Friday, 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.
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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In a sea of pianists sailing toward contemporary shores, the vessel of Alessandro Stella stands out for its hydrodynamic contours. Stella has performed widely across Europe—more recently, in South America—and was central, among other projects, in reviving Giacinto Scelsi’s early chamber works under auspices of the Isabella Scelsi Foundation.
On Midwinter Spring, his first recital disc for Italy’s KHA Records, he presents works by Giya Kancheli, Arvo Pärt, and Pēteris Vasks. Even without the program in hand, one can already feel the possibilities for continuity and artful contrast between these composers. All three have gained worldwide notoriety for larger-scale symphonies, concertos, and choral masterpieces. Yet their piano repertoires, given due attention here, have yielded some of the more vital statements of classical expression in recent decades.
To begin, Stella offers 16 selections from Kancheli’s Simple Music for Piano, a collection of melodies written for stage and screen. First published in 2009 and divorced from its visual contexts, Simple Music has taken on a life of its own, not least of all in 2010’s Themes from the Songbook, released on ECM New Series. Yet where that album had a distinctively Piazzolla-esque veneer (due not least of all to the participation of bandoneón virtuoso Dino Saluzzi), here the themes breathe nakedly. Stella plays with an expressivity so holistic that one can practically hear him singing through the keyboard. A dancing quality that recalls the soundtracks of Eleni Karaindrou pervades these vignettes, each born of a nostalgia that, while distant at first, over the course of a listen morphs into something uniquely one’s own. Contrary to what the title would have us believe, there is nothing simple about this music, as evidenced in the way Stella approaches particular pieces. Whether in his evocation of moonlight in No. 23 (“Bear’s Kiss”) or the chromatic inflections of No. 25 (“Hamlet”), Stella’s attention to detail reveals incarnate patience.
Following these, Arvo Pärt’s Für Alina (1976) comes across even more cinematically. Images of stardust and other cosmic beauties may be easy go-tos for the reviewer’s metaphorical toolkit, but in this case any such descriptions would be apt. In the expanse of Pärt’s seminal tintinnabulations, the human heart begins to feel like a small satellite indeed. Stella’s treasure-seeking becomes more obvious in his choice of Variationen zur Gesundung von Arinuschka. Pärt’s 1977 composition describes a far more intimate universe. Its transitions from legato to pointillist notecraft indicate a robust inner child in composer and performer alike.
Baltā ainava (White Scenery) by Vasks brings about a logical conclusion. Composed 1981 and played exclusively on the white keys, it is, like the preceding works, as potentially infinite in resonance as it is fundamental in construction. Stella lays down its block chords with extra-musical awareness, giving each cluster room to breathe. Arpeggios in the left hand are contrasted by two-note motifs in the right, like footprints pressed into the album’s cover scenery toward unknown destinations. The uncertainty of it all makes it that much more inviting, and combines elements of Kancheli and Pärt with an indefinable third.
In the interest of gaining insider perspective, I conducted an e-mail interview with Mr. Stella, who was kind enough to elucidate some of the finer points of this project.
What inspired you to put these three composers together on one album?
What is common to these three great composers is a deep spirituality and an extraordinary ability to shape time and its perception.
The program is very cohesive, but I imagine that as the performer you have insights into how each piece is different from the others. Can you talk about compositional, emotional, or structural differences between them?
Kancheli, Pärt, and Vasks have many things in common, being from the same generation and geographical area. Nevertheless, each has his own history and, of course, a recognizable style. Kancheli’s miniatures are based on his music for cinema and theater, which he wrote over a period of decades. Many are actual songs, like the first track of the album—the famous “Herio Bichebo” (see video above)—and are written in a tonal style. Some fragments and themes are recurrent in other compositions of Kancheli. The composer himself has said that he can’t always remember where a particular theme first appeared. The two Pärt compositions are the cornerstones of his tintinnabuli style, the result of seven long years of research and creative silence. This is a style in which the rigor of the tintinnabuli voice contrasts with the exceptional freedom of the principal voice. Lastly, the Vasks piece is built upon two fundamental ideas that alternate, vary, and repeat themselves in a hypnotic continuum. However, I must emphasize that what attracted me the most about these three composers, in addition to their distinctive features, is the role silence plays in their music. Each pause and resonance is of crucial importance and represents the music’s very essence.
How much preparation did you require to make this recording sound the way you wanted it to sound?
For some time I would play this music almost every day for my own pleasure and enrichment, until it was clear to me that I wanted to record it. I played, sang, recorded, and listened to this music for months. It was similar to the work of a sculptor who achieves the ultimate result by removing material until only that which is essential remains.
You once told me how pleased Kancheli was with your performances of his work. Can you expand on your communications with him throughout the recording process, and after?
About two years ago, I wrote to Maestro Kancheli explaining that I wanted to record some of his miniatures. He was enthusiastic about it and gave me his authorization, giving me as much freedom as possible in matters of selection and interpretive choices. About a year later, I sent him the CD as soon as it was finished. I was deeply moved by the words he expressed about my work. Last February (2016), I finally had the opportunity to meet him. The Italian Embassy in Georgia organized a concert in Tbilisi in his honor, so I had the great privilege to give the premiere in Georgia and to play his miniatures for piano in his presence. It was one of the most intense experiences of my entire life.
Alessandro Stella (left) and Giya Kancheli (right) in Tbilisi, 2016
What is the overall message of the album for you, and what do you hope listeners will get from it?
Every new album is the result of deep reflections. The finished album is often different from how I thought it would be and this work of progressive “polishing” is essential to me. The idea, the initial intuition, however, usually does not change. If anything, it guides me in the right direction. It has always been clear to me that Midwinter Spring was supposed to be a journey out of time, insofar as we are used to perceiving it in our everyday life. Through this apparent simplicity, the music of Kancheli, Pärt, and Vasks makes us connect with our deepest life experiences. Everything in this album was conceived to serve this purpose: the drama of the track order, the cover, the pauses, even the title. I hope this album will be an intense emotional experience to those who listen to it; an experience they will be willing to repeat.
Have you performed this exact program in a live setting? If so, what were the audience reactions?
I presented the program for the first time live last December (2015) in Liverpool. After playing this music at home and in the studio for so long, sharing it with an audience was a truly special experience. I was afraid that the ritual of the concert would contrast with the extremely intimate nature of this music. But in the end, its extraordinary evocative power created an atmosphere of “magical suspension” during the concert. And this was confirmed to me by the beautiful words of the people I talked to afterward.
This music might easily be interpreted as melancholy, but there is also something hopeful about it. Do you agree with this, and if so, how do you make sure that balance is preserved when you are playing it?
I totally agree with this and this idea is at the center of the entire album, starting from the title, Midwinter Spring. Taken from a verse by T. S. Eliot, this expression evokes the hope for a new life, as expressed by the branches coming out of the snow on the album’s cover, symbolizing hope for rebirth. All of this is inherent to the music. Melancholy is the dominant feeling of the program, but there is much more in this music: in an instant you get carried from a sense of deep desolation to nostalgia for something that no longer exists; from the unreality of a dream to a sense of hope. The music itself evokes all these possibilities. And the artist has to grasp them and follow them, just letting the music talk to him.
(This is an expansion of an earlier post for a concert ultimately postponed due to snowstorm Jonas in January)
Augustus Arnone performs a double bill of Milton Babbitt’s solo piano works including the complete Time Series, at Spectrum, Sunday March 6, at 12-5 pm (12 and 3:30)
This year marks the centenary of the legendary composer Milton Babbitt (1916-2011). To my ears, his extensive body of piano works especially channels his singular charm as a raconteur. Over the decades a number of pianists have championed some of his major piano works, for instance Robert Helps and Robert Miller performing and recording his Partitions (1957) and Post-Partitions (1966) in early days and much more recently Marilyn Nonken did as much with Allegro Penseroso (1999). Babbitt’s Reflections for piano and synthesized tape (1975) has been performed by the likes of Anthony de Mare, Martin Goldray, Aleck Karis, and Robert Taub, the latter two of whom also recorded it. Robert Taub and Martin Goldray recorded and released full-length CDs. Alan Feinberg too presented stellar renditions of Minute Waltz (1977), Partitions (1957), It Takes Twelve to Tango (1984), Playing for Time (1979), and About Time (1982) on a 1988 CRI CD.
Yet only one pianist has earned the distinction of presenting the entire oeuvre of Babbitt’s solo piano works in concert. And that is Augustus Arnone, who performed the entire set, spread over two concerts, in 2008. In honor of the Babbitt centenary, Arnone is performing the entire set again (this time spread over three concerts) at Spectrum on Ludlow in NYC. Due to a postponement caused by storm Jonas in January, Arnone is performing the second and third concerts in one afternoon this weekend!
The largest work on the program is Canonical Form (1983) which I’ve heard several Babbitt aficionados recently describe as their “favorite” and “most beautiful” Babbitt composition. The most recent work is The Old Order Changeth (1998). Arnone’s performance also presents a rare opportunity to hear the entire ‘The Time Series’ (Playing For Time (1977), About Time (1982), Overtime (1987)), the last part of which has never been released on a commercial recording. This much constitutes concert II, the first half of this Sunday’s double bill, which starts at 12 noon.
In the final concert (concert III) which starts at 3:30, Arnone presents a variety of works spanning nearly all of Babbitt’s professional career, from the mid 1940s through the remainder of the 20th century and beyond. Tutte Le Corde (1994) represents Babbitt’s most streamlined and ingratiating late style, which is a nice inclusion for the final recital of the series. On this recital we’ll also be treated to some of Babbitt’s wittiest and pithiest: Minute Waltz (1977) and It Takes Twelve to Tango (1984), which are perhaps the only Babbitt works to clearly project rhythms associated with a familiar genre. It Takes Twelve to Tango leaves us unsure whether to imagine a single 12-legged Argentinian dancing spider or a communal square dance gone dodecahedral! Either way, brilliant sparks fly from these eccentric collisions of tradition and avant garde.
Babbitt’s Three Compositions for Piano (1947), the earliest work in the series, is to my ears the closest Babbitt ever came to neo-classicism, its first movement being a clean perpetuum mobile and its second movement a veiled tribute to Schoenberg’s expressive piano textures. While Duet (1956) is the closest Babbitt ever came to a lullaby, his Semi-Simple Variations, of the same year, is perhaps his jazziest jaunt on the ivories, an adventure amusingly exploited in the Bad Plus and Mark Morris Dancers’ adaptation.
Of course the series wouldn’t be complete without Babbitt’s most uncompromising trailblazing Partitions (1957) and Post-partitions (1966). Nowhere is his engenius originality more startlingly on display than in these works. In Partitions in particular, the activation and deactivation of various high, low, and middle registers of the piano guides the listener through an uncanny but navigable maze of contrapuntal intricacy.
Between the two concerts, at 2:30, will be an interview-discussion between me and Indiana University composer-theorist Andrew Mead, a former student of Babbitt’s at Princeton and author of the acclaimed book An Introduction to the Music of Milton Babbitt (1994, Princeton University Press) and many articles. This will also be an opportunity for questions from the audience. Whether you’ve been merely curious about Milton Babbitt’s music and legacy, or are already a long-time follower, this is an opportunity to spend part of the afternoon in the good company of Babbitt’s music and its admirers.
Augustus Arnone: The Complete Piano Works Of Milton Babbitt, Concerts II & III
Sunday March 6, concert II at 12 pm; pre-concert discussion at 2:30; concert III at 3:30.
$20, $15 (Students/Seniors) for each concert or $30/20 for both concerts.
At the risk of sounding like an Internet meme, one does not simply perform Olivier Messiaen. A performer must take certain risks, and prepare for the very real possibility that the performance may not show the mysteries of the piece. Minnesota-based pianist Matthew McCright, a member of the piano faculty at Carleton College and pianist for the new music group Ensemble 61, has proven to be an intrepid explorer of new music, and knows where to go to find the inner machinery of Messiaen’s works. In his fifth CD release, Contemplations: The Music of Olivier Messiaen (available from Albany Records), McCright tackles six of the Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus (Twenty contemplations of the infant Jesus), as well as the eight Préludes from Messiaen’s early output.
The six Regards chosen by McCright work well as a sub-unit of the full collection (which would take nearly two hours). McCright opens the CD with the ten-minute “Regard du Père” (“Contemplation of the Father”). This piece, the first of the Vingt Regards, requires a deft, sustainable touch, and McCright proves equal to the task, never letting the sound overwhelm the listener. This is Messiaen at his most introspective, and McCright lets the music breathe and meditate. McCright does get a chance to show off impressive technique with the sixth track, “Noël” (“Christmas Day”), which depicts the joy of the Nativity and the sounding of bells throughout all Christendom. The pianist has done his homework throughout the Vingt Regards, bringing Messiaen’s many leitmotivs to the listener’s attention without being pedantic.
In the Préludes of 1929, Messiaen is paying tribute to Debussy, but goes beyond Debussy’s vocabulary to lay the foundation for the language and mysticism we find in the later Vingt Regards. The backwards chronological focus of the CD provides a nice contrast to the “this happened then this happened then this happened” path that many performers have taken in the past with recordings of these works. McCright approaches the Préludes in a manner that is both appropriately athletic and musical; this is most obvious in the final section of the third movement, “Le nombre léger” (“A light number”). McCright proves that for Messiaen, “light” need not mean “insubstantial.”
McCright gets Messiaen, and that is no small feat.
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On Tuesday November 11, 2014 Piano Spheres presented a concert by Richard Valitutto entitled NAKHT. The venue was the RedCat performing arts space at Disney Hall in downtown Los Angeles, and the 275 available seats were mostly filled to hear an evening of solo piano nocturnes. This was the first major recital by Richard Valitutto, who is a member of several leading new music ensembles that appear regularly throughout the city.
The concert opened, appropriately enough, with Nocturnes (1929 – 38) by Francis Poulenc. Five nocturnes were played from this piece and the first of these, No 1 in C major, began with a warm and welcoming feeling and reflecting, from time to time, just the slightest tinge of regret. This piece gracefully unfolded with an accessible beauty. The acoustics in the hall were good and Richard applied a sensitive touch to the flowing melody line and its stately ending. The second movement, No 5 in D minor, has a much quicker feel, like a group of children running about inside a large house. The subtitle of this nocturne translates to “moths” and perhaps this accounts for the lively feel. The fast runs and rapid rhythms were accurately and precisely rendered while at the same time allowing the playfulness of the music to come through.
Other nocturnes from Poulenc were variously slow and stately with an introspective feel, sophisticated and engaging, like a group of friends out on the town or dramatic and expressive. The last nocturne, No 8 in G major, was softer and more reserved, almost church-like in its solemnity, but with a certain uplifting sensibility. All these Poulanec nocturnes were played with an ease and smoothness that highlighted a sense of openness and warmth.
The second piece in the concert was as above, so below (2014) by Richard Valitutto and this occasion was the world premiere. Some adjustments were required; the music rack on the piano was rotated allowing access to the strings within. As above, so below began with the plucking of isolated strings – with those in the higher registers sounded with a bell-like purity and were left hanging nicely in the air. The lower notes produced more of a clanking sound, but this made for a good contrast. The listener soon became accustomed to the use of these extended techniques, and as the piece proceeds they become a normal feature of the sound palette. Eventually notes were struck from the keyboard and this registered as a more percussive sound compared to the lovely sustained pitches of the plucked strings. A dialogue unfolds between the two sounds as the piece gradually develops into a quiet, meandering mystery. It is like a nocturnal wandering inside an old house while hearing the chimes of a grandfather clock. Based on the lunar cycle and “..simple canonic procedures like those we hear in Renaissance and Baroque music” as above, so below has a more flowing, introspective feel than its underlying structure might suggest, resulting in a pleasing level of thoughtful reflection.
Due Notturni crudeli (2000) by Salvatore Sciarrino was next and the first movement Senza tempo e scandito started with a series of strong, pounding high notes followed by a pause, a short passage and then a repeat. This became a steady, march-like pulse as the piece progressed, broken only by rapid runs that skipped down the keyboard. The feeling was quite unlike a traditional nocturne and was more reminiscent of an automaton caught in some perpetual factory process. Intimidating and impersonal, this movement only turned softer towards the end as it slowly died away. The second movement, Furia, metallo, was even more forceful, with loud pounding chords and rapid runs in the middle registers. There were a few quiet stretches but these simply served to reinforce to harshness of the more robust sections. The program notes for this piece state “…the predominating attitude is one of violence and hysteria, examining the dichotomy of disparate gestures and their pugnacious incompatibility.” The playing by Richard Valitutto was skillful throughout and carefully attuned to the strong emotions present in Due Notturni crudeli – the cruel nocturnes.
After a short intermission La chouette hulotte (1956-58) from Catalogue d ‘oiseaux, 3 Livre by Olivier Messiaen began with an ominous feel, like walking outside into the inky blackness of a cloudy night. Changing rhythms and running passages ensued, with a building sense of uncertainty and tension. The title of this piece translates to Tawny Owl, and is part of the Messiaen series of piano works that focus on birds and bird calls. He writes about this piece: “Darkness, fear, the heart beating too fast, the meowing and barking Little Owl, the cries of the Long-Eared Owl, and then there is the call of the Tawny Owl: sometimes gloomy and painful, sometimes vague and disturbing (with a strange tremor), sometimes shouted out in terror like the cry of a murdered child!” All of this is viscerally present in La chouette hulotte; at times Richard Valitutto seemed to be attacking the keyboard and at other times caressing it, artfully drawing out all of the foreboding and drama that is packed into this piece.
Next was a work by Aleksandr Skryabin, Poem-Nocturne, OP 61, (1912) and this began with a light, rolling melody accompanied by warm chords. This is a more traditional type of nocturne and is evidence of very controlled writing – there is a sense of slight tension and of something held back. Skryabin was heavily influenced by Chopin and, as the program notes state: “…during his middle years Skryabin became interested in composing ‘poems’, an appellation he derived from the late-Romantic concept of tone poem. However, unlike those heroic and tragic chronicles, most of Skryabin’s piano poems focus on the ephemeral beauty of a few simple gestures, favoring grace over grandiosity.” The delicate sense of anticipation in Poem-Nocturne approaches impressionism in its simplicity and subdued texture, and the understated feelings were all carefully articulated in this performance.
The final work of the evening was NCTRN (2014) by Los Angeles composer Nicholas Deyoe, commissioned for this concert by Piano Spheres. For this piece the piano was prepared so that the right-most key made a wooden knocking sound instead of hitting the string to make a note. This simple adjustment became an effective focal point as the piece progressed. Anyone familiar with the music of Nicholas Deyoe would normally expect to hear a thunderous roar from the piano, but apart from a few sharp chords NCTRN was a model of carefully controlled atmospherics. This is surprisingly economical music, with pauses and silences that added to a deep, evocative feel. The knocking sound made by the prepared key produced a keen sense of slowly building anticipation, becoming more insistent as the piece progressed. The sudden ending was the perfect, unexpected finish. The playing was everything NCTRN required – a fine touch with precise control that sustained the tautness throughout. The audience received this performance with sustained applause and cheering.
With artists like Gloria Cheng, Mark Robson, Vicky Ray and others, Piano Spheres has, with this satellite series concert by Richard Valitutto, recognized a new voice for the music of an upcoming generation.
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The Brand Library in Glendale was the site for an evening of piano music by Steve Moshier on Saturday, October 25. Cynthia Law performed three Moshier pieces, including the premiere of Into the Safety of the Abyss (2014).
The concert opened with Unchained Melody: Eight Bagatelles for Piano (1999) and the first of these began with a series of strong, decisive chords that invoked an important, stately feel The opening passages were repeated in the higher registers, slightly subdued, before returning to the powerful lower chords. The second bagatelle was softer but along the same lines, as if a development on the opening theme. It featured a bit more complexity as well as counterpoint that produced a sense of rolling motion.
Other movements of the Eight Bagatelles for Piano were variously fast and running or featured melody and counterpoint that smoothly changed between the left and right hands. The forth bagatelle, Andante non troppo e grazioso, was perhaps the most characteristically Moshier – starting out slowly but with an exotic feel, turning more introspective with a question and answer dialogue in the passages. The contrast in dynamics in this section were nicely accented by Ms. Law and there were a number of sections that featured well-played counterpoint.
Bagatelle 7 featured a series of light arpeggios that gave a feeling of uplift with a counter melody that contained an elegant, distinguished polish reminiscent of a Beethoven sonata. The final bagatelle started as a fast, irregular series of notes – like code carrying some message. This was accompanied by a series of bright chords that gradually turned warm, followed by some nice syncopation in the right hand. The piece finished strongly in the deep lower registers , recalling the declarative feeling of the opening movement.
The music of Steve Moshier is most closely connected with the Liquid Skin Ensemble and this piano music was recognizably similar, with its precisely regular rhythms and crisp minimalistic repetition. Ms. Law provided an accurate, even reading – exactly what this music requires. The piano filled the recital hall with a big sound that was especially effective in the lower registers.
The Society for Minimalist Music is holding their biennial conference this year on the campus of Cal State Long Beach from October 3d through the 6th. Opening day included a concert of piano music by primarily west coast-influenced composers who have appeared on the Cold Blue Music label, and two of whom – Michael Jon Fink and Kyle Gann – were in attendance. The venue was the Daniel Recital Hall which comfortably held the audience, consisting mostly of conference attendees. The pianist was Bryan Pezzone.
The wide variety of expression in this concert – even within the context of piano music – illustrates the extent to which minimalist music has evolved past its stereotypical image of repetition and stasis. Nine pieces by six composers were listed on the program; here are some impressions and reactions.
The concert opened with Five Pieces for Piano Solo (1997) by Michael Jon Fink, whose spare, soft style is very engaging. Part 1, Passing, starts off with single tones and then a series of interesting chords that build into a slight tension. This continues in part 2, Mode, now with some dissonance, producing a somewhat more strident sound. Fragment, for Lou Harrison, the third part, provides a welcome contrast with a series of soothing low arpeggios that are then repeated in a higher register. The tension reappears in part 4, Echo with the same repeating figure and is resolved in the last part, Epitaph‘ with a slow, calming bell-like finish – the final chord seems to hang in the air, evaporating into silence. The long pauses between parts and the simple elegance of the sequences add to the introspective nature of this quiet music.
Hermetic Bird, a section from Peter Garland’s Bright Angel (1996) followed with a driving, bright sound incorporating powerful chords and echoes. It is as if a light has been switched on or you are facing the sun just above the horizon. This piece was written in memory of Kuniharu Akiyama and according to the program notes, Garland states that “Bright Angel refers to a view point on the north rim of the Grand Canyon, where one gets a spectacular view of canyons and depths. I was there at sunset, thinking of Kuniharu and of this piece, thinking about life and death.” As the work progresses it becomes softer with overtones floating above thick chords and sounding almost church-like. The piece concludes with louder section supported by a prominent bass line and is as satisfying in its strength as the ending of Five Pieces for Piano Solo was in its softness.
A second Garland piece was heard, The View from Vulture Peak (1987) and this was followed by Ponkapoag Bog (2008-09) by Daniel Lentz. This has a warm, soft feel – as reflective and nostalgic as Garland’s music is dynamic. Ponkapoag Bog is filled with lovely chords that become bouncy and playful as the piece progresses – a full sound that is bubbly and almost dance-like at times. Daniel Lentz is based in Santa Barbara, California but interestingly this piece was commissioned by Dr. Richard Marcus of Dorchester, Massachusetts, and Ponkapoag Bog is an actual historic New England Native American site nearby. Ponkapoag Bog is a sunny piece, full of optimism, and in its denser sections reminded me a bit of a Prokofiev piano concerto.
Sad from Kyle Gann’s Private Dances (2000) suite was next. According to the program notes, Kyle “…had to excise some of the original 11-against-13 rhythms, but the piece is still tricky. The idea was to have a clear harmonic rhythm while thoroughly obscuring the meter…” Byran Pezzone carried this off nicely and to my ears the ornamented moving line in the melody and the solemn – but never somber – feel of this piece sounded almost conventional. Private Dances was commissioned by Sarah Cahill and was premiered by her on a New Albion CD.
as she sleeps (2000) by Michael Byron followed, a piece consisting of soft chords, pauses and a spare, economical style as befits a work dedicated to the composer’s daughter. The other pieces listed on the program were La Ciudad de Nuestra Senora la Reina de Los Angeles (1980) by David Mahler, and Requium (1976), another Daniel Lentz piece. The program concluded with Celesta Solo (1981)by Michael Jon Fink.
Bryan Pezzone, known for his film and studio work, did a masterful job on the keyboards, readily adapting to the different styles and requirements of each piece. Afterwords, Cold Blue Music hosted a reception in the lobby, and Jim Fox could be seen moving among the guests with his usual gregariousness. It was a fine evening for hearing minimalist music and for reconnecting with acquaintances.
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American composer Steven Bryant has recently contributed a beautiful new piece to the piano-and-winds repertoire. Commissioned by pianist Pamela Mia Paul, Bryant’s Concerto for Piano was recorded for the GIA Wind Works label, as part of a new disc entitled Audibles. The performers are Paul and the North Texas Wind Symphony, conducted by Eugene Migliaro Corporon.
Concertos for piano and wind instruments are a rare breed. The twentieth century produced only a handful of them, the most famous being Stravinsky’s Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments (1923-24, revised 1950). Shortly after Stravinsky, Colin McPhee wrote Concerto for Piano and Wind Octet in 1928. In 1943 Henry Cowell composed Little Concerto, for piano and band, and George Perle contributed Concertino for Piano, Winds, and Timpani in 1979. More recently additions to the genre include the Norwegian composer Mark Adderly’s Triptych for Solo Piano, Orchestra of Winds and Percussion (1988), and Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments by Kevin Volans (1995). Bryant’s compelling work is likely to become a well known member of this lesser known genre.
Composer Steven Bryant
Bryant explains that the two contrasting movements of the concerto are constructed from the same set of descending dyads. The first movement begins in wistful, contemplative simplicity, slowly unfolds, reaches towards its triumphant and spirited zenith, and then recedes again. The arc structure of the movement is elegantly punctuated by a shift from descending to ascending motion at the halfway point. The second movement, with its running sixteenth notes and playful syncopated rhythms, is a display of virtuosity for soloist and ensemble alike. In both movements Bryant uses the concise material to develop music that is thematically cohesive, rhythmically compelling, and filled with timbral beauty. Paul’s performance is clear, powerful, and supportive of the compositional structure.
Also included on the disc are compositions by Brett William Dietz, Donald White, Jess Turner, Francisco Jose Martinez Gallego, Carter Pann, and Justin Freer. Audibles is available on Amazon and also at www.giamusic.com.
(Houston, TX) Next week here in Houston, contemporary music rears its terrifying head in the form of Canada’s Gryphon Trio on two very different concerts presented by the Houston Friends of Chamber Music. On Sunday, February 10, the Trio and special guest soprano Patricia O’Callaghan present and evening of contemporary cabaret music in support of their recent CD collaboration Broken Hearts and Madmen, which includes stunning arrangements of songs by Laurie Anderson, Leonard Cohen, Nick Drake, Astor Piazzolla, and Elvis Costello. On Tuesday, February 12, the Trio performs a program of piano trio music at Rice University, including contemporary works by Christos Hatzis and Valentin Silvestrov, accompanied by projected visuals by artist Stephen Hutchings.
From its inception the Trio, Annalee Patipatanakoon (violin), Roman Borys (cello), and Jamie Parker (piano), has been committed to playing and programming concerts that equally combine classical and contemporary repertoire.
“Although the very first piece we played together was Beethoven’s Opus 70, No. 1, the ‘ghost’ trio,” says Borys, “it wasn’t long after that that we gave our first world premier. There was never any sort of aversion to contemporary music. That kind of resistance to contemporary music is such a thing of the past. We knew many composers as friends and were very keen to work with them and have them write pieces for us.”
The trio’s name was chosen to signal their interest in all of the arts, not just classical music.
“We wanted to be careful to choose a name that allowed for artistic diversification,” says Borys. “We enjoyed the fact that this creature, the gryphon, was the guardian of treasures and a combination of cosmic energies.”
“He has an incredible sense of what’s out there in the contemporary music world and is very curious,” says Borys of Hutchings. “His practice as a visual artist is very much tied to and inspired by music. He almost always listens to contemporary music when he’s painting.”
Soprano Patricia O’Callaghan
“People are so led by what they see,” Borys continues. “Visuals are such a powerful thing in general. When we create these pieces with visuals, we’re very conscious of that. We’re trying to create a visual environment that stimulates the person having the experience in such a way that it leads to their hearing the piece in a more intense way.”
O’Callaghan, who has performed with the Trio on several projects, occupies a unique place in the world of contemporary song performance. She initially began her career thinking she would sing opera.
Says O’Callaghan, “I did my degree, I got a grant, and went to study in Austria and began auditioning for opera houses. And I thought that that was what I was going to do, live in Europe and be an opera singer. But I really felt like I didn’t fit into that world. I really felt like an outsider, and even a little bit hemmed in by it.”
O’Callaghan then began a transition out of classical and operatic singing into a style better suited for the repertoire that was truly resonating with her, including songs by Kurt Weill, songs made famous by the great Edith Piaf, and the aforementioned Cohen, who she pays tribute to on her album MATADOR: The Songs of Leonard Cohen.
“It’s a completely different way of singing,” says O’Callaghan of her particular brand of contemporary cabaret. “Since I sang in rock bands before my classical days, I guess I could sort of reverse. But that kind of (classical) training just doesn’t disappear. It really gets in to your body.”
“A lot of the experimentation with singing happened for me in the recording studio,” she continues. “I would hear something, and then play it back and go, ‘No, I’ve gotta do something more laid back, more subtle.’ It’s been a really long learning process, trying to figure out how to sing the repertoire in a way that is natural. It’s about finding your own voice.”
Both Borys, who also directs Canada’s long-running Ottawa Chamberfest, and O’Callaghan agree that in the world of post-music conservatory performance, in concert halls and clubs across the world, the walls between classical performance and other idioms are coming down.
“It’s not an easy thing to do, to bridge genres,” says O’Callaghan. “Every genre has its strengths and weaknesses in terms of training as a musician. But I just find you can learn so much if you do bridge genres, if you do work with musicians from different disciplines. But not everyone can do it, and not everyone can do it well.”
“I would still say that we are on the cutting edge,” O’Callaghan concludes. “But I do feel like there is a trend to doing this more and more in the world today.”
Houston Friends of Chamber Music present The Gryphon Trio, Sunday, February 10, 7:30 p.m. at the Main Street Theater, Chelsea Market, 4617 Blvd. with special guest Patricia O’Callaghan, performing songs by Nick Drake, Leonard Cohen, Elvis Costello and others, and February 12, 7:30 p.m. at Stude Concert Hall, Shepherd School of Music at Rice University, performing chamber music of Valentin Silvestrov, Christos Hatzis, Antonín Dvořák, and Joseph Haydn.
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Pianist and composer Kris Becker (photo by Bhavin)
(Houston, TX) “Ah! Expression!” That’s the first thing that came out of my mouth when I cued up and heard “Elegy,” the poignant, yet unsentimental first track on Houston-based pianist and composer Kris Becker’s new recording Expansions. Becker is a classically trained pianist and composer with a passion for both 19th century and prog-rock piano and a compositional vision well served by his formidable technique. Like the song says, “Oh, yeah! The boy can play!” But it’s the range of expression in Becker’s playing and writing that ultimately resonates with me.
Real quick, let me explain the name thing. Kris and I are not related, although we are definitely brothers in spirit. We’ve even performed on the same bill, albeit separately, me on laptop cuing and mixing electronic and sample-based sounds to accompany avant-garde films, and Kris on Nord playing both what he calls his “nu-classical” repertoire and rock influenced songs. When I first relocated the Houston, the local press managed to mix the two of us up at least once (my photo appeared above Kris’ name in an ad for a gig with his rock band Frozen Heat). So just to clarify, it’s Kris with a “K,” okay?
Okay. Now back to the music. Expansions features 13 tracks, 11 of them compositions for solo piano. “Covenant” is a feisty dialogue for clarinet (played by Sarunas Jankauskas) and piano, and the title track is a seven and a half minute theme and variations for solo flute beautifully performed by Victoria Hauk.
There’s no question Becker’s formidable (that word again) piano skills have everything to do with generating the compositional material he has shaped into an award-winning, body of work. But there’s heart and soul in the man’s music, not just technical fireworks. His compositions, especially the compositions on Expansions, are intensely programmatic and poetic, a fact one can gather not only from Becker’s liner notes but the expressive and dynamic directions you see in his scores (a couple of my favorites include “scintillating and terrifying” and “twisted”).
Expansions closes with a four-movement monster of a of a piece “Piano Sonata No. 1,” which is dedicated to Becker’s Rice-era piano instructor Robert Roux. Becker appreciated my description of this piece as a “monster,” and told me that in fact that’s how the piece struck him after he first heard it back in its entirety. Several tempo and meter changes, as well as the breadth of expressive demands on the player, sets the piece firmly outside of the camp of this generation’s latest batch of post-minimialists. It’s a hell of a lot of fun to listen to. At times, especially in the first movement, I’m reminded of Louis Moreau Gottschalk, though Becker is quick to name check Keith Emerson as he is Chopin and of the usual 19th century long hairs. “Piano Sonata No. 1” deservedly won the 2012 National Federation of Music Clubs Emil and Ruth Beyer Composition Award.
Like any good romantic, Becker is determined to realize his music, his way, maintaining what a friend of mine calls “aesthetic ownership” of a very personal musical vision. Sure, Becker can tear up Mozart and Beethoven, but why play it safe? His drive compels him to a road a little less traveled. It’s a hard road, but many classically trained musicians these days are similarly deciding to forgo the traditional and instead cut their own artistic path. So Kris with a “K” is in good company!