicting the rise (Act 1) and fall (Act 3) of Akhnaten and his dangerous idea—there is only one God, Aten, the Sun. (Act 2 is devoted to Akhnaten’s implementation of monotheism). Glass’s repetitive music, with its Brucknerian phrase lengths and static textures, creates a deep sense of ritual underlying each scene.
The modern operas favored by most American companies strike me as unsatisfactory hybrids in which a recent contemporary musical vocabulary is poured into a 19th-century dramatic form. With the typical American opera libretto adapted from a novel, film, or conventional play, the narrative is linear, the presentation of material straightforward, rarely employing any 20th-century dramatic innovations. What Glass did with his Einstein/Gandhi/Akhnaten operatic trilogy was to bring opera up to date with contemporary dramatic thought. Even though Akhnaten is almost 30 years old, it seems fresh and novel compared to the retooled verismo of so much recent American opera.
Another problem for me in contemporary opera (although it’s a problem over 100 years old) is that of vocal parts consisting of continuous recitative or through-composed arias or whatever you want to call them. In the Baroque through Romantic periods, an aria sung by a character operated according to clear structural principals—the da capo aria or classical number aria. What has replaced that organizing device in modern operas? Complete formal freedom—in many contemporary operas, the characters sing in a continuous recitative. Berg solved the problem by shaping the scenes in Wozzeck according to the principals of multi-movement instrumental music.
Glass came up with a somewhat similar solution in his operas—the sung vocal lines are an integral part of the musical process. The vocal parts in Akhnaten are like instrumental lines, an essential part of Glass’s overall musical fabric. The intellectual rigor of his writing allows orchestral instruments to be substituted for the voices in the Akhnaten excerpt of Jerome Robbins’s ballet, Glass Pieces, (Act 1, Scene 1) without any loss of musical sense or drama.
This vocal writing flies in the face of the American operagoer’s expectations. What, no high C for the soprano? No cadenza for the tenor? (The lack of big stage moments for singers is probably one of the reasons Akhnaten and similar operas are rarely produced in the U.S.).
This is not to say that there aren’t highly dramatic moments in Glass’s vocal parts. The first note sung by Akhnaten is one of the most startling entrances in all of opera. We see Akhnaten for an entire scene during his coronation, but it is not until the last scene of Act I that we finally hear Akhnaten sing; what comes out of his mouth is not the heroic tenor or deep bass we expect from an operatic king, but rather a hooty A above middle C sung by a countertenor. Yes, we knew Akhnaten was a countertenor when we first took our seat, but that does not mitigate the unnerving violation of our expectations when this figure of grandeur opens his mouth and issues forth a sound which would be more appropriate for a giant boy soprano.
Jochen Kowalski sang the title role with a vibrato so wobbly that he could be an honorary member of the International Workers of the World. Paul Esswood, who created the role of Akhnaten for the Stuttgart premiere and the subsequent recording, sang with little vibrato in a style more typical for an early music concert than an American opera stage. Akhnaten was a physically deformed man, yet Kowalski looked like, and played him, as an imposing authority figure. Kowalski’s attitude was firm, his blocking well-defined, his postures exact; it was too bad that his sense of pitch did not share these characteristics. Let’s hope his singing is more disciplined on Sunday afternoon.
The other two prominent roles were ably sung by alto Peabody Southwell as Nefertiti and tenor Tyler Thompson as the Amon High Priest (not “Amon” as the program identified him—Amon was the god). A recent graduate, Southwell already possesses a solid tone and a confident stage presence, and one suspects audiences will see even more of her as her voice matures. Read the rest of this entry »
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Last Saturday night I caught a trio of Philip Glass‘s slightly more obscure music, performed by a well-rehearsed Pacific Symphony and Pacific Chorale (based in Orange County, California) as part of their annual American Composers Festival. Although lesser-known than its Los Angeles counterpart, the symphony is staffed with many fine Southern California-based musicians and performs in the recently built and acoustically impressive Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall.
The opening piece, “Meetings Along the Edge” from Passages (1990), featured Glass’s collaboration with Ravi Shankar, in which both agreed to each compose a melody for each other and write a new composition around it. Usually I cringe at the results at these attempts at cultural exchange and creative collaboration, but in this rare instance I was very taken with the way Shankar’s Indian melody combined with Glass’s signature contrapuntal and harmonic elements. It created a fascinating juxtaposition, that gave me new insights on how Shankar’s Indian musical elements integrated into his very recognizable compositional language.
The Concerto for Saxophone Quartet and Orchestra (1995) was written to serve dual purposes: first to be performed primarily as a saxophone quartet (here handled by the Prism Quartet), and secondly to be performed with an added orchestral accompaniment. Judging by the many recordings available of the quartet (sans orchestra), it has become a popular addition to the saxophone repertoire, but at Saturday evening’s performance it was hard to forget that much of this music was very similar or even repurposed from Wichita Vortex Sutra (1990), Glass’s song cycle collaboration based on Alan Ginsberg’s spoken-word poetry with solo piano. Reusing music has been widely accepted (besides borrowing heavily from Mozart and Purcell, Michael Nyman is a common recycler of his own music) and I think there is nothing inherently wrong with reusing one’s material, but in this case the unintended results were the equivalent of watching James Gandolfini from The Sopranos appear in another TV show. No matter how hard you try, it’s hard to see him as anybody but Tony Soprano. Comparing this secondhand saxophone showcase against the powerful combination of Glass’s music with Ginsberg’s poetry doesn’t really equate apples to apples, but more like apples to apple butter.
After intermission, just from viewing the assembled 140-member Pacific Chorale and orchestra, it might be easy to assume that Glass’s The Passion of Ramakrishna would feature a grand spectacle similar to his non-narrative operas like Akhnaten and Satyagraha. But for reasons I can’t fathom the assembled full chorus and orchestra wasn’t used to its full potential, at least in comparison to his similar vocal and operatic works.
The libretto, which recounted the final months and last words of the 19th-century Indian philosopher Ramakrishna, were surprisingly taciturn and the music was pleasant, but as the Passion of Ramakrishna was coming to a close I was struck that I had never been left so cold by a Glass vocal piece: It was basically 50 minutes of recitative with no aria (i.e. mostly all story and very little emotion). After the performance my concerns were confirmed when some of the performers said that Glass had mentioned he’d been hoping to eventually to flesh out the piece further, which was especially curious because the weekend’s performances were being recorded for a possible release on Naxos or Glass’s own Orange Mountain Music label.
Whether or not the piece performed Saturday night was the final version, it does leave me to think that in its current version, the Passion of Ramakrishna could use a few changes — namely, more “Passion” to balance out the exposition. As a composer who has learned much from studying and performing Glass’s music over the years the music presented Saturday night shows that even though many already are calling him a “living legend”, sometimes deadlines and professional obligations lead to music that was created by a mere mortal.
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[The latest iteration of the always-stellar Other Minds festival is now done and in the books. We asked our equally-stellar Bay Area musician friend Tom Djll if he'd like to cover a bit of it for us, and he happily sent along his impressions of the second and third concert evenings.]
Other Minds 16
Jewish Community Center, San Francisco
Concert Two, Friday, March 4, 2011
There’s a shard of spotlight on my shoulder. A music stand hovers off the sphere of peripheral vision; under it, the shadow of fingers curl like the violin scroll toward which they crawl, spiderish. The fingers belong to a violinist of the Del Sol String Quartet; on both sides of the audience the quartet and the Left Coast Chamber Ensemble are arrayed up the steps toward the back of the hall. In forward vision is percussionist Andrew Schloss, standing behind a computer and percussion-controller on a table. Over these hover his wired drumsticks, sometimes striking the controller yet often just floating, stirring the atoms above it, sending flocks of musical messages to various slave percussives onstage, offstage, and hung from the ceiling above. The composer is David A. Jaffe, protegé of Henry Brant; the percussion-controller builder, German-born, Seattle-based Trimpin, master of MIDI and commander of solenoid soldiers.
The Space Between Us might be called a “cubistic” composition. The subject is suggested by the title, or “what can be communicated and what remains unsaid,” in the composer’s words, as, with sticks held aloft in a gentle but dramatic gesture, percussionist-conductor Schloss signals yet another beginning, another foray into the problem of separation and identity. Somewhat reminiscent of Ives’ The Unanswered Question, each new attempt answers nothing but only brings more questions to the surface, adding facets to the cubist puzzle in the hearer’s mind. Strings quiver in mournful, canonic dirges in one phase; other times they signal impatience in brusque, un-pretty gestures. Later on, massed plucking is attempted, to better match the percussive chatter. Desperate glissandi from the computer-driven piano onstage are gobbled and hurled back by cello and viola, all to no avail. The space remains and separation seems unbridgeable, yet the sonic discussion has pushed the gloom back for at least a few moments of transcendent, clouds-clearing beauty. The conversation is aptly dedicated to Henry Brant, an Other Minds spiritual father.
Next up was I Wayan Balawan, guitarist/composer of Bali. OM 16 marked the first appearance in the West of this gifted young man of Olympian technique and globe-trotting musical mind. He also possesses an awareness of stagecraft and audience engagement, reflected not only in his pleasing hybrid music but also humorous asides which broke the performer-audience barrier, and a precise approach to costuming. Onstage with him were, from left, Balinese compatriots I Nyoman Suwida and I Nyman Suarsana on gamelan instruments. They were clothed in traditional Balinese musician dress: Nehru-ish jackets, beaked fezzes, sari-like sashes and bare feet. Balawan himself kept the hat but otherwise he and the added rhythm section (Scott Amendola and Dylan Johnson on drums and bass) decked themselves casually. Sort of a stylistic continuum, with Balawan as the mid-point.
All the brilliance of Balinese music was in evidence as the trio launched into the first of three numbers (Amendola and Johnson laid out at first), with Balawan leading on double-neck electric guitar and voice, and xylophone doubling and drum accompanying. Balawan has all the chops and effects of any guitar god you can name, and his lightning-fast melodies were as often hammered out on the fretboards with one or both hands as they were plucked traditionally. Another electric guitar stood ready on a stand; both instruments were routed through various samplers and synths and footpedals. The tunes shone the happy sunlit sound of dissonance-free scales and world-pop beats. Balawan opened the final number with a demonstration of the hocketing melody as laid out by the Balinese players on each side of a metallophone; part by part, slowly, then briskly together, then doubling with guitar at warp speed in the tune’s performance, and the audience slurped it up like Singapore noodles. This kid is going places.
Agata Zubel of Poland opened night two’s second set with Parlando, voice + electronics in a rigorous yet easy-to-digest demonstration of vocal/computer self-accompaniment of the non-looping kind. One might have expected more integration of the hairier side of contemporary vocal extension (Diamanda Galas, Phil Minton, Shelley Hirsch), but Zubel’s range of techniques was focused, precise, and mostly omitted noises in favor of dramatic gestures. The sounds and ambiences immediately brought to mind Cathy Berberian (more on her, later), but then an outbreak of avant-beatboxing shocked one back to this century. Then, after just eight minutes, it was over. (Zubel was given more of a presence on Thursday night.)
Friday night’s ultimate act was the duo of Han Bennink (drums, Holland) and Fred Frith (guitar, devices, Oakland, by way of England). About esteemed Dutch drummer, improviser, and provocateur Han Bennink’s stage presence, one’s first impression is of a pair of malformed albino salami – wait, those are his legs? – revealed via Bennink’s now-patented stage getup of beachcomber’s shorts, teeshirt and headband. All that was missing was the metal detector, although had there been one available there’s no doubt Bennink would have beat some music out of it. As it was, everything within the man-child’s reach was fair game. That reach extended beyond the stage at times – backstage, an unguarded piano was hijacked for a short joyride; then he turned his back to us and set his bum on the drum and wailed away on the wooden stool; later, Bennink took to rattling his sticks on the railings flanking the audience, giving a fair approximation of gamelan, no doubt an intentional nod to the Balinese set that came before. And for a long while, Bennink simply sat spread-legged on the floor and ecstatically pounded it with his palms, generating an insistent beat in nearly every performing permutation. He also had a snare drum onstage for a few demonstrations of his peerless brush technique.
Bennink is one of the few improvisers around who can make Fred Frith look like the conservative guy onstage. Frith surely knew what he was in for, and kept his part well under control and always gorgeously musical. He even drew some laughs of his own, strumming the strings of his lap-held guitar with paint brushes. I’ve seen him drop rice grains on his strings a few times before, and this time the stunt made its beautiful, random plinks fit Bennink’s manic-percussive thrash just right, somehow. These two together, who can turn practically any liminal sound-construction into compelling music without ever suggesting a tune or idiom, could lay claim to being the world’s greatest bad buskers.
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Music is as much of a time art as reading or looking at pictures because its subject, as John Ashbery once said about poetry, is always somehow about time. And composers, like writers, whether consciously or not, are always playing a game with time. A long piece can sound short, and a short one, long. Time can seem heavy, as in Dostoevksy, or Wagner, or light as in Proust, or Earle Brown. The four pieces on sfsound‘s most recent concert at The San Francisco Conservatory of Music’s elegant hall managed to be about all these things at once.
Anton Webern‘s pointillistic approach has often been remarked on, but this performance of his Quartet Op. 22 (1930) revealed other things besides his ultra precise and often very soft sound gestures. It’s characteristically brief, and clocked in at 8 minutes here (“the sweet succinct,” as Frank O’Hara once wrote–but also surprising, with scattered long tones in clarinet (Matt Ingalls) and tenor sax (John Ingle), and witty, almost whimsical. Hardly what you’d expect from the earnest, heavy breathing New Vienna School. Time seemed magnified, collapsed, the sound picture ably completed by violinist Graeme Jennings and pianist Christopher Jones.
Would that Jones’ Liquid Refrains (2011), commissioned by sfSound and the Koussevitzky Foundation, had the take it or leave it sense of style of the Webern. But the piece, conducted by the composer and performed by 12 members of sfSound said a lot less in its 13 minutes than the Webern. You always hope to hear a personal voice in painted, written, or musical art but you didn’t get much of one here, especially in the first part’s busy for no apparent reason, standard-issue modernist gestures. The second part, with its transparent writing and brief clockwork episodes–time standing still or at least examined up close–seemed to sketch a semblance of who this composer might actually be.
Improvisations usually have a way of speeding up our sense of time, and those by clarinetist Matt Ingalls, saxophonist John Ingle, and percussionist Kjell Nordeson sounded fresh and spontaneous, with Nordeson’s drum kit and assorted percussion making a joyful noise and providing lots of rhythmic and timbral interest.
Morton Feldman was famous – some would say infamous – for pieces of very long duration. His six hour String Quartet # 2 (1982), and For John Cage (1982), (which lasted 78 minutes when Jennings and Jones played it in San Francisco in ’08), atomize our perception of time, as does Clarinet and String Quartet (1983), which sfSound played for 45 minutes here. It certainly toyed with our expectations of what music should be, and bore not the slightest resemblance to the Mozart and Brahms Clarinet Quintets, which are from a tradition that Feldman was apparently hostile to, though his devotion to the passing moment makes him a kind of romantic, pursuing memory on his own very individual terms. Wisps–his term–of melody, through cells and figures varied and combined–is a more accurate description, with texture, and color always getting the upper hand. But does this make it unaccountably deep? Well yes–and no. I nodded off and on–the lack of rhythmic energy–is it going anywhere interesting –was both calming and aggravating. “Erased De Kooning”– well, not exactly, but perhaps this piece is a song that we can just barely hear, much less remember, which Matt Ingalls, clarinet, Jennings and Erik Ulman, violin, Ellen Ruth Rose, viola, and Monica Scott, cello, made present, but not quite near, with some wonderful invocations–the string harmonics from Lalo Schifrin’s 1979 score for The Amityville Horror near the beginning–adding a much needed theatrical juice.
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