Ittai Shapira's new CD, released this month, includes his new violin concerto, to be premiered on April 20th.
Ittai Shapira is best known as an internationally acclaimed soloist with an impressive list of collaborators that includes some of the world’s finest conductors and orchestras. He is a champion of contemporary music, having premiered concertos by many of todays most renowned composers, including Kenji Bunch, Shulamit Ran, Theodore Wiprud, Avner Dorman, and Dave Heath.
While still a violin student years ago, Shapira studied analysis and composition with Mark Kopytman. He loved composing, but his performance career soon grew too busy to allow for any other callings, so he kept his creative spark alive by writing his own cadenzas to the standard violin concertos. Over the last decade, his many collaborations with composers have reconnected him to the creative process and rekindled his early passion for writing music. Since 2008 he has written two violin concertos, as well as a series of fiendishly challenging solo violin caprices.This month the British label Champs Hill Records released a CD of Shapira’s two violin concertos, Concierto Latino (2008) and The Old Man And The Sea (2011), as well as his Caprice Habanera (2010).
The most recent of these works, The Old Man And The Sea, is an exciting, larger-than-life piece in the grand tradition of the virtuoso violin concerto. Inspired by Earnest Hemingway’s classic novel of the same title, the work is full of soulful melodies, dramatic orchestration, and dazzling technical passages, all delivered on the recording with Shapira’s smooth tone and powerhouse virtuosity. While the piece keeps a close programmatic relationship to the novel, it also stands on it’s own as a compelling work, and a substantial contribution to the violin repertoire. The recorded performance is with Neil Thomson and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra.
In a recent conversation, I asked Shapira about his compositional process for The Old Man And The Sea. He explained that the idea first came to him while on a concert tour in 2008, when he found himself based in Key West, Florida, for several days. Not surprisingly, he was struck by the beauty of the locale, but he also became very interested in the local fishing culture. Shortly after this trip, when the BP oil spill devastated the whole region, Shapira felt moved to write a piece that was in some way related to the lives of the Gulf Stream fishermen. As a long time fan of Hemingway, it did not take him long to connect his new inspiration to Hemingway’s great novel, and when Molloy College commissioned him to write a piece for the “Innovative Classics Series” all the pieces fell into place.
As with his first concerto, Shapira prepared for this new endeavour by composing some solo pieces, in this case caprices with Carribean and Cuban stylistic elements. Describing his process, Shapira says,” In every piece I write there is an ‘outside influence’ because that is how I learn; this leads to different harmonic languages, different sound worlds, and consequently different bow techniques. The caprices that I write are always studies towards these new styles.” The solo piece included on this disc, Caprice Habanera, was indeed a study for The Old Man And The Sea.
Vassily Primakov and Natalia Lavrova Photo:Alex Fedorov
Pianists Vassily Primakov and Natalia Lavrova are very much their own acts. But they became close partners when they debuted their Arensky CD and, in the process, founded their own record label, LP Classics, Inc. Since then, they’ve performed as a duo, as they will on May 6 at Get Classical’s inaugural concert series event at New York’s Rose Bar.But their friendship began much earlier, back in 1999, when the two pianists were freshmen at Julliard.
They instantly connected over their shared Russian heritage, but on top of that, their personalities just clicked. “Of course, we have had our share of fights, regular stuff that happens when two egos are involved…and we have our own lives,” volunteers Lavrova, during our animated interview over dinner with Primakov. “But we love each other.”
Photo: Alex Fedorov
Married to photographer Alex Fedorov, Lavrova often brings her husband on board withher projects.Fedorov is responsible for all of the photographic work featured on the Arensky CD, which Lavrova and Primakov recorded to great reviews. James Harrington of the American Record Guide wrote that the two “capture the essence of each suite, and through their considerable talents, share with us some of the most enjoyable almost unknown music I have heard in quite a while.”
Artistic collaboration was a natural extension of Lavrova and Primakov’s friendship, says Primakov. “We do think alike; there is a spiritual connection and a feeling for the music that just got more serious over the last two years, when we decided to get involved with recording the Arensky’s suites,” he says, reminiscent of their past years spent under teacher Jerome Lowenthal at Juilliard’s chamber music program (where they spend more time partying then practicing, they admit). “We were both excited, when we heard this music and started to perform it in concert to great reviews and decided we needed to record this interesting, yet virtually unknown program,” says Primakov. “We had two options—either pitch it to an established label or try to do it on our own. As we were thinking about this music, we both realized we wanted to have more control of the process, and it became a project that started so many things for the both of us. It also brought us even closer.”
While Primakov has already catalogued a number of recordings with Bridge Records, the Arensky CD was a first for Lavrova, who spends most of her time, when not performing, managing her own music school program. As the director of Music School of New York City, she teaches pianists of all levels and ages, applying her passion for music education that she inherited from her own teacher, Zalina Gurevich, who, many years ago, recognized their shared enthusiasm for teaching and kids in a young Lavrova. “She allowed me to sit in her lessons and gradually take over teaching some of her kids,” says Lavrova. “At first she would monitor the lessons and then give me feedback. It made all the difference in my learning how to become a good teacher.”
A very important factor in Lavrova’s teacher selections is a teacher’s performance experience. “That inspires students in a way nothing else can,” she says. One of her favorite teachers at her school, no wonder then, is Primakov, even though, between his busy performance and recording schedules, he can only take on a limited number of students.
But despite both of the artists’ busy daily routines, they are committed to and infatuated with their newest project, LP Classics. From the initial excitement over finding the pianos and dealing with tuners and sound engineers, they are both planning on fully integrating the record label into their careers. “We had turned to our friend Sarah Faust of Faust-Harrison Pianos to obtain two matching pianos for the recording.
Photo: Alex Fedorov
She had a new Yamaha CFX in her vast studio, which we loved, and then put us in touch with Bonnie Barrett, the director of Yamaha Artist Services, to find another. We tried it, and it sounded great, and this developed our future relationship with Yamaha.” Primakov and Lavrova are now Yamaha artists. Their Arensky CD was the first ever recording on two Yamaha CFX model pianos, and their CD release performance was live-streamed from the Yamaha showroom. Right now, the two are working on a lot of four-hand, one-instrument repertoire—an easier and more economical setup—exploring less-played pieces such as the Czerny Sonatas and works by Milhaud and John Corigliano, which they plan to perform at Get Classical at the Rose Bar.
In the future, Primakov says, they want to open up their record label to young artists looking to produce resume-building and career-launching first CDs. They also want to unbury historical, undiscovered past recordings of great, established performers, introducing old, forgotten gems to the public, as they did with Vera Gornostaeva Vol. 1 Chopin, a historical recording found through archived tapes in a Moscow library. “We obtained the rights and re-mastered the tapes of this amazing recording,” explains Primakov. “Another hidden secret we are now releasing is our teacher Jerry Lowenthal’s playing, which we both grew up on, and there are so many more to come.”
Very important to their mission is their ability to rely on efficient and passionate
Photo: Alex Fedorov
music professionals involved in the recording process. “You are so exposed as a performer, you have to be able to trust the people you work with to make you look your best,” says Primakov. “We have built a wonderful little family that includes Charlie Post, who became sound engineer, editor and producer in one, and technician Terry Flynn, who can achieve the most amazing results in the short in-betweens of the recording process. As soon as he hears just a slight irregularity in tone voicing, he informs the sound engineer and matches up everything in the matter of minutes while we step out for a glass of water.”
Also important to Primakov and Lavrova’s goals is the opportunity to constantly engage with new audiences, which they will have the opportunity to do this May 6, when the two perform excerpts of their four-hand program as well as some solo repertoire at Get Classical’s music series launch at the trendy Gramercy Park Hotel’s Rose Bar in New York. Primakov and Lavrova will be two of four pianists presenting a program geared to new and old classical fans, including GetClassical.org readers, by bringing 19th-century salon-type performances to the 21st-century lounge. Hosted by the Gramercy Park Hotel and myself, your devoted GetClassical.org blogger, Get Classical at the Rose Bar hopes to bring classical music to audiences that might prefer listening in the comfort of an armchair, aperitif in hand, to the formality of the concert hall. The series will give listeners the chance to meet artists in the intimacy of the cool Rose Bar and hear them talk about their music and lives as concert artists. And it is exactly this exchange that performers like Primakov and Lavrova, as well as David Aladashvili and Marika Bournaki, the two performers featured alongside them in the evening’s program, are looking forward to—to play and relate to both staying fans and interested spectators in a personal way. “We always want to test drive our program with new audiences. It’s one of the most exciting things one can do as a performer,” Primakov says.
We had just seen John Cage recite his mesostic/theater work, James Joyce, Marcel Duchamp, Erik Satie: An Alphabet. My composition teacher, a tenured faculty member who had won many awards including a Pulitzer Prize, told us, “Everyone should see John Cage once.”
And then, as if to underscore the idea that one only needed to see Cage once, the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer added, “But of course, his ideas are much more important than his music.” At that time (the early 1980s), there weren’t many recordings of Cage’s music available, and I rarely encountered any performances of his music, so my professor’s utterance was a reasonable statement for many.
Three decades later, there are 279 recordings featuring one or more works by John Cage available on arkivmusic.com; my old teacher has under 30 listed. It isn’t just that Cage is the most-recorded member of the postwar avant-garde—he has more recordings than plenty of conservative composers. Here’s a list of the top 10 recorded composers born in the 20th century at arkivmusic.com
1. Shostakovich 1449
2. Britten 958
3. Bernstein 632
4. Barber 541
5. Rodrigo 461 (and 103 of those are the Concierto de Aranjuez)
6. Messiaen 431
7. Walton 413
8. Khachaturian 357 (138 of those are the Sabre Dance)
9. Cage 279
10. Arvo Part 239
Clearly, Cage’s compositions, as well as his ideas, are very important in the classical music industry. This year you’ll be hearing a lot of his music, as various cities and organizations celebrate the 100th anniversary of John Cage’s birth. The John Cage trust is a useful web site to learn about upcoming performances, but if you live in Southern California, you’ll want to consult this list I compiled for the LA Weekly of Cage events this year.
Gamma Graves is a prime example of the kind of release that has helped to fuel the cassette resurgence on the indie/experimental music scene. Produced by a variety of sources, from bedroom DIY collectives and small tape-only labels to established imprints like Ecstatic Peace, the audio cassette format, long thought extinct, is back. Tapes have been unassumingly encroaching their way onto the shelves of connoisseur collectors and music critics (no less than Steve Smith is a devotee): even record sellers such as Insound and Other Music have made room for them again.
The Brooklyn triumvirate of synthesizer performers Nathan Cearley and Erica Bradbury and prepared guitarist Casey Block comprise Long Distance Poison. Armed with vintage gear by Moog, Arp, and Roland, they create experimental soundscapes with a sense of history, referencing everyone from David Borden and early Philip Glass to Keith Rowe, Alva Noto, Ryoji Ikeda, and Derek Bailey. Drone-based foundations are overlaid with coruscating ostinato loops and distressed with pointed interjections.
Gamma Graves is the type of music that would have been just fine to distribute digitally (or via CD). Indeed, some purists might argue that cassette is an inherently inferior audio format to hi-res digital played through good equipment (by no means do most consumers play their MP3s through good equipment). So, why do I like having it on cassette? I find the noise imparted by tape and deck to do no harm to this music: in fact, it adds another, subtle, layer of drones to the proceedings that is consonant with the musical intentions of the work.
The tape as artifact yields something important too. Limited runs of handmade cassettes are often lovingly attired with artwork more expansive and, obviously, more tangible than any JPEG can provide. They are a reminder of a bygone era in which the physical release WAS the release, in which tape-trading and digging in bins for rarities was a hobby to enthusiastically pursue: not something simulated in online forums and furtively grasped at brick and mortar outposts now few and far between. Long Distance Poison (and Ecstatic Peace) acknowledge their debt to history not only via musical reference points, but through the resonances found in a cassette as relic and artwork. Try finding all that in a computer file.
Andrew Rudin is well known to the Philadelphia new music community, both as a composer and, for many years, as a professor at University of the Arts. One of his former students, Amanda Harberg, introduced me to Rudin some years back at a post-concert reception in New Jersey. I remember being struck by his piercing intellect and wide-ranging knowledge of music. I’ve greatly enjoyed interacting with him via Facebook in recent years. Although direct in his opinions, sometimes in irascible fashion, he’s a font of information about composers (particularly Ralph Shapey), opera, poets, and tasty baked goods.
On Tuesday, Rudin’s music is featured on a portrait concert at Symphony Space in New York (details below). The program features Celebrations, a recent piece for two pianos and percussion that’s also included on Rudin’s new CD on Centaur Records.Miranda Cuckson and Steve Beck play Rudin’s Violin Sonata, a lyrical and affecting work from 2004. Eugene Moye and Beth Levin tackle the composer’s new Sonata for Cello and Piano. For those closer to Philly, the program will be repeated on Thursday at Caplan Recital Hall (211 South Broad St.).
The aforementioned Centaur CD also features two concerti, a passionately expressive viola concerto for Brett Deubner and a rhythmically energetic and harmonically jagged piano concerto for Marcantonio Barone. Both soloists are accompanied by Orchestra 2001, conducted by James Freeman. This ensemble has long championed Rudin’s music. In fact, they also feature Rudin’s Canto di Ritorno on To the Point,their debut for the Innova imprint. At turns rhapsodic and fiercely passionate, it’s a score that’s likely to engage both traditional and contemporary audiences alike. Appearing with the fetching curtain-raising title work by Jennifer Higdon, as well The River Within, a fantastically vibrant piece by Jay Reise, Canto di Ritorno serves as the centerpiece for one of my favorite contemporary classical albums released this Spring.
…Though it never really closed… Started around 1998 in upstate New York by a small group of musicians including Benjamin Boretz, Mary Lee Roberts and Arthur Margolin, The Open Space was conceived as print and online magazine venture and CD publisher dealing with contemporary music as “…output from a community for people who need to explore or expand the limits of their expressive worlds, to extend or dissolve the boundaries among their expressive-language practices, to experiment with the forms or subjects of thinking or making or performing in the context of creative phenomena. We want to create a hospitable space for texts which, in one way or another, might feel somewhat marginal — or too ‘under construction’ — for other, kindred publications.”
Given that they may have jumped into the pool just a tad early web-wise, and given the loose nature of of the project along with the busy and evolving schedules of the editors, The Open Space has tended to offer up things in spurts; the print magazine’s last issue was from late 2009, and the website languished for quite a while. Still, as befits an “open space” there has always been a very interesting accumulation of various article, scores, recordings and sound files available on their site, well worth a contemporary musician’s time to sift through. You can order CD recordings and back copies of the print magazine right from the site, as well.
Just last year, composer Dean Rosenthal signed on to get the purely digital webmagazine up and running again, and Dean’s happy to announce the first “issue” is online and available. The current form is a collection of contributions from various composers, of streaming recordings/video of selected works, some coupled with notes and scores of the piece. First offerings include such outside-the-mainstream luminaries as Michael Pisaro, Henry Gwiazda, Richard Coldman and Howard Skempton and others. And of course Dean is always happy to recieve submissions from you composers/performers out there, so why not give it a shot and help populate that open space with even more art and exploration!
Our friend Marvin Rosen will be hosting the Brooklyn-based trio Janus on his “Classical Discoveries” radio program tomorrow (Wednesday) morning from 9:30 to 11:00 AM. If you don’t live near Princeton, NJ, or if you’re like me and you only consume actual radio waves when you’re in the car, you should be able to catch the show streaming live at the WPRB website.
Janus was formed by flutist Amanda Baker, violist Beth Meyers, and harpist Nuiko Wadden in 2002, and since then they have been rapidly expanding the flute/viola/harp trio repertoire. Their debut album i am not drops today, and features music byJason Treuting, Caleb Burhans, Angélica Negrón, Anna Clyne, Cameron Britt, and Ryan Brown. It’s out on New Amsterdam Records, which as always has streaming audio for you here. I’m listening to Caleb’s piece “Keymaster” as I type this: something is beautifully turbulent in paradise.
The new indie classical kids on the block, Newspeak, have just released their first video. David T. Little’s composition sweet light crude, featuring soprano Mellissa Hughes in fine voice and the ensemble grooving up a storm, is ready for your delectation on YouTube.
The piece has been given the “jump cuts and jitter” treatment by videographers Satan’s Pearl Horses.
Jennifer Higdon and John Clare in Dallas for her Violin Concerto performance in May 2010
It is a huge day for new music new releases tomorrow, Tuesday, September 21st. Last month you might remember I interviewed Nico Muhly about his new releases before he spoke in LA about the works on the Decca label and featured an in-store performance. Tomorrow those discs will hit the stores as well as two major works by another composer, Jennifer Higdon.
What is astounding about Higdon’s cds are that they are by two different labels (Telarc & DG) and by two different violinists (Jennifer Koh and Hilary Hahn) of two different violin concertos, written closely together: The Singing Rooms and the Violin Concerto. I was curious about how all of this came together for Jennifer.