Irving Fine was a Boston boy through and through. Born on December 3, 1914, in East Boston to Latvian Jewish immigrants, he grew up in Winthrop and went to Harvard. The Boston in which Fine grew up was, through the influence of the Boston Symphony and its conductors Pierre Monteux and Serge Koussevitzy and the Harvard Music Department and its composition professors Edward Burlingame Hill and Walter Piston, among other factors, a world center of new music (or at least francophile new music) activity, and the work of Harvard’s choral conductor Archibald T. Davison at Harvard also made it the center and exemplar of serious music education and choral training in the United States. Possibly the high water mark of this importance was when, during the time Fine was a graduate students at Harvard, Igor Stravinsky came to Boston as Harvard’s Charles Elliot Norton Professor of Poetics; Fine was designated as a minder for Stravinsky, and was also assigned to help with the initial translation of his lectures, which became The Poetics of Music. In 1940 Fine joined the faculty of the Harvard Music Department as a teaching fellow; in 1942 he was appointed an instructor, a position he held until 1948.
From the beginning Fine’s association with Harvard was intertwined with Anti-Semitism. He was one of two students at Winthrop High School to apply to Harvard; the grades of the other student, who was not Jewish, were less good, but he and not Fine was accepted. (All of the Ivy-League colleges had quotas of the percentage of Jews they would admit.) After a “post-graduate” fifth year of high school at the Boston Latin School, where he met Leonard Bernstein, who became a life-long friend, Fine applied again to Harvard and was admitted. When as the vice-president of the Harvard Glee Club, Fine applied for membership to the Boston Harvard Club, which, although not directed affiliated with the university, had a policy that all officers of Harvard clubs were entitled to membership, he was informed that “his kind” were not accepted. Later, when he was on the faculty at Harvard, he was nominated for membership in the Harvard Musical Association, a private club unaffiliated with the university, but maintaining a close relationship with the music department; he was blackballed because he was Jewish. When Fine was not accepted for membership in the HMA, all of the members of the Harvard music faculty except the musicologist Tillman Merritt, resigned from the club in protest. In 1948 Fine was denied tenure at Harvard, which ended his teaching career there. Since Merritt and the composer Randall Thompson, two of the most powerful professors in the Harvard Music Department, were openly anti-Semitic, Fine’s being Jewish was almost certainly a factor in the decision, even though there was also a certain amount of friction between Fine and Merritt regarding the proper role of performance in the department, and Merritt apparently distrusted Fine, who he considered an empire-builder.
Fortuitously, just as Fine’s career at Harvard was ending, he was invited to join the faculty of the Brandeis University, in Waltham, Massachusetts, newly founded in order to provide a university education of the highest quality for Jewish students who were kept out of the Ivy League universities due to quotas. Entrusted with the task of building the university’s music department, he immediately enlisted his life long friends Harold Shapero, Arthur Berger, both of whom he had met at Harvard. He also enlisted the assistance of another Harvard friend, Bernstein, to help with fund raising and to establish the Brandeis Fesitval of the Creative Arts. Between 1952 and 1957, Fine and Bernstein organized and brilliantly executed four festivals, which garnered great acclaim and notoriety. That notoriety and the great distinction of the music department’s faculty quickly made it one of the most important in the United States, especially at the graduate level.
Fine, Berger, and Shapero, and to a lesser extent, Bernstein and Lukas Foss, were allied by common aesthetic aims and influences and by their friendships with Stravinsky and Aaron Copland, and their devotion to their music. They are certainly the most important of the American Neo-Classic composers, and were sometime referred to as the Boston School or the Boston group. The sunniness of their situation about the time of the founding of Brandeis was increasingly clouded by a spectre. It had several names, but using the common short hand, one could call it “twelve tone music”.
In The Dyer’s Hand, W. H. Auden writes about Utopian visions, “our dream pictures of the Happy Place,” of which he says there are two, which he names Eden and The New Jerusalem. “Eden is a place where its inhabitants may do whatever they like to do; the motto over the gate is, ‘Do what you wilt is here the Law.’ New Jerusalem is a place where its inhabitants like to do whatever they ought to do, and its motto is, ‘In His will is our peace.’” For better or for worse, I think this describes the situation of American composers in general, and Fine, Berger, and Shapero in particular, starting sometime after the Second World War and lasting sometime into the late 1970s and early 1980s. It seems that for many composers, especially those in the neoclassic camp, whose music, generally positive and sunny, albeit serious, often consciously intended to sound “American,” informed by the love of certain composers: Haydn, Beethoven, Stravinsky, and Copland, existed in a sort of Eden. At a certain point they felt a sort of irresistible moral pressure, undefined and from an undefined source, to write another kind of music, even though they regarded it with a certain amount of distrust if not down right hostility. Writing this different music seems to have represented a sort of submission which they ought to make, and the ensuing effort and struggle was the cause of something between vexation and anguish. Most composers seemed to accept the historical inevitability of twelve tone music; it doesn’t seem to have occurred to many of them that they didn’t need to write it if they didn’t want to do.
Fine, Berger, and Shapero each approached this situation in his own way. Berger, at the age of eighteen, had been overwhelmed by his encounter with Schoenberg’s Die glückliche Hand, which was the companion piece in the concert at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in which Leopold Stokowski and Martha Graham presented the first New York staged performance of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, and for a while attempted to write music in Schoenberg’s manner. Unable to imagine how he could write such music which was free from the German aesthetic, which he found distasteful, and which would satisfy the demands of his radical politics for music which would appeal to the masses, he put composition aside to study musicology with Hugo Leichtentritt and music theory with Walter Piston at Harvard. Eventually the path to composition was reopened to him by the neoclassic music of Stravinsky. But the post-war rise of interest in twelve tone music was for him a return to the preoccupations of his youth. Shapero’s attitude was one of rejection of what he considered anti-music. Shapero’s daughter Hannah told me that after his death she had found in his papers a cartoon imitating Da Vinci’s The Last Supper with pictures of his cohort’s faces pasted in (Lukas Foss was in the position of Jesus); the caption was “One of you will betray me,” the betrayal being a turn to twelve tone music. For a considerable time he was mostly silent as a composer, although like Berger he continued to teach at Brandeis until he retired.
For Fine grappling with twelve tone music was indeed the source of great anguish. The composer Malcolm Peyton was a student of Fine’s at Tanglewood, and remembers a series of lectures Fine gave that summer on neoclassic music. He began by talking about works that he really loved, including the Stravinsky Octet; as the lectures went on they became progressively darker and dispirited. At the end he announced that this was all over, more or less saying “The twelve tone boys have beat us.” Fine continued to produce works in the neoclassic style, alternating with twelve tone works (such as his String Quartet of 1952) but he considered them to be trifles. Feeling unable to write satisfactory large serious works of substance in the stylistic language he felt was required, he developed a writer’s block and he went into analysis, against Shapero’s recommendation, to deal with his problem (his psychiatrist eventually began to tell him that his friendship with Shapero was the problem). But he also discussed twelve tone theory thoroughly with another friend, Milton Babbitt, during the summers that they taught together at Tanglewood.
In 1962 Fine finished his Symphony. Commissioned by the Boston Symphony, it was performed by them, conducted by Charles Munch, at Symphony Hall in Boston. In the following summer they repeated the work at Tanglewood. After suffering an angina attack, Munch withdrew from the concert; Fine conducted his work on August 12. Eleven days later Fine died from at heart attack at the age of 47. The Symphony is an intense, expansive, muscular piece, clearly a major work. Under the circumstances it is hard to think of it as anything other than the culmination of Fine’s career; how that career might have continued and what place the Symphony might have had in that continued career–maybe as a breakthrough into a newly liberated language and manner– is unimaginable.
On May 16 in Jordan Hall, the Boston Modern Orchestra Project joined with the Fine Family, the Irving Fine Society, and Brandeis University to present A Fine Centennial, a celebration not only of Fine, at the centennial of his birth, but of his music and that of his friends Harold Shapero and Arthur Berger, and of their joint aesthetic vision. The program opened with two of Fine’s later trifles, Blue Towers, which was originally intended by Fine as the official Brandeis University fight song, and Diversions for Orchestra, four piano pieces which Fine orchestrated for a children’s program of the Boston Pops. All of these pieces were expertly and elegantly done and pretty forgettable, the one exception being The Red Queen’s Gavotte which has some of the vitality and charm of Fine’s Alice In Wonderland chorus pieces.
Harold Shapero’s Serenade for String Orchestra, from 1945, is a beautiful and graceful work It is also ferociously difficult–intricate in texture and harmony, complex rhythmically, technically difficult for the instruments, treacherously exposed, and thirty-five minutes long. Just about the only music contemporary to the Serenade of equal difficulty and complexity is that of Milton Babbitt (to whose music Shapero had a great antipathy). Nonetheless, just as Babbitt once wrote that Berger’s ‘Cello Duo could be described as white note Webern, the Serenade might be called diatonic Babbitt. Berger’s Prelude, Aria, and Waltz for String Orchestra was originally Three Pieces for String Quartet, amplified for orchestra at the suggestion of his friend Bernard Hermann; they were further revised in 1982. The performances of both these pieces reflected great understanding and sympathy with the music and were technically sure. The Shapero was cautious, with good reason, but had great grace and clarity and sweetness, even if is was lacking in the ease and élan that more rehearsal time would have afforded.
Fine’s Symphony is a dramatic and noble piece and Rose and the orchestra performed it with enormous drama and passion, making it a moving experience. As soon as the Symphony was over, the person I was sitting with said, “That piece killed him. No wonder he died. It’s full of death.” For Fine coming to terms with the stylistic crisis of the time was a life and death matter. I was struck by how much commonality it had with the Stravinsky Symphony in Three Movements, particularly in its second movement. So just as with the time the similarities between with the Shapero and Babbitt, which seemed inconceivable when it was written, with time the “serial” aspects of the Fine are less striking than its simple reflection of Fine’s personality in all his music and of the music that he loved.
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The City of Santa Monica was the scene Friday, May 2, 2014 of HEAR NOW Goes Electroacoustic, the first in a series of three consecutive concerts featuring music by contemporary Los Angeles composers. Presented by HEAR NOW and People Inside Electronics the six works in the program all included some kind of electronic accompaniment. The Miles Memorial Playhouse was filled and the cozy, Spanish Colonial style performance space with its wooden ceiling beams and stucco walls provided good acoustics and excellent viewing. This concert was dedicated to William Kraft and the composers offered a few remarks prior to the performance of each piece.
Theremin’s Journey (2010) by Gernot Wolfgang was first, and this began a low rumble of processed sound accompanied by bell-like chimes that was soon joined by the theremin. The distinctive sound of the theremin is invariably linked with 1950s science fiction movies, but in this piece the alien, otherworldly sound connected nicely with the underlying electronics, even when the theremin was dominating the texture. The sound of the theremin was an integral part of this piece and not simply a stylistic effect. Joanne Pearce Martin provided solid control over the pitch and entrances of the theremin and her virtuosity was all the more evident when she switched to the piano as the piece progressed. Theremin’s Journey proceeded in this way, with Ms. Martin alternating between piano and theremin. There was a more familiar feel to this piece when the piano was heard, and a sense of movement and energy was provided by several fast runs and short bursts of phrases. At other times the piano was unaccompanied, or gentle and reflective. By contrast, the sections featuring the theremin typically had a distant and sometimes lonely feel. The balance between the various elements – electronics, piano and theremin – was remarkable and the playing was controlled and consistent. Theremin’s Journey could have easily failed on several levels – technical issues, performance difficulties or by simply sounding cliché, but this high-risk piece came off successfully and convincingly on its own terms.
What Lies Behind the Rain (2011) followed, by David Werfelmann, a piece written for piano and electronics. Interestingly, the electronics were not simply a static presence but were triggered by the tones played by the performer at the piano. According to the program notes “Acoustic and electronic sounds blend and support each other, creating a sound world that could not be achieved by either part alone.” For the most part, this worked. Many of the electronic tracks were processed piano sounds, and when these were added to the live playing of Rafael Liebich the result was a kind of multiplying effect that produced sudden rushes of notes and fast swirls of sound. Trills in the piano could produce an avalanche of similar sounds from the electronics and this effectively evoked a sudden downpour or rain shower. There were also several passages that felt like driving on the freeway at night with cars quickly passing by. At other times the electronics gave out a majestic sound of bell chimes that, when combined with the sensitive touch of Liebich in the quieter stretches was quite lovely. This combination of triggered electronics and live performance deserves further exploration as was evident by this intriguing reading of What Lies Behind the Rain.
The third piece of the evening was Get Rich Quick (2009) by Ian Dicke and this was the Los Angeles premiere. Get Rich Quick was inspired by the financial crash of 2008 and is written for piano with recorded narration and sound effects . Aron Kallay, a co-founder of People Inside Electronics was the pianist. In his remarks just before the performance, Ian Dicke wondered aloud about the relevance of this piece in 2014 because, after all, “Congress passed financial reform laws and the bankers that caused the crash are all now in jail.” This was the perfect introduction to Get Rich Quick which begins with the sound of a coin dropping and the bustling noise of a stock exchange trading floor. A series of sharp, loud chords sound from the piano build tension while the narration smoothly pronounces a series of familiar platitudes: “Debt is a part of American life!”, “Debt has a time and place.” and “Pay those bills on time!” The vapid, infomercial tone of the text contrasted perfectly with the anxiety building in the piano and this provided the wit that propels this piece. The piano gestures are familiar but they make a telling commentary on the get rich quick narration. The program notes state that “Ian Dicke is a composer inspired by social-political culture and interactive technology.” New music these days often seems to arise in a political vacuum, but Get Rich Quick points to another way and the audience was both receptive and appreciative.
After the intermission Jugg(ular)ling (2005) by Vicki Ray was presented. In her pre-performance remarks Ms. Ray explained that the inspiration for this piece was the extreme multitasking required by our contemporary existence – all the things that conspire to keep us too busy. As Jugg(ular)ling began, old film clips of circus jugglers was projected on the stage screen. For each item juggled, the score called for a gesture by the musicians playing piano, violin and MalletKAT percussion. At first the jugglers had one and then a few balls or pins in the air and the music proceeded in an orderly fashion. As the number of items juggled increased, so did the complexity and speed of the musical responses, and this generated a sense of anticipation that added to the comedy on the screen. As the number of items in the air reached their maximum the music slowly unraveled, dissembling into a slow groove. Now the sequence in the film reversed with the number of juggled items decreasing along with the number of musical gestures. This simple formula – worthy of a Tom Johnson – was an inspired choice and the playing by Aron Kallay on piano, Shalini Vijayan on violin and Yuri Inoo on MalletKAT was clean and well-coordinated with the film clips. Jugg(ular)ling was an effective musical realization of the absurdities that fill our too-busy lives as the knowing laughs from the audience made clear.
Swallow (2012) by Scott Cazan followed and this was an experimental piece that combined stringed instruments – violins, violas and a cello – with electronic processing. The string players simply drew their bows across the strings; there was no attempt at melody or any kind of chord. These sounds were processed by a computer operated by the composer and played out through speakers so as to introduce feedback into the aggregate. The sounds coming from the strings were, in a sense, the raw material for the processing with the feedback producing the final result. This required careful and close listening and at times the feeling was that of observing a very subtle and ephemeral phenomena – something like an acoustic version of the northern lights on a far horizon. The process seemed a bit hit and miss at times, depending as it does on the acoustical environment pertaining at the instant of performance. But at its best there is an organic feel and the interplay of the tones, while transient, is often beautiful and invitingly mysterious. At times some zero-beating in the feedback gives a bit of rhythm and forward motion, but the feedback process tends to be on the quiet side and is often intermittent. Perhaps Swallow would be better realized in the recording studio where the more effective manifestations of the process can be captured as they occur.
The final piece of the concert was Pacific Light and Water/Wu Xing-Cycle of Destruction (2005) and this was a collaboration between Barry Schrader who composed and realized the piece electronically, and Ishmael Wadada Leo Smith who played trumpet live during the performance. The trumpet is played as an overlay to the recorded electronics and this allows Mr. Smith to react and respond to the sounds as the piece progresses. From the program notes “The Pacific Light and Water portion of the work is inspired by the penetration of light at different depths of the Pacific Ocean. Building on the water theme, Wu Xing embodies the Chinese concept of the Five Elements, among which are fire and water.” The trumpet player follows a graphical score of the electronic piece and this guides the improvisational component of the playing. The water theme came through very strongly in the recorded electronics and Mr. Smith responded to this with a variety of interesting trumpet calls, trills and sustained tones. The trumpet provides a familiar handhold for this music and made a good contrast to the thunder, rain and watery sounds coming from the speakers. The liquid feel increases and towards the end of the piece a booming surf is heard that increases in volume as the trumpet struggles against it. The surf sounds escalate into sharp canon reports and the piece concludes dramatically with only the trumpet playing. The overlay form of Pacific Light and Water/Wu Xing-Cycle of Destruction is a good example of a collaboration that is completely independent yet intimately linked through the solo performer, and this was nicely accomplished by Ishmael Wadada Leo Smith.
This concert was a good survey of the electroacoustic forms and techniques that are being explored by contemporary Los Angeles composers. HEAR NOW is in its fourth year and judging by the music presented in this concert the future looks very bright.
Dan Graser, the soprano saxophonist of the award-winning Donald Sinta Saxophone Quartet, asked me to help announce the group’s 2014 Composition Competition. This looks like a very exciting opportunity!
Here are the basic facts (taken from the group’s online posting):
Eligibility: All student composers enrolled in the United States as of Spring 2014.
Piece requirements: An un-premiered work for SATB saxophone quartet, 6-10 minutes in length.
Application fee: None!
Prize(s): One first-prize winner will receive $500 and have their piece premiered at the quartet’s Carnegie Hall recital in November, 2014.
Five composers receiving honorable mention will have their works premiered at an all-world-premiere recital in December, 2014 at the Kerrytown Concert House in Ann Arbor, MI.
All winning works will receive a live recording by the Donald Sinta Quartet and be added to the group’s repertoire for the 2014-15 season.
Submission Process: E-mail a bio, CV, and PDFs of the work’s score and parts to firstname.lastname@example.org
Deadline: Submissions must be received by August 1, 2014.
You can verify and double-check all this information here, on the quartet’s website.
Good luck to all those who apply!
Sign up for the New York Philharmonic’s eNews for a chance to win a pair of tickets to hear the New York Philharmonic in a concert featuring the World Premiere of Christopher Rouse’s Symphony No. 4 and Violinist Midori on your choice of Thursday, June 5, 2014, at 7:30 PM or Saturday, June 7, 2014, at 8pm at the first-ever NYPHIL BIENNIAL! 2 winners will be selected on May 31, 2014. The winners will be notified by the email address provided on the form. One entry per email address.
Read about the concert here.
Read about Christopher Rouse below.
On May 5, Carnegie Hall launches the fourth and final season of its Spring for Music festival with a massive staging of Requiem, a work commissioned by the international sacred music foundation Soli Deo Gloria from the Pulitzer Prize-winning current composer-in-residence of the New York Philharmonic, Christopher Rouse.
Photo Credit: Jeffrey Herman
The innovative series Spring for Music presents unusual programs for one-evening-only performances by visiting North American Orchestras, realizing, as Alan Gilbert puts it: “A week-long celebration of what symphonic music can bring to all our lives.”
Requiem’s New York premiere comprises the evening’s entire 90-minute concert program; Alan Gilbert will lead the New York Philharmonic through Rouse’s tour de force, alongside baritone Jaques Imbrailo, the Westminster Symphonic Chorus directed by Joe Miller, and the Brooklyn Youth Chorus directed by Dianne Berkun-Menaker.
Christopher Rouse himself describes Requiem as “unquestionably, [his] magnum opus.” The work was commissioned by Soli Deo Gloria under its Founding Artistic Director, Grammy award-winning conductor John Nelson, in honor of the 2003 Hector Berlioz bicentennial, and Rouse completed the piece while attending the 2002 Aspen Music Festival in Colorado. The internationally operating institution Soli Deo Gloria is recognized for its worldwide sponsorship of sacred music concerts, presenting opulent choral/orchestral arrangements and idiosyncratic commissions since 1996. Nelson and Rouse had met and worked together in 1985, and bonded in particular over their shared love for Berlioz, to whose work Rouse feels especially connected. He says: “If I had to choose one of all his wonderful masterpieces as my island work, it would have to be, objectively speaking, his Damnation of Faust.”
Despite his profound admiration and intimate respect for Berlioz’ strong sense of harmony, rhythm, and orchestration, Rouse, in his requiem, refrained from referencing Berlioz’ own “mighty and most stupendous and unique example of the genre,” as he describes it. “I did not use any direct quotes. I did, however, follow him in placing the text where he had set it, refashioning the Latin, and using the same separations.” Like Berlioz, Rouse adapted the Latin text liturgically read at the Requiem Mass for the Dead, interspersing it, like Berlioz, with poetry in a variety of languages, and restricting the Latin liturgical text to the chorus. This structure achieves an artistic transformation from the source material’s liturgical use, conveying the theme of death on different levels of experience: through the Baritone’s voice, heard on a personal level, and through the chorus, portraying the philosophical idea of mortality as it applies to all mankind. Rouse prefers not to analyze meaning in music to the point where the listener closes his or her mind to the experience. After all, the purpose of music for Rouse, as he explained in an interview with Bruce Duffie, is “to convey something meaningful, nourishing, and enlightening for the human spirit that speaks of the creator of the work to the listener…and how you organize your material is really just a means of making that expressive or emotive meaning coherent, more logical.”
In the case of Requiem, his own work by which he “wants to stand or fall,” he followed some of Berlioz’ emotional concepts, expressed in the music, but some he created in exact opposition, for example, “in Berlioz’ Dies irae opening section, there is this serenity, austere mood – in mine, all hell is breaking loose,” he says. Given the fact that Requiem was composed in the aftermath of 9/11, an interesting fact, especially for New Yorkers, is that although there is a minor reference to 9/11, Rouse’s hope with this work is to provide a more general source of solace, a more “Schumanesque approach,” as he puts it, and in terms of the religious aspect, he says: “The use of poetry would preclude the score from its liturgical use and staying away from any symbolic characteristic of some ‘byzantine icon.’” Rouse, whose work has been performed internationally since the mid-eighties, is after “the hyper and expressive urgency of the emotional experience, a musical answer to the cry of anguish, the shriek of universal agony.” His Requiem was coined: “The first great traditional American Requiem,” and praised as “an extraordinary score” by the Los Angeles Times upon its 2007 performance by the Los Angeles Master Chorale.Photo Credit : Christian Steiner
Teaching composition at Juilliard, Rouse is juggling his busy composing career with his pedagogical efforts, “which take a lot of energy,” he says. In order to give his students the intensive attention they deserve, he only composes on the days that he does not teach.
In 2012, Rouse was offered the position as composer-in-residence with the New York Philharmonic’s Marie-Josée Kravis program, which began under Alan Gilbert’s leadership in 2009 with composer Magnus Lindberg’s three-year residency; the program was just recently extended to incorporate Rouse’s third and last year of collaboration with the orchestra into the 2014/15 season. “We inspire each other,” says Rouse. Gilbert follows: “There was just more work to do.” Rouse’s collaboration with the orchestra began in 1984 with a performance of his work The Infernal Machine, conducted by Leonard Slatkin, marking a sort of breakthrough in his career. In October 2014, the world premiere of Rouse’s new work: Thunderstuck, a rock-inspired Philharmonic-commissioned orchestral work, will be performed under Gilbert’s baton, bringing his experience with the New York Philharmonic full-circle. Rouse, not an instrumentalist himself, knew even as a six year-old boy, listening to a recording of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony that his mother had put on, that writing music was what he was born to do. Growing up with Rock n’ Roll rather than with Jazz, like George Crumb, one of his most influential teachers, Rouse feels naturally connected to the music of his youth. Thunderstuck pays homage to the idiom of some of his Rock favorites, like The Byrds, Jefferson Airplane, Chicago, naturally absorbing the stylistically variant soundscapes of his ‘coming of age’ time.
For the moment, though, Rouse is already working on the last movement of an organ concerto for organist Paul Jacobs, co-commissioned by several orchestras including the Philadelphia Orchestra and the National Symphony Orchestra.
The May 5th concert will be broadcast live from Carnegie Hall on WQXR, hosted by Elliott Forrest and David Garland, and will be available for on-demand listening and streaming on wqxr.org.
Ilona Oltuski -GetClassical
On Friday the Washington Square Winds present their third annual THEY’RE ALIVE! concert, which focuses exclusively on work by living composers. This year, they are unveiling two new works, Whirlwind, by Nicholas Hall & The People’s Park by Rex Isenberg, commissioned by WSW. Also on the program are composers Brooks Frederickson and William Wheeler.
Stay for the reception to meet the composers and performers.
Friday, April 25
Church St. School for Music and Art
74 Warren St. Frnt A, NYC
The Minimalist Jukebox set up shop at Cal Lutheran on Sunday, April 13, 2014 for a concert titled ‘American Minimalists’, featuring Gloria Cheng and the Areté Vocal Ensemble. The Samuelson Chapel was comfortably filled for this event, which is connected with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Green Umbrella concert series. This performance was also designated the CLU Suzanne Freeman Memorial New Music Concert.
The concert opened with Knee Play I (1976) by Philip Glass from his iconic opera Einstein on the Beach. The Knee Plays are short interludes devised to cover scenery and costume changes during the opera but each contains its own unique emotional trajectory. Knee Play I opens with a sequence of three long, low tones in the synthesizer that are slowly repeated. A sung counting sequence “1, 2, 3, 4…” starts while the Areté Vocal Ensemble filed onto the stage. Narration was added, and although indistinct, this heightened the contrast between the repeated low tones in the synthesizer and the counting in the voices. The motion of the singers, the text and the music combined to evoke that hurried contemporary lifestyle where we are likely to be missing the important undercurrents. The sudden ending of this piece found the thirty-plus members of Areté in place on stage.
Know what is above you (1999) by Steve Reich was next, and this featured a high, airy blend of sound from the voices of Jill Walker, Angela Card, Lisa Wall-Urgero and Ronni Ashley. The text is taken from the Talmud. A steady beat underneath from two small hand-held drums keeps the piece pulsing forward as the voice lines separate and interweave forming interesting harmonies. As the piece progresses the percussion breaks into more complex patterns, nicely complimenting the movement in the voices. Although the only Reich piece in the program, and not a long work, Know what is above you is good example of what the music of Steve Reich is about and fit into the programming of this concert precisely.
Escape, from Alcatraz (1982) by Ingram Marshall followed and this was performed by Gloria Cheng. The piece played for this concert was arranged for piano and electronic processing by Samuel Carl Adams in 2014, and this was the premiere performance. The opening series of notes is deceptively sunny and optimistic, like a summer morning on San Franciso Bay, but soon turns darker and more dramatic. A deep rumbling in the lower registers builds like an angry sea and as the piece continues an agitated feeling in the higher notes is reminiscent of frothy white caps. Ms. Cheng played with a good balance of precision and emotion throughout. This piece is one of a series and paints a portrait of Alcatraz that evokes a definite sense of its place.
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Upon entering Ursula Oppens’ modestly furnished, yet comfortable Upper West Side apartment with a view of the pedigreed patina of the historistic cupola belonging to Columbia University’s campus building, one is immediately taken by the vibrant aura that surrounds the eminent musician.
The personable pianist speaks softly, yet animatedly, in a welcoming way; her reputation is linked to an astonishingly vast array of distinguished contemporary composers, some of whose prominent works were dedicated to Oppens. Unsurprisingly, Oppens has in turn become one of their most incisive promoters.
photo credit: Ilona Oltuski – GetClassical
Oppens was recently celebrated by her long standing fans on the occasion of her 70th Birthday with a concert at Symphony Space. The show was a collaborative project by several of her students: Winston Choi, Ran Dank, Soyean Kate Lee, and Anthony Molinaro, honoring her work and legacy. Oppens’ pianistic career has been particularly impacted by her collaboration with the legendary American composer Elliot Carter, who remains a tremendous source of inspiration for her.
“One summer I came to Marlboro, nervous, young and easily impressionable. I had not had formal music lessons during college, but there I was. Carter was visiting that summer, and they spontaneously decided to play some of his music. There was little time to prepare and I ended up volunteering. I had heard his music before in Aspen, and also had heard him speak about it. I remember when I started reading through the score for the first time, and practice for its performance, I had played a wrong note, intuitively sensing its wrongness. There was a very strong sense of understanding the text and its coherence, and I discovered a very important relationship,” explains Oppens.
The performance of his Sonata for flute, oboe, cello, and harpsichord that she had prepared for went well. When Oppens experienced a similar situation with Carter’s double concerto at Tanglewood, it was clear to her that this was meant to be an ongoing relationship: “the rest is history,” says Oppens, as she describes working with the sophisticated composer. Carter’s masterpiece Night Fantasies was co-commissioned and funded by Oppens. photo: Ursula Oppens with Elliot Carter, A.Addey
“He always was extremely kind, but insisted firmly on all the expressive indications of the phrasing and on what stands out,” she explains, “I always felt a bit tongue-tied in his presence, admiring his enormous command of languages and memory but most of all his gregarious personality: To me he represented the ideal of the educated creator, and I love teaching his music to my students, giving on his legacy.” Oppens’ success with her students at CUNY’s Graduate Center and the Conservatory of Music at Brooklyn College , where she holds teaching positions as Distinguished Professor of Music, brings her great personal joy, as well as the satisfaction of continuing the modernist tradition, some of which had started out in her own hands.
“I am very lucky that there are a number of wonderful pieces that have been written for me,” she says, while she shows me an old membership card to the ‘International Society for Contemporary Music’ that had belonged to her father, Kurt Oppens. “The society is still functioning today, and I guess part of my interest in contemporary music is simply inherited from both my parents.” Oppens’ parents were both part of the music world “and great modernist enthusiasts,” she says. She herself, a Radcliffe graduate, spent a lot of her time at the society. Radcliffe did not have its own music performance or composition department at the time, and it was at the society where she forged relationships with other musicians, some of whom she still considers close friends. Only after attending Juilliard, and studying under reputed pedagogue Rosina Lhévinne, did Oppens actively seek out a pianist’s career, which included some partaking in the competition-cycle; she became a first prize winner at the Busoni competition, and a recipient of the Avery Fisher Career Grant in 1976.
Over many years, Oppens gained an unparalleled reputation for her access and attention to music that was challenging, by composers like Milton Babbitt, Pierre Boulez, and Charles Wuorinen. She has gained four Grammy nominations for her recordings of both romantic and contemporary repertoire. The widely praised album Winging It: Piano Music of John Corigliano, released in 2011 on Cedille Records, put her up for her latest nomination to date for “Best Classical Instrumental Solo” in 2012/13.
photo: courtesy of Hemsing Associates
“When you are with musician-friends, you want to make music together,” which is something she appreciates in her ongoing partnership with the distinguished pianist and Juilliard professor Jerome Lowenthal: “we play four-hands repertoire all the time together, and never run out of things to talk about.” One of the results of their intimate pianistic exchange is captured on their recent two-piano CD on Cedille Records, devoted to Visions d’Amen of Olivier Messiaen, and Debussy’s En blanc et noir.
Previously Oppens had been married to the late composer and avantgarde jazz- saxophonist Julius Hemphill, whom she had met on a 1983 New York States Council of the Arts tour.
In a musician’s life, befriending other musicians often forges the path to a career. Some of the first composers Oppens met at the International Society, and approached for works she could perform, were Peter Lieberson and Tobias Picker. Not long thereafter, a grant from YCA, which supported the young pianist, allowed Oppens to receive a new commission by the Washington Performance Art Society in the form of a work written for her by Frederic Rzewski, who now resides in Brussels (only a phone call away, says Oppens): “I did not expect an hour long piece, and did not know what the public’s reaction would be- for all I knew, they could have booed,” but The People United Will Never Be Defeated became one of the cornerstone works she became renowned for in her long lasting, and still active career.
“I was always willing to take chances, and was curious about works I had not heard before,” says Oppens, who spent many of her formative summers backstage at the Aspen Music Festival. This credo remains at the essence of who she is, a free spirit. Oppens also appreciates performing on occasions that demonstrate her humanistic and democratic worldview. A riveting experience for her was partaking at the 37th.anniversary of Portugal’s Carnation Revolution in Lisbon , on April of 2011, commemorating the overthrow of the authoritarian Estado Novo regime. She performed the Portugese national anthem as part of her performance of Rzewski’s The People United Will Never Defeat, at the highly emotionally charged celebration of national liberation.
In 1971, Oppens co-founded Speculum Musicae, a new music chamber group, with some of her closest friends and associates including cellist Fred Sherry, percussionist Richard Fritz, and oboist Joel Marangella. “Rolf Schulte and Virgil Black were also members,” says Oppens, “it was such an exciting time. Like now, many groups were formed by students who did not need to gain approval by the conservative institutions. There was a lot of support available and new venues to perform opened up.”
“One of the main aspects of our particular group was Elliot Carter. He held us together, and is one of the reasons we are still working together closely,” she says. “We all loved his music; his passion connected us, and his kindness towards us kept our friendships intact, even long after we went our own ways.”
The New York Times praised her recent performance at a Carter tribute concert in 2013, which captured the “fevered anxiety and poetic reverie” of Carter’s Night Fantasies, written for her, with an “unfailing sense of drama and almost cinematic color.”
While Carter holds a special place in Oppens’ heart and performance career, from about 1975 onwards, she furiously championed an array of different composers. Their collective conglomerate reads like an encyclopedic list of the contemporary idiom and includes composers as varied as John Adams, Julius Hemphill, Frederic Rzewski, Conlon Nancarrow, John Corigliano, John Harbison, William Bolcom, Anthony Braxton, Tania Léon, Tobias Picker, and Charles Wuorinen.
She has also excelled in performances of works by European modernist masters like Luciano Berio, Gyorgy Ligeti, and Witold Lutoslawski. But as she says modestly: “I can only learn so and so much new music, before every concert, every recording, I am just thinking of the next note.” Next to her recordings and recitals of many of the works of her contemporaries, she equally loves the traditional, classical repertoire, which she also practices every day.
“I feel the necessity to play and practice both, tonal and atonal music. You have to stay open-minded, going to the notation as if you have never heard it before, which is also very important for performing older music. But it is new music that has made me love the translation from the notation to the sound.” She offers the following piece of advice to students: “You cannot un-hear a piece of music you have listened to on a recording, that’s why I suggest listening to more than one, to see a range of possibilities of interpretations. It’s very much about the human factor and the surprise of the outcome, the ambiguity of transition.”
One of Oppens’ interesting projects, which she began a while back, is the collaboration with pianist Bruce Brubaker in a compilation of Meredith Monk’s works for solo piano and piano-duo, titled: Piano Songs; the CD will be released on the ECM label in May of 2014. This will coincide with Meredith Monk’s composing residency at Carnegie Hall, during the 2014/15 season.
”Bruce and I knew each other from Juilliard, and he performed a lot of some of the same composers’ work, I had too, but we had never performed together until we were brought together by Meredith’s music, performing in a celebratory concert of the composer at Zankel Hall, in 2005. A lot of the energy to make this recording happen came from Bruce; we kept adding on pieces until we had a complete disc. We gave a concert in Boston and then recorded at the exquisite Jordan Hall, at the New England Conservatory, where Bruce is the chair of the piano department,” she explains.
“Some of the pieces started out as scores for voices, or voices and other instruments, and transporting these into another world gives us all the wonderful opportunity of hearing the music afresh,” says Brubaker in the disc’s liner notes. “The pieces are based on works from 1971 to 2006.”
“Meredith Monk’s music is extremely interesting,” adds Oppens, “because it seems to come from simple parts, but becomes very intricate – I would kind of compare it to Mozart, in that you think the recapitulation of his sonatas are just like the exposition, except for the key signature; but then you notice all the subtle differences; it has a perfect balance, but it keeps on changing, going forward,” she says. Brubaker also comments on the “intriguing balance” in Monk’s piano music, “between simplicity and a kind of music you’ve never really heard before.” On writing for two pianos, the composer notes: “I delved into different relationships and the possibilities between them…In some pieces, I emphasized the individuality of each piano, writing for one player as the ‘singer,’ the other as the ‘accompaniment;’ in other pieces, I wanted the two pianos to make one large sound.”
In November of 2014, Brubaker and Oppens will perform a program drawn from Monk’s Piano Songs at LePoisson Rouge.
“During the last few years, I have been doing more recordings than expected,” says Oppens, “it may have to do with my age: You feel like you need to recapitulate pieces that you learned over a long period, and there is definetly something to be said about wanting to summarize things.”
Upcoming projects for the 2014/ 2015 season will include a Bernard Rands disc in the fall, a William Bolcom recording for Naxos, and a re-recording project of The People Reunited , complete with an improvised cadenza by Oppens.
Ilona Oltuski – GetClassical
On 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.
The 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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Posted by Chris Becker in Chamber Music, Composers, Concerts, Contemporary Classical, Electro-Acoustic, Houston, tags: Avant Garden, Eric Fegan, Houston, Houston Composers Salon, Hsaio-Lan Wang, Hsin-Jung Tsai, Ryan Gagnon, Stephen Yip, Thomas Helton
(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.