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

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

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

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

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

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Hsiao-Lan Wang

(Composer Hsiao-Lan Wang)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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There is an audience for new opera out here on the prairie. Fargo-Moorhead Opera staged two world premieres this past weekend: Buried Alive (music by Jeff Myers, libretto by Quincy Long) and Embedded (music by Patrick Soluri, libretto by Deborah Brevoort). Both are part of American Lyric Theater’s Poe Project, in which creative teams were commissioned to write operas inspired by the works of Edgar Allan Poe. The operas staged in Fargo used a group of six singers and a chamber orchestra.

Buried Alive is a paraphrase of Poe’s short story “The Premature Burial,” with modern twists. Baritone Christopher Burchett brought a powerful voice to the role of Victor, an artist haunted by nightmares that he would be mistaken for dead and buried alive. Soprano Sara Gartland was his wife Elena, deeply concerned about her husband’s descent into madness. Musically, Myers’s score was deeply affective, with special mention for the trio in the embalming scene (a darkly humorous gigue sung with great panache by mezzo-soprano Jennifer Feinstein, tenor Jonathan Blalock, and soprano Caroline Worra) and Victor’s aria “O death.” On stage but silent for most of the proceedings was bass Nathan Stark’s gravedigger, who provided the narrative frame. (The general manager apologized on behalf of Stark just before the opera, saying he was under the weather. You would not have known this from the performance, however.) Long’s libretto captures the feel of Poe’s original, and in some cases uses words drawn explicitly from the story.

Embedded
takes “The Cask of Amontillado” and spins it into a satirical look at TV news, fame, and aging. Caroline Worra showed considerable skill as news anchor Sylvia Malow, the “most trusted name in news.” Jonathan Blalock brought humor, clarity, and a huge makeup case as Sylvia’s assistant Maurice. Sara Gartland was the up-and-coming “reporter on the go,” Victoria Reilly, whom Sylvia (rightly so, as it turns out) views as a threat. Christopher Burchett was the producer for the newscast (and an implied paramour for Victoria, helping her move up the ranks to dethrone Sylvia). Jennifer Feinstein did double duty as the camerawoman for the newscast and as the voice of the GPS (without giving away too much of the plot, a GPS is involved). Rounding out the cast, Nathan Stark played the Italian terrorist Montresor (a nod to the narrator/protagonist of Poe’s short story). This was grand opera in miniature, with Soluri’s inventive score flowing seamlessly to and from cheesy cable-news promo music, a witty and inventive tango involving Sylvia, Montresor, and cell phones, and a soaring aria. This is Sylvia’s story; indeed, the opera is almost a monodrama for soprano, and it was done with amazing skill by Worra, who should be a household name in the world of opera. Librettist Breevort inverts Poe’s original plot – without giving away too much, the alleged victim achieves a triumph of sorts over the killer and other demons.

Both works showed skillful direction both on stage (Lawrence Edelson directed Buried Alive, Sam Helfrich directed Embedded) and in the pit (where maestro Kostis Protopapas led a chamber orchestra of eighteen players). The staging, by Zane Pihlstrom, was contemporary without being overwrought or gimmicky. A group of suspended screens and one larger, more rectangular surface were used to great effect in both works, with Victor’s madness shown in abstract designs and close-ups of a human eye in the first work, and wonderfully meta newscasts in the second (I wish CNN would run a story on a fight for the remains of Edgar Allan Poe!).

As many major American opera companies are leaving the scene, perhaps it will be up to these smaller companies (F-M Opera’s annual budget is less than $500,000) to maintain the long tradition of commissioning new operatic works. Audience response was overwhelmingly positive, and the Reineke Festival Concert Hall on the campus of North Dakota State University was filled to near-capacity. There was nothing parochial or low-rent about this production. There is an audience for new opera, and perhaps it is in unexpected places like Fargo.

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reiner10On Saturday, March 22, 2014 Dutch pianist Reinier van Houdt appeared at the Wulf in downtown Los Angeles for a night of experimental music that was intended, according to the concert notes, “… to question the act of composing.” A capacity crowd of the knowledgeable gathered to hear a series of eight piano works by European and local contemporary composers that lasted over 2 hours. This was the second local appearance in as many days for van Houdt – who had performed just the night before at the RedCat venue in Disney Hall.

The concert opened with Radio + Piano (2013) by Los Angeles composer Casey Anderson. For this piece the piano was fitted with an electronic pickup that allowed Reinier to use the keyboard and pedals to interact with the sounds that were generated continuously by a laptop. A stream of static from the computer formed the background, very much like that once heard coming out of older radios. Against this came a series of low humming sounds that increased, and then decreased in volume, with the period between these entrances varying from a seconds to maybe half a minute. This produced a searching feel, like trying to tune in an elusive radio station late at night. As the humming intensified it became almost like the pedal tones of a great pipe organ and you could feel the force of the sound in your chest. Radio + Piano was effective at blurring the line between technology and the piano. The pianist had input into the process – but not in the expected way – and by this contrast succeeded in asking a question about what constitutes an act of composing.

Nichts, das ist (2006) by Mark So was next and this began with a solemn, soft chord followed by a long pause. This pattern of quiet, solitary chords and extended periods of silence continued, like a series of contemplative thoughts barely stirring through the mind. Reinier van Houdt’s intense concentration and gentle touch here were especially noteworthy and everyone in the room remained completely engaged, as if hearing a murmured prayer. Creating the pianissimo chords was something of a worry to van Houdt – he explained later that each piano has a unique touch, especially in the very soft dynamics, and an unfamiliar instrument was a challenge. But Nichts, das ist invites the audience to listen closely and the playing in this performance was masterful.

A series of similarly quiet pieces followed. These spanned a spectrum from simple and still to active and agitated. Meditation for Solo Piano (2002) by Michael Winter, however, has a somewhat more ringing sound – like bell chimes – that offered a more dramatic feel, but a definite sense of the subtle seemed to be common thread to this concert. The audience was completely engaged throughout, van Houdt applied a studied concentration to all and displayed an attention to the dynamic details that was impressive.

After an extended intermission, Natura Morta by Walter Marchetti closed the concert. For this piece a large tray of very ripe fruit was placed on top of the piano.  This gave a faint, but unmistakable flavor to the air that increased as the piece went along and provided an additional sensory dimension to the music. Natura Morta is deliberate music consisting of a simple, steady melody line of single quarter notes. The dynamic never varies from mezzo piano. This line is repeated with the same notes but not in exactly the same sequence, and this gives the piece an organic, plant-like feel. It is as if you are looking at a vine – similar form and material, but never identical in every segment.

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The linear melodies seem to meander and hang in the air, like the fragrance of the ripened fruit One of the scores available for this piece specify three kinds of fermata, the duration of each one being determined by the length of the preceding phrase – the longer the phrase the more time given for the harmonics to die out. In this way the decay of the fruit still life is reinforced by the music as well as the scent in the air. Natura Morta runs on for an hour and the feeling of the phrases is ambivalent: not quite melancholy, not quite aimless – but there is a sense of a natural organic process at work. A very high level of concentration is required to play this and Mr. van Houdt never wavered despite the length of the piece and the late hour. It was an impressive ending to a demanding program.
 

The pieces played in concert order were:

Radio + Piano (2013) by Casey Anderson
Nichts, das ist (2006) by Mark So
Melody:Continuum (2013) by Andrew Young
Meditation for Solo Piano (2002) by Michael Winter
Klavierstück (1995) by Jürg Frey
Preludes (2013) by Leo Svirsky
Y todos cuantos vagan (2013) by Antoine Beuger.
Natura Morta by Walter Marchetti

 

 

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On Friday, March 21, Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) presented “a cappella NEXT,” in which three choirs performed a fascinating line-up of contemporary choral music in Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall. Included were four world premieres, and many of the composers represented on the program were present in the sold-out audience, making for an evening vibrant with the vitality of new music.

First up was the University of California, Berkeley Chamber Chorus under the direction of Marika Kuzma. They opened with the short fanfare “Let everything that hath breath praise the Lord” from Requiem: a Dramatic Dialogue, composed by Randall Thompson on a commission from UC Berkeley in 1958. Hardly new by the standards of the rest of the evening’s fare, it was a reminder of the groundwork on which contemporary artists now stand and served as an entry point to a selection of more recent music by composers connected with UC Berkeley. The Chamber Chorus struggled with intonation and blend, possibly due to the acoustic of Weill Recital Hall, a space better suited to instrumental chamber music than vocal but one that produces an immediacy of sound that made for an intimate sonic experience. The sopranos sang with a pure—if somewhat young—timbre, and the altos shone in the excerpts from Jorge Liderman’s Sephardisms II with their clear, well-nourished tone. The largest of the three choirs performing, the UC Berkeley Chamber Chorus lacked some of the individual vocal strength of the other two ensembles but made full use of their size in the aleatoric passages of Robin Estrada’s “Awit sa Panginoon,” a fascinating blend of Filipino folk style singing with more modern tonal clusters, aleatory, and extended vocal techniques. The Chamber Chorus displayed some of their best singing in their final selection, “Vesna” from Pory Roku by Ukranian composer Lesia Dychko. Coming out of the bleakness of Richard Felciano’s “Winter” from The Seasons, the exuberance of Dychko’s piece was welcome contrast. While the performance felt at times a bit restrained, the Chamber Chorus delivered well-balanced singing, overcoming their previous struggles to find a cohesive ensemble sound.

Next to take the stage was NOTUS: Indiana University Contemporary Vocal Ensemble. Under Dominick DiOrio’s leadership, NOTUS stood out for the polish and dynamism of their performance. Though fewer in number than the UC Berkeley Chamber Chorus, NOTUS’s singers filled the hall with a more vibrant tone and achieved more secure intonation than either of the other choruses. Their set opened with two world premieres. The first, by Zachary Wadsworth, was a highly evocative setting of Wallace Stephens’s “To the Roaring Wind.” Beginning with voiceless breath evolving into tone, the piece unfolds with the text seemingly struggling to emerge from less organized sound—not unlike the idea behind Luciano Berio’s Visage, but a less tortured soundscape and one easier to follow. The piece has a directness—almost inevitability—to its linear development, but it is well paced in a way that makes its destination immensely rewarding. DiOrio and NOTUS did an excellent job of communicating the varied sounds, abortive sonorities, and moments of textual clarity, delivering an overall sophisticated performance of this fresh work.

The second premiere was of Aaron Travers’s setting of Walt Whitman’s “Virginia: The West.” Seizing upon the rapid shifts inherent in the text, Travers uses different styles spanning nearly a millennium to highlight each of the unique characters. The changes are as fast and thick as those in the poem, making for an eclectic montage bringing life to Whitman’s text.

Next on NOTUS’s program was the “Passacaglia” from Caroline Shaw’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Partita for 8 voices. Recently featured at the Grammy Awards in a performance by Roomful of Teeth, “Passacaglia” is an enthralling piece that makes use of a wide array of vocal techniques, often shifting abruptly from one style to another. As such, it presents singers with considerable vocal demands, which NOTUS negotiated skillfully. More challenges were to be had in Dominick DiOrio’s “O Virtus Sapientiae.” Described by the composer as “a bold reimagining of Hildegard’s chant,” it puts three soprano soloists to the test with fleet melismata, rhythmic displacement, and an expansive range. The soloists—Sandra Periord, Elise Marie Kennedy, and Martha Eason—imparted a convincing performance. Robert Vuichard’s “Zephyr Rounds” made for a rousing close to the set. The piece’s contrapuntal interest makes it much more than a simple crowd pleaser, but it was sheer fun, eliciting a well-deserved ovation for this exciting ensemble.

Last to perform were the Kansas-based Ad Astra Singers under the direction of John Paul Johnson. As the smallest ensemble of the evening, the Ad Astra Singers seemed to feel most keenly the lack of support from the hall’s acoustic. With voices that sounded unaccustomed to singing senza vibrato, they struggled through the premiere of Aleksander Sternfeld-Dunn’s Four Haikus. Sternfeld-Dunn sets the scant text pictorially, at times with broader brush strokes, at others with specific gestures like layered ostinati depicting the jumping of frogs in the second movement. Rather than four distinct paintings, each haiku becomes its own series of scenes.

Kansas City-based composer Jean Belmont Ford penned two songs on the program. Her music is characterized by a lush harmonic palette that is relatively accessible though not fettered by tonality. The first of her pieces performed here, “Draba” from Sand County, is a beautiful and pleasingly uncomplicated setting of a text about an overlooked desert flower. “Love Song”—the evening’s fourth and final premiere—was full of Ford’s typical harmonic twists and turns, evoking a variety of colors. The Ad Astra Singers negotiated most of these twists well, giving the piece a fair hearing. Wayne Oquin’s spacious “O Magnum Mysterium” wanted for a more stable sostenuto sound than the seventeen voices of the Ad Astra Singers could deliver in the acoustic of Weill, and some of its more interesting harmonies and soaring lines fell short in this performance. After the reverent “O Magnum Mysterium,” the rhythmic drive of Jósef Świder’s “Cantus Gloriosus” made for a sharp contrast to close the program. Though continuing to battle problems with ensemble and intonation, the Ad Astra Singers nevertheless delivered a spirited performance to wrap up an ambitious program for the small chorus.

In sum, the concert made for a delightful sampling of the vast array of new music available to adventurous choral ensembles. All three directors provided the audience with variety that kept the program consistently intriguing. They and their singers are to be commended for this undertaking, and many thanks are due to DCINY for putting on such a concert.

James Knox Sutterfield is a choral conductor and writer, with degrees from Furman University and the Yale School of Music.

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Now that we’re well (and sadly?) past the era of composers’ cutting contests, where the likes of Beethoven would take a theme from a pretender and improvise a dazzling set of variations (the origin of the finale of the “Eroica” symphony), it is exceedingly, impossibly rare to witness what I heard in December.

Early in the month, the American Modern Ensemble played a concert at the DiMenna Center for Classical Music. The program was based around music from Robert Paterson’s terrific recent recording, Winter Songs, made with the same ensemble. The concert was bookended by Paterson’s CAPTCHA and the title sequence, about half the contents on the CD (there’s also the song-sets Eating Variations, Thursday and Batter’s Box, making for one of the best releases of 2013).

One of Paterson’s Winter Songs is “The Snow Man,” from Wallace Stevens’ poem. Preceding that set was another song of the same poem, “The Snow Man,” by composer Steven Burke. Two songs from two different composers using the same text, finding entirely different meanings and producing dramatically varied effects. In a strong and enjoyable concert overall, this was a special moment and had a powerful effect.

Paterson is an excellent, old-school style craftsman. He produces limpid melodies and harmonies, his small ensemble orchestrations are colorful and clear, and he values lyricism and beauty. His Winter Songs are just that: despite the overall feeling of shattered loneliness in the poems he collected from Stevens, A.R. Ammons, Richard Wilbur, Robert Creeley, and Billy Collins, the overall feeling is of interpretation at a distance, the composer and listener outside the experience of the poems themselves, safe from the emotional dangers.

Paterson’s “Snow Man” is only shrouded in ice, the warmth from the fire reaches out to touch the music. The singer, bass-baritone David Neal, and the music, describe the emptiness “Of the January sun; and not to think/Of any misery in the sound of the wind,” like a docent describing a painting. Burke’s setting, which came out of a period of personal turmoil for him, is deep inside the music and the poem. His singer was a tenor, John Matthew Myers, and the accompaniment is only violin and piano, not Paterson’s chamber ensemble. The voice of the music is the voice of the snowman, the feeling is of experience, not observation. Burke’s is the sound of a man lying in bed, staring at the ceiling, wondering what the hell he’s going to do.

In contrast to all this is CAPTCHA, the nonsense text used on the web to verify that the user on the other end of the interface is a human being. Paterson collected a decent amount of these … words, such as they are, and made them into songs. They are utterly brilliant, and I’m not sure the composer recognizes their strength. Expertly sung by the great young baritone Jesse Blumberg, they are songs that poke fun at the entire art song tradition and yet fulfill the clichés of the style with skill and wit. That a man can sing “Voix gustroor/voice niionss/MUSICAL alengus/harmonic nstryfl” with a full, beautiful voice and an arched eyebrow, and convey meaning, testifies to how great this set is. By saying nothing, they mean everything. It needs to be a standard choice in the repertoire.

The concert was completed with songs from Tania Léon, Turning, and Russell Platt, “Two Whitman Panels” from his A Walt Whitman Cantata, that varied based on the quality of the poetry. Each composer writes fine vocal music, but Léon’s poetry couldn’t completely fill out her composing. The series of texts, sung by soprano Nancy Allen Lundy, from Sarah White, Lucille Clifton, Janice Mirikitani and Judith Ortiz Carter, hint at both social isolation and rituals that extend from ancient beliefs to modern materialism, but their cores are minimal, and the music tries, not completely successfully, to press them in to a maximal expression. Neither side is wrong, but they mostly mis-fit.

Platt’s two songs, with Jesse Blumberg again, contrast with each other. His settings of the poetry are superb: the first, “When I Heard at the Close of the Day,” is a genteel love song, one man to another, while “I Saw in Louisiana A Live-Oak Growing,” has the pleasing roughness and muscularity that is so special in the poet. Platt captures each quality well.

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gnar20On Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at the Neighborhood Church in Pasadena, the group Gnarwhallaby presented a concert of music by Klaus Lang, Andrzej Dobrowolski, Edison Denison and three contemporary Los Angeles area composers. Gnarwhallaby consists of Brian Walsh on clarinet, Matt Barbier on trombone, Derek Stein playing cello and Richard Valitutto at the piano. The sanctuary of the church was mostly full and provided a comfortable venue that encouraged concentration by virtue of being completely dark, save for the lights on the music stands of the performers.

The first piece was Die Kartoffeln der Königin (1999) by Klaus Lang. The title translates to roughly “The Potatoes of the Queen” and this began with an extended silence by the performers before the first low, deliberate note was sounded in the cello. This was answered in an equally low register by the piano and this call and answer pattern was joined, at length, by the clarinet and trombone With the entire room enveloped in a solid darkness it was easy to imagine being underground. As the piano continued to sound deep notes, the other instruments generated a soft cloud of light buzzing that added to the sense of being beneath the surface of the earth. This is quiet music, but it was effective in working on the imagination so that as the soft buzzing subsided at the finish, one could fairly claim the experience of having been buried deep in garden soil.

The second piece was Krabogapa (1970) by Andrzej Dobrowolski and this began on a sharp note from the clarinet that was soon joined by the trombone.  A series of loud trills, followed by silences, built a sense of mystery and tension that was relieved at intervals by loud crashing chords in the piano and frenzied arpeggios in the instruments. This alternated with soft repeating figures, the quiet strumming of the piano wires, a light tapping or knocking sound that created a sense of slowly feeling one’s way in the dark while building up an expectation of the next blow. The loud screams and frenetic runs by the instruments were all tightly orchestrated and carefully played so that the contrast with the quiet sections was especially evident. Although the piece ended quietly, the roller-coaster effect of loud and soft sections was memorable.

d – s – c – h (1969) by Edison Denisov followed, and this had a more angular sound starting with the sharp opening note from the piano. With alternating sections of stringendo and legato, signaled by the starting piano note, the overall feel is tight and excited. This was music with sharp edges – even in the slower sections – but precisely played.  Lion and Wolf (2013), a piece written for Gnarwhallaby by Andrew McIntosh was next and this opened with a more organic sound from the sliding trombone. A nice interplay between deep piano chords and the instruments provided a steady forward movement. This gave way to syncopation and a stretch of exotic rhythm that was complimented by high tones in the clarinet. When a slower tempo eventuated, the striking harmonies evoked a somewhat melancholy feeling, but Lion and Wolf was perfectly programmed to follow the Denisov piece.

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Susurrous (2011-12) was next, another piece written for Gnarwhallaby, this time by trombonist Matt Barbier. Although this piece began with sharp sounds from the clarinet and cello, it soon settled into a quiet, deliberate pace that allowed some delicate and lovely harmonies to evolve. The softness and subtlety was almost Feldmanesque and the overall effect was like a gentle breeze blowing through a structure, whispering to the listener in quiet tones.

This set the stage for the final work of the evening, the West Coast premiere of Lullaby 4 (2013) by Nicholas Deyoe.   Lullaby 4 begins innocently enough, with a quiet piano line creating a mood that is a combination of ominous and mysterious. But just as you are settling in, an explosive chord shatters the quiet – like hitting your head while crossing a darkened room. The piano returns with a soft melody, but there are deep growling sounds in the cello and trombone, like some beast lurking below. A series of rugged sounds from the cello deepens the sense of mystery and adds to the tension. Again a crashing piano lick shatters the moment before returning again to quiet.  At one point Matt Barbier could be seen applying the edge of an upturned wine glass to the rim of his horn, creating a sinister sound of unseen movement. These moments of increasing tension were the perfect prelude to the thunderous chords that flashed by at unexpected intervals. The style of this piece would seem to owe something to Dobrowolski’s Krabogapa, with alternating periods of quiet and sharp, short moments of chaos. Listening to Lullaby 4 is like walking down an unfamiliar alley in the dark and being attacked by an unseen assailant – definitely music to keep you on the edge of your seat and an emotionally draining experience.

This music presented in this concert spans over forty years and included three recent pieces from Los Angeles-based composers. This performance of what, by any measure, are technically difficult works was efficiently executed by Gnarwhallaby and further concerts by this group should be sought out by all those interested in state-of-the-art contemporary music here in Southern California.

 

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Active Music Festival posterThe San Francisco Bay Area has long been a friendly and nurturing environment for musicians “without a home” – operating between and outside of genres.  For those shut out of the concert halls and jazz clubs, it’s been a haven where non-traditional musicians build non-traditional alliances, and run non-traditional music venues and concert series where they can take risks and create uncompromising work.  Over decades of community-building and creative ferment, this lack of formal boundaries has defined the sound and feel of the scene, interweaving free improvisation with elements of noise, minimalism, rock, jazz, drone, chamber music, electronica, and other more slippery sounds which resist categorization.

The scene’s relentless DIY approach has led to the establishment of numerous artist-run concert series and festivals, of which the Outsound New Music Summit, the Tom’s Place house concert series in Berkeley, the SIMM Series at the Musicians’ Union Hall, the Wednesday and Sunday series at the Berkeley Arts Festival Space, and the San Francisco Electronic Music Festival are just a few examples.  This month they’ll be joined by a brand-new one, the Active Music Festival, covering February 20-22 in downtown Oakland. Read the rest of this entry »

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Composer Vivian Fung

Composer Vivian Fung

This week marks the premiere of a new concerto by Vivian Fung for the harp. Starting in Alabama this Thursday and later this spring in Germany, NY, DC, and in the fall, California, harpist Bridget Kibbey unveils the piece for harp, percussion, and strings. “It was tricky,” says Fung. “When we were deciding on the instrumentation, we originally thought it was going to be for the entire orchestra – but the harp is like a guitar, or other instruments that have balance issues, if you are not careful [with the orchestration]. So even with the percussion, I have to choose instruments that could compliment that sound very well, but not drown out the sound of the harp.”
Fung also prepares the harp in one section of the work, placing card stock in the strings. “It kind of mutes the strings (in the low register) so it almost turns it into a percussive sound, almost a bass guitar sort of sound – you know, the thump.”

Listen to an interview with Vivian Fung about this new concerto here as an mp3 file including how the commission came about, whether to name or subtitle the new work, inspirations, and writing for harp.

The New York premiere takes place Sunday and Monday, April 6 & 7 at le poisson rouge.

Bonus - more behind the scenes for composers – shop talk with Vivian and John Clare: mp3 file Hear the answers to how Ms. Fung started as a composer, dream genres, and the importance of recordings/publication for a composer.

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