Sunday, August 1, 2010

Chronicle of June 2010

June 3

Kirke Mechem’s Suite for Chorus, in its New York premiere by the New Amsterdam Singers. Church of the Holy Trinity, New York, NY. "[C]onductor Clara Longstreth pointed out that in the realm of vocal music most composers select the text, then write the score. For Mr. Mechem, on the other hand, words were secondary in this work, which treats the choir like a symphonic or chamber ensemble and uses consonants and vowels as strings might incorporate pizzicato and varied bowing strokes. What resulted was a colorful, complex work. Words and sounds overlapped in a texturally rich tapestry in the cycle’s four songs, Kum Ba Ya, Too Young to Marry, They That Mourn, and Papageno and the Prince. Ms Longstreth, who founded this amateur choir in 1968 and remains its music director, led a chamber ensemble in a handsome performance. The first half of the program, titled Morning, Evening, Earth and Sky, opened with Morning Greeting, a short, cheery work by Robert Baksa. Next came a lovely performance of Joseph Rheinberger’s Abendlied (Evening Song), a six-voice motet. Robert Dennis, in the three appealing songs of his Morning Group I, focused on the contrasting moods of what he calls his 'favorite time of day in its various aspects,' setting texts by Jonathan Swift, Íñigo López de Mendoza and William Blake. Carlos Chávez . . . set poems by Keats (Sonnet to Sleep), Shelley and Byron in his evocative Three Nocturnes. . . . The program ended with the New York premiere of Ronald Perera’s earthsongs, melodic, lighthearted settings of texts by E. E. Cummings. There was witty interplay between words and music" [Vivien Schweitzer, The New York Time 6/710].

June 4

Flux Quartet performs Morton Feldman's String Quartet No. 1. Bargemusic, New York, NY. 'Feldman’s . . . [is] a 90-minute piece composed in 1979. In one sense, you could hardly imagine a better match of composer and location. During the later years of his career Feldman, who died in 1987, wrote pieces that emphasized whisper-soft dynamics, clarity and transparency, with time-loosed sensations of dislocation and drift extended over extreme durations. Bargemusic offers close quarters and strikingly clear acoustics; it also provides a mostly gentle liquid quiver that soothes some audience members and discomforts others. The setting had its drawbacks . . . . A circling helicopter and the enthusiastic squeals of riverfront revelers interfered with pale slivers of sound played on muted instruments at dynamics sometimes marked at quintuple piano: an improbable notion of near-silence. Even the most focused audience members might have had trouble concentrating; another sound punctuating the performance was the creak of the exit door. The mission undertaken by the Flux players -- Tom Chiu and Conrad Harris, violinists; Max Mandel, violist; Felix Fan, cellist -- was something like tilting at windmills while mounted on tortoises and armed with feather dusters. Mr. Chiu, the quartet’s leader, seemed to confirm as much in his introductory remarks, which he intentionally delivered at a near-whisper. 'Just to clarify, we’re not playing for six hours,' he said, alluding to Feldman’s six-hour String Quartet No. 2, which the Flux has performed on several occasions; it has lately turned up more often than its predecessor. Before Friday, Mr. Chiu said, the String Quartet No. 1 had been played just once in the last 10 years. Novelty and wit aside, the Flux members approached their work with utmost seriousness, performing with painstaking care and utter conviction. Cued by Mr. Chiu’s subtle nods and sharp inhalations, the musicians worked through Webernesque squiggles, grainy chords, fidgety arpeggios and the odd fortissimo outburst with an unflappable poise, seemingly oblivious to the outside world’s intrusions. Undoubtedly this was hard work for the performers, and nearly as difficult for listeners who went the distance. But as usually happens during performances of Feldman’s more expansive conceptions, an initial period of ennui ultimately gave way to something approaching a hypnotic bliss: a disembodied sensation heightened here by Bargemusic’s amniotic wobble. Of the respectable-size audience that turned up for the performance, a majority remained to offer a hearty ovation at the end: proof that Feldman’s legacy is in good hands with the Flux Quartet, and that Mr. Peskanov’s new ventures at Bargemusic are finding the audience they deserve" [Steve Smith The New York Times, 6/7/10].

June 5

Flux Quartet performs two concise quartet works of Morton Feldman from the 1950's, along with the lengthy Clarinet and String Quartet (1983) and Piano and String Quartet (1985).

June 24

Farewell performance of the conductor Maurice Kaplow at the New York City Ballet. David H. Koch Theater, New York, NY. "The program had begun with Andrews Sill conducting Jay Greenberg’s often admirable score for Call Me Ben, the wretchedly feckless 'ballet dramedy' by Melissa Barak. But Mr. Kaplow conducted the rest of the musical fare, which, other than the [Carl Maria von Weber's] Euryanthe overture, was all American: Samuel Barber’s irresistible Violin Concerto (with Arturo Delmoni delivering a performance of concert-level sensuousness in the solo) and Hershy Kay’s Western Symphony. The Kay score for George Balanchine’s 1954 ballet of the same title works so hard to be cheerfully corny that it’s easy to overlook how well it features each section of the orchestra during its course. I love the harp before the curtain rises, the saloon piano during the first-movement pas de deux, the various passages that highlight brass, percussion, woodwind and oh, those swooning string portamenti (How I wish that Kay’s arrangement of the Gershwin numbers for Balanchine’s Who Cares? were remotely this good. Onstage Who Cares? is the better ballet, but I know many Gershwin lovers who, with good reason, find it insufferable to the ear)" [Alastair Macaulay, The New York Times, 6/26/10].

June 25

Third screening of Mark Alburger's Sex and the Bible: Part I. David Garner residence, San Francisco, CA.

Clarinetist Paul Green, violinist Joel Pitchon, cellist Ronald Feldman, and pianist Doris Stevenson. Bargemusic, New York, NY. "David Schiff’s Divertimento from 'Gimpel the Fool,' a playful suite derived from Mr. Schiff’s opera based on Isaac Bashevis Singer’s short story, squared the brash sounds of Jewish klezmer with the piquant harmonies and wiry elegance of neoclassical Stravinsky. Playing both E-flat and B-flat clarinets, Mr. Green showed a firm grasp of a klezmer clarinetist’s voicelike phrasing and expressive slurs and bends. Shulamit Ran’s eloquent, soulful Soliloquy, a piano trio distilled from her opera, Between Two Worlds (The Dybbuk), drew as clearly on Jewish stylistic sources, here turned to darker, more abstract ends. With Paul Schoenfield’s Trio for Clarinet, Violin, and Piano came a return to brightness, levity and klezmer appropriations. Here again Mr. Green was a convincing stylist; Ms. Stevenson stole the show with flamboyant hand-over-hand cascades in the second movement, March" [Steve Smith, The New York Times, 6/27/10].

June 27

Bang on a Can Marathon. Winter Garden, World Financial Center, New York, NY. "Several times . . . I deemed this particular edition the best-sequenced marathon of the handful I’ve attended from start to finish. (That tally includes 2007’s installment, all 27-and-a-half hours of it: a feat I’m still prone to bragging about.) The concert, presented free in a co-production with the River to River Festival and World Financial Center, started at noon and concluded at 1 a.m., an hour behind schedule. On reflection, I can’t categorically confirm my initial impulse; Bang on a Can, the collaborative venture run by the composers Michael Gordon, David Lang and Julia Wolfe, has mounted these prodigious events in one form or another since 1987. I’m certain, though, that this latest marathon was the first to make me notice how artful the sequencing actually was. The programmatic rationale was referred to by the composer and clarinetist Evan Ziporyn just before a midafternoon performance by his Gamelan Galak Tika: 'things that I love, taking place at the same time.' Mr. Ziporyn was referring specifically to his own contribution, Tire Fire, a flamboyant fusion of Balinese gamelan and rock guitars into something new, personal and exhilarating. But his observation applied equally to the whole affair. Just before Mr. Ziporyn’s piece, the Jack Quartet played Xenakis’s jagged, bracing Tetras from a position atop a staircase behind the audience. 'There’s something about doing Xenakis next to gamelan and guitars that kind of sums up Bang on a Can,' Mr. Ziporyn said. He was right: somehow the transition from Xenakis’s elemental howl and shred to Mr. Ziporyn’s shimmering culture clash worked. Likewise, the almost medieval purity of Mary Ellen Childs’s Black Box, performed by Quartet New Generation, a German recorder consort, served as airy refreshment after the density, clangor and volume of Mr. Ziporyn’s offering. Similar feats of contrast and balance popped up throughout the marathon, as disparate strands from the contemporary classical, jazz, electronica, world music and indie rock spheres were neatly woven together into a crazy-quilt representation of adventuresome notions. You could liken the program to a quirky mixtape or iPod playlist, except that its reach was broader, more like a Internet radio channel, idiosyncratically sequenced, then made available for public consumption. Using an Internet metaphor seems especially appropriate, given an increased emphasis on social media this year. Elsewhere, using Twitter during a performance might be viewed as bad manners; here, crew members and volunteers wore T-shirts emblazoned with Twitter-friendly slogans: 'follow @bangonacan' and 'tweet #boac.' Stage announcements called attention to a social-media lounge upstairs, where Twitter users and old-school bloggers could recharge their equipment. If, for some reason, you grew weary of sitting and listening, you could manically strum or beat along with Bang on a Can pieces in the video game Rock Band 2 in the social-media lounge. Audience die-hards were invited to have their hands stamped at the end of each hour; collect all 12, and you were a 'Marathon Warrior,' with a certificate and other enticements to show for it. The gimmicks could have been overbearing, were it not for the striking impression made by the performers and music. Moritz Eggert, a German pianist and composer, showed a comedic flair in solo works that called for shouting, pounding the piano’s casing and mashing its keys with feet, chin and rear. Slagwerk Den Haag, a dazzling Dutch percussion group, similarly combined virtuosity and theatricality. Kambar Kalendarov and Kutman Sultanbekov, traditional musicians from Kyrgyzstan, made beguiling, complex music with simple jaw harps, flutes and lutes. At the opposite end of the spectrum, the bassist Florent Ghys and the electric guitarist Tim Brady used extensive technology to become exuberant one-man ensembles, each accompanied by video projections. Buke and Gass, a quirky indie-rock duo, planted a foot in each of those extremes, merging homespun tools and technological savvy. Vernon Reid, a prominent rock guitarist, mixed funky beats and electronic textures with the recorded voices of former slaves in Ghost Narratives, an intriguing concept rendered muddy and indistinct by the room’s acoustics. An opening performance by the John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble, a contemporary big band, was similarly affected by overly resonant sound. Yet the room could also be an advantage, as during a mesmerizing solo set by the English electronic musician Mira Calix, and a gorgeous collaboration between Ms. Calix and the Bang on a Can All-Stars. Amid the parade of cameos, two extended works stood out. At the marathon’s midpoint, the Talea Ensemble gave a fierce performance of Fausto Romitelli’s Professor Bad Trip, a phantasmagorical sprawl of oozing timbres and howling psychedelic guitar. And at the evening’s end, Brad Lubman conducted Signal in an assured, absorbing account of Shelter, a potent collaborative work by Mr. Gordon, Mr. Lang and Ms. Wolfe that has only become more poignant since its premiere in 2005" [Steve Smith, The New York Times, 6/28/10].

June 28

Frank Oteri'se 21st Century Schizoid Music concerts presents Du Yun. Cornelia Street Café, New York, NY. "His series, which draws its name from a 1969 song . . . by the progressive rock band King Crimson, is focused on musicians whose work straddles several pop and classical styles and who take on different musical personalities, depending on the setting where their work is to be heard. This past season, Ms. Du’s calling cards in New York concert halls have included the New Juilliard Ensemble’s reading of Vicissitudes No. 3, an energetic but traditional orchestral score; several scores for silent films by Alice Guy Blaché, in which Ms. Du played synthesizer with a jazz-rock ensemble; Air Glow, a complex work for the International Contemporary Ensemble and electronics; and a freewheeling collaboration with the cellist Matt Haimovitz. Each inhabited its own musical world. For [this] evening performance, Ms. Du played the piano, a metallic percussion instrument and some electronic instruments (including a computer), and she both sang and recited texts. She was joined by Gareth Flowers, a trumpeter, and Phil Moffa, who presided over a laptop and contributed abstract electronic sound and hip-hop beats. The trio offered two short sets, each essentially a suite of five pieces, played without pause. Given the breadth of Ms. Du’s imagination, it made compelling, even mesmerizing listening. But for the most part, the performance seemed to put a spotlight on only one version of Ms. Du: the inventive, outgoing, quirky indie pop diva with an avant-garde edge. If Ms. Du embraced the Schizoid series’ mandate, she did so subtly. Part of her program was given to experimental iconoclasm, by way of improvisations on other composers’ works. Each set included a movement from Satie’s Sonneries de la Rose + Croix (1891), and though she preserved the essential elements of these simple piano pieces, Ms. Du’s reconfigurations were considerable. In the Air of the Grand Master, she shared the work’s graceful melody with Mr. Flowers (who played it with a muted sound and alluring vibrato) and in Air of the Head Prior, she handed him the theme at the start, focusing instead on an expansion of Satie’s harmonies. The second set included an even flightier improvisation on O Crux Benedicta, by the 16th-century composer Francisco Guerrero. Perhaps the Satie and Guerrero glosses were meant to show Ms. Du’s more restrained side. Her own works were assertive and colorful. In choanoflagellates and Angel’s Bone, Mr. Moffa’s beats and sound washes and Mr. Flowers’s wide-ranging trumpet lines supported Ms. Du’s idiosyncratic vocal performances. Her style takes in throaty whispers, groans and shouts; at times she seems to be evoking Leonard Cohen or Yoko Ono. But mostly, Ms. Du is in a world of her own, and the confident, high-energy theatricality that she brings to her vocal music is woven through her instrumental works just as vividly" [Allan Kozinn, The New York Times, 6/30/10].

June 29

New York Philharmonic in an all-Russian program. Avery Fisher Hall, New York, NY. "[Conductor Bramwell] Tovey began with the March and Scherzo from Prokofiev’s Love for Three Oranges, a pair of energetically brassy movements that sizzled here. . . . [Violinist] Mikhail Simonyan was . . . at his best . . . in . . . Rodion Shchedrin’s Gypsy Melody" [Allan Kozinn, The New York Times, 6/30/10].

June 30

Sting and his wife in Twin Spirits, re Robert and Clara Schumann. Allen Room, New York, NY. "Crossover projects in classical music have traditionally been matters of opera singers or big-ticket instrumentalists performing jazz, pop or folk music . . . But since the late 1980's, crossover has moved in the other direction too. Stewart Copeland and Roger Waters have written operas; Paul McCartney has written a stream of orchestral, choral and piano works; Elvis Costello has composed a ballet; and Sting -- Mr. Copeland’s onetime colleague in the Police -- has undertaken several performance projects, most notably Songs From the Labyrinth, a 2006 CD of John Dowland songs and lute pieces, performed with a pop singer’s freedom and unpolished vocal tone. . . . Twin Spirits, a hybrid music and theater piece about the Schumanns. You could easily fault him for those qualities, but in interviews Sting has made it clear that he is aware of his shortcomings. And he has discussed Dowland’s songs, and other classical works, with a passion that shows that his heart is in the right place: he loves this music and wants people to hear it. That was presumably part of the thinking behind Twin Spirits, a 100-minute hybrid theater piece and concert in which Sting and his wife, the actress Trudie Styler, appeared . . . The work, written and directed by John Caird and first performed at Covent Garden in 2005, is meant to bring to life the romance between Robert and Clara Schumann. A 2007 performance, also at Covent Garden, has been released as an Opus Arte DVD. Sting makes no attempt to sing Schumann’s lieder in this production; the vocal music is the province of a baritone and a soprano. Instead Sting portrays the composer, reading from his letters to Clara Wieck during their long courtship and from the joint diary they started when they married in 1840. Ms. Styler plays Clara and reads her end of the correspondence. Not much acting is called for. Sting and Ms. Styler remained seated through most of the production, but to their credit, they endowed the Schumanns’ letters with a sense of the emotion behind them: amusingly in the case of Schumann’s playful, mildly eccentric early missives; poignantly when Clara reports on Schumann’s madness, institutionalization, and death. A narrator, David Strathairn, filled in the details, chronology and context from a thronelike seat on a platform behind Sting, Ms. Styler and the six musicians who performed music by both Schumanns, with a sprinkling of Chopin and Mozart, between groups of letters. Mr. Caird’s script is efficient and fast paced, though toward the end, when Schumann’s correspondence dries up as his mental afflictions take over, the text necessarily shifts toward narrative, and the musical sections grow longer" [Allan Kozinn, The New York Times, 7/1/10].