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Saturday, April 02, 2005
Harry Partch�s Oedipus at Montclair State University (NJ)

Because no sacrifice is too great for Sequenza21, last night, under cover of darkness, I slipped over the Hudson to bring you the skinny on Montclair State University�s production of Harry Partch�s Oedipus. Directed by Decasia alum Bob McGrath and featuring the original Partch Instrumentarium played by Newband, the production proved that, somehow, not all cool things happen in New York City.

Recalling the visual devices he used in Decasia, McGrath placed almost all the live action behind a scrim upon which films and slides of pre-war Vienna, state funerals, babies, and other thematically related images were projected. The idea was to present Oedipus through the lens of psychoanalysis. Thus, Oedipus (Robert Osborne) sits in an armchair for almost the entire production being "analyzed" by the Priest (Mark Peters). While Freud�s interpretation of Sophocles�s tragedy has unarguably become entwined with our conception of it, McGrath�s choice to confine Oedipus to a psychologist�s chair makes the king seem petulant and childish: reacting to the other, more mobile characters, he resembles more an infant who�s rejecting the food he�s been served than a tragic hero. Nonetheless when the Herdsman (Daniel Keeling) confirms Oedipus�s worst fears and Oedipus bursts from his chair and the scrim finally lifts, the moment is arresting and powerful.

Underscoring the half-singing/half-speaking actors, Partch�s music enforces the drama efficiently and powerfully evokes the ancient world. His microtonally divided octaves and original instruments, many of which are adaptations of already existing ones, seem ancestral in relation to equal temperament and today�s conventional instruments. As such the sounds produced by the Instrumentarium do not sound wholly unfamiliar: rather, they sound like music we�re hearing through the distortion of centuries. Listening to it, one gets the sense that, over time, this strange, raw, ghostly music became sharpened into the pitches and harmonies familiar to us today. Ironically, in light of Partch�s status as an innovator, he comes across in Oedipus as something more like a musical archeologist.

Of course, the one who really came out looking good from all this was Montclair State University. Not only are they playing host to one of this season�s most interesting productions, but their brand-new Alexander Kasser Theater, a beautiful Mediterranean-style structure, is a wonderful venue for experimental and traditional endeavors � even if it requires an occasional stealthy journey across the Hudson.
Petite Dejeuner

The wonderful thing about group blogs is you never know when someone is going to post something (which is why you should come back several times a day). D'Arcy Reynolds just put up some terrific photos from Cape Town and a piece about a couple of concerts...Lawrence Dillon has moved on from the 70s and is now considering the most influential pieces of the 1980s...And Tom Myron, a young composer who lives in Maine, has joined our blogging community.
Howard Listening to Aulis Sallinen

New Prize in Montreal, New Sounds in Dallas

Kent Nagano got his big break in 1984 when Olivier Messiaen picked him to become Seiji Ozawa's assistant for the world premiere of his opera Saint Fran�ois d'Assise. Nagano, music director of the Montreal Symphony beginning next year, clearly hasn�t forgotten his old mentor who died in 1992. Beginning with the 2006-2007 season, the Montreal Symphony will sponsor every two years an International Composition Prize for orchestral works, open to composers of all nationalities, aged 40 years and under. The winning composer will receive the Olivier Messiaen International Prize which includes $25,000 in Canadian cash and lots of performance and recording goodies. The second place work will get the Promise Prize and there is a third award called the Claude Vivier National Prize for the best Canadian work.

South of the border, the Dallas Symphony is demonstrating that everything is relative tonight when it premieres composer Cindy McTee's Einstein's Dream, a DSO commission for string orchestra, percussion and recorded computer music. This is DSO's second world premiere of a work by Dr. McTee, the regents professor of music composition at the University of North Texas.

"Most music performed in the classical western tradition is meant to be seen," McTee writes in the program notes. "Music played through loudspeakers, however, is meant to be unseen, causing a confusion of identities and a new kind of listening experience (to borrow an idea from Paul A. Griffiths) at the threshold between visible and invisible sound. In Einstein�s Dream, these two kinds of music collide, and a new sense of space-time emerges as we hear the seen (the familiar) fold into the unseen (the unfamiliar)."

Sounds way cool, as the kids say.

In the S21 blogs, Lawrence Dillon is still seeking an answer to a question posed to him a couple of weeks ago when he was in Russia: What pieces from the 70s, 80s, 90s and 00s have changed the way composers think about composing? Give him your thoughts...Everette Minchew weighs in with the pieces that have inspired him most personally.
Penn Sounds: Schickele Finishes Mozart

Talk about procrastination, in 1779 Mozart left his uncommissioned opera Zaide without an introduction or finale. He was 23 years old and turned to other, paying, work, according to Orchestra 2001 artistic director, James Freeman. The original libretto was considered too serious, and Mozart was given a comic libretto that then became The Abduction from the Seraglio, which is the theme of Zaide.

Now, after some 225 years, Orchestra 2001 has commissioned new music by Peter Schickele to serve as the introduction, and has borrowed a 1782 aria written for a benefit concert to serve as finale. An original English-language libretto by Mark Lord emphasizes the soap opera and comic absurdities of the story: A sentimental "Turkish" sultan pardons a pair of young lovers and an older slave who try to escape from his service when he discovers that the lovers are really brother and sister and the older slave is their father.

Schickele noted at the concert that he made the new music a tribute to the composer, but can we tell and does it matter? Schickele has submerged his inner PDQ Bach in favor of pan-Mozartean music played straight, yet still with small motifs that made those in the know chuckle knowingly a few times.

The bulk of the material is spoken dialogue in English, interspersed with orchestral phrases and sung arias in German. This style calls for expressive acting technique from the singers for the narrative parts, and the costumed singers ran the risk of upstaging themselves in their colloquial dialogue, performed by Tamara Matthews, soprano, Timothy Oliver, tenor, Scott McCoy, tenor, Randall Scarlata, baritone, and particularly Markus Beam, baritone, who made the most, and the most entertainment, of a small part.

It made me long for Bernstein's Candide or any of the equally improbable Gilbert and Sulllivan operettas. Perhaps Schickele can try his hand at turning the story into an oratorio of his own. (Reposted from Penn Sounds 3/30/05)
Bloggered, Googled and Pittsnogeled

The Blogger system that we use to update these pages has been overtaxed lately so it's been tough to get online to update. I'm beginning to think that the folks at Google bought Blogger because they thought it had a cute name but have found there's no capital to be made and have now decided to remove the feeding tube.

Boo, hiss, yourself. Speaking of obnoxious remarks, a certain infamous poster over at New Music Box seems to be offended that participation in Sequenza21's Composers Forum is "by invitation." Let me be perfectly clear: I'll let almost anyone become a blogger at Sequenza21 if they actually compose or perform new music seriously, don't seem too mentally unstable, promise to play nice with others and post regularly. It's not a very exclusive club. If you meet those minimum standards and want to join us, send me a note and you, too, can wax eloquent in your underwear.
Last Night in L.A. - Antares and Contemporary American Music

The new music group Antares returned to last night�s Monday Evening Concert for the first of two programs, and it was another evening of outstanding musicianship, well-chosen music, and enthusiasm for the works. Piano, clarinet, violin, cello: the potential is there for appealing music, and the four members of Antares select the works and then give the performances to realize the potential.

The concert last night was typical for Antares; works by composers all of whom are alive, two of whom were present, and one of the pieces was the premiere of a commission for the group. The first of four works was �Eclipse� (1995) by George Tsontakis, the work that is the title piece on their CD (available from Amazon and from their web site at a slightly lower price). Eclipse is in four movements starting and ends with slower, thoughtful music; between those points the music becomes strong and rapid (in a movement titled �Hyperactive�) and then to sequence of multiple tremolos evocative of earlier periods. George Rochberg wrote that Tsontakis writes music the ear can understand and the mind remember, and those comments are certainly true of �Eclipse�. I liked it, and I appreciated the Antares performance.

The first half closed with the premiere of �Psychedlic Rainbow Blues� by Dan Visconti. It�s a pleasant piece by a young man (23) influenced by pop music, fairly new to �classical� music --- having started with the violin in high school, with lots of potential and still sorting through ideas and approaches. The work was commissioned by BMI Foundation for Antares. Visconti has been granted the third commission from the Kronos: Under 30 Project which will give him a residency with Kronos and the first performance of a new work this coming January.

After intermission Antares performed �Shadowed Narrative� (1982) by Roger Reynolds, a major work by the Pulitzer-winning composer. It is a work with substance that transcends its small number of performers. Reynolds� notes indicate that there is substantial latitude for shaping the work left to the performers, but Antares gave such a persuasive exposition--with the composer present---that it was difficult to imagine a markedly different approach. This morning I did wonder, however, how wider physical spacing of the instrumentalists on the stage, giving a wider sound platform, would have affected the �shadowing� of one instrumental line by other instruments.

The concert closed with �Marches� (1992) by Fred Lerdahl, a colleague at Columbia. (Reading the titles of Lerdahl�s papers and publications in his Columbia c.v. is a kick.) This work was commissioned by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, and was a nice presentation of a range and variety of march-like ideas--a touch of a Shostakovich march here, a bit of Sousa there--in a range of styles and tonal approaches. The work was also a pleasant release from the intensity of the Reynolds.
Levine and the BSO Bring New Works by Harbison and Wuorinen to Carnegie

Last night New York enjoyed some of the spoils from James Levine�s commissioning spree for the Boston Symphony Orchestra. The BSO gave the New York premieres of John Harbison�s "Darkbloom: Overture for an imaginary opera" and Charles Wuorinen�s Fourth Piano Concerto (with Peter Serkin). In addition Levine led the orchestra in performances of Stravinsky�s "Movements for Piano and Orchestra" and Brahms�s Symphony No. 2.

Harbison�s "Darkbloom" brings together some ideas the composer had for an attempted operatic adaptation of Lolita. The music opens with the strings sequencing a passionate, restless motive which eventually is overtaken by more aggressive music for brass and percussion. The orchestra comes together for an intense, contrapuntal presentation of the thematic material and then dissolves into a wonderful violin solo. After a brief return to the brass music, the piece concludes with an oboe solo (with harp and xylophone) that complements the earlier one for violin. The piece is a model of clarity, and the hazy orchestration gives an unfamiliar tinge to an otherwise familiarly lush, romantic idiom. However, I wasn�t satisfied with the overall gesture: after the earlier broader sections, the more mercurial ending seems a bit out of balance. Of course had the final oboe solo led into staged action, I probably wouldn�t have minded: this is, after all, an overture.

Following the Stravinsky, which featured an improvised obligato line for colicky-audience, was Wuorinen�s Fourth Piano Concerto � his first in twenty years. Organized into three connected movements, the concerto presents a fairly traditional view of what a concerto should be: virtuosic piano writing and sensational contrasts between the orchestra and soloist abound. At the same time, however, there are wonderful orchestral moments (especially for percussion) which keep one�s ears constantly on their toes and the mind always engaged. The fantastic opening movement gradually shakes free from its static beginning into sections of jagged polyphony. These subside into a sleepy, nocturnal atmosphere before the second movement enters with bang and the piano thunders on parallel octaves. In contrast to the opening movement�s broad arch, the middle movement juxtaposes passages of great agitation and tranquility. The last movement is a motoric whirl that rises to a spectacularly sustained scream, which, in turn, resolves into the softest of tonal clusters. End of concerto.

This is a fabulous piece, one whose depths should cause concert-goers to marvel as long as there are ears for music. The quiet energy of the opening of the third movement, and the mysterious, underwater conversation between the piano and timpani in the first are unforgettable. That said, I did feel the energy starting to flag toward the end of the first and second movements, and my gut feeling is they�re both a tad long. Also, Serkin�s poky performance, while formidable, missed some of the lyricism present in the music.

P.S. Random thought: I think Wuorinen is the Brahms of our time. More later . . .

P.S.S. For my favorite quote about Brahms, and a quick story about its background, click "comments."
Rainy Day

D'Arcy Reynolds has joined the Sequenza21 blogging community. D'Arcy received a 2004 Meet the Composer Global Connections grant and is in South Africa right now where the Sontonga String Quartet will perform her string quartet Cloven Dreams at the University of Cape Town. Take a look at her first posts...More updates later after I've had my coffee and played with my cat for awhile.

Update: Okay, the little devil is finally tired. If I ever find the guy who invented that bird on a stick thing...Kyle Gann has a terrific post on composers as bloggers and I would say that even if he didn't cite our Composers Forum (in the last paragraph) as a place of "civilized" discourse. I should knock on wood but so far I haven't had to remove a single comment because it was too abusive or caution any of the bloggers for being too rude to others. Spirited debate is one thing, nastiness is another. Unless, of course, you're talking about the Bush administration in which case all bets are off.
Cellist gives Florida premieres of works by Moravec, Prestini

Cellist Jeffrey Zeigler gave the Florida premieres Saturday afternoon of works by Paul Moravec and Paola Prestini at the Steinway Gallery in Boca Raton.

Moravec, whose Tempest Fantasy won the Adelphi University professor the Pulitzer Prize for music last year, was represented by a newly reworked version of Walk Away Slowly, a one-movement elegy for cello and piano originally composed in 1989. Written to commemorate the death of Moravec's father, the title is a Chinese expression for dying that Moravec found in the writings of journalist and Sinophile Theodore White.

Zeigler premiered the new version of this piece in January; he told me after the recital Moravec declined to show him the older version, so for all intents and purposes this is the one the composer prefers.

Zeigler is a fine young cellist, technically adroit and possessed of a penetrating, highly focused tone. Joined by pianist Tao Lin, Zeigler gave a committed, passionate performance of this accessible, highly emotional work.

Walk Away Slowly draws its structure and expressive contours from the opening bars, stated by the solo cello. It's a wide-ranging, continuous theme, more or less in D minor, whose initial three-note gesture, spanning a seventh, recurs throughout. The cello is almost never silent, and Moravec calls on the soloist to cover a very large range, peaking in tessitura fashion at the E above high C before climbing down to recapitulate the opening.

Moravec's richly post-Romantic language, as heard here, consisted of sweeping, arching cello phrases floating above a harmonic sea in the piano replete with full, jazz-tinged chords and triplets by the handful. What Moravec has written here is basically a song, albeit a song of a particularly intense and expansive kind. I found it deeply communicative in the best tradition of the late Romantics, and while it can't be said to break any new ground, it is a well-wrought composition that gets its melancholy message across in a memorable, affecting way.

Zeigler also offered a work for solo cello written for him by Prestini, his significant other and a founder of the VisionIntoArt performance company. Prestini's Deja Que Salga la Luna uses a Mexican mariachi love song (often translated as Let the Moon Come Out) by Jose Alfredo Jimenez to build a theme-and-variations-style showpiece.

The work opens with a short explosion of notes that is followed by a gentle statement of the love song. From there, bits of the tune can be heard alternating with moments of furious fiddling and tricky rhythmic patterns, all of it designed to be in keeping "with the loose guidelines of the huapango style," as the composer has written. Among the more effective passages were Prestini's imitations of mariachi sounds: guitar-like strumming and the fat pizzicati of a guittaron.

It seemed to me that Prestini's piece, of which Zeigler gave a suitably bravura performance, was a good, if unconventional, companion to the Third Cello Suite of Bach that also was on the program. The Bach is a collection of dance movements in which strong melodies provide the backbone on which instrumental acrobatics are hung, and Prestini has done something of the same thing here: The mariachi love song is a constant presence throughout the piece, and it provides a reference point for listeners to see what the composer has made of it.

Deja Que Salga la Luna doesn't have the profundity of the Bach suite, but it is an impressive piece of virtuoso writing for a soloist with plenty of chops. I thought the use of this particular source material was refreshing, and that Prestini found several compelling, imaginative things to do with it.
Easter Sunday

Long, long, very long interview in the New York Times today with James Levine, John Harbison and Charles Wuorinen. Levine and the Boston Symphony Orchestra will premiere Harbison's "Darkbloom: Overture for an Imagined Opera" and Wuorinen's Fourth Piano Concerto tomorrow night at Carnegie Hall. The interviewer brings up Wuorinen's 1979 pronouncement that tonal music is dead and mainstream composers no longer write it. And, of course, there is a lot about Schoenberg. Here's a sample:
HARBISON: ...He's a bogeyman. He's like a bad wolf, useful in a kind of stirring-up-the-waters way. Maybe his acceptance was slower than some composers, but that reviving of the Schoenberg thing, I just don't understand it at this point. It completely eludes me.

WUORINEN: It's insane. I mean he's been dead for over 50 years. You would think it was a settled issue. His music continues to be played. It is loved by musicians.

HARBISON: He's played more and more.

LEVINE: We're finally getting there.
Levine doesn't mention that most of the Schoenberg that gets played is his tonal stuff. In any event, my problem is not with Schoenberg, it's Wuorinen that I don't get.


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