[As part of my residency at the NEA Journalism Institute for Classical Music and Opera, I had to write an overnight review with a word limitation--something I hadn't done in 15 years. What follows was my original story; an edited version appeared on our private web site where our reviews were posted.
I was very impressed with how the NY Phil turned a performance of a relatively obscure 25-year-old work into a must-attend event. The last time I saw that much excitement about a contemporary orchestral instrumental work was back in the late 1980s in San Diego, when a Soviet arts festival brought composers, musicians, and actors to town for a year-long festival. How did the NY Phil get the city so excited about an old work by its composer in residence? When I get a chance between my current assignments, I hope to post an essay about that.]
Strident steel tintinabulations and dull metallic clanking invaded Avery Fisher Hall Tuesday evening (Oct. 12), where, minutes earlier, the music of Debussy and Sibelius, and the virtuosity of violinist Joshua Bell had delighted audience members.
That clangor wasn’t the 1 Train filtering up through the floor; it was the New York premiere of Magnus Lindberg’s Kraft. Fortunately the New York Philharmonic’s front office had prepared listeners for these sounds through videos and feature stories documenting Lindberg’s shopping trip at a local junkyard, turning this chapter of his two-year residency into a cause célèbre.
Alan Gilbert’s humorous but earnest explanations before Kraft also broke the ice for nervous patrons sitting near a 50-gallon storage drum or a large tam-tam suspended from the ceiling, providing them with aural signposts in Lindberg’s wild soundscape.
Lindberg’s style these days, although clearly modern, is also accessible to audiences, a polished language marked by rhythmic propulsion and dissonant but perceptible harmonies. Lindberg was an enfant terrible when he completed Kraft in 1985; its brute primitive force, imaginative orchestration, and exuberant theatricality immediately distinguished him from the droves of European modernists trying to emerge from the shadows of Boulez, Xenakis, or Ferneyhough.
Kraft is a contemporary concerto grosso, where the soloists not only play piano (magnus Lindberg), clarinet (Chen Halevi), cello (Carter Brey), timpani (Markus Rhoten), and percussion (Christopher Lamb and Daniel Druckman), but also hammer and scrape found objects from the New York area, most of them appearing to be old auto parts and iron gas cylinders. These solos are then spatialized on speakers (done skillfully by Juhani Liimatainen).
My tweet right after the concert on Thursday: “Magnus Lindberg’s Kraft: some very beautiful passages + intriguing spatial effects amidst a joyously chaotic maelstrom of sound.”
It’s a fascinating piece and a gutsy one for the New York Philharmonic to present. I do question the wisdom of programming it alongside Joshua Bell playing the Sibelius Violin Concerto. It threw some of the more conservative ticket-holders a curveball, as they had no idea (unless they’re checked out the promo videos on YouTube) what the Lindberg had in store for them.
There were far more than the “handful” of walkouts Anthony Tommasini noted in his otherwise superlative review in the New York Times. From where we were sitting in the Third Tier of Fisher Hall, we had a birds-eye view of a steady exodus of disgruntled patrons: perhaps 10-15%.
On Friday, I talked about the walkout phenomena with my analytical studies class. One issue we discussed was the notion that many orchestras seem to have of “one audience” vs. the possible lifesaving way forward of cultivating “many audiences.” The former notion seems pretty entrenched at the Phil. I’m glad to see that Alan Gilbert and some of the folks in the press office are exploring ways to curate and cultivate multiple kinds of music-making at the NYPO and leverage social media to find new audience sources. Last year, Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre was a terrific example of that.
But Thursday’s concert seemed to me to be a holdover of the former way of thinking. Get people to come to hear Joshua Bell, and then have the conductor give a lecture explaining why they should like a loud piece with oxygen tanks and multiple gongs in the midst of the audience. I don’t entirely blame the folks who stormed out for being upset, although I do wish they’d taken the hint and left after the concerto if they weren’t up for an adventure.
Still, for those who stayed, it was quite an adventure. Here’s Lindberg discussing the piece.
How often does a promo video (and indeed, program booklet) from the NY Philharmonic namecheck experimental industrial postpunk collective Einstürzende Neubauten? This is perhaps the first time! But one can really see the connections between the group’s aesthetic and Magnus Lindberg’s Kraft in the videos below: check out their percussion setup!
There’s one more performance of Kraft on Tuesday. If you’re in New York, I heartily recommend checking it out!
It’s a cliché to say Texans like things BIG although a mid morning drive on Houston’s freeways will do little to dispel this notion. However, many incredible opera companies in Houston presenting cutting edge programming and embracing fresh approaches to audience outreach are relatively small operations. But that doesn’t mean these companies and their ambitions aren’t growing.
Viswa Subbaraman is the Founder and Artistic Director of Opera Vista, Houston’s innovative contemporary opera company. October 15, at 8pm at Zilkha Hall (located in the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts) maestro Subbaraman and company present the world premiere of composer and Bangkok Opera artistic director Somtow Sucharitkul’sThe Silent Prince. Billed as a “Bollywood Opera,” The Silent Prince tells the Buddhist tale of Temiya Jataka, a Buddha who has been reincarnated as a prince. When forced to choose between committing terrible karmic deeds and disobeying his father, Temiya withdraws from the world into silence.
After visiting Sucharitkul’s website to hear samples of his music and blog to read his first hand accounts of composing and conducting music in Thailand, I reached out to Viswa Subbaraman with a few questions about next Friday’s premiere and the future of opera:
What are the connections between Bollywood and The Silent Prince? Does the Bollywood connection have to do with the production’s staging and choreography as well as the appearance of a live elephant?
The Bollywood connection has primarily to do with the staging, dancing, and costuming. In a lot of ways, I see this as a throwback to to the Bollywood movies I remember watching with my parents. When I was really young, it seemed as though my parents could only find Bollywood movies that had been out for at least 5-10 years. It wasn’t as prevalent to find Bollywood movies in the US back then. Those old movies had a very operatic element to them. I think the Bollywood connection in this opera harks back to that type of Bollywood film.
Musically, the work tends to be a very eclectic piece. There are moments that strike me as being old-school Bollywood. There are also times that I’m reminded of Sondheim, Wagner, Bernstein and a score of other composers. What I find extremely successful is that it does not sound piece meal. There is a definite unity between the various musical styles.
The score for The Silent Prince combines Western and Indian instruments. What Indian instruments are used? Does the score incorporate instruments from other parts of the East as well?
The Indian instruments in Somtow’s score include Tamburas and Harmonium. In the original conception, there were ideas to use Indian percussion and a variety of Indian instruments, but in the end, it seemed as though Somtow pared things down to create a much cleaner texture. One could make the argument, however, that he uses the violins and flute in a very Carnatic way at points. There is a definite South Asian connection in the instrumentation. Somtow uses a number of tam-tams, gongs, and antique cymbals, so there is a “gamelan” influence. Granted, those instruments tend to be so common in the orchestra that we don’t consider them as exotic any more. That being said, there is a definite nod to eastern traditions in the way those instruments are used.
From your perspective as a conductor and director of an opera company, where do you think contemporary and yet-to-be-written opera in the 21st century is headed? Are the costs of production stifling the development of this tradition of music? Or are more and more people like yourself discovering innovative ways to keep this particular genre of music and its audience growing?
This is an interesting question in that these days I see a ton of new opera. Opera Vista runs an annual competition for new opera (The Vista Competition), and since our focus is primarily opera by living composers, we also receive a number of perusal scores. When I started Opera Vista, I was wary of what we would receive in the way of submissions for the competition, and I was also curious to see what the state of new opera was. I can honestly say that we should be excited by all the great opera being written by living composers. I think opera, much like other areas of contemporary composition, is marked by eclecticism. I don’t know that you can say that there is a specific style or direction that marks contemporary opera. We’re seeing every manner of opera under the sun. There seems to be almost no subject area that is taboo. There also doesn’t seem to be a musical style that is necessarily in vogue right now.
Costs of production are probably the biggest hurdle. I have literally hundreds of ideas for new productions of new opera as well as a variety of directions we could go to help composers develop their art. That being said, it is still difficult to convince potential donors of the necessity of donating to support new music. New music still scares people. This is an area that I guess I could write a book about now. I love all types of music, but as Artistic Director of an organization that is still in its infancy, there is no doubt that I have tabled some productions that I think would be amazing to explore – Elliott Carter’sWhat Next? comes to mind – because I need to develop my audience base as well as their faith that new opera can be interesting and not scary. I really want Opera Vista to develop a consistent donor base and to be able to truly afford its staff and musicians before pushing the envelope too far – although a Bollywood opera with a live elephant really does feel like pushing the envelope! In some ways, that is the beauty of The Vista Competition.
The Vista Competition for new opera has been an amazing way to introduce living composers and their music to audiences. Every year, I have thought that there might be a piece in the mix that is “above the audience,” and to my amazement it does extremely well in the competition. The Vista Competition is run in an American Idol style. We perform 6-10 minute excerpts of the opera to give the audience a flavor of the work. The jury then asks the composers questions about their work, and in the end, the audience votes for the winner. Because of the interaction between the jury and the composers and in the finals directly between the audience and the composers, there is an opportunity for the audience to learn about the piece in fun and hopefully not-so-scary manner. It has been a building process. I’m excited each year by the number of people who return for the competition and bring friends. We are slowly finding a way to overcome the “opera” and “new music” stereotypes that scare people.
I think there are a number of groups that are working towards fostering new opera. It takes time and a ton of effort. It truly is a labor of love initially. It’s an exciting time for new opera. I really believe in the work we are doing. I know there is now the Microscopic Opera Company in Pittsburgh, Bluegrass Opera in Kentucky, and a number of others are growing.
The Silent Prince by Somtow Sucharitkul, performed by Opera Vista, Viswa Subbaraman conducting, will premiere October 15, 2010, 8pm at Zilkha Hall at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, 800 Bagby St., Houston, TX.
Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela; Gustavo Dudamel, conductor
Deutsche Grammophon CD
True, Stravinsky’s Sacre du Printemps is a watershed work. It serves as many a classical listener’s jumping off point when first exploring Twentieth Century repertoire. But can a work, no matter how seminal, have too many recordings? Can it get programmed so often on concerts that it loses its zing?
I have several recordings of the piece myself, but I’d begun to wonder in the past couple years whether the Rite was in danger of being overexposed. And I’m not the only one…
Enter young conductor Gustavo Dudamel and his even younger colleagues from the Simon Bolivar Youth Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela. Their version of the Rite is viscerally powerful, rhythmically muscular, and impressively wide in its dynamic range. After getting a bit burnt out by the piece and its attendant folklore, I’m refreshed by hearing Dudamel’s rendition.
In a clever programming touch, the Stravinsky is paired with Silvestre Revueltas’ La Noche de los Mayas. Originally a 1939 film score, a concert suite of the work was only fashioned some two decades after Revueltas’ death. Latin dance signatures and melodic inflections are offset by virtuosic percussion writing, including some cadenzas that help to make evident the musical kinship between Rite of Spring and La Noche de los Mayas.
The sociocultural resonances are obvious as well. It might seem gruesome to pair works based on their common interest in human sacrifice, but Rite restores the vitality and bite of early modernism’s interest in still-earlier primitivism.
Lou Karchin leads the Orchestra of the League of Composers (photo: Ron Gordon)
The Orchestra of the League of Composers (ISCM) presented the group’s “season finale” at Miller Theatre on Monday June 7, 2010. True, this is a pickup orchestra, but you’d never know it from listening. Composer/conductor Lou Karchin confidently led the group through a wide stylistic range of pieces, including New York and World premieres. WNYC’s Jonathan Schaefer hosted, engaging the composers in brief interviews between the various pieces.
D.J. Sparr’s piece DACCA:DECCA:GAFFA featured ace new music guitarists William Anderson and Oren Fader playing steel string acoustic instruments alongside the ensemble. The title referred to a set of chord progressions that the soloists played; these were adorned by pantonal flourishes from the orchestra. During his interview with Schaefer, Sparr tried to make it sound as if the piece had an elaborate plan. Perhaps its precomposition did, but its surface seemed to come straight out of mainstream popular cinematic music. I felt it had some cowboy movie potential, while my seat partner opted for a fairytale plot. We split the difference with “Cinderella in Laredo.” For the most part, the music didn’t demand much from the soloists: lots of bar chords with the occasional filigree. With such fine guitarists on display, one wishes that Sparr, a guitarist himself, might have reached for more.
Joan Tower admits she has a complicated relationship with titles. Her penchant for using purple in the titles of several works is not an example of synesthesia, but rather an attempt to create an evocative moniker after composing the work. Still, Purple Rhapsody proved quite evocative from a musical standpoint. A lushly pastoral work, it proved a fine showcase for violist Paul Neubauer’s considerable virtuosity and versatility.
Elliott Carter waited until he was 99 years old to set the poetry of Ezra Pound. The result, On Conversing with Paradise for baritone and chamber orchestra, was well worth the wait. Carter bridges the often enigmatic character of Pound’s poems with elements of “mad scene” that hint at the poet’s own personal instability. The result is a brilliantly demanding piece for which requires the soloist to demonstrate superlative dynamic control across a wide range. Schaefer passed along bass-baritone Evan Hughes’ apologies in advance for any vocal struggle – the singer was battling a cold – but indicated that, “Hughes had no intention of missing out on the piece’s New York premiere.” While one can understand his concern, Hughes needn’t have worried: his singing was superb and his characterization spot on. The orchestra was in excellent form here as well and Karchin led a finely detailed rendition of the work, exhorting ample dramatic heft where required. The composer, now 101, was on hand to say a few words and take a bow.
Percussionist/composer Jason Treuting created a quadruple concerto for his ensemble So Percussion and string orchestra. The Percussion Quartet Concerto juxtaposed So’s avant sound effects – tearing pieces of paper and other unconventional devices – with its penchant for groove-making. Treuting suggested that each member of the quartet was affiliated with a segment of the string ensemble. In practice, one just as frequently heard a juxtaposition of drums vs strings: syncopated, dancing percussion set against sustained legato passages from the ISCM collective. Whether fractals or tutti were commanding any given segment of the work, it proved equally diverting.
From a set-changing standpoint, it made perfect sense to close the evening with the NY premiere of Milton Babbitt’s string orchestra piece Transfigured Notes. But from a programming perspective, this was a poorly considered choice. A thorny, labyrinthine, and formidably challenging work, it didn’t stand a chance following So Percussion’s zesty ebullience. Indeed, several audience members walked out mid-performance: a sour note on which to end the evening.
Given that Babbitt co-founded the League with Elliott Carter back in the 1930s, one wishes the retreating faction might have had enough respect to make their exit before the work started; but maybe that was their game all along. While this writer was saddened to hear that Babbitt was unable to attend the performance, perhaps with the rudeness on display it was best that he missed it.
This is a piece that has had a fraught performance history. The Philadelphia Orchestra commissioned it back in the 70s. Then, finding it too challenging, cancelled its premiere – twice! Gunther Schuller conducted a performance of Transfigured Notes up in Boston in the 90s and made a recording of it, but its first appearance on a NY concert required ISCM programming it in 2010 – a doffing of the cap for one of their founders.
While Karchin and company gave it their best, after a long program fatigue appeared to have set in and intonation problems marred the proceedings. Alas, Transfigured Notes remains a work that hasn’t as yet been realized in an entirely satisfactory fashion. One hopes Karchin will get another crack at it at some point, as he remains one of Babbitt’s most persuasive advocates on the podium. Still, the fact that an occasional ensemble was brave enough to tread where the Philadelphians feared to go says a lot about ISCM’s chutzpah.
The League of Composers is onto something with these orchestra concerts – same time next year?
A year ago at this time, Susan McMane, Artistic Director of the San Francisco Girls Chorus, had no idea what a hot-button issue immigration would be in June 2010. For her, the works of immigrant composers formed a compelling programmatic mix for her five-time Grammy-winning ensemble’s concert series, which she’d entitled A New Land, A New Song.
Now, in the midst of nonstop political debate and a deployment of additional National Guard troops to the border, SFGC will celebrate the contributions of immigrant composers to the choral music oeuvre. Composers come literally from all over the map, from Russia with Igor Stravinksy and his Four Russian Peasant Songs, from Cuba with Tania Léon and her work May the Road Be Free; and Austria with Ernst Krenek’s Three Madrigals. The Cypress String Quartet,SFGC’s 2010 Artists in Residence, will contribute Dvorak’s String Quartet No. 12 in F Major, Op.96, “American”. Choral pieces by Kurt Weill, Vernon Duke, and colonial Moravian composers are also on the bill.
But the centerpiece of the series will be a world premiere, commissioned by the Chorus from Chinese-born Chen Yi. The new work, Angel Island Passages, commemorates the 100th anniversary of Angel Island Immigration Station,known as “the Ellis Island of the West,” and evokes the experiences of Chinese immigrants. Artistic Director McMane came up with the idea for the work in 2009, and sent the book “Island, poetry and history of Chinese Immigrants on Angel Island, 1910-1940” — by Him Mark Lai, Genny Lim, and Judy Yung — to Dr. Chen for her reference as she began work on the commission.
The piece is written in three movements for treble voices and string quartet. The first movement, entitled “1882,” refers to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 passed by Congress to halt Chinese immigration into the United States. The music is based on a Cantonese folk ensemble piece, “Prancing Horses”, and contains a traditional scale in a sorrowful mode. Dr. Chen expands and develops the melody, and uses it horizontally and vertically throughout the movement. The second movement, “Longing,” continues in a slow, agitated and melancholy mood. The third movement contrasts small groups with the larger ensemble to symbolize the experience of assimilation into American culture. The text of the three movements includes nonsense syllables to convey emotional pain, and the words “We are America” sung in Cantonese, Mandarin and English.
Dr. Chen has already written for the San Francisco Girls Chorus – her piece, Chinese Poems, received its world premiere as part of the Chorus’ 20th anniversary season in 1998. Twelve years later, she says, “My experience writing…for the San Francisco Girls Chorus in 1998 convinced me that it is a world-class performing arts organization whose singers can handle any repertoire. I am confident that these young women have what it takes to bring this powerful subject matter to life.”
Angel Island Passages may officially be a piece for treble chorus and string quartet, but a compelling visual accompaniment, commissioned by the Chorus from documentary filmmaker Felicia Lowe, will be integral. Ms. Lowe’s past films include Carved in Silence, a documentary about the experience of detainees on Angel Island; and Chinatown, a short film about the history of the Chinese in San Francisco. She shared both films, along with her video production Road to Restoration, with Dr. Chen as Angel Island Passages was being written.
Dr. Chen relates the experience of the Angel Island immigrants to her own personal history. “I was born and raised in China and went through the dark period of Cultural Revolution 40 years ago, during which general education was interrupted and Western music was prohibited for 10 years,” she says. “My passion and hard work helped me overcome this hardship and to become the first woman to earn a masters degree in music composition in China. I’ve painfully learned about the history of Chinese immigration through Angel Island. Along with SFGC and Cypress String Quartet, I want us to use our music to share the true history, to voice our belief in equal rights, to improve our society, and to look forward to a brighter future.”
Performances of A New Land, A New Song will take place at 8:00 p.m. on June 4th and 5th at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, located at 50 Oak Street, San Francisco. Tickets are priced $18-$32 and are available for purchase by phone from City Box Office, by phone at 415-392-4400 and online at www.cityboxoffice.com.
The New York Philharmonic has made significant strides to renew its commitment to contemporary classical music this season. Curated by composer-in-residence Magnus Lindberg and conducted by music director Alan Gilbert, April16th’s Contact! series performance was a compelling program stirringly performed.
Sean Shepherd‘s These Particular Circumstances proved a vibrant opener. A bassoonist as well as a composer, he’s a fine orchestrator. Its also clear that, while at Cornell for his DMA, he learned a lot about Lutoslawski from Steven Stucky, as his language incorporates insights from both composers. Shepherd’s music has a wonderful way of making the orchestra shimmer. He took advantage of the chamber orchestra’s lither scoring, providing deft contrapuntal passages for winds and solo strings. At the same time, These Particular Circumstances displays considerable power in its tutti passages, reminding us that the ensemble for Contact! is a formidable assembly.
Nico Muhly made a point of complementing his former Juilliard classmate from the stage, pointing out that Shepherd’s high-lying passages create such a signature sound that, when he learned he was following him on the program, he decided to ‘give the violins a break.’ True, with a darker hued string section led by the violas, his work Detailed Instructions takes on a sound world that stood apart from the other pieces on the program. Muhly is post-minimal in orientation. And while a couple of the composers in the audience who sat near me groused at intermission that his work is ‘indebted to Philip Glass,’ what they didn’t seem to hear was Muhly’s playful departures from mainstream minimalism.
Instead of Glass’ symmetrical use of ostinati, Muhly’s repeating figures dart in and out of the ‘expected phrase lengths,’ creating delightful surprises and heady syncopations. In the more reposeful central section, he channeled an appealing lyricism from his recent pop-based excursions into a spacious orchestral mold. The third section gave the NYPO musicians a chance to up the bpm quotient, in a breakneck paced, dazzling finale. Make no mistake, Muhly is no mere retro-minimalist; quite the contrary, he’s a compelling new voice on the scene.
Matthias Pintscher composed Songs from Solomon’s Garden for the NYPO’s artist-in-residence, baritone Thomas Hampson. A setting of texts from the Song of Solomon in Hebrew, the work was simultaneously sensuous and inquisitive. Pintscher deftly juxtaposes cantabile passages with spikier ones, creating an impressively varied orchestral palette. And while Solomon’s Garden never even flirts with neoromanticism, it has a far more lyrical impulse than some of Pintscher’s other, in this writer’s opinion less congenial, vocal writing. Hampson sang the challenging, chromatic, and wide ranging part with commitment, subtlety, and musicality. At a stage in his career when he certainly needn’t take on learning new works, Hampson’s willingness to participate in Contact! so enthusiastically is admirable.
Gilbert has done a remarkable job in a short amount of time crafting a fine contemporary ensemble with these Philharmonic members. He elicited powerful, clear, and engaging performances throughout the program. Its worth noting that the NYPO is getting into the spirit and has been very supportive of Contact!. The organization went all out to publicize the show, in the process making a zealous case for new music’s relevancy in the broader cultural life of the city. And they did a good job incorporating multimedia into the PR mix; we posted some of the flipcam videos on the front page in advance of the performance.
Enlisting WNYC’s John Schaefer as host and onstage interviewer was a nice touch. Schaefer kept things moving breezily while eliciting both bon mots and aesthetic observations from each artist and composer. WNYC/WQXR’s contemporary internet station, Q2, will be broadcasting the concert on Thursday, April 22 at 7 p.m. or Saturday, April 24 at 4 p.m.
After the concert, the whole audience was invited to stay and chat at a reception. Everyone was even treated to a free beer. What’s not to like?
Big news in the orchestra world. Starting next season (2010-’11), George Manahan will become the American Composers Orchestra’s Music Director. He will continue as Music Director at the New York City Opera.
In my view, this is good news indeed. Manahan is a superlative musician; he’s conducted some excellent performances of contemporary fare at NYCO. One hopes that his name will entice new audience members to check out the ACO.
Kudos as well to outgoing director Steven Sloane, who’s done an admirable job with the ensemble since 2002.
Thoughts on the shakeup? The comments section is open below!