Composer-Performer-Composers I

“All performers should compose,” Joan Tower told the Miller Theatre audience Thursday night.  “And all composers should perform, too.”

Much applause, of course, from the audience of composers, performers, and those who appreciate them. We were there to celebrate her and her music, at a Composer’s Portrait event. The performances were by exceptionally accomplished Curtis students, members of Curtis 20/21 (great name), the Institute’s new-music ensemble, directed (but not conducted that evening) by David Ludwig.

It wasn’t a retrospective;  except for the 1998 Wild Purple, a solo viola work paired with 2008’s Simply Purple, all the works on the program had been composed in the last eight years.  Copperwave (2006) for brass quintet (two trombones, no tuba); the solo violin String Force (2010), written as a required piece for the Indianapolis International Violin Competition; Ivory and Ebony (2009) for solo piano; Angels (String Quartet No. 4) (2008); Trio Cavany (2007) for piano trio; the solo viola pieces mentioned above; and finishing the program DNA (2003) for five percussionists.

As I said, the performances were outstanding.  These Curtis students play with such a high level of technique and musicianship that they are the equal of most professionals I know.  In an on-stage interview after intermission, Tower commented more than once on how thrilling it was to work with them.  She was also hilarious in discussing the back stories of the titles for the evening’s pieces, some of which have little, if anything, to do with the musical content.

The fascinating thing for me was the praise she gave the students, especially violinist Nikki Chooi and pianist Andrew Hsu (only 16; someone make this kid a website!), who performed difficult solo pieces from memory.

“They make it their own music, and that’s incredibly nourishing for me.”

Boy, that’s a far cry from the philosophy of some other composers.  That’s an acceptance of the performer as a partner in the creative process, the process of creating a performance, the process of making music.  You’re playing, and something happens.

“The music is creating itself, and I’m trying to listen to what it’s trying to do,” Tower was quoted (from an online interview with Bruce Duffie) in the program notes.  When David Ludwig asked her to elaborate on what she liked so much about Andrew Hsu’s performance in particular, she said, “He composed it while he was playing it.  He changed tempos and dynamics.”  Then she laughed a bit and said something to the effect that maybe she shouldn’t praise liberty taking in such a public situation.

I think what Andrew did, and the other performers, was to listen to what the music was “trying to do.”  Just as Tower did when she composed it. A piece isn’t a thing;  it’s an activity, a process.  I like to say that when it works well, the music plays the performer, uses the performer, uses the performer’s personality and imagination. It’s reinvented in the process of performing.

“He composed it while he was playing it.”  That makes sense now.

The performance that I connected with the most was Nikki Choi’s.  I wrote these notes in my program: “fucking awesome . . edge of my seat . . .huge variety.”  He was technically assured, expressive, and, more than that, the piece made intellectual sense as it unfolded in his hands. He didn’t thrash around, yet it was tremendously exciting playing. For me, there was a special spark, a connection.  I look forward to following his career.

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