Archive for the “Review” Category

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There is an audience for new opera out here on the prairie. Fargo-Moorhead Opera staged two world premieres this past weekend: Buried Alive (music by Jeff Myers, libretto by Quincy Long) and Embedded (music by Patrick Soluri, libretto by Deborah Brevoort). Both are part of American Lyric Theater’s Poe Project, in which creative teams were commissioned to write operas inspired by the works of Edgar Allan Poe. The operas staged in Fargo used a group of six singers and a chamber orchestra.

Buried Alive is a paraphrase of Poe’s short story “The Premature Burial,” with modern twists. Baritone Christopher Burchett brought a powerful voice to the role of Victor, an artist haunted by nightmares that he would be mistaken for dead and buried alive. Soprano Sara Gartland was his wife Elena, deeply concerned about her husband’s descent into madness. Musically, Myers’s score was deeply affective, with special mention for the trio in the embalming scene (a darkly humorous gigue sung with great panache by mezzo-soprano Jennifer Feinstein, tenor Jonathan Blalock, and soprano Caroline Worra) and Victor’s aria “O death.” On stage but silent for most of the proceedings was bass Nathan Stark’s gravedigger, who provided the narrative frame. (The general manager apologized on behalf of Stark just before the opera, saying he was under the weather. You would not have known this from the performance, however.) Long’s libretto captures the feel of Poe’s original, and in some cases uses words drawn explicitly from the story.

Embedded
takes “The Cask of Amontillado” and spins it into a satirical look at TV news, fame, and aging. Caroline Worra showed considerable skill as news anchor Sylvia Malow, the “most trusted name in news.” Jonathan Blalock brought humor, clarity, and a huge makeup case as Sylvia’s assistant Maurice. Sara Gartland was the up-and-coming “reporter on the go,” Victoria Reilly, whom Sylvia (rightly so, as it turns out) views as a threat. Christopher Burchett was the producer for the newscast (and an implied paramour for Victoria, helping her move up the ranks to dethrone Sylvia). Jennifer Feinstein did double duty as the camerawoman for the newscast and as the voice of the GPS (without giving away too much of the plot, a GPS is involved). Rounding out the cast, Nathan Stark played the Italian terrorist Montresor (a nod to the narrator/protagonist of Poe’s short story). This was grand opera in miniature, with Soluri’s inventive score flowing seamlessly to and from cheesy cable-news promo music, a witty and inventive tango involving Sylvia, Montresor, and cell phones, and a soaring aria. This is Sylvia’s story; indeed, the opera is almost a monodrama for soprano, and it was done with amazing skill by Worra, who should be a household name in the world of opera. Librettist Breevort inverts Poe’s original plot – without giving away too much, the alleged victim achieves a triumph of sorts over the killer and other demons.

Both works showed skillful direction both on stage (Lawrence Edelson directed Buried Alive, Sam Helfrich directed Embedded) and in the pit (where maestro Kostis Protopapas led a chamber orchestra of eighteen players). The staging, by Zane Pihlstrom, was contemporary without being overwrought or gimmicky. A group of suspended screens and one larger, more rectangular surface were used to great effect in both works, with Victor’s madness shown in abstract designs and close-ups of a human eye in the first work, and wonderfully meta newscasts in the second (I wish CNN would run a story on a fight for the remains of Edgar Allan Poe!).

As many major American opera companies are leaving the scene, perhaps it will be up to these smaller companies (F-M Opera’s annual budget is less than $500,000) to maintain the long tradition of commissioning new operatic works. Audience response was overwhelmingly positive, and the Reineke Festival Concert Hall on the campus of North Dakota State University was filled to near-capacity. There was nothing parochial or low-rent about this production. There is an audience for new opera, and perhaps it is in unexpected places like Fargo.

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gnar20On Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at the Neighborhood Church in Pasadena, the group Gnarwhallaby presented a concert of music by Klaus Lang, Andrzej Dobrowolski, Edison Denison and three contemporary Los Angeles area composers. Gnarwhallaby consists of Brian Walsh on clarinet, Matt Barbier on trombone, Derek Stein playing cello and Richard Valitutto at the piano. The sanctuary of the church was mostly full and provided a comfortable venue that encouraged concentration by virtue of being completely dark, save for the lights on the music stands of the performers.

The first piece was Die Kartoffeln der Königin (1999) by Klaus Lang. The title translates to roughly “The Potatoes of the Queen” and this began with an extended silence by the performers before the first low, deliberate note was sounded in the cello. This was answered in an equally low register by the piano and this call and answer pattern was joined, at length, by the clarinet and trombone With the entire room enveloped in a solid darkness it was easy to imagine being underground. As the piano continued to sound deep notes, the other instruments generated a soft cloud of light buzzing that added to the sense of being beneath the surface of the earth. This is quiet music, but it was effective in working on the imagination so that as the soft buzzing subsided at the finish, one could fairly claim the experience of having been buried deep in garden soil.

The second piece was Krabogapa (1970) by Andrzej Dobrowolski and this began on a sharp note from the clarinet that was soon joined by the trombone.  A series of loud trills, followed by silences, built a sense of mystery and tension that was relieved at intervals by loud crashing chords in the piano and frenzied arpeggios in the instruments. This alternated with soft repeating figures, the quiet strumming of the piano wires, a light tapping or knocking sound that created a sense of slowly feeling one’s way in the dark while building up an expectation of the next blow. The loud screams and frenetic runs by the instruments were all tightly orchestrated and carefully played so that the contrast with the quiet sections was especially evident. Although the piece ended quietly, the roller-coaster effect of loud and soft sections was memorable.

d – s – c – h (1969) by Edison Denisov followed, and this had a more angular sound starting with the sharp opening note from the piano. With alternating sections of stringendo and legato, signaled by the starting piano note, the overall feel is tight and excited. This was music with sharp edges – even in the slower sections – but precisely played.  Lion and Wolf (2013), a piece written for Gnarwhallaby by Andrew McIntosh was next and this opened with a more organic sound from the sliding trombone. A nice interplay between deep piano chords and the instruments provided a steady forward movement. This gave way to syncopation and a stretch of exotic rhythm that was complimented by high tones in the clarinet. When a slower tempo eventuated, the striking harmonies evoked a somewhat melancholy feeling, but Lion and Wolf was perfectly programmed to follow the Denisov piece.

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Susurrous (2011-12) was next, another piece written for Gnarwhallaby, this time by trombonist Matt Barbier. Although this piece began with sharp sounds from the clarinet and cello, it soon settled into a quiet, deliberate pace that allowed some delicate and lovely harmonies to evolve. The softness and subtlety was almost Feldmanesque and the overall effect was like a gentle breeze blowing through a structure, whispering to the listener in quiet tones.

This set the stage for the final work of the evening, the West Coast premiere of Lullaby 4 (2013) by Nicholas Deyoe.   Lullaby 4 begins innocently enough, with a quiet piano line creating a mood that is a combination of ominous and mysterious. But just as you are settling in, an explosive chord shatters the quiet – like hitting your head while crossing a darkened room. The piano returns with a soft melody, but there are deep growling sounds in the cello and trombone, like some beast lurking below. A series of rugged sounds from the cello deepens the sense of mystery and adds to the tension. Again a crashing piano lick shatters the moment before returning again to quiet.  At one point Matt Barbier could be seen applying the edge of an upturned wine glass to the rim of his horn, creating a sinister sound of unseen movement. These moments of increasing tension were the perfect prelude to the thunderous chords that flashed by at unexpected intervals. The style of this piece would seem to owe something to Dobrowolski’s Krabogapa, with alternating periods of quiet and sharp, short moments of chaos. Listening to Lullaby 4 is like walking down an unfamiliar alley in the dark and being attacked by an unseen assailant – definitely music to keep you on the edge of your seat and an emotionally draining experience.

This music presented in this concert spans over forty years and included three recent pieces from Los Angeles-based composers. This performance of what, by any measure, are technically difficult works was efficiently executed by Gnarwhallaby and further concerts by this group should be sought out by all those interested in state-of-the-art contemporary music here in Southern California.

 

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Border Towns

Nick Brooke: Border Towns

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

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

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

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

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

The clock ticks only for those who hear it.

~Interview with Nick Brooke~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Dobrinka Tabakova

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Some of the most timeless, gripping, modern and surprising music I hear consistently are the vocal works of Renaissance Italian composers and their associated circle – Monteverdi, Gesualdo, the great Madrigalist Luca Marenzio. Saturday night at Miller Theatre I heard music from composers who were new to me – Giovanni Maria Trabaci, Il Fasolo (not Giovanni Battista Fasolo) and Marco Marazzoli – in a revelatory and affecting concert from the great early music ensemble, Le Poème Harmonique, led by Vincent Dumestre.

Why Renaissance music at Sequenza21? First, Miller is as important for their early music programming as they are for their Composer Portraits, and second, they build the connection between the two eras not only abstractly through the two series but through a newer exploration of the past by way of the present. Last season they began a Bach Revisted series that paired early and new music musicians and programs (I saw an excellent concert with Kristian Bezuidenhout playing C.P.E., W.F. and J.S. Bach accompanied by Ensemble Signal, who themselves gave a masterful performance of Michael Gordon’s Weather, and since you can’t have Gordon without Reich and Reich without Bach, there’s nothing to argue ). The series continues this year with concerts that pair Bach with Kaija Saariaho, Reich and Joan Tower.

This fits into the ongoing history of music, where composers continue to write a cappella vocal works. I had a significant dose of them from John Zorn, including a set he explicitly calls “madrigals,” and there’s a good handful of contemporary vocal music built on the work of the ancient pioneers that has not only crossed my desk but been in the news this year. The critical point of all of this is that the old music is for the most part so much more daring, free and innovative than what I hear from contemporary composers, with some notable exceptions.

New vocal music has had a moment this year with Caroline Shaw’s Pulitzer Prize award for her Partita, which appears on the debut disc from Roomful of Teeth. There’s nothing particularly wrong with the piece, but not much right about it either. There are contemporaneous vocal compositions that do some of the same things, do them better, and go beyond. Partita is polite music with a few accessories that might appear experimental but that are, in 2013, ordinary things in a composer’s toolbox. The teleology of her texts is shallow and brittle. Spoken words? Berio wrote and adapted far more compelling texts. Phonemes? Kenneth Gaburo’s works are older than Shaw and are still experimental. These tools are also better used in choral works on an excellent new CD of music from composer Kevin Puts. His work doesn’t sound as superficially ‘new’ but he makes richer, deeper and more proficient music with the same elements of text and fragmented vocal sounds.81vsXNBbX2L._SL1500_

His harmonies are also involving, and this matters. Harmony is the essential feature of the history of this music, it’s through the voice that composers created polyphony and counterpoint. But we’re supposed to know so much more today than they did in the 17th century, so why does Gesualdo sound so much fresher and newer than most new vocal music? His harmonic flights of fancy are surprising and effective because he creates a context that is clear, logical and describes the terms he’s working with. There is a fashion in contemporary vocal music of tossing in dissonant or extended chords that, since it’s in opposition to the overall harmonic context, comes off as a self-conscious way of asserting new music bona fides. That is one of the traps that Zorn’s work can fall into.

At edge of the trap but never falling in is a new work from Gregory Brown, Missa Charles Darwin, available in an engrossing recording from New York Polyphony. Brown works with history in two ways, cultivating a refined sense of vocal polyphony while setting Charles Darwin’s writing from On the Origin of Species, The Descent of Man and various letters. The harmonic motion is mostly strong and logical, though parts like the “Alleluia” section suffer from jarring modulations. It’s a strong work overall, though, and in particular Brown is the only contemporary composer I can recall who crafts vocal lines that have the same sense of independent harmonic rhythm and expressive freedom that makes the madrigals of Monteverdi and the like so powerful (there’s a fine companion to Brown’s piece, another new recording from New York Polyphony, Times Go By Turns, a collection of works from Byrd, Plummer and Tallis).

It’s enduringly strange to me how the techniques of Monteverdi have been left by the wayside. The combination of voices singing the same text, in counterpoint and rhythmic opposition, is one of the most beautiful and involving sounds in music, across all genres. Add words like:

Veglio, penso, ardo, piango; e chi mi sface
Sempre m’è innanzi per mia dolce pena
Guerra è il mio stato d’ira e di duol piena,
E sol di lei pensando ho qualche pace.

(I watch, brood, burn and weep; and she, my undoing
Is ever before me, causing such sweet sorrow;
Warfare is my state, full of anger and pain,
And only thoughts of her bring me peace)

have immediate personal meaning to us across the centuries. Setting them as Monteverdi did gives them physical urgency and so the Miller Theatre concert was exciting and moving. Le Poème Harmonique, like other early music groups, sees this music as coming from the earth, the groin, not the mind and the heavens, so there is fire and humor. The program was “Combattimenti” which you can hear on this marvelous CD; it included Il Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda. It ended with Marazzoli’s La Fiera di Farfa, an astonishing dramatic parody of Monteverdi. For a while, it’s a dazzling picture of a fair, with hawkers, gawkers and more calling out, arguing, dancing. The parody comes near the end, when a ball breaks out and two gentlemen, friends, begin to fight. It seems in deadly earnest until the loser calls off the coup de grace by singing “Friend, you have won: I forgive you; you forgive me too. Indeed, in such circumstances it is a fine thing to be a base coward.”

In no way was this the experience of gazing quaintly back at the humanism of the past. Dumestre did something remarkable in this concert: there are songs within the larger piece, sung by characters inhabiting the fair, not only the faux-fight “Guera e Mort,” but two remarkable ballads, sung beautifully by tenor Serge Goubioud, “È no ssusciame’n canna (He cannot play a flute)” and “Vurria’addeventare pesce d’or (I’d like to become a golden fish).” In these moments, Dumestre moved the accompaniment from continuo-recitativo style repetitive bass and chord accompaniment, with a modern, vernacular sense of articulation and syncopation. Goubioud moved his voice from throat and head to his chest, and we were hearing popular music, as in-the-moment today as it was 400 hundred years ago. It felt liked the Marazzoli was here to keep us company with the knowledge that he knows our cares and loves and worries, because they are the same ones people have across epochs. The past is never past, the music of all eras speaks to us eternally.

Kozar_OTE_InsertBut it would not if it wasn’t made with imagination and conviction. Those are the essential qualities of Andy Kozar’s remarkable recording On the End … . This is a superb collection of music, all the pieces exploring the possibilities of contemporary notation and instrumental playing. Kozar uses a variety of techniques, including graphic notation, and from the knife’s edge focus of the playing (Kozar plays trumpet and is joined by his colleagues in loadbang, Miranda Cuckson and others) it’s clear that he conveys his ideas to his musicians with precision and power.

The centerpiece is a Mass that has its foundation in the traditional movements and texts yet an expression that is at the cutting edge of creativity. Jeffrey Gavett’s voice croons and spits and shouts the words, through mellifluous lines and extreme intervals, while the instruments respond, sometimes amicably, sometimes antagonistically. There is a moment-to-moment fragmentation but an overall consistency of effect: the unfathomable mystery of death and how to express our incomprehension. Kozar steps outside the clichés of comfort and process, he never ingratiates and always fascinates. Like Le Poème Harmonique’s concert, it makes the past eternally alive, present and important.

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[Ed. note:  Welcome our newest contributor, conductor / percussionist / vocalist / composer Jordan Randall Smith. A Dallas native, Jordan is the Co-founder of the Dallas Festival of Modern Music and the festival's sister ensemble, Ars Nova Dallas, serving as Conductor and Artistic Director. Jordan's just moved on to Baltimore to pursue a Doctorate of Musical Arts in orchestral and operatic conducting at the Peabody Conservatory. ]

Last weekend, Opera Hispánica concluded their first festival and third season with Astor Piazzolla‘s María de Buenos Aires, his 1968 tango “operita,” or what might be called chamber opera by the wonkish. However, this Sunday, the chamber was filled not with nobility ancient or contemporary, but with beer and wine, and the people who like to consume them, at New York’s Le Poisson Rouge.  (Although, some opera nobility, including one of Plácido Domingo’s sons, were spotted at the Sunday evening show.)  In truth, the word “opera” is only useful in that it brings to mind how openly this drama defies the classical notion of what opera is supposed to be. Instead of conforming to tradition, it provokes a re-examination of convention. This sort of provocation proved to be the theme for the work and for the night.

With a tango band occupying fully 60 percent of a stage which is already rather limited in dimension, production design was a daunting task expertly fulfilled by Stage Director Beth Greenberg of City Opera fame. Greenberg managed to turn the cramped, uncooperatively spare stage to her advantage, projecting into the space a smokey, claustrophobic Buenos Aires alleyway positively dripping with sinful lust and criminality, where “Hustlers, pimps, and devils appear at every turn,” as Greenberg wrote in the program. And the claustrophobia was palpable. The audience was repeatedly intruded upon by El Duende (ghost poet), a spoken role played by Gerardo Gudiño. The tragic heroine María, performed by Solange Meridinian, also came to a portion of a table in the middle of the audience to penetrate both the 4th wall and the comfort zone of the audience with the surrealist poetry of librettist Horacio Ferrer. In an interview for Sequenza21, Greenberg admitted, “you spend a great deal of time with a work with symbolism as dense as this, you spend time looking for a door in. The poetry is so rich that it can actually at times seem impenetrable, but you look for a door in, and it always rewards you in the end.” The audience was rewarded with the fruit of these artists’ diligence in what came out as a heady mix of musical riches, rhythmic banality, and dramatic density that somehow reached in and grabbed each of us.

Solange Meridinian, Mezzo-Soprano

Solange Meridinian, Mezzo-Soprano

“Forgotten among women,” the text reads, upending the biblical Mary, an archetype this diminutive operita pokes, prods, and ultimately breaks. The text is not purely in spanish but often in a lower class Buenos Aires dialect called Lunfardo, spoken in “the Tango underground,” as Meridinian called it in correspondence with Sequenza21 for this review. The work is rife with religious imagery and references: from the Virgin Mary, to the baby Jesus, to the wicked, the latter which in Ferrer’s and Piazzolla’s world seem often to go through life unpunished. Meanwhile, wide-eyed orphan María pays for her innocence and naiveté with her virginity and her life, set to the unrelentingly sensual rhythm of the dance.

Solange Meridinian, who is herself from Argentina, had been waiting nearly ten years for the right opportunity to finally perform María, and happened to have not one but two chances crop up, the first having been with the Lexington Philharmonic this past February. Meridinian gave a startlingly resonant account of her character, difficult in a work which even embeds its own internal psychoanalysis into the latter scenes. It was doubtless a taxing work for the highly-capable mezzo-soprano, who consistently had to perform in the lowest parts of her already extensive vocal range. She handled each phrase and scene with care and culture, remaining mindful of the tango style. The other musicians and dancers performed excellently, although there was an unpolished instrumental solo in the beginning of the fugue from “Fuga y misterio.” As a whole, the musical ensemble served the drama admirably throughout  the work’s sixteen numbers as a sort of commenting Greek Tango Chorus, even interjecting sensational bandoneónista JP Jofre as an ad hoc cast member during one episode.

At this point, the music and the name of Astor Piazzolla is widely-known among musicians and music-lovers. In recent decades, his music has become something of a crossover sensation in symphony halls, cabarets, and every venue in between. Unfortunately, the popularity of his tango-infused compositions has ironically caused them to often receive unfair dismissal in terms of emotional or musical depth. After a night with María in the hands of Opera Hispánica, the audience left with no such misapprehensions.

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The Core Trio (photo by Jonathan Jindra)

The Core Trio (photo by Jonathan Jindra)

(Houston, TX) The music of the Houston ensemble The Core Trio, featuring Richard Cholakian on drums, Thomas Helton on upright bass, and Seth Paynter on saxophones, is an utterly convincing amalgamation of jazz, free improvisation, heavy metal, electronic sounds, and music from across the Asian continent. Their repertoire includes compositions by Helton and Paynter, as well as arrangements of songs by Ozzy Osbourne and Ronnie James Dio. They often invite guest musicians to join them in performance, including trumpet players Kris Tiner and Tim Hagans, myself on laptop, and pianist Robert Boston. This Friday, Boston, saxophonists Warren Sneed and Martin Langford, and former Houston Symphony clarinetist Richard Nunemaker will perform with The Core Trio at their CD release party at Houston’s the long-standing jazz venue Cezanne’s.

The Core Trio’s new self-titled CD is welcome document of the high level of musicianship and inventive interplay that defines their sound. The album consists of two extended and completely improvised performances, skillfully captured by engineer Ryan Edwards. Boston, a former Houston musician now based in New York City, joins the trio on the new CD.

On both pieces, the classically-trained Boston casts the music into a further relief. His presence opens up the ensemble sound creating the space each player needs to be heard and to play with conviction.

“When I freely improvise with players on this level, something special happens,” says Boston. “No one feels any pressure to play in any particular style. Everyone is listening and responding to what is happening in the moment. When it’s good, the thoughts don’t get in the way, but there is a logic present that follows its own momentum.”

Richard Cholokian_photo by Veronica Triplett

“It’s very similar to a speaking conversation with someone,” says Cholakian of his experience playing with The Core Trio. “If they (Boston, Helton, Paynter) choose a topic, I will converse with them on that topic. If they don’t, I will converse with them on a topic I choose, the bottom line being, what is my point and will it be heard?”

Cholakian is one of the most creative and dynamic drummers I’ve ever heard. He’s always listening, contrasting or complimenting the contributions of his band mates, and often steering the music into unexpected and unpredictable territory. Eleven or so minutes into the new CD’s second track, where the trio plus Boston explore a textural, musique concrète-like approach to ensemble playing, Cholakian brings the music to a crescendo with an almost primal-sounding drum solo that stops suddenly and startlingly at one point for six seconds of dead silence before returning to its bruising ritual.

Paynter possesses a truly original and honest voice on his instruments, which includes soprano and tenor saxophone, EWI, and lots of gongs. The technique and versatility that makes a great jazz and improvising musician is all there but somehow, his playing never strays into what Helton calls “the trappings of licks or patterns.”

“By learning to play with a defined structure, one can then learn how to venture away to new ones,” says Paynter when describing playing a tune verses freely improvising. “Everything has structure no matter how abstract.”

“As soon as I play a sound, that is the foundation for what comes next regardless if I’m playing a tune or not. Its basic function is structural. I can vary it slightly by subtly changing a rhythm or drastically with a timbre or emotional change. And those are just a couple examples of the variables one can employ.”

Helton concurs that being able to play in a traditional manner will allow a musician to be more musical in their free playing. But “tradition” doesn’t necessarily have to mean “jazz.”

“I get something different out of all the different styles I play,” says Helton, who also plays in the Houston metal band Echo Temple. “Whether it is jazz, classical, metal, country, funk, or whatever, there is some payoff personally, spiritually or musically.”

“With The Core Trio,” says Helton, “I get the most satisfaction, since there is a lot of passion, thought, aggression, finesse, communication. It is sort of the sum of all the things I love in music.”

The Core Trio with special guest Robert Boston perform Friday, February 8, 9 p.m. at Cezanne’s, 4100 Montrose Blvd. $10 cover.

The Core Trio’s self-titled CD is available for purchase Febraury 8 from Thomas Helton’s website, CD Baby, and iTunes.

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Pianist and composer Kris Becker (photo by Bhavin)

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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Poet and Air Force veteran Lynn Hill performs in Holding It Down
Photo by Marc Millman Photography

The most recent collaboration of composer/pianist Vijay Iyer and poet Mike Ladd, entitled Holding It Down: The Veterans’ Dreams Project, received its world premiere last week (September 19-22) at The Harlem Stage Gatehouse. This multimedia work, epic in scope, yet poignant in its emotional nuance, is the result of three years of interviewing and collaborating with veterans of color from the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Holding It Down also marks the culmination of a trilogy of multimedia works by Iyer and Ladd, the others being Still Life with Commentator (2006) and In What Language (2003). Each of the three works examines a different aspect of post-9/11 America, but all three respond to the fear and injustice brought on by what Iyer and Ladd eloquently describe as the “insidiously racialized Global War on Terror.”

Iyer’s through-composed score consisted mostly of highly sensitive and imaginative settings of the poetry of Ladd and two veterans, Maurice Decaul and Lynn Hill, punctuated by moments of virtuosic improvisation by Iyer and members of the ensemble. The poems (performed by their authors) were moving, powerfully honest artistic responses to war and the challenges of coping with trauma. Tim Brown’s video design contributed an evocative visual counterpoint, and the video interviews, conducted and edited by the project’s director, Patricia McGregor, were particularly well timed and interesting. The ensemble, which consisted of Iyer (piano, laptop), Guillermo E. Brown (vocals, electronics), Liberty Ellman (guitar), Okkyung Lee (cello), and Kassa Overall (percussion), provided an intricate, colorful, and at times surreal musical mindscape. One unforgettable moment was Overall’s gut-wrenchingly beautiful drum solo about two thirds of the way through the piece.

The presentation of a continuous 80-minute piece that brings combines music, poetry, video, and drama is no easy task. Careful attention must be given to the balance and interplay of the various media, and the dramatic flow and experiential continuity. Credit must be given to director Patricia McGregor, who forged the elements of this work into a seamless and deeply moving journey. With the exception of two moments when the balance between the ensemble and voices could have been handled better, the production was basically flawless.

With Holding It Down Vijay Iyer and Mike Ladd have offered a model of how artists can present social commentary that is profound yet unsentimental; complex yet focused; provocative yet inviting. While so many multimedia projects these days hurt the genre by dilluting their own impact, Iyer and Ladd have created one in which each medium strengthens the whole. On December 1, 2012, these artists will appear again at The Harlem Stage Gatehouse for a new piece called Sleep Song, in which they will focus on the populace of nations affected by war. Collaborating artists for Sleep Song will include the Iraqi poet Ahmed Abdel Hussein, oudist Ahmet Mukhtar, and guitarist Serge Teyssot Gay.

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

Courtesy of SONY Music & Other Minds Records

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

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