Monday, August 1, 2005

Chronicle of June 2005

[Samuel Barber]

June 2

Alan Gilbert conducts the New York Philharmonic in Samuel Barber's Cello Concerto (Op. 22) and Henri Dutilleux's Mystere de l'Instant. Avery Fisher Hall, New York, NY. "[I]t was good to hear [Barber's] bracing music, especially in this smart, incisive, and elegant performance. The soloist was Carter Brey, the Philharmonic's principal cellist and a fine and brilliant artist. . . . Gilbert led a sumptuous account of Henri Dutilleux's Mystère de l'Instant for strings, cimbalom, and percussion. This work, from the late 1980's, is a series of short 'moments,' as its title implies. Apparently Messiaen was not the only French modernist enthralled by birds. Mr. Dutilleux writes that hearing an amazing array of bird calls inspired him to compose this piece. The ravishing music teems with clanking percussion effects that are somehow celestial, and shimmers with daringly thick yet lucidly scored string chord" [Anthony Tommasini, The New York Times, 6/4/05].

June 4

Mark Swed reviews the American Youth Symphony, conducted by Kent Nagano, in Naomi Sekiya's Manzanar. Los Angeles, CA. "Manzanar has some highly effective, dramatically cogent music by Sekiya in its opening section, which deals with the first generation of Japanese immigrants to America. She is a promising composer who came from Japan to study at USC and UCLA and now lives here. Benoit -- who led a trio of piano, bass and drums on one side of the stage -- broke in periodically with pop music of the period. Sekiya's score returns for the final section, about post-camp life, and the music becomes serious again. But here -- with the choruses (the Santa Monica Chamber Choir and the Manzanar Youth Choir) . . . -- Sekiya had the thankless task of attempting to tie up loose musical ends" [Mark Swed, Los Angeles Times, 6/4/05].

Philip Glass's Powaqqatsi (film by Godfrey Reggio). Rose Theater, New York, NY. "[When] Koyaanisqatsi [was released] in 1983, it was something new: a full-length work in which music and imagery were intertwined to make a polemical point about mankind's custodianship of the earth. Powaqqatsi followed in 1988, and Naqoyqatsi completed the Qatsi Trilogy, as it came to be called, in 2002. Each was devoted to different aspects of how humanity has fouled the planet . . . [J]ust about all of Mr. Reggio's points are made best in Koyaanisqatsi, the most lyrically beautiful of the three. Mr. Glass's music, though, changed greatly from film to film, and in each score he explored new ground. In Koyaanisqatsi, he moved from the abstractions of additive process, which yielded works like Music in 12 Parts and Einstein on the Beach, to what was then an uncharacteristically lush, even neoromantic sound. Accompanying Mr. Reggio's images of exploding housing projects, time-lapse cloud formations, sweeping desertscapes and crowded train stations was rich orchestral scoring, including some almost Wagnerian brass writing. At the other end of the trilogy, Naqoyqatsi added a plaintive solo cello line to the blend. Mr. Glass's innovation in Powaqqatsi was to draw on the modal melodies, tactile percussion and exotic timbres of world music. Given that much of the film focuses on Asia, Africa and Latin America, this made sense, and it made a refreshing change from the arpeggios, scale patterns and major-minor chord progressions that had become Mr. Glass's signature moves. Not that those elements are absent, but the African rhythms and the melodies inspired by Asian chant push the music in a new direction that Mr. Glass went on to further explore. The Philip Glass Ensemble played the score with a visceral punch, but what it offered was a reduction: in its current configuration, the group includes percussionists, three woodwind players and a handful of keyboardists who approximated the score's string and brass parts" [Allan Kozinn, 6/6/05].

June 5

Esa-Pekka Salonen conducts the Los Angeles Philharmonic in Charles Ives's Unanswered Question, Maurice Ravel's Daphnis et Chloe, and John Adams's The Dharma at Big Sur. Avery Fisher Hall, New York, NY. "Only four flutists sat before Mr. Salonen on the stage. The strings were at the back of the hall on the orchestra level, and the solo trumpeter, whose melancholy theme represents Ives's question, was in one of the balconies. For the performance, the hall's lights were dimmed so that only Mr. Salonen and the players could be seen. It was a gimmick, but for listeners willing to trust it -- that is, those who weren't calling out for more light or giving their winter hacking coughs a final outing -- it yielded an unusually lucid interpretation. The beauty and delicacy of the score's components were clearer than ever, but its sense of mystery was preserved as well. . . . The Dharma at Big Sur [is] a 2003 concerto for electric violin by John Adams. Mr. Adams has cited the writer Jack Kerouac and the composers Lou Harrison and Terry Riley as his inspirations here, as well as California itself, and what he has produced is a score that peers across the Pacific and draws on an array of Asian influences. Mostly, though, they are unspecific: the winding violin line sometimes sounds ragalike, but it isn't quite a raga; and the orchestral texture, particularly toward the end of the 30-minute piece, evokes the sound of a gamelan without fully using traditional gamelan techniques. There are Western influences in this stew as well. In the more outgoing second movement, the violin line runs through some showy Romantic concerto figuration. And in the more meditative opening movement . . . . Tracy Silverman gave an animated account of the solo line, and added a layer of showmanship . . . . Salonen led his players and the Concert Chorale of New York in a sweeping, rich-hued and often magnificently sensual account of Daphnis et Chloé" [Allan Kozinn, 6/6/05].

June 7

George Perle's 90th Birthday Tribute Concert. Merkin Concert Hall, New York, NY. "[His] 90th birthday was on May 6 . . . . But you know the drill: where composers' birthdays are concerned, any time during either the formal concert season in which it takes place (that is, starting last fall) or the actual calendar year, is fair game. And why not? . . . [S]everal recently recorded the works on the program [will be included on] . . . a two-CD set to be released in the fall by Bridge Records, an enterprising label that keeps music by living composers in the spotlight or, at least, the record bins. Mr. Perle, ill with a respiratory infection, was not on hand. In the battle over the place of tonality in modern music, Mr. Perle was firmly in the post-tonal camp, but his music has always been the antithesis of the arid academicism that plagued that school. In the Three Inventions (1962) and BassoonMusic (2004), all for unaccompanied bassoon, virtuosity, lyricism and humor jostle for attention. The music is so fluid and lively that it's easy to forget that writing a work -- let alone two -- for solo bassoon is a decidedly quirky thing to do. Steven Dibner, the associate principal bassoonist of the San Francisco Symphony, played them with an admirable warmth and dexterity. Most of the concert's first half was devoted to Thirteen Dickinson Songs a 1978 collection that treats this poetry not as primly formal, but as gritty expressions of live-wire emotionality. The vocal lines are full of leaps that take the ear by surprise, and no doubt do the same for the larynx. . . . Horacio Gutiérrez isn't particularly known as a new-music pianist, but Mr. Perle wrote his Nine Bagatelles for him in 1999. These pieces are short but full of character, and Mr. Gutiérrez played them dazzlingly. The program also included "Triptych" (2003), a thoughtful set of dialogues between the violin, played by Curtis Macomber, and the piano, played by Michael Boriskin. Mr. Boriskin also joined the Dorian Wind Quintet in a vigorous account of Mr. Perle's For Piano and Winds (1988) [Allan Kozinn, The New York Times, 6/9/05].

June 9

Riverside Symphony in David Crumb's Vestiges of a Distant Time and Arthur Honegger's Concertino. Alice Tully Hall, New York, NY. "David Crumb . . . lives in Oregon. Mr. Crumb, inspired by visits to the sites of ancient civilizations, has written a haunting, eclectic score that toggles between an eerie light dissonance and harmonies that hint at antiquity without actually quoting antique styles. [The work has a] the trickiness of . . . frequent shifts in and out of diatonic tonality, and the . . . string and brass textures are in constant flux. . . Shai Wosner, a promising young pianist, joined Mr. Rothman and company for Honegger's alternately naïve and urbane Concertino (1924). . . . [The] Honegger was cleanly articulated and had a flexible, bluesy coloration" [Allan Kozinn, The New York Times, 6/11/05].

June 14

Mark Swed reviews the Ojai Festival. Ojai, CA. "[T]hey had a more or less conventional program, at least by adventuresome Ojai standards. They did play the Concerto for Alto Saxophone and Wind Ensemble by Ingolf Dahl, a fondly remembered USC composer and former Ojai music director. Tart, expressive music, it was used here as a showpiece for its soloist, Joseph Lulloff, who approached every phrase as if it were a major crisis triumphantly overcome. . . . The Renaissance composer Josquin Desprez brushed elbows with Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu and Italian composer Luciano Berio. A highlight was Knussen's recent A Fragment of Ophelia's Last Dance, a wistful, quirky, personal remembrance of his late wife, Sue Knussen, who had been the education director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. [Peter] Serkin played the entire program (which also included Knussen's broadly ingenious Variations) as if he were channeling the deepest essence of Ojai's spirit. A knowing sun came out when he began re-creating Messiaen's bird song" [Mark Swed, Los Angeles Times, 6/14/05].

Institute and Festival for Contemporary Performance. Mannes College of Music, New York, NY. "[N[ew music is a vast field nowadays, and Mannes's program, though varied, focuses mostly on the branches that abandoned tonality, from the Serialists to the Spectralists. There are exceptions, but the more consonant schools, including Minimalism and neo-Romanticism, are not much in evidence. The pianist Marc Ponthus, the flutist and composer Robert Dick and the violinist Rolf Schulte established that agenda firmly in the festival's opening concert. . . . Ponthus opened the concert with Pierre Boulez's Third Sonata, described in the program as a ''work in progress,'' although given Mr. Boulez's penchant for radical revision, that could be said about many of his works. This one does seem unfinished, though: it draws heavily on Mr. Boulez's sense of sonority and on the contrast between rapid bursts of sound and sustained lines, but the completed sections don't have the dynamism of the Second Sonata. Mr. Dick, a flutist whose technical resources and imagination seem limitless, devoted his part of the program largely to his own fascinatingly idiosyncratic works. Re-Illuminations (1985), inspired by an African ceremonial piece Mr. Dick once heard on a recording, alternates between tactile percussive sounds and a simple, attractive melody couched in multiphonics, a technique that creates the impression of a chordal sound. He is even more picturesque in Eye in the Sky (1992), a haunting work for alto flute, built on bent notes and the evocation of a howling wind. And in Sliding Life Blues (2001), Mr. Dick demonstrated the considerable charms of the 'glissando head joint,' an attachment that lets him create swirling figures in which pitches slide into each other kaleidoscopically. He also gave a vigorous performance of [Toru] Takemitsu's Voice (1971), a work that requires vocalization -- everything from a whisper to a shout -- amid sharply angular flute lines. Mr. Schulte was at his best in Earl Kim's Caprices (1980), a set of short but vital character pieces. He also played Stefan Wolpe's Second Piece (1966) and Donald Martino's Fantasy-Variations (1962) with an intensity that largely overcame the dry writing" [Allan Kozinn, The New York Times, 6/18/05].

June 15

William C. Banfield Gertrude Stein Invents a Jump Early On (libretto by Karren LaLonde Alenier), Virgil thomson's Capital Capitals (1927), and Ned Rorem's Three Sisters Who Are Not Sisters (1968). Symphony Space, New York, NY. "Neither Thomson nor Stein thought of Capital Capitals as an opera. The text evokes -- with typically Steinian wordplay -- the region of Provence through a conversation among Aix, Arles, Avignon, and Les Baux. Thomson's vocal setting is for four male singers accompanied only by a piano. The conversation becomes a garrulous debate about the various landscapes, cuisines, peoples, and customs of the four cities. . . . Three Sisters Who Are Not Sisters is Stein's homage to mystery tales. . . . Scored for five singers (here Mr. Uhlemann, Mr. Vickers, Jody Sheinbaum, Karen Rich and Hai-Ting Chinn, all excellent) and piano (Mara Waldman), the music uses an extremely lucid language of rich, chromatic harmony and pungent dissonance. . . . Banfield['s] . . . score is lightly jazzy and prone to lyrical outpourings"[Anthony Tommasini, 6/17/05].

June 17

Benjamin Britten's Gloriana. Loretto-Hilton Center, Webster University, St. Louis, MO. "In more than 50 years on the British throne Queen Elizabeth II has shown scant interest in opera. So it is paradoxical that one of the major events of her coronation ceremonies was the 1953 premiere by the Royal Opera at Covent Garden of Benjamin Britten's Gloriana, an elaborate three-act work about the first Queen Elizabeth, with a libretto by William Plomer based on Lytton Strachey's book Elizabeth and Essex. The premiere was a crushing disappointment for Britten. Many in the gala audience of royals, diplomats and government officials found the whole thing quite dull. The real opera buffs were up in the gallery, including the young Colin Graham, today an esteemed opera director. Mr. Graham recalls that Gloriana thrilled the folks in the nosebleed seats. Despite some heralded revivals since, including an English National Opera production that played at the Metropolitan Opera in 1984, a production directed by Mr. Graham, Gloriana has never shaken its reputation as a miscalculated work requiring enormous performing forces. Consequently there was great anticipation when the Opera Theater of St. Louis announced a production for this summer directed by Mr. Graham, this enterprising company's artistic director. "Gloriana" opened here . . . and proved fully the success the company was hoping for. This seems to be the summer of Gloriana in America; the Des Moines Metro Opera will present it in July. If nothing else, the Opera Theater's colorful and lavish production -- with 19 solo roles, a chorus of 38, a boys choir of 15, 6 onstage trumpeters, 8 dancers and some 200 costumes (by David C. Woolard) to capture the late-16th century era -- should banish the idea that Gloriana is a problematic work. . . . Britten . . . understood that a ceremonial piece should be musically accessible, which it is. It's also uncannily sophisticated. This production, conducted with urgency and sensitivity by the Britten champion Steuart Bedford, conveys the work's ambiguity and musical richness. Even in the opening fanfares, which last just minutes, Britten gives you music to grapple with. Brassy flourishes alternate with restlessly quizzical, harmonically tart passages in the strings and winds. When the queen's steadfast counselor Sir Robert Cecil cautions her that ruling involves the art of prevarication, his statements are accompanied by intertwining melodic lines for reedy winds that seem at once meandering yet wily -- prevarication made musical. But the glory of "Gloriana" comes from Britten's skill at evoking Elizabethan music -- dances, masques, lute songs and airs, all processed through his modernist sensibility to create wrong-note chords, irregular phrase lengths, slippery tonalities. Despite the stirring public scenes, whole stretches of Gloriana, especially the private moments with the queen, have the intimacy of chamber opera" [Anthony Tommasini, The New York Times, 6/20/05].

June 18

Kent Nagano conducts the premiere of "Regarding Executive Order 9066," a composition for orchestra, mezzo-soprano and narrator by Garry Eister. Los Angeles, CA. "The premiere will be part of a benefit concert for the San Luis Obispo Youth Symphony, the orchestra in which his participation persuaded a teenage Nagano, who grew up in Morro Bay, to exchange his surfboard for a baton" [Mark Swed, Los Angeles Times, 6/12/08].

New Paths in Music Festival. St. Peter's Episcopal Church, New York, NY. "Raminta Serksnyte's Concerto for Six . . . is based partly on Lithuanian folk themes, but is also influenced by jazz, evident in its lithe alto saxophone and trumpet lines, and by raga, which contributed repeating and expanding rhythmic cycles. . . . Mystery . . . is . . . a driving force in [Algirdas] Martinaitis's Music of the Last Gardens, in which constant shifts in timbres and balances create a kaleidoscopic texture. Its most striking features are a flighty oboe line, played over a tympani figure, and a carillon theme that restores a measure of sobriety at the end of the work, just after an exuberant semi-improvisatory section. The third Lithuanian work, Osvaldas Balakauskas's Concerto for Oboe, Harpsichord, and Strings, is a neoclassical score with hints of minimalism in its finale. . . . [Carlos] Marecos's Start Your Motors, and Row [is] a score with a propulsive opening movement and a meditative finale. But there was also much to admire in Nuno Corte-Real's Concerto Vedras, a vital and often lyrical work in three movements, and in Luis Tinoco's Antipode, an orchestral score in which powerfully rhythmic sections and quieter, sustained writing provide the opposition suggested in the title [Allan Kozinn, The New York Times, 6/20/08].

June 20

Institute and Festival for Contemporary Performance: Elliott Carter. Mannes College of Music, New York, NY. "These days, and certainly since his 95th birthday, in 2003, Mr. Carter's music has been everywhere, and not only in new-music concerts. It may be that this ubiquity has upped the ante for new-music groups. If the Met Orchestra can include his rugged Variations for Orchestra in a Carnegie Hall concert, after all, the least a new-music festival can do is devote a full program to his work. That was what the Mannes College of Music did . . . . Carter's . . . Piano Sonata (1945-46), though etched in bold rhythmic and harmonic gestures, retains firm ties to the past. There are stretches of Lisztian monumentalism (those big, punctuating chords), brief hints of Chopinesque gracefulness and even a hefty segment of supremely rational Bachian counterpoint. By the time of the Duo (1973-74), for violin and piano, such links have been decisively hacked away, leaving an acid-tinged harmonic language and textures that avoid opulence. But in the Triple Duo (1982-83) Mr. Carter reconfigured his style again, this time allowing for a current of humor within the tart, high-energy scoring. . . . Virtuosity was . . . a crucial force in Triple Duo" [Allan Kozinn, 6/22/05].

June 22

Lorin Maazel conducts New York Philharmonic in Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 6. Avery Fisher Hall, New York, NY. "[D]eeply impressive and continuously exciting[, t]his symphony has been dubbed by some the "Tragic." But the tragedy is defiant, not pitiable, and that is the quality Mr. Maazel conveyed in this incisive, radiantly colorful and never maudlin performance. The work essentially hews to the four-movement classical structure. Yet the music has a narrative subtext, though Mahler was always ambivalent about ascribing stories to his symphonies. . . . In the opening movement, a crazily insistent march, Mr. Maazel focused on making everything lucid, energetic, full of character and accurate. His tempo had drive, but it was held in check just enough to allow the musical intricacies to come through. By coaxing the players into crisp articulation of the accents that proliferate in the thematic lines and rhythms, Mr. Maazel brought to this march a jumpy, jerky surface quality that kept you off guard. . . . The middle movements of the symphony are a Scherzo and an Andante, originally conceived (and published) by Mahler in that order. But he had second thoughts and reversed the order in a later published edition. Still, he dithered and never settled the question. Most conductors perform the Scherzo first. Mr. Maazel started with the Andante and made it seem the only choice. After the relentlessness of the first movement, the pensive, soulful Andante was a welcome balm. This in turn gave more freshness to the Scherzo -- a bitter parody of the first movement's march. The epic finale had breadth and urgency. . . . [T]he bucolic music comes back, this time, as performed here, in some unhinged, dissipating state. Imagine a Star Wars character being slowly vaporized. Mr. Maazel can be a cool interpreter. But that coolness, combined with his musical exactitude, prevents his Mahler from seeming melodramatic . . . . Clearly, he should keep the Mahler coming" [Anthony Tommasini, The New York Times, 6/24/05].

June 26

Free for All: Evelyn Glennie: Minimal Recital. Town Hall, New York, NY. "It wasn't that the program was short or unsubstantial; what Ms. Glennie meant was that instead of working her way through a stage packed edge to edge with every imaginable percussion instrument, as she usually does, she concentrated mainly on one, the marimba. Even so, she used other instruments in two of the seven works on the program. In an extended improvisation based on Keiko Abe's Michi, for example, she struck, bowed, shook and blew into a dozen or more oddly shaped drums and metal objects before returning to the marimba for a beautifully textured, graceful expansion on Ms. Abe's score. The program also included Prim, a solo snare drum work by Askell Masson, an Icelandic composer. A snare solo might seem an unpromising prospect, but Mr. Masson, who has also written a snare concerto, provided an engrossing exploration of rhythmic patterns, dynamic expanses and even the subtle melodic possibilities that the instrument offers. And Ms. Glennie, as always an energetic and intensely focused performer, made the work's rolls, rhythmic patterns and hard thwacks into something both musical and dramatic. That, of course, is what she's famous for, and listeners who think of percussion as an instrumental class not quite as musical as strings, winds or keyboards learn quickly to think again. This time, only the Masson and Abe works hammered that message home, since the rest of the program was the marimba, one of the most conventionally musical instruments in the percussion arsenal. Ms. Glennie used a five-octave model, which gave her rounded, almost liquid-sounding bass tones and tightly wound treble timbres, and a graduated range of sounds between those extremes. And she chose works that used that full palette as well as a broad range of dynamics and timbres. She offered Fluctus, Nebojsa Zivkovic's brisk, bright study in polyrhythms, as a curtain-raiser, and showed a gentler, more jazz-tinged side of the instrument in Mathias Schmitt's urbane Six Miniatures. In another of Ms. Abe's works, Memories of the Seashore, Ms. Glennie produced a gracefully undulating, dreamy sound. And she drew on the instrument's more extroverted character -- to say nothing of her own virtuosity with hands full of mallets -- in Toshimitsu Tanaka's Two Movements and Leigh Howard Stevens's Rhythmic Caprice [Allan Kozinn, The New York Times, 6/28/05].

June 27

Mark Swed reviews Philip Glass's Orion. Los Angeles, CA. "Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of this project is just how much the guest musicians seem to be extensions of their instruments and yet at ease in Glass' sphere. Mark Atkins played the didgeridoo. He's appropriately large, sports a walrus mustache, and blowing into his long tube he added a new but appropriate bass burble to all the other bass burbles of Glass' sound world. Foday Musa Suso, dressed in billowing black-and-white checks and playing the kora (a 21-stringed lute) and nyanyar (an African fiddle), brought a quiet majesty, and Glass almost disappeared. The affable Brazilian percussion trio, Uakti, were, on the other hand, seemingly happy to give percussive understatement to Glass' music. What did give powerful hope were the small moments. To hear the ensemble's soprano, Lisa Bielawa, sing in counterpoint to [Wu Man]'s pipa or [Ashley MacIsaac]'s fiddle, to hear Jon Gibson's emotional clarinet accompaniment to Arvanitaki's song, was to discover flashes of deep communication. It was also a nice touch for Glass to include interludes in which didgeridoo met pipa, Cape Breton violin jammed with nyanyer, Brazilian percussion interacted with sitar" [Mark Swed, Los Angeles Times, 6/27/05]