Category Archives: Composers

Spring for Music: Dallas Does Stucky Does LBJ

“Not every concert we do is a history lesson,” a Dallas Symphony member quasi-apologized to me after the orchestra’s Spring for Music Carnegie Hall concert last night.  “I’m looking forward to getting back to Beethoven and Brahms.”

We talked about that a while.  “But we couldn’t have played here with standard repertoire.”

And that’s the point, of course. Orchestras applied to be part of this 8-day festival at Carnegie Hall, presenting orchestras from around the country performing innovate programs. The Dallas Symphony commissioned  Steven Stucky to compose a work in honor of Lyndon Johnson‘s 100th birthday.  The oratorio August 4, 1964, libretto by Gene Scheer, with its Beethoven-Ninth forces (choir and solo vocal quartet) was the result. Premiered in 2008, it was performed again and recorded last week in Dallas.  It is this substantial and ambitious work that the orchestra and its music director Jaap van Zweden proposed to bring to Carnegie Hall.  Not surprisingly, they were invited to do so.

Imagine being the President of the United States. While America’s favorite pastime seems to be not baseball but finding fault with whomever is in office, the weight of the responsibilities is such that I always feel for–and root for, even when I’m feeling exasperated–the sitting president.

August 4, 1964.  You’re Lyndon Baines Johnson. The morning brings news (later shown to be false) that U.S. ships are under attack in the Gulf of Tonkin.  In the evening, word that the long-recalcitrant FBI has finally discovered the bodies of three young civil rights workers. You insist the announcement of the latter be held until you–the president–have called the families.  And then you go on national television to, in essence, lie to the American people about an attack that never happened, and announce the start of bombing (a process that will eventually lead to your own political downfall).

Stucky and Sheer’s work, using texts from recorded phone conversations, letters, etc., shows LBJ at his best (the compassionate civil rights advocate personally notifying the families) and his worst, seemingly manipulated by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, and by a fear of appearing weak, into starting the bombing that led the U.S. into the debacle of the Vietnam War.  As with John Adams’s Nixon in China, a president who is tragic and heroic figure.  A riveting subject for a musical drama.

Soloists Vale Rideout (McNamara) and Rod Gilfry (Johnson) sat to the conductor’s right, as viewed from the audience.  Indira Mahajan (playing the mother of African-American James Chaney, one of the slain activists) and Kristine Jepson (the mother of Andrew Goodman, a white anthropolgy student from New York) were on his left.  (The other murdered student was Michael Schwerner.) Each pair inhabited separate vocal and musical worlds in Stucky’s fascinating musical construction.

This tragic subject matter makes perfect material for an evening-length work.  The music is eclectic and varied, at times lushly neo-romantic, at others driving and agitated.  Wonderfully crafted, of course, with fabulous orchestration. I didn’t respond emotionally to all of it; I’d like to hear it again, and am glad to hear it’s been recorded for release.  The center of the piece is an orchestral Elegy, which captivated me, followed by an exquisite aria, “Letter from Mississippi,” in which Mrs. Goodman reads the last letter from her son before he disappeared.  It devastated me; I wasn’t the only one crying.  For a first hearing of a big new work, that was quite something.

Not as many people from Dallas, when it came time to wave their (yellow) bandanas, as there had been from Toledo and Albany earlier in the series, but still quite a few. That’s not a surprise, given the distance.  The main level (where I sat) was mostly full, as were the boxes.  The balcony levels were essentially empty. That’s a good idea, I think, and good management, because in the rest of the hall there was that special full-house energy.  (I was at a Beethoven 9th performance earlier in the winter where the balcony was full but, for some reason, the main floor half-empty, and it felt like a party no one came to.)

“We’re doing Beethoven Ninth when we get back,” that Dallas Symphony member told me.  “Third time in four years.”  A sigh.  Overdosed on Stucky, but not all that excited about Beethoven Ninth, either.  This person loves being a member of that orchestra.  But as with most jobs, there’s ambivalence. “I tried to get myself excited about this concert.  It’s Carnegie Hall, after all.”

It was clear that other members of the orchestra were excited;  I met some after the concert who told me how enthusiastic they were about the piece. But not all of them.  As beautifully as this major orchestra played, the strongest visual impression was of calm professionalism.  As we wonder about what symphony orchestras can do to attract new and younger audiences, this is an issue.  You love your job, but can’t get all that excited for either yet another Stucky performance or yet another Beethoven Ninth performance.  That’s called being human.

But we spend money to go to concerts to get more in touch with our humanity.  To have an emotionally, spiritually, and intellectually engaging experience.  We don’t want to see and hear calm professionalism (and I don’t mean to imply that this is all there was at last night’s performance).

How do you get 85-100 orchestral musicians to all be passionate at the same time?  I have no idea.

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Filed under Carnegie Hall, Spring for Music, Stern Auditorium, Steven Stucky

Gubaidulina performed by Mutter, Thomas, and the NY Phil

I had never heard the stunningly-good violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter in person before the Thursday March 31 New York Philharmonic concert (that link takes you to a page with program notes, audio, video, etc.).  She has a ravishing, intense, into-the-string tone that can make you forget that Avery Fisher Hall is not acclaimed for its acoustics.  Michael Tilson Thomas conducted, wonderfully.  I’d never heard him in person before, either, so the night was a special treat for me.  (Steve Smith’s NY Times review is here.)

The Tchaikovsky Second Symphony (“Little Russian”) made up the concert’s second half.  During it, I was reminded of a music-history professor with whom I had an in-class tiff when he dismissed the Tchiak Fifth Symphony, about which I was passionate, as “a string of sequences.”  “Some composers can take a chain of sequences and make great music,” I snarled at him, “and some people listen to great music and only hear a chain of sequences.”  In this performance, the winds and brass were terrific, and although the violins seemed to have a touch of ensemble difficulties in some fast off-the-string passages, the strings were gorgeous. I, to be honest, was only hearing chains of sequences.

Maybe that was because the first half was so terrific.  Prokfiev’s Overture in B-flat Major, Op. 42 “American” opened the program.  It’s a wind ensemble piece with 2 cellos and a double bass, so no wonder it doesn’t get programmed often. It was commissioned in the 1920s by the Aeolian Duo-Art company for its then-new, small New York concert hall, hence the unusual instrumentation.  While I enjoyed it, a friend in the orchestra called it a “justly neglected masterpiece.”  Of course, I only heard it once. Still, I found it a fascinating, energetic little thing.

What made the concert worth attending was Sofia Gubaidulina‘s powerful and moving In tempus praesens, Concerto for Violin and Orchestra.  It’s an intense piece,with extended violin soliloquies. As Mutter explains in the video below, the solo violin represents the composer battling with society.  Another unusual instrumentation–no violins (other than the soloist), which gave the strings an especially dark, rich sound and allowed the violas plenty of opportunities to shine.

Mutter discusses the piece:

The friend who took me to the concert didn’t enjoy the concerto, at least while she listened to it. She’s not familiar with a lot of contemporary music and I think she found it disconcerting. But after the performance she said, “You know, I liked the violin concerto the best.  It seemed strange at first, but now I realize it was really powerful.” Often it takes repeated hearings to get used to new musical language and be affected by it; this was an interesting case of impact after the fact. Or maybe something about those Tchaikovsky sequences made Gubiadulina’s brilliance apparent in retrospect.

Speaking of that compositional brilliance, here’s a fascinating video (which I found on Alex Ross’s blog) in which Gubaidulina discusses her complicated creative process.

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Filed under Avery Fisher Hall, Conductors, Michael Tilson Thomas, New York Philharmonic, Orchestras, Sofia Gubaidulina

The Masada Marathon at City Opera (Better-Late-Than-Never Comments)

My son, 22 and a senior in college, was visiting me last week.  He reads my blog, bless him, likes classical music even if he’s not a big fan, and has been very interested in my adventures exploring alternative presentation of classical music, new music that blends classical elements with, for example, indie-rock elements, etc.  So he was quite excited to come with me to hear the Jack Quartet at [le] poisson rouge and Bobby Previte, So Percussion, et al on the closing Ecstatic Music Festival concert.

But these were both pretty hard-listening, new-music concerts.  Neither had the steady beat, accessible-harmony, singer/songwriter-who’s-worked-out-with-a-classical-composition-teacher-trainer flavor I’ve been telling him about. So when it came to the Wednesday March 30 John Zorn Masada Marathon concert, scheduled to last about 3.5 hours, presented by the New York City Opera, we watched the video below so he could decide.

That’s the kind of experimental, raucous music that he’d gotten enough of the previous night.  So after we’d made dinner, he stayed in my apartment with his sister (19, a sophomore in college here in NY).  They watched stuff on Netflix, fell asleep, probably vented about their parents to each other . . . you know, had a great brother/sister bonding time.

I, on the other hand, really wanted to experience this event, even though the dad in me wanted to hang out with my kids.  It was exactly the sort of unusual event (in this case, progressive, experimental, and non-classical musicians who rarely if ever perform in traditional “uptown” concert halls presented by a major opera company at Lincoln Center) I’ve come to New York for a semester to participate in.

(I chose that word purposefully. Even when we “only” listen, we are participating.  Imagine a marathon concert in an an opera house with no audience or ushers or stage hands.  Everyone participates in the musicking in one form or another.)

And when I saw that Erik Friedlander, one of my favorite improvising cellists, was performing, there was no way I could miss it.  (He was fabulous in ensembles and his solo set, which included the most amazing pizzicato playing I’ve ever seen/heard.) Twelve sets, with a huge number of performers (see this link for details; Erik and Uri Caine did solo sets), playing music from the 316 tunes composed in 2004 that make up Zorn’s The Book of Angels. Zorn, of course, has a huge following, and so do many of the performers.  So who knows how many others turned up for a particular segment, as I did.  The audience went nuts for everyone.  If there was a favorite, it was the second-half-opening Secret Chiefs 3, a rock band.

My son would have enjoyed this concert, since in the diversity of it all there was a lot of straight-ahead jazz and rock.  This was the eclectic concert with music he would have liked, an innovative-yet-accessible presentation in a traditional venue.  Oh, well!  The whole thing, which ended up lasting four hours or so, was quite an experience.  Some of it crazy, chaotic and experimental.  Jazz, rock, contemporary classical–an incredible array of styles.

The Book of Angels is the second book of Zorn’s Masada music, tunes/charts (rather than fully notated compositions if I understand correctly) that were born in his desire “to create something positive in the Jewish tradition something that maybe takes the idea of Jewish music into the 21st century the way jazz developed from the teens and 1920s into the ’40s, the ’50s, the ’60s and on…” (source, via Wikipedia.) There was a lot of arrangement by performers as well as improvisation; Zorn, in colorful cargo pants, played sax and led/conducted some of the groups, sitting in a chair making hand gestures.

I’m here in NY witnessing and thinking about innovation and creativity in programming, performance, presentation, and marketing.  The New York City Opera scores big on innovation and creativity, presenting this extravaganza of downtown music.  How exciting to see it, and some of the rather strangely-dressed patrons, who looked more East Village than Upper West Side, in this elegant setting. City Opera is also running Monodramas, three one-act, one-soprano operas, which include Zorn’s La Machine de l’être as well as works by Schoenberg and Feldman. Soon they’ll be presenting the premiere of Stephen Schwartz‘s  Séance on a Wet Afternoon (Schwartz is the wildly popular composer of Broadway hits from Godspell to Wicked), which I assume will be quite different.

The question is how big is the turnout for this non-traditional stuff, and how much does that matter, short or long-term?  While there were some empty seats at the Masada Marathon, the place seemed pretty full.  I’ve heard the opening of Monodramas was nearly sold out, but this hasn’t been the case for subsequent performances, despite excellent reviews from the Times, the Post, and the New Yorker.  Does everything have to do huge business to be worthwhile?  Certainly not.  The mission of an arts organization isn’t to sell as many tickets as possible for every event.  And both the Masada Marathon and Monodramas must be collectively drawing in new-music types who wouldn’t usually go to a Lincoln Center performance and may now decide to try out, say, some Donitzetti.

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Filed under audeince building, Composers, Erik Friedlander, John Zorn, New York City Opera, Uncategorized

Percussive Musicking, in Ecstatic and Juilliard Flavors

“Maybe this is what some guys feel like when they go to a baseball game,” it occurred to me as I settled into my seat at Alice Tully Hall on Tuesday evening.  The Juilliard Percussion Ensemble, directed by my long-ago Tanglewood classmate Daniel Druckman, would be starting soon.  I felt relaxed, happy, curious, full of anticipation for what I was sure would be an evening of unexpected pleasures.

Juilliard Percussion Ensemble (from juilliard.edu)

I just love percussion ensemble concerts (including the student and professional ones at DePauw, where I teach). I’ve had a good music education and can follow what’s going on. I’ve played a little hand percussion, but I don’t have a desire to be a percussionist. A really enthusiastic, appreciative audience member, that’s what I am. There’s almost always some instrument or two I haven’t heard about.  The teamwork and non-verbal communication among the players is always something to watch.

And it was the second percussion night in a row for me.  I love New York!

Monday, I’d been to the final concert of the Ecstatic Music Festival at Merikin Hall, a very full evening of five concertos, composed by Bobby Previte for soloists plus the four members of So Percussion. It was broadcast live as part of WQXR‘s New Sounds Live series.  You can hear the webcast for yourself.

Here Bobby talks about the piece is a promo video:

 

And the members of So Percussion. [Update: oops--for some reason when I first saw this video I thought it was about their Previte concert.  It's actually about their Jan. 20 show.  But it's cool, anyway, so I'm leaving it here]:

 

The two programs couldn’t have been more different.  The Juilliard concert, “Ceremony and Ritual: Percussion Music of Japan/Part of Carnegie Hall’s JapanNYC Festival,” set in the gorgeous Alice Tully Hall, had a certain dressy-casual elegance to it. Everything was fully composed, the music often elegant and spare. Definitely contemporary concert-hall music. The Ecstatic Music Festival, meanwhile, has focused on a sense of music felt by curator Judd Greenstein, described by its education director Argeo Ascani in a program note.

Born and raised in NYC, the melting pot of all melting pots, Greenstein’s musical upbringing resembled the diversity of the city around him–hip hop “popular” music and the piano-lesson “classical” music of the conservatory.  For him, there was no differentiation–it was all just music. . . . And he’s not alone.

And so you get things like Previte’s wildly eclectic “Terminals, Part I: Departures,” five concerti for percussion ensemble and improvising soloists.  Jen Shyu (voice and er hu), DJ Olive (turntables and computer), Zeena Parkins (harp and electric harp), John Medeski (Hammond organ and piano), and Previte himself were the center-stage protagonists.

Since I go through phases where I improvise a lot (and others when I don’t), I was especially interested by the improvisational aspect (which made this a must-attend event for me). Improvisation, of course, is not an all-or-nothing thing.  Much music throughout the world has a improvisational component while having some sort of fixed framework, composed or passed down through oral/aural traditions. Such is the case with Previte’s Terminals;  the ensemble music was fully composed, while the soloists had much room for extemporizing.

In an on-stage interview with New Sounds Live host John Schaefer at the start of the concert, Previte explained he originally intended to use motives from 35+ years of his own drum solos as the basis for the compositions.  He put out word “on the Internets” and friends and fans sent him recordings, many bootlegged, from throughout his career.  It must have been fascinating to hear all those collected improvisations.

Many times I’m soloing in the context of someone else’s band . . . some [solos] are informed by other people’s music. You write music and then in the music you have someone improvise.  Now whose music is that?  Is it your music, is it their music? You know, you get kind of genius people to play and it becomes your music, interestingly.

Great question.  Is it the composer’s music, the improvising performer’s music, or does it all somehow become the music’s music?

The program started with a (recorded) mash-up of some of those Previte solos, put together by DJ Olive.  And mash-up describes is the perfect description of the evening.  A tremendous amount of fascinating, effective ideas. For me though, they were thrown so closely together that the music often felt aimless or, at other times, chaotic. I often found myself wondering what the musical point was. Where the structure was.  There certainly was an experimental-music feel to the evening, and experimental music by its nature rarely features a Beethoven-like motivic development.

As far as the improvisations go, while it was possible to surmise what sections (especially the unaccompanied ones) were improvised, you couldn’t tell for sure what was composed and what wasn’t.  So in the context of the pieces, the improvisations were really effective, as was the space and context created for them.

But I just didn’t get the music.  I’m listening to the webcast as I write.  On second hearing, the music still feels as it did that night: brilliant yet self-indulgently overly-long.  (Like my blog entries, at least in the self-indulgent, overly-long aspect.)  My overall impression was of an extraordinarily talented composer who, inexperienced with crafting long forms, packed in too many ideas and didn’t have a sense of what to cut out. But that’s me; this may well have been something where I have a blind spot and just didn’t get it.

It was, in any event, a great experiment. The very fact that this concert, and the entire festival, happened, and happened at a mainstream, Lincoln-Center area venue is cause for celebration. It’s something I’m really glad to have experienced (and wish I’d been able to make it to more of the festival’s concerts).  And maybe if I had been stoned I would have loved it this concert.  (Those were the days.)

If Monday night felt like too much of too many things, Tuesday exemplified the “less is more” virtues of Zen-like simplicity.  Not that all of the music was simple by any means.  Allan Kozinn’s Times review gives an excellent summary, which I won’t try to repeat here.  These were beautifully crafted pieces by composers not finding their way in a new medium, but clearly at the top of their games.

Being there had its amusing moments unrelated to the activities on stage.

“It’s all Japanese music!  It was supposed to be half Japanese and half something else,” announced the strong-voiced lady seated to my left, thumbing through her program before the concert started.

“Who told you that?” asked her companion, perhaps wondering, like me, why anyone would have expected a concert that was part of the Carnegie Hall JapanNYC festival to have anything but Japanese music on it.

“I have a paper at home about it,” she replied.  “I’ll have to look it up when I get back.”

If she’d been a sitcom character, she’d have seemed too much of a caricature, a stereotype  of a an elderly New Yorker who talks too much, too loudly.  “I’m all discombobulated,” she announced as she struggled to take off her coat.  “Oh my, I’ve somehow lost my program!”  I had ended up with two, so I offered her one.  “Thank you.  I just don’t know . . . oh, there it is, under the seat!”  Reclaimed item in her hand, she returned mine.  “Here.  You keep it your extra in case I lose mine again.”

“Oh, Takimetsu!  I remember he did something weird over at Philharmonic Hall (the original name for the space now known as Avery Fisher Hall) years ago.  It was very weird.  Oh, my.”

To my right, two children, brother and sister about 11 and 9, I’d guess, with their grandfather between them.  They were quiet and fascinated, and the family softly discussed the music between pieces.  What a special night for them, I imagined, and thought as well that they’ll likely be concert-music patrons in the future.

Toru Takemitsu’s Rain Tree was ethereal, not “weird,” and the concert-opening Masakazu Natsuda‘s Wooden Music exemplified the virtues of space and silences.  Akira Nishimura‘s rousing Ketiak, with congas, yellow maracas, headsets, and rhythmic chanting, was the most exciting piece and would, I thought, have made a more rousing finish to the program then Jo Kondo’s cowbells and gong Under the Umbrella.  But obviously Daniel Druckman wanted to end not with a bang but a . . . cow bell.

Sorry, I can’t help but write more about being there that night.  “I wonder why they have those things on their heads!” my voluble next-door neighbor for the evening, , spotting the head sets with microphones several of the players were adjusting, wondered out (very) loud before the Nishimura.

“It will be obvious once it starts,” came the forceful, annoyed-but-trying-to-be-polite voice of a man in the row ahead of us, who twisted around to explain, hoping, it seemed, to quiet her.  She obviously believes in offering color commentary right until the music starts (but she was always silent during the music). Druckman raised his hands to begin one piece, the audience quieted, and her voice rang throughout the hall.  “I wonder if we’ll get free wine again after this?” (She’d obviously been to one or more of the Tully Scope concerts, where there was a free glass after the show.)  “Probably not.”  Beat.  Music.

My son loves the UConn men’s basketball team, has watched every game he could this season. Passionate about it. The fabulous Juilliard Percussion Ensemble is like a top college sports team.  Maybe even better.  Because just to get in to a place like Juilliard as a percussion major, you have to play as well as many professionals. The level of skill is a joy to behold. (And some of them look so young that people around me wondered if those players might be in high school.)

Several pieces had no conductor.  So, as in all good chamber music, you could see the leading and following, the attentiveness to each other, the swirling energy. Percussion music, with the players standing and often moving from one instrument to another, has a unique athleticism to it.

And as in a good game on any level, there are errors and saves.  During the second-half opening piece, the premiere of Hiroya Miura‘s Mitate, a drum stick slipped off a music stand, and, while rotating, was caught deftly in mid-air. At the final note of the same piece, the same fellow’s cymbal flew off its stand. With almost superhero speed, he bent over and grabbed it just before it hit the floor, freezing in position.

Who was he?  No numbers or names on the shirts, so I’ll never know.  To me, he’ll forever remain the amazing adroit, if a bit clumsy, young man in the gray shirt.

It’s music.  And, sometimes it’s sport, too.  I love percussion ensembles.  I love the Juilliard Percussion Ensemble.  And I love New York.

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Filed under Alice Tully Hall, Bobby Previte, concert ettiquete, DJ Olive, Ecstatic Music Festival, Improvising Performers, Jen Shyu, John Medeski, Judd Greenstein, Juilliard Percussion Ensemble, Percussion Ensembles, WQXR, Zeena Parkins

Tully Scope: As Good to Watch as It Was to Listen To

(Been traveling, mostly without Internet access.  How did NY concert life get along without me in attendance?)

Last thing I attended in NY was the final Tully Scope concert, featuring music of Heiner Goebbels.  Fascinating, eclectic music performed by not one but two orchestras, the London Sinfonetta and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, the latter on (at least mostly) period instruments, both conducted by Anu Tali. [Update: NY Times (Tomasini) review here.]

I ended up, pretty much by chance, sitting with Greg Sandow.  As he wrote about here and here, he was quite excited by the size and mix of the audience, and impressed by the eclecticism of the series. Greg writes that it was the Festival, not the artists themselves, that Lincoln Center marketed.

They didn’t advertise programming or stars, didn’t stress the names of the performers or the composers whose music they were going to play. They marketed the festival. Which for me is crucial. People normally go out at night to have an experience. They want to do something that’ll be fun, or meaningful, something they think they’ll enjoy, that will mean something to them.

Greg’s on the money there, although I’d disagree about the advertising.  They marketed the festival and the individual artists.  My own take is that it was a pretty even mix of both.  Certainly many–perhaps all–of the individual performers/groups have their own, significant followings.  Emanuel Ax certainly has his fan base, and Tyondai Braxton, for example, has another. The promo emails I received, especially the ones advertising 50%-off tickets available at the Rubenstein Atrium, and posters I saw featured the performers and composers, as did the Google ads that appear at the top of my email.  What seems to have worked here is that the followings got mashed up.

I picked the more non-traditional events to attend, since that’s my particular interest right now, but by the end of the series I wished I’d been to all the concerts and experienced the entire mix.  As the festival progressed, and perhaps before it began, there may have been many of us who having been to one great event, decided to trust that the others would be worthwhile as well, even if the concert wasn’t one we’d usually pick on its own.  As the followings got intermingled, probably each of us found him or herself a new fan of someone they hadn’t heard (or heard of) before. It was the entire “mash-up” (as Jane Moss, the Vice President for Programming called it in her program note) that was the thing.

I’ve called [le] poisson rouge a “shuffle venue,” where some people go just to be there, because it’s a cool place and they trust that whatever/whoever is playing will be good. (“Shuffle” coming from the iPod function where different, often unrelated, tracks are played in random order in a way that beings often interesting and pleasant surprises and juxtapositions.)

Tully Scope was what you might call a shuffle series:  a seemingly random mix of widely divergent, terrific performances, which you just wanted to hear–and see–all of.

The gorgeous Tully lobby is a great place to hang out–that’s so important in these changing times.  Free glass of sparkling wine after the concerts, creating a party atmosphere.  And tickets just $20, once one was purchased at full price, a great incentive to buy a package.  Didn’t do that?  There were half-price tickets for many of the events available on the day of the performance.  So it was affordable.

The very different staging and lighting designs for each event were engaging and, to me, delightful.  It was like a different hall for each event.  The final Goebbels concert had a two-tiered stage, with strings on the stage and winds, brass, and percussion on connected risers the width of the stage about 3 feet high.  Quite striking.  So were the lighting cues, which made heavy use of different colors, spotlights, fading, etc., even floor lamps.

This was not just people playing and/or singing on a stage.  This was an event where the visual aspect, the theatrical aspect, was embraced in a significant way.

We are increasingly creatures of YouTube, for better or worse. We live in not just a music iPod culture, but a video iPod culture.  Audiences under forty, and especially under thirty–who are so crucial to develop–want, even need, visual stimulation and engagement.  The folks at Tully did a great job, among other things, of providing that.

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Filed under Alice Tully Hall, audeince building, Festivals/Series, Greg Sandow, Heiner Goebbels, innovative marketing, Le Poisson Rouge, Lincoln Center, Shuffle Venues/Series, Tully Scope 2011

Winning at Roulette: An Evening Not for the Faint of Heart

After the Clogs/Brooklyn Youth Chorus Ecstatic Music Festival concert, I went into serious-cellist mode. Wednesday March 16, my performance with the International Street Cannibals, was looming. (It went well, and I was not eaten alive, thanks for asking, nor was anyone else.) Until then, I rehearsed, practiced my ass off, and besides taking my daughter out to see The King’s Speech (I really didn’t think two hours about speech therapy could be riveting, but it is), stayed pretty much at home.

Monday I had a session with my terrific personal trainer, Chris.  Sunday I’d thought to send him a text message.  “Big concert Wednesday night.  Anything but arms tomorrow–have to have full use of them until Thursday.”  When Chris works you out, well, there might not be all that much left the next day or two.  So we did legs, and while walking was still less than fully comfortable Wednesday, the upper body was functioning at full capacity.

So it was Thursday the 17th when I finally got back on the subway to go to another concert.  I went down to the all-too-close subway station (just half a block from my building) a bit later than was comfortable and immediately went into impatient, why-won’t-the-train-come-right-now-like-magic mode.  I even found myself doing the thing I think is so stupid when performed by others: leaning over and peering into the darkness of the tunnel to see if a train is coming.  Like that’s going to help.  Watched pots don’t boil, looked for trains don’t emerge.  So I relaxed, and the express train did come.  Soon I was at 14th St., transferred to the local, and almost before I knew it emerged on Canal St. with plenty of time to make it to Greene St.

That’s where Roulette, my destination for the evening, is. I’d been thinking of it as an “alternate venue” for classical music.  But really it’s a long-standing “downtown” new-music venue.  At some location or another, it’s been presenting new (avant garde, experimental, contemporary, etc.) music for three decades.  I put “downtown” in quotes only because many of us not from New York, especially those more anchored in traditional classical music, aren’t aware that one of the many music cultures in Gotham is the downtown music scene.  Downtown music developed in  the 1960s (when else?) in lofts and small spaces in places like Roulette’s Canal and Greene Streets location.  Factories were closing, buildings vacant, and rents cheap.  Now, on the border of SoHo and Tribeca, it’s one of the most expensive, highest-income neighborhoods of Manhattan.  Artists led the revitalization; today, they are priced out of the neighborhood.  Roulette, not surprisingly, is moving to Brooklyn.

The program was (mostly) new piano music by Christian Wolff, Michael Byron, and Larry Polansky, performed by Joseph Kubera and Marilyn Nonken (tremendous pianists).  No one was waiting for Sufjan Stevens here. This was terrific, no-holds-barred, complex, intellectually-challenging, frequently atonal, irregularly metered, hard-to-follow-unless-you-throw-yourself-into-it new music.  The kind of stuff that music students groan about having to study.

I loved it.

It was, in its own way, like a really good workout with Chris, my trainer.  Takes you places you didn’t know about.  Pushes you past limits you didn’t know you had. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. “Book of Horizons is not for the faint of heart,” explained the program note, which continued, “‘Retreat is not an option,’ challenges the composer.” No kidding.

There’s a delicious integrity to a place like Roulette.  So much of the classical world is trying to figure out how to appeal to a broader audience.  Become more accessible.  Sell more tickets.  Make more money.  All that is important in the larger world.  But not at Roulette.  Want to play there?  Apply.  Read the guidelines.

Our programming focus includes avant jazz, experimental music, experimental electronic music, multimedia music projects, and new music among other forms of new and experimental music.  We do not program rock, pop, musical theater, singer-song writers, or any other form of commercial music.

So it’s not the kind of place you’re likely to hear Gabriel Kahane performing his CraigsList Leider.  That’s fine;  the world needs all sorts of venues. The place really filled up, too, with older folks like me and a good sprinkling of young composer/serious new music types.

Christian Wolff’s Exercise 20 (Acres of Clams) started the concert, performed by both Kubera and Nonken (two pianos).  The oldest piece on the program, it was composed in 1980.  It’s a set of variations on “a song sung by a New-England-based, non-violent activist group called The Clam Shell Alliance, which occupied the site of the Seabrook (New Hampshire) Nuclear Power Plant in 1977.” It included a bit of whistling and some moments with percussion toys.  I’d love to have been following the score to see how much was strictly notated and what was aleatoric.  The program note (by Amy C. Beal) explained that it’s a piece which focuses “on sensitivity, coordination, and communication between the players, often in what Wolff has referred to as ‘democratically indeterminate’ ways.” I’m all for indeterminacy, especially the democratic kind.

Michael Byron’s Book of Horizons was written in 2009, but this was its premiere.  Just one piano, played by Kubera. Five movements, with programmatic titles.  “Unknown Americans” was very contrapuntal.  “Porcelain Nights” had many arpeggiated figures, and often sounded pentatonic, although not strictly so.  “Like the Eyes of the Bride” had me writing “pointillistic . . . short gestures . . . short scale riffs . . . punctuating chords.”  “A World Full of Hope” was rhapsodic, with bell-like passages  The final movement, “Appearances and Architraves,” returned to short gestures and complex textures.  (Whew!  Writing notes in the program helps. What, you don’t know what an architrave is? I didn’t either.) Great variety, and indeed “not for the faint of heart”!

Lots of chatting at intermission. Many people knew each other;  it’s a hub of the downtown new music scene, after all, and there was a bit of a clubhouse feel. Another blogger introduced me to someone.  “Oh, Eric Edberg.  You’re a writer, right?”  And it’s funny, while I was glad he’d heard of me, what came out of my mouth was, “I’m a cellist.  And I write a blog.”  (Some identity issues going on, I see.)

The second half of the concert was Larry Polansky’s 2007 Three Pieces for Two Pianos, also having its premiere.  (Serious composers don’t hold their breath waiting for a new piece to get performed.)  No programmatic titles in this work:

I
II
III (Canon in four voices)

But just when I thought I’d found an oasis free of genre-melding music, here came Stephen Foster’s “Comrades Raise No Glass for Me” in the second movement!  Well, it wasn’t really genre-melding.  Quoting a song is different than synthesizing idioms.  As Amy C. Beal’s very informative program notes explained, Polansky explores “purely musical puzzles (‘interrupted tuplets,’ ‘stretching’ a song by independently varying exponential curves, probabilisitically morphing modes, and more).”  OK, if you understand that, you’re probably named Polansky!

The complex first movement, Foster-free, is “an homage to [Henry] Cowell’s Rhythmicana as well as an expression of Polansky’s faith in the pianists’ Kubera’s ability to play very difficult rhythms.”  Very difficult, indeed.  But faith (in the sense of belief without evidence) was not needed–the evidence of skill was overwhelming.  The last movement draws on computer-music techniques, according to the notes, but just how I’m not sure.  Regardless, we all loved it, the performers, and their performance.  As an encore they played one of piece’s the optional “Interloods.” Which one, I’m not sure.  If you’re playing “Meditation from Thais,” that’s pretty easy to announce.  If it’s viiitviiniiivii(iii) (“moving out”) (tooaytood #15c) (one of the “unusual titles” of the Interloods) you just play the thing.

You know, lots of classical musicians hate this sort of stuff.  Some people think that the dominance of this sort of challenging, not-easy listening music in the post-WWII years helped kill off a wide audience for new music.  Maybe it did.  But did I ever enjoy this concert, in all its who-cares-if-you-listen glory.

When I left Roulette, I noticed a plaque on a nearby building.

Fluxhouse plaque on Greene St.

It was the second Fluxhouse.  And I took the best photo my iPhone could in the streetlight, just for Jon Silpayamanant, my former student and much admired colleague (and by far the most frequent commenter on this blog), with whom I would have loved to have shared the entire evening.  He would have appreciated even more than I.

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Filed under Christian Wolff, Downtown Music, Fluxhouse, Jon Silpayamanant, Joseph Kubera, Larry Polansky, Marilyn Nonken, Michael Byron, Non-traditional Venues, Pianists, Roulette

Davidovsky and the ICE at Miller Theatre

Mario Davidovsky, whose work was the subject of last night’s Composer Portrait at Columbia University’s Miller Theatre, was a leader in the development of electronic and electro-acoustic music. That genre consists of carefully worked-out sound collages, music which shocked and alienated many early audiences, which many traditional classical musicians (and musicians) still detest, and which I happen to really enjoy.

So why do I like it when so many years later so few others do?  It may well have to do with my mother, who, when I was a child, had me lie down, close my eyes, and listen to a recording of Vares’s Ionisation. Let your imagination go, she told me.  Tell me what you see.  She may have had me draw pictures.  Varese called his music “organized sound” and that early immersion in that one piece made me open to so much.  (It’s funny.  I don’t remember her having any other interest in avant-garde music.)

I’ll admit it, I had never heard of Davidovsky before I read about this concert. I’m not a new-music maniac like my friend, former student, and admired colleague Jon Silpayamanant, who could probably do an hour or two on Davidovsky off the top of his head. And I knew nothing about him and his work before I sat down and started reading the excellent program notes [pdf] by Paul Griffiths.  I loved the concert, including the on-stage conversation between him and Melissa Smey, the Miller Theatre’s director.  Here’s Davidovsky in another interview:

 

So why did I go? To hear the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE).  Who cares what they’re playing? I knew it would be good. Besides the group’s incredible reputation, the flutist Eric Lamb, who attended DePauw for a while, is one of the members, and I really have been wanting to hear him perform.  I’d missed their concert which opened the Tully Scope series, in order to hear Meridith Monk speak at Symphony Space, and when I read about this concert, I made it my top priority.

I’m going to all these concerts and writing them, giving myself a new education, as I prepare a course or courses for DePauw music majors on career issues in the developing classical/post-classical music world.  Look at the schedules of the ICE and Eric.  They are great models for what can be done separate from the slowly dying win-a-competition, win-an-orchestra-job traditional world.  The ICE has a tremendously strong, visionary leader in Claire Chase, and uses musicians of extraordinary accomplishment, like Eric and the trumpeter Gareth Flowers (whom I met when he performed as half of The Batteries Duo at the Chamber Music America conference).

A lesson here is that if you develop extraordinary ability in a niche about which you’re passionate and develop a great reputation, people will come to whatever you do.  You’ll build your own audience.  It’s a point Frances-Marie Uitti made to me after I heard her play at LPR.  She has a huge career performing all over the world with a repertoire of avant-garde cello music that not even many cellists don’t know or care about it.  It’s devoting yourself to something you’re passionate about she told me.  You can knock yourself out for a while seeing who can play the Brahms F Major Sonata better, but that’s not what the world needs or wants.

OK, back to the Davidovsky concert.  Terrific, fascinating, extraordinary music, performed incredibly well.  Davidovsky the first or one of the first to combine recorded, electronically-generated sounds with live performers.  The program began and end with two such works, Synchronisms No. 9 (1988) with violinist David Bowlin, and Synchronisms No. 12 (2007) with clarinetist Joshua Rubin.  The rest of the program consisted of purely acoustic works which the motivic interplay was fascinating. (You can read the details in the program notes linked to above.) One of the musicians told me Davidovsky’s music (with which he was not previously familiar, either), reminded him of Webern’s, with the short motives and the hocketing.  “A lot like Webern,” I replied, “but longer.”  We had a laugh.

Here’s a different performance of the Synchronisms No. 9:

Walking home the 23 blocks to my apartment (I was seduced by the Ben and Jerry’s shop, don’t tell my trainer, but as long as I gave in to temptation I decided to really enjoy it), I was thinking about this sort of well-attended concert, dedicated to the work of a single, obscure-to-the-general-public composer, could only happen in a few places.  A performing arts series at a great university, in a large city, in a neighborhood with a lot of urban intellectuals, also accessed easily by public transportation.  The Miller Theatre’s Composer Portrait series is really quite something.  It’s the kind of thing that can happen at a university which can afford to present events that aren’t part of the new populist trends in classical music.  While I have nothing to do with Columbia, I did feel proud to be part of what we call “the academy”–the community of colleges and universities.

(By the way, I forgot to add the “SJ” for “Sabbatical Journal” number in a recent posts, and so I’m not going to number them anymore.  Unless someone demands it!)

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Filed under Claire Chase, CMA 2011 Conference, Composers, Ensembles, Eric Lamb (flute), Frances-Marie Uitti, future of college/university music education, Gareth Flowers (trumpet), International Contemporary Ensemble, Le Poisson Rouge, Mario Davidovsky, sabbatical journal, The Batteries Duo, The Batteries Duo, Young Performers