Posts Tagged “Griffin Ensemble”

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.

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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.

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Here is the poster that was displayed in Liepāja and Cēsis advertising our concerts.

This past week, between Sunday and Saturday, we gave three performances, one each in Durbe, Liepāja and Cēsis. As one might expect, the week brought both problems and successes.

The performance in Durbe was sort of a trial run, a very necessary one, as it shone a spotlight on things I hadn’t thought enough about. It wasn’t a bad concert, but it was nervous, rushed, and bumpy in many senses. I had to emcee, stage-manage, turn pages for one piece and perform too. Speaking in Latvian is not my strong suit, and I wrongly figured I would stage-manage and introduce each piece simultaneously. This meant once or twice giving my back to the audience as I spoke and moved chairs and music stands at the same time. Nothing that seemed deliberately rude, but just trying to hurry, hurry, hurry, as if apologizing for taking people’s time, something that I afterwards remedied.

In fact, the whole week was illuminating on several fronts: about my own writing, the musicians’ experience of my music and their own attitudes about performing (with sub-differences related to gender and/or culture), the details of which I may go into at a later time.

But suffice it to say that over-preparation, under-preparation, nervous energy or self-esteem issues almost invariably led to faster tempos taken in the first concert. (And the concomitant problems of faster tempi, namely that the musical ideas don’t really get a chance to breathe or be properly heard).

So, I wasn’t the only one trying to hurry, hurry, hurry, as if apologizing for taking people’s time. In fact it was only the clarinetist, Uldis, who seemed completely immune to any problem. In between the first and second concert, I wound up talking to the string quartet musicians about body language and tempo and expressivity and such, and generally playing the good cop, as their problem was that they were essentially over-prepared (and also, I think, a little intimidated by Uldis’ confidence and reputation when they played the quintet with him). Alternately, with the pianists, I wound up sort of playing the bad cop, as one of them was less prepared and they so rarely agreed with each other about interpretation and tone.

The concert in Liepāja was GREAT. I was calm, and so were the musicians. The hall was nearly full, we all played well, and the audience was enthusiastic enough to demand an encore. There was good energy all around. As a bonus, one representative from each of the two funding bodies that supported these concerts attended, and both were happy. One of the winners at that performance was Dina Puķite, the cellist. She is a lovely, mild-mannered woman. And my duet for cello and clarinet requires a certain rock-inflected attitude, which I had to several times coax from her though it was clearly there. Many of her colleagues in the Liepāja Symphony were in the audience, and went nuts for her performance. You can see it here:
To be continued…

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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.

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