On Tuesday November 11, 2014 Piano Spheres presented a concert by Richard Valitutto entitled NAKHT. The venue was the RedCat performing arts space at Disney Hall in downtown Los Angeles, and the 275 available seats were mostly filled to hear an evening of solo piano nocturnes. This was the first major recital by Richard Valitutto, who is a member of several leading new music ensembles that appear regularly throughout the city.
The concert opened, appropriately enough, with Nocturnes (1929 – 38) by Francis Poulenc. Five nocturnes were played from this piece and the first of these, No 1 in C major, began with a warm and welcoming feeling and reflecting, from time to time, just the slightest tinge of regret. This piece gracefully unfolded with an accessible beauty. The acoustics in the hall were good and Richard applied a sensitive touch to the flowing melody line and its stately ending. The second movement, No 5 in D minor, has a much quicker feel, like a group of children running about inside a large house. The subtitle of this nocturne translates to “moths” and perhaps this accounts for the lively feel. The fast runs and rapid rhythms were accurately and precisely rendered while at the same time allowing the playfulness of the music to come through.
Other nocturnes from Poulenc were variously slow and stately with an introspective feel, sophisticated and engaging, like a group of friends out on the town or dramatic and expressive. The last nocturne, No 8 in G major, was softer and more reserved, almost church-like in its solemnity, but with a certain uplifting sensibility. All these Poulanec nocturnes were played with an ease and smoothness that highlighted a sense of openness and warmth.
The second piece in the concert was as above, so below (2014) by Richard Valitutto and this occasion was the world premiere. Some adjustments were required; the music rack on the piano was rotated allowing access to the strings within. As above, so below began with the plucking of isolated strings – with those in the higher registers sounded with a bell-like purity and were left hanging nicely in the air. The lower notes produced more of a clanking sound, but this made for a good contrast. The listener soon became accustomed to the use of these extended techniques, and as the piece proceeds they become a normal feature of the sound palette. Eventually notes were struck from the keyboard and this registered as a more percussive sound compared to the lovely sustained pitches of the plucked strings. A dialogue unfolds between the two sounds as the piece gradually develops into a quiet, meandering mystery. It is like a nocturnal wandering inside an old house while hearing the chimes of a grandfather clock. Based on the lunar cycle and “..simple canonic procedures like those we hear in Renaissance and Baroque music” as above, so below has a more flowing, introspective feel than its underlying structure might suggest, resulting in a pleasing level of thoughtful reflection.
Due Notturni crudeli (2000) by Salvatore Sciarrino was next and the first movement Senza tempo e scandito started with a series of strong, pounding high notes followed by a pause, a short passage and then a repeat. This became a steady, march-like pulse as the piece progressed, broken only by rapid runs that skipped down the keyboard. The feeling was quite unlike a traditional nocturne and was more reminiscent of an automaton caught in some perpetual factory process. Intimidating and impersonal, this movement only turned softer towards the end as it slowly died away. The second movement, Furia, metallo, was even more forceful, with loud pounding chords and rapid runs in the middle registers. There were a few quiet stretches but these simply served to reinforce to harshness of the more robust sections. The program notes for this piece state “…the predominating attitude is one of violence and hysteria, examining the dichotomy of disparate gestures and their pugnacious incompatibility.” The playing by Richard Valitutto was skillful throughout and carefully attuned to the strong emotions present in Due Notturni crudeli – the cruel nocturnes.
After a short intermission La chouette hulotte (1956-58) from Catalogue d ‘oiseaux, 3 Livre by Olivier Messiaen began with an ominous feel, like walking outside into the inky blackness of a cloudy night. Changing rhythms and running passages ensued, with a building sense of uncertainty and tension. The title of this piece translates to Tawny Owl, and is part of the Messiaen series of piano works that focus on birds and bird calls. He writes about this piece: “Darkness, fear, the heart beating too fast, the meowing and barking Little Owl, the cries of the Long-Eared Owl, and then there is the call of the Tawny Owl: sometimes gloomy and painful, sometimes vague and disturbing (with a strange tremor), sometimes shouted out in terror like the cry of a murdered child!” All of this is viscerally present in La chouette hulotte; at times Richard Valitutto seemed to be attacking the keyboard and at other times caressing it, artfully drawing out all of the foreboding and drama that is packed into this piece.
Next was a work by Aleksandr Skryabin, Poem-Nocturne, OP 61, (1912) and this began with a light, rolling melody accompanied by warm chords. This is a more traditional type of nocturne and is evidence of very controlled writing – there is a sense of slight tension and of something held back. Skryabin was heavily influenced by Chopin and, as the program notes state: “…during his middle years Skryabin became interested in composing ‘poems’, an appellation he derived from the late-Romantic concept of tone poem. However, unlike those heroic and tragic chronicles, most of Skryabin’s piano poems focus on the ephemeral beauty of a few simple gestures, favoring grace over grandiosity.” The delicate sense of anticipation in Poem-Nocturne approaches impressionism in its simplicity and subdued texture, and the understated feelings were all carefully articulated in this performance.
The final work of the evening was NCTRN (2014) by Los Angeles composer Nicholas Deyoe, commissioned for this concert by Piano Spheres. For this piece the piano was prepared so that the right-most key made a wooden knocking sound instead of hitting the string to make a note. This simple adjustment became an effective focal point as the piece progressed. Anyone familiar with the music of Nicholas Deyoe would normally expect to hear a thunderous roar from the piano, but apart from a few sharp chords NCTRN was a model of carefully controlled atmospherics. This is surprisingly economical music, with pauses and silences that added to a deep, evocative feel. The knocking sound made by the prepared key produced a keen sense of slowly building anticipation, becoming more insistent as the piece progressed. The sudden ending was the perfect, unexpected finish. The playing was everything NCTRN required – a fine touch with precise control that sustained the tautness throughout. The audience received this performance with sustained applause and cheering.
With artists like Gloria Cheng, Mark Robson, Vicky Ray and others, Piano Spheres has, with this satellite series concert by Richard Valitutto, recognized a new voice for the music of an upcoming generation.
On October 11, the Oneonta Concert Association of central New York presented an unforgettable concert by Musicians from Marlboro. For half a century, Vermont’s Marlboro Music School and festival have spawned top-flight, ad-hoc ensembles pairing rising stars in classical music with established names in the field. The fact that the name of Kim Kashkashian, one of the world’s finest violists and a tireless champion of contemporary music, was mentioned nowhere in the touring group’s modest marketing package indicated the level of Marlboro’s commitment to apprenticeship. Indeed, despite her unmistakable tone and timbre, Kashkashian contributed humbly to an atmosphere of total and mutual respect.
The program was itself a work of art. Before bows contacted strings, Kashkashian described György Kurtág’s Officium breve as “very gestural and dramatic music.” That it was, for its sparse notecraft nevertheless required of the four string players an uninhibited comportment by which the sounds might freely unravel. The moods of Kurtág’s compendium, written in memory of Hungarian composer Endre Szervánszky (1911-1977), are as varied as their source materials. With characteristically intertextual grace, he references the canon from Webern’s final completed opus (the second Kantate of 1941-43) and works by Szervánszky, the latter not least of all by way of self-quotations from the ever-expanding Játékok (specifically, the bipartite “Hommage à Szervánszky” thereof). The opening harmonics, courtesy of cellist Karen Ouzounian, established a haunting undercurrent that would flow throughout. To this were added the floating lines of violinists David McCarroll and Nikki Chooi before being conjoined by Kashkashian’s peerless tonal qualities. Despite the brevity of its 15 sections, most lasting under a minute, what the piece lacked in duration it made up for in Kurtág’s wealth of invention. Shifting contrasts of altitude, distance, and texture throughout made this sometimes-challenging music feel as organic as rain. Harmonies were elastic, pulled as they sometimes were from a single note in tutti or alit upon from above. The occasional outburst came across not as an interruption but as a catharsis of self-discovery. The ending left us with a drawer of knives, each of varying sharpness and resilience but all bearing the stamp of meticulous smithery.
To this, Szervánszky’s Trio for Flute, Violin and Viola made for a natural follow-up. Enlivened by the virtuosity of flutist Marina Piccinini, alongside violist Wenting Kang and Chooi again on violin, its flowering field carried scents of Bartók, Dvořák, and Smetana. Impressive was Szervánszky’s constant shifting of register, as was the trio’s ability to evoke it. The first two movements, lush and pastoral, were feathered by the veiled Adagio, which gave way to the final Vivace with dreamlike reluctance. Throughout, moods morphed from exuberant to tearful and back again, Piccinini navigating the strings’ crosscurrents with a seafarer’s proficiency. The dance was always waiting—not in the wings but with them, ready to fly at a moment’s notice.
The Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp of Claude Debussy took yet another logical step into 20th-century repertoire. Piccinini, Kashkashian, and harpist Sivan Magen—newly fashioned as Tre Voci—charted the centerpiece of their 2014 ECM New Series release with élan. Debussy’s popular trio, tailored specifically to the idiosyncrasies of its instruments, is divided into three movements with seemingly arbitrary titles. A Pastorale introduces the fluid impressionism one typically associates with the Frenchman. And yet, as this piece’s bold strokes make clear, Debussy was anything but an impressionistic composer. Boldness was especially apparent in the Interlude, the enchanting harping of which only served to emphasize the clarity of its partners. With a strong backbone and even stronger sense of destination, the sportive Finale further proved that Debussy isn’t all sparkles and rainbows. Key to this performance was each musician’s take on the equal role given to her or him. Piccinini was like the writer’s pen and Magen the weaver’s dance, while Kashkashian took on a visual artist’s intuition, her bow as descriptive as a painter’s brush. In a word: exquisite.
[Photo source: (le) poisson rouge]
Intermission prepared us for the finale of Beethoven’s String Quintet in C Major. Its four-movement traversal of atmospheres showcased the string players at their most integrated. From the massive, seesawing Allegro to the show-stopping Presto (its tight tremolos providing full yet distant support for the violin’s acrobatic exposition), the musicians handled every twist and turn with ease and a unity typically seen only in far more established ensembles. Between these juggernauts, however, were the piece’s highlights. A romantic yet earthy Adagio, its tendrils wavering in freshwater current, paired beautifully with the Scherzo’s delicate anchorage. It was a fitting summation of the dramas that preceded it, spoken in a language at once canonical and freeing.
Also canonical and freeing was the pre-concert performance by Jonathan Fenwick, a high school junior from nearby Ithaca, who presented the Adagio and Fugue of Bach’s Sonata No. 1 for Solo Violin. In addition to polishing the concert’s educational sheen, Fenwick’s performance was further proof of the inspiration absorbed by coming generations of classical purveyors. His sensitive pacing, artful trills, and warmth of execution proved that all roads not only lead back to Bach, but also proceed from him.
The Brand Library in Glendale was the site for an evening of piano music by Steve Moshier on Saturday, October 25. Cynthia Law performed three Moshier pieces, including the premiere of Into the Safety of the Abyss (2014).
The concert opened with Unchained Melody: Eight Bagatelles for Piano (1999) and the first of these began with a series of strong, decisive chords that invoked an important, stately feel The opening passages were repeated in the higher registers, slightly subdued, before returning to the powerful lower chords. The second bagatelle was softer but along the same lines, as if a development on the opening theme. It featured a bit more complexity as well as counterpoint that produced a sense of rolling motion.
Other movements of the Eight Bagatelles for Piano were variously fast and running or featured melody and counterpoint that smoothly changed between the left and right hands. The forth bagatelle, Andante non troppo e grazioso, was perhaps the most characteristically Moshier – starting out slowly but with an exotic feel, turning more introspective with a question and answer dialogue in the passages. The contrast in dynamics in this section were nicely accented by Ms. Law and there were a number of sections that featured well-played counterpoint.
Bagatelle 7 featured a series of light arpeggios that gave a feeling of uplift with a counter melody that contained an elegant, distinguished polish reminiscent of a Beethoven sonata. The final bagatelle started as a fast, irregular series of notes – like code carrying some message. This was accompanied by a series of bright chords that gradually turned warm, followed by some nice syncopation in the right hand. The piece finished strongly in the deep lower registers , recalling the declarative feeling of the opening movement.
The music of Steve Moshier is most closely connected with the Liquid Skin Ensemble and this piano music was recognizably similar, with its precisely regular rhythms and crisp minimalistic repetition. Ms. Law provided an accurate, even reading – exactly what this music requires. The piano filled the recital hall with a big sound that was especially effective in the lower registers.
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The friendly confines of Boston Court in Pasadena was the venue for a concert by Los Angeles-based gnarwhallaby on Saturday, October 4, 2014. The quartet appeared complete with their trademark rock-solid playing and black jumpsuits for the performance of six pieces by European and American composers of new music.
The concert opened with Euphorium (1995-96) by the Czech composer Martin Smolka. This featured Matt Barbier on euphonium and Brian Walsh on baritone saxophone. Combined with the piano and cello this produced a wonderfully robust bass line and a big sound that bounced and jumped playfully about. The rhythms were fast, bold and angular with an active feel, like a city at rush hour. The composer describes this piece as follows: “The tempo is breakneck and there are too many notes leaping up and down the entire range and the irregular rhythms in alternate measures remind a maze… The score invites the players to find alien tones. It is full of indications to play out of tune and at times out of rhythm… It is a musical illustration to a Scrap Iron Art Manifesto.” Even so the playing by gnarwhallaby was tight and the irregularities well managed. As the piece progressed the driving rhythms often broke into a satisfying groove and this offered a measure of accessibility amid the split tones and intense textures. The overall feeling was like standing too close to a slightly out of control street band and enjoying the sense of imminent catastrophe. The piece eventually wound down with a quiet trombone solo that trailed off, as if by exhaustion. Euphorium is an exercise in joyful anarchy, accurately captured in this performance despite what is surely a challenging score to play. Read the rest of this entry »
On Friday October 3, 2014 Cal Arts opened the WaveCave, a new experimental sound installation space and hosted a reunion concert by alumni on campus at the Roy O. Disney Music Hall. The WaveCave occupies a room just off the lobby of the concert hall and is intended to be a permanent venue for sound art installation. The space will be filled with Experimental Sound Practices alumni works for the Fall of 2014 with current student works premiering in 2015.
Zephyrs, a sound installation by Mark Trayle is the initial work to appear in the WaveCave and included three separate assemblies consisting of a flask of glitter, a piezoelectric disk and electronics to actuate a valve in the flask and to drive the disk with ultrasonic square waves of various frequencies. A small amount of old glitter is periodically dumped onto the discs by electronic actuation and the sound energy applied to the disk causes patterns to form, change and disappear. According to the program notes “The ultrasound waves (and their lower frequency auxiliary tones) also create patterns of varying amplitudes and frequencies in the acoustic space.” The sounds that were audible were of a very high pitch and as one moved about they could be heard only in certain locations. Watching the glitter form and reform in patterns, seemingly on its own, was a fascinating visual component and created an effective focal point for experiencing this piece.
The evening continued with a series of pieces presented in the adjacent Roy O. Disney concert hall. The first of these was Body Wave by Daniel Eaton and this was performed by Matt Barbier and Daniel Eaton, both on trombones. A series of amplified electronic tones accompanied the horns and the first of these, a low pulse, filled the hall with a warm wash of sound. At one point the combination of trombones and electronics was powerful enough to evoke a train horn and the sound seemed to move from left to right. Later in the piece it felt like being inside a large machine, immersed in the sounds and pulses of its inner workings. The combination of amplified trombones and electronics worked well together, and this was a also a tribute to the sound system.
Noctiluca Scintillans by Cooper Baker was next and this piece was realized with a series of hanging tubes, microphones and software. According to the program notes, the system consisted of “Hanging acrylic tubes containing bead chains generate acoustic impulses that trigger and control the synthetic sounds… Each tube has a contact microphone embedded in its cap, and when a tube is tapped or shaken the vibrations are transmitted to a computer running custom signal processing software.” Cooper Baker used small mallets to strike the tubes, and it was much like watching bell chimes played. Some of the tubes produced a running, liquidy sound when struck, another sounded like something from an arcade game. Still others had musical chime-like tones. Cooper Baker was able to create different moods and textures during the course of this piece by striking the tubes in various combinations – sometimes the resulting sounds were soft and lovely, other times more intense and complex. Noctiluca Scintillans is an impressive attempt to connect computer-processed sounds to a device suitable for performance.
Loud Sleep by Stephanie Smith followed and this was an ingenious mix of small motors, bells, magnets and mechanisms suspended in the air by strings from a cross bar. Then entire installation fit on a small table and microphones were used to amplify the tiny mechanical sounds. The different mechanisms were started each in turn, and went clicking merrily away, going in and out of phase with each other. The result was a charming, almost organic sound – like listening to mechanical crickets. At one point it sounded like the room was full of ticking alarm clocks, but overall this piece produced a playful feel that was complimented by the simplicity of its concept and construction.
A more dramatic work came next, COMPRESSIONOFTHECHESTCAVITYMIRACLE by Ezra Buchla. The program notes state that this piece incorporates “Gesture and sound-inducing narratives [that] collide with software-induced limitations via nonlinear functional mappings in time and harmonic space, resulting in a spectrum of shifting tensions between intimate somatic texture, crystalline tonality, abrasion and emptiness.” Mostly electronic in nature, although at times a viola played by Ezra was incorporated into the mix, the low rumbling, roaring and moans gave a convincing approximation of what it must be like inside a body cavity. A heartbeat could be distinctly heard. There was a sense of being semiconscious and the overall feel was one of a bleary melancholy. As the piece concluded the tension escalated as higher pitches joined in, culminating in a sort of slow scream. COMPRESSIONOFTHECHESTCAVITYMIRACLE certainly delivered on its title and effectively conveyed the listener to its unique point of view. Read the rest of this entry »
At Window Rock: ETHEL’s Kip Jones, dear friend James Bilagody, Jesse and Fiona Sherman.
For the past decade, the nationally acclaimed string quartet ETHEL has served as the Ensemble-in-Residence of the Grand Canyon Music Festival’s Native American Composer Apprentice Project (NACAP). To date, ETHEL’s residency has impacted almost 18,000 students, premiered over 150 works by Native American children, and touched more than 15 schools throughout Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico. For about three weeks, the quartet conducts intense, one-on-one tutorial sessions, readings and rehearsals to help student composers refine their works. They then showcase the children’s pieces at school performances, all culminating at the public performances at the Grand Canyon Music Festival, which are recorded and sometimes later aired on National Public Radio (NPR). In the post that follows, ETHEL founding member, artistic director and viola Ralph Farris reports on the quartet’s most recent residency.
by Ralph Farris
From late August through early September, NACAP students (ages 13-21) participate in composition intensives in schools across Arizona, Utah and New Mexico, under the expert tutelage of superstar Native American composer Raven Chacon and his brilliant associates Trevor Reed, Blair Quamahongnewa and Mike Begay. Resident ensembles then visit these schools and workshop with the young composers on their new works, working out all the nitty-gritty details in service of the composers’ intentions. This new music is then performed at school assemblies – showcasing the young local talent, and celebrating these students’ work, right there, in their home communities. The resident ensembles then pick up and drive 100+ miles to the next school, and do it all again the next day.
After a fortnight of criss-crossing the Southwest, the resident ensembles ultimately arrive at Grand Canyon National Park, where the festival presents ALL of the new student pieces in a marathon concert. Each year there are some 30 pieces presented; the event is recorded and each student is provided a CD of their own work – for future study, for college applications, for sharing with grandmother…
Several of our NACAP students are now in music school; several of them are pursuing other career paths. All of them have been deeply moved – as has ETHEL – by their work with NACAP. Through this festival, these young people see themselves anew – they find their voices. And in turn, ETHEL has found new depth, new color, new joy – in ours.
NACAP itself has received numerous honors, including NewMusic USA’s New Music Educators Award, Arizona Governor’s Arts Award, and an Award from The President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities(!). Our NACAP students have even been visited by John Lennon Educational Tour Bus.
What an amazing thing that happens each year in the Southwest! What a gift it has been for ETHEL to be a part of this extraordinary program!
ETHEL has enjoyed inspired collaborations with groups and soloists through our tenure with NACAP. In 2011, we were very pleased to welcome the Sphinx Organization’s powerhouse Catalyst Quartet as the NACAP Fellowship Quartet. This season, we were thrilled to work with trombone ensemble the Guidonian Hand, as well as ETHEL’s former (and founding) member, Mary Rowell. Under the auspices of this festival, ETHEL has toured the Southwest with Hawaiian slack-key guitar virtuoso Jeff Peterson, Bluegrass legend Dean Osborne, and Taos Pueblos’ master of Native American flute, Robert Mirabal.
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[Editor’s note: Samuel Vriezen is a brilliant Dutch composer, performer, poet, polymath… oh, let’s just say the list goes on. I’ve known Samuel — online, at least — for the better part of 15 years now, following his artistic and aesthetic progression, getting into stimulating conversations and sharp smack-downs along the way. Just the other day Samuel approached me with an essay that he’d been working on, that he felt might be ready for a wider audience through a place like S21. Of course I immediately agreed; Samuel has one of the sharpest minds I know, and whatever rolls around and finally drops from it to the page is quite likely worth a bit of our time to read.]
OUTSIDE OF MUSIC — On the role of the audience
Heiner Goebbels, composer, director and a major presence in contemporary German music theatre, gave a presentation at a conference devoted to Gertrude Stein and the arts in May 2014 in Copenhagen, on his use of Stein’s work. For him, Stein’s vision of a theatre piece as a landscape to be enjoyed rather than a drama to be followed was highly inspiring for his own theatrical conceptions. In passing, Goebbels made a very interesting remark. All you need to make theatre, he claimed, is an audience. What he meant was that it is the audience that completes the theatrical experience. If you present an audience with any staged image, you practically don’t even need actors any more, as the audience will invite itself into making it a theatrical experience, into filling in the drama itself. You just need to give it a landscape, something to look at, well staged and probably with stuff happening in it; but what the theatre really only requires is the audience.
This struck me as a strongly theatre-based approach to the audience, one very much about presenting a spectacle, about the experience of watching and presenting, perhaps even about ‘communication’. My own focus as a composer being mostly on chamber music, I couldn’t imagine myself making such a statement at all. In chamber music, you really need some performers – something that is even true of a piece like 4’33”, which only requires (a) dedicated performer(s), more or less inviting the audience to become a performer itself.
The next day at the symposium, Andrzej Wirth, a major figure in German theatre one generation older than Goebbels, was interviewed. Wirth, who had collaborated with Brecht in his youth, and who had himself used Stein’s work in his productions, seemingly made the exact opposite claim during his talk: the audience, he said, is an obstacle, something that threatens to get in the way of theatre. The point being that the theatre is what happens, what people on stage do, the whole action of it, rather than its passive consumption (a position that fits the tradition of the Brechtian Lehrstück well.)
Instinctively, I found myself more sympathetic. The idea that an audience is needed for something to be music is quite evidently not true. If I play piano at home, just because I feel like it, there is no audience. There is only me, the performer, working at the music, and even if this involves my hearing and listening in the process, it doesn’t make me into my own audience. In fact, it has always been my feeling that the vast majority of music that gets practically made by humans does not involve an audience. For instance, ritual music – and let’s interpret ‘ritual music’ broadly: a birthday song at a party or a stadium of supporters chanting to inspire its team could be an example just as much as liturgy being chanted or a village tribe honoring its ancestors. Likewise, there is music that is merely play, or a way to pass time. There is humming to yourself; there are the songs that are part of children’s games; there is practice, which is playing for the sole purpose of getting better at playing. Work songs, campfire songs, protest songs. Clearly, to think of such events in terms of ‘performer’ and ‘audience’ would be to miss the point completely. All these things are music; none of them involve an audience.
Yet it is not quite satisfactory to see the audience as an obstacle. Even if it should be true that the main thing that happens would be the process among actors or musicians, that does not necessarily imply that the audience has no role to play. Surely it must have one, or we wouldn’t spend so much time organizing concerts. But what is this role? Read the rest of this entry »
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Posted by Wes Flinn in Contemporary Classical, Review, tags: Ann DuHamel, ensemble: Périphérie, George Crumb, Joseph Dangerfield, Karim Al-Zand, Kumhee Lee, Libby Larsen, Luke Dahn, Michelle Crouch, Rebecca Ashe, Stephen Fine, Tomasz Skweres, Yasmin Flores
(image source ensemble: Périphérie)
A common theme in my reviews is that new music is what and where you make it. ensemble: Périphérie ascribes to the same philosophy. The group, founded in 2010 by composers Luke Dahn and Joseph Dangerfield, contains performers from all over the United States; they get together a few times a year for a week of intense rehearsals and a short tour. Make no mistake, though; while the rehearsal time may be brief, these musicians are skilled and the performances are high-quality.
The group started its Fall 2014 tour at the University of Minnesota Morris, where pianist Ann DuHamel is on the faculty. (Full disclosure: So am I.) The concert opened with Karim Al-Zand‘s work Hollows and Dells (2010) for viola and piano, played by violist Stephen Fine and DuHamel. The work, cast in three movements, is based on the composer’s recollections of attending an English-style boarding school, and features paraphrases and arrangements of stacking songs, hymn tunes, and a reel that can only be described as a moto perpetuo. It is a fun and exciting work, and was performed with a high level of fun by Fine and DuHamel.
The second piece, Tomasz Skweres‘s Direkt (2006), is a setting of Psalm 14 for soprano, flute, and cello. One of the longer pieces on the program, it taxes the skills of all performers, with substantial use of extended techniques for the players. Soprano Michelle Crouch ably negotiated the intense vocal line, which required both control and power, and flutist Rebecca Ashe and cellist Kumhee Lee tackled their difficult parts with aplomb.
Co-founder and co-artistic director Dangerfield was represented by Broken Obelisk (2013). Originally for saxophone and piano, this version was played by clarinetist Yasmin Flores and DuHamel. The work was inspired by Barnett Newman’s sculpture of the same name. This effective piece showcases the sound of the instruments beautifully, and uses modes and little bluesy licks to great effect.
If it’s Minnesota, you’ll find some Libby Larsen. Flores, Fine, and DuHamel presented two movements of Black Birds, Red Hills (1987). This work, which draws inspiration from Georgia O’Keeffe’s paintings of New Mexico, provided a solid close to the first half of the program.
After intermission, co-founder and co-artistic director Dahn’s Confessions of St. Augustine (2009, rev. 2014) was performed by Crouch, Flores and DuHamel. Originally for soprano and orchestra, this adaptation for soprano, piano and clarinet used two texts by the 4th-century theologian for a work that was by turns austere, intense, and expansive. Dahl did a fine job condensing the orchestral textures for the reduced forces; the interplay between the players signified a great familiarity with each other.
For any other group, a program this ambitious would have been sufficient for a full evening of exciting and interesting music. In this case, however, the organization also presented George Crumb‘s Vox Balaenae (1971), which counts as a venerable war-horse in new music circles. For this performance, flutist Ashe and cellist Lee were joined by Dangerfield on piano. The trio handled the extended techniques with grace and style, and gave the work a solid, powerful interpretation.
For a group that only rehearses and performs in short bursts, ensemble: Périphérie (which draws its name from a quote by Henri Dutilleux) shows a maturity and skill that should serve as an inspiration to other ensembles. The group played Carnegie Hall in October 2013 to outstanding reviews, and their devotion to quality performances of challenging music should resonate with other composers and performers. Here’s hoping they come to your town sometime soon.
In 2011, pianist Raffaella Gazzana and violinist Natascia Gazzana, better known as Duo Gazzana, made a quiet, if colorful, splash with Five Pieces, their first record for ECM’s New Series imprint. Navigating a recital comprised of works by Takemitsu, Hindemith, Janáček, and Silvestrov, the Gazzana sisters, in close collaboration with producer Manfred Eicher, demonstrated an acute sense of programming, technique, and integrity. Despite the title of their debut (named for the Silvestrov composition of the same name), which contained only four pieces, Silvestrov’s Hommage à J.S.B. (2009) comprises the heart of this truly pentagonal sequel. The Ukrainian composer offers three short movements: two Andantinos and one Andante, each the band of a deeper and more nuanced spectrum. The end effect is one of suspension. Although originally written for Gidon Kremer, the Hommage is uniquely informed here by the Gazzanas’ attention to detail. “The music of Silvestrov is not difficult in terms of notes,” Raffaella tells me in a recent interview, “but it’s so particular. In a way, you have to isolate yourself from the noise of life. He’s a composer who belongs to another time, bringing these beautiful melodies, as if from the past.” Indeed, as Wolfgang Schreiber observes in his album notes, the Gazzanas share in the spirit of the music they have selected, which like them finds newness in the old. Their unwavering commitment to urtexts only serves to emphasize what is unwritten in them, thus coaxing out hidden messages and spirits.
Radiating outward from the Silvestrovian center are two richer, denser works: Poulenc’s Sonate pour violon et piano (1942/43, rev. 1949) and William Walton’s Toccata for violin and piano (1922/23). Dedicated to the memory of Federico García Lorca, the Poulenc sonata is, in Raffaella’s estimation, a product of its time, as is clear in the first in third movements, designated “Allegro con fuoco” and “Presto tragico,” respectively. These are extroverted, almost flailing. Stravinsky looms large in the final, especially, but there are also—unwitting, perhaps—nods to the late Romantics and Ravel as the piece nears its enigmatic coda. “After expressing the suffering of the war,” Raffaella observes, “Poulenc wanted to finish with this dreamy catharsis. This was his character, shy but also enjoying life. He was, I think, a very elegant man, and in this sonata you can hear that.” Poulenc purists take note: the Gazzanas’ interpretation corrects mistakes left in the original French edition prepared by Max Eschig, which elides key signatures in the last page. After careful study of the facsimile, they believe to have arrived at the definitive version.
Although more obscure, Walton’s Toccata was the subject of Raffaella’s dissertation and is no less possessed of elegance. Nataschia’s opening proclamation stirs the piano’s waters with relish and fortitude, giving way to a virtuosic and starkly exuberant foray, pocked by haunting, probing depressions. Although written in the composer’s 20s, it smacks of maturity and daring-do. Raffaella: “I am always impressed by the piece’s improvisational elements. At the time he was working on it, Walton was planning a jazz suite for two pianos and orchestra. Although it never panned out, you can hear this influence throughout the Toccata. The beginning contains no tempo or bar divisions. You just have to go with it.”
Two further works draw the album’s outer circle. First is Schnittke’s Suite in the Old Style. Originally composed for two 1965 films (Adventures of a Dentist and Sport, Sport, Sport) by director Elem Klimov, Schnittke arranged these five selections for violin and piano in 1972. Its moods are crisp and compelling. Especially moving are the Minuet and the spirited Fugue. Only the final movement, marked “Pantomime,” has the surreal touches one might expect of the composer. Still, it is playful and fragile, ending with a mystery.
Tartiniana seconda (1956), by the 20th-century Italian composer Luigi Dallapiccola, concludes. Referencing Tartini, this divertimento spreads a beautiful carpet across its four Baroque-inspired movements. “This piece enjoys great popularity in Europe,” Raffaella explains, “especially in Italy. It makes exclusive use of canons, pastorale, and variations: all forms that belong to the past.” At times ponderous and lyrical, at others swirling with ornament and invention, it culminates with a set of emphatic statements from both musicians. Of all the pieces on the album, it is the most architectural. This is no coincidence: “It helps to have the score in hand when listening, because it’s as much for the ears as it is for the eyes. In the opening Pastorale, for instance the piano plays the violin’s lines exactly, but staggered and in reverse, while in the second Variation, it plays the exact reverse, bar for bar.” The Tartiniana also gives contrast to the freer forms of Walton, lending finality and flourish to this exquisite sophomore program.
Coinciding with the release of this disc was the Duo Gazzana’s North American concert premiere when, on May 2, they performed as part of 2014’s Look & Listen Festival in New York City. For this performance, they chose the Silvestrov and Poulenc pieces from the new album, and enchanted the audience with their grace, sensitivity, and mutual resonance. Hearing this music live brought home a vital point in relation to the album’s core philosophy. Because the nature of past and future is immaterial, the only true reality of this music can be the here and now of performance and listening. On this point, Raffaella has the final word: “Chamber music has ever been one of the most beautiful expressions of liberation, one that tests the ability of performers to listen to one another in dialogue. These peculiarities attract us and in our interpretations we try to emphasize them. All the study we put into these pieces is just the grammar. But grammar must be spoken to come to life. Nowadays, it’s easy to speak without caring what other people think. Chamber music ensures we never fall into that trap. Sure, there are good performers, but it’s obvious when they’re performing only for themselves. Chamber music is, quite simply, enjoyable. It’s so beautiful to share it with such a caring musical partner, and with the listener in turn. When you do something out of love, you transmit this love to others. And people can hear this.”
On Tuesday, September 9, 2014 the Southland Ensemble presented a concert of the music of Pauline Oliveros at Human Resources in the arts-friendly Chinatown district of downtown Los Angeles. The performance space, with its wide open floor and lively acoustics was the perfect place given that the works of Ms. Oliveros typically include a theatrical component. The seating, arranged logically around the perimeter, was completely filled by those attending.
The concert opened with Sonic Rorschach (1971) and for this groups of electric fans were arrayed in the corners to provide white noise, as called for in the composers notes for this piece. A member of the Southland Ensemble was also stationed in each corner to model a contemplative pose for the audience as they filed in. After a dozen or so minutes, when all were seated and quiet, the ensemble rose together, each holding a percussive whip – two wooden slats joined by a hinge. At a signal, all the whips sounded simultaneously with a single loud crack that reflected nicely off the cement walls. The single sonic pulse from the whips was delivered with remarkable precision, given that the players were several dozen feet apart. The performers then resumed their seats as the piece concluded, immersed in the meditative white noise of the fans. Sonic Rorschach is scored for a duration of 30 minutes – and this performance was probably close to that – the time spent in meditation was a useful prelude to the rest of the concert.
Thirteen Changes (1986) followed, performed by Eric KM Clark on violin. For this piece there was recorded narration of thirteen phrases such as “Standing naked in the moonlight – Music washing the body.”, “Rollicking monkeys landing on Mars”, “A singing bowl of steaming soup”, etc, and these preceded a short impression of the text by the violin. This was also accompanied by recorded samples and audio effects – skittering and swirling, or at times a wash – and various other recorded sounds. Eric KM Clark created all of this and his voice read the text. In one sequence there were the sounds of a forest coming from the speakers, and the violin answered with a sort of mooing, matching the organic character of that segment. A distinct sentimentality is brought into the recorded mix by the violin. This seems characteristic of Ms. Oliveros work – which seems to exist at the conjunction of human emotion and ambient sound. The playing by Eric Clark was controlled and precise and nicely complimented the evocative recordings.
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