JenniferHigdon’s first opera, Cold Mountain, premieres at The Santa Fe Opera on August 1, 2015 and runs until August 24. The August 24 performance was added due to interest leading to a sold-out run. Opera Philadelphia will give the East Coast premiere of Cold Mountain and a recording on Pentatone will be released in the 2015-16 season.
Cold Mountain takes an American story as its subject—the desertion of Confederate soldier W.P. Inman to return to his love in the mountains of North Carolina during the Civil War. Based on Charles Frazier’s best-selling novel, which was turned into an award-winning movie, it features a libretto by Gene Scheer (Moby-Dick; An American Tragedy), recounting Inman’s dangerous odyssey, trekking across North Carolina back to Cold Mountain. This Santa Fe Opera, Opera Philadelphia, and Minnesota Opera co-commission stars Nathan Gunn as the soldier Inman, Isabel Leonard as his lover, Ada, and Jay Hunter Morris as the villainous Teague in both Santa Fe and Philadelphia.
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize in Music for her Violin Concerto and one of America’s most-performed composers, JenniferHigdon taught herself the flute at the age of 15 and began to compose at 21. Of the 50 recordings of her work, Percussion Concerto, Higdon: Concerto for Orchestra/City Scape, Strange Imaginary Animals, and Transmigrationhave all won Grammy Awards. Her work blue cathedral has been performed more than 500 times since its premiere in 2000. Higdon also teaches composition at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia.
“I didn’t realize that I would be carrying these characters in my head and heart for about two and a half years,” Higdon told NPR Music. “But in many ways, living inside the opera, which it felt like I did, was not like anything I’ve ever experienced before. The entire group stayed with me day and night. I’ve been pretty absent from the present-day world for quite some time. That type of concentrated creativity has been amazing to experience.”
“I think Cold Mountain is going to be the great American operatic work,” said Gunn. “The music is beautiful and amazingly dramatic in scope.”
“Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain is a beautiful story filled with history, love, fear, and courage,” said Leonard. “JenniferHigdon and Gene Scheer have now turned that story into an incredible musical journey and I cannot wait to share it with the people of Santa Fe and Philadelphia.”
“The greatest moments, for me, are when I get to sing new music,” said Hunter Morris. “I love stepping into the character and stepping into the voice for the first time.”
Saturday, July 25, 2015 at Boston Court, People Inside Electronics presented Man on a Wire, a concert of new music featuring pianist Aron Kallay. A capacity crowd filled the Branson performance space to hear eight pieces incorporating electronics, piano, keyboards and acoustic instruments.
The first piece was Four Roses (1997) by Annie Gosfield and this was written for cello and de-tuned keyboard. Aron Kallay played the electronic keyboard and Maggie Parkins, cello. According to the program notes “Three of the cello strings are tuned conventionally, and the ‘A’ string is tuned 80 cents flat (just short of a semitone). This scordatura creates microtonal intervals between the open ‘A’ string and the normally tuned strings. The keyboards use prepared piano and piano samples, tuned to a scale that is 32 notes per octave.” This opened with stark, scratchy sounds from the cello that soon coalesced into a pleasing pizzicato groove while the keyboard added short, metallic notes that provided a good contrast. This order was then reversed, with long, sustained tones coming from the cello while the keyboard fashioned a melody from riffs of 8th notes that worked nicely against the smooth background. The cello then embarked on a slow, dreamy solo and when the keyboard entered again there was an added sense of tension that persisted through a brief revisiting of the opening theme. A sudden ending concluded the piece. Four Roses ably incorporates unconventional tuning into an engagingly listenable piece that was artfully performed.
Get Rich Quick (2009) by Ian Dicke followed. This piece is for piano and fixed media and was performed during the May, 2014 People Inside Electronics concert in Santa Monica. A new video by Katherine Guillen was commissioned for this latest performance. Get Rich Quick was written shortly after the 2008 market crash and is a playful look at the fragility of our financial system. It begins with sounds of the frenetic bidding of a trading floor and the ringing sound of a coin spinning. A loud, scary piano crash follows, and a chilling melody is heard while a shower of falling coins is seen in the video. The dark melody builds in volume and tension as fragments from 1960’s-era commercials are seen extolling the virtues of consumer debt and stock market speculation. Phrases like “Debt is part of American life!” and “Investing is easy!” are heard while visions of conspicuous consumption are seen. Images of charts and currency tables are especially vivid in parts of this new video, with movement and bright colors that dazzle the eye. The music becomes increasingly ominous as the video narration turns suddenly righteous – “Pay those bills!”, “There’s no free lunch!”, and finally “Get out of Debt.” The video concludes with more falling coins and a music box melody of Teddy Bear’s Picnic. Get Rich Quick has lost none of its relevance and the playing of Aron Kallay perfectly fit both the video and the musical message.
The next piece was The Alchemy of Everyday Things (2015) by Jason Heath and this was for piano, violin and live electronics. Originally written specifically for the Villa Aurora performance space with five channels of audio, this Boston Court version was realized in stereo. Aron Kallay was at the piano and Shalini Vijayan played violin. The piece began with a lovely sustained tone from the amplified violin that was unusually deep and rich. The piano entered, but in an unexpected way. Aron Kallay was seen to be drawing a length of fishing line – or perhaps some thin wire – across one of the lower piano strings. The sound this produced was both exotic and profound, like some ancient Asian stringed instrument. When combined with the violin, the result was calm, soothing and meditative – a wash of warm tones without need of rhythm. A high, soaring violin line added a brightness and color and this was joined by several piano notes, struck now from the keyboard, breaking the spell. The violin became more active and piano chords added a new energy and movement to this middle section. At length the sounds of water lapping at a lake shore and a soft whispering were heard, adding an element of mystery. The violin played a soft solo of low, sustained tones and soon the piano joined with more notes bowed with the wire line, returning to the serenity of the opening. The Alchemy of Everyday Things is a beautifully transcendent piece that draws a surprising elegance from very simple sounds. The playing in this performance was equal to the task, delivering a delicate, introspective quality that precisely matched the music.
Friday night July 17 and Boston Court in Pasadena was the venue for a concert titled Music From Text presented by Synchromy, the Los Angeles-based composers collective. Brightwork newmusic was the featured performing group and a sell-out crowd gathered for an evening of contemporary music based on the spoken word.
Breathe by John Frantzen began the concert and this performance was the world premiere. Breathe is based on a poem written by composer’s brother about the trials, hardships and relationships as experienced in military life. In the program notes John Frantzen states that the music “strives to frame these words of support, honor and camaraderie in a journey of love, loss and enlightenment.” The piece began with a short section of the text spoken by a narrator followed by high-pitched bird calls and some bowing of the strings that suggested a lonely breeze in a far away place. The sound of a distant snare drum effectively evoked the military setting. The soprano voice of Justine Aronson was heard and the generally unsettled character of the passages in the strings hinted at the stress and confusion that is present in wartime. This was also portrayed by two actors on the stage whose movements intentionally suggested the strong bonds shared by soldiers in the field. At length the music gave way to a slow, dirge-like unison that was very beautiful. More dramatic action followed, ending in a sudden silence and the spoken word ‘breathe’. The viola and cello again took up the sorrowful theme and this was especially moving, even as the snare drum recalled the military context of what was fundamentally a story about relationships. Frantzen was able to draw a surprising amount of emotion out of the small musical forces in this piece. Breathe is a powerful work that captures both the anxiety and deep emotional attachments that are the essential elements of a soldiers life lived in harm’s way.
The next two pieces on the program were both based on text by Tao Lin and were played consecutively. The text of the first of these was taken from the poem I will learn to love a person and the music by Christopher Cerrone bore the somewhat expansive title I will learn to love a person and then I will teach you and then we will know. This began with spoken text followed by gentle tones in the vibraphone and clarinet. The entrance of Ms. Aronson’s lyrical soprano voice added to the delicate, airy texture and carried the melody forward by weaving in and around the vibraphone line. The dynamics here were carefully observed, adding an extra element of vividness to the realization. This piece agreeably reflects the calm character of the poetry and, as Christopher Cerrone states, “In writing these pieces, my hope is to create a work that reflects the strange and beautiful experience of growing up at the turn of the (21st) century – and will continue to have meaning after that moment passes.”
A declarative sentence whose message is that we must try harder by Jason Barabba followed the Cerrone piece without pause. This was played by a viola, cello and contrabass trio and started with a high pizzicato in the viola and some fast dissonant passages in the lower strings. There was tapping on the wooden parts of the instruments and this added to the feeling of a distant uncertainty as the anxiety mounted in a series of running phrases in the bass, viola and cello. Rapid running of the fingers up and down the strings produced a series of soft, unworldly screeches that added to the tension. This music is also based on the poetry of Tao Lin, but provided a fine contrast with the serenity of the previous piece. Jason Barabba writes that “Because this work is a reaction to a complex and provocative poem, I’ve chosen to take advantage of some of the more unusual techniques that have been introduced for these instruments.” These were deployed with good effect and the string players managed everything quite smoothly. The piece briefly turned warm and dark, but held to the tension of the preceding sections. The fast and turbulent finish was fittingly taut and mysterious. The playing of a declarative sentence whose message is that we must try harder was well matched to the writing of the music and these combined to persuasively express the composer’s intentions.
At the risk of sounding like an Internet meme, one does not simply perform Olivier Messiaen. A performer must take certain risks, and prepare for the very real possibility that the performance may not show the mysteries of the piece. Minnesota-based pianist Matthew McCright, a member of the piano faculty at Carleton College and pianist for the new music group Ensemble 61, has proven to be an intrepid explorer of new music, and knows where to go to find the inner machinery of Messiaen’s works. In his fifth CD release, Contemplations: The Music of Olivier Messiaen (available from Albany Records), McCright tackles six of the Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus (Twenty contemplations of the infant Jesus), as well as the eight Préludes from Messiaen’s early output.
The six Regards chosen by McCright work well as a sub-unit of the full collection (which would take nearly two hours). McCright opens the CD with the ten-minute “Regard du Père” (“Contemplation of the Father”). This piece, the first of the Vingt Regards, requires a deft, sustainable touch, and McCright proves equal to the task, never letting the sound overwhelm the listener. This is Messiaen at his most introspective, and McCright lets the music breathe and meditate. McCright does get a chance to show off impressive technique with the sixth track, “Noël” (“Christmas Day”), which depicts the joy of the Nativity and the sounding of bells throughout all Christendom. The pianist has done his homework throughout the Vingt Regards, bringing Messiaen’s many leitmotivs to the listener’s attention without being pedantic.
In the Préludes of 1929, Messiaen is paying tribute to Debussy, but goes beyond Debussy’s vocabulary to lay the foundation for the language and mysticism we find in the later Vingt Regards. The backwards chronological focus of the CD provides a nice contrast to the “this happened then this happened then this happened” path that many performers have taken in the past with recordings of these works. McCright approaches the Préludes in a manner that is both appropriately athletic and musical; this is most obvious in the final section of the third movement, “Le nombre léger” (“A light number”). McCright proves that for Messiaen, “light” need not mean “insubstantial.”
McCright gets Messiaen, and that is no small feat.
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It used to be that you could pick up the phone and call someone, and they would answer. And so it was perhaps a decade ago that I called Gunther Schuller’s Manhattan publicist John Gingrich innumerable times to see if Schuller was available for a date with the San Francisco branch of The Duke Ellington Society, which I headed at that time. John was forever patient–he told me he’d noted all the times I’d called– as he went over Gunther’s schedule to see when he’d be free, and after many calls we arrived at a date when Gunther could talk to our little band of Ellingtonians.
A date was set, a room rented, and an upright piano arrived, tuned, for, if memory serves, a Friday evening appearance by Gunther at San Francisco’s Fort Mason Center. And he arrived, enormously tall and utterly charming. He told us things about Ellington. How this fiercely private man wept when he said that “they”– the whites and the musical establishment– wouldn’t let him compose and premiere his opera Boo- La, which eventually became his Black Brown and Beige , which caused such a stir and negative slurs when it premiered at New York’s Carnegie Hall., though of course now it’s a classic.
Gunther held the audience in the palm of his hand, and the only thing he did with our rented upright was play an augmented fifth as his hair went dramatically up.
My friend Peter Bodge and I drove Gunther to his favorite San Francisco restaurant Fleurs de Lys where Gunther’s very presence seemed to produce the most delicate desserts out of thin air almost.
” San Francisco is the only place I know where you have to go up one street to come back the same way.”
Which may have been metaphoric–probably yes– but here we are, and Gunther’s gone.
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Happy birthday to composer Terry Riley, who turns 80 today.
There are CD releases out this week to celebrate the composer. My assessment of ZOFO Plays Terry Riley appears in the CD Reviews section of Sequenza 21 and on my blog.
But wait, there’s more.
Nonesuch Records has done right by Riley. They have released One Earth, One People, One Love, a 5-CD boxed set of the complete recordings of Riley’s music composed for Kronos Quartet.The set contains a disc of unreleased tracks, Sunrise of the Planetary Dream Collector: Music of Terry Riley. For those of you yelling – “No fair! I already have the Kronos discs. I want to buy the unreleased recordings as a separate CD!” – Nonesuch is allowing you to do just that, separately releasing these recordings on a single disc.
Once again, happiest of birthdays Mr. Riley! May you continue to write the eloquently beautiful music we have come to know and love for many years to come.
Saddening news. Gunther Schuller has died at the age of 89. A musical polymath, Schuller was active as a composer, conductor, arranger, historian, educator, arts administrator and, earlier in his career, French horn player. He pioneered the concept of “Third Stream” music: works that combine influences and materials from jazz and classical music.
In Schuller’s honor, today I’m listening to a Boston Modern Orchestra Project recording of his pieces for jazz quartet and orchestra. Given all of the attempts over the years to synthesize jazz and classical, it is amazing how fresh these pieces remain, how effortlessly Schuller (and BMOP) move from one style to another, and how seamlessly they blend the two.
I was looking forward to this summer’s tribute to Schuller at the Festival of Contemporary Music at Tanglewood. Now this concert, with Magical Trumpets, a new work by Schuller, as well as his formidable Concerto da Camera, will serve as an elegy in memory of an extraordinary man of extraordinary talents.
The International Contemporary Ensemble – ICE – was one of the featured groups performing at the 69th Ojai Music Festival. On Friday, June 12, 2013 ICE presented a varied concert of virtuosic pieces at the gazebo in the center of Libbey Park. A good-sized crowd turned out to hear the ICE artists play traditional acoustic instruments artfully combined with amplification and electronics.
Dan Lippel was first with Electric Counterpoint, a piece for guitar and tape by Steve Reich. The music was immediately recognizable as classic Reich and bubbled along with a satisfying groove. The playing by Dan Lippel here was seamless with the tape and the sound reinforcement system seemed to be up to the task of projecting out into the open spaces of the park. The recorded bass line was particularly effective when present and there was all the energy typical of the music of Reich. The piece unfolded in several sections that were variously festive or a bit more introspective, but all consistently active and upbeat. This was the perfect opening piece for the afternoon and the audience was visibly pleased.
This was followed by Jennifer Curtis and David Bowlin performing Apophthegms, a piece by John Zorn for two violins. This was very different and surprisingly complex music, with fast runs, flurries of pizzicato and unexpected changes in direction. Quiet passages followed loud sections, and fast, complex sections were followed by softer and more uniform stretches. Some of the quiet parts had a decidedly sinister feeling and a creaking sound from the violins added to the tension. The amplification, for the most part, worked in favor of the instruments although there were times when very soft segments were lost in the ambient noise of the park. As the piece concluded, a faster and more animated feeling took hold as the two violins weaved wonderfully bright and complex patterns that shimmered to the finish. Apophthegms is a virtuoso piece in every respect – from both a composing and performing standpoint.
Rebekah Heller was next, playing Concatenation, for bassoon and electronics by Rand Steiger. This began with a low rumble of notes that seemed to be re-processed for echo and delay and then sent to the speakers – this nicely increased in density as the playing continued. The sounds soon came in rushes with great clouds of notes pouring out over the audience. There were also slower sections where the sustained bassoon tones and electronics gave a distant, lonely feel that contrasted well with the busier stretches. These sounds were pleasantly matched to the backdrop of oak trees and shrubs, perfectly at home in the woodsy surroundings. As bursts of notes echoed away, it was as if the music was receding back into a forest. The sound also seemed to move from left to right at times, giving a convincing sense of motion and movement. A low trill accompanied by some futuristic electronic sounds at the conclusion gave the impression of a flying saucer rising rapidly upward, taking off and leaving the earth behind. Rebekah Heller’s performance – played with out a score – was a triumph of energy and concentration and the audience responded with enthusiastic applause.
Nuiko Waddenh followed with Polvere et Ombra a piece for solo harp by Suzanne Farrin. This began with a series of rapid arpeggios, fast notes and a low strumming sound that gave a somewhat darker edge to the piece. There was a sense of rapid movement and velocity throughout and a series of sharp, furious chords that were expertly delivered. Towards the end the feel of the piece turned a bit lighter, but still mysterious, becoming very quiet at the finish. The amplification was both necessary and precisely applied to allow the naturally soft harp to be heard in the open spaces of the park.
San, by Du Yun, a piece for cello and electronics was next, and this was performed by Katinka Kleijn. Ms Kleijn took the stage clad completely in black and wearing a white mask. A large bass drum, equipped with a foot pedal, was situated next to her chair. The piece began with low, scratchy tones from the cello and several solid strikes on the bass drum gave this a very Asian feel. Some higher knocking sounds coming from the electronics – and the white mask worn by Ms. Kleijn – added a strong sense of ceremony and ritual to this. As the piece progressed there were complex, layered sections that alternated with slower and more somber stretches. There was a sense of struggle woven throughout and as the piece concluded the percussive sounds in the electronics and the striking of the bass drum conjured images of a violent battle. The complex playing, the combination of electronics, a bass drum and the wearing of the mask were all smoothly handled by Ms. Kleijn who delivered a spirited and drama-filled performance.
Next was a piece by Mario Diaz de Leon, Luciform, for flute and electronics. This was performed by Claire Chase and began with some light trills and rapid runs from the flute with a kind of low roar in the electronics that seemed to be moving slightly in pitch. This soon became very complex in the electronics with the flute supplying a series of fast repeating phrases. The pace slowed and the flute took up a low, dark melody while the deep roar returned to the electronics, producing an overall sense of menace. As the piece continued the electronics became very active and the volume increased, as if sending a warning. The tension increased in the somber flute, evoking a melancholy sense of pervasive alienation and the piece concluded with a frenetic finish. Luciform was another instructive example of how electronics and solo instruments can be artfully combined given good writing, playing and sound engineering.
The final work on the program was Rock Piece by Pauline Oliveros and this was performed by all the ICE musicians. They began in front of the audience, each with two smooth ocean rocks, striking them together more or less randomly. There is not supposed to be a common beat or volume in this – your brain actually works to find rhythms and counterpoint from the perceived sounds. As the players fanned out into the audience, the sounds of the striking lessened and became more diffuse. The players slowly returned back to their starting point and the sounds again became more distinct. The outdoor acoustics ultimately worked against the hearing of this and the one piece in the concert that was performed without electronics seemed to suffer the most.
This concert by ICE provided a lively and forward looking series of pieces that featured exceptional playing and impressive writing that skillfully combined the strengths of acoustic instruments and electronics.
The 69th annual Ojai Music Festival featured the West Coast premiere of Sila: The Breath of the World by John Luther Adams, staged outdoors in Libby Park as a free community event. Performers from ICE, red fish blue fish and Cal Arts – some 80 musicians in all – were placed in selected positions in the center of the park and the audience was invited to move around and among them as the piece progressed.
Sila is an Inuit concept for the spirit that animates the world and marks the second outdoor piece by John Luther Adams at Libby Park. Inuksuit was performed here in 2012 under similar circumstances and was judged a great success. Sila is perhaps a more ambitious piece in that there are more players and a more diverse orchestration. Inuksuit is a dynamic percussion piece that was spread out over the entire park. Sila has strings, horns, woodwinds and voices organized into sections, all ringed by percussion stations. Sila probably occupied a bit less than half the area of the Inuksuit installation.
Sila is also a more delicate piece – its subject matter is intangible and highly spiritual. In a recent article by Tim Greiving the composer was quoted: “My image of the piece is really quite simple, It comes up, very slowly, out of the earth, out of these very low sounds — of bass drums and double basses and bassoons and tubas. And over the course of an hour or so, it just gradually rises up through this series of harmonic clouds and goes out and rises, and blows away in the wind.”
Sila opens with a great roll of the bass drums accompanied by sustained tones from the low brass. There is a primal, elemental feel to this that increased as the bass clarinet and oboe entered. The entrance of each section of instruments, in turn, contributed more sustained tones that gradually rose and fell in volume. The early parts of Sila were heard in the lower registers, but the sounds gradually rose in pitch over the course of the one hour performance. The musicians and singers slowly rotated as they played, adding a swirling effect to the texture.
Microtones were notated in the score and the musicians were equipped with a cell phone app that helped to monitor the pitches and provide stopwatch time to mark the entrances of the various sections. There was no formal beat, but rather a series of long tones – always entering and fading – and producing a constantly changing color and texture to the sound. At times the ensemble sounded like a great sigh.
The crowd pressed in among the musicians and depending where one stood, there was a markedly different character to the listening experience. Standing near the woodwinds or voices, for example, one heard a lighter, ethereal sound while standing near the brass or percussion evoked a feeling of expansiveness and grandeur. Given its more diverse instrumentation, Sila is a much more position-sensitive experience than the percussion-driven Inuksuit.
About midway into the piece there were high trills on some of the xylophones while others were bowed and this produced a lovely mystical wash on top of the sustained pitches coming from the instruments. The soprano voices were also very effective when within earshot. The press of listeners as they moved among the players had a somewhat damping effect on the sound – especially among the higher woodwinds, strings and voices. The audience was quietly attentive and fully engaged for the entire hour. The piece gradually wound down in volume and in the final moments all that could be heard was the rushing sound of air coming from the instruments and voices. John Luther Adams was in attendance and acknowledged the sustained applause that followed.
This performance of Sila was well matched to the Ojai Festival which, after all, is built on the idea of music outdoors. Much credit goes to the 80 musicians who had to bring off a subtle piece in the park setting and contend with microtones, stopwatches and the distractions of having their audience moving among them. The performance was successful, in part, because it involves the audience in a way that can’t be duplicated in the concert hall. Sila – and the other outdoor pieces by John Luther Adams – have added an important new dimension to the presentation of new music.
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