Category Archives: Ensembles

Phoenix’s Downtown Chamber Series: An Unusual Model for Success

a view from the rear of the Great Hall at the Phoenix Art Museum

I attended the Wednesday July 27 concert of the Phoenix Downtown Chamber Series (DCS) in the Great Hall of the gorgeous Phoenix Art Museum.   The DCS, a musician-run organization founded and directed by Phoenix Symphony violist Mark Dix, has been going since 2000.  The program, except for two solo piano pieces by Granados, was of all contemporary music.  Except for two more solo piano pieces, by the Cuban composer Ernesto Lecuona (1895-1963), each piece included guitar and had been commissioned and/or premiered by Duo 46, guitarist Matt Gould and violinist Beth Ilana Schneider-Gould.  I listed all the performers (each of whom played terrifically well) in my preview post.

The DCS presents about five programs a year (if I understood correctly), at various art galleries, museums, and warehouse spaces in the downtown Phoenix area.  It’s a very interesting model: no traditional concert halls, changing venues, and the concerts are scheduled and announced one-by-one rather than a season in advance. Ticket prices are low (just $10), and there are a variety of donors (35 in the $10-99 category, 42 in the $100 and above).  Volunteers (seven listed in the program for these concerts) help with logistics, ushering, ticket sales, etc.

If someone had come to me before Wednesday night and asked, “How about we start a chamber music series where we just plan the concerts one by one and have them at different locations?”, I’d probably have been skeptical about the chances of building an audience.

Now that I think about it, though, an ensemble (or, in this case fairly large group of local musicians from whom the performers

From behind the stage, looking out over the seating area

for each concert are drawn) in a large metropolitan area can certainly build a following that is not venue-specific.  Having just spent five months in NY, the new-music groups Alarm Will Sound, the Metropolis Ensemble, and the International Contemporary Ensemble, each of which perform at a variety of locations, immediately come to mind as having done just that.

There were about 250 people, I estimated, at Wednesday evening’s concert, which was a repeat of a Saturday afternoon performance.  So the DCS certainly draws an audience.  Age range? Pretty typical, it seemed to me, the vast majority looking to be, like me, 50+.  Perhaps 10% 30 and under, a bit better than most classical concerts, but that’s a very rough estimate, and for one concert on a weeknight in what’s probably one of the more close-to-traditional spaces the DCS has played. This was their first set of concerts at the museum, the twelfth venue at which they’ve performed (by my count from that link).  The couple sitting next to me had read about the concert in the newspaper (old media still works!).

I was quite surprised when Mark Dix explained, in his remarks at the start of the second half of the concert, that the 2011-2012 season has yet to be planned, and that they have found that it works not to plan an entire season in advance, but to schedule things concert-by-concert, seeing who is available when. I’d have thought that with primarily local musicians, it would work better to get the season scheduled in advance–especially during the fall/winter/spring standard concert season.

On the other hand, I do a lot of last-minute scheduling myself for the summer concert series (the Greencastle Summer Music Festival) I organize in Greencastle.  We do twelve concerts a summer, and since we pay rather small honoraria and people tend not to have summer vacation and other plans set far in advance, it has worked for seven years to do the scheduling in late April and early May, with the concerts starting just after Memorial Day.  I’ve been thinking about starting earlier, and perhaps for some of the performers that could work, but I’ve been assuming that for most of us it wouldn’t work to pin things down too far in advance. And at DePauw, where I teach, the music faculty wasn’t enthusiastic about scheduling faculty recitals a season in advance, until the concert calendar started getting so crowded that we were forced to do so or not be able to get a date.

And many of the musicians are members of the Phoenix Symphony, and I know from my friends in the Indianapolis Symphony that the schedule can be more in flux than one would assume;  run-out concerts and special events get added during the season, so you can’t always count on a free night remaining so.

Obviously it’s working for them.  I talked briefly with Mark after the concert; his enthusiasm for performing chamber music in visually-stimulating, energetic, spaces such as art museums is contagious. He mentioned how “dead” recital halls and churches can feel, and how little classical musicians as a whole think about the visual experience of a concert.  He’s right on about that.

And it’s a musician-run, local series.  Which is great.  With the high level of the performances, I was impressed once again by how many terrific musicians there are wherever you go in the United States, just as so many of us were impressed by the high level of playing of orchestras from Toledo, Albany, Oregon, and Dallas at the Spring for Music Festival at Carnegie Hall.

Since the series presents primarily local musicians, they can pay what I assume are fairly nice fees for a gig in one’s home town. They don’t have to come up with six-figure fees to pay a big-name touring ensemble with its associated travel and hotel costs. That would require more extensive fundraising, including grants, big corporate donors/sponsors, slick program books with ads, etc.  (I talked once with the artistic director of a summer series, not too far a drive away from Greencastle, about possibly booking one or two of their groups to do a concert on my series;  each of the groups on his series expected a fee much larger than the budget for our entire summer.) To get a corporate sponsor for a program, you’d have to have that program scheduled well in advance.

But they don’t need that.  The Downtown Concert Series fulfills a very different purpose than, say, the Phoenix Chamber Music Society, which presents big-name artists like the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center and the Muir Quartet.  This is (first-rate) local musicians putting on their own concerts, and doing a great job of it.

I’m really glad I went;  it gave me a lot to think about, and possibilities to imagine.



Filed under alternative classical performance, alternative venues, Downtown Chamber Series (Phoenix), Duo46 (violin and guitar), Ensembles, Greencastle Summer Music Festival, Phoenix Chamber Music Society

Giant Cicada: Chamber Punk at the Thalia Café

“I have a band called Giant Cicada.  We play chamber punk,” bassist Jon Burr told me as he handed me his card.

“Oh, chamber punk. Sure,” I replied. (Or something to that effect.)

Jon was shocked that I took in “chamber punk” as easily as if he’d said “Mozart.”  (Once the son of a friend, about 11 or 12, came to let me know they were there to pick me up.  He was in full clown regalia, makeup and everything.  “OK, I’ll be right out,” I told him, purposely teasing him by ignoring his altered state.)

We had found ourselves eating next to each other in a soup place across from the midtown church where a Chamber Music America First Tuesday seminar had been held.  I don’t know how we got to talking, but we soon realized we’d been to the same event and introduced ourselves. And when I explained I was in New York researching, among other things, groups fusing genres and so “chamber punk” had quickly come to seem pretty, well, normal to me, we had a laugh.

Note to myself and especially my younger readers: remember that nothing is more important than networking.  Whichever of us started the conversation did the right thing. I keep working on getting better at this.  There’s an old saying that “it’s not how good you are, it’s who you know.”  The truth is that it is how good you are at what you do AND who you know that makes the difference.  If your work sucks, it doesn’t matter how well-connected you are.

We’ve kept in touch.  Jon lets me know about upcoming events, which led me to rush up to the Thalia Café last week, after a post-concert dinner with a friend after Thursday’s NY Philharmonic concert, to hear him and his Giant Cicada chamber-punk co-conspirators Lynn Stein (vocals), Carlos “Go-Go” Gomez on the cajon drum, John Hart (acoustic guitar–and he needs to get a website), and 15-year-old jazz-violin wunderkind Jonathan Russell.  (I even sprang for a taxi!)

Another note: inviting people to your concerts/gigs really works.  And yes, I’m rarely good at doing this myself.  That’s why people hire publicists and managers.  But unless/until you can afford that, you (or someone who loves you

It’s an attractive space with good drinks and food at reasonable prices. Giant Cicada (as described on the group’s website) plays a mix of music “from 60’s pop, jazz, the Great American Songbook of Standards, songs from around the world, as well as original tunes.”  Jon does a lot of bowed bass; the guitar lends both jazz and classical touches; Jonathan’s violin playing combines jazz, rock, and fiddling influences; and the cajon drum brings in a distinctively Latin feel.  Lynn is, simply put, a wonderful jazz/pop singer. It’s a wonderful, unique fusion of stylistic elements, performed by fun, inventive, skilled musicians.

They’ve got a great promo video (their next step, by the way, is probably to make a much shorter version):

At the Thalia, there were some, uh, challenges with the sound system, which made it near-impossible to hear Lynn and Jonathan. Not totally impossible, but it was if they weren’t amplified.  Which was too bad, because part of the crowd was quite noisy.  Get a bit of alcohol in some people who then get excited about their conversation, and they talk louder than the music.  To them, it becomes background music (or even a bothersome distraction), rather than being the reason to be there.  (I used to notice this when I played string quartet background music gigs.  If we couldn’t hear ourselves and played louder, the decibel level of the talking would increase in parallel fashion.)  It may be that given the lack of good amplification, these folks had given up on listening, but it still seemed obnoxiously bothersome.  You could look around and see the rest of trying to listen.

Anyway, it was a fascinating, fun,and musically enjoyable, regardless of the acoustic challenges.  The Giant Cicada folks are creative, good, and entrepreneurial. I look forward to hearing them again.

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Filed under Bassists, Carlos "Go-Go" Gomez, Drummers/Percussionists, entrepreneurship, Giant Cicada, Guitarists, John Hart, Jon Burr, Jonathan Russell, Lynn Stein, networking, videos, Violinists

Waiting for Sufjan: Clogs, Shara Worden, and the Brooklyn Youth Chorus at the Ecstatic Music Festival

(It’s do-laundry and catch-up-on-posting-about-concerts day.  So let’s see how caught up I can get!)

On Saturday March 12, my daughter and I went to hear Clogs, Shara Worden, and the Brooklyn Youth Chorus perform at Merkin Concert Hall as part of the Ecstatic Music Festival.  (Great photos here.) There is so much going on in New York, and I’ve gone to far fewer Ecstatic concerts than I’d hoped (and now wished).  So often there are two, or three, or even four events happening at the same time, each of which I’d like to be at.  And occasionally, I’m rehearsing, or performing, or just exhausted and/or musicked out.

Brooklyn Youth Chorus, Shara Worden, and some of Clogs on stage at Merkin. By David Andrako at

Anyway, Clogs is another of those wedded-genre groups (a friend read another post and commented on Facebook that he loved my phrase “wedded genres” but it turned out I had said about everything but that phrase, which occurred to him, so thanks John B!) and the performance sounded so fascinating that I chose it over that evening’s Les Arts Florissants Tully Scope event. Which I really wanted to see.

I got my daughter to join me.  She was reluctant at first;  I’ve taken her to some weird stuff, and this was a long subway ride from the East Village.  But when I mentioned I’d gotten an email from a publicist mentioning in part that Sufjan Stevens, whose name was vaguely familiar to me, was going to be performing, too, she was sold. (He’d also been just been added to the listing on the website.) “Sufjan Stevens!  He’s great!  Pete [her brother] has all his albums and I have a lot of his stuff on my iTunes.  I can’t wait to tell Pete we’re going to hear Sufan!”

I guess the Metro ride seems shorter when Sufan Stevens is on the other end. Nothing like celebrity to get someone to a concert.  Which is great if you can afford a celebrity, or are friends with one who will play for free.  Those TV celebrities selling their own hair treatments and whatever?  Think they really went out and decided to devote their lives to coming up with the world’s best face cream?  No way.  Almost always, some great marketer like Dan Kennedy (and it usually was Dan Kennedy, by the way, especially if the infomercial is successful) went and hired them for a face-cream client.

If you don’t have/can’t afford a celebrity, our culture’s fame addiction is a real pain in the ass.  You can do absolutely great stuff and it is next to impossible to get people to come to your concert, or buy your CD, or your face cream, or whatever. Clogs?  They had Sufjan, and, bless them, it meant I got an evening with my daughter.

We arrived at Merkin about 15 or 20 minutes before the concert was scheduled to begin, and there was a huge line.  Was it for Sufjan?  Was it because there were a zillion kids in the chorus and therefore a zillion-squared relatives attending? Are Clogs that big a draw?  I don’t know.

There was just one person working the box office (shortly joined by another).  And some confusion in the line.  Was this the line for ticket holders?  Or to get tickets?  Turned out to be the latter, and as the news spread, the line thinned out a little.  Wow!  I thought.  This is kind of like one of the hot events at LPR, like when we stood in the rain waiting to hear Zoe Keating.

It took a while to get the tickets sold and everyone in, and the concert started a bit late.  Clogs is an unusual quartet: Bryce Dessner on guitar(s), Rachael Ellliott (bassoon), Thomas Kozumplik (percussion), and Padma Newsome (voice, mandola, and viola; violists can be so adventuresome!).  All terrific, inventive musicians.  As the evening progressed, a Penn-and-Teller dynamic revealed itself.  Newsome and Dessner talk to the audience and teasingly and playfully with and about each other; Elliott and Kozumplik stay silent.  Great rapport with the audience, in a folk-concert sort of way. The choir, not surprisingly, didn’t talk to the audience, either.

I really liked Clogs (and everyone else, just hold on).  A four-person band with bassoon and guitar–what more do you want, if you’re a let’s-do-things-differently guy like me?  Here’s part of their self-description:

Clogs are four musicians from the U.S. and Australia whose work traverses time and place and through which seemingly disparate influences are seamlessly drawn in. They compose and improvise using sounds and textures from across the musical spectrum—the immediacy of folk and rock music, twisted Americana, the complexity of modern composition.

And that’s why I had to hear them–and more of this Ecstatic Music series.  Immediacy and complexity, “sounds and textures from across the musical spectrum”–that puts it so well.  It’s what draws so many to this developing amalgamated-genre musicking (ooh, there’s a new phrase) in which the pieces and performances appeal to many but don’t fit in any particular category.

There were several additional instrumentalists (two violins, a cello, and percussion), and Shara Worden singing and playing guitar, and the wonderful Brooklyn Youth Chorus, mostly adolescent girls with a small handful of guys mixed in.  So when the show started with beautiful songs by Padma Newsome, not having having yet read the list of who was who (no individual names were listed on the page with program, they were buried several pages back), I was wondering who was who and which one is Sufjan Stevens?

I didn’t care that much (I hope), but that’s who my daughter had come for.  And he is a celebrity, after all, in her world.  Where’s the celebrity?  I want her to be happy.  I’m the guy who took her to see . . . what’s his name again?

Turned out, once Padma Newsome started talking to us after the opening two songs, with Bryce chiming in a bit, that it was, oh well, just them.  Clogs and the choir and Shara.  No Sufjan.

They’d started with “Cocodrillo” and “On the Edge,” two songs by Padma from a new album by Worden and Clogs, with a wonderful choir part added (if my memory is correct;  I didn’t know it would take me over a week to get around to writing about this, or I would have taken better notes).  “2:3:5,” and instrumental piece full of complexity and layered rhythms, “all in my guitar part,” as Dessner joked, followed, and then “Voisins.”  There was quite a bit of discussion about “voisins” meaning “neighbors” in French, and possible programmatic aspects, but, really, they said, it just happened that they were in the town of Voisins when they wrote it.  Charming banter, and a nice piece, which, if I’m not mistaken, started out in 7 and morphed around the metric spectrum a bit, all while retaining the folkish feel that was ever present in the evening.

So, I was wondering, having scanned through the program and finding the list of personnel, are they are going to have this Sufjan guy do a little solo set as a kind of guest star? It was obvious that the program was printed before he was added.  The suspense was building.  Wait till he comes on and we tell Pete about this! (Hmm.  Maybe I’m more into this celebrity thing than I thought. Oh, hell.  I love celebrities.  I WANT TO SEE FAMOUS PEOPLE!  Even if I didn’t know they were famous until just a bit ago.)

Anyway, no Sufjan yet. Be patient.  The concert’s fantastic without him.

The two big works on the program were co-commissioned by the festival: Bryce Dessner’s Tour Eiffel (text by Vincente Huidobro) and Padma Newsome’s three-movement Unattended Shadow (texts by himself and Susannah Keebler).  The Manhattan New Music Project also supported both, and St. Ann’s Warehouse the Dessner piece.

I enjoyed both.  Were I an actual music critic (not just playing one on this blog), I’d have taken better notes or written about the music right away.  What I remember is that the Brooklyn Youth Choir, directed (on stage) by  . . . oops, her name didn’t get in the program, was terrific.  (Actually, it was Dianne Berkun, who founded the group and is listed on the BYC website).

I loved the poems, especially the three in Unattended Shadows. The first, by Keebler, was inspired by a shirtless, shoeless bicycle rider in Newsome’s home town, who would avoid shadows while riding around.  The third, Newsome’s own “Dog Pooh Corner in Seattle,” was prompted by a church, not (just) feces.  In part:

Dog pooh corner in Seattle,
With infinity comes a song.
Two jesters, a mandarin cat, sat looking at an empty space.
Along comes a man and a dog,
The man pees while the dog watches on,
At the Tuesday lunch line at the door,
At the Tuesday lunch line for the poor.

My temporary room in NY overlooks a church which feeds many poor people, among its other services, and there’s a low-income “hotel” next to it.  In this Upper West Side neighborhood with its multimillion dollar apartments (including in the building where I’m staying, although not the rent-stabilized run-down unit where I’m a guest), there are panhandlers on the street. “Sir, sir, can you help me out?” I’m asked several times most days. (“I’ll be honest with you sir,” a very disheveled guy shared with me one night. “I’m an alcoholic.  And I really need a drink.  That’s what I need the money for.  It’s my birthday and I need a drink.” So I gave him five bucks and another guy, seeing what happened, started to tell me it’s his birthday, too.) I’m sure more than one has peed while a dog watched.  And there’s not infrequently poop on the corner. So it resonated with me.  My daughter, on the other hand, found it the one thing she really didn’t like.

After the big pieces, a couple more to go.  Well, now I bet they’ll bring Sufjan Stevens out!  What’s he going to do? A little solo set?

The penultimate piece, “5/4.”  No Sufjan.  No Sufjan? Is he not here?  We’ve already told Pete on Facebook about this!  What are we going to brag about?

That’s all I remember.  No Sufjan.  It probably was in 5/4. Pretty sure it was.  It may have been instrumental or had vocals.  I just don’t recall.  All I remember, no fucking Sufjan.

Finally, in the very last piece, “We Were Here,” (or in the encore, but I think that was just Clogs) Sufjan Stevens (yay!) came out on the stage.

Cool-looking kid. (Well, he’s in his mid-thirties, but he still looks like a kid to me.) All in black, I think.  Plugged in his guitar banjo. OK! It’s Sufan time!

And he sang along with everyone else.  No solo. Shara Worden sang, too. Sufjan probably has a nice voice.  He must, he’s got a big career.  We just didn’t hear it, at least by itself, that night.  (Well, we heard a little.  It’s sensitive and sexy.  I’ll probably end up downloading an album.)

My daughter and I had a huge laugh over the whole thing. (“I think they really overused that Sufjan kid,” I teased her.) She really enjoyed the concert, and I’m so glad she got to hear the great concert she heard. Even if she was kind of tricked into coming.

And she did get to see Sufjan.

Sufjan at Merkin, from


Filed under Clogs, Ecstatic Music Festival, Ensembles, Festivals, Shara Worden, Singers, Sufjan Stevens

Sweet Plantain and Fernando Otero at 92Y Tribeca

Ugh!  So behind again in posting. I gotta learn how to do a quick post about a concert I attend.

On Friday March 11 at the 92nd St Y TriBeCa, the string quartet Sweet Plantain, as uncategorizable as it is excellent, played a great set of original music and covers of Cuban pieces, opening for the phenomenal pianist Fernando Otero and his group (which included a killer, sexy bandoneón player).

Sweet Plantain

As I sat with a friend in the club setting (nice bar area and tables in front of the stage, which surprised me-I was expecting something more like the Upper East Side 92nd St. Y’s concert hall) of the venue’s main space, so delighted to be hearing terrific music by musicians I’d never heard of until recently, I got why Steve Smith and Nate Chinen were so enthusiastic about preparing event listings when I heard them speak earlier this month.  Of course if you care about music, you want people to know about what’s coming up so that they will actually attend the events.  It was through the Time Out New York fabulous music listings (Steve’s in charge of those) that I had found out about this event by looking to see what was scheduled for the night.  “This is amazing!” I thought.  “More people should be here.”  And I realized that if I were writing/blogging about music as a full-time gig, I’d want to be telling people about shows like this in advance, too.

Since then, it the only person I’ve talked to about the show who already knew of either Sweet Plantain or Otero went to school with David Gotay, Plantain’s cellist.  No one, even my pianist friend who is nuts for Piazzolla and tango music (very much a part of Otero’s language) had heard of Otero–who won a frigging Latin Grammy, for crying out loud.

Now you do.  Check them both out–well worth it.  Sweet Plantain plays with technical virtuosity, energy, commitment, and a sense of fun and adventure.  And they do original music.  The return of the performer-composer is such a big part of the revitalization of the music formerly known as “classical.”  Not only is this sort of we-want-to-connect-with-audiences creativity very healthy for music, but it’s also a fantastic way for a young group to establish itself in the musical marketplace.  And Otero?  Well, his Grammy-winning album is great (I became such a fan at the show that I actually bought one–would have picked up a Sweet Plantain album, too, it they’d had some for sale), but in person he (and his colleagues) are phenomenal.  Electrifying.

(And this was a pretty quick post.  Whew!)

[edited to correct spelling of Otero.  Oops.]


Filed under 92Y Tribeca, cellists, David Gotay, Music Writers, Nate Chinen, Performance Venues, Pianists, Steve Smith, Sweet Plantain (string quartet)

Alarm Will Sound’s 1969 at Zankel: What Is a Musician’s Responsibilty to Society?

It’s an exciting time to be in New York–so much new music of the uncategorizable, genre-mating, mash-up, remix sort that is at least a very big part of the future of classical music.  The Ecstatic Music Festival at Merkin, the amazing Tully Scope festival, the Tune-In Music Festival at the Park Avenue Armory, the contemporary classical events at [le] poisson rouge, and other independent events . . . I’m still trying to get everything I’ve been to so far written about.

Thursday night (March 10) brought perhaps the most mashed-up event yet, practically an entire festival in itself, to a sold-out Zankel Hall (the 599-seat contemporary space in the basement of Carnegie Hall). Alarm Will Sound‘s 1969 is a multimedia music/theater/film piece, inspired by reports that the Beatles and Karlheiz Stockhausen, one of the great avant-garde composers of the time, almost met (but didn’t) to plan a joint concert.  Now that would have been something. (There were excellent preview feature articles in the NY Times and the Wall Street Journal. Great, entertaining, program notes here.)

Alarm Will Sound’s 1969 Version of The Beatle’s Revolution No. 9:

Three video screens–one on each side of the stage, and one above the orchestra, conducted by its artistic director, Alan Pierson.  Three professional actors, playing John Lennon, Luciano Berio (another major avant-garde composer of the time), and Stockhausen.  Members of the ensemble speaking, acting, and singing;  bassonist Michael Harley was particularly impressive singing selections from Leonard Bernstein’s Mass, and also played Lenny himself.  Video footage and/or projected stills of of Lennon, Nixon, Berio, Stockhausen, Bernstein, Vietnam-War scenes and protests, Martin Luther King, Jr., Robert Kennedy, FBI files, Daniel Berrigan and others, etc.  Music by The Beatles, Stockhausen, Berio, Gavin Chuck, John Stafford Smith (who wrote the tune used for “The Star-Spangled Banner”) as arranged by Jimi Hendrix and then Miles Brown, Miles Brown himself, Kennon/Ono, Robert Dennis/Peter Schickele/Stanley Walden (a number from Oh! Calcutta!), and the world premiere of Swimming (a mash-up itself of Berio, Bernstein and the Beatles) by Stefan Freund (Alarm Will Sound’s cellist, a composition professor at the University of Missouri).

The "1969" Stage with Berio, Lennon, and Stockhausen, from the NY Times

An enormous sixties-like collage of music, images, and performance art, most of the music presented in excerpts, much with talking, acting, video happening at the same time.  Genres and artistic disciplines melded indeed.

I turned eleven in 1969.  I remember vividly watching from Royal Oak the smoke of the Detroit riots of 1967 (and the insensitive racism of some of the white, supposedly-liberal suburbanites in my parents’ circle of family and friends–“the niggers are burning down their own neighborhood,” one of my uncles would laughingly quote another relative for years after).  The King and Robert Kennedy assassinations in 1968.  The fear and anger over the Vietnam War.  The hippie movement.  The idealism of the peace movement.

That powerful mix of fear, anger, and idealism.  It came across so well in Thursday’s 1969, so potent in comparison with today’s apathy. Berio, in this production, constantly harping on the composer’s responsibility to society.  Bernstein proclaiming “a new eclecticism is at hand,” perhaps forty years before it really began to take hold among what appears to be a critical mass of today’s young classically-trained, rock-loving composers. Lennon, “Politics bores me,” inviting people to relax, love, and imagine.

What an enormous, complicated undertaking to develop, plan, and execute this!  An amazing adventure, a magnificent experiment.  Steve Smith reviewed it for the NY Times (as soon as I finish this post I’ll let myself read his piece), as did Kevin Berger for the LA Times and NY law professor Arthur Leonard on his blog.

My personal reaction? As amazing as it all was, as a theater piece it lacked dramatic focus, and the large number of non-professional actors acting was, at times, distracting. I kept thinking, “Oh, it’s a musician reading these lines. Pretty good job”  Same thing with much of the instrumentalists’ singing; some was fantastic, some strained.  At intermission and after, people (at least the ones I talked to) were talking about how surprising it was that such and such a player could sing so well, rather than about what they sang.

Musically it was a big mash-up. At times I wanted more sense of musical structure and cohesion, but quite obviously the mixed-up, kaleidoscopic array was much of the point, and very much in keeping with the late-1960s spirit. There was a bit of self-important pomposity about it, also in keeping with the spirit of the late-sixties Lennon, Stockhausen, Bernstein, Berio, et al.  It felt, to me, more than a bit preachy.  The significant amounts of non-professional-level singing and acting reminded me, at times, of a really good, extremely high-budget amateur or student production.

Incredible energy, idealism, and enthusiasm. The video work and sound production was amazing. The audience loved it.  I’m fascinated by it and the extraordinary creative process that produced it.  I’m thrilled that Carnegie Hall presented it–a major venue embracing something new and experimental.  And most of all, I’m grateful to have attended it.  Since I left the performance, I’ve been asking myself what a musician’s responsibility to society is in times like these, in times like those.  And what does that have to do with how people like me teach and train young musicians?  An evening that produces a shift like that is an evening more than well spent.

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Filed under Alarm Will Sound, Carnegie Hall, Ensembles, Traditional Venues, Venues, Zankel Hall

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!)


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