Archive for the “Contemporary Classical” Category

Thomas Adès is a phenominal musician. The depth of his musical intelligence and power of his insight are impossible to miss. They knocks you down, jumps up and down on your chest, and spit in your eye, and it’s enthralling. The performances of the Beethoven Eighth Symphony and the Prokofiev Classical Symphony which began and ended, respectively, the Prom concert on August 15, on which he conducted the Britten Sinfonia, were both dazzling and incredible satisfying as musical experiences. Given all of that, I would very much like to like his music, and I’ve tried, but, to use a phrase in circulation in American politics these days, I’m not there yet. Certainly not with Lieux retrouvés, the work for ‘cello and orchestra, in which he and the orchestra were joined by Steven Isserlis, which received its UK premiere on this concert. Originally written as a ‘cello sonata in 2009, it was orchestrated early in 2016. As one would expect, the musical means brought into play are at the very least impressive, and there’s nothing lacking in its production. But there is a certain sameness to the movements which apparently are meant to be varied, and the profile of the material is a little flat and indistinguishable from one movement to the next, and not terribly distinguished. Even the deliberately ungainly cancan that concludes the work isn’t that much different really from the evocation of mountains (or of mountain climbing, considering the difficulty of it), or even the (visionary?) fields… Francisco Coll’s Four Iberian Miniatures, for violin and orchestra, with Augustin Hadelich as the soloist, also has technique and polish to spare, as well as color, both orchestral and geographical. It’s faultless, and ultimately not as much fun as it tries to be.

The Prom presented on August 16 by the Hallé Orchestra, conducted by Sir Mark Elder, included the first London performance of Berceuse for Dresden by Colin Matthews, in which they were joined by ‘cellist Leonard Elschenbroich. The work, which is a sort of one movement ‘cello concerto, was commissioned to commemorate the rebuilding and reconsecration in 2005 of the Frauenkirche in Dresden, which had been destroyed by Allied bombing in February or 1945. Its material, both melodic and harmonic, is based on the sounds of the eight bells in the church. The ‘cello plays, almost continually, an impassioned and soaring line, under and around which swirls an increasing animated and accelerating texture which eventually culminates in a recording of the bells themselves. Especially in the Albert Hall, where there were coming from all directions, this was extremely effective and affecting. The Matthews and the Berlioz Overture to King Lear were the first half of a concert which concluded with Das Lier von der Erde by Mahler (whose first movement was presented in a reorchestration by Matthews–trying to keep the orchestra from covering up the tenor; there is some conjecture that Mahler would have done some tinkering with it had he lived to hear the piece). I found myself wondering how bad a performance would have to be before the piece would not have its overwhelming effect. This was a very very fine performance, so there was no finding out about that question this time. The excellent soloists were Alice Coote, mezzo-soprano, and Gregory Kunde, tenor.

That Prom was followed by a late night concert given by The Sixteen, conducted by Harry Christophers, of music by Bach (three of the motets) and works of Arvo Pärt: Nunc dimittis, from 2001 and Triodion, written in 1998, the latter getting its first performance at the Proms. Pärt’s music and its particularly personal sound are both well known, and, for many good reasons, admired. The pieces on this Prom offered no new information about that, merely confirming it. One could not wish for better performances, either of the Bach or the Pärt.

The main business on the Prom on August 17, presented by The West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, conducted by Daniel Barenboim, with Martha Argerich as soloist, was music by Lizst (Piano Concerto No. 1) and Wagner (several orchestra excerpts), all of which received magisterial and moving performances. That was all preceded by Con Brio: Concert Overture by Jörg Widmann, with which there was very little connection, either thematically or in character. Widmann was one of five composers commissioned by Mariss Jansons to write pieces “reflecting on” specific Beethoven symphonies; his particular task was to deal with Symphonies 8 and 7. The connection in fact seemed a little tenuous, but the piece was lively and engaging, elegantly and very effectively orchestrated, and thoroughly professional in every way, with near-quotes and maybe even quotes here and there from the works being reflected on. I was reminded of what Virgil Thomson wrote once about the Egmont Overture: it was the perfect hors d’oeuvre: nobody’s appetite was harmed by it and nobody missed much by missing it. That seemed to be exactly the spirit in which it was offered here. This was the first performance on the Proms of the revised version; the original version had been played in the 2009 Proms. The playing of it was in every way beyond reproach.

On August 19 the BBC Symphony Orchestra, along with the BBC Singers, and a cast featuring soprano Karita Mattila, conducted by Jiří Bělohlávek, present a concert performance of The Makropulos Affair by Leoš Janáček. An opera about the effects and costs of excellence and the diva who goes through three hundred years and innumerable lovers and admirers while obtaining it, the opera is captivating and full of wonderful music, and, over the course of its three acts builds a dramatic and music trajectory that is increasingly intense and ultimately overwhelming. Presumably the unique texture and particular rhythmic quality of Janáček’s music is related to that of the Czech language, but they’re noticeable here, especially for the role they play in driving the span of the piece. It’s hard to imagine a more vivid and compelling performance of the opera, even staged, than this one. Matilla, who was at the center of it all, was spell binding.

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haroldbuddOn August 21, 2016 the Ruth B. Shannon Center for the Performing Arts at Whittier College was the venue for a much-anticipated appearance by the distinguished composer Harold Budd. A fine Sunday crowd filled the auditorium, with many coming from a considerable distance to be part of this rare event. Mr. Budd was joined by Bradford Ellis and Veda Hille and the concert consisted of a single piece, Aurora Teardrops, that extended for 75 minutes. Prior to the beginning of the concert, a video of some California desert scenes by Jane Maru was projected on a large screen above the stage.

Harold Budd and Bradford Ellis arrived on stage and seated themselves behind separate keyboard/synthesizers while Ms. Hille took her place seated in front of a music stand and a boom microphone. The opening video complimented the music perfectly, which began with pure electronic sine tone, soon joined by a another in harmony. A series of cool, sustained pitches followed, creating a thin, ethereal feel – like looking at the stars in the clear desert night. There was no beat to the music and only a very slow-moving melody, but it cast a precise sense of distance and isolation, yet was absent of any trace of melancholy. After some minutes of this Veda Hille began the poetic narration with the words “Sundown, dark and dreamy…” capturing the mood exactly. The words were distinct and clearly heard above the soft background, like distant mountains in the desert etched against a gauzy blue sky.

The specific and concrete nature of the spoken verse added a sense of balance and structure to the free-form flow of the music. The poetry, written by Mr. Budd, continued in sections of a few minutes each, followed by an interlude where only the music was heard. Each segment of poetry sketched out a short vignette of a reminiscence – of living and loving in an earlier time – as if the composer was looking back on his life in a dream. The music was constant in character, though never tiresome, and framed the spoken memories with a warm glow. All of this was in accord with the insightful description of Budd’s music given in the program notes: “Like a number of Californian composers of his generation he has an interest in the more meditative forms of music, in the idea of a controlled musical environment, and in a sense of non-doctrinaire spirituality.” Ms. Hille occasionally sang a few words or hummed along with the music, adding an intimacy to the spoken verse.

The most touching poetry dealt with the relationship between Budd and his significant other. These sections are filled with a longing for a deeper connection – perhaps like the relationship a composer has with his art – but a relationship that is unattainable with another human. There is no sense of resentment in this, but rather a sadness in the realization that even the closest human relationships can only be conducted at a certain distance. In “So many centuries and I still think of you…” the feeling becomes even more poignant, reflecting loss, and deep bass tones are heard at intervals giving a darker and more profound color to the music. Towards the end of the piece “In tears and tatters” seemed to cry out with emptiness and longing, cementing the strongly empathetic connection with the audience, who remained completely engaged throughout. At the quiet conclusion of the work there was a prolonged silence, followed by a standing ovation.

As the performers returned for a well-deserved curtain call, Shane Cadman, manager of the Shannon Center described the complicated series of events that brought this concert to the stage. Mr. Budd had withdrawn from performing and composing, but was prevailed upon by his son to complete the poetry and music of Aurora Teardrops. With Cadman’s help this was realized in Southern California at Whittier College, despite a number of setbacks and postponements. Aurora Teardrops touches a common emotional chord in all of us, from a perspective that only a man of Harold Budd’s age and experience can provide. We are indeed fortunate that he has made the effort to bring this extraordinary work to us.

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The Locrian Players present music from the past decade. The repertoire that their curators find is always a fascinating listen and often includes several premieres. Check them out (for free) on Friday.

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Friday, August 26 at 8PM

  • Derek Bermel A Short History of the Universe
  • Martin Suckling Visiones after Goya**
  • Elliott Carter Figment IV
  • Royden Tze Starscape***
  • Jonathan Dawe Silent like the Snow
  • Julian Grant Know Thy Kings and Queens
  • Louis Conti Ohne Heimath

* World Premiere ** U.S. Premiere *** New York Premiere

10th Floor Performance Space, Riverside Church

Free Event

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Photo: Armen Elliott

Photo: Armen Elliott

To celebrate this year’s fiftieth anniversary season, Lincoln Center’s Mostly Mozart charged International Contemporary Ensemble with performing fifty new pieces over the course of the festival. Numbers 45-49 were presented at Merkin Hall on Tuesday, August 23rd. The fiftieth, music by Tyshawn Sorey celebrating Joséphine Baker, was slated for the 24th.

 

Tuesday’s program consisted entirely of concertos. In some cases, the composers used the term rather loosely, creating amorphously constructed entities rather than the formally distinct works one might expect in the genre. Nearly all were longer than their advertised times: starting at 7:30 PM, the first half alone was ninety minutes. At the concert’s conclusion, we dashed out the door for our train at a few minutes before ten. This loquacity did not always show the works in their best possible lights: all of the composers created fascinating sound worlds, but some tightening of construction would have served several of them well. Karina Canellakis, a prominent young conductor and violinist with an impressive pedigree in both areas, assuredly led ICE. With elegant gestures, she assumed a calming presence amid the maelstroms of complexity being wrought onstage.

 

The entire program was reordered, but the audience was guided through the changes by brief remarks from the stage by flutist Claire Chase and each of the composers (all four were present — a rare treat). The best piece on the program was also presented first. Marcos Balter’s Violin Concerto displayed formal clarity, abundant virtuosity, and a fascinating use of small percussion instruments (played by the ever nimble Nathan Davis). Violinist David Bowlin played one cascade after another of high harmonics and multi-stops with scintillating aplomb.

 

In Anthony Cheung’s Assumed Roles, violist Maiya Papach was given a more challenging set-up in which to operate. An unorthodox ensemble grouping, which included several instruments that played in or near the viola’s register and an electric guitar, meant that Cheung had to be judicious in his choice of demeanor for the soloist. He decided to have Papach vacillate between “roles,” working with the ensemble, playing prominently in front of them, and sometimes disappearing beneath their billowing sheets of sound.

 

The premiere of Dai Fujikura’s Cello Concerto featured a labyrinthine structure. Soloist Katinka Kleijn’s supple tone was challenged by often piercing responses from the ensemble. Cast in a single expansive movement, it was sometimes difficult on first hearing to follow the thread, but several signposts — sections where the cello played open strings and prominent harmonics — helped one to be reoriented.

 

Wang Lu’s Cloud Intimacy is designed to feature all the members of its ensemble in spotlight moments. It is also meant to be a commentary on technophilia. One heard the tapping of computer keys and ICE musicians got to ham it up with cell phones; the piece ends with a “selfie.” The soloistic aspects of the concerto were less prominently dealt with than the depiction, or distraction, of “Tinder.” However, guitarist Dan Lippel did get a chance to “rock out,” which he did with abandon.

 

The evening culminated with the US premiere of Fujikura’s Flute Concerto. Written for Chase, it contains many of her signature extended techniques: beat-boxing, multiphonic glisses, harmonics, and pitch bends. It also requires her to employ an array of instruments, from piccolo all the way down to the enormous (and voluptuous sounding) contrabass flute. Interestingly, rather than relying on its strident altissimo register, Fujikura features the underutilized lower register of the piccolo. Cast in five sections, the movement between instruments by Chase helped to delineate the piece’s form. The Flute Concerto has two versions, the chamber one heard here, and another in which Chase is accompanied by full orchestra, already premiered and recorded for Sony/Minabel. The chamber version was plenty for the intimate environs of Merkin Hall and proved to be an ebullient showcase for Chase.

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wulfexteriorThe Last Dance series of events at the wulf continued on Wednesday, August 17, 2016 with experimental music offerings by Carmina Escobar, Casey Anderson and Scott Cazan. The wulf will be moving to new quarters in the fall, closing out a successful eight-year run at the Santa Fe Avenue address in downtown Los Angeles.  A good-sized crowd of enthusiasts gathered for an evening of friendly chatter and three pieces of new music.

Carmina Escobar opened, equipped with a microphone, colored lamps and a camera connected to a computer. According to her website: “Her work focuses primarily on sound, the voice, the body and their interrelations to physical, social and memory spaces.”. Rough ambient sounds began the piece, perhaps the roar of a passing jet. Humming was heard, soon joined by more sounds that were variously alien and industrial in character. Images from the PC camera were projected on a screen – indistinct and flesh colored – while the lamp issued a cool green light that flooded the darkened space of the wulf. Singing tones appeared in the audio and these evolved into indistinct words and the occasional shriek.

As the piece proceeded the lamp turned to a blue color and the images on the screen became a bit clearer – parts of a face that proved to be Ms. Escobar, who was holding the PC camera a few inches away from her head. As her voice increased in pitch and volume, these purer tones provided a nice counterpoint to the ambient and alien sounds in the background. An unintelligible speaking voice was heard in the audio that, combined with the fuzzy and partial images on the screen, created a sense of disoriented uncertainty. It was as if your mind and your senses were struggling to arrange this into some kind of context. The images, different colored lamps and new audio continuously arrived in various combinations, challenging the comprehension of the observer in multiple ways. The singing voice of Ms. Escobar stood out as the brightest and most lucid sound, offering a welcome connection to the familiar. As the piece neared its conclusion the indistinct sounds dropped away, leaving a loud electronic tone that abruptly ceased. Carmina Escobar succeeds in creating a world of sounds and images that float just beyond our comprehension and grasp, and then gives us the critical vocal landmark to find our way.

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Next up was The Argument, a piece by Casey Anderson, who appeared with five other performers in a rough circle, all holding portable transistor radios. Anderson began by reading aloud from a poem – “A Wave” by John Ashberry. The performer to his immediate right listened closely, picking out phrases or fragments and repeating them, even as Anderson continued reading. The next performer in the circle listened to the person on his left and did likewise, so that a sort of ringing of words and phrases took place as the piece progressed. When nothing was being repeated in the circle, the performers played their portable radios. The success and texture of this piece depended on the careful listening and sharp memory of the individuals. An interesting variety of words surged around the circle, sometimes an entire sentence and sometimes just a word or two. Often a phrase would shorten as it worked its way around, diminished by the hearing and memory of those repeating it.

The concentration of the performers and the repetition of the words gave a sense of activity and common purpose to this. The patterns and cadences of the voices suggested an earnest conversation or perhaps an ancient incantation. The sound of the portable radios – tuned to various local stations – added an emotional space to the otherwise intimate feel of the conversation and projected a sense of wider importance onto the proceedings. The Argument is an interesting study of how the sounds of the spoken word can transmit feelings and emotion, even when divorced from context or content.

The final piece for the evening was Network Dilation by Scott Cazan and this was realized with a violin, a computer and two large speakers placed about 20 feet apart. The piece began with a series of electronic beeps and chirps that was soon joined with a sort of clatter that gave a strong sensation of movement and energy. It was a bit like being inside an old school pinball machine. Although this was loud, it did not overwhelm and the addition of a booming bass tone lessened the sense of randomness by producing a regular beat. The violin was fitted with a pickup and the energetic bowing by Cazan produced a continuous series of complex squeals and squeaks that resembled the sounds of a working metal lathe. These higher pitches formed a nice melodic counterpoint to the bass and the overall feel was brightly optimistic.

As regular increases in pitch and volume continued, there was a sense of mounting excitement along with the feeling that the whole process was going slightly out of control. Yet even as the sounds intensified, the various elements held together in a kind of primal harmony. After peaking with a very powerful sound, the piece decelerated and gracefully slowed to a stop. Network Dilation is crafted from sounds that are partly alien, partly electronic and partly identifiable – but the sum of these – remarkably – is completely musical.

The Last Dance series continues through the end of this month. New concerts are being programmed for the fall and the wulf will continue to provide events and music in various venues around town. A permanent home for the wulf is planned, and new locations are being investigated. For eight years the wulf on Santa Fe Avenue has been an integral part of the new music scene in Los Angeles. Thanks to Mike Winter and Cal Arts for their support and stewardship of this important venue. September will begin a new chapter, continuing a fine tradition.

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Every year the BBC in conjunction with the Proms holds a competition for composers aged 12 through 18 as part of their larger music education program Inspire. Each concert performance of the winning pieces has always had a slightly different format, but has tended over the years towards less talk and more music. It has gradually come to include only the winning works and not those which were “highly commended.” The concerts in many past years have been at the Royal College of Music, but the 2016 concert, on August 15, was in the theater at Broadcasting House. Since it only included the six winning compositions, it was quite short, in fact less than an hour long. All of the performances, by members of the Aurora Orchestra, whose conductor is Nicolas Collon, were thoroughly prepared, sympathetically presented, and elegantly and enthusiastically executed. Of the pieces, Morgan Overton’s Two Boys, a setting of a Walt Whitman poem for two baritones, two horns, and two violas, made the strongest impression on this listener. The baritones, always singing together in a style evoking medieval vocal music, or maybe earlier vocal music as filtered through late Stravinsky, were complemented (rather than accompanied) by continuous dialog and commentary by the two instrumental units (pairs of horns and violas), each of which played its own distinctive strand of music. Both Shoshanah Siever‘s Les nuances de la lumière, for solo violin, and James Chan’s Litany, for a small string group, were impressively well written for the instruments but left the impression of not completely finishing the span of the argument of the piece. Jack Robinson’s Hound Hunter, written when he was ten (he is now twelve), for flute, bassoon, and ‘cello, realized a scenario involving the exploits of a group of wolves with a brisk vividness and no time (or notes) wasted. Sam Rudd-Jones’s Angry, for a fourteen piece chamber orchestra, realized its title in a work demonstrating considerable command of instrumental writing and formal control. Alex Jones’s Sensim mutationem for two pianos explored extremes of texture and means of gradually moving from one to the other. All of the works were impressive both in the clarity of their conceptions and in the strength of the realization of them.

On August 9, the concert presented by the BBC Philharmonic and their chief conductor Juanjo Mena began with a work by Mark Simpson, a winner of earlier BBC young composer competitions as well as BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artist. Israfel, written in 2014, is a depiction of the Islamic angel of the trumpet, particularly as described by Edgar Allan Poe: “…whose heart-strings are a lute, and how has the sweetest voice of all of God’s creatures…”The most immediate, most strongly remembered, for me anyway, aspect of Israel, which last about twelve minutes, is the expertness and clarity of its orchestral sound. The piece is clear and convincing in the arc of its development, and possibly a little prolix in its thematic ideas.

Donald Martino told me once that he had written an article refuting Boulez’s article on the death of Schoenberg. Although the details of that are at this point hazy to me, I clearly remember what he said the title of the article was: Fancy French Composing. That title has come to be for me a term descriptive of a certain kind of music, and most of the music of Henri Dutilleux which I’ve encountered falls into that category. “Tout un monde lointain…” for ‘cello and orchestra, for which ‘cellist Johannes Moser joined Mena and the BBC Philharmonic, certainly does. There’s no denying the skill of the orchestral writing, the sensitivity to the sound of everything, the subtlety and delicacy of the conception, and the superiority and soigné quality of it in every aspect, and all of it in the same ways all the time. But it all still leaves me unmoved, a little irritated, and a little bored. I am perfectly willing to admit this is more a failure of mine than of the music. (Big of me, I know.)

Before the performance of the Elgar first Symphony which ended the concert, the orchestra added a performance of Sir Charles his Pavan by Peter Maxwell Davies as a tribute to the composer who died in March and who had been Composer/Conductor of the orchestra for ten years. The piece was really a sort of double commemoration; Davies grew up in Salford, a metropolitan borough of Greater Manchester, where the BBC Philharmonic has its home. Groves was conductor of the orchestra (which was formerly called the BBC Northern Orchestra) which first recognized the fourteen years old Davies as a composer, and he conducted the first recording of Davies’s Second Taverner Fantasia, his first major orchestral work. Sir Charles his Pavan, based on a tune Davies had written when he was twelve, was written as a memorial work for Grove when he died in 1992. The piece is short and concise and direct, with an especially beautiful ending.

The concert on August 10, presented by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Sakai Oramo, opened with another Dutilleux work, continuing with the Proms commemoration of the composer’s centennial. Timbres, espace, mouvement, written in 1978 for thee inaugural concert of Mstislav Rostropovich, and revised in 1990, and having something to do with Van Gogh’s Starry Night, is altogether something other than Fancy French Compositing. Scored for a larger orchestra without violins or violas, it inhabits a vivid and luxuriant sound world with considerable forward motion. After an opening glittering slowish movement pushing with some urgency to its conclusion, there is a very striking second movement (which was added in the 1990 revision) which is a sort of cadenza for the ‘cello section, featuring a texture of many separate lines–and highlighting the different effect that that kind of texture has in strings as opposed to winds–there is a concluding precipitously fast movement. The brilliant timbral quality or the whole work, and most especially the contrast between the second movement and the beginning of the third and how one moves into the other, have persisted strongly in this listener’s memory.

The Dutilleux was followed by Busking by H.K. Gruber, written in 2007 for the trumpet player Håkan Hardenberger, who was the soloist here. The trumpet is joined by banjo and accordion in a sort of concertino group contrasted to the accompanying string orchestra,. It is that sort of street band quality in the instrumentation, that presumably is alluded to by the title, and which gives the piece its unique sound. Each of the three movements has a different and distinctive character which is emphasized by the use of different trumpets–E-flat trumpet for the ‘bear dance’ first movement, flugelhorn for the more sombre slow movement, and C trumpet for the folky finale. It may be that the instrumentation of Busking alone evokes Kurt Weil or there may be a certain quality reminiscent of Weil in the notes, but he certainly comes to mind.

The August 11 Prom, presented by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, conducted by Thomas Søndergård, featured, along with the Bartok Dance Suite and The Dvorak Seventh Symphony, the first performance of Malcolm Hayes’s Violin Concerto, with soloist Tai Murray. Hayes’s program note says that the work is “about creating space,” and he cites Vaughan Williams’s The Lark Ascending and certain aspects of the Sibelius Violin Concerto (“not its powerhouse virtuoso idiom”) as works he had in mind when writing the piece, as well as the landscape of the Scottish Outer Hebrides (..”a northern-latitude drama of summer light and winter darkness, unfolding in an Atlantic landscape of low hills(with the higher mountains of Harris nearly to the south), inlets winding deep inland from the open sea, huge shifting and re-forming cloudscapes, and immense surrounding distances.”) This sense of landscape is in fact immediately evoked in the concerto’s opening, after an extended unaccompanied solo with very long quietly slow moving low notes under a alternately leisurely singing and delicately skittering violin part. That character is maintained consistently throughout the 25 minutes of the single movement work, and it is extremely appealing. After a while one wished for some fast music, and there not being any is the weakest aspect of the piece. All the same I was happy to have heard it, and I would be glad to hear it again. Tai Murray’s playing was resplendent and eloquent.

All of these concert can be heard online, along with all the other Proms concerts, at http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0741yk1/episodes/player

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Guest conductor David Fulmer leads TMC Fellows in Pierre Boulez's 'Derive 1,' 7.24.16 (Hilary Scott)

Guest conductor David Fulmer leads TMC Fellows in Pierre Boulez’s ‘Derive 1,’ 7.24.16 (Hilary Scott)

The Sunday concert at Tanglewood’s Festival of Contemporary Music is always something of a marathon. It starts at 10 AM and is chock full of offerings that usually challenge the ear as much as tantalize it. The Sunday concert has traditionally also been the one that tests the capacities of the TMC Fellows most thoroughly. This year was no exception, although it was a horse race between Sunday’s chamber music concert and Monday’s presentation of Messiaen’s formidable Turungalila-Symphonie, a work that vibrated and thundered with intensity, shaped with eminently detailed care by conductor Stefan Asbury.

 

Ander’s Hillborg’s Brass Quintet is one of his most often played pieces, and one can readily hear why. Its opening antiphonally spiralling textures reveal a kinship to a more recent orchestra piece, Hillborg’s Vaporized Tivoli: both make a similarly captivating impression. There is an excellent use of repeated note textures, and the bold harmonic language makes it clear he’s studied a fair bit of Copland.

 

Brett Dean’s Sextet (Old Kings in Exile) is a cleverly crafted Pierrot plus Percussion piece with a number of scoring touches that set it apart from the average piece in the genre. There’s the clever use of percussion, with bowed vibraphone and gongs occurring simultaneously to create a two-headed beast of an instrument. The middle movement gives a nod to Carter’s Triple Duo by splitting the ensemble into a double trio. There’s also some mid-movement scordatura that changes up the harmony and proves to be quite an impressive feat from the strings. Jonathan Harvey’s Song Offerings, settings of Tagore, featured soprano Sarah Tuttle. The piece combines several of the composer’s harmonic interests, including spectralism, microtonality, serialism, and modality. Glissandos and melismas are ably deployed to further variegate the texture.

 

David Fulmer has appeared at Tanglewood as a string soloist and composer. In the intervening time he has added conductor to his resume, and he did a fine job leading two pieces on Sunday’s concert. The first was Pierre Boulez’s Derive 1, one of his finest chamber pieces from the 1980s. Much shorter than his later Derive 2, seven minutes compared to nearly an hour, it is a compact utterance, but an eloquent one. Long sustained harmonic regions are parsed out again fast melodic filigrees and rapid trills. Christian Rief led Franco Donatoni’s Arpege, a piece that was originally a vibraphone piece and was later built up to a Pierrot plus Percussion Sextet. As one might expect, the vibraphone’s arpeggios lead the proceedings, in a curious amalgam of post-tonality and minimalist figuration. The ostinatos appear in almost “locked hands” scoring at first, then gradually stagger to create a lustrous shimmering from the ensemble.

 

Fulmer returned to the podium to conduct Harold Meltzer’s song cycle Variations on a Summer Day, settings of Wallace Stevens. The cycle has grown over time; I saw an earlier performance at Symphony Space that had, if recollection serves, around eight songs. It has since expanded to sixteen. Not only are the Variations longer, they have become more elaborate. There is a use of microtones in the winds that is quite attractive. The vocal part, here performed by the estimable Quinn Middleman, takes up far more vertical real estate, casting down into a nearly contralto register and up to high soprano notes. Middleman is billed as a mezzo soprano and her effort here was impressive, but I’m curious if subsequent performances might benefit from using two singers, a mezzo and a soprano, to better capture the distinct registers required by the songs. It is clear that Meltzer has lived with the poetry for a long time, and his settings of it are imaginative, ranging from terse utterances to attractively varied textures. Those who eschew the morning hour on Sundays at the Festival of Contemporary Music miss out.

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SoundFury4Saturday afternoon, July 23, 2016 and a fine weekend crowd braved the heat and smoke of downtown Los Angeles to gather at Art Share LA for a generous helping of piano music presented by Sound and Fury Concerts. Grammy-nominated Nadia Shpachenko was the featured performer, with Christine Lee and Christian Dubeau also on hand to perform original works. Spanning some two hours, the concert included solo piano pieces as well as works incorporating various forms of electronic accompaniment and images projected overhead.

Crystal Glass (2015) for piano and electronics, by Christine Lee opened the program, performed by the composer. This began with a strong, sharp sound from the keyboard that was picked up by the electronics and reverberated over several seconds before decaying into silence. More piano notes followed, multiplying and cascading agreeably outward in an active wash of sound. At times Ms. Lee would pluck the strings of the piano, generating softer electronic sounds that, along with some conventional chords, gave an appealing variation to the texture. There was bold, futuristic feel to all of this, but never aggressive or intimidating. As the piece continued some high electronic pitches suggested breaking glass and a series of upward chords added a bit of tension. Strong rumbling in the lower registers alternated with softer stretches but eventually the room was filled with powerful electronic sounds that increased with great energy and dynamism, finally fading at the finish. Crystal Glass strikes a good balance between electronics and the piano, incorporating the new and the familiar in just the right proportions to effectively impart both the futuristic and the profound.

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Four Preludes (2016) for piano and electronics, by Christian Dubeau followed, also performed by the composer. Four Preludes represents the first of twelve such pieces, all inspired by the geography and history of the San Gabriel mountains. The first of these was influenced by the rivers and streams of the area and began with lively opening chords that gave way to a quieter and more fluid melody. This had a familiar, organic feel and featured a strong counterpoint in the lower registers. Variations followed, full of flowing phrases that built into a stronger current of sound – much as a river grows from the streams feeding it.

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TMC Fellows perform Barbara White's "Learning to See." Photo: Hilary Scott.

TMC Fellows perform Barbara White’s “Learning to See.” Photo: Hilary Scott.

The Pierrot Ensemble, named after Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire and consisting of flute, clarinet, violin, cello, and piano, has, since its inception, been a signature assembly for contemporary music. The preferred version of the ensemble also includes a percussionist: the “Pierrot plus Percussion” grouping is the default core membership for many new music groups. Even after dozens, if not hundreds, of pieces have been written for “P+p” ensembles, there is still plenty of vitality left in the genre. This was abundantly in evidence on the Saturday afternoon concert on July 23 at Tanglewood’s Festival of Contemporary Music, where several of the pieces employed this instrumentation or an augmented variant of it.

Barbara White’s Learning to See takes as its inspiration several works of visual art by Tinguely, Brancusi, Hesse, and Johns. The use of movements inspired by Brancusi’s Bird sculptures, of which he made fifteen, as a refrain in the piece allows for subtle variations on a pool of similar materials. Meanwhile, the other movements explore syncopated rhythms and ricocheting counterpoint. There’s timbral variety too, briefly including a prepared piano. Learning to See takes on a melange of musical material, but fits it together in fascinating ways.

Visual Abstract by Pierre Jalbert is connected to art as well, but in a different way from White’s piece. After its composition, video artist Jean Detheux made a computer-generated series of images to accompany the piece. Its individual movements are based on three different overarching images. “Bells – Forwards and Backwards” gives the ensemble the chance to play with a complex array of pealing sounds replete with overtones. “Dome of Heaven” contains luminous harmonies and lyrical string duos. “Dance” is a contrasting closer. Bongo drums articulate mixed meters while the other instruments engage in an elaborate game of tag.

Donald Crockett’s Whistling in the Dark adds a few instruments to the P+p grouping: an extra percussionist, a viola, and double bass. It has a quirky cheerful refrain, called “boppy music” by the composer, that is contrasted with passages of considerably greater heft. The work is strongly undergirded by its percussion component, which includes unorthodox instruments such as suspended flower pots. The piano’s percussive capabilities are played to maximum advantage as well. Over this, corruscating string and wind lines dart in and out in various combinations. Just when you think that the piece will whirl into a maelstrom, the cheery “boppy” refrain, the piece’s “whistling in the dark” brings it back from the edge.

Arthur Levering employs a variant of the P+p grouping too, with viola and double bass augmenting the complement in place of percussion. One of several “bell pieces” Levering has composed, Cloches II focuses on overlapping the limited pitch oscillations of bells. The repetition of these figures gives the piece a consistent feeling of momentum. Despite the absence of percussion, there are plenty of gonging sounds provided by the instruments: Levering has cited a particularly low cello riff towards the end of the piece as imitative of “Big Ben.”

Erin Gee's "Mouthpiece 29." Photo: Hilary Scott

Erin Gee’s “Mouthpiece 29.” Photo: Hilary Scott

Two other works on the program employed ensembles that are removed from the P+p context. Elizabeth Ogonek’s Falling Up (love the Shel Silverstein reference), is for a trio of winds — flute/piccolo, English horn, and clarinet — and two string players: violin and cello. In addition to Silverstein, Ogonek has indicated that a quite contrasting poem — Rimbaud’s Enfance — served as a contrasting inspiration for the piece. Thus we see two disparate types of music, one embodying Silverstein’s whimsy — complex rhythms, trills, altissimo register playing, and angularity — and Rimbaud’s sensuousness — slow-moving, sostenuto passages with frequent punctuations from different subsets of the ensemble — that provide rich contrasts and imaginative textures. Erin Gee’s Mouthpiece 29, commissioned by the Tanglewood Music Center, featured the composer as vocalist alongside three string players: violin, viola, and double bass. Gee is adept at incorporating all manner of mouth sounds and extended techniques into her music. Thus, microtones, pizzicatos, and glissandos from the strings were well matched against Gee’s own sliding tones, lip pops and trills, and phonetic (rather than texted) vocal lines. Mouthpiece 29 was the most “out there” piece on this year’s FCM, but it was greated by the audience with an enthusiasm that suggests that Tanglewood might be ready for more post-millennial avant classical offerings in the future.

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vickr10Friday, July 8, 2016 at Boston Court in Pasadena found Vicki Ray featured in a concert presented by Piano Spheres, the long time champion of new music in Los Angeles.. Fifty Shades of Pianissimo was the fitting title for the concert which consisted of a single piano work, For Bunita Marcus (1984), by Morton Feldman. A sizable audience gathered to hear this extraordinary piece, filling the larger Main Stage performance space at Boston Court. A video by Clay Chaplin accompanied the 75 minute work that was played continuously, without intermission.

As Ms. Ray took her seat at the piano the entire theater was darkened, and a prolonged period of meditative silence established the mood before the first notes were heard. A series of soft single notes then sounded, and a slow, meandering melody arose that carried an air of quiet mystery. This continued with the occasional appearance of a two-note interval or – more rarely – a single chord. After a few minutes of quiet playing the video appeared on a large screen behind the stage, consisting of an edgewise view of the keyboard. As the piece progressed, faint ghost-like shadows of moving hands could be made out. This morphed into a series of successively more abstract views of the piano, with the images multiplied across the screen. All of this complimented the music perfectly.

The later music of Morton Feldman is famously quiet, subtle and always in the moment. The composition of this piece hinges on the metering, as described by Feldman in the program notes: “For Bunita Marcus mainly consists of 3/8, 5/16 and 2/2 bars. Sometimes the 2/2 had musical importance, like at the end of the piece. Sometimes the 2/2 acts as quiet, either on the right or the left or in the middle of a 3/8 or a 5/16 bar, and I use the metre as a construction – not the rhythm – the metre and the time, the duration which something needs.” In addition to the quiet, contemplative feeling – which in itself commands concentration – the phrasing of For Bunita Marcus unfolds by what seem to be two independent but parallel lines of single notes, whose interactions of pitch and time invite the listener to evaluate the sounds of that brief instant. These interactions recur every few seconds, keeping the ear focused and the hearing constantly engaged. The audience responded accordingly, with undivided attention and complete silence for the duration of the work.

New music concerts are normally held in the Branson room at Boston Court, a smaller space with generally reliable acoustics. The larger Main Stage is used primarily for theater productions and the performance of a subdued work such as For Bunita Marcus doubtless caused concern for the Piano Spheres brain trust. The piano was situated in the center of the stage, with the lid completely removed. There was a microphone just above and over the center of the piano interior, but it was unclear if this was for amplification or recording purposes. In any event, everything worked out satisfactorily. Each note was clearly heard and rang out cleanly into the silence of the audience, without loss of detail or nuance. The lighting and projection of the video were flawless and while there was some acoustic competition at times from the low hum of a ventilation motor, it was not a distraction. The Wild Beast at Cal Arts might have provided superior acoustics for a Feldman piece such as this, but the Main Stage at Boston Court met the challenge reasonably well.

By the midpoint of the performance the video shifted to a series vivid views of the night sky, often including thousands slow-motion trails of starlight. The effect was an amazing combination of the natural and the mystical. At times the star fields blended together in a sort of moving fog. At other times meteor trails could be seen arcing through the sky – it was very much like listening to the concert while sitting outside on a summer evening. The music also seemed to evolve at this point from spare sequences of single notes to a more fluid sound with a slightly faster tempo . The notes fell within the same upper and middle registers as previously and the dynamic remained a restrained pianissimo – Ms. Ray seemed to caress the keys as the quiet notes drifted upward and outward into the audience.

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The stamina and concentration of the soloist was extraordinary throughout and For Bunita Marcus closed as it began, with the stage and house lights dimmed to complete darkness. A long silence of reflection followed, and the audience responded with enthusiastic applause, many standing in ovation. This performance of For Bunita Marcus was a remarkable realization in sight and sound of the classic late 20th century music of Morton Feldman. Piano Spheres continues to bring to Los Angeles the gift of contemporary piano music carefully curated and brilliantly played.

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