Archive for the “Orchestral” Category

Composer and conductor Joseph C. Phillips, Jr.

If you’re a fan of new music, be it “indie-classical” or whatever it’s being labeled this week, then you must check out the music of composer and conductor Joseph C. Phillips, Jr. Phillips’ music, composed and arranged for his ensemble Numinous, a large chamber group (or small orchestra?) of woodwinds, brass, strings, tuned percussion, electric instruments and vocalists, is a complex, finely detailed amalgam of classical, minimalist, South American, Asian, and African American influences, with a distinctive “sound” that is instantly identifiable, yet full of surprises. (You know those descriptive terms “Brahmsian” or “the Mingus effect”? It’s like that.) Phillips’ latest album, Changing Same, due out August 28 on New Amsterdam Records, is perhaps his most autobiographical musical statement to date.

While his previous recordings, Numinous: The Music of Joseph C. Phillips, Jr. and Vipassana include notes that detail the inspiration for his compositions, Changing Same has no notes; just a quote from 1966 by writer, poet and playwright Amiri Baraka (then Le Roi Jones) that describes a “post-black aesthetic,” one that unapologetically digs both the down-home and the downtown, the highfalutin and the funky, the Anglo-centric and the Afro-futuristic, the “what it is” and the “what the hell is goin’ on?” The titles for each of the six movements of Changing Same offer some additional clues . . . “Behold, the Only Thing Greater Than Yourself,” “Miserere,” “Unlimited,” “Alpha Man,” “The Most Beautiful Magic.” The first track, “19,” which can be streamed and purchased here, refers to November 19, 1970, the date of the publication of James Baldwin’s essay, “An Open Letter to My Sister, Miss Angela Davis,” Arnold Schoenberg’s Sechs Kleine Klavierstücke, opus 19, from 1911, and the age Phillips began studying music as an undergrad, after two semesters as a bio-chemistry major.

Changing Same is another intriguing chapter in Phillips’ journey, from growing up listening to both Holst and Prince, to conducting Numinous onstage at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in a performance of his score for the 1922 silent film The Loves of Pharoah, to producing this latest release. In the following interview, Phillips provides some details about that journey, and explains how his life experience, be it past, future or present-day-craziness, is reflected in the music of Changing Same.

On the back of your new album, there’s a quote by Amiri Baraka (then LeRoi Jones) from his 1966 essay, The Changing Same:

“R&B is about emotion, issues purely out of emotion. New Black Music is also about emotion, but from a different place, and finally toward a different end. What these musicians feel is a more complete existence. That is, the digging of everything.”

So, my first question with regard to this quote is, do you dig everything?

Well, of course, I have my standards. [laughs] There are things I like and don’t like.

In that essay, Baraka is explaining the spontaneous compositional processes of the creative improvisational people at that time, and putting them in a continuum of what had come before in terms of black music. He’s saying look, these guys might seem like they’re acting wild and crazy, But really, this “New Black Music” harkens back to earlier music.

When I read the essay, the quote just jumped out at me. I thought it was a perfect encapsulation of what I’m doing or hoping to have happen with my piece. With Changing Same, I wanted to take the cultural and musical things that I grew up with and incorporate them into piece. When I read Baraka’s essay, I thought, yes, I grew up with the black music continuum, Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, and Prince. But I grew up with classical music as well, like Holst, Bach . . . like any other composer, I have a potpourri of influences. Sometimes you can hear these influences very specifically. For example, on the fourth track, “The Most Beautiful Magic,” the initial bass line is actually coming straight from Prince’s “Purple Rain.”

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Just before intermission of the opening concert of the Beyond Cage Festival on October 22, I pulled out my iPhone to see if the Giants were beating the Cardinals for the National League Pennant, and was disoriented to see that it was 9:49pm. It seemed like there must have been a massive network malfunction, because the extraordinary performance of Atlas Ecpliticalis with Winter Music that I and the rest of the audience had fervently applauded could not possibly have gone on for an hour and forty-five minutes. The duration had felt assuredly like a leisurely performance of an early Romantic symphony, say the Beethoven Pastorale, something that was stimulating and enveloping but that never demanded a hint of endurance from the ear or mind.

But it was so, Petr Kotik had just led the Orchestra of the S.E.M. Ensemble, with Joe Kubera and Ursula Oppens simultaneously playing Winter Music, in almost two hours of some of the most resolutely avant-garde music, and the listening experience was such that the sensation of time was lost completely inside the performance. The extraordinary became the unbelievable.

Kotik had already presented this piece twenty years ago, in a historic concert that became a memorial to the recently deceased composer. And he and the ensemble have recorded it twice, on a recently reissued Wergo album and a great and unfortunately out of print Asphodel release, and these are not only the two finest recordings of Atlas but also two of the finest recordings of Cage’s music available. But the concert exceeded these, reflecting the understanding of such a profound work of art that can only come through time spent examining and thinking about it.

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Last Thursday evening, just before the lights dimmed at the Kimmel Center’s Verizon Hall, the audience purred in anticipation of the evening’s forthcoming concert. Tonight was to be a momentous occasion – the official inaugural concert with Yannick Nézet-Séguin being installed as Music Director.

I expected a concert full of classical music royalty highlighting the event as one of the most important in the Philadelphia Orchestra’s history. What was delivered was an all-around humble performance delivered by, as Mayor Michael Nutter of Philadelphia introduced them, the “greatest orchestra in the world” – the Philadelphia Orchestra.

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If you were having a conversation with fellow music lovers about the great American composers, Carl Ruggles would not be the first person to come to mind. The “Great American Composer” honor is most often bestowed upon Copland, Ives, or even depending on the company you are with, Bernstein.

Courtesy of SONY Music & Other Minds Records

This is not to say, however, that a popularity contest equates to greatness. An equally adept and creative composer, Carl Ruggles produced a small yet intriguing output of pieces for a variety of ensemble types. It is only fair, then, that when recording the complete works of a lesser known composer such as Ruggles, top-tier musicians should be brought in to lead the process. This recording does not disappoint, and the Buffalo Philharmonic, under the leadership of Michael Tilson Thomas, have produced an earnest and committed recording of Ruggles’ entire catalogue.

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Today is the last day you can hear Derive 2 at the BBC’s web site–they stream for one week after the concert. There was a CD released earlier this year that contains this same version (which supersedes the earlier version released by DGG in 2005). I don’t generally think of double reeds in Boulez’s music, but he really gives the oboe and bassoon some wonderful music in Derive 2. It’s conducted by Daniel Barenboim, whose Boulez performances are always colorful and invigorating. You can listen to it here.

Some wonderful recent works heard earlier on the Proms: Canon Fever by Mark-Anthony Turnage (premiere), Laterna Magica by Saariaho (the strongest work of hers that I’ve heard in some time — I’m not a fan of her recent music, preferring her work from the 80s and 90s), and a tight, expressive performance of City Noir, conducted by its composer, John Adams, leading an orchestra featuring students from Juilliard and the Royal Academy of Music.

I’m still trying to catch up to this week’s concerts, which include more Boulez, Steve Martland’s Street Songs, and a Kronos Quartet recital. The home page for the 2012 Proms on BBC is here.

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Princeton Symphony Orchestra

Richardson Auditorium, Princeton, NJ

May 13, 2012

PRINCETON – The Princeton Symphony’s final concert of its classical season included two repertory staples – Brahms’s Fourth Symphony and Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G Major – as well as a revised version of Sarah Kirkland Snider’s sole work to date for orchestra, Disquiet. Although Snider is a rising star in the world of contemporary music, she has thus far made her name as a formidable composer of vocal works, notably the song cycle Penelope, as well as theatre music and chamber compositions for groups such as yMusic and NOW Ensemble.

She first conceived some of the material for Disquiet back in 2000, and the original version of the piece was premiered at Yale while she was a graduate student there in 2004. The revised version given by the Princeton Symphony, conducted by Rossen Milanov, is a single movement tone poem around a quarter of an hour long. Rather than depicting “disquiet” primarily via its pitch or rhythmic language, creating abundant dissonances or angularity, Snider takes another approach: uneasiness is primarily delineated by the work’s formal design. Thus, one may at first be surprised to hear the its often lush harmonies and strong melodic thrust. But as Disquiet unfolds, a labyrinth of disparate gestures and contrasting sections, often supplied in quick succession, imparts the title’s requisite restive sensibility.

Milanov brought out the piece’s wide dynamic shifts, exhorting brash tutti and hushed sustained chords from the orchestra. The piece’s quick sectional shifts allowed several performers brief turns in the spotlight: concertmaster Basia Danilow, clarinetist William Ansel, and flutist Jayn Rosenfeld noteworthy among them.

One hopes that, with this performance under her belt, Snider will get the opportunity to create more works for  orchestra. Given  Disquiet’s colorfully cinematic use of motives, one also wonders whether she might try her hand at film-scoring.

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Why did you have to burn your symphony, Jean?

Sketches for an untitled orchestral work dating from the time Sibelius was writing his Eighth Symphony

Big news from Finland: Sketches of what appear to be Sibelius’s Eighth Symphony (long thought destroyed by Sibelius) have emerged. Here’s a clunky Google translation of the Finnish web site announcing this incredible discovery, along with an orchestral reading of those sketches. At the original Finnish link, you can access a video and hear the realization of the sketches. Those of you who don’t speak Finnish will want to jump ahead to ca. 2:00, where the music actually begins. Yes, it sounds like Sibelius, but a more chromatic and fragmented Sibelius than we’re accustomed to.

A more comfortably written article on the discovery and the musicology supporting the claim can be found here.

And a great big Thank You to Sibelius booster Alex Ross, who hipped me to this at his web site.

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They’ve been piling up, my reviews at, to be passed on to you here. Lots of good music heard the past three months:

San Diego Symphony plays Remembering Gatsby by John Harbison (1/15/11)

Harbison has an ear for arresting sonorities, an original way of arranging chords so that one hears harmonies in a completely new way (Stravinsky, Copland, and Britten all had this talent as well). It’s tempting to call him a conservative composer, but his music never sounds like it’s rehashing older styles. He has carved out his own original voice within the classical music tradition, one in which melody and harmony still prevail, but those melodies and harmonies are unique to Harbison. There is an admirable balance between the Apollonian and the Dionysian in his music; musical craft is evident, but it never gets in the way of expression. It’s usually a pleasure to hear his music live, and Remembering Gatsby is no exception to that.

San Diego Symphony premieres new concerto by Michael Torke (11/19/10):

Most concertos are heroic works, a soloist or soloists struggling against the orchestra to prevail. The rhetoric of Cactus is more intimate. Torke employs a chamber orchestra, and his soloists are given lyrical melodies. The harp and violin often initiate a gesture which the orchestra picks up and takes off in its own direction. Arpeggiated chords turn into sonic pyramids in the orchestra, with each note in the violin or harp sustained by a different orchestral instrument. Ostinatos churn along, but never really continue for that long. There is an element of Sibelius here, where the music is continuously evolving, perhaps a trace of Debussy in the unusual diversions taken from the emotional milieus which had been developed, only to be left behind for something else.

California Quartet and Timothy Durkovic play Bolcom’s Piano Quintet (12/4/10):

William Bolcom has written that his Piano Quintet is based on 19th century models like Schumann and Brahms. You might not guess that listening to Bolcom’s Quintet. Bolcom is probably best known for bringing ragtime and popular music styles into the concert hall, with unabashedly hummable melodies. However, Bolcom’s Quintet is in his thornier idiom—it’s unlikely many audience members will leave the concert whistling any tunes from it….Although Bolcom’s harmonies are rather chromatic, there’s always a sense of tonality lurking beneath the dissonances. Melodically, the motives which are imitated and repeated could be plainly harmonized, but the way Bolcom combines them and chromatically shifts them up or down makes the whole sonority seem more dissonant than the individual lines really are.

Coming soon: Reviews of a David Bruce world premiere and an impressive show by the Wet Ink Ensemble

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Two more pieces of recommended listening from the BBC Proms concerts: Robin Holloway’s Reliquary transforms Schumann’s, er, problematic Gedichte der Königin Maria Stuart into a genuinely beautiful, affecting work. It’s reminiscent of reconstructions and expansions of 19th century music by Berio and Schnittke, and you can listen to it here until Thursday.

Jonathan Dove’s A Song of Joys for chorus and orchestra is a brief and buoyant setting of Walt Whitman. How appropos to see Galen’s post on the influence of John Adams, because that’s who I would have guessed composed this work if I heard it without knowing the composer. However, Dove isn’t an upcoming student composer–he’s 51 years old, and was influenced by Adams ahead of the curve of plenty of other composers his age. The BBC disagrees with me about Dove’s youth, however, where the announcer matter of factly describes him as a “young” composer. I guess Elliott Carter has raised the average age of composers. I turn 50 in November, and I just started writing pieces again. Wow, I’m a young composer!

You can listen to Dove’s A Song of Joys here (give it a try, it’s under 5 minutes).

Finally, Kathy Supove’s The Exploding Piano concert at Le Poisson Rouge from August is available in full at WQXR.  Just click here to listen to lots of piano and electronics and Kathy making what sounds to me like chipmunk noises (intentionally per composer Michael Gatonska’s request). While the streaming can’t convey Kathy’s brilliant red hair or whatever fantastic outfit she wore that evening, the whole concert is a nice preview of her new CD, The Exploding Piano. A neat feature about this page is that unlike other streaming broadcasts, you can isolate individual works on the program. My favorite was Missy Mazzoli’s Isabelle Eberhardt Dreams of Pianos. I don’t hear any Adams at all in her trippy work, so there’s at least one young star on the rise owing nothing to Big John.

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Perhaps I missed it if Rodney Lister posted about this, but fun spectral work, Lignes de fuite by Martin Matalon, heard at the Proms last Thursday, Sept. 2. You have approximately 19 hours left to listen to it free online here.  I don’t hear anything earth-shattering, but it’s well written with lots of electronic-music-like sonorities and a good sense of forward motion.

For anyone online tonight, check out San Diego New Music’s resident ensemble, NOISE, performing in Chihuahua this evening at 8 pm Mountain Standard Time. You can watch it live here. They will perform works by Sidney Marquez Boquiren, Christopher Burns, Matthew Burtner, Christopher Adler, Ignacio Baca-Lobera and Mark Menzies.

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