Sometimes, classical music gets a bad rap. To be perfectly honest, there is a chunk of the population that finds it to be synonymous with any number of derogatory terms: boring, annoying, or pompous. Some classical music lovers and advocates will counter this popular belief with arguments that only go to further the opinion of the other side: “Some people want to listen to mindless music”, “Some people simply don’t have patience”, etc. These ridiculous arguments only go to further the stereotype that classical music lovers are all pompous windbags who believe themselves to be uniquely educated and informed.
How, then, do we get people to forget their misconception, and believe that EVERYONE can enjoy or even love classical music, regardless of education, socioeconomic standing, or profession?
It all comes down to how classical music is presented; and now, for a limited time, you could join one organization that does it right.
Our friends at Q2 are featuring the work of Paola Prestinitoday. the festivities include Prestini commenting on featured tracks at the top of every hour and this nifty live cut (available for download on the Q2 site):
The International Contemporary Ensemble will be featured at 7 PM tonight on Q2. Hosted by John Schaefer, this live broadcast from Yamaha Piano Salon in NYC is a sneak preview of Lincoln Center Festival’s Varèse: (R)evolution.
(R)evolution will present the composer’s entire oeuvre over two concerts on July 19 &20. Performers include the New York Philharmonic, conductor Alan Gilbert, percussionist Steven Schick, and ICE.
Program: Density 21.5 (1936) with Claire Chase, flute Un Grand Sommeil Noir (1906) with Samantha Malk, soprano Ameriques (NEW YORK PREMIERE of 8-hand piano version) (1929) with Jacob Greenberg, Amy Williams, Amy Briggs and Thomas Rosenkranz
Q2 and ICE have been kind enough to share a freebie that all the new music kids will be adding to their Droid/iPhone/Blackberrys: a Poème Électronique ringtone!
For the past eight years, Graham Parker has been the Executive Director of Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. Now, he’s going to work for New York’s classical music radio station.
It was announced today that Parker will be the new Vice President of Classical WQXR 105.9 FM and WQXR online. It appears that he’s been tasked with helping the station to develop its brand identity. For those who aren’t “New Yawkers,” this may require some explanation.
In 2009, New York’s National Public Radio Station WNYC acquired WQXR from the New York Times. WQXR’s frequency, 96.3 FM, was in turn traded to Univision’s WCAA, moving the classical station further up the bandwidth to 105.9. For those of us out in the ‘burbs, this has made it more difficult in many areas to get the station. Coverage routinely goes in and out on my commute down to Princeton as I get further from the city.
While signal weakness has been a concern for many listeners, there have been other growing pains associated with the move as well. Some of the music programming previously on WNYC, which was considered the station for more cutting edge fare, has been moved over to WQXR. Some longtime DJs from WQXR were kept on; others were let go to make room for their counterparts on WNYC. As a public radio station, WQXR also jettisoned commercials and religious programs.
The marriage of mainstream classical and public radio’s eclecticism has been a challenging balance to negotiate. The station’s 2009-’10 programming doubtless left a number of longtime WQXR listeners unhappy at the increased incorporation of new music into its mainstream broadcasts. WNYC listeners who hoped for the eclectic and innovative types of music heard on programs such as Soundcheck and New Sounds to be writ large on the rest of the schedule have probably been bummed out too. They’ve been subjected to far more Vivaldi and Telemann than they consider healthy!
A bright spot has been the station’s online new music programing at Q2. This week, they’re spotlighting the music of Xenakis. While one understands that this probably isn’t their best bet for “drive-time” fare, its too bad that more of Q2 hasn’t infiltrated the airwaves.
One hopes that enlisting Mr. Parker helps the station to find its footing and reassert the importance of classical radio – contemporary music and repertory favorites alike – in New York.
So, Sequenza 21 readers, its your turn. What should Parker focus on to make WQXR a better station?
A) Better signal quality/range/accessibility.
B) A more coherent vision for music programming.
C) Local identity and live events.
D) Limiting the amount of Vivaldi bassoon concerti played during any given four-hour period to no more than three.
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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Brooklynite singer/songwriter Elizabeth Ziman is probably best known for her work with the indie pop band Elizabeth and the Catapult. But Ziman, a trained pianist who studied film scoring, was recently involved in composing music for a crossover “art song” project. The commission was premiered last Thursday at New Sounds Live, a concert hosted by John Schaefer at Merkin Hall in New York City. Elizabeth and the Catapult, Gabriel Kahane, and Ed Pastorini all appeared, performing new works that demonstrated their own particular takes on the ‘art song’ concept. After the gig, Elizabeth was kind enough to share some thoughts about creating crossover art songs at the behest of WNYC.
CC: How did you get involved with the New Sounds Live project? Have you been on the show in the past?
EZ: I first met John Schaefer when I was commissioned to write a piece for the Young People’s Choir of NYC about 5 years ago, and ever since he’s been really super supportive of all Elizabeth and The Catapult ventures- he’s featured us on Soundcheck a number of times. But this was our first appearance on New Sounds. We were all very excited.
CC: Tell us about the commissioned work that premiered at the Merkin Hall event.
EZ: Around the time John gave me the assignment to write the song cycle, I was reading a book of poems Leonard Cohen wrote while spending time in a Zen monastery in California: “Leonard Cohen’s Book of Longing”. The general theme of these poems are not so much about religion/sex/depression/politics as is per usual with him, but more personal- mostly about being human and flawed and trying to succumb to it. He’s constantly searches for peace but when he can’t reach it, he laughs at himself. So there’s a good dark humor to the poems. Something about this really struck a chord with me and ended up writing my own poems mirroring this sentiment. Musically speaking, it was just the normal setup plus string quartet.
CC: Merkin Hall is generally known as a classical and jazz venue. Has Elizabeth and the Catapult performed in similar halls in the past?
EZ: We performed at Carnegie Hall two years ago; otherwise the closest thing to Merkin Hall we’ve played is probably a club like Joe’s Pub in the Village. But we welcome all theatre/art spaces- they usually sound the best anyway.
CC: The concept for this New Sounds program was showing how ‘art songs’ – songs in the concert music tradition – are being affected by influences of pop, jazz, and other kinds of music. How did you respond to this?
EZ: I really just tried to do exactly what I do – but because there was some kind of budget I was lucky enough to be able to hire a string quartet for the occasion as well.
CC: A lot of indie pop artists seem increasingly interested in incorporating classical influences into their work. Conversely, classical artists are blending pop influences into their compositions. Can you comment on this trend and how, if at all, it affects your songwriting and arranging?
EZ: I went to school for film scoring- so I’ve always been very interested in arranging cinematically, and using a broader scope of instruments- but I feel like bands like Sufjan, The Dirty Projectors, David Byrne, St Vincent and Antony and the Johnsons(to name a few) have been really pushing the envelope with their arrangements in a very hip way.
CC: How did your approach the ‘art song’ compared to the other artists > on the show – Gabriel Kahane and Ed Pastorini? Was there any communication about the music you were composing ahead of time?
EZ: I love Gabe, I actually wrote one of the songs for the cycle on his piano at his house while he was on tour and I was house-sitting! But no, the night was pretty much a happy surprise for all of us.
CC: Is this type of project something you’d like to explore further with Elizabeth and the Catapult?
EZ: Sure, it was an absolute honor to perform in such a beautiful venue for such a great program. I’m always psyched to be involved in new random projects, especially those being sponsored by NPR.
CC: What’s next for Elizabeth and the Catapult? Are you touring/recording this summer?
EZ: We’re recording this summer and hopefully touring very, very soon!
Those interested in hearing the Merkin Hall concert, stay tuned! It will be broadcast as part of a future New Sounds program on WNYC.