Thursday, September 1, 2005

Chronicle of July 2005

July 2

The New York Philharmonic, conducted by Brmwell Tovey, in New York, New York. Avery Fisher Hall, New York, NY. "Amid snappy comments about why orchestras rarely use saxophonists ('you don't know where they've been') as well as Independence Day, Canada Day and dog-walking in New York, he offered nicely phrased descriptions of the music at hand, which he conducted deftly. Turning to the audience just after the curtain-raiser, the Kander and Ebb classic New York, New York, Mr. Tovey told a stream of latecomers, "I'm ever so sorry you just missed that," and suggested that they buy tickets to the Sunday performance for a second chance. They didn't miss much, really. Bruce Broughton's splashy symphonic arrangement included tips of the hat to everyone from Dvorak to Nelson Riddle, and it had a certain endearing energy at times. But the Philharmonic doesn't do this sort of thing well: mostly, it was trying too hard to sound as if it were having fun rather than simply slumming. Gershwin's Walking the Dog, with Stanley Drucker shaping the sultry clarinet line nicely, was more persuasive. So were three charming trifles by Leroy Anderson, Fiddle Faddle, The Penny-Whistle Song, and Bugler's Holiday, period pieces that nevertheless let the orchestra's strings, flutes and trumpets show their strengths. Leonard Bernstein's music suited both the program's New York theme and its crossover ambitions. Prelude, Fugue and Riffs, for example, is top-drawer symphonic jazz. And if the orchestra's brass and reed instruments were slightly strident, they captured the music's sizzle, with Mr. Drucker arresting the attention with a beautifully fluid account of the virtuosic solo line. Bernstein's more emotionally intense side was represented by the symphonic suite from his dark-hued On the Waterfront soundtrack. The program also included a solid if insufficiently atmospheric reading of Aaron Copland's Quiet City, with Thomas Stacy as the English horn soloist and Thomas V. Smith playing the solo trumpet line" [Allan Kozinn, The New York Times, 7/4/05].

July 8

Boston Symphony Orchestra, conducted by James Levine, in Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 8 "Of a Thousand"). Tanglewood, MA. This work's logistics and cost (there are eight vocal soloists), to say nothing of the complexities of directing vast choral and orchestral forces in so dense a score, have made it a rarity, yet this is its third appearance at Tanglewood since 1972. Mr. Levine launched into the score with decisively brisk tempos - no lingering on that opening 'Veni, creator spiritus,' just a grand choral statement accompanied by a remarkably taut orchestral sound. There would, of course, be ample time to temper those qualities, both by magnifying them, as in the over-the-top conclusion of Part 1, and by pulling back to create transparent, heavenly pianissimos, and in the most compelling moments in Part 2. Among the vocal soloists, Heidi Grant Murphy's exquisitely floated rendering of the 'Mater gloriosa' lines, sung from a perch above the orchestra, proved the most memorable. But the other singers - Deborah Voigt and Susan Neves, sopranos; Yvonne Naef and Jane Henschel, mezzo-sopranos; Johann Botha, tenor; Eike Wilm Schulte, baritone, and John Relyea, bass - all made important contributions, as did the Tanglewood Festival Chorus and the American Boychoir. But the real thrill here was the Boston Symphony's rich sound and sheer virtuosity. It has been many years since this orchestra sounded so energized" [Allan Kozinn, The New York Times, 7/11/05].

July 12

Paul Jacobs in music of Max Reger, and movements from Maurice Durufle's Suite (Op. 5) and Olivier Messiaen's Nativite du Seigneur. Church of St. Ignatius Loyola, New York, NY. "[M]ovements from Duruflé's Suite (Op. 5) and Messiaen's "Nativité du Seigneur" were offered as an uninterrupted group. . . . Reger's Fantasies on 'Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme' (Op. 52, No. 2) and 'Hallelujah! Gott zu loben, bleibe meine Seelenfreu' (Op. 52, No. 3) are craggy and torrential, and Mr. Jacobs played them with an intensity and a thoughtful, fluid use of dynamics and color. Those same qualities helped create a surprising common ground between Duruflé's worldly Sicilienne and Toccata and a pair of Messiaen's mystical ruminations" [Allan Kozinn, The New York Times, 7/14/05].

July 17

Summergarden. The Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY. "Sitting in the air-conditioned museum, looking out at the soggy sculpture garden and remembering how the roar of Midtown traffic overwhelmed the amplified concerts in past summers, it was hard to fathom the attraction of having these performances outdoors in the first place. The museum really should reconsider; the rest of us can pray for rain. . . . The most memorable of the program's five works was the opener, Benjamin Yusupov's Quintet (1996). Mr. Yusupov, a composer from Tajikistan who now lives in Israel, writes in a style that is bold, assertive and more complicated than it seems: its harmonies often seem static over all, yet there is extraordinary movement and interplay in the individual lines. Roberto Sierra's Kandinsky (2003), a piano quartet, was as colorful as Mr. Yusupov's work and more varied, since each of its 11 movements represents a Kandinsky painting, and each is scored for a different combination of the four instruments. Conveying visual art in music is difficult, and to do it a composer relies partly on the listener's suggestibility. Do those rash strokes of violin tone really evoke Kandinsky's sharp lines? Why not? As it was, Mr. Sierra's piece, with its shifting color combinations and its inherent virtuosity -- most notably in a blistering solo viola movement, played brilliantly by Glenda Goodman -- worked well in purely musical terms. Franghiz Ali-Zadeh, a composer from Azerbaijan whose works Mr. Sachs has presented both with the contemporary-music ensemble Continuum and at the Juilliard School, contributed Impromptus (2004), a seven-movement piano trio cast in sometimes fiery, sometimes haunting hues, with vivid solo movements for violin (Miranda Cuckson) and cello (Claire Bryant). The program also included Gerald Barry's Piano Quartet No. 1 (1992), a weirdly off-kilter work that was sometimes agreeably zany and sometimes plain annoying, and Paul Schoenfield's Carolina Réveille (1996) an eclectic set of variations on Carolina in the Morning" [Allan Kozinn, The New York Times, 7/19/05].

July 20

International Keyboard Institute and Festival: Ursula Oppens. Mannes College of Music, New York, NY. "[A]nyone looking for Liszt's shadow in her program might have found it in Frederic Rzewski's Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues and in La Valse, [Maurice] Ravel's swirling and sometimes muscular evocation of the ballroom. . . . Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues . . . first evokes the mechanistic din of the mill, then moves through a Gershwinesque fantasy on the song it was named for toward an eerie finale. Ms. Oppens gave incisive, transparent performances of Conlon Nancarrow's texturally spare but rhythmically thorny Two Canons for Ursula. She closed with Ravel's waltz fantasies, the poetic Valses Nobles et Sentimentales and the bright-hued La Valse. Her readings, if not note-perfect, capture the music's spirit vividly" [Allan Kozinn, The New York Times, 7/23/08].

July 21

Brian Ferneyhough' Shadowtime (libretto by Charles Bernstein. Rose Theater, New York, NY. "[T]heir new work based on the writings and life of the German-Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamin, a "thought opera." Among operatic types, that's a new one. "Shadowtime," which had its premiere at the Munich Biennale in 2004, is a work of uncompromising complexity. By calling it a thought opera, Mr. Ferneyhough, a high modernist British composer, and Mr. Bernstein, a noted American poet, are doing more than signaling that the work explores the intellectual issues Benjamin dealt with, including the nature of time, language, melancholy and dialectical materiality. They are implying that the audience must put aside traditional notions of musical drama - of storytelling, narrative and character development - and enter an intellectual journey. A large audience presumably willing to do just that arrived at the Rose Theater on Thursday night when the Lincoln Center Festival presented the North American premiere of Shadowtime. But halfway through this work, which lasts two hours and 15 minutes without intermission, a steady trickle of audience members began leaving. While I was intrigued by Shadowtime, which bracingly challenges the very notions of what opera can be, I sympathized with those who gave up on the work. . . . [T]he opera seems intentionally obscure and needlessly convoluted. It relies on the surreal images of the director Frédéric Fisbach's production and, of course, the subliminal pull of Mr. Ferneyhough's music to make the drama, such as is it, emotional and resonant. For all its ingenuity, Mr. Ferneyhough's music, scored for diverse chamber orchestra and chorus, becomes exasperating. What makes his style engaging, but also difficult, is his penchant for layering events. In the instrumental prologue, as a gaggle of instruments snarl and dart about in barely contained frenzy, other instruments -- lacy melodies in the winds, a ruminative cello line -- slowly thread through the din of atonality. Amazingly, though, Mr. Ferneyhough writes with uncanny clarity even in the densest moments. Yet when the textures thin for long stretches of delicate and pensive music, the multiplicity of musical events keeps right on going. Almost never does Mr. Ferneyhough give listeners a break -- say, a passage where all the instruments play in unison or an episode of sublime harmony, the kinds of moments that ravish you in the operas of earlier modernists like Berg and Messiaen. In one scene, called Shadow Play, which depicts the descent of Benjamin into the underworld, a solo pianist and reciter, meant to be a Liberace-type entertainer, plays a violently difficult and mesmerizing piano work of nearly 20 minutes while reciting a text that mixes droll philosophical questions with gibberish. As a major work on a solo piano recital, this piece would be a knockout, especially as performed here by the formidable pianist and actor Nicolas Hodges. But as a scene in an opera it seemed artificially inserted. Shadowtime also challenges the traditional role of words in opera. From the opening scene, phrases of the libretto are sung and spoken simultaneously, often layered as thickly as the instruments in the orchestra. There is not even a pretense that the words will be audible to the audience as sung from the stage. Essential lines are projected in supertitles. The text becomes just another element of musical fodder. . . . The choristers from the Neue Vocalsolisten Stuttgart and the musicians from the Nieuw Ensemble Amsterdam, brilliantly conducted by Jurjen Hempel, seemed engrossed by this work. The festival deserves much credit for courageously presenting it. In a program note, Mr. Ferneyhough writes that listeners must 'let go of a fixed notion of what constitutes musical form' to understand Shadowtime. Maybe so. But that comes very close to saying that if you don't like my opera it's your fault" [Anthony Tommasini, The New York Times, 7/23/05].

July 24

Alarm Will Sound in music of Richard D. James -- the British techno composer who works under various names, most notably Aphex Twin -- plus works by Richard Devine and Stefan Freund. Allen Room, Rose Hall, New York, NY. "On its new recording, Acoustica (Canteloupe) Alarm Will Sound offers 13 of Mr. James's concise electronic tone poems in arrangements for an orchestra fortified with electric guitar and bass and a handful of exotic instruments. . . . There is a degree to which the medium is the message in Mr. James's music. His recordings use a large palette of timbres that often morph in surprising ways. Some are entirely electronic; others are sampled acoustic instruments, though even those are often manipulated, distorted, speed-shifted or set within a distinctive electronic ambience. His selection, juxtaposition, balancing and stereo placement of these sounds are compositional decisions, but instead of a printed score his efforts yield a recording that is in effect the piece. Or maybe not. Alarm Will Sound's view is that Mr. James's quirky, often wistfully melodic works transcend their original timbres and textures. The players could justifiably argue as well that in Mr. James's world, great value is placed on inventive remixing - even to the point where the original is barely recognizable - and that their arrangements are essentially deferential remixes. (Oddly, they abandoned this argument by calling their concert 'Unremixed.') The performance, conducted by Alan Pierson, did not fully resolve this debate, but even though a listener inevitably made piece by piece comparisons, the ingenuity of the rescoring and the vigor of the performance were seductive. In Mont St. Michel, for example, Alarm Will Sound replaced tightly focused electronic beats of the Aphex Twin version with a hefty percussion sound - a very different sensibility, but it created its own powerful resonance. In Cock/Ver 10, the ensemble gave up on Mr. James's synthetic splashes and reproduced his rhythms and riffs with the energy of a hot jazz band. In some cases the job was easy: Aphex Twin's Avril 14 is a sweet piano solo, and the Alarm Will Sound version added nuance and warmth that pointed up its Parisian hues. And in some cases the group's arrangements are still evolving. On its recording of Logon Rock Witch, the ensemble replaced Aphex Twin's low-pitched repeating electronic tone with a male voice. In concert, the group used a jaw harp, which better approximates the original sound. The Aphex Twin pieces were punctuated by imaginative and involving electronic improvisations (billed as remixes) by Richard Devine, and ended with Stefan Freund's Unremixed, a work that begins as a Philip Glass-style essay in repetitive transformation and quickly grows into a big, ferocious score with jazzy rhythms and rich, brassy textures" [Allan Kozinn, The New York Times].

July 25

River to River Festival: Summer Stars: Svet Stoyanov. Michael Schimmel Center for the Arts, Pace University, New York, NY. "Mostly, he played the marimba, and he did so with a winning combination of gentleness and fluidity. He also doubled on the vibraphone in one work, and offered short solos on a trap set and the tapan, a Bulgarian drum. . . . He began with Eric Sammut's Four Rotations, an easygoing, gracefully melodic suite for marimba. Mr. Sammut's jazz-inflected harmonic language and contrapuntal textures often called to mind the Modern Jazz Quartet's flirtations with classical works. And at four short movements it was exactly the right length. For a Fantasy on Popular Bulgarian Rhythms, the first of two works played bearing Mr. Stoyanov's composition credit, he used the tapan, a round drum that looks like a small military bass drum but produces a lighter timbre. The piece offers what its title promises: an inventive and varied essay built on the metrically uneven patterns of Bulgarian folk dances, presented with an understated but unmistakable virtuosity. Mr. Stoyanov's other work, Improvisation, for trap set, is based on Latin rhythms, or so he said when he introduced it. Here too, the textures were complicated and understandably showy, but the Latin influences were only fleetingly noticeable. The centerpiece of the program was Mr. Stoyanov's arrangement of Steve Reich's Electric Counterpoint, originally for guitar and a recording of 10 more guitar lines and two bass parts. Mr. Stoyanov persuaded Mr. Reich to let him transcribe the work for marimba and vibraphone, and made the recording that he uses in his performances. The transcription works, although the marimba and vibraphone produce softer-edged sounds than the guitar. But if the work seemed gentler over all, this version surrenders nothing in rhythmic drive. Mr. Stoyanov closed his concert with Khan Variations, Alejandro Viñao's rhythmically wide-ranging meditation on a theme he heard sung by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, the great Qawwali master" [Allan Kozinn, The New York Times, 7/27/05].