Posts Tagged “Michigan”

Noe performing Drunken Moon with the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble

Kevin Noe performing Kieren MacMillan’s Drunken Moon with the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble

Last Tuesday, April 16, I trekked to Snyder Hall on the campus of Michigan State University in East Lansing, MI to see a performance by the Musique 21 ensemble, an immersive ‘Theatre of Music’ Production entitled Drunken Moon. The piece was conceived and created by conductor Kevin Noe and composer Kieren MacMillan, and features the merger of MacMillan’s eponymous monodrama for two voices with an English version of Arnold Schoenberg’s legendary Pierrot Lunaire.

Drunken Moon is more than a concert performance, it is a theatrical unfolding where the music and storyline are deeply intertwined and overlap on many occasions. I chose the descriptor ‘immersive’ deliberately, because Drunken Moon is more inviting to its audience than standard chamber operas. This is the touch of Kevin Noe, who has become renowned for his innovative programming with the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble. In fact, Drunken Moon began as a PNME production, one of that group’s many fully staged programs, which push the boundaries of traditional concert presentation to create an audience experience that is undeniably memorable and powerfully meaningful.

Even though he was armed with students from MSU’s College of Music, Maestro Noe’s designs hit their mark Tuesday night. The show began immediately as the audience entered the theatre, in that the performers and actors were dancing, drinking and chitchatting in an imagined bar, ‘La fin bleu’, set up on the stage. Walking in on the onstage commotion like this set a refreshing and relaxing tone, at least compared to the prescribed ceremony of most Classical or Contemporary music concerts. Although the ‘Fourth Wall’ was not manipulated to any extreme, the attitude of the performance made observing Drunken Moon feel like being a part of it in some small way.

The intimate audience experience I enjoyed Tuesday night was not only a product of the small theater, sets, costumes, lighting and music. My compatriots in the audience and I were drawn into the performance by the stellar acting and singing of soprano Lindsay Kesselman and baritone Robert Peavler who brilliantly portray the main characters in Drunken Moon – dubbed only “she” and “he”. The couple’s interaction is the focal point of the performance’s narrative and the link that connects MacMillan’s Drunken Moon with Pierrot Lunaire.

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Last Friday, I attended a performance by the Chicago-Based Fifth House Ensemble in Detroit, MI. As I melodramatically declared in my announcement for the concert, this was not a traditional performance, at least for me. The audience sat at cocktail tables, not an auditorium’s seats, there were drinks and snacks, the lights were dimmed, not darkened and anyone could get up at anytime to walk around the space or get a refill on their glass of wine.

Culpability for the evening’s laid back and unusual character lay both with Fifth House and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, who brought the ensemble to town as part of the Mix @ the Max series, which always features a club-like atmosphere for its concerts regardless of the genre of the program. As Fifth House’s flutist Melissa Snoza explained, the group is used to and, in fact, prefers playing in flexible spaces – venues where people can mingle, nosh and drink before, during and after the concert.

On its own, this decision – to present a chamber concert in a context more relaxed than the standard concert hall – is nothing new to the music scene (though, this was my first interaction with this species of musical presentation). What is quite unique, however, is Fifth House’s style of programming, namely, how they tell a story with animations that is accompanied by a hand-selecting score of pieces. Essentially, Friday’s program was a collaboration between Fifth House and graphic artist Ezra Claytan Daniels. To put it simply, Mr. Daniels and members of Fifth House conceived the storyline and script, the music was chosen to correspond to the narrative’s scenes and illustrations were created to convey the story. The end product is a multimedia experience equally dependent on its visual and musical components for success.

After the show Friday evening, Ms. Snoza told me how excitedly Fifth House’s audiences have received their ‘narrative’ programs, particularly Black Violet. She described how people attend their concerts with their eyes closed as to only focus on the ensemble’s virtuosity, while others hardly blink as to enjoy Mr. Daniel’s fantastic illustrations to the fullest. The party at my table Friday precisely embodied this bifurcation. One of my friends hardly noticed the third movement of Brahm’s Horn Trio because she was so smitten with the story’s protagonist – an indescribably cute black cat. I, on the other hand, missed parts of the plot because my ears, and eyes, were drawn to the performers.

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Early this week I posted my report on the 2011 Midwest Composers Symposium, wherein I mentioned the fact I had heard a lot of students’ music in a short amount of time. Well, the 30+ works I wrote about Thursday were just the beginning of my new music marathon because Midwest was immediately followed by last Monday’s student composers’ concert at the University of Michigan. That composers’ forum, the year’s second, was refreshingly brief in contrast to the preceding weekend’s protracted program, yet it contained delicious variety and a few personal debuts by composers I was not familiar with.

Monday’s concert began with an electro-acoustic work by Robert Alexander, an accomplished, technologically oriented composer/sound artist who I saw perform with the MiND Ensemble last Spring. Mr. Alexander’s piece, a line between two spaces (turning and turning and resting), featured composer David Biedenbender at the piano and a host of live electronic devices. As I gathered, the work was mainly improvised, though it seemed like the overall structure – mostly in terms of energy level – had been agreed on beforehand. Most remarkable about the piece is the way in which Mr. Alexander’s electronics interacted with the piano.  At first, the piano’s sound is undistorted, with the first synthesized sounds regurgitating the piano’s music and then shifting the pitch ever so slightly. However, the electronics increasingly gain power over the piano, achieving a beautiful and stunning summit whereby the electronic part actually subsumes the acoustic space of the piano, and the instrument is no longer audible.

The next two pieces were beautiful songs performed by composers David Wolff (tenor) and Michael Schachter (pianist). First came Mr. Wolff’s “Of Mere Being”, an impressionistic setting of Wallace Stevens. With its impulsive musical moods, “Of Mere Being” reflects the text impeccably and expressively without being obvious. Moreover, Mr, Wolff’s performance, for both songs, was fantastic and demonstrative of his impressive musicianship. Mr. Schachter’s Pierrot (Heart), followed and didn’t shy away from the mantle of excellent vocal writing introduced carried by “Of Mere Being”. Pierrot sets a poem by Langston Hughes, and opens simply to establish a somber, contemplative space from which the narrator will tell his story. Like “Of Mere Being”, Pierrot merges the piano and singer into a single dramatic force that illustrates the text without being to transparent. Particularly important to the drama in Mr. Schachter’s work is the aforementioned simplicity of the opening material. This idea’s expressivity grows slowly, only to explode rather gloriously in the song’s captivating climax.

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For those of you in the area, the highly-lauded chamber ensemble Brave New Works is returning to their old stomping grounds in Ann Arbor for two performances this weekend.

The first is at Ann Arbor’s beloved Kerrytown Concert House on Friday November 18, at 8 PM. The program will feature works by Joseph Schwantner, Chen Yi and UM’s own Evan Chambers and Bright Sheng. Tickets are $5 for students, $10-25 general admission

The second concert is the following evening (Nov. 19) at 8 PM in the McIntosh theater at the UM School of Music, and features an all-Michigan program of Erik Santos, Michael Daugherty, Kristin Kuster and Paul Schoenfield. This concert is free.

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The Kerrytown Concert House

As those of you who regularly read my reports from Ann Arbor know, most of the new music I cover is related to the University of Michigan, usually in the form of a student composer concert, a performance by the resident Contemporary Directions Ensemble or the appearance of a contemporary work or two on a Symphony Band concert. Beyond these highly active groups at the Michigan School of Music, our town is gifted with two wonderful concert presenting organizations who regularly feature contemporary music on their programs: the University Musical Society and the Kerrytown Concert House.  Last year I attended several UMS events, but hadn’t stepped inside KCH as an audience member until last week when composer Ezra Donner invited me to hear the Aurea Silva Trio premiere his work Variations for Flute, Bassoon and Piano.

More so than UMS, the Kerrytown Concert House focuses on experimental programming and intimate presentations, garnering recognition from the Nation Endowment of the Arts for their important role in the music community of Southeastern Michigan and, frankly, the whole country. Unbeknownst to me, KCH has hosted a new music/jazz festival called “Edgefest” for fifteen years, which wrapped up last month. Although, I missed out on an opportunity to report on that concert series, I was able to catch a bit of new music there last week with the aforementioned recital by the Aurea Silva Trio.

Commissioned for the Trio, Variations reflects a consistent theme in Mr. Donner’s music: the influence of his upbringing in the Rust Belt of western Pennsylvania. To my ears, the connection was apparent in the first, expansive sonority of the piece, which ascends from the rumbling depths of the bassoon’s lowest register to the higher ranges of the flute and the piano. This section is the theme of what Mr. Donner called a, “classically oriented theme and variations” in pre-concert remarks, and does more than establish the root of all the subsequent music, it introduces bassoonist Gareth Thomas as a very prominent figure in the narrative of the work. Beyond the structure, the only stylistic allusion to classical tradition occurs with one variation I noted as a, “demented waltz”. I found the link impossible to ignore thanks to the section’s typifying meter and accompanimental pattern in the piano, though the passage’s melodic material is more of a grotesque caricature of than a respectful homage to traditional waltz music. As the variations continue, the ‘waltz’ music returns in a decayed form while the bassoon maintains its status as the principle melodic figure in the work – until the theme comes back. With the bassoon relegated to its lowest range, pianist David Gililand and flutist Brandy Hudelson are given an opportunity to expand on what we’ve heard before, leading to a rousing conclusion that caused one attendee – luminary America composer William Bolcom – to call out “good!” before the Trio could take its first bow.

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Conductor Christopher James Lees

Up until this last weekend, the true new music season was yet to begin at the University of Michigan. True, fabulous the Symphony Band and members of the performance faculty have already made fabulous presentations of contemporary music (as I’ve written about), but the two groups most dedicated to the work of living composers – the students of the Composition Department and the Contemporary Directions Ensemble – did not start their engines before last Saturday.

Although it is gaining momentum at the University of Michigan, the Contemporary Direction Ensemble is one of Ann Arbor’s best kept secrets, thanks in large part to its dynamic director Christopher James Lees. Maestro Lees’ commitment to new music is only matched by his charisma and musical ability. In the case of the group’s first concert of the season on Saturday, all three of these qualities were overshadowed by Mr. Lees’ perspicacious programming. If I wanted to be understated, I would say the selection and ordering of works was immaculate, but I prefer language more elaborate. I was entrained from beginning to end by the beguiling ebb of instrumental strength, musical style and length as each work passed to the next. Collectively, the pieces Mr. Lees selected attacked me, beckoned me, mesmerized me, connected me to an imagined past, nuzzled me, astonished me and drove me to tap me feet. It was the most engaging, well-constructed and consistent new music event I’ve ever attended. So, without discussing (or identifying!) any of the individual works and performances, I can confidently declare that, at least on Sunday night, Maestro Lees and his performers were far beyond reproach.

The first work on the program was Chris TheofanidisRaga (1992), scored for pierrot-plus. As the program note mentioned, the piece makes many allusions to Indian music, mainly through the use of drones, melodic slides and the bongo drums’ ‘faux-tabla’ groove. Overall, the work moves from simplicity – one note colored variably in the ensemble – to more melodic complexity. Raga is tied together by the consistency of the melodic material and the two percussion parts: the bongos are omnipresent and gong hits accompany most of the important structural delineations in the piece. As I’ve indicated, all the melodic/harmonic material is very closely related throughout, so development takes place in subtle ways such as increased ornamentation when melodies return, thickening the contrapuntal landscape (which produces a kind of whitewash effect since the mode is shared in all the lines), and so forth. The only notable contrasting ideas come in the form of dissonant clusters in the piano, which play an important role in leading the piece to its climatic conclusion of towering, static harmonies.

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Last Saturday night I saw a concert that paired, more closely than any before, technology with the living composer. The debut performances of the MiND (Music in Neural Dimensions) Ensemble at the University of Michigan this weekend left its audience in awe as the performers used “advanced neurofeedback technology” in conjunction with live electronics to produce an evening of music controlled – literally – by their brain activity. Propelled by its uncharted level of novelty, the concert was a dramatic exploration of music’s relationship with our mind and spirit unified but a spirit of interactivity that extended beyond the neurofeedback to audience participation and elegant live electronics.

MiND is made up of graduate composers David Biedenbender, Suby Raman and Sam Richards along with Robert Alexander, Dan Charette, Laura Gaines and Annlie Huang. Unlike most contemporary music ensembles where composers often work behind the scenes, Mr. Biedenbender, Mr. Raman and Mr. Richards participated actively in the performance as instrumentalists and narrators. Given that their instrumental prowess was limited, the pure musical elements were simple and serene, if not a little cheesy at times. This trance-like character, however, did not detract from the evening’s overall affect, which used meditations led by local T’ai Chi Master Washentha Young to set a tone of connectedness between mind, body and spirit.

The performance’s zen-like mien was a wise creative choice because beating the audience over the head with the science of everything would have desiccated the performance like overcooked chicken. To be honest, it was not always clear how or what part of the music was being influenced by the neurofeedback at any given point. Though on multiple occasions the MiND musicians explained the types of brain data they were using to alter the music, it was not possible to completely discern how much of what we were hearing was live and pre-recorded.

This lack of transparency rested in the primitive quality of the neurofeedback devices, or “brain hats” as the MiND Ensemble members called them. In fact, Friday and Saturday’s performances were as important to the world of music as they were to the scientific research of the brain. I couldn’t resist relating the concert’s equitable significance to science and music drew me to Milton Babbitt’s famous article, Who Cares If You Listen? (I prefer his original title, The Composer as Specialist) wherein the late champion of total serialism compares the state of contemporary music – in 1958 – to the social standing advanced mathematics and science.

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Despite driving snow and slippery roads, an eager crowd gathered Sunday evening to hear Michigan’s University Philharmonia Orchestra deliver eight world premiere performances of works by student composers. The concert is one of the most highly anticipated of the year and is a culmination not only for the student composers involved but also for the student conductors responsible for bringing their pieces to life. This year was even more special than most because all the pieces on the programs were Masters Degree theses from the 2011 class. This fact made the evening more of a watershed event than usual as it represented these composers’ first forays into the venerable land of orchestral writing and all the professional implications we associate with it.

The music was consistently good throughout, which slightly surprised me because these works were many of the composers’ first attempts at handling a full orchestra. The pieces were also very individual, though it was possible to hear the history behind a few of them. Even though the connection some of the works had to the orchestral tradition did not affect my enjoyment of them, I must confess I found the more unique works more striking at the time. However, after a few days have passed and my initial reactions dissipated, it is clear this was an amazingly strong showing from a class of composers filled with distinct personalities and musical voices.

The evening began with Patrick Harlin’s Rapture, which he explained is, “not meant to invoke religious imagery…rather a state of extended bliss.” Mr. Harlin’s work fulfills his description with sustained periods of high energy bubbling with brief, repeated rhythmic-melodic packages embedded into a landscape of constantly shifting orchestral colors. Eventually, long lines emerge carrying the primary thematic material of the piece, but the energy level remains high most of the way through. Impressively, though Rapture careens through a narrow range of rhythms, Mr. Harlin avoids setting a groove or creating trite rhythmic parallelisms. Particularly towards the end of the, the phrasing is delightfully choppy and the orchestration shifts chaotically. To balance this out, Mr. Harlin makes the primary theme very clear, particularly leading into its final recurrence, which is signaled by a piccolo solo. In the end, Rapture comes across as both joyful and frenetic, and the work’s ebullient themes bounce across the orchestra like patrons of a wild amusement park ride.

Next was Donia Jarrar’s Border Crossings, which featured the composer on stage as a vocalist and narrator. The piece is overtly programmatic and deals with Ms. Jarrar’s experience as a young girl fleeing Kuwait after the Iraqi Army invaded the small Middle Eastern nation in August 1990. As one expects, Ms. Jarrar’s music references the setting of her story, but she is very intelligent about incorporating her allusions to the Middle East into the framework of the piece. The most striking example of this is the beginning where Ms. Jarrar sings over a drone of open fifths. The harmony changes but remains quintal until the strings land on an incredibly poignant major-seventh chord and the pattern of sparse accompaniment is broken. Border Crossings succeeds as a backdrop for Ms. Jarrar’s text, but it was her performance that rent the most hearts on Sunday night, nearly stealing the evening had it not been for the strength of the other pieces on the program.

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Monday night, the galleries of the Univeristy of Michigan Museum of Art (UMMA) were filled with the music of Stephen Harkte, John Harbison and Julia Wolfe thanks to the University of Michigan’s Contemporary Directions Ensemble (CDE) under the direction of its energetic and accomplished conductor Christopher James Lees. UMMA opened its doors to CDE in a collaborative exhibition of the evening’s music and a piece by Swiss artist Mai-Thu Pirret currently on display at the museum. The connection drawn between Mr. Hartke, Mr. Harbison, Ms. Wolfe and Ms. Perret’s output comes from the creators’ influences: extra-musical inspirations for the composers and, for Ms. Perret, the following quote from artist Sol Lewitt, “The Idea is the Machine Which Makes Art.”

Before diving into the music, I’d like to spend a moment praising the concert’s setting on UMMA’s ground floor. Opposite the building’s main entrance, performers are recessed in a cathedral-esque nave where the sound reverberates wildly, resonating against the stone pillars, marble floors and masterworks of art lining the walls. Recently, the museum has made a habit of hosting performance groups associated with the University of Michigan, including last month’s triumphant standing-room-only performance of all six Brandenburg Concertos by a student early music ensemble under charismatic conductor/harpsichordist Brandon Straub. With unforgettable events like January’s Bach-extravaganza, and Monday’s intimate offering of contemporary music, the UMMA is one of the most exciting concert venues at Michigan.

Of course, a space is only as memorable as the music we experience within it, and Monday’s program was potent and profound, with each work demonstrating a different approach to the evening’s over-arching theme: outside influences. The first piece, Stephen Hartke’s The Horse with the Lavender Eye (1997), focuses on the idea of the non sequitur, and draws on sources from, “Carlo Goldoni to Japanese court music to the cartoonist R. Crumb, as well as 19th century Brazilian novelist Machado de Assis and Looney Tunes,” for its inspiration, according to the composer’s note.

A trio of clarinet, violin and piano, The Horse with the Lavender Eye unfolds in four seemingly isolated movements each of which has a strong individual identity. The second movement, “The Servant of Two Masters” is the best example of the movements’ idiosyncrasies as the piano alternatively serves the Clarinet and Violin of the course of its duration. The last two movements, “Waltzing in the Abyss” and “Cancel My Rhumba Lesson” make the clearest stylistic allusions of the work with hints at a waltz pulse and rhythmic and melodic tropes from early jazz and/or ragtime, respectively. As much as the movements feel disconnected – often,they just unravel, ending without a sense of closure, not least a strong connection to what follows – the whole work is held together by Mr. Hartke’s personal sense of rhythm, along with a very subtle reference between the first and last movements. A strong presence of rhythm, its transformative role in the music and – in particular – a rhythmic profile hovering on the boundaries of transparent grooves have always been prominent in my understanding of Mr. Hartke’s music and these elements were re-illuminated to me in the CDE’s performance of this composition.

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One of the great perks of living in Ann Arbor, Michigan is the University Musical Society (UMS), a community group that, for 132 years, has brought diverse programs of dance, music and theater to this Midwestern cultural center. This year’s schedule has allowed me many new experiences as an audience member – most notably my first dance concerts with the Paul Taylor Dance Company and Sankai Juku – and has given all of us in the area access to many of the world’s most praised musicians, such as Renee Fleming and Wynton Marsalis.

This last Saturday saw the most recent chapter in my interactions with this UMS season when I attended an outstanding jazz concert featuring the Grammy Nominated Vijay Iyer Trio and Rudresh Mahanthappa and Bunky Green’s Apex. As a composer, jazz has always played an interesting role on the fringe of my musical development. I played jazz in high school at a decent level, studied it somewhat more in depth at regional summer programs, but never latched on to the genre in the same way as I did concert music, both historical and contemporary. I saw Saturday night’s concert as an important reconnaissance mission, so to speak: it allowed me a small window into the state of contemporary jazz and, more interestingly, gave me an opportunity to compare what I know of concert music with the evening’s performance.

The performances were really incredible, and quite different in a surprising way. The Vijay Iyer Trio opened and freely explored material on their acclaimed album Historicity, earlier music and even covered the Michael Jackson song “Human Nature”. What I found the most remarkable part of the Trio’s performance was the seamless coexistence of free-form improvisation and strict coordination. As many of you know, jazz compositions loosely mixture of pre-determined and extemporaneous material and Vijay Iyer’s music is an incredibly elegant emulsion of these sources. Most stunning were arrival points that emerged suddenly from long periods of cumulative improvisation. As impressively virtuosic as Vijay Iyer (piano), Stephan Crump (bass) and Marcus Gilmore (drums) were on their individual instruments, the sensitivity of their collective listening and concentration – which enabled elaborate musical structures to exist amongst improvised anarchy – was the most profound element of their act.

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