Archive for the “Review” Category
Barriers between various musical genres continue to be gleefully destroyed by insightful musicians and collectives. One such divide that has been crumbling over the last few years has been any distinction between “bands” and “chamber groups.” Beyond the ensembles made up of visually traditional combinations (“string quartets” such as Kronos and Ethel) are more unusual outfits like Clogs, a bassoon-viola-guitar-percussion quartet.
The final, June 10th concert of the 2011 Tribeca New Music Festival featured SWARMIUS, a band from San Diego with an intriguing quartet configuration of violin, saxophone, percussion and laptop/electronics. Led by composer Joseph Waters (whose nom de band is Jozefius V. Rattus), SWARMIUS succeeds in producing some of the most dynamic, original, and compellingly infectious new music today. This is testament not only to Waters’ brilliant compositions, but to the formidable prowess of the three instrumentalists: violinist Fiddlus el Gato (aka Felix Olschofka), Saximus (saxophonist Todd Rewoldt) and percussionist Crotalius Redfoot (Joel Bluestone).
Taking place in the intimate confines of The Cell Theatre in Chelsea, the concert opened with Cali Karsimala, which took the rhythms and scales of a Gypsy couple’s dance as a departure point for an extended virtuoso expedition. The piece is highly evocative of its Eastern European and Persian models, but also moves beyond them to suggest energetic dance music of some new, imagined culture. Olschokfa and Rewoldt managed Waters’ sinewy and rhythmically tricky lines with verve and aplomb, and the timbral aspects of the piece (managed by Waters’ in real time from his laptop) were highly distinctive and memorable.
Drum Ride was another ultra-rhythmic traversal exploiting diverse exotic scales, this time over an almost omnipresent quintuplet ostinato. Despite its similar stylistic ingredients to Cali Karsimala, it more than managed to distinguish itself as being quite different, with melodic, harmonic and timbral material not at all reminiscent of the previous work. The only general similarity was that it again suggested ingrained folk music from a culture that doesn’t exist.
The title of the next piece removes the responsibility of the reviewer for providing any descriptive prose. Moonlight Beach Chaconne (The Beach Boys, J.S. Bach and Stevie Wonder Take A Trip To Nigeria, Where They Encounter The Ghost Of Richard Wagner, Impersonating A Shaman) delivers exactly what is promised by the title. Brilliantly, the result is not a pastiche at all, but an exuberant, multi-layered and at times very affecting synthesis of the idioms referenced in the title. Chromatic baroque harmony is always in the mix throughout the piece. What the title doesn’t tell you is that the work is basically a violin concerto, played with both virtuoso mastery and moving lyrical expression by Olschofka.
Dragon was a paean to Japanese video game music. With many recognizable themes swirling in high-spirited counterpoint, the piece exhibited bounteous imagination and sly humor, bringing the audience to audible laughter at various junctures. Lucas, the Bringer of Light was a completely different venture—a long and highly variegated tone poem inspired by Waters’ 7 month-old grandson. Using samples of his grandson’s vocalizations, Waters produced not only a deeply affecting portrait exploring the perceptions and temporality of an infant’s world, but an exploration of the machine-like aspects of human beings. The timbral universe of Waters’ sounds in this composition were vast but still unified; the structure appropriately and compellingly organic.
The concert’s finale was Grand Larceny, an enthralling toccata inspired by the fast tempi, timbres and ultra-precision of speed metal. For this number, the audience was asked to blow police whistles which had been distributed at the beginning of the concert at a climactic juncture, an effect that was both cathartic and hilarious.
In sum, the compositions of Joseph Waters and the musicians SWARMIUS produced a vibrant, highly memorable, gripping and deeply persuasive musical evening at The Cell. Here’s hoping that they will return to New York with their unique sonic presence very soon.
Jochen Kowalski (center) and the Long Beach Opera Chorus in Akhnaten by Philip Glass
If you have the slightest interest in contemporary opera or modern drama, you must see Philip Glass’s Akhnaten, scheduled for one more performance by Long Beach Opera on Sunday, March 27. It is a brilliant update of Wagner’s idea of the Gesamtkunstwerk, in which Glass’s music, staging by Andreas Mitisek, choreography by Nanette Brodie, and video projections by Frieder Weiss all combine into one amazing whole.
At the heart of the work is Glass’s monolithic score and libretto. The story itself is a series of tableaux depicting the rise (Act 1) and fall (Act 3) of Akhnaten and his dangerous idea—there is only one God, Aten, the Sun. (Act 2 is devoted to Akhnaten’s implementation of monotheism). Glass’s repetitive music, with its Brucknerian phrase lengths and static textures, creates a deep sense of ritual underlying each scene.
The modern operas favored by most American companies strike me as unsatisfactory hybrids in which a recent contemporary musical vocabulary is poured into a 19th-century dramatic form. With the typical American opera libretto adapted from a novel, film, or conventional play, the narrative is linear, the presentation of material straightforward, rarely employing any 20th-century dramatic innovations. What Glass did with his Einstein/Gandhi/Akhnaten operatic trilogy was to bring opera up to date with contemporary dramatic thought. Even though Akhnaten is almost 30 years old, it seems fresh and novel compared to the retooled verismo of so much recent American opera.
Another problem for me in contemporary opera (although it’s a problem over 100 years old) is that of vocal parts consisting of continuous recitative or through-composed arias or whatever you want to call them. In the Baroque through Romantic periods, an aria sung by a character operated according to clear structural principals—the da capo aria or classical number aria. What has replaced that organizing device in modern operas? Complete formal freedom—in many contemporary operas, the characters sing in a continuous recitative. Berg solved the problem by shaping the scenes in Wozzeck according to the principals of multi-movement instrumental music.
Glass came up with a somewhat similar solution in his operas—the sung vocal lines are an integral part of the musical process. The vocal parts in Akhnaten are like instrumental lines, an essential part of Glass’s overall musical fabric. The intellectual rigor of his writing allows orchestral instruments to be substituted for the voices in the Akhnaten excerpt of Jerome Robbins’s ballet, Glass Pieces, (Act 1, Scene 1) without any loss of musical sense or drama.
This vocal writing flies in the face of the American operagoer’s expectations. What, no high C for the soprano? No cadenza for the tenor? (The lack of big stage moments for singers is probably one of the reasons Akhnaten and similar operas are rarely produced in the U.S.).
This is not to say that there aren’t highly dramatic moments in Glass’s vocal parts. The first note sung by Akhnaten is one of the most startling entrances in all of opera. We see Akhnaten for an entire scene during his coronation, but it is not until the last scene of Act I that we finally hear Akhnaten sing; what comes out of his mouth is not the heroic tenor or deep bass we expect from an operatic king, but rather a hooty A above middle C sung by a countertenor. Yes, we knew Akhnaten was a countertenor when we first took our seat, but that does not mitigate the unnerving violation of our expectations when this figure of grandeur opens his mouth and issues forth a sound which would be more appropriate for a giant boy soprano.
Jochen Kowalski sang the title role with a vibrato so wobbly that he could be an honorary member of the International Workers of the World. Paul Esswood, who created the role of Akhnaten for the Stuttgart premiere and the subsequent recording, sang with little vibrato in a style more typical for an early music concert than an American opera stage. Akhnaten was a physically deformed man, yet Kowalski looked like, and played him, as an imposing authority figure. Kowalski’s attitude was firm, his blocking well-defined, his postures exact; it was too bad that his sense of pitch did not share these characteristics. Let’s hope his singing is more disciplined on Sunday afternoon.
The other two prominent roles were ably sung by alto Peabody Southwell as Nefertiti and tenor Tyler Thompson as the Amon High Priest (not “Amon” as the program identified him—Amon was the god). A recent graduate, Southwell already possesses a solid tone and a confident stage presence, and one suspects audiences will see even more of her as her voice matures. Read the rest of this entry »
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Photo: David Andrako/Courtesy of Kaufman Center
Before any of the musical gadgetry could be used on night three of the Ecstatic Music Festival at Merkin concert hall, the audience rang the evening’s first notes by singing “Happy Birthday” to So Percussion member Jason Treuting, joyfully absent due to the birth of his child earlier in the day. In jeans and t-shirts, the present members (plus Jason’s skillful stand-in) then gathered around a large bass drum stage right and began the evening with a wonderful introduction to their music: chimes mixed with frenetic drumming rhythms I dare not describe.
The young men were then joined onstage by guitarist Grey McMurray and performed pieces from their Where We Live project. Simply put, various friends and family of the band submit short videos in the intimate format of YouTube, to which the group scores an appropriate number. First, a fellow brushing his teeth was projected onto the large screen behind the stage. The quartet wrote a harmonic and buzzing piece, turning the awkward video of a frothy mouth into a pretty drone of varying proportions. Next was the cutesy video of a baby playing with a bright orange balloon. Fittingly, orange balloons sat idle until they were tossed into the audience, adding the sound of our batting the air-stretched plastic to the beautiful sing-song inspired by an infant.
Two more pieces followed, the first a showcase of Grey McMurray’s guitar as it warbled and synthesized from the stomping of various pedals, the rumble accompanied by birdsong sourced from a computer file. Martin Schmidt of Matmos appeared in the night’s final video projection as the interesting denizen of an audiophile’s basement, his egg-shaking antics appropriated by the five players in a medley of electronic-acoustic wanderings a la the Boredoms. But these musicians come from a background of Bach, Ives, and worldly rhythm, surely a sign that prior giants still influence our present and future networked moment.
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[Ed. note - Welcome our newest contributor out in the City of Angels, Paul Bailey. Paul is a composer, trombonist and teacher, leader of the Paul Bailey Ensemble, and a good friend to boot. Paul's own work draws quite a bit on music and culture outside both the standard university and powdered-wig crowd, has a deep dislike of pretention, and has no problem calling them like he hears them.]
For the last week I have been at a loss for what to say about the music presented by the Argento Chamber Ensemble at their concert January 10th at the Zipper Hall “Monday Evening Concert Series.” It was obvious that the stage was filled with a plethora of world-class musicians who throughout the evening ably demonstrated that they all had achieved the very pinnacle of technique on their respective instruments. But with all that musical dexterity to go around I was mostly left cold by the music presented and was even more disappointed that for the last ten years many of new music concerts that I have attended in Southern California (and more specifically at Zipper Hall) seem to equate complexity with aesthetic and artistic depth.
The concert opened with Brian Ferneyhough‘s La Chute d’lcare, which featured an Olympic medal–deserving performance by clarinetist Carol McGonnell, whose effort was minimized by the disjointed orchestration and impenetrable form. Although I didn’t find their performance lacking, after a while the virtuosity being displayed seemed to reflect a video game in which the ensemble plays each successive level of complexity to increase their score.
For me, Joanna Chou‘s solo piano performance of Gerard Pesson‘s La Luminiere n’a pas de bras pour nous porter was the standout performance and composition of the evening. Based on an asymmetrical toneless ostinato, which alternated with white note tone clusters, this was the evening’s best example of “less is more.” Pesson’s other two pieces — La Vita e come l’albero di Aantale (piano and violin) and Non sapremo mai di questo mi (piano, flute, and violin)—were well performed, mercifully short explorations of piano ostinatos which contrasted with the extended performance techniques for piano and flute.
Ending the first half of the concert was Salvatore Sciarrino‘s Let Me Die Before I Wake, which again featured Miss McGonnell’s clarinet expertise (mostly through whispered tones). Although the piece was described by the composer as having “mysterious links with darkness: every bit of light is distilled,” the performance became more of duet with the intermittent dulcet buzzing drones of a slowly dying fluorescent light which I eventually preferred this impromptu duet instead of the more organized solo clarinet performance emanating from the stage.
The second half of the concert featured the much-heralded Fausto Romitelli‘s Professor Bad Trip. Other than some vague reference in the score to Henri Michaux’s experiences under mescaline and four pedantic announcements introducing each section (“Lesson 1,” “Lesson 2,” “Lesson 3,” and “Lesson 4″), it was left open what morals we might ascribe from this evening’s performance. The effect of having an announcer speak at the beginning of each lesson seemed to me about as aesthetically pointless as having an usher come out to tell us when the concert was over. (Not that musically there were any clues as to when each section was complete.) Like much of the evening musicians started and stopped without much discernible development of the musical elements. In many ways Professor Bad Trip was like a listening to wind-up box of 12 instruments chattering independently which somehow happened to stop together every 10-15 minutes.
[Some video of a 2008 performance by the Fiarì Ensemble:]
On a more positive note I can say that the ensemble (and the sound engineers) expertly handled mixing the acoustic and electronic instruments. From personal experience, it’s very hard to decide how to blend these disparate sound sources. Their decision to play through a PA and to degrade the guitar sound through pedals so it would blend better (which it did) worked pretty well. My only problem was at times hearing the guitar out of the center PA above the stage instead of from where the guitarist was sitting, but not a big deal overall. I also felt that Jay Cambell‘s loquacious electric cello jamming was diminished by his awkward switch back to his Ars Antigua violincello. After rocking out, it works better if you acknowledge the audience when switching instruments.
With that point I should wrap up and get to my main frustration with the whole evening—and many other new music evenings I have witnessed. “Witnessed” is really the point, because with very little interaction among the musicians, and only a brief introduction to begin, our part was basically to sit silently for over 2.5 hours and listen to some of the best technical musicians that the academy and conservatory system produce. A little of this music goes a long way, and I know that if I brought many of my friends to a show like this they would have no frame of reference on which to hang their ears. Maybe the problem still is, as Milton Babbitt said, “Who Cares If You Listen”… but in 2011, I’m still hoping that we can move beyond such ivory tower dogma.
Please don’t get me wrong: I’m not suggesting that art music necessarily has to entertain, but it does need to engage its audience. The music presented in this concert would be unintelligible to all but the most select and die-hard audience, and by now isn’t it obvious that such complexity only obscures the intended meaning, and that the implied depth is only superficial? As a performer I also know how exhilarating performing technically challenging music can be, but as an audience member it was about as engaging as watching a seven-year-old shred on Guitar Hero.
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Posted by Christian Hertzog in Chamber Music, Concert review, Contemporary Classical, Criticism, Post Modern, Review, Twentieth Century Composer, tags: Anthony Newman, appropriation, Bright Sheng, Northern Lights, pastiche, Sonata Populare, Summerfest
Older readers may recall with fondness Edgar Bergen, a very popular American entertainer who poured his comic routines through ventriloquist dummies named Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd. Edgar so loved the performing arts, that he created an annual celebration to showcase classical music, dance, opera, and theater, which continues and thrives to this very day: the Bergen Festival.
Okay, that’s not really what the Bergen Festival is, but after hearing a modern composer with a strong Chinese musical identity—Bright Sheng—prop up Scandinavian folk tunes on his knee, and manipulate them to entertain the public, the spirit of Charlie McCarthy—a bourgeois puppet in top hat and tails, monocle in place, spouting low vaudeville patois—was in the air…
More about the American premiere of Bright Sheng’s Northern Lights and the world premiere of Anthony Newman’s Sonata Populare here.
I am very interested in reading your views on stylistic appropriation. Does it only creep out older dudes like me, or is it an affront to all contemporary composers? Why or why not?
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[Ed. note -- Our long-time contributor Steve Hicken is usually to be found helping out in the CD review section of S21. But a recent shipment of a number of band music CDs prompted Steve to group them together as a larger essay, and we thought it should end up here on the main page. Recordings discussed in this essay: BARNES: Symphonic Overture; Fantasy Variations on a Theme by Nicolo Paganini; GERSHWIN: Rhapsody in Blue (Hunsberger, arr.); Overture on Themes from Porgy and Bess (Barnes, arr.); REED: Ballade. Raimonds Petrauskis, p; Oskars Petrauskis, a sax; RIGA Professional Symphonic Band/Andris Poga. PPOR-CD002 -- GRAINGER: Band Music. Dallas Wind Symphony/Jerry Junkin. Reference 117 -- GRAINGER: Transcriptions for Wind Orchestra. Ivan Hovorun, p; Royal Northern College of Music Wind Orchestra/Clark Rundell. Chandos 10455 -- CORIGLIANO: Circus Maximus; Gazebo Dances. University of Texas Wind Ensemble/Jerry Junkin. Naxos 8.559601]
Tragic but true: when the smoke had cleared, the new music wars had been won not by towners up or down or coasters east or left, but by a rear guard of trained symphonic band composers from big state universities in the middle of the country. — Daniel Wolf
According to the American Bandmasters Association (ABA), there are some 40,000 bands in the United States.1 Almost every high school, most junior high or middle schools, and many elementary schools have at least one band. On the college level, the situation is one of even more abundance—just about every college has more than one band, and the big public institutions have a handful or more. In addition, many municipalities have amateur bands, and some larger cities have professional wind orchestras.
Given these numbers and the exceptional quality of USA wind and percussion playing, you would expect that bands would be at the center of concert music in America. In reality, band music runs on a parallel track to the rest of concert music, and it has for a long time.2 There are stars in the world of band music, just as there are in the rest of concert music. These stars tend to be the conductors of the top bands at the big public universities of the Big 10, Texas, the west coast, and a few places in the Southeast, and composers at most of the same institutions, as well as a handful of composers making a living as freelancers. More about these composers later.
The music played by these bands falls into three very broad categories:
Marches! — To a very great extent, the wind band began as a military unit, designed to play music for armies to march to. There is evidence of ensembles consisting of what we call brass instruments and drums playing martial music in ancient civilizations in both the east and the west. Much of the music played by these groups was in reality signals, such as “charge”, “reveille”, etc. By the seventeenth century the instrumentation of what we now consider the standard military band had begun to settle, with the development of the position of the “drum major” whose function was to keep the soldiers marching in time.
As the instrumentation became fairly standard, more and more music was written for these bands to play. And most of this music was for marching. Tempos are within a certain range (mostly quick), phrases are clear, melodies stirring and carried, for the most part, by the flutes and clarinets. The march tradition is so deeply ingrained in the band world that many band directors wouldn’t dream of beginning a concert program with anything but a march.
Transcriptions or arrangements — A transcription is a note-for-note translation of a piece from one kind of instrumentation to another. In the case of band transcriptions, the vast majority of these are orchestra-to-band transcriptions. In these pieces, flutes, clarinets, and sometimes oboes, substitute for violins, and lower woodwinds for the lower strings. Solo instruments from these same choirs take the same roles as their orchestral counterparts, and the brass and percussion tend to have the same roles as they do in the original compositions.
A sizable number of orchestral works that have been transcribed for bands comes from the late Romantic period through the early part of the 20th century. From Dvorak to Shostakovich, symphonies and other orchestral works have provided grist for the transcriber’s mill. An important reason for this is that the winds in the original works (like Dvorak’s “New World” Symphony and Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony) had important roles and recasting this music for winds is not as radical a change as it would be in most, for example, Beethoven. Arrangements consist in taking pre-existing pieces of music (usually popular or Broadway tunes) and orchestrating them for the available forces (in this case, a band), usually as a medley, with newly-composed connecting material. There isn’t a rigorous line between transcriptions and arrangements, but it seems to me that the adding of this connecting material is a crucial distinction.
The third large category is that of original compositions.3 Igor Stravinsky, Gustav Holst, Arnold Schoenberg, and Paul Hindemith were among the many major early 20th-century composers who wrote music for band. As the century progressed, however, band composition came to be a specialty — people that wrote band music tended to write little else, and people who were not band composers never touched the medium.
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