The centenary of the legendary composer Milton Babbitt (1916-2011) is ocassion to celebrate. After Augustus Arnone’s three recitals earlier this season playing Babbitt’s complete solo piano works, now his group Collide-O-Scope Music is treating us to another rarely performed gem: Babbitt’s Arie da Capo (1974). It’s the major mixed ensemble chamber work from Babbitt’s middle period, and named in dedication to its original performers, the Da Capo Chamber Players, whose flutist Patricia Spencer is also now a member of Collide-O-Scope and is part of the ensemble performing Arie this Friday—now that’s authenticity!
Babbitt drinks tea
Arie ca Capo rewards the listener on repeat hearings, which thankfully are possible. Although premiered by the Da Capo Chamber Players, Arie was recorded by Harvey Sollberger and the Group for Contemporary Music (Nonesuch 1979) and later by Ciro Scotto (Nimbus 1987). As with most of Babbitt’s mature works, its sectional structure maps out a variety of textural combinations (or shall we say combinatorics). Each of its five sections presents a solo instrument in an aria against the other four accompanying players: clarinet, cello, flute, violin, and then piano each has its turn in an intricately shadowed limelight. Moreover, each of the five arias contains a quintet, trio, quartet, trio, and quintet again. (The relation between its rhythms, textures, pacing, and precompositional structures are discussed in a 1988 Perspectives of New Music article by Ciro Scotto.) Of Babbitt’s works, this one especially abounds in loquacious social interplay. It will be conducted by Robert Whalen and played by Arnone (piano), Spencer (flute), Marianne Gythfeldt (clarinet), Gregor Kitzis (violin), and Valeriya Sholokhova (cello).
Additionally, Arnone will again tackle the solo piano work Tableaux (1973), from the same time period as Arie, and Patricia Spencer will play Babbitt’s later work None but the Lonely Flute (1991).
Charles Wuorinen, a composer associated with and influenced by Babbitt but whose music sounds nothing like Babbitt’s, is represented on the program by his trio for piano flute, and bass clarinet (2008)—a polished and vibrant neo-baroque surface full of bustling energy and clarity.
from Chris Bailey’s Timelash
Christopher Bailey’s rapidfire Timelash (1999/2016), also to be performed, bases its “quasi-morse code rhythms” on the first 16 measures of Babbitt’s violin and piano work Sextets. Resonances of carefully selected harmonies are also explored in this piece (of which further details here.) On the same program, a composition by Lou Bunk exploits the pliability of the clarinet, presenting cross-sections and intersections of three distinct themes, separated by silences.
Continuing the tradition begun earlier this season, this concert’s intermission will feature an interview-discussion between me and the composer-theorist Robert D. Morris, who, in parallel with the latter half of Babbitt’s career, developed his own independent approach to serial and post-serial composition. Morris has also been an avid listener of and writer on Babbitt’s compositions over several decades.
Collide-O-Scope: Chamber works of Babbitt, Wuorinen, Bunk, and Bailey (mid-concert discussion with Robert Morris) Friday, June 17, at 8pm, $20, $15 (Students/Seniors). Tenri Cultural Institute, 43A West 13th St., NYC.
(This is an expansion of an earlier post for a concert ultimately postponed due to snowstorm Jonas in January)
Augustus Arnone performs a double bill of Milton Babbitt’s solo piano works including the complete Time Series, at Spectrum, Sunday March 6, at 12-5 pm (12 and 3:30)
This year marks the centenary of the legendary composer Milton Babbitt (1916-2011). To my ears, his extensive body of piano works especially channels his singular charm as a raconteur. Over the decades a number of pianists have championed some of his major piano works, for instance Robert Helps and Robert Miller performing and recording his Partitions (1957) and Post-Partitions (1966) in early days and much more recently Marilyn Nonken did as much with Allegro Penseroso (1999). Babbitt’s Reflections for piano and synthesized tape (1975) has been performed by the likes of Anthony de Mare, Martin Goldray, Aleck Karis, and Robert Taub, the latter two of whom also recorded it. Robert Taub and Martin Goldray recorded and released full-length CDs. Alan Feinberg too presented stellar renditions of Minute Waltz (1977), Partitions (1957), It Takes Twelve to Tango (1984), Playing for Time (1979), and About Time (1982) on a 1988 CRI CD.
Yet only one pianist has earned the distinction of presenting the entire oeuvre of Babbitt’s solo piano works in concert. And that is Augustus Arnone, who performed the entire set, spread over two concerts, in 2008. In honor of the Babbitt centenary, Arnone is performing the entire set again (this time spread over three concerts) at Spectrum on Ludlow in NYC. Due to a postponement caused by storm Jonas in January, Arnone is performing the second and third concerts in one afternoon this weekend!
The largest work on the program is Canonical Form (1983) which I’ve heard several Babbitt aficionados recently describe as their “favorite” and “most beautiful” Babbitt composition. The most recent work is The Old Order Changeth (1998). Arnone’s performance also presents a rare opportunity to hear the entire ‘The Time Series’ (Playing For Time (1977), About Time (1982), Overtime (1987)), the last part of which has never been released on a commercial recording. This much constitutes concert II, the first half of this Sunday’s double bill, which starts at 12 noon.
In the final concert (concert III) which starts at 3:30, Arnone presents a variety of works spanning nearly all of Babbitt’s professional career, from the mid 1940s through the remainder of the 20th century and beyond. Tutte Le Corde (1994) represents Babbitt’s most streamlined and ingratiating late style, which is a nice inclusion for the final recital of the series. On this recital we’ll also be treated to some of Babbitt’s wittiest and pithiest: Minute Waltz (1977) and It Takes Twelve to Tango (1984), which are perhaps the only Babbitt works to clearly project rhythms associated with a familiar genre. It Takes Twelve to Tango leaves us unsure whether to imagine a single 12-legged Argentinian dancing spider or a communal square dance gone dodecahedral! Either way, brilliant sparks fly from these eccentric collisions of tradition and avant garde.
Babbitt’s Three Compositions for Piano (1947), the earliest work in the series, is to my ears the closest Babbitt ever came to neo-classicism, its first movement being a clean perpetuum mobile and its second movement a veiled tribute to Schoenberg’s expressive piano textures. While Duet (1956) is the closest Babbitt ever came to a lullaby, his Semi-Simple Variations, of the same year, is perhaps his jazziest jaunt on the ivories, an adventure amusingly exploited in the Bad Plus and Mark Morris Dancers’ adaptation.
Of course the series wouldn’t be complete without Babbitt’s most uncompromising trailblazing Partitions (1957) and Post-partitions (1966). Nowhere is his engenius originality more startlingly on display than in these works. In Partitions in particular, the activation and deactivation of various high, low, and middle registers of the piano guides the listener through an uncanny but navigable maze of contrapuntal intricacy.
Between the two concerts, at 2:30, will be an interview-discussion between me and Indiana University composer-theorist Andrew Mead, a former student of Babbitt’s at Princeton and author of the acclaimed book An Introduction to the Music of Milton Babbitt (1994, Princeton University Press) and many articles. This will also be an opportunity for questions from the audience. Whether you’ve been merely curious about Milton Babbitt’s music and legacy, or are already a long-time follower, this is an opportunity to spend part of the afternoon in the good company of Babbitt’s music and its admirers.
Augustus Arnone: The Complete Piano Works Of Milton Babbitt, Concerts II & III
Sunday March 6, concert II at 12 pm; pre-concert discussion at 2:30; concert III at 3:30.
$20, $15 (Students/Seniors) for each concert or $30/20 for both concerts.
Lou Karchin leads the Orchestra of the League of Composers (photo: Ron Gordon)
The Orchestra of the League of Composers (ISCM) presented the group’s “season finale” at Miller Theatre on Monday June 7, 2010. True, this is a pickup orchestra, but you’d never know it from listening. Composer/conductor Lou Karchin confidently led the group through a wide stylistic range of pieces, including New York and World premieres. WNYC’s Jonathan Schaefer hosted, engaging the composers in brief interviews between the various pieces.
D.J. Sparr’s piece DACCA:DECCA:GAFFA featured ace new music guitarists William Anderson and Oren Fader playing steel string acoustic instruments alongside the ensemble. The title referred to a set of chord progressions that the soloists played; these were adorned by pantonal flourishes from the orchestra. During his interview with Schaefer, Sparr tried to make it sound as if the piece had an elaborate plan. Perhaps its precomposition did, but its surface seemed to come straight out of mainstream popular cinematic music. I felt it had some cowboy movie potential, while my seat partner opted for a fairytale plot. We split the difference with “Cinderella in Laredo.” For the most part, the music didn’t demand much from the soloists: lots of bar chords with the occasional filigree. With such fine guitarists on display, one wishes that Sparr, a guitarist himself, might have reached for more.
Joan Tower admits she has a complicated relationship with titles. Her penchant for using purple in the titles of several works is not an example of synesthesia, but rather an attempt to create an evocative moniker after composing the work. Still, Purple Rhapsody proved quite evocative from a musical standpoint. A lushly pastoral work, it proved a fine showcase for violist Paul Neubauer’s considerable virtuosity and versatility.
Elliott Carter waited until he was 99 years old to set the poetry of Ezra Pound. The result, On Conversing with Paradise for baritone and chamber orchestra, was well worth the wait. Carter bridges the often enigmatic character of Pound’s poems with elements of “mad scene” that hint at the poet’s own personal instability. The result is a brilliantly demanding piece for which requires the soloist to demonstrate superlative dynamic control across a wide range. Schaefer passed along bass-baritone Evan Hughes’ apologies in advance for any vocal struggle – the singer was battling a cold – but indicated that, “Hughes had no intention of missing out on the piece’s New York premiere.” While one can understand his concern, Hughes needn’t have worried: his singing was superb and his characterization spot on. The orchestra was in excellent form here as well and Karchin led a finely detailed rendition of the work, exhorting ample dramatic heft where required. The composer, now 101, was on hand to say a few words and take a bow.
Percussionist/composer Jason Treuting created a quadruple concerto for his ensemble So Percussion and string orchestra. The Percussion Quartet Concerto juxtaposed So’s avant sound effects – tearing pieces of paper and other unconventional devices – with its penchant for groove-making. Treuting suggested that each member of the quartet was affiliated with a segment of the string ensemble. In practice, one just as frequently heard a juxtaposition of drums vs strings: syncopated, dancing percussion set against sustained legato passages from the ISCM collective. Whether fractals or tutti were commanding any given segment of the work, it proved equally diverting.
From a set-changing standpoint, it made perfect sense to close the evening with the NY premiere of Milton Babbitt’s string orchestra piece Transfigured Notes. But from a programming perspective, this was a poorly considered choice. A thorny, labyrinthine, and formidably challenging work, it didn’t stand a chance following So Percussion’s zesty ebullience. Indeed, several audience members walked out mid-performance: a sour note on which to end the evening.
Given that Babbitt co-founded the League with Elliott Carter back in the 1930s, one wishes the retreating faction might have had enough respect to make their exit before the work started; but maybe that was their game all along. While this writer was saddened to hear that Babbitt was unable to attend the performance, perhaps with the rudeness on display it was best that he missed it.
This is a piece that has had a fraught performance history. The Philadelphia Orchestra commissioned it back in the 70s. Then, finding it too challenging, cancelled its premiere – twice! Gunther Schuller conducted a performance of Transfigured Notes up in Boston in the 90s and made a recording of it, but its first appearance on a NY concert required ISCM programming it in 2010 – a doffing of the cap for one of their founders.
While Karchin and company gave it their best, after a long program fatigue appeared to have set in and intonation problems marred the proceedings. Alas, Transfigured Notes remains a work that hasn’t as yet been realized in an entirely satisfactory fashion. One hopes Karchin will get another crack at it at some point, as he remains one of Babbitt’s most persuasive advocates on the podium. Still, the fact that an occasional ensemble was brave enough to tread where the Philadelphians feared to go says a lot about ISCM’s chutzpah.
The League of Composers is onto something with these orchestra concerts – same time next year?
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