Archive for November, 2005

The problem with orchestral music is that it comes from a long tradition, and using orchestration techniques that ‘work’ often influences the composer towards, if not conservatism, not the most adventurous pieces. However, classic minimalists like Philip Glass and Steve Reich have managed to use a traditional orchestra to their own ends – but not without some complaints from the musicians of the duress playing repetitive patterns. Robert Ashley made a daring, hyper-minimalist attempt on the ACO. Whether it was well-received is not for me to say.

Deconstructing the orchestra is not a new idea. Charles Ives, in his Universe Symphony, had already imagined dividing the orchestra to have separate pulses simultaneously. John Cage was uncomfortable with the idea of a conductor, uncool by definition – even Boulez admitted once that the role of the conductor is that of a ‘traffic cop’. In Etcetera 2/4 Orchestras, the 1986 expansion upon his 1973 original Etcetera, the orchestra is divided into four smaller ensembles, each with its own conductor. The effect is of a ‘décousu’, a disconnect, with a great deal of pauses and no continuous beat whatsoever. It succeeds in sounding just like a piece that doesn’t have a conductor. .. Eve Beglarian had a piece where the orchestra is divided in several groups. Divide to conquer…

Other composers defy the musicians’ role and make them do things that they would not expect, such as free improvisation, or standing and walking with their instruments. Lisa Bielawa and Johnny Reinhard have used these devices to make the orchestra come alive, so to speak. Those are exciting but unfortunately rare occasions, and most of the scores that would suggest such nonsense are automatically rejected.

The greatest challenge in writing orchestral music is to find a balance between a radical disruption of the orchestral gestalt – which does not always yield the expected results – and a way to reuse and recycle the orchestral behemoth. The taming of the orchestra is not just a matter of music – it is political. The conductor is the impersonation of patriarchal power. The social model of the orchestra is the army. Discipline is necessary in order to coordinate large groups, but alternative models are needed. How about a matriarchal, nurturing model, for instance?

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Big time composer Rachel Portman from England is mostly known for her film scores. She received an Academy Award for Emma in 1996. She contributed musical scores to The Manchurian Candidate, Mona Lisa Smile, The Legend of Bagger Vance, to name only a few of her Hollywood credits.

And now – right now, through November 20 at the New York City Opera, her opera based on Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Le Petit Prince (The Little Prince) is being performed, in a production directed by Francesca Zambello. That is a not to miss, as Portman is the is the only female composer represented this season at NYCO – and one is more than most.

Recently the ACO performed an adventurous orchestral piece by Eve Beglarian. Tod Machover just had a premiere in Kalamazoo, so I am not too embarrassed to say my own orchestral premiere will take place at SUNY-Fredonia on November 30, up in the cold Buffalo area, with a piece called Strange Attractors (the title reflects my teeming interest in chaos theory, as befits the kind of times I’ve had this year, but coincidentally, just yesterday, I found a science fiction novel with the same title), and then I’ll be off to Boston to see some new faces.

And as far as Thanksgiving, a happy one to you all, but for me it’s thanks but no thanks. How do I hate the holidays! They act as a painful reminder of the tyranny of the dollar. Notably, Major Bloomberg intervened in resolving the dispute between Radio City and their orchestra (they had to use tape for the last couple of weeks) and now the schlockmeisters can shine – actually, there is one touring orchestra for Eastern Europe that creatively combines a kind of Boston Pops set up with some live electric guitar, with guitarists sporting long hair and tuxedos. I dread to hear the material, though. Do I sound cranky? I have had a horrific year -with the exception of the freedom I enjoy in this blog space. Thank you, heartfully, Sequenza21!

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About a century ago, the idea of art for art’s sake was a hot debate. Here and now in the US, it seems that music and art have to have some kind of purpose. Any grant application is required to address the ‘community’ issue. Should music serve the community beyond various levels of entertainment-enlightainment? Does a piece have to have an actual subject matter that addresses community issues? Or involve participants that are meaningful to a community?

In the days of Bach, a piece was commissioned by the church or the aristocracy for the purpose of worship or celebration. It did have a built-in social purpose. Romanticism focused on the individual, and brought about a change of purpose: in fact, a piece would stand on its own as a means of expression for the composer. In the 20th century in the US, music has been a factor of social evolution. As African American music gradually dominated popular music, racial integration took place, and as White kids listened to the blues, rock music was born. For a while, it served as a factor of liberation, although not women’s… I remember the days of all-girl bands – a necessity when the guys wouldn’t let us play the guitars with them. Unfortunately, those same rock tunes that spelled revolution are now aired as background to television commercials – time has eroded their edge.

To charge a music event with definite community content promotes timidity and leans towards hackneyed formulas. Aren’t artists doing enough for the community by pioneering iffy neighborhoods and turning them into valued real estate, only to be kicked out a few years later? Isn’t that enough community service? Can’t we have a little leeway here, when it comes to content?

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This week, I was perusing the program for Downtown Music Productions, with its new home at St Mark’s Church (10th St and Second Avenue) on Sunday afternoons. DMP twice received an ASCAP award for adventurous programming and it is unique in New York for its unexpected associations. ‘Downtown’ actually is a misnomer, because true-to-form ‘downtown’ composers are not often featured in this eclectic program. A lot of straightforward classical music is presented, like Aaron Copland, French composers (Fauré, Darius Milhaud, Eric Satie) but also women classics that no one else performs, like Clara Schumann and Fanny Mendelssohn, all blended with Chinese music, uptown women Mary Carol Warwick, Joyce Hope Suskind, Rebecca Clarke and Lera Auerbach, and Laura Wolfe, blues singer-songwriter turned composer, with subjects like satire and ecology, programs for children and the elderly and DMP’s annual Benson AIDS Series at Trinity Church on December 1 (1PM), featuring works by Robert Chesley, Lee Gannon, Chris DeBlasio, and Kevin Oldham, performed by Marshall Coid, countertenor, David Eggar, cello and Mimi Stern-Wolfe, piano.

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On November 19, NPR features a broadcast of Mark Adamo’s most recent opera, Lysistrata. For those who have forgotten about Aristophanes, the original farce from 411 BC is about war and women, two subjects that are in the forefront of the news today. In Lysistrata, the women protest the ongoing war by going on a sexual strike with their partners – definitely a ‘Make Love Not War’ idea! Adamo, who wrote his own libretto, adapted the antique framework to a full-length, two and a half hour opera. The piece was premiered in Houston in March 2005, and will be presented by the New York City Opera in the Spring with a brand new overture to boot. The dates are March 21, 15, 31 and April 2 and 5, 1006. At NYCO, Lysistrata will be conducted by George Manahan and directed by Michael Kahn, and will feature soprano Emily Pulley and Chad Shelton in the leading roles.

Upcoming on December 2nd, the Metropolitan Opera is presenting the premiere of Tobias Picker’s An American Tragedy. The libretto by Gene Scheer is based on the groundbreaking 1925 novel by Theodore Dreiser about what was later dubbed as ‘the crime of the century’, the real life story of a young man who killed his poor, pregnant girlfriend to get a shot at a better life with a rich girl. It is interesting that the emotional ground for the opera is a thriller, although the public may be nearly immune to the impact of any crime, as the proliferation of cop stories has made the subject rather mundane: all I have to do is turn on the television and on a daily basis, I can see crime scene experts dissecting cadavers. But this is a good, tried-and-true subject: this very same novel was the inspiration for the 1951 movie A Place in the Sun, starring Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift. Tobias Picker was commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera, and this is his fourth opera after Emmeline (1996), Fantastic Mr. Fox (1998), and Thérèse Raquin (2001).

Well, opera is not dead after all. That’s a comforting thought. My only regret is that there is only one new opera premiere each for the New York City Opera and the Metropolitan Opera for the 2005-2006 season.

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