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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Photo Credit: Janette Beckmann Members of the Da Capo Chamber Players (Left to Right:) Curtis Macomber, violin, Patricia Spencer, flute, Jay Campbell, cello, Meighan Stoops, clarinet, Blair McMillen, piano
On Thursday October 1st, the Da Capo Chamber Players commemorate the hundredth anniversaries of two recently deceased American modernists: Milton Babbitt and George Perle. They will perform Babbitt’s When Shall We Meet Again and two works by Perle: Sonata a Quattro and Nightsong. David Fulmer, a Babbitt student, contributes the world premiere of Cadenza, a piece built out of his violin concerto’s hyper-virtuosic solo part. Rounding out the program are Jason Eckardt’s After Serra and Fred Lerdahl’s Times 3.
Though it is more modest in scope than other centennial tributes one can hear this season – particularly Juilliard’s Focus Festival, devoted entirely to Babbitt – the Da Capo event features several players who collaborated closely with Babbitt and Perle. Indeed, both of the Perle works were written for the ensemble. It promises to be an intimate evening filled with finely honed performances.
Thursday, October 1st at 8 PM
Merkin Concert Hall,
129 West 67th Street, NYC, NY
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The Los Angeles chapter of the American Composers Forum (ACF-LA) held its annual meeting and concert over the weekend of September 11-12, 2015 at newly-refurbished Clausen Recital Hall on the campus of Los Angeles City College in Hollywood. Many of the groups in Los Angeles doing new music participated, and the resulting concert was over three hours long, requiring two intermissions. The 200 seat venue was completely filled, mostly by performers and composers. The night before there was another ACF-LA concert by wildUp at REDCAT in Disney Hall, so in just a couple of evenings you could have enjoyed a good cross-section of the local new music scene.
The evening began with greetings from Jack Van Zandt, ACF-LA Chapter President and Dr. Christine Park, Chair of the Music Department at LACC. Each performing group also had a spokesperson give a short introduction about the music and goals of their respective organizations.
The first to present was People Inside Electronics and Brightwork newmusic came on stage to perform like dreams, statistics are a form of wish fulfillment, by Benjamin Broening. The electronic re-processing of the acoustic sounds from the Brightwork ensemble gave this a shiny, shimmering feel that contained some lovely tones. Silences between the passages allowed the electronics to deliver ghostly echoes that added to the ethereal feel. There was a beautiful flute solo and some bowing of the vibraphone bars that seemed to cast a spell. Benjamin Broening was present – as were most of the composers – and he acknowledged the applause and the fine reading by Brightwork.
The second piece presented by People Inside Electronics was Sad Trombone, by Isaac Schankler. The group gnarwhallaby was on hand in their trademark black coveralls to reprise this work, having premiered it in March of this year. This is a trombone concerto that includes piano, clarinet and cello in addition to reprocessing electronics. Sad Trombone is a fearsome combination, with dark textures, piano crashes, lively syncopated tempos and primal trombone sounds supplied by Matt Barbier. All of this is taken into the microphones, reprocessed, amplified, and returned to the speakers mounted over the stage. The result was a powerful, complex sound that washed over the audience in great waves. The ensemble playing was excellent given the difficulty of the music and the strong presence coming from the speakers. The energy and power in Sad Trombone and the muscular playing by gnarwhallaby was enthusiastically acknowledged by the audience.
RighteousGIRLS will be celebrating their new disc gathering blue with a release party at Joe’s Pub at 7 P.M. this Friday, August 7th. Flutist Gina Izzo and pianist Erika Dohi will, of course, be there to throw down with their exciting and inventive program and they will be joined by Kendrick Scott & Andy Akiho as well!
RighteousGIRLS collected an exceptional collection of genre-blending works using flute, piano, electronics, guest performers, improvisation, and all the things that make today’s contemporary music engaging and exciting.
A video of Pascal Le Boeuf’s piece GIRLS as well as audio of Andy Akiho’s KARakurENAI can all be found on the gathering blue site.
Tomorrow evening, composer and pianist Gregg Kallor will continue his stint as SubCulture’s inaugural composer-in-residence with a performance of songs that will also feature acclaimed mezzo-soprano Adriana Zabala and renowned baritone Matthew Worth. The concert corresponds with a celebration of National Poetry Month and the 150th anniversary of William Butler Yeats’ birth, whose work Kallor sets in many of the songs included on the evening’s program.
Again, the performance is tomorrow, April 28, at SubCulture (45 Bleeker Street, Downstairs), and tickets are $25 in advance, $30 the day-of. Doors open at 6:30 PM and the concert begins at 7:30. More information on the program and the night’s featured artists can be found here, at SubCulture’s website.
Tomorrow’s concert marks the second showcase of Kallor’s two-year residency, which will ultimately result in five world premiere performances. The next event on Kallor’s docket as SubCulture’s composer-in-residence is later this year, in June.
A week from today, the American Modern Ensemble will bring a brand new program to SubCulture‘s stage. Entitled, “BLUE”, this upcoming performance celebrates the release of AME’s latest album, Powerhouse Pianists II, which features pianists Stephen Gosling and Blair MacMillan performing works for two pianos by leading living composers including John Adams and John Corigliano.
The program AME will perform at SubCulture will feature an array of the group’s talented players performing works by Margaret Brouwer, George Crumb, Robert Paterson, and Frederic Rzewski, among others. The evening’s music is arranged around the theme of “blue”, and spans from nautical evocations in Crumb’s Vox Balanae, Brouwer’s Lonely Lake, and Paterson’s Deep Blue Ocean, to stylistic suggestions of “blue” in Amanda Harberg‘s Tenement Rhapsody, Laura Kaminsky‘s Full Range of Blue, and the concert’s closing piece, Rzewski’s Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues.
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.
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.
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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.