Archive for the “Interviews” Category

Border Towns

Nick Brooke: Border Towns

To experience Border Towns is to undo the idea of both. The border is metaphorically ubiquitous—as powerful as it is arbitrary. Towns are more immediate—tactile and moving to the pulse of indeterminate social interaction. Together the words form not an oxymoron but a median. Such is the spirit that moves composer Nick Brooke in this quasi-opera of Americana and stardust.

The music’s formula is diaristic, appropriating snippets from songbooks familiar and not so familiar, gunpowder from the popular canon loaded into a rather different cannon and shot across the past century until fleetingly recognizable. Brooke’s intertextual approach lays new coordinates over cartographic mainstays, in which resound the piece’s seven embodied singers—voices treading bullion in a cold electronic stew.

Movements like “Silver City” tickle the synapses of our collective memory, opening in a Judy Garland nightmare with the barest intimations of rainbows. An old radio pays homage to underlying frequencies, flagging the limits of nostalgia in what little we may recognize. What begin as utterly ingrained snippets become new beginnings, radiant and free. The end effect is haunting in the best way possible.

Subsequent movements chew their respective morsels of philosophic disturbance. Whether the overt sampling aesthetic of “Del Rio” (a deft reconstruction of a ubiquitous sound byte) or the distant mountain spirit of “Heart Butte” (a pretty mélange of rodeo, Roy Orbison, and Dolly Parton balladry), an oddly compelling backstory emerges by virtue of Brooke’s narrative integrity. The grander arc takes shape in a chain of referential vertebrae, disks filled with everything from Whitney Houston to Steve Reich. Other portions glisten with cinematic qualities. In the latter vein, “Jackman” smacks of thunder with its battle cry, its implications of outer space as dense as its decays are short. “Tombstone” is another. Dotted by splashes of Chinese gongs as it rides the tailwinds of stray bullets and Hollywood stereotypes, it traverses landscapes of lock-grooves and shattered DJ remnants. Border Towns recycles even itself, beginning and ending somewhere not over the rainbow, but in a place without space, folded like a paper football and flicked into its own gaping mouth.

Interspersed throughout this exercise in anthemic surgery are various ambient reflections: train whistles, cross lights, pedestrian babble, sound checks, impassioned listeners, crickets, church services, and the like fill the interstices with quotidian fascination. From their manipulations of source text and flame emerges a quilt of hymnody, torn and re-squared until it burns.

The clock ticks only for those who hear it.

~Interview with Nick Brooke~

1. What is your background as a composer and as a listener?

I was classically trained at Oberlin, though in a healthily offbeat way, and grad studies at Princeton happily did nothing dissuade me from mixing anachronistic materials in my current polyglot manner.

I do listen voraciously cross-genre, coming from a deep interest in getting to know people, contexts, and cultures. I tend not to listen to recordings much—solo listening can feel solipsistic and lonely. I prefer live performance. And given experiments with theater and dance over the last decade, I’m much more comfortable in those mediums than I used to be.

2. Talk a little bit about the history of Border Towns: in terms of both its evolution as a piece and the slices of Americana that make their way into the mix.

When I started Border Towns, I saw a lot of theater and musical groups going on these “all-gone-to-look-for-America” trips and it all felt wrong, so wrong. The whole genre of musical Americana is often engaged in portraying and skewing one side of a multiplicity that’s indescribable. Americana often thumbtacks culture to the wall rather than asking questions about it. So I wanted to use Border Towns to unpack musical icons, but also engaging somehow with those de Toqueville-like-trips—literally traveling around the country.

3. Is there an inherent visual or theatrical element in Border Towns? The music almost screams for it.

Completely. Most of the music is created with the choreography already in mind, often in canon or some kind of physical and musical structure. “Tombstone” is literally a calf-roping contest between two people, as well as a fugue between Patsy Montana and Gene Autry. In “Ocean Grove,” people are laid on blankets, while rapturously singing Ray Charles (“I see”). Then, through a laying on of hands, these performers are converted into Bruce Springsteen (“Born! Born!”). It’s a canon in seven parts, the number of singers in the piece. I need to predict the exact number of physical events when I compose the music, and the choreography develops in lockstep with the samples. (There’s a primer on this weird process on my website.)

4. The first word that came to mind when I listened to the album was “plunderphonics,” although your aesthetic seems like a more organic or live iteration of John Oswald’s mission of audio piracy. In this respect, I am inclined to align it more with the live mash-ups of a group like Ground Zero, whose Revolutionary Pekinese Opera seems the closest analogue. How would you situate Border Towns in terms of genre or musical space?

I enjoy Oswald and Ground Zero, though in terms of mash-ups I tend to take the slow route, with lots of silences, and I often attempt to completely break down then reassemble a specific genre, or even just a song. Plunderphonics and Revolutionary Pekinese Opera have a joyous aesthetics of excess to me, and also revel in effects like tape delay and studio layering. I tend to go for a more “real” sound, which ends up being surreal when you perform it live. A performer sings x song, but the words and phrases are in completely different places, and it still somehow makes sense; at the same time, it plays with memory and meaning. Because I’m using live performers, using the sounds of early tape manipulation or even electronica breaks a surreal plausibility I’m trying to establish. And in Border Towns, the materials are often dealt with more procedurally than these other composers: i.e., “Heart Butte,” which tries to deal in a semi-exhaustive way with slow, classic country.

5. An especially delightful aspect of Border Towns is the way in which it flirts with our nostalgia. Familiar songs are quickly swapped out for others, such that by the end we experience a new folk narrative. Is your intention with the piece to do simply that, or does it have broader, extra-musical aspirations as well?

In making each song, I often tried to go against the grain of the nostalgia, or at least create a new meaning to each song or genre. And of course if I could exactly pinpoint that meaning here, I’d be preaching, and it would become clichéd. The ideas for Border Towns emerged at a time when the “Lomax remix” genre, such as Moby’s Play, was at its height. I resisted the comfortable, warm electronic remix broth given to these samples. Did people realize the issues of Paul Robeson singing “still longing for the old plantation”, or why “cowboy music”—a genre of guys often falsetto yodeling, was anachronous? I was trying to unpack assumptions on a structural level, by the choices of what I remixed and where. I wanted to be omnivorous, and substitute old traditions, even stereotypes, with something else. Each piece take on a different icon—Tex-Mex, border radio, plantation songs, cowboy music—but tries to bend them at moments of expectation.

6. The vocal performances on Border Towns are wonderful. How did you settle on these particular musicians and how did the recording project all come together?

It’s always a challenge. Together with Jenny Rohn, my co-director for the live performances, we’re always looking for that experimental “triple threat”: people who sing, act, move, and also understand the weird, tricky-to-sing music. Some of these singers are uncanny chameleons. Some are hugely gifted in physical theater. It came together as a performance at HERE’s Resident Artist Series first—then I took it to the studio.

7. How do the ambient interludes function in Border Towns?

In a way, the ambient “interludes” are islands of realness. The sounds are actually taken from trips to the border towns on which each song is purportedly “based.” But, outside of these ambient interludes, the songs take on stereotypes of Americana, mass-produced materials that I often found sold, broadcast, or otherwise referenced in the places I visited. Cage once said if you destroy all recordings people will learn to sing again. Likewise, if one stops asking the potentially obsolete question, “What do people from this place listen to?” you just end up listening, and that’s the best part. In recording ambient sounds, I’m vamping off the long tradition of acoustic ecology and soundscape composition. In the final song of Border Towns, the ambient recordings swallow up a single performer on stage, maybe in a final moment of immersive, real listening.

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Dobrinka Tabakova

When art promises to be revelatory, it may become something to fear. Such is the case of String Paths, the first conspectus of music by Dobrinka Tabakova. Fear, in this sense, is close to awe, for before hearing a single note one knows its details will seep into places to which few others have traveled. Fear, because the trust and intimacy required of such an act is what the composer’s life is all about: she fills staves with glyphs so that anyone with an open heart might encounter their fleeting interpretations and become part of their accretion. Indeed, many factors go into the creation of a single instrumental line, incalculably magnified by its interaction with others. Fear, then, is closer still to love.

Born in 1980, Tabakova moved at age 11 from her Bulgarian hometown of Plovdiv to London, where she went on to study at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. Her career began in earnest after winning an international competition at 14, since which time she has developed a voice that is refreshingly full and melodious. Such a biographical sketch, despite its prodigious overtones, does little to set Tabakova apart from her contemporaries. Recognition is one thing; experience is another. The coloring of imagination sustained in this timely album’s program, the whole of its corporeal sensibilities, can only come across when its water fills a listener’s cup.

Ukrainian violist-conductor Maxim Rysanov, notable proponent of Kancheli and other composers of our time, has become one of Tabakova’s strongest advocates. It was, in fact, his performance of the Suite in Old Style (written 2006 for solo viola, harpsichord and strings) at the prestigious Lockenhaus Festival that first caught ECM producer Manfred Eicher’s ear and led him to propose the present disc. As the album’s seed, it shelters refugees of the surrounding works. In amending a practice established by such visionaries as Górecki, Schnittke, Eller, and others who have mined elder idioms as a means of looking forward, Tabakova might be placed squarely in an ongoing tradition. She, however, prefers to trace the piece’s genealogy back to Rameau by way of Respighi. Given its descriptive edge, we might link it further to the great Baroque mimeticists—Farina, Biber, Muffat, Schmelzer, and Vivaldi—who were less interested in imitating each other (although some intertextuality was to be expected) than they were in describing nature and circumstance. In this respect, Tabakova’s triptych interfaces a variety of signatures, from which her own stands boldest.

The first movement is a triptych unto itself. Beginning with a Prelude marked “Fanfare from the balconies,” proceeding to “Back from hunting,” and on to “Through mirrored corridors,” already one can note Tabakova’s special affinity for space and place. A rich and delightful piece of prosody, its syncopations feel like ballet, a joyous dance of fit bodies. The viola leaps while the harpsichord adds tactile diacritics to Rysanov’s slippery alphabet. The transcendent centerpiece, entitled “The rose garden by moonlight,” is a shiver down the spine in slow motion, a season at once born and dying. The harpsichord elicits brief exaltations, pushing its wordless song into snowdrift, even as intimations of spring exchange glances with those of autumn. The quasi-Italian filigree of “Riddle of the barrel-organ player” and the Postlude (“Hunting and Finale”) fosters a nostalgic air of antique tracings, bearing yin and yang with plenty of drama to spare.

Insight (2002) for string trio opens the program with exactly that. Played by its dedicatees (Rysanov, Russian violinist Roman Mints, and Latvian-born Kristina Blaumane, principal cellist of the London Philharmonic), it unfolds in dense streams. For Tabakova the trio breathes as one, as might the moving parts of some singing, bellowed engine. The trio thus becomes something else entirely (a phenomenon achieved via the same configuration perhaps only by Górecki in his Genesis I). Moments of shining vibrato add pulse and skin. Glissandi also play an important role in establishing a smooth, coherent fable. The violin’s harmonics are glassine, somehow vulnerable. Indications of dances hold hands with jagged flames. Hints of a free spirit shine through the cracks. A decorated return to the theme looses a bird from an open palm, watching it fly until its song grows too faint to hear.

The 2008 Concerto for Cello and Strings, written for and featuring Blaumane as soloist, moves in three phases, the names of which recall the designations of John Adams. The music, too, may remind one of the American humanist, singing as it does with a likeminded breadth of inflection. The first movement (“Turbulent, tense”) unfolds in pulsing energy. Like a spirit coursing through the sky, it searches the heavens, lantern in hand, for earthly connection. The spirit casts a longing gaze across the oceans, leaping from continent to continent, harming not a single blade of grass by her step. The cello thus takes up the opening theme like a haul from the deep, letting all creatures slip through its fingers to hold the one treasure it seeks by their tips. In that box: a beating heart, one that seeks its own undoing by virtue of its discovery. It is a story revived in countless historical tragedies. The orchestra flowers around the soloist, carrying equilibrium as might a parent cradle a sickly child, laying her down on the altar where the opening motif may reach. The slow movement, marked “Longing,” thus revives that body, spinning from the treasure’s contents a trail she might follow back toward breath. With her resurrection come also the fears that killed her: the conflicts of a warring state, the ideals of a corrupt ruler, the confusion of a hopeless citizenry. The kingdom no longer smiles beneath the sun but weeps by moonlight. Chromatic lilts keep those tears in check, holding them true to form: as vast internal calligraphies whose tails find purchase only on composition paper. Echoes appear and remain. Blaumane’s rich, singing tone conveys all of this and more, never letting go of its full-bodied emotion. The softness of the final stretch turns charcoal into pastel, cloud into dusk, star into supernova. It is therefore tempting to read resolution into the final movement (“Radiant”). From its icy opening harmonics, it seems to beg for the cello’s appearance, which in spite of its jaggedness never bleeds into forceful suggestion. For whenever it verges on puncture, it reconnects to the surrounding orchestral flow, from which it was born and to which it always returns for recharge. Its blasting high sends a message: I am fallen that I might rise again.

Frozen River Flows (2005) is scored for violin, accordion and double bass. Intended to evoke water beneath ice, it expresses two states of the same substance yet so much more. It encompasses the snowy banks, the laden trees, the footprints left beneath them. It imparts glimpses of those who wandered through here not long ago, whose warmth still lingers like a puff of exhaled breath. The violin takes on a vocal lilt, the accordion a windy rasp, the double bass a gestural vocabulary—all of which ends as if beginning.

Such different paths (2008) for string septet ends the program. Dedicated to Dutch violinist Janine Jansen, it ushers in a fulsome, chromatic sound. There is a feeling of constant movement here that is duly organic: in one sense as flow, in another as melodic variety. There is, again, a rocking quality, as if the music always rests on some sort of fulcrum. A quiet passage that deals with the barbs lifted to our eyes. It ends in transcendent wash, a bleed of dye in cloth.

The performances on this finely produced disc are as gorgeous as they come, even more so under the purview of such attentive engineering. This is not music we simply listen to, but music that also listens to us.

It is in precisely this spirit of mutual listening that I participated in an e-mail interview with Ms. Tabakova, who kindly answered the following questions from this enamored soul…

Read the rest of this entry »

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The Imani Winds: Jeff Scott, Toyin Spellman-Diaz, Valerie Coleman, Monica Ellis, and Mariam Adam.

Imani Winds: Jeff Scott, Toyin Spellman-Diaz, Valerie Coleman, Monica Ellis, and Mariam Adam. (Photo by Matthew Murphy)

(Houston, TX) Since the group’s inception in 1997, the Imani Winds have continued to expand the relatively small-sized repertoire for wind quintet by commissioning several works by such forward-thinking composers as Alvin Singleton, Roberto Sierra, Stefon Harris, Daniel Perez, Mohammed Fairouz, and Houston’s own Jason Moran. Moran’s four-movement work Cane, Moran’s first composition for wind quintet, appears on the Imani Winds’ 2010 album Terra Incognita, along with pieces by two other jazz masters, Paquito D’Rivera and Wayne Shorter. (The Imani Winds appear on Shorter’s critically acclaimed 2013 live quartet album Without A Net in a scorching performance of his 23-minute through-composed work Pegasus.) Imani Winds members Valerie Coleman (flute) and Jeff Scott (horn) also compose and arrange for the quintet. In concert, the Imani Winds present traditional classical fare alongside new works that explore African, Latin American, and the Middle Eastern musical idioms and performance techniques.

On Tuesday, October 15, 2013, the Imani Winds make their Houston Friends Of Chamber Music debut at Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music, performing arrangements of classic works by Ravel and Mendelssohn, Jonathan Russell’s powerful wind quintet arrangement of Stravinsky’s The Rite Of Spring, and Scott’s arrangement of Palestinian-American oud and violin virtuoso Simon Shaheen’s composition Dance Mediterranea, a piece that requires the quintet to play and improvise with Arabic scales or maqamat.

I spoke with Jeff Scott about the challenges of arranging Shaheen’s piece for the quintet as well as what it means to be a chamber wind ensemble in the 21st century.

Chris Becker: What are some challenges you faced in arranging Simon Shaheen’s music for the Imani Winds?

Jeff Scott: I listened to Shaheen’s piece over and over and over again so I could learn what I could do in the different section to offset it. We are an ensemble with five completely different sounding instruments that can create many different colors. So I listened to each section and thought, “Who could play the bass here? Who would sound great playing the solo line here? Who could really do something percussive on their instrument there to make it sound like an authentic version of the song?”

CB: There’s improvisation in your arrangement? Is that correct?

JS: Absolutely.

CB: Can you talk a little bit about the improvisation in the piece? Are you and your fellow winds improvising with scales? Are you improvising over some kind of harmony? Or is it even freer than that?

JS: It’s definitely structured. In that part of the world, the scale is called a maqam. This piece deals with three different maqamat. So for the solo sections, I only wrote out a rhythmic figure for whoever is playing the bass and the scale itself for whoever is playing the solo. The stuff in the middle is fleshed out completely and gives the top and bottom players guidelines they can follow.

In preparation for this piece, we had workshop rehearsals for learning the different maqamat and how to play inflect on our respective instruments the quarter tones and semitones that exist in those scales, so we wouldn’t just be playing a diatonic scale with two half steps and then calling that a maqam. That’s not it at all. The challenge was getting that g half flat just so! (laughs)

What separates people who play with those different scales and people who play Western music and diatonic scales, is that our ears are adjusted. We know when someone is playing a flat seventh, you know? But to be able to play it as part of a scale and know whether or not you’re just flat enough? (laughs) That’s a different thing! We played these scales in workshops for Shaheen almost like we were auditioning for him. We’d play, and he would say, “No, no, no…” and then play the scale with us and show us exactly where they fit. It’s a thing you just constantly have to work on because it’s not a part of our pedagogue. It’s not part of our training.

Before playing this piece, we’ll have our set of rehearsals the week before, and we’ll go through the shed of practicing those scales and testing one another.

CB: Is improvisation a part of your background? Or is it something new that you and the other members of the Imani Winds have explored since coming together as an ensemble?

JS: I’d say for the most part it’s new. Improvising wasn’t a part of our formal training. We all went to either the Manhattan School of Music or Juilliard. And it just wasn’t asked of you, it just wasn’t. Now, post-school? Yeah. You realize that in the 21st century commercial world, if you’re going to survive, regardless of what your training is, you have to be flexible enough to improvise. It was definitely harder for us coming into it, but more schools are requiring it these days. I think that’s really wonderful. The language of music from other countries is now filtering its way into the Western chronicles and as a musician, you have to be able to speak the different dialects. We have embraced it and really went out there and grabbed every possible challenge we could.

CB: What you say about conservatories in the U.S., that more programs are including improvisation and music from around the globe, is something I’m hearing about more and more in my interviews with younger musicians.

JS: It used to be shunned. When I was at the Manhattan School of Music, back in the 80s, I wrote this piece for horn and percussion that I wanted to play on one of my recitals. I remember playing the piece for my teacher and him not wanting me to do it because most of my part wasn’t written down and he couldn’t work with me on it. It wasn’t because the it sounded “bad” or “good,” he just didn’t know how to work with me on it as an improvised piece of music. And that said a whole lot about the institution and my training in general! (laughs) It speaks volumes!

CB: Tell me about the Imani Winds’ collaboration with saxophonist and composer Wayne Shorter.

JS: We were asked to come and perform with him at the Hollywood Bowl on his 80th birthday along with Esperanza Spaulding, Herbie Hancock, Dave Douglas and all of these incredible musicians. We performed a piece that Shorter composed and arranged called Pegasus. It’s a symphony! The piece is written for his and wind quintet. It’s a symphony! It’s a mammoth, epic journey with improvisation from everyone involved, a through-composed piece with many different moods.

The whole thing started when the La Jolla Music Society in California commissioned Shorter to compose a piece for us, which he titled Terra Incognita. It was just for wind quintet, and it was the first piece he’d composed that didn’t involve him as a performer. He’d never written something for someone else that he didn’t intend to perform.

So he wrote this wind quintet and it was way out (laughs) with just as much room to improvise as you could possibly want. We didn’t know what the heck to do with it. So we learned everything note by note, and then played it for him. And he smiled and said, “That’s great. But promise me you’ll never play it like that again. I want you play it different every time. I want you to start from the end. I want you to leave out some parts. You can start in the middle. Just use the piece as a point of departure.”

CB: That’s so great.

JS: It says a whole lot about him. But it also says a whole lot about where I think classical music in general is going when it comes to chamber music and accepting improvisation, jazz and all of the world’s music, and having musicians who are flexible enough and open enough to at least experiment. It’s the only way we’re going to get the patrons of chamber music societies to have that openness and expectation when it comes to who they decide to put on their series. I mean, if we don’t start doing it, they’re going to continually only want the Haydn cycles. (laughs)

So we have to not only accept it, we have to become nimble at it. You have to be able to deliver a good product so the patrons say, “You know what? I want more of that!”

And besides, as a wind quintet, we don’t have the Haydn cycles! (laughs) They just don’t exist. We occasionally play the old stalwarts of the wind quintet, but that stuff runs out in about two weeks. You’ve got to play new stuff and push the envelope a bit, and improvisation is just a normal step along the way for expanding the repertoire for the wind quintet.

Houston Friends of Chamber Music present the Imani Winds, Tuesday, October 15, 7:30 p.m. at Stude Concert Hall, Shepherd School of Music, Rice University, performing works by Valerie Coleman, Mendelssohn, Ravel, Simon Shaheen, and Stravinsky’s The Rite Of Spring arranged by Jonathan Russell.

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The latest from Isabelle Faust

The latest from Isabelle Faust

Violinist Isabelle Faust may have impressed you in Mozart last week at the Mostly Mozart Festival. She’ll be back in New York for Beethoven and more next January! Her latest recording explores the sound world of Bela Bartok, including both of his violin concertos, now out on Harmonia Mundi.

“If you talk with a living composer, of course (s)he will be very clear and explain what kind of atmosphere, what kind of sound (s)he wants produced,” says Faust. The importance of new music is profound with Isabelle, who says this interaction between composer and performer is key, and influences how she plays older music.

Hear the entire interview with Isabelle Faust with John Clare, talking about each concerto, creating fresh sounds in programming, and the importance of composers here.

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Another composer interview from our favorite “reporter-at-large-when-she-isn’t-being-a-famed-virtuoso”, Hilary Hahn as part of her “In 27 Pieces: The Hilary Hahn Encores” series. This time it’s a chat with Indian composer/violinist Kala Ramnath, about her encore piece that Hilary will perform in a concert this coming January:

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E5lLLF-6d-8[/youtube]>

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This season (12-13) has many firsts for Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. For their opening concert, Orpheus performs Beethoven’s iconic Fifth Symphony for the first time and, in addition to expanding their traditional repertoire, Orpheus has commissioned a staggering four world premieres this season! (Gabriel Kahane is their composer in residence.)

The season begins with the world premiere of Augusta Read Thomas‘s Earth Echoes, a piece commissioned by Orpheus and written to commemorate the death of Gustav Mahler.

John Clare spoke to Augusta about the new work. The two discuss Mahler, orchestration and the magic of Carnegie Hall. Listen to their conversation on soundcloud.

It will be performed October 10th in Easton, PA; Carnegie Hall on October 11th; and in Storrs, CT at the Jorgensen Center for the Performing Arts October 12th.

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David T. Little. Photo: Merry Cyr.

After a long gestation, which included multiple workshops that presented excerpts of the work in progress, this weekend David T. Little’s Dog Days will be given its premiere as a full length opera. It is being presented at Montclair State University in Montclair, New Jersey on September 29th through October 7th. Despite all the myriad details to which he’s had to attend in the rehearsals leading up to the performances, David was kind enough to consent to an interview about the bringing this long term project to fruition and some of his other current activities.

Sequenza21: When did you first become aware of the short story on which Dog Days is based? Why did you think it would be a good subject for your first full length opera?

I first encountered the story Dog Days in the film adaptation by Ellie Lee. (The original story is by Judy Budnitz.) I was living in Ann Arbor at the time, and had gotten into the habit if composing each morning with the TV on in the distant background.  It would usually start with the previous night’s Daily Show; then, I’d switch to IFC.  On one particular day, IFC was showing a shorts program. I happened to look up at a certain moment, and catch a glimpse of Spencer Beglarian (late brother of Eve) playing Prince, the man in a dog suit.  I immediately thought: “what the hell” and couldn’t look away, almost obsessively watching the entire film. I filed this piece away, thinking of it as a work I really liked, by an artist I respected, and then sort of moved on with my day.  I wrote a song some time later, called “After a Film by Ellie Lee,” about the landscape of Dog Days–and even got to meet Ellie in 2003–but never really thought of making it an opera.

Then in 2008, Dawn Upshaw contacted me and asked if I’d be interested in writing something dramatic–a scena, or opera excerpt–for the Dawn Upshaw/Osvaldo Golijov Workshop at Carnegie Hall.  I of course said yes–because that’s what you say to Dawn Upshaw!–and began looking for a libretto. I had written the libretto for Soldier Songs myself, but those were all monologues.  This piece was to have characters who needed to have actual dialogue, which I didn’t feel I could handle that as a writer. So I approached Royce Vavrek, who I’d met maybe six months earlier after an American Lyric Theater performance, and we started talking about ideas.

After looking through a number of options, we kept coming back to Dog Days as a piece that just made sense.  It was dark, but with these wonderful moments of light.  It got into very serious issues–the animal/human divide, issues of choice and consequence, questions of how we treat the least fortunate among us–but without being heavy handed about it.  It felt like the perfect story to use for our first adaptation, and it’s proven to be an incredibly rewarding text to write with.  (Plus, it had the right number of characters to match the singers we’d been assigned!)  We approached Judy Budnitz for permission, she granted it, and we got started.  (Judy, by the way, is a really terrific author and unique storyteller.  If people don’t know her work, I hope they will check it out.)

What’s been changed or added since presenting scenes of Dog Days at Carnegie Hall?

We added a whole lot!  The Zankel presentation was only about 20 minutes, and when we did it at Vox (2010) we had about 30 minutes, having written the aria ”Mirror Mirror” for one of American Opera Projects’ Opera Grows in Brooklyn programs in the summer of 2009.  But the piece now lasts about 2 hours and 15 minutes with the intermission, so it has more than doubled since those early presentations.  Also, a number of the voice types changed.  I mentioned that we were assigned the singers for the Carnegie Workshop.  We loved all of them, but, as we worked on the libretto, came to feel that some of the voice types weren’t right for whom the characters were becoming.  For example, Howard–the father–started off as a tenor, but is now a baritone.  So in addition to the new music, we also had a lot of rewrites to the old music.  Even after the workshop in April, we continued to rewrite, and have continued to tweak throughout the rehearsal process.  We added a character who was not present in the original version (though is present in the story): the Captain, a military officer played by Cherry Duke who brings the two sons back from mischief, and tries to make a devil’s deal with Howard.  This aria was written maybe eight months ago.

The last big thing was that we finally have a dog man, played by the amazing John Kelly.  In the Carnegie Hall performance, Prince was just not there–since it is not a sung role–so all the singers were singing to an invisible man.  That’s changed in the stage version. Works much better now! Read the rest of this entry »

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Or is that the other way around?… Anywho, Hilary Hahn just checked in with the latest in her series of chats with the composers of her In 27 Pieces: The Hilary Hahn Encores; this time with Israel’s own Avner Dorman:

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Os8wb6Cyjb0[/youtube]

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Updated : 9/6/12 with added thoughts from Laura Kaminsky.

Every so often we have a conversation that changes us for the better. Sometimes, we have this type of conversation with our mothers, our fathers, our close friends and allies, our colleagues, or with an artist. Last weekend I had a profound conversation with the latter, an artist named Laura Kaminsky.

Laura Kaminsky, composer, is also the artistic director of Symphony Space, the renowned performance venue in New York City. She has received commissions, fellowships, and awards as both a composer and presenter from over twenty organizations including the Koussevitzky Music Foundation and the Aaron Copland Fund. Ms. Kaminsky also plays a large role in the operation of many musical and arts organizations including Chamber Music America, and, in the past, New Music USA (formerly the American Music Center), and as a member of the Artistic Advisory Council of the New York Foundation for the Arts, among others. Laura Kaminsky is an important and influential voice in the arts world today. Having the chance to speak with her by phone, I first asked her about her musical upbringing.

Laura Kaminsky (LK): I grew up in New York City, and was surrounded by musicians, painters, writers, and actors. As a very young child I thought I was going to be a painter when I grew up. But I started taking those typical piano lessons at about age ten or eleven, and quickly decided that practicing wasn’t nearly as much fun as making up my own music. This led me to start trying to figure out how to write down that which I made up. So, I was composing at a very young age, untrained, just writing the things that occupied my imagination. Still, I just thought of it as a fun thing to do. [Around this time] I began tormenting my younger sisters because I used to create family musical evenings that I insisted they participate in. We would perform these programs on the weekend for our parents. I think this is probably where I got my passion for producing.

When I was about 13, it was that time in New York when, if you were a public school kid, you could test and audition to go to a special high school. I wanted to go to [LaGuardia High School of] Music and Art, and originally I thought I was going to audition with an art portfolio. As I got closer to the day of the testing, however, I realized I was more passionate about my time spent in music, and requested that I switch my art audition to a music audition. I got in not because I was a particularly good pianist or clarinetist (that was my second instrument) but I think because I presented music that I wrote, and performed one of my own compositions. My four years at M&A were profound and formative; many of my friends today still date from that time, and many are living active lives in the arts. Read the rest of this entry »

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Daniil Trifonov, Noam Zur

“You can’t always convince,” young Israeli conductor Noam Zur said at his North American debut, “but every performance has to make a statement.”

Known as an important educational and recreational center for the performing arts, as well as a place of spirituality, Chautauqua originated as a Sunday school, and Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra (CSO) became a professional performance ensemble in 1929.  Chautauqua draws its mostly long-time members out for nine weeks, employing them for an intense schedule of 21 concerts.  Part of Chautauqua’s charm in music making is that these shows craft an intimate communal experience.

Chautauqua Amphitheatre photo:Eric Shea

Chautauqua’s unique and exemplary educational role supports an endless variety of learning experiences in a congenial atmosphere.  At times, Chautauqua’s performances are also brought to a wider public through PBS and NPR broadcasts, bringing together the new, the noteworthy, and the extraordinary, and projecting it to all who care to listen.

Chautauqua- Zur- Trifonov Photo: Eric Shea

Noam Zur’s effervescent demeanor and his ability to connect with both the orchestra and the audience made for a fantastic season-closing concert at Chautauqua last week. Zur opened his show with high-energy, uptempo repertoire that included a traditional rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” and Johann Strauss Jr.’s Fledermaus Overture. The show was the last in a lengthy series, so the technical execution was less than perfect at points, but nonetheless the orchestra achieved nuanced ‘picture-perfect’ moments during Ravel’s orchestral arrangement of Mussorgsky’s ‘Pictures at an Exhibition, managing to expertly convey the miniature scenes’ suggested sound-worlds. Zur’s demands of both the orchestra and the audience were persuasively articulated at all times; his undeviating directorial approach completely exemplified a conductor’s ability to form connections between the visual and audial occurrences that make up the energy of a live concert.

Performing Chopin’s 2nd Piano Concerto under Zur’s baton for the second time, Russian pianist Daniil Trifonov had many towering expectations to fulfill as the anchor of this featured piece. Trifonov’s honors precede him, as he has recently won awards at three major international piano competitions, and his talents have been endorsed by superstar musicians, including Martha Argerich, who said she had “never heard a touch like his” (Financial Times 2011).

What brought both Zur and Trifonov together at Chautauqua speaks to the dynamics of international concert culture, and how friendships are born on the competition circuit.

Vice president and Director of programming Marty Merkley manages Chautauqua’s program office’s annual budget of $8 million.  This generous endowment allows the ensemble to invite reputable and up-and-coming guest artists, including many young First Prize winners on the international competition circuit.  Merkley, having been involved with several major projects in the music market like Michael Tilson Thomas’ New World Symphonyin Miami, is able to actively engage with competitions, and the artists that they endorse.

Noam and Uri Zur

As the First Prize winner of the Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Master Competition in 2011, Daniil Trifonov was offered several performance opportunities by Uri Zur of ArtPro- Management (Noam Zur’s father), who has been handling Prize winners’ concert performances since 2003.  Former First Prize winner Alexander (Sasha) Gavryluk‘s 2005 performance at Chautauqua is still remembered by its music-loving audiences. It was a feature concert like this taking place in Tel Aviv which brought Trifonov to the Kulturwald Festival in Germany’s Bavarian Forest last September to perform with Noam Zur for the first time. Noam Zur had become Principal Conductor of the Frankfurt Chamber Philharmonic, and had been chosen to direct a production of Die Zauberflöte at Kulturwald. It did not take long for the festival’s director and Uri Zur to realize that this dynamic could easily translate into a performance with Trifonov, Zur, and orchestra.

Trifonov and Zur in rehearsal

Uri Zur, who has covered a lot of professional ground in the music industry including managing Naxos’ record distribution in Israel, and of course founding his artist management company ArtPro, is always in close contact with Marty Merkley at Chautauqua, but he had not intended to promote his own son for this concert season.  Nevertheless, when Trifonov expressed interest in performing at Chautauqua at a time when CSO was without a conductor, there was no reason not to look to Noam for the position, given his substantial merit as a director.

The festival’s extremely chaotic schedule only allowed Zur and Trifonov one rehearsal before their live performance, so the team decided to reprise Chopin’s 2nd Piano Concerto, and attempt to recreate the captivating performance that Zur and Trifonov had presented in Germany.  Asked about rehearsals, Noam Zur commented that “conductors never feel they have the right amount.”  He says, “it’s either: ‘I don’t know what to do anymore, and we still have three days left,’ or ‘there is so much to do and we only have three days left!’ Especially in Opera, it happens a lot that you get no rehearsals.”  He says that sometimes, performers need to get by on very little rehearsal, or even just ‘wing it’: “I know the piece, you know the piece, let’s meet in the evening.”

Noam Zur assisted Pierre Boulez at the Lucerne Festival’s academy orchestra from 2006 to 2008. Inspired by the great Maestro’s style, he embraced an ambitious, yet relaxed attitude. He still recalls conducting for Boulez in an open master class at Lucerne.  As Zur shook in his shoes and dripped with sweat, Boulez stopped him saying: “this was very, very good…now do it again, and this time do it fantastic!”  Zur recalls that, “in all the animated music discussions we had, he never tried to impose his opinions. Yet I learned to be discerning and critical enough not to let people get away with everything.”

As a former trombonist, Zur says he looks at the score from the point of view of an orchestral musician. “It’s not choreography,” he says. “In this measure I stand still… it’s important how it looks, it should look beautiful still, but only because you want a certain sound. The movement is the impetus that gives the performing musicians the meaning and phrasing – the philosophyof what it should sound like.”

Noam Zur Photo: Ch. Gamble

Even though Trifonov had concerts lined up after taking gold at the 2011 Rubinstein, which is a notable marathon of pianism, and an extremely draining experience, he decided to see if he could continue his winning streak at the Tchaikovsky competition, as he was already enrolled.  Uri Zur, noted that Trifonov “did not have the highest expectation, having just completed the Rubinstein, but he was going to give it a shot anyhow.”

Trifonov’s superior rendition of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No.1, in the last round of the competition with the Mariinsky Orchestra under Russian conductor Valery Gergiev won him yet another gold. Gergiev did not hesitate to support his young compatriot, whom he had awarded the competition’s Grand Prix prize.  Gergiev brought Trifonov on board for several concert events, at times he even trafficked Trifonov across the hemisphere from       performance to performance in his own private jet. “Once he dropped me at a performance rehearsal, then went on to conduct his own concert and made it back to my performance. [They were] in different countries.” Trifonov smiles at this memory, thankful for the generous attention that the artist he calls “one of the most towering [and] busiest musicians worldwide” extended towards him. This past season alone, Trifonov performed with Maestro Gergiev in multiple concerts, tackling repertoire including Prokofiev’s 1st Piano Concerto, Gusonow’s 2nd and Liszt’s 1st.

Daniil Trifonov

For the 2013 season, Trifonov is preparing a great deal of new repertoire for even more performances under Gergiev, including Rachmaninov’s 3rd Piano Concerto, and Prokofiev’s 2nd, which he will perform at the White Nights Festival in St.Petersburg. “I am also going to learn some Schedrin. It’s modern, for a change. I am very interested to explore more of the modern repertoire, which I did not have had much of a chance to do yet,” says the 21 year-old virtuoso pianist. “The Russian School of Piano concentrates on the Classical works, some Bach and the Romantics,” he says.

Two days prior to his own performance in Tel-Aviv, Trifonov had a chance to attend a performance of Chopin’s 1stConcerto with the iconic Russian pianist Evgeny Kissin under the baton of Zubin Mehta, the Israeli Philharmonic’s Music Director for Life. Trifonov was always a big admirer of Kissin’s artistic individuality.  Both musicians attended Moscow’s famous Gnessin School for Gifted Children, which Trifonov describes as lacking the wonderfully equipped practice rooms he now uses at the Cleveland Institute of Music, where he is about to enter his fourth year. “At Gnessin-School I played on an upright, old, banged up Bechstein,” Trifonov recalls.  Having access to modern, well-maintained Steinway Concert Grands makes a tangible difference in practice and performance according to Trifonov, especially when conquering ‘large’ repertoire like Rachmaninov, which he only started to explore this year. At the Cleveland Institute, Trifonov studies under Armenian pianist and conductor Sergei Babayan. Trifonov’s repertoire was always heavy with Chopin, but his recent studies with Babayan have opened him up to a whole new understanding of the idiosyncratic microcosm that constitutes Rachmaninov’s body of work. “He showed me a very different approach than the one I learned in Russia.  Even though ultimately everyone goes back to Neuhaus, there are very different approaches within. Babayan opened my mind without taking away what I had. With him it’s all about the touch! He added an enormous dimension to my playing,” Trifonov says. When asked about how he learned his otherworldly pianissimo touch, Trifonov describes how students hold their breath during Babayan’s studio performance classes in an effort to hear his impossibly quiet tones. It seems that it is a combination of the Russian School’s principles and Babayan’s ethereal, yet calibrating modes of touch that brings these pianists’ pianissimo to the next dimension. I personally have heard Babayan perform and it is true- one hears the echo of the master’s touch in a personally processed nature.

Daniil Trifonov and Ilona Oltuski

The young artist says that he aims to continue studying for an artist diploma with Babayan even though he only studies about 15 percent of the time, as he still feels like he has much to learn. Trifonov realizes that he must come to learn the music of each new composer in his own time. He sees himself tackling Beethoven at a later point in his career.  “Even Schubert was a challenge for me,” Trifonov admits modestly, playing Schubert’s last Sonata in B flat-minor, “though the Mozart concerti have always been a special experience for me.”

The collaboration between Noam Zur and Trifinov was a resounding success. “It ended up a spellbinding and hair-raising experience. The audience did not dare to move in order not to miss any sound in this fantastic ‘Chopin at the barn’- like atmosphere,” Zur recalls. “We really connected not only musically. We definitely became friends. I am so happy to be together again this year with Daniil, and I really have to thank him for this one here.” To no one’s surprise, Trifonov delivered pure lyrical lucidity in his piano playing, and Zur expertly supported even the most delicate pianissimo that Trifonov extricated from the piano with his delicate, almost magical caress.  Their synergy was never more evident than in the concerto’s strikingly poetic and extremely affecting Lhargettomovement. Zur and Trifonov indeed managed to yet again reconstruct some of the most magical moments of their first performance together.

Chaim Zemach’s last rehearsal with CSO- CH.Gamble

Thanks to performance opportunities at festivals like Chautauqua, young talents like Trifonov and Noam Zur can begin to instill in audiences an ever-expanding sensibility for the beauty of music and life, and continue in a longstanding tradition of talent that permeates the international concert scene.  While this concert was Noam Zur’s North-American Debut, it was also a touching curtain call for the eminent CSO lead cellist Chaim Zemach, who exited the stage at Chautauqua in a revelatory state of mind after 45 concert seasons.  As Chautauqua moves forward, I am sure we can continue to expect excellence and innovation on its stage.

 

 

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