Posts Tagged “Contemporary Classical Music”

After the concert in Liepāja, we were all fired up to perform in CÄ“sis. Latvijas Koncerti arranged for a small bus to chauffeur us there, and the trip took a bit over five and a half hours, CÄ“sis being over an hour on the other side of RÄ«ga. I’m becoming accustomed to these Baltic summers, where the sun just hangs there, beating down for hours and hours. But it accumulates on bus rides, like we’re bugs under a magnifying glass, and it seems to be a distinctly un-Latvian thing to roll the windows all the way down and let the wind whip on through. So, the trip felt long.

Now, there had been some weirdness about the scheduling of this concert. Our contact in CÄ“sis insisted on changing the date from the originally scheduled one, claiming she thought she couldn’t get an audience for reasons that weren’t entirely clear, but seemed to have something to do with people having too much to do on the weekends now that summer was coming. We agreed to move the date to this one, which coincided with the city’s anniversary, and indeed there were easily over a thousand people milling around, browsing the offering of local vendors, watching some formal dancers, listening to drummers, a flamenco(ish) guitarist (amplified) and a performance that may or may not have been sanctioned but looked like a cross between some circusy acrobatics and a bunch of hippies playing hackey-sack.

The Gallery space where we were to perform was just next to all this. The space was lovely, actually. Here’s a photo of the piano trio warming up before the performance.

But, as you can imagine, the noise coming from outside was constant and distracting. And there was a video in the room on a constant loop, that we didn’t think to ask to have turned off, of a man’s face emerging from a tub of milk or something that included him smiling creepily then gasping a little bit once every five minutes or so. But that part wasn’t the bad part. The bad part was that, as far as we could tell, the only promotion for the concert, in the end, was a single poster placed outside the building. (We later learned, for example, that the nearby music school never learned of the performance.) And this meant that the audience was very small, and very quiet.

Generally speaking, Latvians have described themselves to me as shy and reserved (I remember many years ago seeing a segment on 60 Minutes or CBS Sunday Morning (Man! I miss CBS Sunday Morning!) about how painfully shy Finnish people are, and how many of them remain single because they’re too afraid of the rejection, for example. Anyway, the lack of energy in the room was truly disconcerting.

There was a growing sort of inside joke in the ensemble. A few posts ago, I talked about trying to lighten the mood of the ensemble, ease the nervous tension, be a cheerleader. One of the things that spontaneously happened during the final rehearsal before the performance in Durbe, was that during the final piece where we all play together, this sort of fiddle-tune Irish folk medley where I play the bodhrán, in order to get them energized, I cried out a couple of loud, wild hillbilly hoots. Now, they only smiled in reaction, but secretly, they loved it. When we performed in Liepāja, a couple of them gave me the big eye, waiting for me to give a big shout during the finale. Now it was time for me to be shy, and I whimped out, and they gave me hell for it. So here we were in Cēsis, and I gave a big howl, stomped my feet a couple of times, and I saw one person in the audience give a big smile. That was the only noticeable change in the room. That was a hard concert.

At the same time, there was a silver lining after all. We were invited to give the concert in RÄ«ga, on June 18th, at the Jaunais RÄ«gas Teātris. CÄ“sis, by the way, is the home of one of the national beers, and it’s not a bad beer. Before getting back on the bus, we loaded up on pizza (not as good as the beer, and I miss NY pizza even more than I miss CBS Sunday Morning) and good, cold, dark beer, which is no small consolation either.

Next up is a second, slightly truncated version of the concert back here in Liepāja that we will give on June 17th. Here’s what one of the flyers looks like.

Comments No Comments »

I just uploaded to YouTube a second video from the Liepāja concert, this time of the string quartet playing Set fire to have light. Click on the link for a PDF of the score if you’d like to follow along. The title is taken from a poem by Rumi, and the piece employs Arabic rhythmic (iqa’at) and scalar (maqamat) modes. I wasn’t trying to write an overtly Arabic piece, but rather to see what I could derive from an exploration of these specific materials. The quartet members are: Baiba Lasmane, Ginta Alžāne, Tatjana Borovika and Dina PuÄ·ite.

Comments No Comments »

Here’s the Manhattan Choral Ensemble’s press release. I wish I could be there in person, but I can’t…we’re performing two more concerts (in Liepāja and RÄ«ga) on the 17th and 18th respectively. If anyone out there can go, I’d be be happy to hear your reactions. There were a few things I tried in this piece that I haven’t tried before, so I would love to know if you think it hangs together or not. They will be premiering my setting for soprano and tenor solo, off-stage solo quartet and choir of the Carl Sandburg anti-war poem Jaws, as part of their New Music for New York commissioning project.

Manhattan Choral Ensemble, Tom Cunningham, Director.

New Music and Old Favorites

Friday, June 8th, 2007 at 8:00pm

Earl Hall, Columbia University
117th and Broadway, New York City

Admission: $15, $12 (students and seniors)

Please join us for our third annual installment of our New Music for New York commissioning project, featuring four newly commissioned works by New York-area composers, including a new work for choir and cello by Patrick Castillo, composer of A Piece of Coffee as premiered by the Manhattan Choral Ensemble in June 2006. Other composers featured include Charles Griffin, Karen Siegel, and Davide Zannoni.

The performance will end with madrigals of Monteverdi and familiar settings of favorite folksongs.

Please join us for a wine and cheese reception after the concert. We hope to see you there!

Directions: The Earl Hall Center is located on the Columbia University Morningside campus. The campus covers a six-block area between Broadway and Amsterdam Avenue from 114th Street to 120th Street. The main entrances of the campus are located at 116th and Broadway and 116th and Amsterdam. These entrances are open 24 hours a day. The Earl Hall entrance is located at 117th and Amsterdam and is only open during normal business hours.

By subway, take the #1 IRT Broadway Local to 116th Street. The Earl Hall Center is located at 117th and Broadway.

Comments No Comments »

A few things to report as I surface to breathe. First, as an update to my entry of a few months back, I was accepted into the European American Musical Alliance summer program in Paris. I will go there for the month of July to study conducting with Mark Shapiro (from Mannes in New York). Should be great fun, and from what I understand, a fairly intensive experience. And an expensive one too, as I discovered after sifting through the available apartments for the month of July via craigslist.

Second, on a whim, I threw my hat in the ring to be considered for a commission from the Manhattan Choral Ensemble, directed by Tom Cunningham. They run a small commissioning program that echoes the Dale Warland Singers’ model. They commission three or four composers to write short works, give them a performance, and then select one of those composers to receive a larger commission for the next season. To my happy surprise, I was chosen, along with composers Patrick Castillo, Karen Siegel, and Davide Zannoni. Six degrees of separation / Small world spoiler alert: I’ve known Davide for years. The only hitch was I had less than a month to write the thing.

No matter. I had it in the back of my mind to set some of Carl Sandburg’s poetry. A former composition student back in New York kept bringing in these amazing Sandburg poems, and I resolved to get around to setting Sandburg at some point, and this seemed a good a time as any. I dug through a batch, and settled on the anti-war poem Jaws:

SEVEN nations stood with their hands on the jaws of death.
It was the first week in August, Nineteen Hundred Fourteen.
I was listening, you were listening, the whole world was listening,
And all of us heard a Voice murmuring:
“I am the way and the light,
He that believeth in me
Shall not perish
But shall have everlasting life.”
Seven nations listening heard the Voice and answered:
“O Hell!”
The jaws of death began clicking and they go on clicking.
“O Hell!”

For obvious reasons, one usually just uses the title of the poem as the title of the piece, but in this case, for equally obvious reasons, I’m not calling it Jaws, but rather The Whole World was Listening. I set it for soprano solo, tenor solo, off-stage quartet and divisi choir, and for the first time, included some aleatoric elements as well as specific movements the choir must make. They will perform it on June 8 in New York. The concert is not announced on their web site yet, but I trust it will be soon enough.

In the meantime, I interrupted a piece I was working on for Putni, a setting of a Federico Garcia Lorca poem, called El Paso de la Seguiriya:

Entre mariposas negras,Ӭ
va una muchacha morena Ӭjunto
a una blanca serpienteӬ de niebla.

Tierra de luz,Ӭ
cielo de tierra

Va encadenada al temblor
Ӭde un ritmo que nunca llega;
”¨tiene el corazón de plata
Ӭy un pu̱al en la diestra.

¿A dónde vas, siguiriya”¨
con un ritmo sin cabeza?
”¨Â¿Qué luna recogerᔨ
tu dolor de cal y adelfa?

Tierra de luz,Ӭ
cielo de tierra.

I was attracted to the possibilities inherent in the lines, Tierra de luz, cielo de tierra (Earth of light, Sky of Earth). Spring-boarding off the Flamenco workshop I gave them in February, I’m trying to engage with (yet not limit myself to) Flamenco rhythms and harmonies, and this piece also includes palmas and contrapalmas parts for the singers to clap. I hope to finish it soon.

Also in the meantime, preparations for my All Griffin concert are proceeding as we make our mad dash for the finish line. We’ve got about 75 minutes of my music in rehearsals, which have been going essentially smoothly. I gave an interview for the city’s main daily, Kurzemes Vards, yesterday, and the posters are coming tomorrow. We will give four or five performances over the next six weeks in Liepāja (2), Durbe, Cesis, and possibly RÄ«ga. I did arrange for a recording engineer, and will enlist the daughter of one of the pianists to video record it. So, I’ll post some stuff on YouTube and/or make a podcast of it for anyone who wants to hear it.

Comments No Comments »

I’m going to interrupt my Latvian narrative to report some sad news.


Mexican composer Ramón Montes de Oca Téllez (b. Mexico City, 1953) died from a massive heart attack while driving alone between Mexico City and Guanajuato, on the morning of November 9.

Ramón was an award-winning and well-known composer in Mexico, but his work was also regularly performed abroad, in the United States (he’s an alumnus of Southern Oregon University), Europe and South America. His terminal studies were with Mario Lavista at the Conservatorio Nacional de Música. He enjoyed annual trips to give lectures at the Conservatory of the Autonomous Community of Madrid. He was an Associate Professor at the School of Music of the University of Guanajuato, and the director of the Contemporary Music Cycle of the Festival Internacional Cervantino. It was in this last capacity that I knew him.

The Cervantino Festival is a big deal in Mexico. October 2006 saw the 34th edition of the festival, and the city of Guanajuato floods with tourists. The tourists are primarily from within Mexico, which is great. The festival invites artists from all over the world, giving performances of Music, Visual Art, Dance, Opera, Theater, and every year, they place a special focus on a particular part of the world and a particular state in Mexico. In 2006 it was the U.K. and Chiapas.

The place becomes very carnival-like, with dancing and singing in the streets late into the night. But the festival is taken very seriously. The invited artists are first rate, world class, and the performances are well attended. Every performance I attended was filled to capacity or past it, including all the concerts of contemporary music, and the audiences are supportive and enthusiastic.

I went to the Festival Cervantino twice. The first time was in October 2001. The excellent pianist and fervent supporter of new music, Ana Cervantes, was giving a recital on the contemporary cycle, and had arranged an invitation for me. It was a strange time, so soon after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. I remember reading about the anthrax attacks and thinking the world truly had become a strange, different, and unsafe place. Cervantino was a welcome distraction.

Nestled in the mountains of the Sierra de Guanajuato, its name originates from the word Quanax-juato, or, in the indigenous dialect of the region, “Place of Frogs”. It feels a little bit like a Mexican version of San Francisco, topographically and attitudinally. It’s a pretty, idyllic city, and is drawing more and more American ex-pats there. Not nearly as many as nearby San Miguel De Allende, where there are some 8,000 English-speaking retirees. Ana Cervantes, originally from New Jersey, is in the process of having a beautiful house built into a hillside in Guanajuato.

Back in 2001, I met several Mexican composers, and three of them stood out for me, as outstanding composers and people, and Ramón was one of them. I was excited to see him again in 2006, and happy to note that he hadn’t changed a bit in the interim. In addition to being a warm, ingratiating person and talented composer, Ramón was the quintessential smooth Latin man. He was always dressed in a blazer and jeans, always sporting shoulder length hair, usually done in a ponytail, and always with a cigarette in hand, and always in the company of a beautiful, much younger woman. Maybe that description makes him sound smarmy, or like a clichéd, aging hipster, but he wasn’t. And the great thing about him in that respect was that he never seemed to be trying to pretend he was younger, never trying to be hip. I’m sure it was simply his confidence and sense of self that drew others to him.

Ana Cervantes said: “It’s a terrible, an unspeakable loss for new music, particularly for new music in México. The Ciclo de Música Contemporánea was a model for any such cycle in the world, hard to imagine it being done better. For all of us here, for the young composers he mentored, in personal as well as professional terms, it’s awful. We’re all still reeling, at least I am; certainly we are all still grieving and missing him awfully. Everyone expects him to come walking round the corner at any minute.”

This most recent project that brought me to Mexico was Ana’s Rumor de Páramo (Murmurs from the Wasteland). Cervantes commissioned 18 composers (from Mexico, The U.S., U.K. and Spain) to write short piano pieces to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the publication of Pedro Páramo, an important proto-magical-realist novel by Mexican author Juan Rulfo. My Murmuring in Comala was written for this project. Ramón’s piece, and I believe I read it was his final work, was called Ecos de llano. Ana’s concert at Cervantino was filled past capacity so that they opened the balcony overlooking the hall. She recorded twelve of the pieces for a compact disc that was released at the premiere. The remaining pieces, Ramón’s among them, will be recorded for a future disc.

I felt lucky to be a part of the project and to twice have had the experience of going to Cervantino. It’s one of the things that makes being a composer feel truly worthwhile: to travel someplace new and make happy connections with people you otherwise would never meet. What a blessing, when you really think about it. Descanse en paz, Ramón Montes de Oca Téllez (1953-2006).

Comments 5 Comments »

Putni (Birds), a women’s vocal ensemble based in Riga, will tour the US starting this weekend.

Comments No Comments »