Archive for the “Piano” Category
Posted by Joshua Banks Mailman in American Music Center, Classical Music, Composers, Concerts, Contemporary Classical, Music Events, New York, Piano, Recitals, Twentieth Century Composer, tags: Augustus Arnone, Babbitt, Focus Festival, Juilliard, Milton Babbitt, piano music, Spectrum, Spectrum Concerts
(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.
Spectrum, 121 Ludlow St, NYC.
More info: http://www.facebook.com/events/185521401798997/
Joshua Banks Mailman
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pianist Matthew McCright
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.
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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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Audibles, a new CD from GIA Wind Works
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.
Listen to Steven Bryant’s Concerto for Piano
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Posted by Chris Becker in Cello, Chamber Music, Classical Music, Composers, Concerts, Contemporary Classical, Houston, Piano, Strings, Violin, tags: Gryphon Trio, Houston Friends of Chamber Music, Leonard Cohen, Ottawa Chamberfest, Patricia O'Callaghan, piano trio
The Gryphon Trio
(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.”
Hutchings, who previously created a series of paintings for the Trio’s performances of Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, is one of several artists who collaborate with the trio to create their symbiotic presentations of visuals and sound.
“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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Posted by Chris Becker in Classical Music, Composers, Contemporary Classical, Houston, Piano, Recordings, Review, tags: Expansions, Frozen Heat, Kris Becker, Nu-Classical, Rice University
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!
Becker’s Expansions is available now on CD Baby and iTunes.
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The critically-acclaimed Palisades Virtuosi presents a very special 10th Anniversary Concert – the first concert of their 2012-2013 season on Friday, November 9 – 8:00 PM at the Unitarian Society of Ridgewood, 113 Cottage Place in Ridgewood, New Jersey. The evening will also include a pre-concert composer and performer talk at 7:15.
Flutist Margaret Swinchoski, clarinetist Donald Mokrynski and pianist Ron Levy began their series of concerts in Ridgewood, New Jersey in 2003, when there were relatively few works composed for their instrumentation. So, their “Mission to Commission” was born. 10 seasons later, there are an additional 60 works of concert repertoire for their ensemble as a direct result of their mission. They include a commissioned work in each of their concerts.
Composers who have written for the group include Eric Ewazen, Carlos Franzetti, Paul Moravec, Melinda Wagner, Gwyneth Walker and Lee Hoiby. See the complete list at http://www.palisadesvirtuosi.org/pvcomposers.html.
November 9 concert repertoire will include the World Premiere of composer Jeff Scott’s Poem for a Lost King, commissioned by The Palisades Virtuosi.
Composer Jeff Scott
The composer writes, “Lost King is a musical poem that has been written as a metaphorical homage to the countless African kings, chiefs and village elders expelled and abducted from their homeland during the middle passage.” Visit Jeff Scott at http://www.imaniwinds.com/artist.php?view=bio&bid=1941.
Repertoire will also include Franz Danzi’s Sinfonia Concertante, Maurice Emmanuel’s Sonate and PV’s first commissioned work Lep-i-dop-ter-o-lo-gy  by Aaron Grad.
Tickets for the November 9 concert are $20, $15 for students and seniors and $10 for children age 12 and under. For tickets or more information, call 201-488-4983, visit http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/286276 or email reservation requests to the Palisades Virtuosi at firstname.lastname@example.org. For directions, go to this link.
Volumes One, Two, Three and Four of the Virtuosi’s New American Masters CD series are available from Albany Records.
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The Dutch composer/performer/poet Samuel Vriezen and I go waaay back on the web, to a time when musicians found each other and some musical conversation on the old Usenet newsgroups. In the dozen-plus years since that time, I’ve watched Samuel be pretty darn active on all kinds of fronts: producing concerts, composing a wonderful body of music, writing and translating poetry… He’s even been invited over this way to the U.S. a few times for presentations of his work.
Samuel’s own musical inclinations have evolved since his time in university, but for a long while now what really interests him is how to set up relatively “simple” musical parameters, that become very “unsimple” and rich through both their process of unfolding, and the performers interaction with those processes and each other.
Given that predilection, I suppose it was almost fated for Samuel to be drawn to the music of Tom Johnson. One of the American composers closely associated with New York Minimalism in the heady 70s and 80s (and well-known at the time as music critic for the Village Voice), Johnson left the U.S. to settle in Paris in the mid-80s, where he’s been ever since. Unlike the ever-more-elaborate, eclectic and programmatic direction his then-compatriots Reich and Glass have traveled, Johnson has remained pretty much focused on exploring purely musical processes; simple “germ” ideas that are rigorously followed, yet result in surprisingly rich music. One such piece is Johnson’s very long 1986 piano work The Chord Catalogue. Johnson simply asked “What would it sound like to play all the chords possible in a single octave?” …Of which there turns out to be 8178 of them! needless to say, though the concept is extremely simple the execution by a pianist is tremendously difficult.
Which brings us back to Samuel Vriezen. Samuel some years ago became so intrigued with the work, that he knew he had to learn and present it himself. And learn and present it he has, many times, to very enthusiastic audiences. His involvement with the piece has even led Samuel to compose some excellent new works, that riff on the same kind of idea that Johnson had.
The reason I’ve been telling you all this? because Samuel has decided that the time has come to get this piece and his performance down on CD, and to do that he’s decided to ask all of us new-music-lovers out there to help raise the money to make that CD a reality. Using the crowd-funding site Indiegogo, Samuel has in rather short order already drummed up over half his $8,000 goal; I think there are a lot of people out there who know this will be one great CD. So click those links I just gave you, head to the Indiegogo site, and let Samuel himself tell you about the piece, his passion, and the project. Besides making this wonderful CD a reality, your donation can score you some really nice perks (see the right side bar for a description). To quote Rosie the Riveter, WE CAN DO IT!
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