Monday, March 1, 2010

Chronicle of January 2010

January 10

America-Israel Cultural Foundation's 70th-anniversary gala concert, including the Presto from Piano Sonata No. 2 (2000) by Avner Dorman, and music of George Gershwin, sung by Tovah Feldshuh. Carnegie Hall, New York, NY.

January 13

Jimmy Lee Lindsey Jr. (b. Lilbourn, MO), a prolific songwriter who, under the stage name Jay Reatard, was a force in the worlds of punk and garage rock, is found dead in his home, at 29. Memphis, TN. "The Commercial Appeal of Memphis reported that a roommate had found him in bed, and the police have opened an investigation into his death. A spokeswoman for the Shelby County medical examiner in Tennessee said an autopsy had been performed but that a cause of death had not been determined. With a discography of 22 albums and more singles than even he could keep accurate count of, Mr. Lindsey was a creative tornado. And while his aesthetic was deliberately rough -- he favored corrosive blasts of guitar and simple smacks on the drums, usually recorded by Mr. Lindsey alone with the most minimal equipment -- his facility with sweet melodies and his concise, economical songwriting style earned him wide respect among critics and fans. Mr. Lindsey . . . moved with his family to Memphis when he was 8; his precociousness as a teenage noisemaker got the Lindseys ejected from more than one address. “We’d stay three to six months in a place, and they’d make us move ’cause he wouldn’t turn that volume down,” his father, Jimmy Lindsey, said. “They even said, ‘Don’t worry about the lease, just go.’ ” With help from members of the Oblivians, a proudly sloppy veteran Memphis garage-rock band, Mr. Lindsey started his recording career at 15 and released music with numerous bands, including the Reatards, the Lost Sounds, the Bad Times and the Final Solutions. By the mid-2000's he had established a reputation in the rock underground for his songwriting skill and devotion to do-it-yourself production methods, as well as for a sometimes belligerent stage manner. Mr. Lindsey began to reach a wider audience in 2006 with his first solo album, Blood Visions (Fat Possum), and in recent years he continued to produce music at a rapid pace. 'Few indie-rockers have ever been on a roll like this,' Spin magazine said in a review of his latest album, Watch Me Fall, released in August on Matador Records, a trend-setting independent label in New York. . . . Lindsey’s productivity was a source of as much admiration as curiosity in the music press, and he was often asked to explain his compulsion to create so much music so quickly. 'I’m just trying to get the idea out before the inspiration is gone,' he said. 'Everything I do is motivated by the fear of running out of time'" [Ben Sisaro, The New York Times, 1/14/10].

David Gilmore's Numerology. Jazz Standard, New York, NY. "With its whiffs of occult practice and brow-furrowed calculation, [Numerology] could apply to Mr. Gilmore’s entire body of work.
So far his output consists of a pair of accomplished albums -- Ritualism (Kashka), his 2001 debut, and Unified Presence (RKM/Koch), from 2006 — along with African Continuum, another commission, never released. Some of this week’s shows were recorded for future use; at the end of his first set on Wednesday he had his band repeat a coda, yielding fodder for a digital splice. . . . As a composer Mr. Gilmore has always seemed intent on striking a balance between art and science, and in “Numerology” that tension played out almost constantly. The suite took the shape of two long movements, with each half subdivided, and most actions unfolding in sequence. Melodies took the form of a bob-and-weave unison between Mr. Gilmore’s guitar and either saxophone or wordless vocals. Most solos were succinct, potent and hyper-fluent, set against a whitewater roil. It’s no mystery why Mr. Gilmore enlists players so adept at polyrhythmic aggression: his music stacks one elaborate system atop another, drawing from African music and many strains of fusion. A stretch in the first movement featured a quintuple pulse overlaid by syncopated triplets; the second half began in free tempo but then lurched in another asymmetrical groove. That led to a long vamp in 21/8 — parsed, it seemed, into units of seven, five and nine — over which Mr. Perdomo improvised sure-footedly, followed by Mr. McBride. The band played so forcefully that there was no hint of number crunching. But as in the case of some vintage jazz-rock bands Mr. Gilmore admires, like Return to Forever, the suite sometimes threatened to buckle under its own weight. The first true clearing for Mr. Gilmore’s crisp guitar playing came about 15 minutes in and felt more like a segue than a solo. But the point of “Numerology” was something else, anyway: cosmic alignments, predictive arrangements or maybe just the information superhighway in his head" [Nate Chinen, The New York Times, 1/14/10].

Continuum presents music of Ursula Mamlok. Merkin Concert Hall, New York, NY. "Mamlok remains an eloquent advocate of the 12-tone technique, though in a modified form that pulls her music toward an almost neo-Romantic warmth. Two short, energetic unaccompanied flute works that Ms. Mamlok wrote as a [Stefan] Wolpe student opened the program . . . and as the earliest of the 11 chamber and solo scores Continuum offered, they helped illuminate her stylistic path. Or part of it, anyway. As presented here, that path began with her immersion in 12-tone music and set aside the milder, more Neo-Classical style she preferred during her first 20 years in New York. In Arabesque (1960), Ms. Mamlok fully embraces the angular leaps that have always made 12-tone music seem baffling to listeners who prefer the gentler contours that tonality typically fosters. The flute line, played deftly by Ulla Suokko, is all over the place, with huge leaps from dark-hued low tones to piercing notes at the top of the instrument’s range, and with similarly abrupt shifts in dynamics. Variations (1961) is more pleasing, not least because it channels the thorniness of Arabesque into a traditional form that shows Ms. Mamlok’s ingenuity to better effect. A pair of solo piano works performed by Joel Sachs afforded a longer view of Ms. Mamlok’s development. In Sculpture I (1964), she is still enamored of the high-contrast bursts that propel Arabesque. But in Love Song of Two Pigeons (1991), the angles are softened, and Ms. Mamlok’s greater concern appears to be the juxtaposition of sound, silence and the atmospheric space a pianist can suggest with judicious use of the sustain pedal. A solo viola work, From My Garden (1983), and the Sonata for Violin and Piano (1989) move even further from doctrinaire serialism. Stephanie Griffin’s rich account of the viola score brought out the lugubrious moodiness in its chordal writing, and the violinist Renée Jolles and Mr. Sachs tempered the spikiness of the violin and piano writing with a performance that focused on the dramatic scampering that keeps the work in motion. And in the program’s newest score, Aphorisms II (2009), for two clarinets (Charles Neidich and Ayako Oshima), you are so taken with the music’s energy, invention and virtuosic give and take that the angularity of Ms. Mamlok’s themes barely registers. The program also included a handful of satisfying ensemble scores, including a Rhapsody (1989) for clarinet (Moran Katz), viola (Ms. Griffin) and piano (Cheryl Seltzer), which thrives on a careful balance of acerbity and lyricism, and the String Quartet No. 2 (1998), which, in its most striking moments, sets a pizzicato cello theme against lush, melancholy chordal writing" [Allan Kozinn, The New York Times, 1/14/10].

January 14

New York Philharmonic in John Adams's The Wound Dresser and Alban Berg's Three Pieces for Orchestra. Avery Fisher Hall, New York, NY. "Berg’s wrenching Three Orchestral Pieces (Op. 6) ended the evening. The central work was John Adams’s baritone setting of The Wound-Dresser, from 1988. The piece uses a fragment from the Walt Whitman poem of that title, which recounts Whitman’s work caring for maimed Union soldiers during the Civil War. Thomas Hampson, artist in residence with the Philharmonic, gave a lucid and poignant performance of what came across as a 20-minute monologue. In an astute description of the poem in a program note, Mr. Adams calls it the most intimate, graphic, and profoundly affecting evocation of the act of nursing he knows of, a text “astonishingly free of any kind of hyperbole or amplified emotion,” yet filled with imagery “of a precision that could only be attained by one who had been there.” Personal associations enhanced Mr. Adams’s emotional reaction to the text: memories of friends in San Francisco who were dying of AIDS in the late 1980s, and of his father’s slow decline from Alzheimer’s disease, attended to by his mother. As the work opens, hazy, piercing string chords hover over sustained bass tones. Soon the chords fall into an inexorably steady pattern, as the baritone intones the opening lines. . . . The orchestra almost doubled in size for the Berg. Here was a gripping, brilliant yet never flashy performance of a landmark expressionistic work, which ends with cataclysmic terror" [Anthony Tomassini, The New York Times, 1/15/10].

Cleveland Orchestra in Thomas Adès's Violin Concerto. Severance Hall, Cleveland, OH.

January 15

The Vienna Philharmonic, conducted by Daniel Barenboim, in Arnold Schoenberg’s Variations for Orchestra (Op. 31). Carnegie Hall, New York, NY. "The variations form makes for a clear structure, which Schoenberg fills with wildly varied and colorful orchestration, surprising twists and even tinges of humor. He also offers a melodic hook beyond the elusive tone rows, a theme historically used to represent and honor Bach (B flat, A, C, B natural, or in German nomenclature, B, A, C, H), stated in the Introduction and developed into a vast fantasy in the Finale" [James R. Oestreich, The New York Times, 1/17/10]

January 16

Conrad Cummings's The Golden Gate (after Vikram Seth). Rose Studio, New York, NY. "Cummings has fashioned an . . . improbable fusion: lithe melodic lines that flow and entwine in the manner of Monteverdi, peppered with musical references to Henry Mancini and the punk band Black Flag. . . . Cummings [has] his own sly nods: a character growls his distaste for Schoenberg’s music in gnarled dissonances; a singles-bar scene romps to the melodic riff from Michael Jackson’s Beat It. Those cues enrich Mr. Cummings’s clear, appealing score without overpowering or derailing it" [Steve Smith, The New York Times, 1/17/10].

Death of George Jellinek (b. 12/22/19, Budapest, Hungary), a former music director of the New York radio station WQXR and the host of a weekly program on opera singers and singing that ran on the station for 36 years, at 90. Sleepy Hollow, N.Y. "From 1968 to 1984, Mr. Jellinek was in charge of choosing the music listeners heard throughout the day on WQXR, then owned by The New York Times Company. They also heard him once or twice a week. He had an uncharacteristic voice for a commercial radio station . . . he was a quiet and serious-sounding perfectionist, with more than a hint of a central European accent left over from his Hungarian boyhood. His hourlong weekly program, “The Vocal Scene,” ran until 2004 and was syndicated around the country. It allowed him to dip into his encyclopedic knowledge about singers and singing -- and into his own huge record collection. . . . Mr. Jellinek became a frequent panelist on Texaco’s Opera Quiz, a segment of the Saturday afternoon radio broadcasts from the Metropolitan Opera. He also produced another syndicated program for WQXR, First Hearing, in which a panel of music critics gave on-the-spot reactions to new recordings without knowing who had performed the music they had just heard. . . . [H]e gave up the violin as a teenager after he heard his first Traviata, in Budapest in 1936. It turned him into an 'almost insane operagoer,' he said in 1990. His parents sent him out of the country in 1939, when he was 18, so he could avoid being drafted. At the train station, his father gave him his gold watch. That was the last day he saw his parents, who were later sent to Auschwitz, Ms. Berezin said. Mr. Jellinek made his way to Hamburg, Germany, and then to Havana, where he ran a coffee shop while waiting for a visa to the United States. On his first day in New York, in 1941, he met Hedy Dicker -- it was her 18th birthday and he was invited to a party by two of her cousins, who had also just arrived from Cuba. She and Mr. Jellinek married the next year. Besides Mrs. Jellinek and their daughter, who lives in South Orleans, Mass., Mr. Jellinek is survived by a granddaughter and a great-granddaughter. Mr. Jellinek was soon drafted into the United States Army. He was eventually sent back to Hungary, where, after V-E Day in May 1945, he identified the Hungarian Nazi leader Ferenc Szalasi for American officers. In New York after the war, Mr. Jellinek worked in export-import trading, but spent so much time at the Merit Music Shop in Midtown Manhattan that the owner hired him as a clerk. He wrote record reviews for Stereo Review and articles for Opera News, and in 1960 published his first book, Callas: Portrait of a Prima Donna. He stepped down as music director of WQXR in 1984, but continued his work on The Vocal Scene and First Hearing and was also the host of a Sunday-evening opera program. WQXR is now at 105.9 FM" [James Barron, The New York Times, 1/19/10].

January 30

Pierre Boulez conducts the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in works of Bartok, Dalbavie, and Ravel. Carnegie Hall, New York, NY. "Boulez seemed a lion in winter on his latest visit . . . and not only because of the bitter cold and wind outside. Once feared as a sharp-tongued advocate for modernist revolution, Mr. Boulez, who turns 85 in March, has mellowed in recent decades, embracing a broader repertory that includes works by composers he once dismissed, like Bruckner and Janacek. For these concerts, part of a monthlong Boulez celebration by the Chicago Symphony, he was content to survey past triumphs, focusing on pieces by composers with whom he has had long associations: Bartok, Ravel, and Stravinsky. To complete the menu, he added a work of his own and the Flute Concerto by Marc-André Dalbavie, a French composer who studied with him. From the opening notes of Ravel’s Tombeau de Couperin . . . Boulez’s vaunted knack for lucid balance and structural clarity was evident. Airy, blithe and affectionate, the music showed off the orchestra’s silken string sound and excellent winds, in particular the principal oboist, Eugene Izotov. Another principal, the flutist Mathieu Dufour, was featured in Mr. Dalbavie’s single-movement concerto, in its New York premiere. The piece is less a dialogue between soloist and ensemble than a feat of sonic legerdemain. As Mr. Dufour produced rippling gushes of rapid-fire notes, the orchestral parts seemed to ooze out from the tiny spaces amid his torrents. In a slow central section, ghostly contrails shimmered in Mr. Dufour’s wake like phantom images trailing a moving object in a slow-motion film. The concerto ended with another kinetic sequence of sprints, vaults and plunges. Despite its evident rigors, the concerto radiated effervescence and charm, earning hearty applause for both Mr. Dufour and Mr. Dalbavie. Bartok’s one-act opera, Bluebeard’s Castle, deals primarily in dialogue and psychological shadings, making it a challenge to stage. As a concert piece it can be a tour de force, as it was in Mr. Boulez’s hands . . . Singing the role of Judith, Bluebeard’s doomed bride, the mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung underscored the hope and dread in her words with her facial expressions and physical gestures. The bass-baritone Falk Struckmann, a more taciturn stage presence as Bluebeard, expressed volumes through his nuanced singing. Each projected powerfully, and Mr. Boulez ideally captured the score’s exquisite shimmers, myriad grotesqueries and fiery climaxes. The orchestra’s fabled brass section was unquestionably in its element" [Steve Smith, The New York Times, 2/1/10].

Focus! Festival presents Aaron Copland's The Tender Land. Peter Jay Sharp Theater, New York, NY. "Having devoted . . [the] festival to the to the composers who sought to create a mainstream American style after World War II, the Juilliard School found an ideal finale in Aaron Copland’s second opera . . . Of all the composers under examination, Copland has proved by far the most durable. And if The Tender Land is hardly his most successful work, it is as close as he came to doing for American opera what he did for homegrown ballet in works like Appalachian Spring and Billy the Kid. At a glance The Tender Land should have been as endearing a piece of Americana as any of Copland’s other middle-period works. Set on a farm in the Midwest during the Depression, it touches on themes -- awakening sexuality and adolescent rebellion -- that were current when Copland completed the score, in 1953, and have been evergreens of popular culture ever since. Inspired by the Walker Evans Depression photographs in James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, the opera revolves around Laurie Moss, who is about to graduate from high school and is aching to escape her family’s farm. At her graduation party she falls in love with Martin, one of two migrant harvesters, and plans to leave with him at dawn. But Martin’s companion, Top, persuades him that the road is no place for Laurie. When she discovers that they left without her, Laurie decides to leave home on her own. Copland couched the score in the folksy melodies and fluid, sweetly transparent orchestral scoring that had made his American-theme ballets so beloved. That alone should have guaranteed its success. But the opera has had a fraught history. Copland was blacklisted in 1950, and in 1953 his Lincoln Portrait was dropped from President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s inaugural celebrations after a congressman objected. That spring Copland was called to testify before Senator Joseph R. McCarthy. And though The Tender Land had been commissioned for NBC television, when Copland submitted his first version, in 1953, the network rejected it. Picked up by the New York City Opera in 1954, it achieved only middling success. The Juilliard Opera production probably did not win the work many new fans. Copeland Woodruff’s staging surrounded the Moss family and the handful of other singing characters with a mostly nonsinging crowd that represented the community. It was a useless distraction. Mr. Woodruff had these extras periodically shift position or make odd gestures, and the principals were sometimes lost among them. Apart from rows of chairs, there was no scenery. The costumes, by Kimberly Glennon, were basic Depression-frumpy for the women and nondescript for the men. Devon Guthrie’s portrayal of Laurie was a few shades grimmer than necessary, even given the adolescent angst that drives her character: during her love duet with Martin, she seemed more overwrought than joyful. That said, Ms. Guthrie’s clear, slightly dark-hued soprano suited the music well, and she gave beautifully shaped performances of 'Once I Thought I’d Never Grow' and 'The Sun Is Coming Up.' It could be argued that if Laurie is the work’s focus, her mother, Ma Moss, is its emotional center. Copland, after all, gave her the work’s closing aria, 'All Thinking’s Done,' and described it as the key to the work. Lacey Jo Benter, a mezzo-soprano with a rich, warm tone, sang the role affectingly and had the broadest emotional palette of any of the young singers here. Paul Appleby gave a superbly innocent, lyrical portrayal of Martin. And Nicholas Pallesen, as Top; Matt Boehler, as Grandpa Moss; and Deanna Breiwick, as Laurie’s younger sister, Beth, also made solid contributions. David Effron led the orchestra in a gracefully paced account of the score, but though he used Murry Sidlin’s reduced chamber orchestration, the ensemble sometimes covered the singers" [Allan Kozinn, The New York Times, 1/31/10].

January 31

Pierre Boulez conducts the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in his Livre Pour Cordes, Bela Bartok's Concerto for Two Pianos, Percussion, and Orchestra, and Igor Stravinsky's Firebird. Carnegie Hall, New York, NY. "Mr. Boulez has long tended to rethink his works over time. His Livre Pour Cordes . . . was created as a string quartet, then fashioned into a two-part work for string orchestra and eventually refined into its present single-movement form. Crepuscular, fitful and dreamy by turns, the piece was a compelling display for the Chicago strings, which maintained a clear, balanced sound even during passages of mounting violence. Bartok was represented again . . . this time by his Concerto for Two Pianos, Percussion, and Orchestra . . . with the orchestra used sparingly for emphasis and reinforcement. The bulk of this bristling, imaginative work remains in the hands of its soloists: here, the vibrant pianists Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Tamara Stefanovich and the deft percussionists Cynthia Yeh and Vadim Karpinos, sensitively supported by Mr. Boulez. The program concluded with Stravinsky’s Firebird, heard in its entirety rather than in one of the more frequently encountered suites. . . . Boulez’s muscular conception was fierce and revelatory. Mr. Dufour, Mr. Izotov and David McGill, the principal bassoonist, made eloquent contributions" [Steve Smith, The New York Times, 2/1/10].

Prism Quartet. Le Poisson Rouge, New York, NY. "The saxophone, invented by the Belgian-born instrument maker Adolphe Sax around 1840, has seldom achieved prominence in the classical instrumentarium. Master orchestrators like Strauss, Ravel and Rachmaninoff have used it for coloristic purposes, and a number of composers have featured it as a solo instrument. But its chamber repertory is sorely limited, as Matt Levy found when, as a student at the University of Michigan 25 years ago, he started the Prism Quartet, a classical saxophone ensemble. The group plunged into the core of the repertory, such as it was: mainly mid-20th-century works by French composers like Pierre Lantier, Jacques Ibert and Alfred Desenclos. The Michigan music professor and composer William Albright, a mentor for Prism until his death in 1998, was unimpressed. '‘You guys really sound great,’' Mr. Levy, the lone remaining original member, quoted Albright, ''but you have got to stop playing that French' stuff (though he used an expletive). ''This is not your destiny.'' Prism quickly heeded the advice. It has since commissioned at least 120 works for saxophone quartet, many of them by Americans, and will perform several at its anniversary concert this Sunday at Le Poisson Rouge in Greenwich Village. Prism, the program makes clear, found its footing by exploring a range of music with one unifying credo. It will play only works by composers who think about the saxophone idiomatically. 'We don’t want a work that could be a string quartet but written for saxophone,' Mr. Levy said, 'and we have had a few of those. The instrument may be one of the most flexible in range of color. It has potential to be brutal and grotesque and sublimely beautiful. Our own interests capture that spectrum.' The saxophone’s wide range of timbre can be heard to fine effect on the five discs Prism has released since 2008. One, recorded with the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, features William Bolcom’s gregarious Concerto Grosso (2000), which reflects pop, blues, bebop and classical influences, and Steven Mackey’s Animal, Vegetable, Mineral (2005), a saxophone concerto that Prism will play in a version for quartet alone on Sunday. Mr. Mackey found the saxophone a rewarding compositional medium, he said. It has 'the agility of a trumpet or even a clarinet and the power of a trombone,' he added. He weaved contrasting textures into his concerto, ranging from what he described in the liner notes as 'the bellowing hee-haw of a jackass' to the wailing sound of bagpipes. Zachary Shemon, an alto saxophonist and Prism’s newest member (since 2007), said, 'We still play for audiences that are surprised when they hear our sound, as they haven’t heard saxophones play that way.' On Antiphony, a forthcoming disc, Prism and the ensemble Music From China, which includes instruments like the pipa and the erhu, commissioned works for Chinese instruments and saxophone quartet from composers including Chen Yi, Zhou Long and Lei Liang, whose hauntingly beautiful and sonically colorful Yuan is on [the] program. 'We enjoy crossing over into other ethnicities and styles of music,' said Taimur Sullivan, the baritone saxophone member of Prism, which has also recorded a jazz CD and sometimes performs with jazz musicians. 'The sax is a chameleonlike instrument.' The Poisson Rouge concert will also feature Jesus Is Coming by the Dutch composer Jacob TV, who uses Steve Reich-style sampling techniques to juxtapose an infant’s babbling with snippets of a street evangelist in Times Square. On its recording of Albright’s Fantasy Études, which Prism will perform in part . . . the quartet’s silky, mournful sound in the choralelike Harmonium (Heiliger Dankgesang) -- reminiscent of the third movement of Beethoven’s Opus 132 String Quartet -- recalls remarks by Berlioz, one of the saxophone’s first champions. The saxophone, Berlioz thought, is the instrument that most closely resembles the human voice and is 'the finest voice we have' for somber works. Though Sax promoted his creation as an orchestral instrument, unreliable intonation hindered its integration into the orchestra. Apart from such technical problems, Sax’s promotion of the instrument was often divisive. 'He didn’t do us any favors,' Timothy McAllister, Prism’s soprano saxophonist, said. 'We are still sometimes paying for the sins of the father.' As the saxophone largely remained an orchestral Cinderella, it became a staple of military and marching bands and found a secure home among jazz musicians. Composers were inspired to write for classical saxophone quartet when Marcel Mule, a famed French performer, formed an ensemble in 1928. Transcriptions still nourish classical quartets hungry for more repertory, as they did Mule’s ensemble, but Prism rarely plays arrangements. An exception is a set of pieces by the Italian avant-garde composer Salvatore Sciarrino, who transcribed works from Gesualdo to Gershwin for saxophone quartet. Mr. Sciarrino’s arrangements aptly illuminate the instrument’s versatility, Mr. McAllister said. While Prism often approaches established composers, it also fosters a younger generation with commissioning programs like one at the Walden School in New Hampshire. Prism hopes to inspire musicians who may be in schools without a saxophone department or ensemble to consider writing for the instrument. 'As with other marginalized instruments, like percussion, low brass or classical guitar, there is always a bit of missionary work going on,' Mr. McAllister said. “'t some level you are trying to convince people of the validity of the instrument and repertory. We would like to say that when it’s all said and done, no composer of any notoriety will leave this earth without having written for saxophone' [Vivien Schweitzer, The New York Times, 1/29/10].