Every year the BBC in conjunction with the Proms holds a competition for composers aged 12 through 18 as part of their larger music education program Inspire. Each concert performance of the winning pieces has always had a slightly different format, but has tended over the years towards less talk and more music. It has gradually come to include only the winning works and not those which were “highly commended.” The concerts in many past years have been at the Royal College of Music, but the 2016 concert, on August 15, was in the theater at Broadcasting House. Since it only included the six winning compositions, it was quite short, in fact less than an hour long. All of the performances, by members of the Aurora Orchestra, whose conductor is Nicolas Collon, were thoroughly prepared, sympathetically presented, and elegantly and enthusiastically executed. Of the pieces, Morgan Overton’s Two Boys, a setting of a Walt Whitman poem for two baritones, two horns, and two violas, made the strongest impression on this listener. The baritones, always singing together in a style evoking medieval vocal music, or maybe earlier vocal music as filtered through late Stravinsky, were complemented (rather than accompanied) by continuous dialog and commentary by the two instrumental units (pairs of horns and violas), each of which played its own distinctive strand of music. Both Shoshanah Siever‘s Les nuances de la lumière, for solo violin, and James Chan’s Litany, for a small string group, were impressively well written for the instruments but left the impression of not completely finishing the span of the argument of the piece. Jack Robinson’s Hound Hunter, written when he was ten (he is now twelve), for flute, bassoon, and ‘cello, realized a scenario involving the exploits of a group of wolves with a brisk vividness and no time (or notes) wasted. Sam Rudd-Jones’s Angry, for a fourteen piece chamber orchestra, realized its title in a work demonstrating considerable command of instrumental writing and formal control. Alex Jones’s Sensim mutationem for two pianos explored extremes of texture and means of gradually moving from one to the other. All of the works were impressive both in the clarity of their conceptions and in the strength of the realization of them.
On August 9, the concert presented by the BBC Philharmonic and their chief conductor Juanjo Mena began with a work by Mark Simpson, a winner of earlier BBC young composer competitions as well as BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artist. Israfel, written in 2014, is a depiction of the Islamic angel of the trumpet, particularly as described by Edgar Allan Poe: “…whose heart-strings are a lute, and how has the sweetest voice of all of God’s creatures…”The most immediate, most strongly remembered, for me anyway, aspect of Israel, which last about twelve minutes, is the expertness and clarity of its orchestral sound. The piece is clear and convincing in the arc of its development, and possibly a little prolix in its thematic ideas.
Donald Martino told me once that he had written an article refuting Boulez’s article on the death of Schoenberg. Although the details of that are at this point hazy to me, I clearly remember what he said the title of the article was: Fancy French Composing. That title has come to be for me a term descriptive of a certain kind of music, and most of the music of Henri Dutilleux which I’ve encountered falls into that category. “Tout un monde lointain…” for ‘cello and orchestra, for which ‘cellist Johannes Moser joined Mena and the BBC Philharmonic, certainly does. There’s no denying the skill of the orchestral writing, the sensitivity to the sound of everything, the subtlety and delicacy of the conception, and the superiority and soigné quality of it in every aspect, and all of it in the same ways all the time. But it all still leaves me unmoved, a little irritated, and a little bored. I am perfectly willing to admit this is more a failure of mine than of the music. (Big of me, I know.)
Before the performance of the Elgar first Symphony which ended the concert, the orchestra added a performance of Sir Charles his Pavan by Peter Maxwell Davies as a tribute to the composer who died in March and who had been Composer/Conductor of the orchestra for ten years. The piece was really a sort of double commemoration; Davies grew up in Salford, a metropolitan borough of Greater Manchester, where the BBC Philharmonic has its home. Groves was conductor of the orchestra (which was formerly called the BBC Northern Orchestra) which first recognized the fourteen years old Davies as a composer, and he conducted the first recording of Davies’s Second Taverner Fantasia, his first major orchestral work. Sir Charles his Pavan, based on a tune Davies had written when he was twelve, was written as a memorial work for Grove when he died in 1992. The piece is short and concise and direct, with an especially beautiful ending.
The concert on August 10, presented by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Sakai Oramo, opened with another Dutilleux work, continuing with the Proms commemoration of the composer’s centennial. Timbres, espace, mouvement, written in 1978 for thee inaugural concert of Mstislav Rostropovich, and revised in 1990, and having something to do with Van Gogh’s Starry Night, is altogether something other than Fancy French Compositing. Scored for a larger orchestra without violins or violas, it inhabits a vivid and luxuriant sound world with considerable forward motion. After an opening glittering slowish movement pushing with some urgency to its conclusion, there is a very striking second movement (which was added in the 1990 revision) which is a sort of cadenza for the ‘cello section, featuring a texture of many separate lines–and highlighting the different effect that that kind of texture has in strings as opposed to winds–there is a concluding precipitously fast movement. The brilliant timbral quality or the whole work, and most especially the contrast between the second movement and the beginning of the third and how one moves into the other, have persisted strongly in this listener’s memory.
The Dutilleux was followed by Busking by H.K. Gruber, written in 2007 for the trumpet player Håkan Hardenberger, who was the soloist here. The trumpet is joined by banjo and accordion in a sort of concertino group contrasted to the accompanying string orchestra,. It is that sort of street band quality in the instrumentation, that presumably is alluded to by the title, and which gives the piece its unique sound. Each of the three movements has a different and distinctive character which is emphasized by the use of different trumpets–E-flat trumpet for the ‘bear dance’ first movement, flugelhorn for the more sombre slow movement, and C trumpet for the folky finale. It may be that the instrumentation of Busking alone evokes Kurt Weil or there may be a certain quality reminiscent of Weil in the notes, but he certainly comes to mind.
The August 11 Prom, presented by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, conducted by Thomas Søndergård, featured, along with the Bartok Dance Suite and The Dvorak Seventh Symphony, the first performance of Malcolm Hayes’s Violin Concerto, with soloist Tai Murray. Hayes’s program note says that the work is “about creating space,” and he cites Vaughan Williams’s The Lark Ascending and certain aspects of the Sibelius Violin Concerto (“not its powerhouse virtuoso idiom”) as works he had in mind when writing the piece, as well as the landscape of the Scottish Outer Hebrides (..”a northern-latitude drama of summer light and winter darkness, unfolding in an Atlantic landscape of low hills(with the higher mountains of Harris nearly to the south), inlets winding deep inland from the open sea, huge shifting and re-forming cloudscapes, and immense surrounding distances.”) This sense of landscape is in fact immediately evoked in the concerto’s opening, after an extended unaccompanied solo with very long quietly slow moving low notes under a alternately leisurely singing and delicately skittering violin part. That character is maintained consistently throughout the 25 minutes of the single movement work, and it is extremely appealing. After a while one wished for some fast music, and there not being any is the weakest aspect of the piece. All the same I was happy to have heard it, and I would be glad to hear it again. Tai Murray’s playing was resplendent and eloquent.
All of these concert can be heard online, along with all the other Proms concerts, at http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0741yk1/episodes/player
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Guest conductor David Fulmer leads TMC Fellows in Pierre Boulez’s ‘Derive 1,’ 7.24.16 (Hilary Scott)
The Sunday concert at Tanglewood’s Festival of Contemporary Music is always something of a marathon. It starts at 10 AM and is chock full of offerings that usually challenge the ear as much as tantalize it. The Sunday concert has traditionally also been the one that tests the capacities of the TMC Fellows most thoroughly. This year was no exception, although it was a horse race between Sunday’s chamber music concert and Monday’s presentation of Messiaen’s formidable Turungalila-Symphonie, a work that vibrated and thundered with intensity, shaped with eminently detailed care by conductor Stefan Asbury.
Ander’s Hillborg’s Brass Quintet is one of his most often played pieces, and one can readily hear why. Its opening antiphonally spiralling textures reveal a kinship to a more recent orchestra piece, Hillborg’s Vaporized Tivoli: both make a similarly captivating impression. There is an excellent use of repeated note textures, and the bold harmonic language makes it clear he’s studied a fair bit of Copland.
Brett Dean’s Sextet (Old Kings in Exile) is a cleverly crafted Pierrot plus Percussion piece with a number of scoring touches that set it apart from the average piece in the genre. There’s the clever use of percussion, with bowed vibraphone and gongs occurring simultaneously to create a two-headed beast of an instrument. The middle movement gives a nod to Carter’s Triple Duo by splitting the ensemble into a double trio. There’s also some mid-movement scordatura that changes up the harmony and proves to be quite an impressive feat from the strings. Jonathan Harvey’s Song Offerings, settings of Tagore, featured soprano Sarah Tuttle. The piece combines several of the composer’s harmonic interests, including spectralism, microtonality, serialism, and modality. Glissandos and melismas are ably deployed to further variegate the texture.
David Fulmer has appeared at Tanglewood as a string soloist and composer. In the intervening time he has added conductor to his resume, and he did a fine job leading two pieces on Sunday’s concert. The first was Pierre Boulez’s Derive 1, one of his finest chamber pieces from the 1980s. Much shorter than his later Derive 2, seven minutes compared to nearly an hour, it is a compact utterance, but an eloquent one. Long sustained harmonic regions are parsed out again fast melodic filigrees and rapid trills. Christian Rief led Franco Donatoni’s Arpege, a piece that was originally a vibraphone piece and was later built up to a Pierrot plus Percussion Sextet. As one might expect, the vibraphone’s arpeggios lead the proceedings, in a curious amalgam of post-tonality and minimalist figuration. The ostinatos appear in almost “locked hands” scoring at first, then gradually stagger to create a lustrous shimmering from the ensemble.
Fulmer returned to the podium to conduct Harold Meltzer’s song cycle Variations on a Summer Day, settings of Wallace Stevens. The cycle has grown over time; I saw an earlier performance at Symphony Space that had, if recollection serves, around eight songs. It has since expanded to sixteen. Not only are the Variations longer, they have become more elaborate. There is a use of microtones in the winds that is quite attractive. The vocal part, here performed by the estimable Quinn Middleman, takes up far more vertical real estate, casting down into a nearly contralto register and up to high soprano notes. Middleman is billed as a mezzo soprano and her effort here was impressive, but I’m curious if subsequent performances might benefit from using two singers, a mezzo and a soprano, to better capture the distinct registers required by the songs. It is clear that Meltzer has lived with the poetry for a long time, and his settings of it are imaginative, ranging from terse utterances to attractively varied textures. Those who eschew the morning hour on Sundays at the Festival of Contemporary Music miss out.
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Saturday afternoon, July 23, 2016 and a fine weekend crowd braved the heat and smoke of downtown Los Angeles to gather at Art Share LA for a generous helping of piano music presented by Sound and Fury Concerts. Grammy-nominated Nadia Shpachenko was the featured performer, with Christine Lee and Christian Dubeau also on hand to perform original works. Spanning some two hours, the concert included solo piano pieces as well as works incorporating various forms of electronic accompaniment and images projected overhead.
Crystal Glass (2015) for piano and electronics, by Christine Lee opened the program, performed by the composer. This began with a strong, sharp sound from the keyboard that was picked up by the electronics and reverberated over several seconds before decaying into silence. More piano notes followed, multiplying and cascading agreeably outward in an active wash of sound. At times Ms. Lee would pluck the strings of the piano, generating softer electronic sounds that, along with some conventional chords, gave an appealing variation to the texture. There was bold, futuristic feel to all of this, but never aggressive or intimidating. As the piece continued some high electronic pitches suggested breaking glass and a series of upward chords added a bit of tension. Strong rumbling in the lower registers alternated with softer stretches but eventually the room was filled with powerful electronic sounds that increased with great energy and dynamism, finally fading at the finish. Crystal Glass strikes a good balance between electronics and the piano, incorporating the new and the familiar in just the right proportions to effectively impart both the futuristic and the profound.
Four Preludes (2016) for piano and electronics, by Christian Dubeau followed, also performed by the composer. Four Preludes represents the first of twelve such pieces, all inspired by the geography and history of the San Gabriel mountains. The first of these was influenced by the rivers and streams of the area and began with lively opening chords that gave way to a quieter and more fluid melody. This had a familiar, organic feel and featured a strong counterpoint in the lower registers. Variations followed, full of flowing phrases that built into a stronger current of sound – much as a river grows from the streams feeding it.
TMC Fellows perform Barbara White’s “Learning to See.” Photo: Hilary Scott.
The Pierrot Ensemble, named after Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire and consisting of flute, clarinet, violin, cello, and piano, has, since its inception, been a signature assembly for contemporary music. The preferred version of the ensemble also includes a percussionist: the “Pierrot plus Percussion” grouping is the default core membership for many new music groups. Even after dozens, if not hundreds, of pieces have been written for “P+p” ensembles, there is still plenty of vitality left in the genre. This was abundantly in evidence on the Saturday afternoon concert on July 23 at Tanglewood’s Festival of Contemporary Music, where several of the pieces employed this instrumentation or an augmented variant of it.
Barbara White’s Learning to See takes as its inspiration several works of visual art by Tinguely, Brancusi, Hesse, and Johns. The use of movements inspired by Brancusi’s Bird sculptures, of which he made fifteen, as a refrain in the piece allows for subtle variations on a pool of similar materials. Meanwhile, the other movements explore syncopated rhythms and ricocheting counterpoint. There’s timbral variety too, briefly including a prepared piano. Learning to See takes on a melange of musical material, but fits it together in fascinating ways.
Visual Abstract by Pierre Jalbert is connected to art as well, but in a different way from White’s piece. After its composition, video artist Jean Detheux made a computer-generated series of images to accompany the piece. Its individual movements are based on three different overarching images. “Bells – Forwards and Backwards” gives the ensemble the chance to play with a complex array of pealing sounds replete with overtones. “Dome of Heaven” contains luminous harmonies and lyrical string duos. “Dance” is a contrasting closer. Bongo drums articulate mixed meters while the other instruments engage in an elaborate game of tag.
Donald Crockett’s Whistling in the Dark adds a few instruments to the P+p grouping: an extra percussionist, a viola, and double bass. It has a quirky cheerful refrain, called “boppy music” by the composer, that is contrasted with passages of considerably greater heft. The work is strongly undergirded by its percussion component, which includes unorthodox instruments such as suspended flower pots. The piano’s percussive capabilities are played to maximum advantage as well. Over this, corruscating string and wind lines dart in and out in various combinations. Just when you think that the piece will whirl into a maelstrom, the cheery “boppy” refrain, the piece’s “whistling in the dark” brings it back from the edge.
Arthur Levering employs a variant of the P+p grouping too, with viola and double bass augmenting the complement in place of percussion. One of several “bell pieces” Levering has composed, Cloches II focuses on overlapping the limited pitch oscillations of bells. The repetition of these figures gives the piece a consistent feeling of momentum. Despite the absence of percussion, there are plenty of gonging sounds provided by the instruments: Levering has cited a particularly low cello riff towards the end of the piece as imitative of “Big Ben.”
Erin Gee’s “Mouthpiece 29.” Photo: Hilary Scott
Two other works on the program employed ensembles that are removed from the P+p context. Elizabeth Ogonek’s Falling Up (love the Shel Silverstein reference), is for a trio of winds — flute/piccolo, English horn, and clarinet — and two string players: violin and cello. In addition to Silverstein, Ogonek has indicated that a quite contrasting poem — Rimbaud’s Enfance — served as a contrasting inspiration for the piece. Thus we see two disparate types of music, one embodying Silverstein’s whimsy — complex rhythms, trills, altissimo register playing, and angularity — and Rimbaud’s sensuousness — slow-moving, sostenuto passages with frequent punctuations from different subsets of the ensemble — that provide rich contrasts and imaginative textures. Erin Gee’s Mouthpiece 29, commissioned by the Tanglewood Music Center, featured the composer as vocalist alongside three string players: violin, viola, and double bass. Gee is adept at incorporating all manner of mouth sounds and extended techniques into her music. Thus, microtones, pizzicatos, and glissandos from the strings were well matched against Gee’s own sliding tones, lip pops and trills, and phonetic (rather than texted) vocal lines. Mouthpiece 29 was the most “out there” piece on this year’s FCM, but it was greated by the audience with an enthusiasm that suggests that Tanglewood might be ready for more post-millennial avant classical offerings in the future.
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I’m sad to report that composer Einojuhani Rautavaara has passed away at age 87. He continued to be active until the very end, with a premiere just last month. Orpheus singt (video), a setting of Rainer Maria Rilke for a cappella chorus, was performed by SWR Vokalensemble Stuttgart, directed by Marcus Creed.
Gregg Smith, one of the most prominent choral conductors in the United States, has passed away at the age of 84. With his Gregg Smith Singers, Smith brought a wide variety of repertoire to all corners of the US and abroad. In particular, he specialized in American music – folk songs, spirituals, hymns, and contemporary repertoire. As a young singer, I had the privilege of singing under Smith’s direction on several occasions. He was an extraordinary teacher.
It seems appropriate to include this particular selection, performed by the Gregg Smith Singers, in an arrangement by Virgil Thomson.
Friday, July 8, 2016 at Boston Court in Pasadena found Vicki Ray featured in a concert presented by Piano Spheres, the long time champion of new music in Los Angeles.. Fifty Shades of Pianissimo was the fitting title for the concert which consisted of a single piano work, For Bunita Marcus (1984), by Morton Feldman. A sizable audience gathered to hear this extraordinary piece, filling the larger Main Stage performance space at Boston Court. A video by Clay Chaplin accompanied the 75 minute work that was played continuously, without intermission.
As Ms. Ray took her seat at the piano the entire theater was darkened, and a prolonged period of meditative silence established the mood before the first notes were heard. A series of soft single notes then sounded, and a slow, meandering melody arose that carried an air of quiet mystery. This continued with the occasional appearance of a two-note interval or – more rarely – a single chord. After a few minutes of quiet playing the video appeared on a large screen behind the stage, consisting of an edgewise view of the keyboard. As the piece progressed, faint ghost-like shadows of moving hands could be made out. This morphed into a series of successively more abstract views of the piano, with the images multiplied across the screen. All of this complimented the music perfectly.
The later music of Morton Feldman is famously quiet, subtle and always in the moment. The composition of this piece hinges on the metering, as described by Feldman in the program notes: “For Bunita Marcus mainly consists of 3/8, 5/16 and 2/2 bars. Sometimes the 2/2 had musical importance, like at the end of the piece. Sometimes the 2/2 acts as quiet, either on the right or the left or in the middle of a 3/8 or a 5/16 bar, and I use the metre as a construction – not the rhythm – the metre and the time, the duration which something needs.” In addition to the quiet, contemplative feeling – which in itself commands concentration – the phrasing of For Bunita Marcus unfolds by what seem to be two independent but parallel lines of single notes, whose interactions of pitch and time invite the listener to evaluate the sounds of that brief instant. These interactions recur every few seconds, keeping the ear focused and the hearing constantly engaged. The audience responded accordingly, with undivided attention and complete silence for the duration of the work.
New music concerts are normally held in the Branson room at Boston Court, a smaller space with generally reliable acoustics. The larger Main Stage is used primarily for theater productions and the performance of a subdued work such as For Bunita Marcus doubtless caused concern for the Piano Spheres brain trust. The piano was situated in the center of the stage, with the lid completely removed. There was a microphone just above and over the center of the piano interior, but it was unclear if this was for amplification or recording purposes. In any event, everything worked out satisfactorily. Each note was clearly heard and rang out cleanly into the silence of the audience, without loss of detail or nuance. The lighting and projection of the video were flawless and while there was some acoustic competition at times from the low hum of a ventilation motor, it was not a distraction. The Wild Beast at Cal Arts might have provided superior acoustics for a Feldman piece such as this, but the Main Stage at Boston Court met the challenge reasonably well.
By the midpoint of the performance the video shifted to a series vivid views of the night sky, often including thousands slow-motion trails of starlight. The effect was an amazing combination of the natural and the mystical. At times the star fields blended together in a sort of moving fog. At other times meteor trails could be seen arcing through the sky – it was very much like listening to the concert while sitting outside on a summer evening. The music also seemed to evolve at this point from spare sequences of single notes to a more fluid sound with a slightly faster tempo . The notes fell within the same upper and middle registers as previously and the dynamic remained a restrained pianissimo – Ms. Ray seemed to caress the keys as the quiet notes drifted upward and outward into the audience.
The stamina and concentration of the soloist was extraordinary throughout and For Bunita Marcus closed as it began, with the stage and house lights dimmed to complete darkness. A long silence of reflection followed, and the audience responded with enthusiastic applause, many standing in ovation. This performance of For Bunita Marcus was a remarkable realization in sight and sound of the classic late 20th century music of Morton Feldman. Piano Spheres continues to bring to Los Angeles the gift of contemporary piano music carefully curated and brilliantly played.
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On Tuesday, June 28, 2016 at Monk Space in the Koreatown district of Los Angeles, the Microfest series concluded with Beyond 12, a concert devoted to the music of alternate tuning, present and past. A full house turned out to hear Aron Kallay and Andrew McIntosh perform seven varied works from six different composers.
The first piece was Fugitive Objects (2007) by Kyle Gann, and this was performed by Aron Kallay at a keyboard that was programmed for pitch sets outside the conventional 12 tone equal temperament. Fugitive Objects opened calmly, with a series of solitary ascending notes, conventionally pitched. This was repeated and by the third time through, new and less familiar notes were heard combined with a deep pedal tone that supplied a simple but effective harmony. All of this had a somber, reflective feel, well within the sensibilities of a listener unacquainted with alternate tuning. As the piece progressed the incidence of unconventional pitches seemed to increase, but the melodic line remained clear and direct while Kallay’s sensitive touch added to the quiet, introspective demeanor. Fugitive Objects proved, through its pragmatic approach, to be the ideal piece to begin this concert.
Intonation after Morton Feldman 1 followed, the first movement of Les Duresses (2004) by Marc Sabat and performed by violinist Andrew McIntosh. This piece is the result of an extensive study by Sabat to create an etude for string players that would allow them to master the famously subtle intonation so characteristic of Feldman’s later music. This began with slow, sustained tones with an altogether quiet and solitary feel. As the piece progressed some lovely harmonies emerged, and as the unconventional pitches made their appearance the intervals heard took on a very expressive coloring. This was played with great confidence by Andrew McIntosh who had to contend with both the quiet intonation and the unfamiliar tones. Towards the end a bit of tension crept in, especially in the higher registers, but overall, this movement of Les Duresses is an excellent study of the supremely understated Feldman style.
The centenary of the legendary composer Milton Babbitt (1916-2011) is ocassion to celebrate. After Augustus Arnone’s three recitals earlier this season playing Babbitt’s complete solo piano works, now his group Collide-O-Scope Music is treating us to another rarely performed gem: Babbitt’s Arie da Capo (1974). It’s the major mixed ensemble chamber work from Babbitt’s middle period, and named in dedication to its original performers, the Da Capo Chamber Players, whose flutist Patricia Spencer is also now a member of Collide-O-Scope and is part of the ensemble performing Arie this Friday—now that’s authenticity!
Babbitt drinks tea
Arie ca Capo rewards the listener on repeat hearings, which thankfully are possible. Although premiered by the Da Capo Chamber Players, Arie was recorded by Harvey Sollberger and the Group for Contemporary Music (Nonesuch 1979) and later by Ciro Scotto (Nimbus 1987). As with most of Babbitt’s mature works, its sectional structure maps out a variety of textural combinations (or shall we say combinatorics). Each of its five sections presents a solo instrument in an aria against the other four accompanying players: clarinet, cello, flute, violin, and then piano each has its turn in an intricately shadowed limelight. Moreover, each of the five arias contains a quintet, trio, quartet, trio, and quintet again. (The relation between its rhythms, textures, pacing, and precompositional structures are discussed in a 1988 Perspectives of New Music article by Ciro Scotto.) Of Babbitt’s works, this one especially abounds in loquacious social interplay. It will be conducted by Robert Whalen and played by Arnone (piano), Spencer (flute), Marianne Gythfeldt (clarinet), Gregor Kitzis (violin), and Valeriya Sholokhova (cello).
Additionally, Arnone will again tackle the solo piano work Tableaux (1973), from the same time period as Arie, and Patricia Spencer will play Babbitt’s later work None but the Lonely Flute (1991).
Charles Wuorinen, a composer associated with and influenced by Babbitt but whose music sounds nothing like Babbitt’s, is represented on the program by his trio for piano flute, and bass clarinet (2008)—a polished and vibrant neo-baroque surface full of bustling energy and clarity.
from Chris Bailey’s Timelash
Christopher Bailey’s rapidfire Timelash (1999/2016), also to be performed, bases its “quasi-morse code rhythms” on the first 16 measures of Babbitt’s violin and piano work Sextets. Resonances of carefully selected harmonies are also explored in this piece (of which further details here.) On the same program, a composition by Lou Bunk exploits the pliability of the clarinet, presenting cross-sections and intersections of three distinct themes, separated by silences.
Continuing the tradition begun earlier this season, this concert’s intermission will feature an interview-discussion between me and the composer-theorist Robert D. Morris, who, in parallel with the latter half of Babbitt’s career, developed his own independent approach to serial and post-serial composition. Morris has also been an avid listener of and writer on Babbitt’s compositions over several decades.
Collide-O-Scope: Chamber works of Babbitt, Wuorinen, Bunk, and Bailey (mid-concert discussion with Robert Morris) Friday, June 17, at 8pm, $20, $15 (Students/Seniors). Tenri Cultural Institute, 43A West 13th St., NYC.
In a sea of pianists sailing toward contemporary shores, the vessel of Alessandro Stella stands out for its hydrodynamic contours. Stella has performed widely across Europe—more recently, in South America—and was central, among other projects, in reviving Giacinto Scelsi’s early chamber works under auspices of the Isabella Scelsi Foundation.
On Midwinter Spring, his first recital disc for Italy’s KHA Records, he presents works by Giya Kancheli, Arvo Pärt, and Pēteris Vasks. Even without the program in hand, one can already feel the possibilities for continuity and artful contrast between these composers. All three have gained worldwide notoriety for larger-scale symphonies, concertos, and choral masterpieces. Yet their piano repertoires, given due attention here, have yielded some of the more vital statements of classical expression in recent decades.
To begin, Stella offers 16 selections from Kancheli’s Simple Music for Piano, a collection of melodies written for stage and screen. First published in 2009 and divorced from its visual contexts, Simple Music has taken on a life of its own, not least of all in 2010’s Themes from the Songbook, released on ECM New Series. Yet where that album had a distinctively Piazzolla-esque veneer (due not least of all to the participation of bandoneón virtuoso Dino Saluzzi), here the themes breathe nakedly. Stella plays with an expressivity so holistic that one can practically hear him singing through the keyboard. A dancing quality that recalls the soundtracks of Eleni Karaindrou pervades these vignettes, each born of a nostalgia that, while distant at first, over the course of a listen morphs into something uniquely one’s own. Contrary to what the title would have us believe, there is nothing simple about this music, as evidenced in the way Stella approaches particular pieces. Whether in his evocation of moonlight in No. 23 (“Bear’s Kiss”) or the chromatic inflections of No. 25 (“Hamlet”), Stella’s attention to detail reveals incarnate patience.
Following these, Arvo Pärt’s Für Alina (1976) comes across even more cinematically. Images of stardust and other cosmic beauties may be easy go-tos for the reviewer’s metaphorical toolkit, but in this case any such descriptions would be apt. In the expanse of Pärt’s seminal tintinnabulations, the human heart begins to feel like a small satellite indeed. Stella’s treasure-seeking becomes more obvious in his choice of Variationen zur Gesundung von Arinuschka. Pärt’s 1977 composition describes a far more intimate universe. Its transitions from legato to pointillist notecraft indicate a robust inner child in composer and performer alike.
Baltā ainava (White Scenery) by Vasks brings about a logical conclusion. Composed 1981 and played exclusively on the white keys, it is, like the preceding works, as potentially infinite in resonance as it is fundamental in construction. Stella lays down its block chords with extra-musical awareness, giving each cluster room to breathe. Arpeggios in the left hand are contrasted by two-note motifs in the right, like footprints pressed into the album’s cover scenery toward unknown destinations. The uncertainty of it all makes it that much more inviting, and combines elements of Kancheli and Pärt with an indefinable third.
In the interest of gaining insider perspective, I conducted an e-mail interview with Mr. Stella, who was kind enough to elucidate some of the finer points of this project.
What inspired you to put these three composers together on one album?
What is common to these three great composers is a deep spirituality and an extraordinary ability to shape time and its perception.
The program is very cohesive, but I imagine that as the performer you have insights into how each piece is different from the others. Can you talk about compositional, emotional, or structural differences between them?
Kancheli, Pärt, and Vasks have many things in common, being from the same generation and geographical area. Nevertheless, each has his own history and, of course, a recognizable style. Kancheli’s miniatures are based on his music for cinema and theater, which he wrote over a period of decades. Many are actual songs, like the first track of the album—the famous “Herio Bichebo” (see video above)—and are written in a tonal style. Some fragments and themes are recurrent in other compositions of Kancheli. The composer himself has said that he can’t always remember where a particular theme first appeared. The two Pärt compositions are the cornerstones of his tintinnabuli style, the result of seven long years of research and creative silence. This is a style in which the rigor of the tintinnabuli voice contrasts with the exceptional freedom of the principal voice. Lastly, the Vasks piece is built upon two fundamental ideas that alternate, vary, and repeat themselves in a hypnotic continuum. However, I must emphasize that what attracted me the most about these three composers, in addition to their distinctive features, is the role silence plays in their music. Each pause and resonance is of crucial importance and represents the music’s very essence.
How much preparation did you require to make this recording sound the way you wanted it to sound?
For some time I would play this music almost every day for my own pleasure and enrichment, until it was clear to me that I wanted to record it. I played, sang, recorded, and listened to this music for months. It was similar to the work of a sculptor who achieves the ultimate result by removing material until only that which is essential remains.
You once told me how pleased Kancheli was with your performances of his work. Can you expand on your communications with him throughout the recording process, and after?
About two years ago, I wrote to Maestro Kancheli explaining that I wanted to record some of his miniatures. He was enthusiastic about it and gave me his authorization, giving me as much freedom as possible in matters of selection and interpretive choices. About a year later, I sent him the CD as soon as it was finished. I was deeply moved by the words he expressed about my work. Last February (2016), I finally had the opportunity to meet him. The Italian Embassy in Georgia organized a concert in Tbilisi in his honor, so I had the great privilege to give the premiere in Georgia and to play his miniatures for piano in his presence. It was one of the most intense experiences of my entire life.
Alessandro Stella (left) and Giya Kancheli (right) in Tbilisi, 2016
What is the overall message of the album for you, and what do you hope listeners will get from it?
Every new album is the result of deep reflections. The finished album is often different from how I thought it would be and this work of progressive “polishing” is essential to me. The idea, the initial intuition, however, usually does not change. If anything, it guides me in the right direction. It has always been clear to me that Midwinter Spring was supposed to be a journey out of time, insofar as we are used to perceiving it in our everyday life. Through this apparent simplicity, the music of Kancheli, Pärt, and Vasks makes us connect with our deepest life experiences. Everything in this album was conceived to serve this purpose: the drama of the track order, the cover, the pauses, even the title. I hope this album will be an intense emotional experience to those who listen to it; an experience they will be willing to repeat.
Have you performed this exact program in a live setting? If so, what were the audience reactions?
I presented the program for the first time live last December (2015) in Liverpool. After playing this music at home and in the studio for so long, sharing it with an audience was a truly special experience. I was afraid that the ritual of the concert would contrast with the extremely intimate nature of this music. But in the end, its extraordinary evocative power created an atmosphere of “magical suspension” during the concert. And this was confirmed to me by the beautiful words of the people I talked to afterward.
This music might easily be interpreted as melancholy, but there is also something hopeful about it. Do you agree with this, and if so, how do you make sure that balance is preserved when you are playing it?
I totally agree with this and this idea is at the center of the entire album, starting from the title, Midwinter Spring. Taken from a verse by T. S. Eliot, this expression evokes the hope for a new life, as expressed by the branches coming out of the snow on the album’s cover, symbolizing hope for rebirth. All of this is inherent to the music. Melancholy is the dominant feeling of the program, but there is much more in this music: in an instant you get carried from a sense of deep desolation to nostalgia for something that no longer exists; from the unreality of a dream to a sense of hope. The music itself evokes all these possibilities. And the artist has to grasp them and follow them, just letting the music talk to him.