On Tuesday, December 8, 2015 the first Green Umbrella Series concert of the season featured three Los Angeles-based string quartets: Calder Quartet, Formalist Quartet and the Lyris Quartet. Disney Hall was mostly full for the event, evidence of the strong following contemporary music has attracted by this concert series over the years. The music for the evening spanned works by John Cage and Christian Wolff to two world premieres and LA Philharmonic commissions from John Luther Adams and Tristan Perich.
First up was the Formalist Quartet performing Music for Marcel Duchamp by John Cage. Originally written for prepared piano, this piece was arranged for string quartet by Eric Byers, cellist for the Calder Quartet. This opened with a flurry of pizzicato figures that nicely approximated the expected percussive jaggedness of a prepared piano. These irregular rhythms were soon supported with a soft, soothing undertone from the cello. This made for a good contrast and the piece took on an exotic, almost Asian feel. Some sharp rapping on the wooden parts of the string instruments along with some new pizzicato reinstated the rhythmic to prominence and also added a bit of mystery to the mix. Rhythmic textures alternated with smoother sections as the piece progressed. As played by a string quartet this new Byers arrangement of Music for Marcel Duchamp came across as finely drawn and delicate, with a quiet, contained feel – especially in the comparatively vast Disney Hall performance space.
The Calder Quartet followed with Edges by Christian Wolff, arranged by Chiara Giovando. This began with a high, thin sound in the violins followed by a solid pizzicato thump in the cello. More high, stressed sounds followed, adding a palpable tension. At times there were very soft – almost inaudible – sounds that focused the listener’s attention. At other times there were fast and furious runs full of thunder and drama, and at still other times slower, more harmonious stretches. Edges was notated by Wolff using a graphical score and this was skillfully interpreted for strings by Chiara Giovando. This outcome was successful in that there were a wide variety of individual textures and dynamics present that, combined with the precise playing of the Calder Quartet, made for a highly detailed and intricate experience taking the listener beyond the normal boundaries of string quartet music.
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Composer William Mayer turned ninety this past November. On Friday December 11th, Ardea Arts has supplied him with a slightly belated birthday gift, and audiences with a treat, by presenting his one-act opera One Christmas Long Ago (1962).
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On Saturday, November 21, 2015 People Inside Electronics presented the contemporary vocal chamber ensemble Accordant Commons in a concert at the Neighborhood Church in Pasadena. A Saturday night crowd of new music enthusiasts gathered to hear an evening of vocal music combined with electronics.
The first piece presented, “those remaining words in nuance”, by Chen-Hui Jen featured soprano Stephanie Aston who began with a soft sustained pitch, accompanied by electronics fed through speakers on the stage. More pure tones and vocalizing followed and this gave a vivid sense of multiple voices – Ms. Aston sang along in harmony and this was quite effective. “those remaining words in nuance” is based on two fragments of text in two different languages -Mandarin Chinese and English – with deconstructed phenomes from each used as vocalise materials The electronic sounds were derived from voice and synthesis of voices.
As the piece progressed, the electronics produced cooler, remote-sounding tones and the blending with the solo voice added a familiar human element. That the overall feeling was one of a curious strangeness, but free of anxiety. Ms. Aston skillfully found her pitches quite accurately and sang with careful attention to the often wide dynamic changes. Towards the end the electronics emitted a series of chirps and whistles that could have been whales calling and this produced a warm, natural feeling that drifted off to a whisper at the finish. The sense of ensemble in “those remaining words in nuance” is most impressive and provides a new benchmark in the artful combination of electronics and the human voice.
Improvisation was next and this featured the three voices of Accordant Commons: Stephanie Aston, Odeya Nini and Argenta Walther. This began with whistling and breathy sounds and was answered with low moans from the electronics. As the piece progressed soft, sustained tones from the singers mixed with tweets and calls in the electronics, building in volume. A series of falling pitches followed that morphed into thunder and a sharp shriek into the microphone faded into a low roar. There was an exotic and isolated feel to this, as if we were hearing the sounds of some foreign fauna in a remote canyon or valley. By the finish, more breathy sounds and low sighs drifted off into a thunderous background while squeaks and squeals added to the echoing ambiance. Improvisation takes us on a journey to a unique, primal landscape crafted from voice and sound.
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At 7 PM on Monday, December 7, the Armory will debut a newly commissioned performance series that combines the talents of pianist Igor Levit and artist Marina Abramović. In Goldberg, which runs from December 7-19, Levit and Abramović collaborate to transform J.S. Bach’s legendary Goldberg Variations in a presentation that challenges traditional notions of audience engagement, intimacy, and transcendence.
As the Armory’s publicist describes, “Igor Levit will perform all 30 of the variations on a platform as it slowly moves into the center of the audience and rotates throughout the piece’s progression. Employing elements of the Abramović Method, the work invites a deep and personal engagement with the music.”
Concertgoers will separated from their cellphones and sit in silence for 30 minutes prior to the beginning of the performance, using sound-cancelling headphones to further disengage from city life and facilitate a profound connection to Levit’s performance.
The performances will take place in Wade Thompson Drill hall. More information regarding dates, times, and tickets for the seven performances of Goldberg is available here, on the Armory’s website.
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It’s that time of the year again, my composer friends! …When Marvin Rosen, WPRB’s champion of contemporary composers (far and wide, high and low, in or out, he likes you all!) is preparing his yearly “VIVA 21st CENTURY” 25-hour radio marathon, playing works from — well, you! Send along you recording by the December 5th deadline and you too can be a part of the big show. Full details below:
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 is “24 HOUR PLUS – VIVA 21st CENTURY” will start Saturday, December 26th at 2:00pm (EST time) and will go nonstop, live, until 3:00pm on Sunday, December 27th, 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 2006- 2015.
Only recordings on CD (no MP3’s, no downloads) will be accepted and must be received by Marvin no later than Saturday, December 5, 2015. 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: firstname.lastname@example.org
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Last month, I heard the second installment of Anthony De Mare’s Liasons: Re-Imagining Sondheim from the Piano project at Sheen Center. De Mare has commissioned dozens of composers to fashion arrangements of Sondheim songs. The results are as fascinating as they are eclectic.
On Thursday at Symphony Space, De Mare completes his live presentations of the commissions with a third concert. Among the featured composers are Steve Reich, David Rakowski, Paul Moravec, and Duncan Sheik. The concluding arrangement is by De Mare himself: “Sunday in the Park – Passages.” Sondheim will be on hand and the ECM recording, a 3-CD set, will receive its official release.
There are some tickets left to the performance (buy here).
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On October 30, 2015 WasteLAnd presented Study for Eurydice, a concert at Art Share LA in downtown Los Angeles. A nice Friday night crowd filled the restored industrial performance space for an evening of new music.
The first piece, Relay/Replay by Yiheng Yvonne Wu, featured Rachel Beetz on flute. A computer played recorded flute sounds through speakers mounted above the performance area. Relay/Replay began with a brief high-pitched tone from one of the speakers, answered in kind by the flute. A short silence followed and the sequence repeated. A pattern of call and answer continued and the electronic part gradually changed as the replies by the became more varied as if a conversation were occurring in a different language. A low trill from the flute was mimicked by similar sounds from the speaker, like birds calling back and forth. Towards the end of the piece there were sounds from both speakers that ultimately resolved into a low, pure tone. This was actually a recording of the flute – greatly slowed down – that added a mysterious feel. The flute passages that followed felt more organic and brighter by contrast. The low tone increased in volume, becoming dominant and more assertive as the piece ended. Relay/Replay is an intriguing combination of flute playing and electronic sounds derived from the flute, artfully uncovering both similarities and differences.
Susurrus by Panayiotis Kokoras for violin, cello and piano followed, beginning with a series of sharp rapping sounds from the players on their respective instruments. The result was a sort of unsettled clatter that was soon joined by the amplified strumming of strings inside the piano. There was an active and tense feel to all of this – there were no musical tones heard initially, but rather the rhythmic rattle of various extended percussive techniques. Eventually a sustained cello note was heard that slowly decreased in pitch and some piano strings were plucked to form identifiable notes. At one point the musicians voiced the sounds of rushing air using their breath and this added a remote, windswept feeling to the proceedings. Apart from a few notes heard now and then, there was no conventional melody, beat or regular rhythm and this gave an edgy, feral feel to the ensemble. The coordination between the players here was remarkable given how far this piece stands outside the bounds of conventional music. Susurrus is a journey that takes the listener past the limits of ordinary musical practice and into to new levels of expression.
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On Thursday, October 22nd at the new downtown New York venue the Sheen Center, an acoustically generous and attractive performance space, we heard the second of three concerts presenting selections from Anthony de Mare’s ambitious commissioning project Liasons: Reimaginings of Sondheim from the Piano. De Mare has recorded the 36 commissioned pieces for ECM Records, which has released a generously annotated 3 CD set of them.
De Mare is an ideal advocate for this music. His touch at the piano is at turns muscular, dexterous, and tender, well able to encompass the many demeanors the commissioned composers adopted when interpreting Sondheim’s songs. De Mare’s experience as a teacher (at Manhattan School of Music) was on display as well. Abetted by brief video interviews with a few of the featured composers, he gave short explanations of each piece from the piano. For the students and devotees of musical theatre on hand, these explications were no doubt an invaluable introduction to a number of composers and an integral part of the experience. For those of us familiar with the classical composers commissioned for the project, there were a number of anecdotes and musical details that revealed intriguing pieces of information about the genesis of the programmed pieces and their creators’ interest in particular aspects of Sondheim’s work.
With such an embarrassment of riches on display, it is difficult to pick favorites. For me, Ricky Ian Gordon’s take on “Every Day A Little Death,” from A Little Night Music, was truly lovely, and it was given a nearly impossibly gentle rendition by De Mare. Nils Vigeland’s imaginative version of material from Merrily We Roll Along was a standout: compositionally well structured, balancing thematic transformation with retaining a sense of the title tune’s “hummable” character. Phil Kline took material from a lesser-known Sondheim musical, Pacific Overtures, and made “Someone in a Tree” an especially memorable offering. Nico Muhly’s “Color and Light,” from Sunday in the Park with George, gave De Mare a motoric, post-minimal workout. In “Birds from Victorian England,” based on material from Sweeney Todd, Jason Robert Brown had the pianist playing with three overdubbed instruments, while Rodney Sharman’s “Notes of Beautiful” from Sunday, judiciously included playing inside the piano.
De Mare plays the final concert of the Sondheim triptych at Symphony Space on November 19th. Based on his performance at the Sheen Center, it is a “can’t miss” event.
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This past Saturday night, Kobacker Hall, on the campus of Bowling Green State University, came alive with the sounds of Jennifer Higdon’s compositions for wind ensemble and orchestra. The culminating performance of Bowling Green’s annual New Music festival, Saturday’s concert marked a rare opportunity to hear a program of large ensemble music focused on the works of a single living composer, and both Higdon, and her compositional craft, were aglow in the spotlight. As the featured guest composer of this, the 36th annual new music festival at BGSU, Higdon shared herself, and her music, with students are audiences in numerous performances, per-concert talks, and lectures. In a conversation during intermission, Kurt Doles, who directed the festival from his post as head of the MidAmerican Center for Contemporary Music, praised Higdon for her warmth and generosity as a guest, noting, “she has been a wonderful presence all week long.”
Me (left), Jennifer Higdon (center), and soprano Hillary LaBonte (right), who performed earlier in the festival, after Saturday’s large ensemble concert (photo credit: Carolina Heredia).
The concert’s program featured three works of Higdon’s, the flashy wind ensemble work Fanfare Ritmico, the virtuosic Oboe Concerto, and the absolutely masterful Violin Concerto, which earned Higdon the Pulitzer Prize five years ago. Each piece was terrific, thanks to the talents and hard work of Bowling Green’s students, faculty soloists Nermis Mieses (oboe) and Caroline Chin (violin), as well as wind ensemble director Bruce Moss and orchestra director Emily Freeman Brown. Chin, a new addition to BGSU’s school of music, also performed Carolina Heredia’s Dujarte Caer, for violin and and electronics, earlier in the afternoon, and could not have been more impressed with the quality of the festival’s other concerts. “All the performances were excellent,” Chin shared with me after the concert, in the midst of a stream of well-deserved congratulations from other audience members and players.
As much as Chin was the star of the evening (after all, she delivered a thrilling and dominant performance), her tour-de-force was made possible by the superlative quality of Higdon’s Violin Concerto. For me, the work hits every mark of a great concerto. The first movement is stunning and almost coy with the way in introduces the listener to Higdon’s design for the solo violin part, a destiny that unfolds in the most brilliant way in the successive movements. Empowered by the composer’s genius, Higdon’s Violin Concerto blends vibrant imagination, along the lines Jacob Druckman’s Viola Concerto, with stately grandeur, in the manner of Barber’s Violin Concerto, into a work that seems both modern and timeless. At a time when so many high-profile American composers are writing violin concerti, or works that pit violin soloists against a large ensemble, Higdon’s Violin Concerto represents, in my estimation, the undoubted gold standard (Kristin Kuster’s Two Jades, for violin and symphony band, is also extraordinary, though smaller in scale).
When Jennifer Higdon ascended to the stage to receive her standing ovation, and congratulate violinist Caroline Chin and conductor Emily Freeman Brown on a truly spectacular performance, it became clear to me that I had witnessed a very special event. Higdon’s music and the splendor of Bowling Green’s New Music Festival are both treasures in the landscape of American contemporary music. The University, Kurt Doles, and all the students and faculty members who made this year’s festival possible, all deserve to be heralded for their personal and institutional commitment to this important tradition.
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Dean Rosenthal is an east-coast composer, lecturer, and current co-editor of the wonderful online The Open Space contemporary music magazine. About a year ago, his friend Richard Skidmore suggested that Dean take his 2012 piece Stones/Water/Time/Breath and make a “pocketcard” from it. As the piece is verbal notation and so open to performers of all stripes, it seemed a nice thing to share with others as a kind of hand out. The card shows interpreters how to perform the piece at the water with stones, in a group or on their own.
Dean applied for a local grant and with the help of the Martha’s Vineyard Cultural Council created the cards and a site to go with them, and is encouraging anyone who performs it to document, register and share that performance at the site. With enough participation, it could be a lovely repository of a varied but collective meditation. So check out the site, download the score, and make what you will. Now you can be a stoner down by the lake, stream, river or ocean, and still do something productive!
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