Augustus Arnone performs Milton Babbitt’s Time Series and other solo piano works at Spectrum, Sunday January 24, at 2pm
This year marks the centenary of the legendary composer Milton Babbitt (1916-2011). To my ears, his extensive body of piano works especially channels his singular charm as a raconteur. Over the decades a number of pianists have championed some of Babbitt’s major piano works, for instance Robert Helps and Robert Miller performing and recording his Partitions (1957) and Post-Partitions (1966) in early days and much more recently Marilyn Nonken did as much with Allegro Penseroso (1999). Babbitt’s Reflections for piano and synthesized tape (1975) has been performed by the likes of Anthony de Mare, Martin Goldray, Aleck Karis, and Robert Taub, the latter two of whom also recorded it. Robert Taub and Martin Goldray recorded and released full-length CDs. Alan Feinberg too presented stellar renditions of Minute Waltz (1977), Partitions (1957), It Takes Twelve to Tango (1984), Playing for Time (1979), and About Time (1982) on a 1988 CRI CD.
Yet only one pianist has earned the distinction of presenting the entire oeuvre of Babbitt’s solo piano works in concert. And that is Augustus Arnone, who performed the entire set, spread over two concerts, in 2007. In honor of the Babbitt centenary, Arnone is performing the entire set again (this time spread of three concerts) at Spectrum on Ludlow in NYC. The largest work on the program is Canonical Form (1983) which I’ve heard several Babbitt aficionados recently describe as their “favorite” and “most beautiful” Babbitt composition. The most recent work is The Old Order Changeth (1998). The concert also presents a rare opportunity to hear the entire ‘The Time Series’ (Playing For Time (1977), About Time (1982), Overtime (1987)), the last part of which has never been released on a commercial recording.
Arnone’s performance begins at 3pm, but prior to that, at 2pm, will be an interview-discussion between me and the composer-theorist Robert Morris, who, in parallel with the latter half of Babbitt’s career, developed his own independent approach to serial and post-serial composition. Morris has also been an avid listener of and writer on Babbitt’s compositions over several decades. The event should be worth the trek through any rain, sleet, and slush.
Augustus Arnone: The Complete Piano Works Of Milton Babbitt, Concert II
Sunday Jan 24, at 3pm (pre-concert discussion at 2pm) $20, $15 (Students/Seniors).
Spectrum, 121 Ludlow St, NYC.
Those interested in still more Babbitt can check out the Focus Festival at Juilliard, which begins tonight and goes through next Friday. I’ll be writing about that more next week.
Pianist Jenny Q. Chaiis a versatile artist. Her repertoire includes works by contemporary Europeans such as Phillipe Manoury and Marco Stroppa (her dissertation topic), and she recently recorded an excellent portrait CD on Naxos of music by Nils Vigeland. She also performs standard repertoire, such as Robert Schumann and Claude Debussy.
On January 10, in a program entitled Where is Chopin? (subtitled “Steampunk Piano 2”), Chai creates a juxtaposition of Carnaval by Schumann with brand new pieces that feature artificial intelligence, performing the music of Jaroslaw Kapuscinski, a Stanford University-based composer who uses the AI program Antescofo. It supplies a live visual component that responds to the particular nuances and inflections of a given performance. Doubtless Chai will give the program plenty to think about.
On Saturday December 5th at New York’s Church of St. Mary the Virgin, the Tallis Scholars, directed by Peter Phillips, presented a program that included two composers firmly ensconced in their wheelhouse. Sacris Solemniis and Gaude, Gaude, Gaude by John Sheppard (c. 1515-1558), with long held chant notes offset by passages of sumptuous counterpoint and spare plainsong, provided context and set the stage for the later Renaissance work on the program, Thomas Tallis’sMissa Puer Natus Est Nobis. This piece is also filled with the intricate polyphony, but it makes use of what was by then an archaic device – long held notes in the tenor voice. At St. Mary’s, the piece felt jubilant, bustling with busy passage work and corruscated with counter-melodies.
The concert also featured music by a composer active more recently, the Estonian Arvo Pärt, who turned eighty this past year. These newer works were given incandescent performances. In contrast to the Tallis mass’s busy textures, Pärt’s O Antiphons epitomized clarity of line. The upper voices soared in his Magnificat.I am the True Vine featured delicate and touching harmonies, rendered by the Tallis Scholars with impressively pure diction. Indeed, while one hesitates to downplay the Renaissance portion of this thoughtful and well-balanced program, it was the Pärt that stole the show.
This Thursday, the Danish Piano Trio will make their US recital debut at Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall. The group – Katrine Gislinge,piano, Toke Møldrup, cello, and Lars Bjørnkjær, violin – will present piano trios by Niels Gade and Felix Mendelssohn (one of my personal favorite chamber works, the swoon-worthy Piano Trio in D minor). The group will also present the premiere of Bent Søresen’s Abgesänge. Pianist Steven Beck guests, joining Møldrup in the world premiere of Geoffrey Gordon’sFathoms (Cello Sonata).
The group’s DaCapo recording Danish Romantic Piano Trios is out now.
Danish Piano Trio
Weill Recital Hall
December 17 at 8 PM
Student/Senior tickets: $10. available in person at box office only.
Carnegiehall.org | CarnegieCharge 212-247-7800
Box Office at 57th and Seventh
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Composer William Mayer turned ninety this past November. On Friday December 11th, Ardea Arts has supplied him with a slightly belated birthday gift, and audiences with a treat, by presenting his one-act opera One Christmas Long Ago (1962).
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At 7 PM on Monday, December 7, the Armory will debut a newly commissioned performance series that combines the talents of pianist Igor Levit and artist Marina Abramović. In Goldberg, which runs from December 7-19, Levit and Abramović collaborate to transform J.S. Bach’s legendary Goldberg Variations in a presentation that challenges traditional notions of audience engagement, intimacy, and transcendence.
As the Armory’s publicist describes, “Igor Levit will perform all 30 of the variations on a platform as it slowly moves into the center of the audience and rotates throughout the piece’s progression. Employing elements of the Abramović Method, the work invites a deep and personal engagement with the music.”
Concertgoers will separated from their cellphones and sit in silence for 30 minutes prior to the beginning of the performance, using sound-cancelling headphones to further disengage from city life and facilitate a profound connection to Levit’s performance.
The performances will take place in Wade Thompson Drill hall. More information regarding dates, times, and tickets for the seven performances of Goldberg is available here, on the Armory’s website.
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Last month, I heard the second installment of Anthony De Mare’s Liasons: Re-Imagining Sondheim from the Piano project at Sheen Center. De Mare has commissioned dozens of composers to fashion arrangements of Sondheim songs. The results are as fascinating as they are eclectic.
On Thursday at Symphony Space, De Mare completes his live presentations of the commissions with a third concert. Among the featured composers are Steve Reich, David Rakowski, Paul Moravec, and Duncan Sheik. The concluding arrangement is by De Mare himself: “Sunday in the Park – Passages.” Sondheim will be on hand and the ECM recording, a 3-CD set, will receive its official release.
There are some tickets left to the performance (buy here).
On October 30, 2015 WasteLAnd presented Study for Eurydice, a concert at Art Share LA in downtown Los Angeles. A nice Friday night crowd filled the restored industrial performance space for an evening of new music.
The first piece, Relay/Replay by Yiheng Yvonne Wu, featured Rachel Beetz on flute. A computer played recorded flute sounds through speakers mounted above the performance area. Relay/Replay began with a brief high-pitched tone from one of the speakers, answered in kind by the flute. A short silence followed and the sequence repeated. A pattern of call and answer continued and the electronic part gradually changed as the replies by the became more varied as if a conversation were occurring in a different language. A low trill from the flute was mimicked by similar sounds from the speaker, like birds calling back and forth. Towards the end of the piece there were sounds from both speakers that ultimately resolved into a low, pure tone. This was actually a recording of the flute – greatly slowed down – that added a mysterious feel. The flute passages that followed felt more organic and brighter by contrast. The low tone increased in volume, becoming dominant and more assertive as the piece ended. Relay/Replay is an intriguing combination of flute playing and electronic sounds derived from the flute, artfully uncovering both similarities and differences.
Susurrus by Panayiotis Kokoras for violin, cello and piano followed, beginning with a series of sharp rapping sounds from the players on their respective instruments. The result was a sort of unsettled clatter that was soon joined by the amplified strumming of strings inside the piano. There was an active and tense feel to all of this – there were no musical tones heard initially, but rather the rhythmic rattle of various extended percussive techniques. Eventually a sustained cello note was heard that slowly decreased in pitch and some piano strings were plucked to form identifiable notes. At one point the musicians voiced the sounds of rushing air using their breath and this added a remote, windswept feeling to the proceedings. Apart from a few notes heard now and then, there was no conventional melody, beat or regular rhythm and this gave an edgy, feral feel to the ensemble. The coordination between the players here was remarkable given how far this piece stands outside the bounds of conventional music. Susurrus is a journey that takes the listener past the limits of ordinary musical practice and into to new levels of expression.
This past Saturday night, Kobacker Hall, on the campus of Bowling Green State University, came alive with the sounds of Jennifer Higdon’s compositions for wind ensemble and orchestra. The culminating performance of Bowling Green’s annual New Music festival, Saturday’s concert marked a rare opportunity to hear a program of large ensemble music focused on the works of a single living composer, and both Higdon, and her compositional craft, were aglow in the spotlight. As the featured guest composer of this, the 36th annual new music festival at BGSU, Higdon shared herself, and her music, with students are audiences in numerous performances, per-concert talks, and lectures. In a conversation during intermission, Kurt Doles, who directed the festival from his post as head of the MidAmerican Center for Contemporary Music, praised Higdon for her warmth and generosity as a guest, noting, “she has been a wonderful presence all week long.”
Me (left), Jennifer Higdon (center), and soprano Hillary LaBonte (right), who performed earlier in the festival, after Saturday’s large ensemble concert (photo credit: Carolina Heredia).
The concert’s program featured three works of Higdon’s, the flashy wind ensemble work Fanfare Ritmico, the virtuosic Oboe Concerto, and the absolutely masterful Violin Concerto, which earned Higdon the Pulitzer Prize five years ago. Each piece was terrific, thanks to the talents and hard work of Bowling Green’s students, faculty soloists Nermis Mieses (oboe) and Caroline Chin (violin), as well as wind ensemble director Bruce Moss and orchestra director Emily Freeman Brown. Chin, a new addition to BGSU’s school of music, also performed Carolina Heredia’s Dujarte Caer, for violin and and electronics, earlier in the afternoon, and could not have been more impressed with the quality of the festival’s other concerts. “All the performances were excellent,” Chin shared with me after the concert, in the midst of a stream of well-deserved congratulations from other audience members and players.
As much as Chin was the star of the evening (after all, she delivered a thrilling and dominant performance), her tour-de-force was made possible by the superlative quality of Higdon’s Violin Concerto. For me, the work hits every mark of a great concerto. The first movement is stunning and almost coy with the way in introduces the listener to Higdon’s design for the solo violin part, a destiny that unfolds in the most brilliant way in the successive movements. Empowered by the composer’s genius, Higdon’s Violin Concerto blends vibrant imagination, along the lines Jacob Druckman’s Viola Concerto, with stately grandeur, in the manner of Barber’s Violin Concerto, into a work that seems both modern and timeless. At a time when so many high-profile American composers are writing violin concerti, or works that pit violin soloists against a large ensemble, Higdon’s Violin Concerto represents, in my estimation, the undoubted gold standard (Kristin Kuster’s Two Jades, for violin and symphony band, is also extraordinary, though smaller in scale).
When Jennifer Higdon ascended to the stage to receive her standing ovation, and congratulate violinist Caroline Chin and conductor Emily Freeman Brown on a truly spectacular performance, it became clear to me that I had witnessed a very special event. Higdon’s music and the splendor of Bowling Green’s New Music Festival are both treasures in the landscape of American contemporary music. The University, Kurt Doles, and all the students and faculty members who made this year’s festival possible, all deserve to be heralded for their personal and institutional commitment to this important tradition.
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Last night marked the launch of Pulitzer Prize-winning composer John Luther Adams’ weeklong residency at the University of Michigan. Adams’ time in Ann Arbor, which will include performances as well as lectures on environmental advocacy, began with an evening of his chamber music at the University of Michigan Museum of Art. The museum’s apse has been site of may memorable concerts over the years, but none may have taken advantage of this setting as well as yesterday’s program of Adams’ resonant and ravishing compositions. In one of the handful of interstitial interviews between Adams and University of Michigan Musicology Professor Mark Clague, the composer described his music as, “all about sound and space.” And, Adams later added, “I want to make strange and beautiful new places…make them empty, without my footprints in them…so the audience can find their way through them.”
From left to right: conductor Oriol Sans, composer John Luther Adams, conductor Jerry Blackstone (photo credit: Patrick Harlin)
The hundreds in attendance Monday night had a terrific opportunity to experience these characteristics in Adams’ works Strange Birds Passing, Dark Wind, The Farthest Place, In a Treeless Place, Only, and in four selections from his massive choral work Canticles of the Holy Wind. In between the pieces, Adams shared evocative and endearing anecdotes related each work’s origins. These included the revelation that the Strange Birds Passing was inspired by the paisley wallpaper decorating Adams’ Alaskan cabin’s refrigerator in the 1980s, or that the selected movements from Canticles of the Holy Wind reflect his more recent observations of parhelia and other celestial phenomena in the sky above the arctic and Mexico.
The concert’s program was, essentially, chronological, and enabled Adams to recount his sense of his growth as a composer. Fond of and familiar with his music, I listened for large-scale similarities and differences across the evening’s offerings. Certainly, The Farthest Place and Dark Wind – which Adams denoted as two of his, “color field pieces,” – work through deeply similar designs. The oldest piece, Strange Birds Passing, was the most overtly melodic composition, yet it evinced the same ambling, symmetrical form expressed by In a Treeless Place, Only Snow and Canticles of the Holy Wind. Altogether, Monday’s concert was a terrific aperitif to the culmination of Adams’ time in Ann Arbor: the University Symphony Orchestra’s performance of Become Ocean, which represents the work’s Midwest premiere. Even that piece, Adams’ most recent and celebrated, had ancestors of last evening’s program, as one could here embryos of Become Ocean in Dark Wind’s trembling opening.
In the end, as much as Adams’ music amazed, the setting of its performance was almost more stunning. At the very least – and as Adams admitted – the museum’s acoustics had as much a hand in the beauty of the evening’s performance as did the talented instrumentalists and vocalists of Michigan’s School of Music, Theatre, and Dance, or Adam’s compositional artistry. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the concert was Adams’ willingness to collaborate with, and have his listeners’ experience so heavily influenced by, the space surrounding the performance. As Adam’s described, it seems he tries, in all his pieces, to remove himself as much as possible from the music, from the center of the audience’s attention. I think many composers aspire towards the humility needed to even consider this kind of rhetorical positioning, but few live in it like Adams seems to. And, though I doubt it is even possible for any composer to disappear fully from a listener’s experience of their music, Adams’ efforts to this end, like his compositions, are, indeed, superlative.
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