Archive for the “Contemporary Classical” Category

Upon entering Ursula Oppens’ modestly furnished, yet comfortable Upper West Side apartment with a view of the pedigreed patina of the historistic cupola belonging to Columbia University’s campus building, one is immediately taken by the vibrant aura that surrounds the eminent musician.

The personable pianist speaks softly, yet animatedly, in a welcoming way; her reputation is linked to an astonishingly vast array of distinguished contemporary composers, some of whose prominent works were dedicated to Oppens. Unsurprisingly, Oppens has in turn become one of their most incisive promoters.

photo credit: Ilona Oltuski – GetClassical

Oppens was recently celebrated by her long standing fans on the occasion of her 70th Birthday with a concert at Symphony Space. The show was a collaborative project by several of her students: Winston Choi, Ran Dank, Soyean Kate Lee, and Anthony Molinaro, honoring her work and legacy. Oppens’ pianistic career has been particularly impacted by her collaboration with the legendary American composer Elliot Carter, who remains a tremendous source of inspiration for her.

“One summer I came to Marlboro, nervous, young and easily impressionable. I had not had formal music lessons during college, but there I was. Carter was visiting that summer, and they spontaneously decided to play some of his music. There was little time to prepare and I ended up volunteering. I had heard his music before in Aspen, and also had heard him speak about it. I remember when I started reading through the score for the first time, and practice for its performance, I had played a wrong note, intuitively sensing its wrongness. There was a very strong sense of understanding the text and its coherence, and I discovered a very important relationship,” explains Oppens.

The performance of his Sonata for flute, oboe, cello, and harpsichord that she had prepared for went well. When Oppens experienced a similar situation with Carter’s double concerto at Tanglewood, it was clear to her that this was meant to be an ongoing relationship: “the rest is history,” says Oppens, as she describes working with the sophisticated composer. Carter’s masterpiece Night Fantasies was  co-commissioned and funded by Oppens.  photo: Ursula Oppens with Elliot Carter, A.Addey

“He always was extremely kind, but insisted firmly on all the expressive indications of the phrasing and on what stands out,” she explains, “I always felt a bit tongue-tied in his presence, admiring his enormous command of languages and memory but most of all his gregarious personality: To me he represented the ideal of the educated creator, and I love teaching his music to my students, giving on his legacy.” Oppens’ success with her students at CUNY’s Graduate Center and the Conservatory of Music at Brooklyn College , where she holds teaching positions as Distinguished Professor of Music, brings her great personal joy, as well as the satisfaction of continuing the modernist tradition, some of which had started out in her own hands.

“I am very lucky that there are a number of wonderful pieces that have been written for me,” she says, while she shows me an old membership card to the ‘International Society for Contemporary Music’ that had belonged to her father, Kurt Oppens. “The society is still functioning today, and I guess part of my interest in contemporary music is simply inherited from both my parents.” Oppens’ parents were both part of the music world “and great modernist enthusiasts,” she says. She herself, a Radcliffe graduate, spent a lot of her time at the society. Radcliffe did not have its own music performance or composition department at the time, and it was at the society where she forged relationships with other musicians, some of whom she still considers close friends. Only after attending Juilliard, and studying under reputed pedagogue Rosina Lhévinne, did Oppens actively seek out a pianist’s career, which included some partaking in the competition-cycle; she became a first prize winner at the Busoni competition, and a recipient of the Avery Fisher Career Grant in 1976.

Over many years, Oppens gained an unparalleled reputation for her access and attention to music that was challenging, by composers like Milton Babbitt, Pierre Boulez, and Charles Wuorinen. She has gained four Grammy nominations for her recordings of both romantic and contemporary repertoire. The widely praised album Winging It: Piano Music of John Corigliano, released in 2011 on Cedille Records, put her up for her latest nomination to date for “Best Classical Instrumental Solo” in 2012/13.

photo: courtesy of Hemsing Associates

“When you are with musician-friends, you want to make music together,” which is something she appreciates in her ongoing partnership with the distinguished pianist and Juilliard professor Jerome Lowenthal: “we play four-hands repertoire all the time together, and never run out of things to talk about.” One of the results of their intimate pianistic exchange is captured on their recent two-piano CD on Cedille Records, devoted to Visions d’Amen of Olivier Messiaen, and Debussy’s En blanc et noir.

Previously Oppens had been married to the late composer and avantgarde jazz- saxophonist Julius Hemphill, whom she had met on a 1983 New York States Council of the Arts tour.

In a musician’s life, befriending other musicians often forges the path to a career. Some of the first composers Oppens met at the International Society, and approached for works she could perform, were Peter Lieberson and Tobias Picker. Not long thereafter, a grant from YCA, which supported the young pianist, allowed Oppens to receive a new commission by the Washington Performance Art Society in the form of a work written for her by Frederic Rzewski, who now resides in Brussels (only a phone call away, says Oppens): “I did not expect an hour long piece, and did not know what the public’s reaction would be- for all I knew, they could have booed,” but The People United Will Never Be Defeated became one of the cornerstone works she became renowned for in her long lasting, and still active career.

“I was always willing to take chances, and was curious about works I had not heard before,” says Oppens, who spent many of her formative summers backstage at the Aspen Music Festival. This credo remains at the essence of who she is, a free spirit. Oppens also appreciates performing on occasions that demonstrate her humanistic and democratic worldview. A riveting experience for her was partaking at the 37th.anniversary of Portugal’s Carnation Revolution in Lisbon , on April of 2011, commemorating the overthrow of the authoritarian Estado Novo regime. She performed the Portugese national anthem as part of her performance of Rzewski’s The People United Will Never Defeat, at the highly emotionally charged celebration of national liberation.

In 1971, Oppens co-founded Speculum Musicae, a new music chamber group, with some of her closest friends and associates including cellist Fred Sherry, percussionist Richard Fritz, and oboist Joel Marangella. “Rolf Schulte and Virgil Black were also members,” says Oppens, “it was such an exciting time. Like now, many groups were formed by students who did not need to gain approval by the conservative institutions. There was a lot of support available and new venues to perform opened up.”

“One of the main aspects of our particular group was Elliot Carter. He held us together, and is one of the reasons we are still working together closely,” she says. “We all loved his music; his passion connected us, and his kindness towards us kept our friendships intact, even long after we went our own ways.”

The New York Times praised her recent performance at a Carter tribute concert in 2013, which captured the “fevered anxiety and poetic reverie” of Carter’s Night Fantasies, written for her, with an “unfailing sense of drama and almost cinematic color.”

While Carter holds a special place in Oppens’ heart and performance career, from about 1975 onwards, she furiously championed an array of different composers. Their collective conglomerate reads like an encyclopedic list of the contemporary idiom and includes composers as varied as John Adams, Julius Hemphill, Frederic Rzewski, Conlon Nancarrow, John Corigliano, John Harbison, William Bolcom, Anthony Braxton, Tania Léon, Tobias Picker, and Charles Wuorinen.

She has also excelled in performances of works by European modernist masters like Luciano Berio, Gyorgy Ligeti, and Witold Lutoslawski. But as she says modestly: “I can only learn so and so much new music, before every concert, every recording, I am just thinking of the next note.” Next to her recordings and recitals of many of the works of her contemporaries, she equally loves the traditional, classical repertoire, which she also practices every day.

“I feel the necessity to play and practice both, tonal and atonal music. You have to stay open-minded, going to the notation as if you have never heard it before, which is also very important for performing older music. But it is new music that has made me love the translation from the notation to the sound.” She offers the following piece of advice to students: “You cannot un-hear a piece of music you have listened to on a recording, that’s why I suggest listening to more than one, to see a range of possibilities of interpretations. It’s very much about the human factor and the surprise of the outcome, the ambiguity of transition.”

One of Oppens’ interesting projects, which she began a while back, is the collaboration with pianist Bruce Brubaker in a compilation of Meredith Monk’s works for solo piano and piano-duo, titled: Piano Songs; the CD will be released on the ECM label in May of 2014. This will coincide with Meredith Monk’s composing residency at Carnegie Hall, during the 2014/15 season.

”Bruce and I knew each other from Juilliard, and he performed a lot of some of the same composers’ work, I had too, but we had never performed together until we were brought together by Meredith’s music, performing in a celebratory concert of the composer at Zankel Hall, in 2005. A lot of the energy to make this recording happen came from Bruce; we kept adding on pieces until we had a complete disc. We gave a concert in Boston and then recorded at the exquisite Jordan Hall, at the New England Conservatory, where Bruce is the chair of the piano department,” she explains.

“Some of the pieces started out as scores for voices, or voices and other instruments, and transporting these into another world gives us all the wonderful opportunity of hearing the music afresh,” says Brubaker in the disc’s liner notes. “The pieces are based on works from 1971 to 2006.”

“Meredith Monk’s music is extremely interesting,” adds Oppens, “because it seems to come from simple parts, but becomes very intricate – I would kind of compare it to Mozart, in that you think the recapitulation of his sonatas are just like the exposition, except for the key signature; but then you notice all the subtle differences; it has a perfect balance, but it keeps on changing, going forward,” she says. Brubaker also comments on the “intriguing balance” in Monk’s piano music, “between simplicity and a kind of music you’ve never really heard before.” On writing for two pianos, the composer notes: “I delved into different relationships and the possibilities between them…In some pieces, I emphasized the individuality of each piano, writing for one player as the ‘singer,’ the other as the ‘accompaniment;’ in other pieces, I wanted the two pianos to make one large sound.”

In November of 2014, Brubaker and Oppens will perform a program drawn from Monk’s Piano Songs at LePoisson Rouge.

“During the last few years, I have been doing more recordings than expected,” says Oppens, “it may have to do with my age: You feel like you need to   recapitulate pieces that you learned over a long period, and there is definetly something to be said about wanting to summarize things.”

Upcoming projects for the 2014/ 2015 season will include a Bernard Rands disc in the fall, a William Bolcom recording for Naxos,  and a re-recording project of The People Reunited , complete with an improvised cadenza by Oppens.

 

Ilona Oltuski – GetClassical

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minmax50On 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.

minmax10The 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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Hsiao-Lan Wang

(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.

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hilt3On Saturday April 5, 2014 Jacaranda presented The Knee Plays by David Byrne along with music by Philip Glass. This concert was one of the Minimalist Jukebox Festival concerts of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and also part of the tenth anniversary season of the Jacaranda series. The venue was the First Presbyterian Church, whose ample and comfortable sanctuary was almost completely filled for the occasion. The Lyris Quartet, the Calder Quartet, Jacaranda Chamber Ensemble and the Vintage Collectables brass band with drummer M.B. Gordy provided the musical forces.  Actor Fran Kranz was the narrator for The Knee Plays and Mark Alan Hilt, Music Director of Jacaranda, performed on the pipe organ and conducted.

The concert opened with Mad Rush (1979), by Philip Glass, an organ work first performed publicly in 1981 at St. John the Divine Cathedral to mark the visit of the Dalai Lama to New York. This piece opens with a light, calming sequence as soothing as any Sunday morning prelude. After a sailing serenely on for minute or two, however, it erupts into a swirling vortex of sound full of drama and energy that calls to mind later sections of The Grid from Koyaanisqatsi. Mad Rush proceeds along in this way, alternating sections of quiet serenity with moments of loud striving frenzy, reflecting a Buddhist sensitivity to contrast and no doubt calling us to a more contemplative state of mind. The sound of the pipe organ filled the sanctuary nicely and the playing of Mark Alan Hilt was especially precise in the faster sections. There are many recordings of Mad Rush on piano or keyboard, but hearing this piece performed live affirms the raw power of this music when heard in its intended venue.

The second work on the program was a suite from the musical score of the film Mishima (1985) composed by Philip Glass and arranged by Todd Levin. The opening section begins with a beautiful shimmer of glass and bell chimes. The lower strings join in to build an ominous undercurrent that is reinforced by a strong beat in the bass drum. This increases in tempo and dynamic, ultimately bursting into a familiar Glass groove carried forward by the strings. Mishima is the complex story of a post-war Japanese writer who plots the return of the Emperor to power by building a private army. The percussion section was especially effective in conveying this militaristic element, as was clearly heard in section 2 by a series of rapid snare drum rolls – the feel is very much like an army on the march. Other parts of the Mishima story are similarly vivid and range from lighter and empathetic as in section 3, 1934: Grandmother and Kimitake, to unsettling and broad in the last section, November 25: THE LAST DAY. For those sections that consisted entirely of string playing, conductor Mark Alan Hilt stepped aside and let the ensemble work out the complex patterns of notes that are the hallmark of music by Philip Glass. The playing throughout was skillful and the harmonies could be heard distinctly, even high up in the balcony. The effort was received by the audience with sustained applause – with many standing.

After intermission the Vintage Collectables brass band took the stage for The Knee Plays (1984) by David Byrne. The Knee Plays was written to be performed between acts of Robert Wilson’s expansive opera the CIVIL warS, partly as a way to cover scenery and costume changes. For this concert however, all the sections of the The Knee Plays were played consecutively. The opening section Tree (Today is an Important Occasion) began with a lovely series of tones played in sequence by two trombones. To these were added saxophones and the result was a pleasantly grand sound that did convey a sense of occasion. The narration by Fran Kranz commenced, but immediately there were technical issues with the sound system, rendering the words unintelligible. The performance was halted until a repair could be effected, and this was right decision inasmuch as the narration provides an essential context for the music. The fix proved only partly effective, however, and even a change of seats to be closer to the speakers still required intense listening to catch all of the spoken words. The brass band was clearly heard and well balanced – but too much for the overwhelmed narration.

glass10David Byrne is best known as a founding member of the band Talking Heads and the music of The Knee Plays brings a comfortable sense of the familiar with it. The second section, In the Upper Room, surely owes something to a hymn tune. I Bid You Goodnight, section 8, could have been an easy-going New Orleans street band piece. All of the tunes in The Knee Plays are highly accessible and Byrne clearly has a good ear for texture. Each of the sections provided solo opportunities for the various horns and combinations and these were effectively realized. The playing was cohesive and consistent throughout the 50-plus minute run time – an achievement of note considering that all the instruments were called upon to play most of the time.

On those occasions when the narration could be heard The Knee Plays really came into focus. Things to Do (I’ve Tried), the ninth section, is a spoken list of simple chores accompanied by the blues, but the juxtaposition produces a knowing, inward smile by anyone who has attempted the mundane and failed. Perhaps the most successful piece was section 12, In the Future. The narration consists of a series of utopian platitudes about how wonderful the future will be – “In the future we will work one hour a week!” – accompanied by a marvelous 1950-ish science fiction soundtrack carried by the lower brass. This was a telling commentary on our 21st century, given that this work dates from 1984, and provided a glimpse of just how effective the music of David Byrne can be. The strong applause from the audience at the conclusion rewarded a fine effort.

The tenth anniversary season of the Jacaranda series will conclude with a concert featuring the music of Mozart, Debussy and Arvo Part on Saturday, May 10, 2014 at First Presbyterian in Santa Monica.

 

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reiner10On Saturday, March 22, 2014 Dutch pianist Reinier van Houdt appeared at the Wulf in downtown Los Angeles for a night of experimental music that was intended, according to the concert notes, “… to question the act of composing.” A capacity crowd of the knowledgeable gathered to hear a series of eight piano works by European and local contemporary composers that lasted over 2 hours. This was the second local appearance in as many days for van Houdt – who had performed just the night before at the RedCat venue in Disney Hall.

The concert opened with Radio + Piano (2013) by Los Angeles composer Casey Anderson. For this piece the piano was fitted with an electronic pickup that allowed Reinier to use the keyboard and pedals to interact with the sounds that were generated continuously by a laptop. A stream of static from the computer formed the background, very much like that once heard coming out of older radios. Against this came a series of low humming sounds that increased, and then decreased in volume, with the period between these entrances varying from a seconds to maybe half a minute. This produced a searching feel, like trying to tune in an elusive radio station late at night. As the humming intensified it became almost like the pedal tones of a great pipe organ and you could feel the force of the sound in your chest. Radio + Piano was effective at blurring the line between technology and the piano. The pianist had input into the process – but not in the expected way – and by this contrast succeeded in asking a question about what constitutes an act of composing.

Nichts, das ist (2006) by Mark So was next and this began with a solemn, soft chord followed by a long pause. This pattern of quiet, solitary chords and extended periods of silence continued, like a series of contemplative thoughts barely stirring through the mind. Reinier van Houdt’s intense concentration and gentle touch here were especially noteworthy and everyone in the room remained completely engaged, as if hearing a murmured prayer. Creating the pianissimo chords was something of a worry to van Houdt – he explained later that each piano has a unique touch, especially in the very soft dynamics, and an unfamiliar instrument was a challenge. But Nichts, das ist invites the audience to listen closely and the playing in this performance was masterful.

A series of similarly quiet pieces followed. These spanned a spectrum from simple and still to active and agitated. Meditation for Solo Piano (2002) by Michael Winter, however, has a somewhat more ringing sound – like bell chimes – that offered a more dramatic feel, but a definite sense of the subtle seemed to be common thread to this concert. The audience was completely engaged throughout, van Houdt applied a studied concentration to all and displayed an attention to the dynamic details that was impressive.

After an extended intermission, Natura Morta by Walter Marchetti closed the concert. For this piece a large tray of very ripe fruit was placed on top of the piano.  This gave a faint, but unmistakable flavor to the air that increased as the piece went along and provided an additional sensory dimension to the music. Natura Morta is deliberate music consisting of a simple, steady melody line of single quarter notes. The dynamic never varies from mezzo piano. This line is repeated with the same notes but not in exactly the same sequence, and this gives the piece an organic, plant-like feel. It is as if you are looking at a vine – similar form and material, but never identical in every segment.

reiner20

The linear melodies seem to meander and hang in the air, like the fragrance of the ripened fruit One of the scores available for this piece specify three kinds of fermata, the duration of each one being determined by the length of the preceding phrase – the longer the phrase the more time given for the harmonics to die out. In this way the decay of the fruit still life is reinforced by the music as well as the scent in the air. Natura Morta runs on for an hour and the feeling of the phrases is ambivalent: not quite melancholy, not quite aimless – but there is a sense of a natural organic process at work. A very high level of concentration is required to play this and Mr. van Houdt never wavered despite the length of the piece and the late hour. It was an impressive ending to a demanding program.
 

The pieces played in concert order were:

Radio + Piano (2013) by Casey Anderson
Nichts, das ist (2006) by Mark So
Melody:Continuum (2013) by Andrew Young
Meditation for Solo Piano (2002) by Michael Winter
Klavierstück (1995) by Jürg Frey
Preludes (2013) by Leo Svirsky
Y todos cuantos vagan (2013) by Antoine Beuger.
Natura Morta by Walter Marchetti

 

 

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On Friday, March 21, Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) presented “a cappella NEXT,” in which three choirs performed a fascinating line-up of contemporary choral music in Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall. Included were four world premieres, and many of the composers represented on the program were present in the sold-out audience, making for an evening vibrant with the vitality of new music.

First up was the University of California, Berkeley Chamber Chorus under the direction of Marika Kuzma. They opened with the short fanfare “Let everything that hath breath praise the Lord” from Requiem: a Dramatic Dialogue, composed by Randall Thompson on a commission from UC Berkeley in 1958. Hardly new by the standards of the rest of the evening’s fare, it was a reminder of the groundwork on which contemporary artists now stand and served as an entry point to a selection of more recent music by composers connected with UC Berkeley. The Chamber Chorus struggled with intonation and blend, possibly due to the acoustic of Weill Recital Hall, a space better suited to instrumental chamber music than vocal but one that produces an immediacy of sound that made for an intimate sonic experience. The sopranos sang with a pure—if somewhat young—timbre, and the altos shone in the excerpts from Jorge Liderman’s Sephardisms II with their clear, well-nourished tone. The largest of the three choirs performing, the UC Berkeley Chamber Chorus lacked some of the individual vocal strength of the other two ensembles but made full use of their size in the aleatoric passages of Robin Estrada’s “Awit sa Panginoon,” a fascinating blend of Filipino folk style singing with more modern tonal clusters, aleatory, and extended vocal techniques. The Chamber Chorus displayed some of their best singing in their final selection, “Vesna” from Pory Roku by Ukranian composer Lesia Dychko. Coming out of the bleakness of Richard Felciano’s “Winter” from The Seasons, the exuberance of Dychko’s piece was welcome contrast. While the performance felt at times a bit restrained, the Chamber Chorus delivered well-balanced singing, overcoming their previous struggles to find a cohesive ensemble sound.

Next to take the stage was NOTUS: Indiana University Contemporary Vocal Ensemble. Under Dominick DiOrio’s leadership, NOTUS stood out for the polish and dynamism of their performance. Though fewer in number than the UC Berkeley Chamber Chorus, NOTUS’s singers filled the hall with a more vibrant tone and achieved more secure intonation than either of the other choruses. Their set opened with two world premieres. The first, by Zachary Wadsworth, was a highly evocative setting of Wallace Stephens’s “To the Roaring Wind.” Beginning with voiceless breath evolving into tone, the piece unfolds with the text seemingly struggling to emerge from less organized sound—not unlike the idea behind Luciano Berio’s Visage, but a less tortured soundscape and one easier to follow. The piece has a directness—almost inevitability—to its linear development, but it is well paced in a way that makes its destination immensely rewarding. DiOrio and NOTUS did an excellent job of communicating the varied sounds, abortive sonorities, and moments of textual clarity, delivering an overall sophisticated performance of this fresh work.

The second premiere was of Aaron Travers’s setting of Walt Whitman’s “Virginia: The West.” Seizing upon the rapid shifts inherent in the text, Travers uses different styles spanning nearly a millennium to highlight each of the unique characters. The changes are as fast and thick as those in the poem, making for an eclectic montage bringing life to Whitman’s text.

Next on NOTUS’s program was the “Passacaglia” from Caroline Shaw’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Partita for 8 voices. Recently featured at the Grammy Awards in a performance by Roomful of Teeth, “Passacaglia” is an enthralling piece that makes use of a wide array of vocal techniques, often shifting abruptly from one style to another. As such, it presents singers with considerable vocal demands, which NOTUS negotiated skillfully. More challenges were to be had in Dominick DiOrio’s “O Virtus Sapientiae.” Described by the composer as “a bold reimagining of Hildegard’s chant,” it puts three soprano soloists to the test with fleet melismata, rhythmic displacement, and an expansive range. The soloists—Sandra Periord, Elise Marie Kennedy, and Martha Eason—imparted a convincing performance. Robert Vuichard’s “Zephyr Rounds” made for a rousing close to the set. The piece’s contrapuntal interest makes it much more than a simple crowd pleaser, but it was sheer fun, eliciting a well-deserved ovation for this exciting ensemble.

Last to perform were the Kansas-based Ad Astra Singers under the direction of John Paul Johnson. As the smallest ensemble of the evening, the Ad Astra Singers seemed to feel most keenly the lack of support from the hall’s acoustic. With voices that sounded unaccustomed to singing senza vibrato, they struggled through the premiere of Aleksander Sternfeld-Dunn’s Four Haikus. Sternfeld-Dunn sets the scant text pictorially, at times with broader brush strokes, at others with specific gestures like layered ostinati depicting the jumping of frogs in the second movement. Rather than four distinct paintings, each haiku becomes its own series of scenes.

Kansas City-based composer Jean Belmont Ford penned two songs on the program. Her music is characterized by a lush harmonic palette that is relatively accessible though not fettered by tonality. The first of her pieces performed here, “Draba” from Sand County, is a beautiful and pleasingly uncomplicated setting of a text about an overlooked desert flower. “Love Song”—the evening’s fourth and final premiere—was full of Ford’s typical harmonic twists and turns, evoking a variety of colors. The Ad Astra Singers negotiated most of these twists well, giving the piece a fair hearing. Wayne Oquin’s spacious “O Magnum Mysterium” wanted for a more stable sostenuto sound than the seventeen voices of the Ad Astra Singers could deliver in the acoustic of Weill, and some of its more interesting harmonies and soaring lines fell short in this performance. After the reverent “O Magnum Mysterium,” the rhythmic drive of Jósef Świder’s “Cantus Gloriosus” made for a sharp contrast to close the program. Though continuing to battle problems with ensemble and intonation, the Ad Astra Singers nevertheless delivered a spirited performance to wrap up an ambitious program for the small chorus.

In sum, the concert made for a delightful sampling of the vast array of new music available to adventurous choral ensembles. All three directors provided the audience with variety that kept the program consistently intriguing. They and their singers are to be commended for this undertaking, and many thanks are due to DCINY for putting on such a concert.

James Knox Sutterfield is a choral conductor and writer, with degrees from Furman University and the Yale School of Music.

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gnar20On 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.

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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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Active Music Festival posterThe San Francisco Bay Area has long been a friendly and nurturing environment for musicians “without a home” – operating between and outside of genres.  For those shut out of the concert halls and jazz clubs, it’s been a haven where non-traditional musicians build non-traditional alliances, and run non-traditional music venues and concert series where they can take risks and create uncompromising work.  Over decades of community-building and creative ferment, this lack of formal boundaries has defined the sound and feel of the scene, interweaving free improvisation with elements of noise, minimalism, rock, jazz, drone, chamber music, electronica, and other more slippery sounds which resist categorization.

The scene’s relentless DIY approach has led to the establishment of numerous artist-run concert series and festivals, of which the Outsound New Music Summit, the Tom’s Place house concert series in Berkeley, the SIMM Series at the Musicians’ Union Hall, the Wednesday and Sunday series at the Berkeley Arts Festival Space, and the San Francisco Electronic Music Festival are just a few examples.  This month they’ll be joined by a brand-new one, the Active Music Festival, covering February 20-22 in downtown Oakland. Read the rest of this entry »

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Composer Vivian Fung

Composer Vivian Fung

This week marks the premiere of a new concerto by Vivian Fung for the harp. Starting in Alabama this Thursday and later this spring in Germany, NY, DC, and in the fall, California, harpist Bridget Kibbey unveils the piece for harp, percussion, and strings. “It was tricky,” says Fung. “When we were deciding on the instrumentation, we originally thought it was going to be for the entire orchestra – but the harp is like a guitar, or other instruments that have balance issues, if you are not careful [with the orchestration]. So even with the percussion, I have to choose instruments that could compliment that sound very well, but not drown out the sound of the harp.”
Fung also prepares the harp in one section of the work, placing card stock in the strings. “It kind of mutes the strings (in the low register) so it almost turns it into a percussive sound, almost a bass guitar sort of sound – you know, the thump.”

Listen to an interview with Vivian Fung about this new concerto here as an mp3 file including how the commission came about, whether to name or subtitle the new work, inspirations, and writing for harp.

The New York premiere takes place Sunday and Monday, April 6 & 7 at le poisson rouge.

Bonus - more behind the scenes for composers – shop talk with Vivian and John Clare: mp3 file Hear the answers to how Ms. Fung started as a composer, dream genres, and the importance of recordings/publication for a composer.

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bc40Friday, February 7, 2014 Piano Spheres presented The Intrepid Harpsichord, Part II, performed by Gloria Cheng at Boston Court in Pasadena. The concert included an intriguing mixture of early French and Italian Baroque works along with late 20th century pieces. The Marjorie Branson performance space at Boston Court held an enthusiastic crowd and was the perfect venue for an intimate evening of harpsichord music.

Along with Ms. Cheng, the other star of the show was the double-manual harpsichord constructed by Gloria’s husband Lefteris Padavos. The instrument took shape in their garage during 2012 and is based on a model created by the 18th century French master harpsichord builder Pascal Taskin (1723 – 1793). The tuning was, according to Ms. Cheng something of a compromise given the diversity of the program – the early Baroque and our modern equal temperament being distinctly different. The Vallotti tuning was adopted for this performance and the result was a warm, full sound that did not detract from any of the pieces played. The light amplification and good acoustics of the space also contributed, so that even the more subtle textures and passages with elaborate ornamentation were clearly heard.

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The concert opened with Prélude non-mésuré (c. 1650) by Louis Couperin. This was a quiet, flowing piece with a wistful, nostalgic feeling. The tuning and acoustics complimented the music perfectly. Other early pieces by Frescobaldi and Rossi followed, and these had a more familiar harpsichord sound, with cascades of successively more complex phrases pouring out from the keyboard.  Ms. Cheng explained that the notation of this period is very general, leaving much to the performer in the moment. The playing here was precise and unhurried, even when the passages were in a fast tempo and highly ornamented.

Trio Sonata (1994) by John Harbison followed, consisting of four short movements, all titled Fast. Beginning with a blizzard of notes and variously quiet, syncopated, halting or playful, this piece provided an interesting comparison to the music of the first part of the concert in that, when played on the harpsichord, it did not seem so far removed from the 17th century. Carolyn Yarnell’s Prelude and Fugue (1984) followed and this seemed brighter and more optimistic when compared to the formal Baroque pieces while equaling them in elaborate phrasing. There was, to my ear, at least, a sense of continuity between the centuries that was underscored by hearing these pieces played successively on the harpsichord.

More Baroque music followed, including La Marche des Scythes (1746) by Joseph-Nicolas-Pancrace Royer. This piece was very formal – almost pompous – and extremely dense at times. It was written as a musical description of barbarian cavalry and the tempo was often fast and furious as befits the subject matter. The playing was often difficult and taxing – the effort being appreciatively received by the audience at the finish. Les Baricades mysterieuses (1717) by Francois Couperin followed, and provided an excellent contrast to La Marche. Soft and lush, with expressive harmony, Les Baricades mysterieuses has a simple and endearing quality that approaches an almost romantic sensibility.

Three late 20th century works closed the concert. The first of these was Continuum (1968) by György Ligeti. This piece is built on repeated arpeggio phrases, with single notes often floating above, a form that prefigures the later minimalism of Riley, Reich and Glass. The effect as heard on the harpsichord is now lovely, now distressing, and now rising in tension. The playing soon becomes fast and intense and the harpsichord keys in the higher registers could be heard clicking under the strain. The tension and pitches ratchet higher and higher – the notes now pouring out – until the sudden ending, greeted by cheers and applause from the audience. This was followed by the more introspective Rain Dreaming (1986) by Toru Takemitsu, a composer whose work is informed by a love of nature and space. Rain Dreaming is quiet, spare, and filled with beautiful harmonies. It is at times solemn, lonely and seems to alternate between shadow and light. A feeling of uncertainty arises in this music that never quite leaves the piece, but it ends on a lovely warm chord at the finish.

The final work on the program was Phrygian Tucket (1994), a piece by Stephen Montague for amplified harpsichord and tape. A tucket is an Elizabethan musical phrase that means a flourish of trumpets and drums. The addition of the tape provided a series of deep chords in the lower registers that act to form a solid foundation for the melody in the harpsichord. The result is a strong, muscular sound as would be expected from a tucket. The bass tones coming from the tape seems to fill in between the more strident tones of the harpsichord and this adds a luminosity to the upper notes that is quite effective. As the piece progressed, certain of the passages in Phrygian Tucket acquired a more introspective feel. Soon , however, an increasing tempo and discord introduce a sense of building tension that is released in a dramatic full-keyboard arpeggio that ends the piece in sudden silence. The addition of the sounds from the tape definitely enhances the harpsichord and makes Phrygian Tucket an interesting blend of old and electronic.

bc30The Intrepid Harpsichord, Part II was carefully programmed and impressively performed, combining old and new music as heard through the lens of the harpsichord. The audience responded with an extended ovation in appreciation. An encore followed by Ms. Cheng, a repeat of Les Baricades mysterieuses, the Francois Cuperin piece that nicely summed up the mixture of old and new that was the theme of the program.

Piano Spheres will next present a concert by Mark Robson at Zipper Concert Hall in Los Angeles on February 11.

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