Category Archives: Pianists

Sunday Night: Lie Down with Bach

Katya Kramer-Lapin, a wonderful pianist finishing her doctorate at the IU Jacobs School of Music and one of my DePauw colleagues, is playing the Bach Goldberg Variations tonight (Sunday Nov. 13) in the beautiful Methodist church nestled in the heart of the DePauw University campus.

We’re dimming the lights, lighting some candles, and, most importantly, making as much floor space available in the sanctuary as possible.

Floor space?

Yes, so the audience, most of whom we expect to be college students, can bring comforters, blankets, sleeping bags, and pillows, and listen to the music lying down. Pajamas are welcome, even encouraged, if not required.

You know what?  There’s some buzz about it.

A bunch of young people who would not voluntarily sit for 90 minutes in a church pew or an auditorium seat are excited about being able to experience Bach while lying down. There’s a legend to this piece: that it was commissioned by a wealthy insomniac patron, for the latter’s keyboard-prodigy servant (Goldberg) to play while his master tossed and turned trying to sleep. So it seems apropos to offer a similar opportunity to a larger group.

And, of course, listening to music while lying down is wonderful.  People do it at home all the time; in a public space, very rarely.  But how extraordinary it should be to stetch out, relax, and experience a world-class pianist making music.  I’m really looking forward to it.

We’re framing the event as a study break and a time of meditation.  We want to balance the informality and novelty with the idea of a peaceful, quiet space, and not have it devolve into a silly pajama party.  It’s all come about through conversations between Katya, me, and members of the first-year seminar class for music majors I teach at DePauw, in which one of the topics is the question of how to get college students to enjoy classical music.

I’ve just read through Greg Sandow’s recent series of posts (hereherehere, and here), and the 93 comments to date (many voluminous and all surprisingly civil in tone), on outreach, education and what I think is Greg’s brilliant insight, one that’s changed my life, which I’ll paraphrase: hey, before anything else, let’s get our peers to listen to our music. My head is still spinning from the discussion, which roams through white colonialism, the brilliance of hip hop, the lack of African Americans in classical music (with notable exceptions).  Images of a graduate course on “Rhythm” at SUNY Stony Brook, where I couldn’t understand most of what people were saying, or why they were saying it, came to mind.  (I sat in on the first session and did not register for it.  I do remember, though, that most of what I couldn’t understand, which flowed forth spontaneously from eager-to-impress theory, musicology, and composition students, was quickly dismissed as the bullshit it was by the professor, although he didn’t use that word.  It was just more bullshit than I thought I could handle.)

Which is not to put Greg or any of the commenters down. Greg started off by saying that while outreach and education are great, we, especially young musicians, need to be getting “people like us” to come to concerts. The conversation, though, does seem to want to avoid the question (perhaps not surprisingly, since it’s so hard to answer) of how we engage new audiences–especially people under 40–without sacrificing artistic quality.  That’s not exactly how Greg phrases it.  For me, though, that’s the question.  My sabbatical in New York, the hundred or more different performances I went to, Greg’s Juilliard course that I sat in on, and everything else?  What I got from it was a question. This question. For me, the question.

Questions are more important than answers.

And so I’ve been asking it of lots of people, including those who play and sing in concerts I organize. Katya’s one of them.  So are my students.  We imagined this together.  I’ll let you know how it turns out.

 

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Filed under attracting younger audeinces, audeince building, Greg Sandow, Katya Kramer-Lapin

Sunday in the Bar with Johann and the Preschoolers

One of [le] poisson rouge‘s motto’s may be “serving art and alcohol,” but when Orli Shaham and company take the space over on Sunday, it’s only musical art being served, so bring your own . . . whatever.  Not exotic cocktails but zippered plastic bags of Cheerios, fruit, and other treats will be in plentiful supply at the bring-your-own-snacks event. With the bar closed, might a thermos bottle of something stronger find itself lodged in amongst the juice boxes in the diaper bags?  Don’t ask, don’t tell.

No matter what you’re (not) drinking, Baby Got Bach returns to lpr this Sunday morning at 11:00 AM.  The wonderful carnival of musical exploration in the Gallery Bar space will once again precede an interactive concert in the main performance area. Orli, mother of pre-school twins, knows her audience–kids, parents, and grandparents alike–and puts on a fun, engaging event with top-level music.

I had a great time at BGB last April, even without kids in tow.  (Hey, I just remembered who I know who has kids in the city–I’m going to email them. If I had kids (and we were in New York), I’d definitely be taking them this weekend to hear Orli and a woodwind quintet play music by Bach, Berio, Schumann, Ligeti and others. My youngest child is no longer a child (a college junior), and my oldest is teaching English to first and second graders in China. Were I in New York, I might show up anyway, just to hear that combination of musical voices, and take delight in the delight of the kids.

My friend Greg Sandow has written a series of posts (here, here, here, and here) criticizing aspects of the outreach/education imperative in institutional classical music.  I’m just starting to wade through the discussion.  One thing that’s clear to me, though,is that it’s OK to play music you love for as many types of audiences as possible.  

And that’s one of the things I loved about Baby Got Bach when I attended an event last spring.  It didn’t feel like some contrived let’s-do-an-education-project-to-get-a-grant thing.  It’s a mom, who’s a fabulous musician, putting together concerts for kids, hers other people’s, and their parents. A terrific family event. In, of all places, a trendy Village venue.

Where, usually, “alcohol is our patron.”

But not for Baby Got Bach. Art isn’t free, and they aren’t selling drinks.

So if you’re in New York, take your kid or grandchild or niece or nephew, buy tickets (they aren’t expensive) have a great time, and think about making a donation.  Because this is worth it, not so someone might one grow up and one day subscribe to the symphony (although they might, or help reinvent the symphony); because it’s just a great way to share music, and kids deserve that as much as anyone.

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Filed under Baby Got Bach, Le Poisson Rouge, Orli Shaham

My mother, so present in her absence, at last night’s concert

“I’m not quite sure how to follow that!”  The audience laughed.

Nariaki Sugiura had just finished a virtuoso performance of Alan Jay Kernis’s Superstar Etude No. 1, a rock/classical mashup of a piece, which included Nariaki leaning over and using his (shoeless) left foot on the keyboard.  Very theatrical and really energizing.  Talk about pianistic athleticism.

The concert began with a solo set by Nariaki.  He’d also played a movement of a Haydn sonata and two Cowell pieces.  And then this bombastic entertainment, which the audience loved.

So as a kind of transition, I told a couple of stories.  How my mother and Laura Sias, the strings teacher at Parker Elementary School in Royal Oak, Michigan, conspired to get me started on cello.  How I agreed, with my own eleven-year-old silent conspiracy, to play, knowing that if I refused my mother would be on my case for not trying.  If I played for a few months, however, I could then say I didn’t like it, and my mother would be off my back about playing an instrument.

The joke was on me, though.  I liked the cello and kept playing.

(Despite several attempts to quit, when I’ve been frustrated with my playing, or with myirregular practice habits, with my performances, with the anxiety attacks before (and occasionally during) performances, with the depression and self-recrimination that has sometimes followed performances . . . I always came back.  At some point, I quit quitting.)

Anyway, here I was, almost 43 years later, playing a concert.  About to perform the Schumann Five Pieces in Folk Style for the first time. As I wrote about yesterday, as a boy I used to fall asleep listening to the Pablo Casals recording of them.

Nariaki and I started playing.  And my mother was suddenly very present for me.  A pianist, she was my first accompanist, and we performed together for years.  A wonderful mentor and colleague as I became an adult and a college music professor myself.  We used to love shop talk.

Now, parts of her brain experiencing the effects of Alzheimer’s Disease and vascular dementia, she’s in a (lovely) memory-care facility.

Her grandson, my son, visited her Tuesday.  At first she started to introduce him to others as her husband, then when Pete interrupted to say he wasn’t her husband, she said he was her son. He tried to explain he was her grandson, but she ignored it.  “She did not want to be corrected twice,” he told me.  “Her social sense is still intact.”

Howard Hanson (a major 20th-century composer who was the head of the Eastman School of Music for years) visited the University of Tampa when she taught there, and she was the piano soloist on a concert he conducted.  The poster is on a wall of her room.

Now she conflates him with whatever composer she is playing.  So she told Pete about Beethoven visiting her in Florida and the concerts they did together.

I hadn’t played in Greencastle since last summer (I was on sabbatical for the 2010-2011 academic year/concert season).  My parents moved to Greencastle about four years ago.  I’d taken Mom to every concert I’d played here since–and she’d played a few herself.  So this was the first time I’d sat in that church with my cello and not had her there.

And I was playing these pieces that I used to listen to when I started playing the cello.  My 11/12 year old self was very present.  The music is so beautiful.  Memories of how much I loved a particular passage started flashing into my awareness, more strongly than when we rehearsed.

My love and gratitude for my mother, who’d gotten me playing, who’d always supported me, who’d played with me, was so strong.

She was so present for me in her absence.

Somewhere in the first movement, I started to cry.  I held it back, but I was on the brink.  Teared up, for sure.  Afraid I’d lose it.

I didn’t, though. I got through the Schumann, and the rest of the program, just fine.  Had an especially good time playing the Saint-Saëns Concerto and Piazzolla’s Le Grand Tango.  

I’ll see Mom Saturday. I’ll take my cello, the cello she and my father took out a second mortgage to buy, and we’ll play some pieces together. She can tell me about her concerts with Beethoven, or whomever.

I’ll probably go over to my ex-wife’s house and cry after that.

(There’s more to say about the experience of last night’s concert, which a friend not there asked me to write about.  When I started to write this post, I didn’t know that it would be about missing my mother. There were many other dimensions, of course–and, writing muse willing, I’ll write about them soon.)

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Filed under Dealing with dementia, Eric Edberg performances, family life, Greencastle Summer Music Festival, Nariaki Sugiura

Oh! I’m playing a concert tonight

That's Nariaki. I'm the guy above!

Ha!  I have a little block (maybe more than a little) when it comes to promoting my own concerts.  So I’m just getting this up the afternoon of the show.

Tonight, pianist Nariaki Sugiura and I play a recital as part of the Greencastle Summer Music Festival, which I started about seven years ago and continue to (barely) organize.  There have been stories in the Banner-Graphic (the Greencastle, Indiana paper) and on the DePauw site.

It will probably be Nariaki’s last concert in Greencastle for quite a while.  He starts a new faculty position at the University of North Dakota next month. He’s a fabulous young pianist, who just finished (or is close to finishing) his DMA at Indiana University.  He was the accompanist for Janos Starker’s cello studio for several years, so he knows the cello repertoire inside out.

He’s a delightfully flexible collaborator, too.  Sometimes when a pianist has worked a lot with a famous artist or teacher, he or she will want everyone to play the way the great one did/taught:  “Starker does X!” “Mr. Rose always made a ritard here.”  “Alisa Weilerstein plays this tempo.” So what?  We are playing, not them.

My favorite was when in my own doctoral-student days I was rehearsing the Tchaikovsky Rococo Variations with a pianist and triumphantly nailed the final variation.  I sighed, smiled, and looked up at her.

She’d been listening to a recording. “Rostropovich plays faster,” she deadpanned, in her not-yet-fluent English.

With Nariaki, though, it’s always starting fresh, and I like that.  He’s never asked me to play like Starker or anyone else.

Nariaki starts things off tonight with a solo set.  He begins with a vivacious Allegro from a Haydn piano sonata, followed by two short programmatic pieces (“Banshee” and “The Harp of Life”) by the American composer Henry Cowell (1897-1965), and then a piece by a actual living composer: Alan Jay Kernis’s Superstar Etude No. 1.

The Kernis is wild and crazy.  A hard act to follow!

But I’ll give it a try.

Together we’ll play the Five Pieces in Folk Style by Robert Schumann.  I think it’s the first time for both of us, certainly for me.  I grew up listening to these pieces as performed by Pablo Casals.  As I explain in the press release included here, the first cello record I was given included these pieces.  I’d listen to them, or the Schumann Cello Concerto on the other side, almost every night as I went to sleep. (I had an automatic turntable, which would turn itself off when a record was over, in my room.) At some point in my teens, I decided to wait until I was an adult to learn and perform them–I thought it would be nice to “save” them.  Last week, thinking about tonight’s program, I decided now is the time.

That got me thinking about other childhood pieces, and the Saint-Saëns A Minor Concerto started floating through my head.  An album with Leonard Rose playing it, along with the Lalo Concerto and the Fauré Elegy, came into possession early in my cello life as well.  I got to meet Mr. Rose in 1973 after a concert, and he autographed the album for me.  I was with another cello student and he signed it, “Hello fellow sufferers!  Greetings, Leonard Rose.”  The Saint-Saëns Concerto was one of my favorite pieces.  I haven’t performed it since 1989–it’s out of fashion to play concertos with piano accompaniment, although this was done all the time in the 19th century as well as the pre-World War II era in the 20th.  So why not?  It’s such a terrific piece, and it sounds great with piano.

We finish off with Piazzolla’s Le Grand Tango, which he composed in 1982 for Mstislav Rostropovich. They didn’t get around to performing it until 1990.  So I definitely didn’t grow up listening to it.  But I love Piazzolla, and this piece is enormously fun to play.

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Filed under Eric Edberg performances, Greencastle Summer Music Festival, Nariaki Sugiura

Leon Fleisher and Jaime Laredo at the 92nd St Y; Inbal Segev and Fernando Otero at LPR

It really was a visit to the past, in a way, my trip to New York’s 92nd St Y to hear Leon Fleisher and Jaime Laredo.

Just the night before, I’d been at [le] poisson rouge where I’d been experiencing one part, anyway, of the future of classical music–a terrific recital by the cellist Inbal Segev, joined for part of the program by the amazing pianist Fernando Otero.

Past the bouncers at the front door, hands stamped, my friend “Cello Mike” and I took a right at the suspended fish tank and headed down the red-lit stairs to the main space.  We wandered around a bit, found two black-draped chairs at a table and stared at the “two items minimum per person” sign on the table.

Segev’s beautiful Rugeri cello was amplified, as was the Yamaha piano Otero played.  Colored lights, spot lights, Segev talking to the audience with a microphone, the music accompanied by cocktail shakers shaking. All streamed live on the Internet.

Me spelling “R-O-B R-O-Y” to a  generally inattentive waitress whose first language isn’t English and didn’t believe me that there was such a drink.  “I don’t think we have that.”  “Yes you do, the bartender will know. I’ll spell it for you.”)  And this, all happening sotto voce, during the performance of Otero’s intense, soulful, and not infrequently stunning Songs for Cello and Piano.  (The rest of the program was two solo cello works: the Prelude from the Bach C Minor Suite and the ever-daunting Kodaly Solo Sonata.)  During that Kodaly, kind of wanting another drink, but not wanting to pay for one.  Luckily, the waitress didn’t come to check if we wanted something else until 30 seconds before the piece ended.  No, we didn’t, and we escaped the two-item minimum.

Classical music in clubs–that’s part of the future. There are advantages and disadvantages.  A cellist friend my age was there, for the first time, and found it all distracting.  Mike, who makes a living busking in the subways and playing just about every possible genre of music, including some classical, said he’d much rather hear a classical concert at a place like LPR than a concert hall.    Dressed in cargo shorts and a black wife beater, he looked perfectly at home in a Greenwich Village club, but would have gotten some stares uptown.  So there you go.

The next night, last night, I put on dress pants and shoes, as well as a white polo shirt and a sport coat, to hear Leon Fleisher and Jamie Laredo at the 92nd St. Y.

Security guards, rather than bouncers, greet you, and you have to walk through a metal detector to get in.  (It’s set to a low enough sensitivity that they tell you to hold onto your keys and cell phone, so I wonder how much good it does.) There’s a lounge area off the concert hall, with a bar, so you can get a drink and snacks there, too.  You just can’t take them to your seat, there’s no minimum, and no servers interrupting you during the music.

The audience was mostly over 40, many well over 50.  As is the case at most traditional classical concerts, I got to feel young.  Dark wood paneling, names of great Jewish figures inscribed over the proscenium (David, Moses, Isaiah), great statesmen (Washington, Jefferson), and great composers (Beethoven, et al) around the top of the walls.  The piano and music stand on a plainly-lit stage.  Two legendary performers–who became legendary decades ago.  The audience quiet and attentive, no clapping between movements.

This is the recent past of classical music, and the role of this sort of concert in this sort of venue in the future is yet to be revealed.

It was a visit to my past as well.  I got a bit dressed up because I knew I’d greet Mr. Fleisher after the concert.  As I wrote about yesterday, I had chamber music coachings from him when I was a student at Peabody, and played principal cello for him in the Annapolis Symphony.  I sat in on lessons once in a while, including a couple he gave my mother.  She had a faculty development grant from the University of Tampa, where she was the piano professor, to work with him on left-hand literature.  “If her right hand works,” Fleisher, whose didn’t at the time, asked me, “why on earth would she want to play this left-hand stuff?”  But she always had problems with her right hand, the result of a childhood injury, while having extraordinary facility with her left hand.

One of the pieces she worked on with him, in the spring of 1980, was the Brahms arrangement of the Bach Chaconne, one of the most extraordinary pieces of music ever composed, from the D Minor violin partita.  I sat there in Fleisher’s studio as he discussed how he approached breaking the opening chords, two notes and two notes, as would a violin.  (I thought, and still do, that if you’re playing it on a piano, play it on the piano and don’t try to imitate a violin.)  There were details of phrasing and voicing and fingerings, how to bring out the key bass notes that are the basis of the variations that form the work.

And it was that piece that was at the center of last night’s recital.  Fleisher and Laredo had started with two Schubert Sonatinas, in in G and A minor.  And then this piece, the piece he coached my mother, now in her dementia dream world, on. It was the first time I’d heard him perform in person with both hands.  Back when I worked with him, the focal dystonia that would cause the fourth and fifth fingers of his right hand to snap shut had yet to be successfully treated.  When there was a brief respite in 1982 and he performed the Franck Symphonic Variations with the Baltimore Symphony, I listened to the sold-out concert on the radio, and cried.  The combination of his celebrity, his musical insight, his personal warmth and accessibility (I sat with him at breakfast in the Peabody cafeteria any number of times during my first year there)–I just loved the guy.  There was a kind of a cult around him.  We had his records, some of us, and compared every other pianist (unfavorably) to his two-handed recordings.  And it seemed that at some point each of his male students (including me for a while) grew a beard and trimmed it, narrowly, just like his. (Not so long ago I heard one of his current successful students, and, no surprise, he was sporting a Fleisher beard.)

Whatever had happened to enable him to use both hands at that concert in 1982 didn’t last.  I left Baltimore in 1984, and hadn’t even seen him until last night.  I’ve heard, and rejoiced in, the two-handed recordings he’s made since more successful treatments have worked their magic, and I’ve read his memoir co-authored with Ann Midgette.  So when I read about last night’s concert, I had to go.  I had to see this man who meant so much to me, who taught me so much, who shared his time with my mother.  And I wanted to see him play with two hands, for myself.

He walked out on the stage, the powerful shoulders (he always seemed very muscular to me, and I always wondered if that had something to do with his hand issues) now a bit stooped, the walk a bit slow. Some gray in his hair, but surprisingly little for a guy who is 82.

It was if I’d just seen him yesterday.  What is it about relationships?  Time passes, and yet it’s as if it hasn’t. There he was, Mr. Fleisher.  I felt 23 again.

You get over the personal stuff, and the miracle of the two hands, and the miracle of being 82 and still performing (I know this is hardly remarkable any more, but by the time my dad was 82, a year he didn’t survive, he was so physically fragile he could barely make it to the supermarket, and my mother, at 78, thinks Bach visited her in person), you’re left with the playing.  And as much as anything else, I went to that concert because I’ve loved what I heard in Fleisher’s recent recordings and I wanted to hear him make music with Jaime Laredo.

It was worth it.  Fleisher’s playing is at once supremely lyrical and profoundly architectural.  Singing and structure, in balance with each other. It’s something that’s not at all easy to do, to get that combination right.  There’s a flow that, as he used to work to help us learn to do ourselves, is rhythmic without being metronomic.  His sound is beautiful–rich and mellow.  There may have been more intensity and high drama in his younger years; there’s still a full range, and the music he makes feels both wise and fully alive.

Jaime Laredo is terrific, too.  When I was growing up, my parents treasured his recording of the Mendelssohn concerto.  Somehow, I’ve never heard him before.  He’s got a sound that ranges from soft and delicate to big and energetic, and played with energy imagination.  They both played wonderfully.  I didn’t feel, though, that they were always “clicking.”  The ensemble playing was good; it just never felt magical to me.  The program was originally going to be all piano, and was changed because Fleisher has been recovering from some more work on his right hand, which was still used quite a bit. So I found myself wondering how rehearsed this program was.

The highlight was that Bach Chaconne, after the two sonatinas, just before intermission.  It was insightful, fluid, colorful, deep, dignified without being pompous, and moving.  There was a big standing ovation after it, and no wonder.  After intermission, Fliesher played a two-handed arrangement of Bach’s “Sheep May Safely Graze.” I’ve played it in so many wedding services that sometimes I think it will make me scream, but in Fleisher’s hands it was magic.  As he walked off the stage, I thought to myself, “I bet he could even make me like the Pachelbel Canon.

I got to see him, shake his hand, remind him who was (he squinted a bit, in that way he has, and seemed to remember me), and told him what I was doing these days.  He thanked me for coming, and it felt quite sincere.  I let him move on to the next person.  But I forgot to say, “thank you for all you did to help me become the musician I am today.”  So I guess I’ll write him a note.  It’s more for me than for him–I think he knows how much of an impact he’s had on the many young musicians he’s guided.

Life is full of irony.  He plays that Chaconne so extraordinarily well, and includes it even in his two-handed programs.  If those problems with his right hand had never happened, would we ever have gotten to hear him play what has become a kind of signature piece for him, with the mastery and insight that comes from years of performance?  Probably not.  He’d probably be happy to have forgone it.  But that performance last night was so, well, perfect, that I’ll always be grateful. Not just for the playing, but for the pain-tinged beauty he created out of his tragedy.

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Filed under 92nd St Y (Upper East Side), Inbal Segev, Jaime Laredo, Le Poisson Rouge, Leon Fleisher

Baby Got Bach: My Inner Child Had Fun Along With the Real Kids

I don’t know when I’ve had more fun than I did at pianist Orli Shaham‘s sold-out Baby Got Bach event on Sunday April 3 at [le] poisson rouge.  Talk about serving all audiences!

This was aimed at the 3 to 6 year old set and their parents/grandparents.  The Gallery Bar had various stations where kids could compose a tune, have it played by various musicians, conduct it, etc.  Once everyone was successfully corralled into seats in the main space, Catherine Oberg (hmm, close to “Edberg” . . . could she be of Scandinavian descent, too?) led a wonderful interactive session with the kids.  Gail Wein, the group’s fab publicist, handed me her camera and put me to work.  I love taking photos, especially at parties, and I had a blast.  After a break for bathroom trips and diaper changes, Orli–who has fantastic rapport with the kids–took charge of a terrific musical program that included a diverse set of pieces, various instrumentalists (including violinist Adele Anthony, flutist Elizabeth Janzen, Aya Kato on keyboards, college-age pianist Dominick Cheli) and ballerina Ashley Talluto.  Orli’s brother Gil (yes, that Gil Shaham), joined in the fun, working with kids before the show and performing in several pieces as “violinist Gil.”

Great family atmosphere, so nice to be around.  Seems like yesterday my kids were that age.  They would have loved it.  Almost makes me look forward to being a grandpa (I’m quite happy to wait for my kids to finish college and get married.)

Nice Wall Street Journal feature article about the project here.  I don’t know if Gail arranged that or not–if so, way to go.  And a nicely-done (and smartly short) promo video:

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Filed under Baby Got Bach, Gil Shaham, Le Poisson Rouge, Orli Shaham

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