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J.S. Bach

Christmas Oratorio (BWV 248)

Mary Bevan and Joanne Lunn, sopranos; Clare Wilkinson and Ciara Hendrick, mezzo-sopranos; Nicholas Mulroy and Thomas Hobbs, tenors; Matthew Brook and Konstantin Wolff, bass-baritones. Dunedin Consort, conducted by John Butt.

Linn CKD 499 (2xCD)

First, I’ll admit that at Christmas Messiah has most often been my jam; I have several recordings, have performed it as soloist, accompanist, and conductor, and find it to be one of the most uplifting pieces out there. This year the Dunedin Consort, led by John Butt, has changed my tune. I’ve listened over and over again to their new recording of J.S. Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. 

The oratorio is actually a collection of six cantatas that were performed during a particularly festive Christmas in 1735. They cover Sundays from the beginning of the Christmas season to the Feast of the Epiphany. Butt has chosen to perform them with eight soloists, four each alternating between the successive cantatas, and four ripieno singers. The use of a relatively small complement of vocalists lines up with current Bach scholarship. Butt primarily employs soloists with two to a part in passages like the chorales. This emphasizes the contrapuntal character of the vocal parts, treating the cantatas as chamber music rather than the large choral works that they are sometimes presented as in less period-informed settings. (Butt’s notes on the history of the Christmas Oratorio and his particular performance choices for the recording make for fascinating and enlightening reading).

Chamber music yes, but the instrumentation is both varied and vivid. Part One features virtuoso trumpet parts and timpani, the second extensive writing for woodwinds, the fourth buoyant horn duos and an “echo aria” with an extra soprano, and the last cantata returns to the use of brass and timpani in its climactic passages (it also features an oboe solo during the standout soprano aria “Nur ein Wink von seinen Händen,” beautifully sung and played by Mary Bevan and Alex Belamy, respectively).

Butt elicits a performance from the soloists and Dunedin Consort that is fleet-footed yet flexible, cleanly rendered yet never overly cool. Indeed, some of the recitatives and solos are quite emotively delivered. The conductor has also wisely chosen soloists who complement both the textual and textural aspects of each of the cantatas. For instance, Nicholas Mulroy is the more forceful of the two tenors. He balances well with the defiant music and ebullient orchestration of Part Six, while the more sweet-voiced Thomas Hobbs is sure-footed in the fluid recitatives and arias of Part Four. While each singer brings a different timbre and demeanor to the table, they blend seamlessly in the ensemble passages and to a person share exquisite tone and abundant musicality.

This is a recording that made me completely rethink my impressions of the Christmas Oratorio. Now, instead of writing it off as the lightweight cousin of the Bach Passions, I am ready to consider alongside the composer’s best known choral music, going toe to toe with them both in terms of ambition and quality. Recommended holiday or anytime listening.

 

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Tallis Scholars at St. Mary’s: Bass Hit

Sequenza 21

By Christian Carey

 

NEW YORK – On December 10th, the Tallis Scholars found themselves in a bit of a quandary. Scheduled to give their annual Renaissance Christmas concert as part of Miller Theatre’s Early Music Series at Church of St. Mary the Virgin, the ten-voice ensemble was decimated to nine. Long-time member bass Robert Macdonald was ill and had been rendered voiceless. Peter Phillips, the Tallis Scholars’ director, quipped from onstage that unless he sang, which the rest of the singers “felt unwise,” the group’s other bass, Tim Whiteley, would have to go it alone. MacDonald did not appear to be the only member suffering. During the course of the concert, there were several sniffles onstage and far more water being chugged than is the group’s usual practice. Gamely they had decided to appear regardless.

 

There was yet another wrinkle to the story. During the first half of the concert the Tallis Scholars had planned to feature Cipriano de Rore’s Missa Praeter rerum seriem, a composition that includes many divisi, including a number of passages where each bass has his own part. A substitution was in order, and the solution was a welcome one: Giovanni Perluigi da Palestrina’s Missa Assumpta est Maria. One of the composer’s last works, it demonstrates his movement from a more modal to a quasi-tonal harmonic method of organization. Although outnumbered, Whiteley never seemed vocally outgunned. Indeed, the Tallis Scholars’ long association helped them to rebalance their forces in seemingly effortless fashion. The clarity of lines and fine-tuned chords which resulted were truly remarkable sounding.

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Although the audience had been deprived of De Rore on the first half, the second provided some compensation with a sprightly, joyous rendition of his Hodie Christus natus est setting. Magnificat Primi Toni, by Tomás Luis de Victoria, features antiphonal division of the choir into two four-part units. Fortunately for this occasion it doesn’t include bass divisi, but there are some stellar passages for high sopranos that arched angelically upward, as well as sturdy tutti declamation.

 

Victoria, Palestrina, and even de Rore are familiar composers to many Renaissance listeners, but the next two selections on the program, both Salve Regina settings, were composed by figures who aren’t yet “household names.” Based on the quality of these works alone, they should be. Claudin de Sermisy’s Salve Regina was filled with imitative counterpoint, including four-voice canons and fetching duets, which were delivered with abundant precision by the Tallis Scholars. Hernando de Franco, a Spanish composer who resided in Mexico, must have enjoyed setting the Salve Regina text – or at the very least been frequently requested to do so – there are five of them attributed to him. Here, chant was weaved into the fabric of the piece, interspersing thick-voiced passages of contrapuntal activity.

 

The concert concluded with O Splendor Gloriae, a composition that appears to have been a collaboration between John Taverner and Christopher Tye. The piece never feels like a ragtag assemblage, but there are significant differences among its various sections. O Splendor has a long-ish text, describing the Creation story from the Fall to Christ’s Resurrection and Ascension. Even after such a taxing program, and under harried circumstances, the Tallis Scholars brought a warm sound to bear here. This is no mean feat, as the work contains a number of high-lying lines. In addition to the sopranos who sustained these, Whiteley must be commended for his efforts. The bass brought sonorous support to the work’s chordal passages and hardy declamation during sections for subsets of the ensemble. It was a testament to the Tallis Scholars’ consummate professionalism that, despite challenging circumstances,  they made such stirring music.  

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panicduo1Panic Duo, consisting of violinist Pasha Tseitlin and pianist Nic Gerpe were featured in a People Inside Electronics concert on December 10, 2016 at Throop Unitarian Universalist Church in Pasadena. The event was held in the roomy church auditorium and a full size crowd braved the weekend holiday traffic to hear seven contemporary pieces, including a world premiere. With one exception, all the pieces were by Los Angeles area composers and five were in attendance.

The first piece was The Alchemy of Everyday Things by Jason Francesco Heath, inspired by the Villa Aurora, the cultural center and artists’ residence in Pacific Palisades. This opens with lush tones from the electronics accompanied by sustained violin notes above. In a most unusual form of piano preparation, a fishing line is drawn across the piano strings and amplified, filling the performance space with the most amazingly deep and resonant sounds. The combination of the electronics, violin and piano string produce some lovely harmonies and a warm, soothing texture. There is no perceptible pulse and the piece floats dreamily along with a feeling of nostalgic introspection. About midway through, the piano is played from the keyboard and the violin becomes more restlessly active. This purposeful feel soon gives way to the slower pace of the opening while the sound of surf, wind and quiet whispering is heard from the electronics. The line is drawn once again across the piano string, restoring the mystical ambiance at the close. The Alchemy of Everyday Things is an extraordinary piece that perfectly captures the sense history present in the Villa Aurora.

Who Cares If You Listen, by John Frantzen followed, and the title was based on the famous 1958 High Fidelity magazine article written by Milton Babbitt. In his remarks prior to the performance of this piece, Frantzen explained that he was inspired by the sounds of some of the famous quotes about music, starting with Babbitt and including sayings by Busconi and Ives. Solemn electronic sounds begin the piece, soon joined by the solo violin. The pounding of construction equipment was heard through the speakers and trills in the violin introduce an element of anxiety. Faster violin runs give way to repeating passages having the same rhythm and cadence as the speaking of the phrase “Who cares if you listen.” This was reminiscent of the vocal patterns heard in Steve Reich’s string quartet Different Trains, but in this case no recorded voices were heard. The Busconi quotation was less concise and illustrated with rapid violin phrases – precisely played by Pasha Tseitlin – along with a dance-like pizzicato section. The final quotation came from Charles Ives: “Why can’t you stand up before fine strong music like this and use your ears like a man?”, apparently in response to a heckler at a concert he was attending. This was accompanied by increasing volume in the electronics and a much faster tempo for the violin, resulting in a dramatic finish. Who Cares If You Listen is an artful blend of electronics, masterful violin playing and the sounds of speech patterns that combine to produce an intriguing extension of the sentiments expressed in the underlying quotations.

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Composer Jeffrey Mumford remembers the recently departed Pauline Oliveros in the following obituary.

I had the honor of being a TA for Pauline Oliveros during my graduate studies at the University of California, San Diego from 1979-81.

Our worlds couldn’t have been more different.

I was deeply discovering the endless inventiveness and poetry in the music of Elliott Carter, with whom I would soon study, and was also working with Bernard Rands as my major teacher at UCSD.

A composer of color, I came from Washington, D.C. steeped in the music of among others, Count Basie, which resonated throughout our house in my youth.

I also loved (and still do) Brahms for many reasons, not the least of which is his sense of expansiveness and sweep, yet without one wasted note. He along with Schumann make me feel at home.

I had heard of Pauline and a bit about her early experimental work, before I came to UCSD.

What I found I got there and started working with her, was another kind of inventiveness in her approach to her work and most important for me, the permission to be myself, whatever that was and whatever that would be.

I was also impressed with her centeredness and sense of humor, an enduring whimsy not often found in our business.

She was at home with herself.

She left me alone to discover aspects of group improvisation and to impart what I was discovering to the students with whom I worked, and of course to deeply hear sound and its implications on its own terms.

Her’s was a quiet yet strong voice, who was the embodiment of integrity, holding true to her convictions, but always open.

She was always there, offering strength of creative purpose. She will be missed.

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Ensemble Lux

Austrian Cultural Forum New York

November 17, 2016

NEW YORK – Austrian Cultural Forum New York makes part of its mission supporting chamber musicians from Austria, bringing them to the United States for concerts. One of the best of these concerts I have attended was this past Thursday’s New York debut of Ensemble Lux, a string quartet with formidable technique and ambitious tastes in programming. Their concert ranged across a century’s worth of music, from Anton Webern’s 5 Movements for String Quartet (1909), to la pureté de l’envie blanche, a piece from 2010 by the Lux’s second violinist, Thomas Wally.The concert opened with Olga Neuwirth’s settori, a showcase for extended techniques: alternate bowings, rapping on the wood of the instruments, Bartôk pizzicatos, altissimo register filigrees and harmonics. Neuwirth uses this expansive palette as the means to fascinating, expressive ends. Hans Erich Apostel (1901-’72) was a student of Arnold Schoenberg and Alban Berg. The musical materials and aesthetics of the Second Viennese School are on display in Apostel’s 6 Epigramme. While the pieces are well constructed miniatures, his last name is telling of his relative place in the 12-tone pantheon.

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More engaging was Schoenberg’s String Trio. Written after the composer’s heart attack, a program reflecting this experience is often ascribed to the work. Whether one thinks it appropriate to do so, the piece is a remarkable late work by Schoenberg, juxtaposing the techniques of twelve-tone music and neoclassical phrasing with some of the visceral gestural language of his earlier Expressionism. Lux’s performance paid note both to the work’s Apollonian and Dionysian features. Correspondingly, Webern’s 5 Movements, aphoristic vignettes written at the beginning of atonality’s appearance, were played with exquisite care by the quartet.

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la pureté de l’envie blanche juxtaposed periods of silence with angular runs nearly at the instruments’ bridges. There were also tremendously quiet sustained passages. One was struck by the dynamic range the quartet had been able to deploy in ACFNY’s small performance space, from thunderous outbursts in settori to the extreme pianissimos of Wally’s work. Ensemble Lux’s precision and control mark them as a group with a promising future. Hopefully, their next visit to New York will be soon.

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meredithmonk-onbehalf

Meredith Monk turns 74 today. An early birthday present came from ECM Records on November 4th: a recording of Monk’s On Behalf of Nature project. We do not have the benefit of language: the “text” consists of songs, chants, and syllabification in unknown tongues. And there is no narrative per se, but there are clues present in the piece’s sound world that readily suggest its environmental message: at times with clarion calls; at others, with poignant vulnerability.

Joined by a versatile troupe of vocalists (many of whom also play instruments on the recording), Monk sings with tremendous vigor and impressive range. The panoply of extended techniques on display, both vocal and instrumental, elicit a veritable catalog of sounds. Some are imitative of all manner of fauna: insects, birds, and mammals. Vocal play with “nonsense” syllables moves between jazz scat and primordial language. Likewise, the materials inhabited by the instrumental forces coexist between rustic primitivism, minimalist ostinatos, and sophisticated microtonality.

Monk is not afraid to make sounds that aren’t conventionally “pretty:” howls, chittering, and screaming among them. However, she often manages to evoke beauty even in the most raw and unconventional moments of On Behalf of Nature. It is as if we are being implored, by any means necessary, to attend more fully to the world around us. While we are deprived the visual and choreographic elements of its staging in this audio-only recording (one hopes ECM might consider producing a film of the work’s acclaimed stage incarnation), the music is amply impressive all by itself. It is Meredith Monk’s birthday, true, but her gifts are shared with us.

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palau-de-les-arts-reina-sofiaBoston Conservatory at Berklee – recognized for offering one of the best opera programs in the U.S. – is launching a summer program at Berklee’s campus in Valencia, Spain for students from all over the world looking to pursue a career in opera. The Boston Conservatory Opera Intensive at Valencia is a comprehensive three-week program taking place June 25-July 15, 2017. This is the first program to be developed jointly between the Valencia campus since the merger between Berklee and the Conservatory in June 2016.

“This summer program is designed for students who are serious about building a career in opera and are looking for next-level training,” said Richard Ortner, president of Boston Conservatory at Berklee. “Talented young singers from around the globe will come together to hone their technical skills with unparalleled faculty, gain valuable performance experience in a variety of settings, increase their understanding of what it takes to build and maintain a career in opera, and connect with industry professionals.”

The program will feature a robust schedule of lessons, musical and dramatic coachings, classes, and rehearsals, culminating in public concerts and performances of opera excerpts. “Special classes will provide insights and strategies for managing both the business and interpersonal aspects of a sustainable career,” said Johnathon Pape, director of Opera Studies at Boston Conservatory at Berklee. “Guest clinicians like renowned Chilean soprano Cristina Gallardo-Domâs, among others, will present master classes and seminars on pertinent information such as auditioning and working in Europe.”

One of the unique features of the Boston Conservatory Opera Intensive at Valencia is the opportunity for participants to access Berklee’s state-of-the-art recording studios. Students will be able to record some of their selections for use in applications to graduate schools or young artist programs. The selections will be coached and accompanied by program faculty members, and recorded by Berklee engineers. Each participant will leave the program with a professionally produced recording of their selections.

Located in the iconic City of Arts and Sciences, Berklee Valencia is annexed to the Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia, an inspiring setting with top notch facilities and home to world-class cultural events. Many luminaries of the opera world have been associated with the Palau, including Zubin Mehta, Lorin Maazel, and, most notably, Plácido Domingo.

“The Boston Conservatory Opera Intensive at Valencia provides an exciting and supportive environment that will stretch and inspire students, and help them succeed,” said María Martínez Iturriaga, executive director of Berklee Valencia. “Valencia, with its rich cultural heritage and beautiful scenery, is a perfect setting for a program of this caliber.”

Boston Conservatory at Berklee is recognized for offering one of the best opera programs in the U.S. With a nurturing community of teachers and peers, and a forward-thinking curriculum that is continually evolving, its voice and opera programs are oriented to help students grow as professional singers and as whole artists for the 21st-century stage.

About Boston Conservatory at Berklee
Boston Conservatory at Berklee provides a progressive learning environment where students are challenged to realize their potential as artists and inspired to pursue their dreams. Long recognized for its specialized training in dance, music, and theater, the Conservatory’s recent merger with Berklee now combines this rigorous, focused instruction with unparalleled access to a broad range of academic and creative opportunities. Set in the cultural, historical, and educational hub of Boston, this extraordinary institution represents the future of performing arts education. Learn more at bostonconservatory.berklee.edu.

About Berklee College of Music’s Valencia Campus
Berklee’s campus in Valencia is the first international campus established by the renowned Berklee College of Music—and its first campus outside of Boston. Located in the iconic City of Arts and Sciences in Valencia, Spain, the magnificent 3,600 square meter campus has been designed specifically for music and is equipped with state-of-the art technology.

Berklee’s campus in Valencia aims to provide a hub to launch the careers across the globe for the most musically talented international students. Offering a unique curriculum, as well as an International Career Center to assist students in their transition from student to music professional, the campus presented Berklee College of Music’s first graduate master’s degree programs in contemporary music (Scoring for Film, Television and Video Games; Contemporary Performance (Production Concentration); and Global Entertainment and Music Business) in September 2012, and launched a fourth new graduate program: Music Production, Technology, and Innovation in September 2013.

In addition, Berklee’s campus in Valencia offers a Study Abroad Program for Berklee students from Boston to study for a term at Valencia, Summer and Special Programs, as well as a new way for musicians around the world to join the global music community – as performers, as practitioners, and as leaders.

More information can be found at valencia.berklee.edu

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marvin

In this year where up is down and blue is red, one constant remains: our radio pal Marvin Rosen‘s end-of-year, day-long marathon playing recent music by living composers. But how does he get enough great, new stuff to program 25 hours? Why, from YOU! Marvin needs, wants, loves your submissions of pieces you’ve composed in the last few years. So read on, and find out what you need to do to make Marvin’s marathon mus-tastic.

CALL FOR NEW MUSIC RECORDINGS

to be presented during the 11th Live Marathon (10th devoted to 21st century music) curated and hosted by Marvin Rosen, host of the award-winning program, Classical Discoveries and presented on WPRB, Princeton NJ at 103.3 FM or on line at: www.wprb.com

The title of this year’s radio extravaganza —  “24 HOUR PLUS – VIVA 21-ST CENTURY”  —  will start Tuesday, December 27th at 1:00pm (EST time) and will go nonstop, live, until 2:00pm on Wednesday, December 28th, and yes, this year’s Marathon will run like last years did — 25 hours.

This year Marvin is requesting composers to send him recordings of works completed between 2008-2016

Only recordings on CD (no MP3’s, no downloads) will be accepted and must be received by Marvin no later than Saturday, December 3, 2016. The maximum length of each work submitted should be no more than 15 minutes.

All private recordings must have good sound quality and released for radio broadcast by the owner of recording (a statement from submitting person is sufficient).
Marvin knows that in today’s time many music transactions are done via downloading etc., but since he has a full time job, as well as other volunteer duties, the recording submission process has to be done as conveniently for Marvin as possible.
If you are interested in being part of this crazy annual new music marathon please e-mail Marvin directly for more instructions at: requestformarvin@gmail.com

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It’s never good to live in the past, but sometimes we have to, even though as our latest catch phrase would have it “it is what it is.” These are some of the thoughts which came to mind when I caught the last performance of San Francisco Opera’s revival of its 2010 production of Leos Janacek’s “The Makropulos Case ” (1923-26) which received its American premiere at this house in 1966. German soprano Nadja Michael, who as the over three-hundred-year-old opera diva Emilia Marty has traveled with more aliases than you could count on several hands, was its star. But the problem here wasn’t that Michael dominated the stage as every diva should do, but that her lovers, especially her principal one Baron Jarosalv Prus (baritone Stephen Powell) hadn’t the looks much less the presence of Tom Fox, who sang Prus in the 1990 SFO Lofti Mansouri / Elisabeth Soederstrom directed production I saw with Stephanie Sundine as Marty, who owned the stage just by walking across it. And that’s a major flaw because this opera if it’s about anything — and it isn’t about much — is about sex and how its myriad illusions about “love” have driven its “heroine ” and us through her multiple couplings. But come to think of it this might be THE perfect piece of music theatre for our tired but true 2016 US (s) election cycle.

Janacek (1854-1926) may have been a great Czech composer, but his book for The Makropulos Case (which is based on his fellow Czech Carel Capek’s play which he saw at its 1922 Prague premiere) is problematic, and even Capek doubted — and he told Janacek this — that it could be made into an opera. Its flaws are there from the get go. Act 1 scene 1, which is set in the law office of Dr. Koletany ( bass-baritone Dale Travis) goes on far too long. Janacek should have established his points quickly, and should have made this scene and many others a play within music instead of a play with music, and the only really theatrical juice it gets is when Ms. Michael enters and in 2016 fashion drapes her everything in sight over the office furniture, and with that decision almost every possible ambiguity, forget subtext, goes out the window. It’s the madonna/whore complex all over again, but this time we just get the whore, which is, if not an outright insult to Janacek and his source material, but a cheapening of his obviously earnest efforts to breathe life into it. Carmen may have been a girl who can’t help it, but at least Bizet supplied seductive and yes, entertaining music for her and her suitors, and Berg, while not writing exactly entertaining music for his doomed heroine Lulu in his eponymous opera, did at least give her the benefit of the doubt.

Olivier Tambosi’s staging with production designer Schollsmann’s mostly black and white look, save the completely literal bookcases-to-the-ceiling set for the law office, added very little. Ms. Michael’s transcendence/apotheosis in the very last scene didn’t work either, because neither book, music or direction, as played here, made her vulnerable for more than, say, twenty seconds. Marty may have made lots of mistakes in her three century plus life, but she must have had a few moments of real reflection or regret — don’t we all ? — and she did have some here, but these alas came and went all too quickly. She was after all “human all too human” in Nietzsche’s pregnant phrase, and if that doesn’t come across the boards we get next to nothing. Russian conductor Mikhail Tatarnikov, who made his house debut here, kept everything in sync with his precise no-nonsense stick technique, and the SFO orchestra responded with clear, vivid and vibrant playing throughout.

Leos Janacek The Makropulos Case ( Vec Makropulos ) 

San Francisco Opera 
War Memorial Opera House 
San Francisco California 
29 October 2016 
 Nadja Michael; Joel Sorensen; Charles Workman;  Julie Adams; Dale Travis; Stephen Powell, and  supporting cast
Director: Olivier Tambosi
Chorus Director: Ian Robertson 
Conductor: Mikhail Tatarnikov

 

 

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This week, mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato has a new album out on Erato. In War and Peace features arias by Handel, Purcell, and other baroque composers that deal with, as one might expect, bellicose and pacific themes. Her coloratura and ornamentation are impressive throughout, as is the purity and beauty of her voice. Il Pomo d’Oro, led from the harpsichord by Maxim Emelyanychev, provides supple and stirring accompaniment.

DiDonato is also using the album project as a springboard for conversations about ways to bring peace to our strife-torn world, with the hashtag #TalkPeace as its convergence point.

In addition to reviews of the album, making the rounds on the internet this week are two stirring stories. One, via NPR Music’s Deceptive Cadence, presents DiDonato in interview titled “On Why Art Matters in the Midst of Chaos” (listen via the embed below). The other is her series of inspiring masterclasses at Carnegie Hall (video via Medici.TV below). A consummate artist, skillful teacher, and a peace advocate? What’s not to like?

https://www.npr.org/player/embed/500515350/500728987

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