Posts Tagged “World Premiere”
Composer Vivian Fung
This week marks the premiere of a new concerto by Vivian Fung
for the harp. Starting in Alabama
this Thursday and later this spring in Germany, NY, DC, and in the fall, California, harpist Bridget Kibbey unveils the piece for harp, percussion, and strings. “It was tricky,”
says Fung. “When we were deciding on the instrumentation, we originally thought it was going to be for the entire orchestra – but the harp is like a guitar, or other instruments that have balance issues, if you are not careful [with the orchestration]. So even with the percussion, I have to choose instruments that could compliment that sound very well, but not drown out the sound of the harp.”
Fung also prepares the harp in one section of the work, placing card stock in the strings. “It kind of mutes the strings (in the low register) so it almost turns it into a percussive sound, almost a bass guitar sort of sound – you know, the thump.”
Listen to an interview with Vivian Fung about this new concerto here as an mp3 file including how the commission came about, whether to name or subtitle the new work, inspirations, and writing for harp.
The New York premiere takes place Sunday and Monday, April 6 & 7 at le poisson rouge.
Bonus - more behind the scenes for composers – shop talk with Vivian and John Clare: mp3 file Hear the answers to how Ms. Fung started as a composer, dream genres, and the importance of recordings/publication for a composer.
No Comments »
From Ernst Lubitsch’s “The Loves of Pharaoh”
We’re approaching the heart of the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s 30th annual Next Wave Festival, and one of it’s more unique offerings is right around the corner. This Thursday through Saturday, composer Joe C. Phillips, Jr. will lead his ensemble, Numinous, in the premiere performances of his newly composed score for Ernst Lubitsch’s long-lost silent film, The Loves of Pharaoh.
I think the project presents a fascinating challenge for a composer – how do you respect the history of an artifact like The Loves of Pharaoh, while still expressing your 21st-century artistic perspective? I won’t speculate on how Mr. Phillips addressed this scenario because I don’t have to.
This weekend I tracked down Numinous’ fearless leader and asked him about his mindset while scoring Lubitsch’s historic film:
Since the film was released in 1922, obviously there has been much development in musical language and technique, and it felt right to reflect that in the new score. Not in a self-conscious, “look at how modern and cool I am” way but rather as a natural extension of my own musical thinking and expression. Like all composers, my musical language is a product of sieving influences and thoughts into one unique voice and in [Pharaoh], I believe you’ll hear this. There are echoes of my past work but also new, formerly latent, ideas come to the fore and more fully explored in this score. And this idea to explore newer territory in music, to bring the film into modern times so to speak, was one of the reason Joseph Melillo was looking for a new score for the screening.
Mr. Phillips is very excited for this week’s performances, and feels very grateful for his association with BAM, who he describes as being, “incredibly supportive throughout the development of the project.” Straddling the Next Wave Festival’s film and music programs, I have the feeling The Loves of Pharaoh will be a major stand out even against the ridiculously vibrant mixture of genres and disciplines on the slate at BAM this Fall.
Tickets and more information about the upcoming performances of The Loves of Pharaoh are available here. If you’re in Brooklyn from Oct. 18-20, head on over to the Next Wave Festival and hear what Joe C. Phillips, Jr. and Numinous have drummed up to accompany this 90-year-old silent movie.
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.
Read the rest of this entry »
Posted by Christian Hertzog in Chamber Music, Composers, Concerts, Contemporary Classical, Experimental Music, Festivals, Performers, Premieres, tags: Christopher Adler, David Toub, Ferneyhough, Frank Cox, Matthew Burtner, noise, soundON, Stuart Saunders Smith, World Premiere
Full disclosure: I co-founded San Diego New Music in 1994, served as its first Executive Director, and have been a board member since 2000. This isn’t a review or a comprehensive report so much as some of my impressions and observations about what’s going on at The Athenaeum in La Jolla, California, this weekend. If you think I overlooked anything, please feel free to contribute more in the comments section below.
After core members of NOISE, the resident ensemble of San Diego New Music, dispersed across the continent (flutist/director Lisa Cella to Baltimore; percussionist Morris Palter to Fairbanks), it became more and more expensive and time-consuming to do an entire season with the ensemble in San Diego. The ingenious solution NOISE came up with was to do an annual festival in June.
This year’s installment is the 5th year of San Diego New Music’s festival, soundON. From the beginning, it’s been impressive for the wide range of musical styles represented on the festival and for the high caliber of their commissions and score submitted through a semi-annual call. Unlike other competitions, there’s no entry fee. The musicians themselves wade through the entries and determine which scores they want to play on the festival.
Last night, the first of the festival, had impressive commissions and nice finds through the calls for scores. Several of the composers in attendance this year have been composers with whom NOISE has developed a relationship over the years: Christopher Adler (who doubles as the Executive Director of San Diego New Music), Stuart Sanders Smith, Matthew Burtner, Madelyn Byrne, and Sidney Marquez Boquiren.
Madelyn Byrne is represented by a video installation by Lily Glass, to which Byrne supplied a soundtrack. I can’t comment on it now, as I spent most of the last night catching up with old friends, but the lovely sounds I did manage to overhear and the colorful still or slow-moving abstractions on the screen invite further exploration tonight and tomorrow. (Update: turns out I heard this two years ago at a new music conference. It’s included on a DVD of works by lesbian composers, Sounding Out. Yes, it is worth experiencing again.).
Time Comes Full Circle, for violin and cello, struck me as completely unique in the output of Stuart Saunders Smith. Framed by an opening and closing spoken dialogue between the instruments the work begins with a mournful modal lament for both instruments, a prismatic minor key duet somewhat reminiscent of Pärt or Schnittke; I’ve never heard anything like this before in Smith’s music. This first section continues exploring this haunting music, only to abandon it for an extensive middle section which is in a vein more typical for Smith: independent, thorny harmonic and rhythmic counterpoint, marked by striking moments where the violin and cello come together in unisons—one, an A 5 spaces above the treble clef. It’s not a perfect unison—at times one instrument drops out and the other takes over, or a heterophonic melody splinters away. The minor-key lament returns in the final section, splintered in new combinations.
Any critic describing Smith’s music is in trouble searching for an easy category in which to pigeonhole him. If he belongs to any school, it’s probably the individualist, intuitive New England branch of experimentalism begun by Ives and Ruggles, later branching off in an intellectually rigorous way by Elliott Carter. Smith’s music, though, strikes me as highly intuitive, seasoned with the acceptance of sounds and free forms of the New York School composers Cage and Brown. Invoking any of these names tells you, only in the vaguest, broadest sense, what his music resembles. He is sui generis. What I can report is that this is an expansive work, a significant contribution to the infrequently explored combination of violin and cello. It was given a wonderful performance by cellist Franklin Cox and violinist Mark Menzies, and Smith seemed genuinely delighted with their interpretation.
A recent solo flute work by Nicolas Tzortzis, Incompatibles III, was dropped from the concert. The program notes are intriguing: “The whole work is based on the idea of ‘going towards something else,’ coming back each time, leaving again, and so on, before reaching the moment of the revelation.” Tzortzis was represented by a frenetic ensemble piece last year which appeared to ring some new changes on the New Complexity style (a distinguishing feature was the amount of repetition and return in the work). I hadn’t encountered his music at all before the Festival last year, and I was looking forward to hearing more. Alas, in its place was Berio’s Sequenza I, given a sharply delineated reading by Lisa Cella. I know it’s a major landmark in flute repertory, and yet taken in the context of all of Berio’s Sequenzas, it is the most dated, the least interesting to 21st century ears. The later Sequenzas developed a modern manner of prolonging dissonant harmonies through a solo instrument; today Sequenza I seems more caught up in the rapid turnover of all 12 tones, as many European composers strove to do in the 1950s.
Christopher Adler is my favorite San Diego composer after Chinary Ung. Aeneas in the Underworld, Act I: The Caves of Cumae suggests a new direction in his music—a music theatre work for reciting guitarist. Chris has two consistent strains in his music, the ethnomusicological (he’s an expert on Thai music) and the mathematical, and Aeneas appears to lean towards the latter. In four “scenes,” guitarist Colin McAllister recites Virgil’s poetry in Latin, while playing a prepared guitar. Like Cage’s prepared piano music, the guitar is more of a percussion instrument here than a melodic/harmonic device, so the focus in the music is on expanding and contracting rhythmic patterns. Over these regimented rhythms, McAllister orates with what I assume is a more natural spoken delivery.
I heard the premiere a month or two back, and was frustrated by the inability to read the text in the dimly lit hall. The music, in general terms, delineates the broad themes of the poetry. Last night’s performance was far more assured, the rhythms crisper, the declamation more confident, and it was greatly helpful to be able to read a translation of Virgil’s text as McAllister recited.
You may have seen this cartoon going around—it’s pretty much an inside joke by Christopher Adler part describing the work to an incredulous guitarist, although in broader terms the interaction between composer and performer is rather true, if cloaked in humorous exaggeration.
A surprise event had been announced for the festival, and after a brief intermission Frank Cox was plunked down in a chair front and center facing the performance area, and serenaded with seven compositions dedicated to him by Claus-Steffen Mahnkopf, Stuart Saunders Smith, Colin Holter, Steven Kazuo Takasugi, Sidney Corbett, John Fonville, and Brian Ferneyhough. The real surprise was Ferneyhough’s piece, titled Paraphrase on Antonin Artaud’s “Les Cenci,” unusual for being the only purely electronic work by Ferneyhough anyone present could recall. It appeared to be constructed entirely from samples, and yet the densities and microtones distinguished it from the average MIDI composition.
SoundON in the past has done “Chill-Out” concerts, which are what you might expect them to be: performances of more meditative, quiet, and/or serene works. Tension Studies I by Samuel Carl Adams, a West Coast composer still in his 20s generating lots of buzz, was scheduled for a Chill-Out performance, yet was withdrawn. In its place was a lovely electroacoustic composition by Matthew Burtner, whose title I do not now recall, composed for Colin McAllister. McAllister is a mountaineer, and recorded sounds of his ascent up the tallest volcano in Mexico; Burtner used these sounds and slowly-changing diatonic harmonies to supply an acoustic foundation over which McAllister played gently oscillating notes, ringing harmonics, and melodies which sounded quasi-improvised. Many folks commented later on how beautiful this work was, and I agree. I had heard it previously, and hearing it for a second time was a pleasant experience.
David Toub will be known to Sequenza21 readers. He submitted a trio for violin, cello, and vibraphone to the call for scores. Christopher Adler, in a preconcert talk, described how Toub’s score—dharmachakramudra—leapt out from all the others, in its being a more austere form of minimalism, a style Adler did not see at all in any of the other 400+ submissions. It is a quiet piece, featuring chords in the violin and cello rocking back and forth with four-note vibraphone chords. If you can imagine Morton Feldman writing a rhythmically regular and shorter piece, or Steve Reich writing a dissonant, slow work, that might give you an idea of the piece.
The concert ended with the ocean inside by Frances White, another composer new to San Diegans. Her work was composed for Eighth Blackbird, and incorporated a tape part. It was consonant, lyrical, and a lovely way to end the evening.
And the performances? First class, throughout the night. These performers take their commitment to the music of our time extremely seriously. Doing this festival is a labor of love, and the concern and passion is always evident in everything they play.
1 Comment »
Miss Music Nerd (AKA composer/keyboardist Linda Kernohan) recently had an opportunity to chat with Sir Harrison Birtwistle after hearing his Violin Concerto premiered by Christian Tezlaff and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. In the course of their conversation, Birtwistle discussed the impetus for writing a violin concerto, his difficulties with precompositional schemes (“I get terribly bored…by the time I’ve got 200 yards down the road”), and how he handles getting “stuck” while writing a work.
The entire interview (with some interesting links to other Birtwistliana) can be found here.
Ms. Hahn, if you’re looking for a new concerto to learn (hint, hint)….
2 Comments »
Posted by Armando Bayolo in Chamber Music, Composers, Concerts, Contemporary Classical, Events, Music Events, Percussion, Premieres, Washington D.C., tags: D.C., Music event, Percussion Concertos, Washington, World Premiere
Detail of Terry Berlier's "Stair Drum," one of three percussive sculptures for "The 41st Rudiment"
On Friday, April 30, 2010, my ensemble, Great Noise Ensemble, will present the last concert of our 2009-10 concert season. The program, presented at Ward Hall, on the campus of the Catholic University of America at 7:30 p.m. (Visit www.greatnoiseensemble.com for tickets if you’re in the Washington region this Friday), is a unique program featuring a new work for mixed ensemble and sculpted percussion by composer D.J. Sparr in collaboration with artist Terry Berlier of Stanford University. The 41st Rudiment, named after the 40 “rudiments” that percussionists study as they develop their craft, represents one more rudiment indicative of the experimental nature of Berlier’s instruments. It was written for percussionist Christopher Froh, of the San Francisco Contemporary Chamber Players, and Great Noise Ensemble.
D.J. Sparr initially pitched the piece that would become The 41st Rudiment to Great Noise Ensemble’s board some five years ago. “The idea came through wanting to work with Chris Froh,” he says, “whom I had seen out on an amazing concert in Ann Arbor years back. I was in the Bay Area, so we went out for drinks, and over the course of the conversation we talked about finding instruments at a hardware store… and somehow, collectively we came up with the idea that we should ‘build something.’ From there, we started talking about what that would be, who might be interested collaborating with us, etc.” After searching for an appropriate collaborator it was Froh who suggested that they work with Terry Belier. “Terry and I worked on another project together a few years ago with the Empyrean Ensemble and Italian composer, Luciano Chessa. I played one of her sculptures then (an earlier “panlid gamelan”) and fell in love with her aesthetic. When D.J. and I first started talking about this project some five years ago, I suggested asking Terry to be involved.”
“A few years ago,” writes Terry Berlier, “ I was working on a piece called ‘Two pan tops can meet’ (2003) which was based on the homophobic Jamaican saying ‘Two pan tops can’t meet.’ (I had worked in Jamaica for two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer from 1995-97.) That first piece used thrift store pan lids as speaker housings that played a sound piece. But while I was sifting through the pan lids, I started setting aside the pan lids that resonated strongly. These eventually became Pan Lid Gamelan I in 2003 and gallery viewers were invited to play it.
In 2008, Composer Luciano Chessa wanted to compose this sculpture/instrument into one of our collaborations (Inkless Imagination IV) and I was excited to have a professional percussionist, Chris Froh, play them. A few years later, Chris asked if I would like to work with him again on making sculptures specifically for him to play and work with D.J. Sparr.”
D.J. Sparr has been building a reputation for many years now as a composer of rhythmically charged and energetic music (the Alburquerque Tribune once referred to his piece for eighth blackbird, The Glam Seduction as “Paganini on coke”) that merges classical conventions with rock idioms. The 41st Rudiment is no different, although the rock influence this time is far subtler than in the works that gained Sparr his early reputation. “I am always influenced by the drama of a rock-and-roll concert, and in this work, the drummer is the superstar… he engages the other players in ways to entice them to join in with him in gestures and call-and-response melodies…much the same as would happen in a rock-band scenario where guitarists, drummers, and bass players trade solos. This work,” however, “is heavily influenced by the baroque concerto grosso form as the large scale form is comprised of many short movements. There are elements of Bach and Vivaldi, but there are also elements of other things: Satie Gymnopédies; Spanish barcaroles; improvisatory structures such as Zorn’s Cobra; and many cadenzas and improvisation.”
Read the rest of this entry »
1 Comment »
I’m in Baltimore covering the world (intergalactic) premiere of Judith Lang Zaimont
‘s piano concerto, “Solar Traveller”
with Timothy Hoft
and the Peabody Conservatory Wind Ensemble
led by Harlan Parker
. I caught the dress rehearsal yesterday and a composer masterclass, and will do some interviews today and film the concert tonight
. (There is also Husa’s Music for Prague 1968
and Carolyn Bremer’s Early Light
[based on the Star Spangled Banner] on the program!)
So I was amused to find this
as I was checking news this morning:
(CNN) — Scientists at NASA have discovered a nearly invisible ring around Saturn — one so large that it would take 1 billion Earths to fill it. Its diameter is equivalent to 300 Saturns lined up side to side. And its entire volume can hold one billion Earths, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory said late Tuesday. The obvious question: Why did it take scientists so long to discover something so massive?
The ring is made up of ice and dust particles that are so far apart that “if you were to stand in the ring, you wouldn’t even know it,” Verbiscer said in a statement. Also, Saturn doesn’t receive a lot of sunlight, and the rings don’t reflect much visible light. But the cool dust — about 80 Kelvin (minus 316 degrees Fahrenheit) — glows with thermal radiation. NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope, used to spot the ring, picked up on the heat.
Coincidence? Maybe not. And of course, Zaimont has a charming piano suite “Callisto” based on the moons of Jupiter, as well as other astral works: ASTRAL… a mirror life on the astral plane…; Sky Curtains: Borealis, Australis; and Chroma: Northern Lights. Look for video of the new concerto in an upcoming Composing Thoughts.
Here are the program notes supplied by Zaimont about the new concerto:
I. Outward Bound (10:00)
II. Nocturne (Lunar) (8:40)
III. Ad astra per aspera (6:50)
Concerto “Solar Traveller” is absolute music, following no implicit program. Yet the work and its individual movements carry descriptive titles rather than the more traditional tempo markings. This is because the Concerto is one of several of my works drawing inspiration from the impress upon our consciousness and imagination of the vastness, wonder and beauty of the natural world of sky, season and space. These pieces (all instrumental works) share a dramatic and coloristic emphasis, and their forms are far from traditional. (This inspirational thread began with the twelve solo-piano preludes of A Calendar Set, and continues in similar works, including the orchestral Chroma – Northern Lights and the piano trio ZONES.)
While the Concerto outwardly observes the usual three-movement large form, its individual movements digress in key ways from an orthodox ‘concerto’ template. “Outward Bound” contrasts two themes, one heroic, energetic and the second inward and moody. The motive-filled first theme is announced by the piano and soon becomes a communal statement for soloist and ensemble. When the second theme enters, it too is stated by the piano alone and it remains predominantly soloist’s terrain throughout. Extensive development centers on extrapolations of the heroic theme; to balance, the cadenza is devoted entirely to the second theme. The movement concludes heroically .
“Nocturne (Lunar)” is the soloist’s terrain, punctuated and frequently partnered by the ensemble in music largely expansive, as if in ‘stopped’ time. As it proceeds a tune arises (heard first as a flute solo above quiet piano accompaniment), fashioned from the simplest of materials; each of the tune’s appearances anchors the movement, calming the mercurial, fragmentary outbursts from the piano. At times as desolate and unfamiliar as a lunar landscape, the nocturne eventually calms, concluding serenely.
A driving sprint, “Ad astra per aspera” grows from an insistent rhythmic cell freshened by hemiolas and other cross-rhythms and chromatic clashes. Percussion is spotlighted throughout, and the soloist shifts frequently from foreground to combining with the ensemble — a change of function which in itself becomes textural counterpoint to the forward thrust. A brief respite (trumpet solo) occurs during which the incessant beating disappears, but the essential rhythm returns shortly in full force. Towards the end the Nocturne’s theme enters in the ensemble, in overlapping meter with the soloist, who continues the main drive; just prior to the vehement close a fragment of the heroic first movement is again heard.
The work ties together through a technical feature: Each movement is built from the raw material of a progressively smaller interval.
Outward Bound’s themes are built from 3rds and all of the development highlights that consonant interval. (At one point there is a scale upwards across two-thirds of the keyboard in parallel thirds, played entirely by the left hand). Built from 2nds, the Nocturne achieves its uneasy, fragmentary quality from the clash of 2nds hammered loudly or (stretched to 7ths and 9ths) in glittering scherzo filigree. “To the stars, through adversity” is formed by ultimate compression: pounding unisons. Thus, the Solar Traveller pianist physically experiences the compressive forces and increased tensions we associate with space travel’s incredible speeds, through the analog of progressive intervallic compression throughout the piece.
5 Comments »
Labor Day 2009 and while John Clare has an airshift, he also has an interview. Chris Thile is relaxing in New York and making coffee, ready to talk shop. Thile jokes, waxes poetic and has a thoughtful answer for the questions. You see, Chris is about to add to the small repertoire of mandolin & orchestra concertos, with his own Ad astra per alas porci. The world premiere performances are September 17, 19, and 20, 2009 with The Colorado Symphony & Jeffrey Kahane.
In the second part of our interview Chris talks about how the piece came about and if others might perform it: Interview Part 2
Thile has been busy as well with his band, The Punch Brothers, and with a duo project with bassist extraordinaire Edgar Meyer. He’ll keep up the concerto as well, with six more chances for you to hear it, the Oregon Symphony (September 26, 2009; with Carlos Kalmar), the Alabama Symphony (October 29, 2009; with Justin Brown), the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra (January 23 and 24, 2010; again with Jeffrey Kahane), the Winston-Salem Symphony (March 13, 14, and 16, 2010; with Robert Moody); the Delaware Symphony (March 19 and 20, 2010; with David Amado);and the Portland Symphony (March 28, 2010; with Scott Terrell).
It doesn’t seem all that long ago that I heard the world premiere of Blind Leaving the Blind. (Read about it here: S21 Review.) It was quite a night @ Zankel, St. Patrick’s Day 2007. Chris Thile has since recorded the work with the Punch Brothers, and made a duo album with Edgar Meyer. Now Thile is about to embark on another journey – a mandolin concerto, Ad astra per alas porci.
This week he plays with The Colorado Symphony (September 17, 19, and 20, 2009; with Jeffrey Kahane), then six more chances to hear it, with the Oregon Symphony (September 26, 2009; with Carlos Kalmar), the Alabama Symphony (October 29, 2009; with Justin Brown), the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra (January 23 and 24, 2010; again with Jeffrey Kahane), the Winston-Salem Symphony (March 13, 14, and 16, 2010; with Robert Moody); the Delaware Symphony (March 19 and 20, 2010; with David Amado);and the Portland Symphony (March 28, 2010; with Scott Terrell).
I talked with Thile about the new work, enjoy the first part of our discussion, including using amplification or not, and about his Steinbeck title: Interview Part 1
More tomorrow, including how the piece came about and if others might perform it!
Posted by John Clare in Composers, Concerts, Contemporary Classical, Orchestral, tags: Augusta Read Thomas, ee cummings, Five Things, Houston Symphony, Paula Page, Twyla Robinson, World Premiere
I heard the world premiere of Absolute Ocean by Augusta Read Thomas in Houston Thursday night at Jones Hall.
1. Thomas spoke before the concert about her compositional process and specifically about Absolute Ocean. Her talk was engaging, direct and charming; Thomas included showing the audience some of the manuscript score, and explained how 15 seconds of music might take five hours to score by hand!
2. Absolute Ocean is a work for Soprano, Harp and Orchestra in three movements from poetry by ee cummings commissioned by the Houston Symphony. The soloists, soprano Twyla Robinson and harpist Paula Page, performed with conviction and panache – putting the music first without extraneous movement or distractions. The texts were projected (not always coordinated, but hey, they were there!) on each side of the stage and added to the performance.
3. The opening “Graceful” movement was pointilistic and bright. Robinson pulled pitches from nowhere and was matched beautifully by Thomas’ instrumental colors and combinations. Page was often backed by four percussionists and divisi solo strings.
4. Perhaps the most charming of all was the second movement, “Playful, spry and jazzy.” Hans Graf was direct and precise with the orchestra, making it easy for the musicians to move in and out of the lines deftly. Again Robinson caught the feeling perfectly of cummings text and Thomas’ frolicsome and vivacious score. Page was purely color for the most part, but had a chance to shine with a cadenza between this movement and the finale. Evidently this cadenza was added later at Page’s request – which certainly went more to weigh the harp part…I would not call Absolute Ocean a double concerto, but rather an orchestral work for soprano with a prominent harp part. I had heard it referred to as a concerto – and would be disappointed as such – luckily it is such a wonderful work, the nomenclature is not important.
5. “Resonant and elegant” finished the 18 minute work and the short first half (the second half was Mahler’s Fourth Symphony) of the concert. The finale paints the words with creative combinations, and has a satisfying and direct ending. Absolute Ocean is a complete success for the Houston Symphony, and kudos to Graf for adding such a gorgeous work to the symphonic world.
There are two more performances of Absolute Ocean, Saturday night at 8pm and Sunday afternoon at 2:30pm. There is another pre-concert talk Saturday at 7:10pm open to all ticket holders. The 2009-10 season has just been announced for the HSO, and includes another Houston Symphony Commission, for chorus and orchestra by Kevin Puts.