Thursday, October 1, 2009

Chronicle of August 2009

August 1

Eve Beglarian paddles down the Mississipi. Little Fall, MN. "Beglarian . . . has built a career translating other people’s obsessions into music. So often the collaborative projects I do are initiated by another person, and my job is to get immersed in what their obsession is -- a text, an idea -- and follow that through,” she said. 'In some ways I think of myself as a responder rather than an initiator, even though the end result might be very personal.' This time the obsession, the mighty Mississippi and its impact on American culture, is her own. On Aug. 1 Ms. Beglarian, 51, put her bright red, 17-foot kayak into the river’s headwaters and -- buoyed by the example of Works Progress Administration artists who documented the state of the country during the Great Depression, as well as a bit of midlife contemplation -- began her passage downstream. 'I thought, ‘O.K., we’re in a depression again, and I need to do this,’ ' she said in a telephone interview from Little Falls, Minn. “Part of it was a response to the economic free fall. Part of it was when Obama got elected, I thought, ‘This is my country, this really is my country, and I need to know what my country is. The river is sort of in this equilibrium between life and death all the time and is comfortable with that. And somehow it’s really important for me right now to embrace that, as the condition of being alive and being conscious, and make my peace with it in some way. For the next three months Ms. Beglarian, who has run a marathon and built a cabin in Vermont, will continue to glide the Mississippi’s 2,300 or so miles, from Lake Itasca in Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico. Along the way she is collecting snippets of sound, image and history from both her perch on the river and excursions into nearby towns, in wilderness and urban sprawl" [Kathryn Shattuck, The New York Times, 9/2/09].

August 3

Paul Moravec's The Letter (after W. Somerset Maugham), with Patricia Racette and James Maddalena. Santa Fe Opera, Santa Fe, NM. "The Letter . . . had its premiere . . . [on] July [25] and runs through August 18 in an attractively straightforward production by Jonathan Kent. . . . [I]ts composer, Paul Moravec, who writes likable instrumental and choral works (but has not, until now, tackled an opera), won a Pulitzer Prize in 2004. His librettist, Terry Teachout, is a drama critic for The Wall Street Journal and the author of several books. Their source was a 1927 play by W. Somerset Maugham, itself based on Maugham’s decidedly more subtle and atmospheric 1924 short story about a British woman in Malaya who murders her unfaithful lover and persuades her husband and a jury that she was acting in self-defense when he turned up uninvited at her home and tried to rape her. But he was invited: a letter in which she says she is desperate to see him turns up on the eve of the trial. It was probably inevitable that Mr. Teachout and Mr. Moravec were drawn to Maugham’s later version: Maugham made the structural changes (and added the padding) necessary to put the tale on the stage. The play has also been the basis of several films, most notably William Wyler’s classic 1940 version with Bette Davis as Leslie Crosbie, the story’s antiheroine, and a robust, otherworldly score by Max Steiner that verges on the operatic in its own way. Mr. Moravec and Mr. Teachout added padding of their own, including a scene in a gentlemen’s club and a spectral jury scene that takes place in Leslie’s mind just before the actual jury gives its verdict. In most cases -- as in the jury scene, a duet between Leslie and her murdered lover, Geoff Hammond -- these additions are excuses for arias, duets or ensembles in the time-honored operatic tradition. A few of them get us inside the protagonists’ heads (although in most cases, they take place after we’ve been told several times what’s in there); others are dramatically purposeless. And like Wyler -- but unlike Maugham -- they kill off Leslie. Wyler included this retribution to comply with Hollywood’s film code, which would not countenance letting an adulterous murderess go free. In the opera Leslie’s death is more functional than moral: Mr. Teachout said in a conversation that it just seemed best to end a tragic opera with another dollop of death. Maybe. But deaths in the final moments of operas usually evoke sorrow, regret or pity. Nothing about Leslie -- in any of her incarnations but least of all in this one, which magnifies her deceit and self-centeredness -- leaves you feeling regret over her death or feeling anything at all. Mr. Moravec’s score has some remarkable music in it, though most of it is not where opera fans will listen for it. The vocal writing is mostly of the modernist angular sort, and even when its sharp edges melt into melody, none of it is memorable. But the orchestral writing, played vividly under the baton of Patrick Summers, is colorful, driven and packed with striking ideas" [Allan Kozinn, The New York Times].

August 4

Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducts Igor Stravinsky’s Pulcinella. Avery Fisher Hall, New York, NY. "Nézet-Séguin tried to make “Pulcinella” seem a real Stravinsky piece with a contemporary character. There were wonderfully sour wind chords, bone-dry plucked string lines and driving rhythms in the dance movements. The Presto, a patter song for tenor, recalled Les Noces a bit. The restless Allegro assai sounded like an Italianized episode from Petrushka" [Anthony Tommasini, The New York Times, 8/5/09]..

August 5

Asphalt Orchestra, Lincoln Center, New York, NY. [[O]ne thing was clear: marching bands have come a long way since the days of Seventy-Six Trombones. An iconoclastic 12-piece marching band, the Asphalt Orchestra was the brainchild of Bang on a Can, the collective of composers and performers devoted to boundary-blurring new music. Despite the threat of rain on a muggy night, the courtyard outside the renovated Alice Tully Hall was packed with people, including lots of families with small children, for the free event. Part parade spectacle, part halftime show and part cutting-edge contemporary-music concert, the performance, presented by Lincoln Center Out of Doors, began in the sunken area before the entrance to Tully Hall. From there, the 12 top-notch brass and percussion players in the band, like a posse of pied pipers, led the throng across West 65th Street to the new grove of trees in front of the Lincoln Center Theater, then across Lincoln Center Plaza to the central fountain, which is under reconstruction, and finally to the area in front of the Metropolitan Opera. The music was an exhilarating half-hour of five gritty, wailing or perky pieces, everything from Balkan brass music to an earthy work by the jazz giant Charles Mingus. The playing was coolly brilliant and infectious. And what a scene! As crowds sat on the steps outside Tully Hall, the band marched in from around the corner playing Carlton, a commissioned work by Heidi Rodewald and Stew, who wrote the musical Passing Strange and perform in the rock band the Negro Problem. As the band marched, the players executed nimble moves choreographed by Susan Marshall, no less, a recipient of a MacArthur Foundation fellowship. At one point the band lined up facing the glass wall of at65, the new cafe in Tully Hall, and started aggressively playing an arrangement of Electric Red by the Swedish metal band Meshuggah. Some diners inside looked delighted and took pictures; others ignored the players; many seemed confused, understandably, wondering whether they were being entertained or mocked a bit for not joining the fun outside. Concert audiences are so conditioned to standing back and giving musicians room that it took a while for people here to realize that they were being invited to come close and join in. The bravest listeners were some children who moved close to the music and danced. Eventually, as the players began the fitful and arresting Mingus piece, they formed a battering ram through the crowd and led everyone across 65th Street. A few police officers controlled the traffic, but for the most part people made their own way to the main plaza. The band finished the Mingus number beneath the trees near the theater, then switched to Pulse March, a new commission by Tyondai Braxton of the band Battles. Pulse March achieves propulsive energy through subtle, cyclic rhythmic riffs. The final offering, Champagne, another commission, was a joyously raw piece by the Sarajevo-born composer Goran Bregovic" [Anthony Tommasini, The New York Times, 8/6/09].

August 8

Rhys Chatham. Damrosch Park, New York, NY. "Back in 1979 you might have chanced on Rhys Chatham blissfully strumming through a fervent rendition of his Guitar Trio at Max’s Kansas City, a punk club in the Flatiron district. A few years later you could have seen the wiry punk-funk quartet Liquid Liquid playing at Paradise Garage, a seminal SoHo discothèque. Both were crucial ingredients in New York’s piquant downtown-music gumbo of the late 1970s and early ’80s. Neither lingered long: Liquid Liquid disbanded in 1983, and Mr. Chatham moved to Paris in 1987. Yet even in their absence their influence continued to grow. That partly explains why an audience estimated at 10,000 showed up at Lincoln Center on Saturday night for a performance by Mr. Chatham and a reconstituted Liquid Liquid at Damrosch Park. The event was mounted by Lincoln Center Out of Doors in collaboration with Wordless Music, Ronen Givony’s innovative concert series that mixes new-music and indie-rock performers. Another reason for the sizable turnout was the promise of spectacle: Mr. Chatham’s Crimson Grail (Outdoor Version), commissioned by Lincoln Center, called for 200 electric guitarists and 16 bass[ist]s. The piece was originally meant to have its premiere in August 2008 but was canceled because of hazardous conditions caused by torrential thunderstorms. Small wonder, then, that even as the Asphalt Orchestra gamboled into Damrosch Park to wrap up a brief opening set, audience members warily looked to the sky. But this time the performance came off without a hitch. From the stage Mr. Chatham used hand signals and gestures to guide four section leaders -- David Daniell, John King, Seth Olinsky and Ned Sublette -- stationed at the corners of the seating area. Each leader conveyed those cues to a portion of a guitar phalanx -- including indie-rock notables, relative amateurs and a handful of moonlighting journalists -- that surrounded the audience on three sides. Nothing they played was intrinsically complex; Mr. Chatham’s piece dealt in massed sonorities and mingling overtones rather than manual calisthenics. An E major triad rose from nothingness, rumbling and sighing; around eight minutes in, Ryan Sawyer, a drummer onstage with Mr. Chatham, tapped out a steady beat on high-hat cymbals while glistening high notes pealed over a thumping bass line. The music dissolved into feathery whispers, then built to a jet-engine density before bursting at the 35-minute mark, giving way to a gentle coda. In the work’s second part Mr. Chatham shifted iridescent waves of tremolo from corner to corner and side to side within the ensemble. During the final section treble strings maintained a tingly sitarlike drone over a mellow countermelody and Mr. Sawyer’s tick-tock pulse, inducing a bucolic Krautrock-style hypnosis. The roaring finale transformed a simple ascending diatonic scale into a vehicle for visceral catharsis, eliciting an approving roar from the audience. After so overwhelming a display of maximalist firepower, Liquid Liquid’s spare, insistent funk provided welcome contrast. The group’s lean, propulsive mix of disco, dub and punk elements, fashioned with the vocalist Salvatore Principato’s quasi-nonsensical keening and yelping, Dennis Young’s perky marimba, Richard McGuire’s throbbing bass lines and the drummer Scott Hartley’s rock-steady beat, has had an incalculable impact among hip-hop and postrock circles. Here, as if preserved in amber, the group sounded as tight, kinetic and provocative as ever" [Steve Smith, The New York Times, 8/9/09].

August 13

John Adams's A Flowering Tree. Rose Theater, New York, NY. "It is hard to imagine a work that more belongs in a festival titled Mostly Mozart than this enchanting, disturbing and musically intense opera, based on a 2,000-year-old South Indian folk tale about a winsome young girl who rescues her impoverished family by transforming herself into a leafy tree. In an affectingly simple production by the director Peter Sellars, with Mr. Adams conducting the Orchestra of St. Luke’s and the Schola Cantorum de Venezuela, A Flowering Tree drew a prolonged ovation from the audience that packed the theater. . . . The chorus relates stretches of the story through narrative passages and commentary, and by portraying characters during specific scenes . . . . And there is something about Mr. Adams’s mix of international idioms here that seems exactly right, with elements of Indian lore, South American dance, West Coast modernism, scat-singing choruses, and even strands evocative of Mozart. The musical tone for the piece is set at the start, when the orchestra plays undulant repetitive riffs that hark back to Mr. Adams’s days as a Minimalist. Yet the haunting rhythmic patterns, never settling into foursquare routine, always keep you on guard. Jumpy parallel chords give the music a mystical aura. Slinky solo woodwind and brass lines thread through the textures, as if oblivious to the surrounding harmonies and restless rhythms. Although the large orchestra is rich with brass and percussion, Mr. Adams often deploys it delicately. Whole stretches of the score come across as chamber opera . . . . [At the conclusion] Mr. Adams unleashes the entire orchestra and chorus . . . [in] ecstatic music, alive with hard-driving rhythms and boldly pungent harmony. The whole final scene builds to this climax with relentless and thrilling inevitability. As many scenes in this opera show, Mr. Adams has it in him to write with assured dramatic sweep" [Anthony Tommasini, The New York Times, 8/14/09].

August 14

Release of It Might Get Loud. Those guitarists happen to be paradigm shifters for different generations: Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin, the Edge of U2 and Jack White of the White Stripes, the Raconteurs and the Dead Weather. And their guitars are close at hand for those moments when playing is better than explaining. “It Might Get Loud,” a Sony Pictures Classics film . . . , concentrates on the guitar as a musician’s voice, and on the communion that those three players find with their instruments. As a music documentary it’s an oddity: more associative than linear, more impressionistic than comprehensive" [Jon Pareles, The New York Times, 8/7/09].

August 15

Schola Cantorum de Venezuela. Alice Tully Hall, New York, NY. "[Other music included] Vicente Emilio Sojo’s ebullient, contrapuntal Laetitia [1938] . . . and . . . “Salve al Celeste Sol Sonoro,” a melodic, vital work by the choir’s founder, Alberto Grau [2007 were] . . . thoroughly accessible, . . . [as were] the chaotic introduction to Eric Whitacre’s Cloudburst . . . Elliott Carter['s] . . . Musicians Wrestle Everywhere” (1945). . . . [R]hythmic complexity and vivid timbres were plentiful. In his Magic Songs (1988) . . . R. Murray Schafer did away with literal meaning, giving his singers strings of phonemes instead of words and creating a ritualistic drama partly through movement and partly through the way the vocal sounds were ordered and shaped. Chants, declarations, call and response and communal celebration were all suggested in turn, indicating that the magic of a ritual can have more to do with the physicality of its enactment than with its text. César Alejandro Carrillo’s Oiga Compae, Prelude and Fugue (1994) is both earthier and more formal: its plaintive text, hard-driven textures and syncopated rhythms give it an elemental power, but the counterpoint in its fugue section elevates it. Most of the music was sung a cappella, but Mr. Whitacre’s Cloudburst added another level of color, by way of a piano, a percussion ensemble in the balcony and handbells played by the choir. The singers also played percussion instruments in Beatriz Bilbao’s Fiesta de San Juan (2003), a lively work the choir performed here in 2007, and in several pieces -- Edgar Zapata’s Menciona’o (1980) and Otilio Galíndez’s Arestinga (1959) -- the choir was accompanied by two small guitars (four-stringed instruments called cuatros) and percussion . . . [In] Adalberto Alvarez’s Dale Come Es (1993), the audience was taught a responsive part and encouraged to join in. The work’s staging, which involves a rebellion by one of the choristers and a bit of dancing, was a little hokey, but it was hard to resist the energy of the performance" [Allan Kozinn, The New York Times, 8/16/09].

August 17

John Adams with the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE). "Shaker Loops (1978, revised 1983) [was] the earliest of several Adams scores that have become bona fide contemporary classics. . . . Adams used the 1983 edition that he prepared for chamber orchestra, but scaled his forces back to a string septet (which is how many listeners first heard it, on a recording by the Ridge Quartet and friends). Does a septet need a conductor? Probably not. But Mr. Adams’s clear gestures and sharp cues no doubt contributed to the clarity and suppleness of the performance. . . . Gnarly Buttons (1996) [is] a hybrid chamber piece and clarinet concerto. . . . Adams was writing in the busier and often humorous (or at least, slyly allusive) style that remains his hallmark. His Minimalist roots are evident largely in the simplicity and directness of the opening clarinet solo. But the clarinet writing becomes thornier, and the ensemble picks up and transforms its themes, and adds twists of its own. Bits of Stravinsky’s Neo-Classicism pulse through [the work,]. . . . [T]he crunching string chords of Le Sacre du Printemps [ad] a bit of flute tracery from Pulcinella -- turn . . . up in Son of Chamber Symphony (2007) . . . [a] high-spirited work" [Allan Kozinn, The New York Times, 8/18/09].