Hey composers!

Dan Graser, the soprano saxophonist of the award-winning Donald Sinta Saxophone Quartet, asked me to help announce the group’s 2014 Composition Competition. This looks like a very exciting opportunity!

Here are the basic facts (taken from the group’s online posting):

Eligibility: All student composers enrolled in the United States as of Spring 2014.

Piece requirements: An un-premiered work for SATB saxophone quartet, 6-10 minutes in length.

Application fee: None!

Prize(s): One first-prize winner will receive $500 and have their piece premiered at the quartet’s Carnegie Hall recital in November, 2014.

Five composers receiving honorable mention will have their works premiered at an all-world-premiere recital in December, 2014 at the Kerrytown Concert House in Ann Arbor, MI.

All winning works will receive a live recording by the Donald Sinta Quartet and be added to the group’s repertoire for the 2014-15 season.

Submission Process: E-mail a bio, CV, and PDFs of the work’s score and parts to info@donaldsintaquartet.com

Deadline: Submissions must be received by August 1, 2014.

You can verify and double-check all this information here, on the quartet’s website.

 

Good luck to all those who apply!

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Sign up for the New York Philharmonic’s eNews for a chance to win   a pair of tickets to hear the New York Philharmonic in a concert featuring the World Premiere of Christopher Rouse’s Symphony No. 4 and Violinist Midori on your choice of Thursday, June 5, 2014, at 7:30 PM or Saturday, June 7, 2014, at 8pm at the first-ever NYPHIL BIENNIAL!   2 winners will be selected on May 31, 2014.   The winners will be notified by the email address provided on the form. One entry per email address.

Register here.

Read about the concert here.

Read about Christopher Rouse below.

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On May 5, Carnegie Hall launches the fourth and final season of its Spring for Music festival with a massive staging of Requiem, a work commissioned by the international sacred music foundation Soli Deo Gloria from the Pulitzer Prize-winning current composer-in-residence of the New York Philharmonic, Christopher Rouse.

Photo Credit: Jeffrey Herman

The innovative series Spring for Music presents unusual programs for one-evening-only performances by visiting North American Orchestras, realizing, as Alan Gilbert puts it: “A week-long celebration of what symphonic music can bring to all our lives.”

Requiem’s New York premiere comprises the evening’s entire 90-minute concert program; Alan Gilbert will lead the New York Philharmonic through Rouse’s tour de force, alongside baritone Jaques Imbrailo, the Westminster Symphonic Chorus directed by Joe Miller, and the Brooklyn Youth Chorus directed by Dianne Berkun-Menaker.

Christopher Rouse himself describes Requiem as “unquestionably, [his] magnum opus.” The work was commissioned by Soli Deo Gloria under its Founding Artistic Director, Grammy award-winning conductor John Nelson, in honor of the 2003 Hector Berlioz bicentennial, and Rouse completed the piece while attending the 2002 Aspen Music Festival in Colorado.  The internationally operating institution Soli Deo Gloria is recognized for its worldwide sponsorship of sacred music concerts, presenting opulent choral/orchestral arrangements and idiosyncratic commissions since 1996. Nelson and Rouse had met and worked together in 1985, and bonded in particular over their shared love for Berlioz, to whose work Rouse feels especially connected. He says: “If I had to choose one of all his wonderful masterpieces as my island work, it would have to be, objectively speaking, his Damnation of Faust.”

Despite his profound admiration and intimate respect for Berlioz’ strong sense of harmony, rhythm, and orchestration, Rouse, in his requiem, refrained from referencing Berlioz’ own “mighty and most stupendous and unique example of the genre,” as he describes it. “I did not use any direct quotes. I did, however, follow him in placing the text where he had set it, refashioning the Latin, and using the same separations.” Like Berlioz, Rouse adapted the Latin text liturgically read at the Requiem Mass for the Dead, interspersing it, like Berlioz, with poetry in a variety of languages, and restricting the Latin liturgical text to the chorus. This structure achieves an artistic transformation from the source material’s liturgical use, conveying the theme of death on different levels of experience: through the Baritone’s voice, heard on a personal level, and through the chorus, portraying the philosophical idea of mortality as it applies to all mankind. Rouse prefers not to analyze meaning in music to the point where the listener closes his or her mind to the experience. After all, the purpose of music for Rouse, as he explained in an interview with Bruce Duffie, is “to convey something meaningful, nourishing, and enlightening for the human spirit that speaks of the creator of the work to the listener…and how you organize your material is really just a means of making that expressive or emotive meaning coherent, more logical.”

In the case of Requiem, his own work by which he “wants to stand or fall,” he followed some of Berlioz’ emotional concepts, expressed in the music, but some he created in exact opposition, for example, “in Berlioz’ Dies irae opening section, there is this serenity, austere mood – in mine, all hell is breaking loose,” he says. Given the fact that Requiem was composed in the aftermath of 9/11, an interesting fact, especially for New Yorkers, is that although there is a minor reference to 9/11, Rouse’s hope with this work is to provide a more general source of solace, a more “Schumanesque approach,” as he puts it, and in terms of the religious aspect, he says: “The use of poetry would preclude the score from its liturgical use and staying away from any symbolic characteristic of some ‘byzantine icon.’” Rouse, whose work has been performed internationally since the mid-eighties, is after “the hyper and expressive urgency of the emotional experience, a musical answer to the cry of anguish, the shriek of universal agony.” His Requiem was coined: “The first great traditional American Requiem,” and praised as “an extraordinary score” by the Los Angeles Times upon its 2007 performance by the Los Angeles Master Chorale.Photo Credit : Christian Steiner

Teaching composition at Juilliard, Rouse is juggling his busy composing career with his pedagogical efforts, “which take a lot of energy,” he says. In order to give his students the intensive attention they deserve, he only composes on the days that he does not teach.

In 2012, Rouse was offered the position as composer-in-residence with the New York Philharmonic’s Marie-Josée Kravis program, which began under Alan Gilbert’s leadership in 2009 with composer Magnus Lindberg’s three-year residency; the program was just recently extended to incorporate Rouse’s third and last year of collaboration with the orchestra into the 2014/15 season. “We inspire each other,” says Rouse.  Gilbert follows: “There was just more work to do.” Rouse’s collaboration with the orchestra began in 1984 with a performance of his work The Infernal Machine, conducted by Leonard Slatkin, marking a sort of breakthrough in his career. In October 2014, the world premiere of Rouse’s new work: Thunderstuck, a rock-inspired Philharmonic-commissioned orchestral work, will be performed under Gilbert’s baton, bringing his experience with the New York Philharmonic full-circle. Rouse, not an instrumentalist himself, knew even as a six year-old boy, listening to a recording of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony that his mother had put on, that writing music was what he was born to do. Growing up with Rock n’ Roll rather than with Jazz, like George Crumb, one of his most influential teachers, Rouse feels naturally connected to the music of his youth. Thunderstuck pays homage to the idiom of some of his Rock favorites, like The Byrds, Jefferson Airplane, Chicago, naturally absorbing the stylistically variant soundscapes of his ‘coming of age’ time.

For the moment, though, Rouse is already working on the last movement of an organ concerto for organist Paul Jacobs, co-commissioned by several orchestras including the Philadelphia Orchestra and the National Symphony Orchestra.

The May 5th concert will be broadcast live from Carnegie Hall on WQXR, hosted by Elliott Forrest and David Garland, and will be available for on-demand listening and streaming on wqxr.org.

Ilona Oltuski -GetClassical

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THEY'RE ALIVE! 2014 Final
On Friday the Washington Square Winds present their third annual THEY’RE ALIVE! concert, which focuses exclusively on work by living composers. This year, they are unveiling two new works, Whirlwind, by Nicholas Hall & The People’s Park by Rex Isenberg, commissioned by WSW. Also on the program are composers Brooks Frederickson and William Wheeler.

Stay for the reception to meet the composers and performers.
IMG_9463 small
Friday, April 25
Church St. School for Music and Art
74 Warren St. Frnt A, NYC

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CLU15The Minimalist Jukebox set up shop at Cal Lutheran on Sunday, April 13, 2014 for a concert titled ‘American Minimalists’, featuring Gloria Cheng and the Areté Vocal Ensemble. The Samuelson Chapel was comfortably filled for this event, which is connected with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Green Umbrella concert series. This performance was also designated the CLU Suzanne Freeman Memorial New Music Concert.

The concert opened with Knee Play I (1976) by Philip Glass from his iconic opera Einstein on the Beach. The Knee Plays are short interludes devised to cover scenery and costume changes during the opera but each contains its own unique emotional trajectory. Knee Play I opens with a sequence of three long, low tones in the synthesizer that are slowly repeated. A sung counting sequence “1, 2, 3, 4…” starts while the Areté Vocal Ensemble filed onto the stage. Narration was added, and although indistinct, this heightened the contrast between the repeated low tones in the synthesizer and the counting in the voices. The motion of the singers, the text and the music combined to evoke that hurried contemporary lifestyle where we are likely to be missing the important undercurrents. The sudden ending of this piece found the thirty-plus members of Areté in place on stage.

Know what is above you (1999) by Steve Reich was next, and this featured a high, airy blend of sound from the voices of Jill Walker, Angela Card, Lisa Wall-Urgero and Ronni Ashley. The text is taken from the Talmud. A steady beat underneath from two small hand-held drums keeps the piece pulsing forward as the voice lines separate and interweave forming interesting harmonies. As the piece progresses the percussion breaks into more complex patterns, nicely complimenting the movement in the voices. Although the only Reich piece in the program, and not a long work, Know what is above you is good example of what the music of Steve Reich is about and fit into the programming of this concert precisely.

Escape, from Alcatraz (1982) by Ingram Marshall followed and this was performed by Gloria Cheng. The piece played for this concert was arranged for piano and electronic processing by Samuel Carl Adams in 2014, and this was the premiere performance. The opening series of notes is deceptively sunny and optimistic, like a summer morning on San Franciso Bay, but soon turns darker and more dramatic. A deep rumbling in the lower registers builds like an angry sea and as the piece continues an agitated feeling in the higher notes is reminiscent of frothy white caps. Ms. Cheng played with a good balance of precision and emotion throughout. This piece is one of a series and paints a portrait of Alcatraz that evokes a definite sense of its place.

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Upon entering Ursula Oppens’ modestly furnished, yet comfortable Upper West Side apartment with a view of the pedigreed patina of the historistic cupola belonging to Columbia University’s campus building, one is immediately taken by the vibrant aura that surrounds the eminent musician.

The personable pianist speaks softly, yet animatedly, in a welcoming way; her reputation is linked to an astonishingly vast array of distinguished contemporary composers, some of whose prominent works were dedicated to Oppens. Unsurprisingly, Oppens has in turn become one of their most incisive promoters.

photo credit: Ilona Oltuski – GetClassical

Oppens was recently celebrated by her long standing fans on the occasion of her 70th Birthday with a concert at Symphony Space. The show was a collaborative project by several of her students: Winston Choi, Ran Dank, Soyean Kate Lee, and Anthony Molinaro, honoring her work and legacy. Oppens’ pianistic career has been particularly impacted by her collaboration with the legendary American composer Elliot Carter, who remains a tremendous source of inspiration for her.

“One summer I came to Marlboro, nervous, young and easily impressionable. I had not had formal music lessons during college, but there I was. Carter was visiting that summer, and they spontaneously decided to play some of his music. There was little time to prepare and I ended up volunteering. I had heard his music before in Aspen, and also had heard him speak about it. I remember when I started reading through the score for the first time, and practice for its performance, I had played a wrong note, intuitively sensing its wrongness. There was a very strong sense of understanding the text and its coherence, and I discovered a very important relationship,” explains Oppens.

The performance of his Sonata for flute, oboe, cello, and harpsichord that she had prepared for went well. When Oppens experienced a similar situation with Carter’s double concerto at Tanglewood, it was clear to her that this was meant to be an ongoing relationship: “the rest is history,” says Oppens, as she describes working with the sophisticated composer. Carter’s masterpiece Night Fantasies was  co-commissioned and funded by Oppens.  photo: Ursula Oppens with Elliot Carter, A.Addey

“He always was extremely kind, but insisted firmly on all the expressive indications of the phrasing and on what stands out,” she explains, “I always felt a bit tongue-tied in his presence, admiring his enormous command of languages and memory but most of all his gregarious personality: To me he represented the ideal of the educated creator, and I love teaching his music to my students, giving on his legacy.” Oppens’ success with her students at CUNY’s Graduate Center and the Conservatory of Music at Brooklyn College , where she holds teaching positions as Distinguished Professor of Music, brings her great personal joy, as well as the satisfaction of continuing the modernist tradition, some of which had started out in her own hands.

“I am very lucky that there are a number of wonderful pieces that have been written for me,” she says, while she shows me an old membership card to the ‘International Society for Contemporary Music’ that had belonged to her father, Kurt Oppens. “The society is still functioning today, and I guess part of my interest in contemporary music is simply inherited from both my parents.” Oppens’ parents were both part of the music world “and great modernist enthusiasts,” she says. She herself, a Radcliffe graduate, spent a lot of her time at the society. Radcliffe did not have its own music performance or composition department at the time, and it was at the society where she forged relationships with other musicians, some of whom she still considers close friends. Only after attending Juilliard, and studying under reputed pedagogue Rosina Lhévinne, did Oppens actively seek out a pianist’s career, which included some partaking in the competition-cycle; she became a first prize winner at the Busoni competition, and a recipient of the Avery Fisher Career Grant in 1976.

Over many years, Oppens gained an unparalleled reputation for her access and attention to music that was challenging, by composers like Milton Babbitt, Pierre Boulez, and Charles Wuorinen. She has gained four Grammy nominations for her recordings of both romantic and contemporary repertoire. The widely praised album Winging It: Piano Music of John Corigliano, released in 2011 on Cedille Records, put her up for her latest nomination to date for “Best Classical Instrumental Solo” in 2012/13.

photo: courtesy of Hemsing Associates

“When you are with musician-friends, you want to make music together,” which is something she appreciates in her ongoing partnership with the distinguished pianist and Juilliard professor Jerome Lowenthal: “we play four-hands repertoire all the time together, and never run out of things to talk about.” One of the results of their intimate pianistic exchange is captured on their recent two-piano CD on Cedille Records, devoted to Visions d’Amen of Olivier Messiaen, and Debussy’s En blanc et noir.

Previously Oppens had been married to the late composer and avantgarde jazz- saxophonist Julius Hemphill, whom she had met on a 1983 New York States Council of the Arts tour.

In a musician’s life, befriending other musicians often forges the path to a career. Some of the first composers Oppens met at the International Society, and approached for works she could perform, were Peter Lieberson and Tobias Picker. Not long thereafter, a grant from YCA, which supported the young pianist, allowed Oppens to receive a new commission by the Washington Performance Art Society in the form of a work written for her by Frederic Rzewski, who now resides in Brussels (only a phone call away, says Oppens): “I did not expect an hour long piece, and did not know what the public’s reaction would be- for all I knew, they could have booed,” but The People United Will Never Be Defeated became one of the cornerstone works she became renowned for in her long lasting, and still active career.

“I was always willing to take chances, and was curious about works I had not heard before,” says Oppens, who spent many of her formative summers backstage at the Aspen Music Festival. This credo remains at the essence of who she is, a free spirit. Oppens also appreciates performing on occasions that demonstrate her humanistic and democratic worldview. A riveting experience for her was partaking at the 37th.anniversary of Portugal’s Carnation Revolution in Lisbon , on April of 2011, commemorating the overthrow of the authoritarian Estado Novo regime. She performed the Portugese national anthem as part of her performance of Rzewski’s The People United Will Never Defeat, at the highly emotionally charged celebration of national liberation.

In 1971, Oppens co-founded Speculum Musicae, a new music chamber group, with some of her closest friends and associates including cellist Fred Sherry, percussionist Richard Fritz, and oboist Joel Marangella. “Rolf Schulte and Virgil Black were also members,” says Oppens, “it was such an exciting time. Like now, many groups were formed by students who did not need to gain approval by the conservative institutions. There was a lot of support available and new venues to perform opened up.”

“One of the main aspects of our particular group was Elliot Carter. He held us together, and is one of the reasons we are still working together closely,” she says. “We all loved his music; his passion connected us, and his kindness towards us kept our friendships intact, even long after we went our own ways.”

The New York Times praised her recent performance at a Carter tribute concert in 2013, which captured the “fevered anxiety and poetic reverie” of Carter’s Night Fantasies, written for her, with an “unfailing sense of drama and almost cinematic color.”

While Carter holds a special place in Oppens’ heart and performance career, from about 1975 onwards, she furiously championed an array of different composers. Their collective conglomerate reads like an encyclopedic list of the contemporary idiom and includes composers as varied as John Adams, Julius Hemphill, Frederic Rzewski, Conlon Nancarrow, John Corigliano, John Harbison, William Bolcom, Anthony Braxton, Tania Léon, Tobias Picker, and Charles Wuorinen.

She has also excelled in performances of works by European modernist masters like Luciano Berio, Gyorgy Ligeti, and Witold Lutoslawski. But as she says modestly: “I can only learn so and so much new music, before every concert, every recording, I am just thinking of the next note.” Next to her recordings and recitals of many of the works of her contemporaries, she equally loves the traditional, classical repertoire, which she also practices every day.

“I feel the necessity to play and practice both, tonal and atonal music. You have to stay open-minded, going to the notation as if you have never heard it before, which is also very important for performing older music. But it is new music that has made me love the translation from the notation to the sound.” She offers the following piece of advice to students: “You cannot un-hear a piece of music you have listened to on a recording, that’s why I suggest listening to more than one, to see a range of possibilities of interpretations. It’s very much about the human factor and the surprise of the outcome, the ambiguity of transition.”

One of Oppens’ interesting projects, which she began a while back, is the collaboration with pianist Bruce Brubaker in a compilation of Meredith Monk’s works for solo piano and piano-duo, titled: Piano Songs; the CD will be released on the ECM label in May of 2014. This will coincide with Meredith Monk’s composing residency at Carnegie Hall, during the 2014/15 season.

”Bruce and I knew each other from Juilliard, and he performed a lot of some of the same composers’ work, I had too, but we had never performed together until we were brought together by Meredith’s music, performing in a celebratory concert of the composer at Zankel Hall, in 2005. A lot of the energy to make this recording happen came from Bruce; we kept adding on pieces until we had a complete disc. We gave a concert in Boston and then recorded at the exquisite Jordan Hall, at the New England Conservatory, where Bruce is the chair of the piano department,” she explains.

“Some of the pieces started out as scores for voices, or voices and other instruments, and transporting these into another world gives us all the wonderful opportunity of hearing the music afresh,” says Brubaker in the disc’s liner notes. “The pieces are based on works from 1971 to 2006.”

“Meredith Monk’s music is extremely interesting,” adds Oppens, “because it seems to come from simple parts, but becomes very intricate – I would kind of compare it to Mozart, in that you think the recapitulation of his sonatas are just like the exposition, except for the key signature; but then you notice all the subtle differences; it has a perfect balance, but it keeps on changing, going forward,” she says. Brubaker also comments on the “intriguing balance” in Monk’s piano music, “between simplicity and a kind of music you’ve never really heard before.” On writing for two pianos, the composer notes: “I delved into different relationships and the possibilities between them…In some pieces, I emphasized the individuality of each piano, writing for one player as the ‘singer,’ the other as the ‘accompaniment;’ in other pieces, I wanted the two pianos to make one large sound.”

In November of 2014, Brubaker and Oppens will perform a program drawn from Monk’s Piano Songs at LePoisson Rouge.

“During the last few years, I have been doing more recordings than expected,” says Oppens, “it may have to do with my age: You feel like you need to   recapitulate pieces that you learned over a long period, and there is definetly something to be said about wanting to summarize things.”

Upcoming projects for the 2014/ 2015 season will include a Bernard Rands disc in the fall, a William Bolcom recording for Naxos,  and a re-recording project of The People Reunited , complete with an improvised cadenza by Oppens.

 

Ilona Oltuski – GetClassical

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minmax50On Tuesday April 9, 2014 downtown Los Angeles was the scene of the centerpiece concert for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Minimalism Jukebox series. Over four hours of music was presented from eight composers, including ten different works, two world premiers and dozens of top area musicians. Wild Up, International Contemporary Ensemble, the LA Philharmonic New Music Group and the Calder Quartet all made appearances. The Green Umbrella event was curated by John C. Adams and Disney Hall filled with a mostly young audience.

The evening began with a pre-concert panel discussion moderated by Chad Smith, VP of Artistic Planning. He was joined by John Adams and four of the composers whose works were on the program: Missy Mazzoli, David Lang, Mark Grey and Andrew McIntosh. The question that provoked the most discussion revolved around the changes in minimalism since its inception. John Adams suggested that it has now acquired a more lyrical bent and that contemporary composers are writing music for musicians who want to be technically challenged. The consensus was that the term ‘minimalism’ is now useful as a description for a certain palette of sounds and processes; but few composers today would identify themselves as minimalists. The programming of this concert was itself an attempt to chart the evolution of minimalism since the mid-20th century.

Even before the concert began the long elegant lines of William Duckworth’s Time Curve Preludes (1977-78) – a work that was something of a departure from the strict minimalist form of that time – could be heard from the piano on stage, carefully played by Richard Valitutto. The music this night was non-stop and there were presentations in various places outside the concert hall during the two intermissions. When the crowd had settled into their seats, a spotlight suddenly shone high up on the organ console revealing Clare Chase, flute soloist, who began the concert with Steve Reich’s Vermont Counterpoint (1982). This piece incorporates a tape track of rapid, staccato flute notes and the soloist plays a line that weaves in and around the looping patterns. The feeling was a sort of aural kaleidoscope of changing complexity that was reassuring in its repetition. Ms. Clare smoothly changed flutes several times and this gave a series of different colors to the piece as it progressed. About mid-way the accompaniment in the tape became more flowing and less frenetic, and this helped to bring out the solo flute. The sound tended to be a bit washed out by the time it reached high up in the balcony where I was sitting, and while this did not detract significantly from the performance, the piece was more effective when the solo line was distinct.

The second work, Stay On It (1973) by Julius Eastman was performed by wild Up with Christopher Rountree conducting. This begins with a series of short syncopated phrases in the piano, soon picked up by the strings, voices and a marimba. This has a lilting Afro/Caribbean feel that builds a nice groove as it proceeds. Horns sound long sustained notes arcing above the texture, but this slowly devolves into a kind of joyful chaos, like being in the middle of a slightly out of control street party This was carried off nicely by wild Up, even when the entire structure collapsed into and out of loud cacophony led by the marimba and horns. The piece seemed to spend itself in this outburst, like air flowing out of a balloon, but towards the end the rhythm regrouped sufficiently to finish with a soft introspective feel. Stay On It quietly concluded with a single maraca shaken by conductor Christopher Rountree.

minmax10The first section of the concert finished with Different Trains (1988) by Steve Reich. In this performance the train sounds and voices were provided by a tape with the Calder Quartet playing seamlessly along. This piece, and the story behind it, will be familiar to most who follow minimalist music, but seeing it live one gets a much better appreciation for its complexity and the effort involved in playing it by a string quartet. The sound system didn’t project the voices very clearly up into the balcony where I was sitting, but this actually afforded a new perspective. With a recording heard through headphones one can easily get caught up in how well the strings are mimicking the voices. High up in Disney Hall you could get just a sense of the words, and I found myself concentrating instead on the sound of strings – and this made for a more powerful experience. The different colors of the three movements came through more vividly, and the intensity that the Calder Quartet brought to this piece was impressive. Different Trains is a masterpiece of late 20th century minimalism and this was made even more obvious in this reading, burdened as it was by less than ideal conditions. The ethereal passages that conclude the piece were beautifully effective, and as the sound faded slowly away, a sustained and sincere applause followed.

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Hsiao-Lan Wang

(Composer Hsiao-Lan Wang)

(Houston, TX) On Sunday, April 27, 2014 the Houston Composers Salon presents its Spring Concert, featuring works by Houston-based composers Hsaio-Lan Wang, Stephen Yip, Ryan Gagnon, and Eric Fegan. All four composers will be in attendance to introduce their compositions and answer questions from the audience. The concert takes place at 6:00 PM at 14 Pews, a popular venue for independent film screenings, visual art, and experimental and contemporary music performances.

The eclectic and provocative program includes Wang’s Houston Duet, a collaboration with video artist Daniel Zajicek with an electro-acoustic score by Wang, Gagnon’s Three Duets for flute and vibraphone, Fegan’s Coexist and Separate for violin and bass, and Stephen Yip’s Tide and Time for trombone and percussion. 14 Pews’ cozy atmosphere and great acoustics are ideal for playing and listening to this kind of music.

Formerly known as the Houston Composers Alliance and founded in 1986 by the then Houston Symphony Composer-in-Resdience Tobias Picker, the Houston Composers Salon was renamed in 2013 and held its first concert at Avant-Garden, a popular Montrose bar that also hosts performances by Classical Revolution Houston and Da Camera. That first concert featured works by Houston Composers Salon president Thomas Helton performed by pianist, composer and improviser Hsin-Jung Tsai, who co-leads the organization with Helton. The organization’s goal is to provide an intimate, supportive environment for local and international composers to have their work performed.

Houston Composers Salon Spring Concert, Sunday, April 27, 2014, 6:00 PM, at 14 Pews, 800 Aurora Street, $5 suggested donation.

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hilt3On Saturday April 5, 2014 Jacaranda presented The Knee Plays by David Byrne along with music by Philip Glass. This concert was one of the Minimalist Jukebox Festival concerts of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and also part of the tenth anniversary season of the Jacaranda series. The venue was the First Presbyterian Church, whose ample and comfortable sanctuary was almost completely filled for the occasion. The Lyris Quartet, the Calder Quartet, Jacaranda Chamber Ensemble and the Vintage Collectables brass band with drummer M.B. Gordy provided the musical forces.  Actor Fran Kranz was the narrator for The Knee Plays and Mark Alan Hilt, Music Director of Jacaranda, performed on the pipe organ and conducted.

The concert opened with Mad Rush (1979), by Philip Glass, an organ work first performed publicly in 1981 at St. John the Divine Cathedral to mark the visit of the Dalai Lama to New York. This piece opens with a light, calming sequence as soothing as any Sunday morning prelude. After a sailing serenely on for minute or two, however, it erupts into a swirling vortex of sound full of drama and energy that calls to mind later sections of The Grid from Koyaanisqatsi. Mad Rush proceeds along in this way, alternating sections of quiet serenity with moments of loud striving frenzy, reflecting a Buddhist sensitivity to contrast and no doubt calling us to a more contemplative state of mind. The sound of the pipe organ filled the sanctuary nicely and the playing of Mark Alan Hilt was especially precise in the faster sections. There are many recordings of Mad Rush on piano or keyboard, but hearing this piece performed live affirms the raw power of this music when heard in its intended venue.

The second work on the program was a suite from the musical score of the film Mishima (1985) composed by Philip Glass and arranged by Todd Levin. The opening section begins with a beautiful shimmer of glass and bell chimes. The lower strings join in to build an ominous undercurrent that is reinforced by a strong beat in the bass drum. This increases in tempo and dynamic, ultimately bursting into a familiar Glass groove carried forward by the strings. Mishima is the complex story of a post-war Japanese writer who plots the return of the Emperor to power by building a private army. The percussion section was especially effective in conveying this militaristic element, as was clearly heard in section 2 by a series of rapid snare drum rolls – the feel is very much like an army on the march. Other parts of the Mishima story are similarly vivid and range from lighter and empathetic as in section 3, 1934: Grandmother and Kimitake, to unsettling and broad in the last section, November 25: THE LAST DAY. For those sections that consisted entirely of string playing, conductor Mark Alan Hilt stepped aside and let the ensemble work out the complex patterns of notes that are the hallmark of music by Philip Glass. The playing throughout was skillful and the harmonies could be heard distinctly, even high up in the balcony. The effort was received by the audience with sustained applause – with many standing.

After intermission the Vintage Collectables brass band took the stage for The Knee Plays (1984) by David Byrne. The Knee Plays was written to be performed between acts of Robert Wilson’s expansive opera the CIVIL warS, partly as a way to cover scenery and costume changes. For this concert however, all the sections of the The Knee Plays were played consecutively. The opening section Tree (Today is an Important Occasion) began with a lovely series of tones played in sequence by two trombones. To these were added saxophones and the result was a pleasantly grand sound that did convey a sense of occasion. The narration by Fran Kranz commenced, but immediately there were technical issues with the sound system, rendering the words unintelligible. The performance was halted until a repair could be effected, and this was right decision inasmuch as the narration provides an essential context for the music. The fix proved only partly effective, however, and even a change of seats to be closer to the speakers still required intense listening to catch all of the spoken words. The brass band was clearly heard and well balanced – but too much for the overwhelmed narration.

glass10David Byrne is best known as a founding member of the band Talking Heads and the music of The Knee Plays brings a comfortable sense of the familiar with it. The second section, In the Upper Room, surely owes something to a hymn tune. I Bid You Goodnight, section 8, could have been an easy-going New Orleans street band piece. All of the tunes in The Knee Plays are highly accessible and Byrne clearly has a good ear for texture. Each of the sections provided solo opportunities for the various horns and combinations and these were effectively realized. The playing was cohesive and consistent throughout the 50-plus minute run time – an achievement of note considering that all the instruments were called upon to play most of the time.

On those occasions when the narration could be heard The Knee Plays really came into focus. Things to Do (I’ve Tried), the ninth section, is a spoken list of simple chores accompanied by the blues, but the juxtaposition produces a knowing, inward smile by anyone who has attempted the mundane and failed. Perhaps the most successful piece was section 12, In the Future. The narration consists of a series of utopian platitudes about how wonderful the future will be – “In the future we will work one hour a week!” – accompanied by a marvelous 1950-ish science fiction soundtrack carried by the lower brass. This was a telling commentary on our 21st century, given that this work dates from 1984, and provided a glimpse of just how effective the music of David Byrne can be. The strong applause from the audience at the conclusion rewarded a fine effort.

The tenth anniversary season of the Jacaranda series will conclude with a concert featuring the music of Mozart, Debussy and Arvo Part on Saturday, May 10, 2014 at First Presbyterian in Santa Monica.

 

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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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