Archive for the “Concerts” Category
In two days, the American Modern Ensemble joins forces with Del Sol, JACK and PUBLIQuartet to tackle a dynamic program of premieres and 21st-century stalwarts involving string quartet. Members of AME will start the evening by premiering Jacob Bancks‘ String Theory, for string quartet, and return to deliver premieres of Sidney Boquiren‘s in a mirror dimly, for string quartet and harp, and Robert Paterson‘s I See You for string orchestra and “tape”.
Del Sol will play Chinary Ung‘s Sprial X “In Memoriam”, which violinist Charleton Lee describes as, “a powerful cry for the common people suffering continuing atrocities throughout the world.” Next, PUBLIQuartet takes the stage in advance of their Carnegie Hall debut to play founding violinist Jessie Montgomery‘s work Breakaway and JACK will perform John Zorn‘s The Dead Man. Finally, the evening will close with all the players retaking the stage to perform John Luther Adams‘ Dream In White On White.
The concert takes place a SubCulture this coming Thursday at 7:30 PM. Tickets are $20 in advance and $30 the day of the performance. More information about the program and purchasing tickets is available on SubCulture’s Website.
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On October 11, the Oneonta Concert Association of central New York presented an unforgettable concert by Musicians from Marlboro. For half a century, Vermont’s Marlboro Music School and festival have spawned top-flight, ad-hoc ensembles pairing rising stars in classical music with established names in the field. The fact that the name of Kim Kashkashian, one of the world’s finest violists and a tireless champion of contemporary music, was mentioned nowhere in the touring group’s modest marketing package indicated the level of Marlboro’s commitment to apprenticeship. Indeed, despite her unmistakable tone and timbre, Kashkashian contributed humbly to an atmosphere of total and mutual respect.
The program was itself a work of art. Before bows contacted strings, Kashkashian described György Kurtág’s Officium breve as “very gestural and dramatic music.” That it was, for its sparse notecraft nevertheless required of the four string players an uninhibited comportment by which the sounds might freely unravel. The moods of Kurtág’s compendium, written in memory of Hungarian composer Endre Szervánszky (1911-1977), are as varied as their source materials. With characteristically intertextual grace, he references the canon from Webern’s final completed opus (the second Kantate of 1941-43) and works by Szervánszky, the latter not least of all by way of self-quotations from the ever-expanding Játékok (specifically, the bipartite “Hommage à Szervánszky” thereof). The opening harmonics, courtesy of cellist Karen Ouzounian, established a haunting undercurrent that would flow throughout. To this were added the floating lines of violinists David McCarroll and Nikki Chooi before being conjoined by Kashkashian’s peerless tonal qualities. Despite the brevity of its 15 sections, most lasting under a minute, what the piece lacked in duration it made up for in Kurtág’s wealth of invention. Shifting contrasts of altitude, distance, and texture throughout made this sometimes-challenging music feel as organic as rain. Harmonies were elastic, pulled as they sometimes were from a single note in tutti or alit upon from above. The occasional outburst came across not as an interruption but as a catharsis of self-discovery. The ending left us with a drawer of knives, each of varying sharpness and resilience but all bearing the stamp of meticulous smithery.
To this, Szervánszky’s Trio for Flute, Violin and Viola made for a natural follow-up. Enlivened by the virtuosity of flutist Marina Piccinini, alongside violist Wenting Kang and Chooi again on violin, its flowering field carried scents of Bartók, Dvořák, and Smetana. Impressive was Szervánszky’s constant shifting of register, as was the trio’s ability to evoke it. The first two movements, lush and pastoral, were feathered by the veiled Adagio, which gave way to the final Vivace with dreamlike reluctance. Throughout, moods morphed from exuberant to tearful and back again, Piccinini navigating the strings’ crosscurrents with a seafarer’s proficiency. The dance was always waiting—not in the wings but with them, ready to fly at a moment’s notice.
The Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp of Claude Debussy took yet another logical step into 20th-century repertoire. Piccinini, Kashkashian, and harpist Sivan Magen—newly fashioned as Tre Voci—charted the centerpiece of their 2014 ECM New Series release with élan. Debussy’s popular trio, tailored specifically to the idiosyncrasies of its instruments, is divided into three movements with seemingly arbitrary titles. A Pastorale introduces the fluid impressionism one typically associates with the Frenchman. And yet, as this piece’s bold strokes make clear, Debussy was anything but an impressionistic composer. Boldness was especially apparent in the Interlude, the enchanting harping of which only served to emphasize the clarity of its partners. With a strong backbone and even stronger sense of destination, the sportive Finale further proved that Debussy isn’t all sparkles and rainbows. Key to this performance was each musician’s take on the equal role given to her or him. Piccinini was like the writer’s pen and Magen the weaver’s dance, while Kashkashian took on a visual artist’s intuition, her bow as descriptive as a painter’s brush. In a word: exquisite.
[Photo source: (le) poisson rouge]
Intermission prepared us for the finale of Beethoven’s String Quintet in C Major. Its four-movement traversal of atmospheres showcased the string players at their most integrated. From the massive, seesawing Allegro to the show-stopping Presto (its tight tremolos providing full yet distant support for the violin’s acrobatic exposition), the musicians handled every twist and turn with ease and a unity typically seen only in far more established ensembles. Between these juggernauts, however, were the piece’s highlights. A romantic yet earthy Adagio, its tendrils wavering in freshwater current, paired beautifully with the Scherzo’s delicate anchorage. It was a fitting summation of the dramas that preceded it, spoken in a language at once canonical and freeing.
Also canonical and freeing was the pre-concert performance by Jonathan Fenwick, a high school junior from nearby Ithaca, who presented the Adagio and Fugue of Bach’s Sonata No. 1 for Solo Violin. In addition to polishing the concert’s educational sheen, Fenwick’s performance was further proof of the inspiration absorbed by coming generations of classical purveyors. His sensitive pacing, artful trills, and warmth of execution proved that all roads not only lead back to Bach, but also proceed from him.
On Monday, July 21st at 8 PM, the last concert of Tanglewood’s 2014 Festival of Contemporary Music is a well-stocked program of orchestral works. The centerpiece is Roger Sessions’s Concerto for Orchestra, a work commissioned by the BSO thirty years ago. Steven Mackey’s violin concerto Beautiful Passing will feature as soloist Sarah Silver, one of Tanglewood’s New Fromm Players. Music by John Adams has not in recent memory frequently been featured on FCM programs, but this year his Slonimsky’s Earbox makes an appearance. The sole work by a younger composer, The Sound of Stillness by Charlotte Bray, piqued my interest – it is an impressive piece. (Check out a video about it here.) Thus, this year’s FCM ends the way that many of its seasons are curated: with nods to tradition as well as explorations of new, unfamiliar, and underrepresented corners of contemporary repertoire.
The annual Dogstar Orchestra concert series of experimental music has been going in various locations in and around Los Angeles since May 30. The venue on June 10 was the Wulf, a converted industrial loft space on Santa Fe street downtown, and a good-sized crowd settled in for an evening of spoken and electronic works. The concert was curated by Sara Roberts and Clay Chaplin.
The concert opened with Black & White Oratorio by Robert Lax. A chorus of 15 voices and three soloists performed this piece which consists of groups of words for color that are spoken in various patterns and sequences. A soloist starts the piece with a series of phrases such as “Black, Black, Black, Black, Black, Black, White.” At length the chorus joined in with a series of similar phrases, but with variations in the Black/White sequence. The speaking has a pulse that allows the chorus to speak in unison, in divisi, or to pause for several beats together. The written score runs to 54 pages and the words are grouped in a series of columns on the page that represent the pulses, with each row of words forming the spoken phrase. This performance of Black & White Oratorio extended for almost 40 minutes but never lost the attention of those listening.
At times the words were spoken in unison, at other times the soloists would speak – always with the same chant-like pulse – but often introducing new colors into the sequences. The combinations would repeat often enough to establish a pattern, and this would be broken by the soloists or with a new sequence of words in the chorus. The pronunciation of the various color words in different combinations often accentuated the sense of rhythm. Repeating “Black White” in the chorus, for example, produced a march-like cadence. When a color word had a single syllable, like Red, there was a strong sound. A word like Orange, with two syllables and a softer sound at the end, added a sort of counterpoint to the pattern of pulses. When the soloists were speaking in sequences of “Red, Blue” with the chorus speaking “Black, White”, a definite sense of tension developed. Some sequences felt light and almost melodic while others resembled more the pattern of a steady drumming. At one point there was even a grand pause that lasted for several silent pulses.
The patterns and motifs that emerge as this piece progresses are always engaging and reveal how musical a work can sound without resorting to pitch or harmony. As the program notes explain: “Rehearsing these color poems has been an incantatory and abstractly hallucinogenic experience.” There were just two full rehearsals for this performance and the recitation went very well with only a few inevitable miscues, but these did not affect the flow of the piece.
Robert Lax (1915 – 2000) has been described as an abstract minimalist poet, and Black & White Oratorio certainly fits into that category. Lax was born in Olean, NY and attended Columbia University. He wrote for several magazines, including the New Yorker, and he was a friend of Thomas Merton. Lax lived on the Isle of Patmos in Greece for the last 35 years of his life and this is where Black & White Oratorio was written. This piece seems to exist in that space between music and poetry and even without tone or pitch, the words, the sequences and the rhythms seem to be transmitting musical content within its private vocabulary. The soloists for this performance were Jen Hutton, Heather Lockie and Morgan Gerstmar and the director was Sara Roberts.
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On Tuesday April 9, 2014 downtown Los Angeles was the scene of the centerpiece concert for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Minimalism Jukebox series. Over four hours of music was presented from eight composers, including ten different works, two world premiers and dozens of top area musicians. Wild Up, International Contemporary Ensemble, the LA Philharmonic New Music Group and the Calder Quartet all made appearances. The Green Umbrella event was curated by John C. Adams and Disney Hall filled with a mostly young audience.
The evening began with a pre-concert panel discussion moderated by Chad Smith, VP of Artistic Planning. He was joined by John Adams and four of the composers whose works were on the program: Missy Mazzoli, David Lang, Mark Grey and Andrew McIntosh. The question that provoked the most discussion revolved around the changes in minimalism since its inception. John Adams suggested that it has now acquired a more lyrical bent and that contemporary composers are writing music for musicians who want to be technically challenged. The consensus was that the term ‘minimalism’ is now useful as a description for a certain palette of sounds and processes; but few composers today would identify themselves as minimalists. The programming of this concert was itself an attempt to chart the evolution of minimalism since the mid-20th century.
Even before the concert began the long elegant lines of William Duckworth’s Time Curve Preludes (1977-78) – a work that was something of a departure from the strict minimalist form of that time – could be heard from the piano on stage, carefully played by Richard Valitutto. The music this night was non-stop and there were presentations in various places outside the concert hall during the two intermissions. When the crowd had settled into their seats, a spotlight suddenly shone high up on the organ console revealing Clare Chase, flute soloist, who began the concert with Steve Reich’s Vermont Counterpoint (1982). This piece incorporates a tape track of rapid, staccato flute notes and the soloist plays a line that weaves in and around the looping patterns. The feeling was a sort of aural kaleidoscope of changing complexity that was reassuring in its repetition. Ms. Clare smoothly changed flutes several times and this gave a series of different colors to the piece as it progressed. About mid-way the accompaniment in the tape became more flowing and less frenetic, and this helped to bring out the solo flute. The sound tended to be a bit washed out by the time it reached high up in the balcony where I was sitting, and while this did not detract significantly from the performance, the piece was more effective when the solo line was distinct.
The second work, Stay On It (1973) by Julius Eastman was performed by wild Up with Christopher Rountree conducting. This begins with a series of short syncopated phrases in the piano, soon picked up by the strings, voices and a marimba. This has a lilting Afro/Caribbean feel that builds a nice groove as it proceeds. Horns sound long sustained notes arcing above the texture, but this slowly devolves into a kind of joyful chaos, like being in the middle of a slightly out of control street party This was carried off nicely by wild Up, even when the entire structure collapsed into and out of loud cacophony led by the marimba and horns. The piece seemed to spend itself in this outburst, like air flowing out of a balloon, but towards the end the rhythm regrouped sufficiently to finish with a soft introspective feel. Stay On It quietly concluded with a single maraca shaken by conductor Christopher Rountree.
The first section of the concert finished with Different Trains (1988) by Steve Reich. In this performance the train sounds and voices were provided by a tape with the Calder Quartet playing seamlessly along. This piece, and the story behind it, will be familiar to most who follow minimalist music, but seeing it live one gets a much better appreciation for its complexity and the effort involved in playing it by a string quartet. The sound system didn’t project the voices very clearly up into the balcony where I was sitting, but this actually afforded a new perspective. With a recording heard through headphones one can easily get caught up in how well the strings are mimicking the voices. High up in Disney Hall you could get just a sense of the words, and I found myself concentrating instead on the sound of strings – and this made for a more powerful experience. The different colors of the three movements came through more vividly, and the intensity that the Calder Quartet brought to this piece was impressive. Different Trains is a masterpiece of late 20th century minimalism and this was made even more obvious in this reading, burdened as it was by less than ideal conditions. The ethereal passages that conclude the piece were beautifully effective, and as the sound faded slowly away, a sustained and sincere applause followed.
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Posted by Chris Becker in Chamber Music, Composers, Concerts, Contemporary Classical, Electro-Acoustic, Houston, tags: Avant Garden, Eric Fegan, Houston, Houston Composers Salon, Hsaio-Lan Wang, Hsin-Jung Tsai, Ryan Gagnon, Stephen Yip, Thomas Helton
(Composer Hsiao-Lan Wang)
(Houston, TX) On Sunday, April 27, 2014 the Houston Composers Salon presents its Spring Concert, featuring works by Houston-based composers Hsaio-Lan Wang, Stephen Yip, Ryan Gagnon, and Eric Fegan. All four composers will be in attendance to introduce their compositions and answer questions from the audience. The concert takes place at 6:00 PM at 14 Pews, a popular venue for independent film screenings, visual art, and experimental and contemporary music performances.
The eclectic and provocative program includes Wang’s Houston Duet, a collaboration with video artist Daniel Zajicek with an electro-acoustic score by Wang, Gagnon’s Three Duets for flute and vibraphone, Fegan’s Coexist and Separate for violin and bass, and Stephen Yip’s Tide and Time for trombone and percussion. 14 Pews’ cozy atmosphere and great acoustics are ideal for playing and listening to this kind of music.
Formerly known as the Houston Composers Alliance and founded in 1986 by the then Houston Symphony Composer-in-Resdience Tobias Picker, the Houston Composers Salon was renamed in 2013 and held its first concert at Avant-Garden, a popular Montrose bar that also hosts performances by Classical Revolution Houston and Da Camera. That first concert featured works by Houston Composers Salon president Thomas Helton performed by pianist, composer and improviser Hsin-Jung Tsai, who co-leads the organization with Helton. The organization’s goal is to provide an intimate, supportive environment for local and international composers to have their work performed.
Houston Composers Salon Spring Concert, Sunday, April 27, 2014, 6:00 PM, at 14 Pews, 800 Aurora Street, $5 suggested donation.
On Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at the Neighborhood Church in Pasadena, the group Gnarwhallaby presented a concert of music by Klaus Lang, Andrzej Dobrowolski, Edison Denison and three contemporary Los Angeles area composers. Gnarwhallaby consists of Brian Walsh on clarinet, Matt Barbier on trombone, Derek Stein playing cello and Richard Valitutto at the piano. The sanctuary of the church was mostly full and provided a comfortable venue that encouraged concentration by virtue of being completely dark, save for the lights on the music stands of the performers.
The first piece was Die Kartoffeln der Königin (1999) by Klaus Lang. The title translates to roughly “The Potatoes of the Queen” and this began with an extended silence by the performers before the first low, deliberate note was sounded in the cello. This was answered in an equally low register by the piano and this call and answer pattern was joined, at length, by the clarinet and trombone With the entire room enveloped in a solid darkness it was easy to imagine being underground. As the piano continued to sound deep notes, the other instruments generated a soft cloud of light buzzing that added to the sense of being beneath the surface of the earth. This is quiet music, but it was effective in working on the imagination so that as the soft buzzing subsided at the finish, one could fairly claim the experience of having been buried deep in garden soil.
The second piece was Krabogapa (1970) by Andrzej Dobrowolski and this began on a sharp note from the clarinet that was soon joined by the trombone. A series of loud trills, followed by silences, built a sense of mystery and tension that was relieved at intervals by loud crashing chords in the piano and frenzied arpeggios in the instruments. This alternated with soft repeating figures, the quiet strumming of the piano wires, a light tapping or knocking sound that created a sense of slowly feeling one’s way in the dark while building up an expectation of the next blow. The loud screams and frenetic runs by the instruments were all tightly orchestrated and carefully played so that the contrast with the quiet sections was especially evident. Although the piece ended quietly, the roller-coaster effect of loud and soft sections was memorable.
d – s – c – h (1969) by Edison Denisov followed, and this had a more angular sound starting with the sharp opening note from the piano. With alternating sections of stringendo and legato, signaled by the starting piano note, the overall feel is tight and excited. This was music with sharp edges – even in the slower sections – but precisely played. Lion and Wolf (2013), a piece written for Gnarwhallaby by Andrew McIntosh was next and this opened with a more organic sound from the sliding trombone. A nice interplay between deep piano chords and the instruments provided a steady forward movement. This gave way to syncopation and a stretch of exotic rhythm that was complimented by high tones in the clarinet. When a slower tempo eventuated, the striking harmonies evoked a somewhat melancholy feeling, but Lion and Wolf was perfectly programmed to follow the Denisov piece.
Susurrous (2011-12) was next, another piece written for Gnarwhallaby, this time by trombonist Matt Barbier. Although this piece began with sharp sounds from the clarinet and cello, it soon settled into a quiet, deliberate pace that allowed some delicate and lovely harmonies to evolve. The softness and subtlety was almost Feldmanesque and the overall effect was like a gentle breeze blowing through a structure, whispering to the listener in quiet tones.
This set the stage for the final work of the evening, the West Coast premiere of Lullaby 4 (2013) by Nicholas Deyoe. Lullaby 4 begins innocently enough, with a quiet piano line creating a mood that is a combination of ominous and mysterious. But just as you are settling in, an explosive chord shatters the quiet – like hitting your head while crossing a darkened room. The piano returns with a soft melody, but there are deep growling sounds in the cello and trombone, like some beast lurking below. A series of rugged sounds from the cello deepens the sense of mystery and adds to the tension. Again a crashing piano lick shatters the moment before returning again to quiet. At one point Matt Barbier could be seen applying the edge of an upturned wine glass to the rim of his horn, creating a sinister sound of unseen movement. These moments of increasing tension were the perfect prelude to the thunderous chords that flashed by at unexpected intervals. The style of this piece would seem to owe something to Dobrowolski’s Krabogapa, with alternating periods of quiet and sharp, short moments of chaos. Listening to Lullaby 4 is like walking down an unfamiliar alley in the dark and being attacked by an unseen assailant – definitely music to keep you on the edge of your seat and an emotionally draining experience.
This music presented in this concert spans over forty years and included three recent pieces from Los Angeles-based composers. This performance of what, by any measure, are technically difficult works was efficiently executed by Gnarwhallaby and further concerts by this group should be sought out by all those interested in state-of-the-art contemporary music here in Southern California.
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Ted Byrnes, Nicholas Deyoe and John Wiese joined forces on Tuesday, December 17, 2013 for an evening of improvisational music featuring percussion with guitar and electronics in a concert titled 2 Duos of Varying Volumes But Similar Intensities. About 25 people, a near-capacity crowd for the renovated loft space that is the Wulf, heard three different offerings in two duo configurations that included a wide variety of extended techniques.
Ted Byrnes is a drummer/percussionist living in Los Angeles via the Berklee College of Music in Boston and who is working now primarily in free improvisation, electro-acoustic music and noise. Nicholas Deyoe is a composer and has also conducted the La Jolla Symphony as well as Red Fish Blue Fish. John Wiese is a Los Angeles-based freelance musician and has toured extensively in Europe and Australia.
The first piece – Duo 2 – had Ted Byrnes stationed behind a more-or-less familiar drum kit, but with a number of unusual found objects within arm’s reach. Nicholas Deyoe accompanied on an acoustical guitar and began the piece with a loud shout. This was followed quickly by the application of palm fronds on the tom-tom and this produced a soft, pleasantly organic sound. Guitar chords joined in as well as a variety of slaps, plinks and more exotic sounds that were conjured by an animated Nicholas Deyoe.
As the piece progressed Ted worked through a series of objects directly on the drum head – pot lids, sheet metal plates, a hollow metal cymbal stand – these were struck with drum sticks, brushes, and even the performer’s knuckles. A cymbal was removed and placed on the snare drum head and played with brushes, producing a wonderfully complex sound. Dice were heard knocking within cupped hands. Even with all the movement that was required to sustain the sound, you could see the precision with which each object was obtained, incorporated in the percussive mix and then returned, with the flow of energy never lessening. The result of all this was a sort of rolling sea that came in waves of varying dynamics and intensity. Less a rhythm than a wash of percussive sounds, some familiar and some almost industrial in character, but all suffused with great energy even in the quieter moments.
The second piece – Duo 1 – combined Ted Byrnes with John Wiese on electronics. John was equipped with a sound board that allowed him to mix about a dozen different sounds that originated from a laptop computer. An amplifier and a series of speakers completed this set up. The electronic sounds added a solid foundation against which the sharp sounds of the percussion could offer some interesting contrast. Long booming sounds, screeches and squeals provided a continuous electronic texture while the ever-energetic Ted provided a varied mix of rapid percussion. To my ear the drumming seemed just a bit more conventional and offered a point of reference to the sometimes alien sounds coming from the speakers. But overall the balance with the electronics seemed just right and very effective. At times this piece was full of roar and commotion, but never seemed stressed or distorted. Duo 1 concluded nicely with disarmingly warm tones from the electronics that faded to silence.
The third piece of the evening had Nicholas Deyoe on guitar rejoining Ted Byrnes in a final duo. There were some amazingly high sounds produced from a single guitar string combined with the usual activity in the percussion that at times seemed an virtual avalanche of sound. The drumming again sounded a bit more traditional and the dynamics in this piece were more noticeable. Although similar in texture to the first piece, this last duo surged in and out a bit more regularly – like watching the whitecaps on a choppy sea.
The percussion techniques used in this performance are interesting because all the extra found objects could have just as easily been hung separately to be struck individually, but Ted Byrnes has chosen to make them integral to the drum kit and applied them together. This produces many unusual sounds to be sure, but also mixes the familiar and the unfamiliar in a more calculated and artistic way. These pieces pushed the limits of rhythm, texture and density in new directions and invite the listener to rethink previously implicit musical boundaries.
The Wulf will present another concert of duo improvisational music on January 29, 2014 at 8:00 PM that will feature Bonnie Jones and Andrea Neumann, whose work ” is a rich contradiction of textures and timbres with each artist committed to both defining and expanding the definitions of their music through long-term collaboration.”
Next week is the third annual Composers Concordance Festival in New York City. They’ve called it ‘Timbre Tantrum,’ organizing the concerts by instrumental family:
Dec. 1 – 3pm
with Glen Velez, Lukas Ligeti, Peter Jarvis.
Dimenna Center (W. 37th St. NYC)
Dec. 2 – 7pm
ArtBeat (repeat of program)
William Patterson University
Dec. 4 – 7pm
Three’s Keys with Taka Kigawa, Inna Faliks and Carlton Holmes
music by Dan Cooper, Milica Paranosic, Gene Pritsker, Sean Hickey, Debra Kaye, Carlton Holmes, Daniel Palkowski and guests
Klavierhaus (211 W. 58th St. NYC)
Dec. 6 – 8pm
E-nstallation: Electronics, Fashion and Projections
Music by: Dan Cooper, Milica Paranosic, Gene Pritsker, Svjetlana Bukvich, David Morneau, Daniel Palkowski, Lynn Bechtold
Fashion: Vicky Vale
Projections: Gorazd Poposki
Gallery MC, 549 W. 52nd St. 8th Fl, NYC
Dec. 7 – 8pm
with the CompCord String Orchestra
Music by Dan Cooper, Otto Luening, Milica Paranosic, Gene Pritsker, Dave Soldier and Randy Woolf
West Park Presbyterian Church
165 W 86th St. NYC
Dec. 8 – 8pm
a three-hour marathon of three-minute pieces for fretted strings performed by the composers
Drom NYC, 85 Avenue A
For more information and to buy tickets, visit:the festival website.
Posted by George Grella in Concerts, Contemporary Classical, Experimental Music, Recordings, Review, tags: Andy Kozar, Caroline Shaw, Gregory Brown, Kevin Puts, Le Poème Harmonique, Marco Marazzoli, Monteverdi, New York Polyphony
Some of the most timeless, gripping, modern and surprising music I hear consistently are the vocal works of Renaissance Italian composers and their associated circle – Monteverdi, Gesualdo, the great Madrigalist Luca Marenzio. Saturday night at Miller Theatre I heard music from composers who were new to me – Giovanni Maria Trabaci, Il Fasolo (not Giovanni Battista Fasolo) and Marco Marazzoli – in a revelatory and affecting concert from the great early music ensemble, Le Poème Harmonique, led by Vincent Dumestre.
Why Renaissance music at Sequenza21? First, Miller is as important for their early music programming as they are for their Composer Portraits, and second, they build the connection between the two eras not only abstractly through the two series but through a newer exploration of the past by way of the present. Last season they began a Bach Revisted series that paired early and new music musicians and programs (I saw an excellent concert with Kristian Bezuidenhout playing C.P.E., W.F. and J.S. Bach accompanied by Ensemble Signal, who themselves gave a masterful performance of Michael Gordon’s Weather, and since you can’t have Gordon without Reich and Reich without Bach, there’s nothing to argue ). The series continues this year with concerts that pair Bach with Kaija Saariaho, Reich and Joan Tower.
This fits into the ongoing history of music, where composers continue to write a cappella vocal works. I had a significant dose of them from John Zorn, including a set he explicitly calls “madrigals,” and there’s a good handful of contemporary vocal music built on the work of the ancient pioneers that has not only crossed my desk but been in the news this year. The critical point of all of this is that the old music is for the most part so much more daring, free and innovative than what I hear from contemporary composers, with some notable exceptions.
New vocal music has had a moment this year with Caroline Shaw’s Pulitzer Prize award for her Partita, which appears on the debut disc from Roomful of Teeth. There’s nothing particularly wrong with the piece, but not much right about it either. There are contemporaneous vocal compositions that do some of the same things, do them better, and go beyond. Partita is polite music with a few accessories that might appear experimental but that are, in 2013, ordinary things in a composer’s toolbox. The teleology of her texts is shallow and brittle. Spoken words? Berio wrote and adapted far more compelling texts. Phonemes? Kenneth Gaburo’s works are older than Shaw and are still experimental. These tools are also better used in choral works on an excellent new CD of music from composer Kevin Puts. His work doesn’t sound as superficially ‘new’ but he makes richer, deeper and more proficient music with the same elements of text and fragmented vocal sounds.
His harmonies are also involving, and this matters. Harmony is the essential feature of the history of this music, it’s through the voice that composers created polyphony and counterpoint. But we’re supposed to know so much more today than they did in the 17th century, so why does Gesualdo sound so much fresher and newer than most new vocal music? His harmonic flights of fancy are surprising and effective because he creates a context that is clear, logical and describes the terms he’s working with. There is a fashion in contemporary vocal music of tossing in dissonant or extended chords that, since it’s in opposition to the overall harmonic context, comes off as a self-conscious way of asserting new music bona fides. That is one of the traps that Zorn’s work can fall into.
At edge of the trap but never falling in is a new work from Gregory Brown, Missa Charles Darwin, available in an engrossing recording from New York Polyphony. Brown works with history in two ways, cultivating a refined sense of vocal polyphony while setting Charles Darwin’s writing from On the Origin of Species, The Descent of Man and various letters. The harmonic motion is mostly strong and logical, though parts like the “Alleluia” section suffer from jarring modulations. It’s a strong work overall, though, and in particular Brown is the only contemporary composer I can recall who crafts vocal lines that have the same sense of independent harmonic rhythm and expressive freedom that makes the madrigals of Monteverdi and the like so powerful (there’s a fine companion to Brown’s piece, another new recording from New York Polyphony, Times Go By Turns, a collection of works from Byrd, Plummer and Tallis).
It’s enduringly strange to me how the techniques of Monteverdi have been left by the wayside. The combination of voices singing the same text, in counterpoint and rhythmic opposition, is one of the most beautiful and involving sounds in music, across all genres. Add words like:
Veglio, penso, ardo, piango; e chi mi sface
Sempre m’è innanzi per mia dolce pena
Guerra è il mio stato d’ira e di duol piena,
E sol di lei pensando ho qualche pace.
(I watch, brood, burn and weep; and she, my undoing
Is ever before me, causing such sweet sorrow;
Warfare is my state, full of anger and pain,
And only thoughts of her bring me peace)
have immediate personal meaning to us across the centuries. Setting them as Monteverdi did gives them physical urgency and so the Miller Theatre concert was exciting and moving. Le Poème Harmonique, like other early music groups, sees this music as coming from the earth, the groin, not the mind and the heavens, so there is fire and humor. The program was “Combattimenti” which you can hear on this marvelous CD; it included Il Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda. It ended with Marazzoli’s La Fiera di Farfa, an astonishing dramatic parody of Monteverdi. For a while, it’s a dazzling picture of a fair, with hawkers, gawkers and more calling out, arguing, dancing. The parody comes near the end, when a ball breaks out and two gentlemen, friends, begin to fight. It seems in deadly earnest until the loser calls off the coup de grace by singing “Friend, you have won: I forgive you; you forgive me too. Indeed, in such circumstances it is a fine thing to be a base coward.”
In no way was this the experience of gazing quaintly back at the humanism of the past. Dumestre did something remarkable in this concert: there are songs within the larger piece, sung by characters inhabiting the fair, not only the faux-fight “Guera e Mort,” but two remarkable ballads, sung beautifully by tenor Serge Goubioud, “È no ssusciame’n canna (He cannot play a flute)” and “Vurria’addeventare pesce d’or (I’d like to become a golden fish).” In these moments, Dumestre moved the accompaniment from continuo-recitativo style repetitive bass and chord accompaniment, with a modern, vernacular sense of articulation and syncopation. Goubioud moved his voice from throat and head to his chest, and we were hearing popular music, as in-the-moment today as it was 400 hundred years ago. It felt liked the Marazzoli was here to keep us company with the knowledge that he knows our cares and loves and worries, because they are the same ones people have across epochs. The past is never past, the music of all eras speaks to us eternally.
But it would not if it wasn’t made with imagination and conviction. Those are the essential qualities of Andy Kozar’s remarkable recording On the End … . This is a superb collection of music, all the pieces exploring the possibilities of contemporary notation and instrumental playing. Kozar uses a variety of techniques, including graphic notation, and from the knife’s edge focus of the playing (Kozar plays trumpet and is joined by his colleagues in loadbang, Miranda Cuckson and others) it’s clear that he conveys his ideas to his musicians with precision and power.
The centerpiece is a Mass that has its foundation in the traditional movements and texts yet an expression that is at the cutting edge of creativity. Jeffrey Gavett’s voice croons and spits and shouts the words, through mellifluous lines and extreme intervals, while the instruments respond, sometimes amicably, sometimes antagonistically. There is a moment-to-moment fragmentation but an overall consistency of effect: the unfathomable mystery of death and how to express our incomprehension. Kozar steps outside the clichés of comfort and process, he never ingratiates and always fascinates. Like Le Poème Harmonique’s concert, it makes the past eternally alive, present and important.