Thursday, July 1, 2010

Chronicle of May 2010

May 26

neoLIT Ensemble. Bargmusic, New York, NY. "[T]he full roster includes mezzo-soprano, flute, clarinet, violin, cello and piano, with the musicians playing in whatever combinations their programs demand. [In this program] . . . the group performed without its singer. NeoLIT also has a specialty. All its players are women, and as its program biography puts it, the group is 'especially devoted to the presentation of works by women composers.' But that is evidently not an exclusive mandate. Though the program it originally announced was devoted fully to women, a last-minute change brought Paul Moravec to the lineup and gave over the entire second half of the program to his Tempest Fantasy. Even so, the first half offered music by six composers working in a variety of styles. The opening piece, Alexandra du Bois’s Soleil sur Mer (2007), was commissioned by Bargemusic, and Ms. du Bois paid tribute to the floating concert hall by naming both movements barcarolles, after the gently rocking 19th-century boat song form. Actually, neither movement sounds much like a classic barcarolle, and the two bear little similarity to each other. The first, subtitled 'Brouillard' and meant to evoke fog, is slow, gloomy and not especially memorable. The second, 'L’Été,' is bright-hued and lively, with a birdsonglike theme that stays in the ear. Ellen Taaffe Zwilich’s Divertimento (1983) for flute, clarinet, violin and cello begins and ends with gestures bearing Beethovenian echoes, but within that frame the music is vital and inventive. The second movement in particular, a vigorous Allegro, begins with a rhythmically steady pizzicato figure, shared by the violin and cello; the flute and clarinet briefly weave an inviting line around it. Ms. Zwilich’s work presented an updated, freewheeling look at Neo-Classicism. Barbara S. Buckley’s Quintetta (1953) offered a purer view, its three movements carefully chiseled and beautifully compact. In Dust (2001) Belinda Reynolds used spare, dark-hued cello and clarinet timbres to create a starkly meditative memorial to the victims of the attacks of Sept. 11. Erin Svoboda, the clarinetist, and Aminda Asher, the cellist, gave a beautifully focused, melancholy account of the score. Amelia Lukas, the flutist, played East Wind, Shulamit Ran’s gracefully chromatic 1987 showpiece for solo flute, with a fine balance of virtuosity and poetry. The first part of the program ended with Tania León’s Parajota Delate (1988), a rhythmically zesty vignette in Ms. León’s signature blend of folkish and formal styles. Mr. Moravec’s Tempest Fantasy (2002), the work for which he won the Pulitzer Prize in 2004, is based on the Shakespeare play and uses its central characters -- Ariel, Prospero and Caliban — as the subjects of the first three movements, with 'Sweet Airs' and a Fantasia filling out the set. Mr. Moravec’s writing is always accessible and transparent, and the ensemble responded to its easygoing, picturesque charms with a cheerful, energetic performance [Allan Kozinn, The New York Times, 5/31/10].

May 27

Keys to the Future — a festival of solo contemporary piano music organized by the pianist and composer Joseph Rubenstein — 10 pianists highlight a range of styles in works by 19 composers. Le Poisson Rouge, New York, NY. "Jazz was an integral component of the exuberant Five Études in Different Intervals (1992) by Nikolai Kapustin, who once played piano in a big-band jazz orchestra. Stephen Gosling performed the technically intricate and virtuosic work with aplomb. Also jazz-infused was Richard Danielpour’s vivacious Mardi Gras (1992), part of his Enchanted Garden, a set of preludes for piano. Blair McMillen offered a dynamic performance of the work, in which the rapid sequences of jagged rhythmic patterns are punctuated by a momentary lull in the festivities. Mr. Rubenstein performed one of his own scores, the evocative, chromatically meandering Romance No. 2 (aurora) (2007). He opened the program with Bruce Stark’s gentle, introspective Yours (2002), which had a slight New Age sheen to it. A meditative mood also permeated Vuk Kulenovic’s Virginal, (1982), sensitively rendered by Karen Hakobyan. Insistent themes resurfaced throughout the tranquil, arresting work, with delicate, ephemeral motifs repeated with increasing intensity, until a fiery outburst shattered the serenity. A quietly persistent theme restored the calm. Judd Greenstein’s First Ballade (2008), played by Mr. McMillen, began similarly on a serene note before slowly building in intensity. Paying homage to a famous composer or theme is a long-standing tradition, continued by Barbara White in her Mirage (homage to Ravel) (2002), whose gauzy textures evoked the mirage of its title. There was also a Ravelian tint to Philippe Hersant’s pictorial Six Éphémères (2003), given a colorful performance by Mr. McMillen. In “Autumn Wind,” the first movement, trills and rapid, rising figurations in the right hand evoked the wind. “An Ant,” the fourth section, depicted that tiny creature with scurrying sounds and solemn gestures, while the ominous whirlwind of Hurricane concluded the suite with dramatic intensity" [Anne Midgette, The New York Times, 6/1/10].

The New York Philharmonic, conducted by Alan Gilbert, in Gyorgy Ligeti's Le Grand Macabre. Avery Fisher Hall, New York, NY. "Encouraging evidence that Alan Gilbert’s bold artistic vision for the New York Philharmonic has been embraced by the public could be seen in two words on a poster outside Avery Fisher Hall on Thursday night: 'SOLD OUT.' What had sold out were three performances of Gyorgy Ligeti’s musically audacious opera Le Grand Macabre, a bleakly satirical tale set in an 'anytime' century, first performed in Stockholm in 1978. In the piece a spectral, booming figure who proclaims himself Death comes to the decadent, carefree principality of Breughelland and announces his intention to destroy the world at the stroke of midnight. Presenting a staged production of this challenging modernist work was Mr. Gilbert’s most ambitious project for his first season as the Philharmonic’s music director. Here, courtesy of the Philharmonic, was the New York premiere of a piece that by rights the Metropolitan Opera should have produced long ago (The only previous American staged production was at the San Francisco Opera in 2004). Tackling Le Grand Macabre is one way that Mr. Gilbert is taking the Philharmonic into the 21st century [N.B. we are talking about a 20th-century opera here - ed.]. The risk was that audiences might not follow him. But [the] presentation was an exhilarating success, offering an eager and excellent cast, a brilliant and assured performance of Ligeti’s daunting score and a disarming production, designed and directed by Doug Fitch, that makes ingenious use of playful video images. The audience, with noticeable contingents of young people, laughed right through and seemed enthralled. Ligeti, who died at 83 in 2006, was not a natural for musical theater. When he came upon a play by Michel de Ghelderode about the end of the world, presented both as calamity and farce, he found a subject that inspired him to fashion his own kind of opera. He wrote the libretto with Michael Meschke. The original version of Le Grand Macabre, with long spans of spoken dialogue, came across almost as operatic cabaret. Nearly 20 years later, Ligeti revised the score, removing chunks of dialogue, turning some speaking roles into sung ones and lending the overall opera more musical continuity, without losing the riotousness, the spirit of macabre musical theater. That version, introduced at the Salzburg Festival in 1997, was performed here. The opera opens with a raspy prelude for 12 honking car horns, all precisely pitched. The first character we meet is Piet the Pot, the land’s official wine taster, here the robust tenor Mark Schowalter in a poignantly comic performance. Typically tipsy, Piet blesses Breughelland as a place where no one knows a care. The scene is supposed to take place near the remains of a decayed graveyard. Mr. Fitch’s production employs a stage extension in front of the orchestra but achieves most of its effects through videos. Using two stands, rather like puppet booths, in full view of the audience, stagehands make close-up videos of mini-sets, flats and props, which are then projected onto a screen in the shape of a sunburst that hovers over the orchestra. Sometimes singers pop into the booths for close-ups. So when Nekrotzar, the persona of Death, emerges as if from the underworld, we first see the comically menacing face of this character, played by the formidable bass-baritone Eric Owens, as a ghoulish video image. Though the videos are wildly imaginative, a great deal of the action is simply staged on the extended platform, with the singers in surreal sci-fi costumes designed by Catherine Zuber. Early in the first scene, for example, we meet the soprano Jennifer Black as Amanda, and the mezzo-soprano Renée Tatum as Amanda’s devoted male lover, Amando. They wear primitive grass skirts and bodysuits that make them appear naked from the waist up, showing off Amanda’s buxom breasts and Amando’s muscled chest. Ligeti gives them melismatic intertwining melodies against the astringent harmonies of the orchestra, which this pair sang beautifully. The original libretto was in German, but Ligeti wanted the text to be translated into the language of the audience hearing it (The premiere was sung in Swedish). For this performance in English, the decision was made not to use supertitles, and it was the right choice. During intricate musical stretches, some of the words do not come through clearly. But the revised score is still thick with spoken and half-sung lines. So it would have been distracting to see the texts projected. The charismatic bass Wilbur Pauley, as the henpecked court astrologer Astradamors, and the lush-voiced mezzo-soprano Melissa Parks, as his brutishly domineering wife, Mescalina, were wonderful. The soprano Kiera Duffy, as an unearthly tall Venus, was suffering from a cold and could not sing. Her understudy, Audrey Elizabeth Luna, sang the role from the side as Ms. Duffy acted in costume. Somehow it made this mystical moment in Ligeti’s score, where the strings play haunting Neo-Baroque passages, all the more magical. The young countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo brought a clear, penetrating voice and dramatic flair to the role of the gluttonous, cowardly Prince Go-Go, looking like a butterball, with his head protruding from his scaly globe of a costume. He is served by two quarrelsome advisers, the White Minister (the appealing tenor Peter Tantsits) and the Black Minster (the virile bass Joshua Bloom), who engage in some nimble bits of physical comedy. The soprano Barbara Hannigan deftly dispatched the coloratura leaps and runs of the punishing part of Gepopo, the chief of the secret police, while bringing demonic zaniness to her portrayal. Choral elements were richly sung by the New York Choral Artists, performing sometimes from the stage, sometimes from the balconies. The hero of this production, of the whole endeavor, is Mr. Gilbert, who conducted the score with insight, character and command. The Philharmonic players seemed inspired as they executed this complex music with skill and conviction. Mr. Gilbert brought out Ligeti’s wildness. Yet moment after moment was ravishing, like the fractured, hazy, strangely elusive scene when Piet, Astradamors and Nekrotzar drink themselves into a stupor, which causes Nekrotzar to bungle his chance to destroy the world. Actually, he turns out to be another impotent imposter, right at home in Breughelland. The opera ends with a passacaglia for vocal ensemble and orchestra, as the citizens, not sure whether they are alive or dead, agree that the best course is to have no fear, let come what may, and enjoy yourself. Not just opera, but challenging contemporary opera in an inventive and effective production, has come to the Philharmonic, thanks to Mr. Gilbert and his colleague Mr. Fitch. This was an instant Philharmonic milestone" [Anthony Tommasini, The New York Times, 5/28/10].

May 29

Mark Alburger videos his Psalm 1: 1-5. Redondo Beach, Half Moon Bay, CA.

Spoleto Festival, USA presents instrumental music of Wolfgang Rihm, conducted by John Kennedy. Simmons Center Recital Hall, College of Charleston, SC. "Kennedy is the director of the festival’s Music in Time series, and in that capacity he offered a wonderful setup for the opera: a concert of instrumental music by Mr. Rihm from the 1980's . . . . The program consisted of four segments from the Chiffre-Zyklus (Cipher Cycle) for chamber orchestra, pieces seemingly calculated to show how much music can be written without serious resort to melody. Rhythm, dynamics and instrumental color are everything. Melody scarcely amounts to more than fragments and, occasionally, ostinato figures. The piano appears prominently but almost entirely in its guise as a percussion instrument. Structure is modular, with clangorous episodes separated by long moments of intense quiet or actual silence. Though unpredictable from moment to moment, the music -- at times almost voluptuous, at others edgy -- affords a gratifying logic with its repeating motifs, within movements and from one to another. Mr. Kennedy’s players supplied crack performances. Lydia Brown, in particular, handled that demanding piano part, unpianistic as it was, with aplomb" [James Oestreich, The New York Times, 6/1/10].

May 30

Spoleto Festival, USA presents the American premiere of Wolfgang Rihm’s monodrama Proserpina, conducted by John Kennedy. Memminger Auditorium, Charleston, SC. "Kennedy provid[ed] a steadying hand. The work is a tour de force for soprano -- in this case, Heather Buck -- positively awash in lyricism: for at least half of its 45-minute length, limpid, flowing Straussian melody . . . [i]n this setting of a text by Goethe . . . . The Fates, represented by a chorus (women of the Westminster Choir), singing wordlessly at first, draw Proserpina inexorably into their midst, and the director here, Ken Rus Schmoll, has added a silent actor (Jason Bruffy) as a glowering and ultimately grasping Pluto. But the evening belonged to Ms. Buck, who sang beautifully in the plush melodies at the start and adapted expertly to increasing angularity and high-flying acrobatics as Proserpina’s plight grew dire. Mr. Schmoll’s spare production, with a set and modern-dress costumes designed by Marsha Ginsberg, provided Ms. Buck with a mostly blank slate, and she was equally compelling as a sheer stage presence, whether self-absorbed or interacting with the chorus and even the orchestra. Mr. Rihm’s music ranges widely and ingeniously through contemporary styles and includes a sort of historical framing, as he seamlessly weaves in patches of music from Goethe’s era. The Dance of the Blessed Spirits from Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice appears in the orchestra at Proserpina’s line, 'Your peaceful wandering, blessed ones,' and a bit of the Queen of the Night’s vocalizing from Mozart’s Zauberflöte creeps into Proserpina’s rendering of 'Through the night I will pursue him.' As in the orchestral concert, Mr. Kennedy and the orchestra were superb advocates for Mr. Rihm’s imaginative music" [James Oestreich, The New York Times, 6/1/10].

May 31

Death of Benjamin Lees (b. Benjamin George Lisniansky, 1/8/24, Harbin, China), at 86. Glen Cove, NY. "[He was] Benjamin Lees, an iconoclastic American composer . . . [whose] work . . . was lyrical, tonal and widely described as approachable . . . . He . . . had recently returned to the New York area after living in Palm Springs, CA, for many years. Known for his versatility, Mr. Lees wrote for symphony orchestra, solo instruments, voice and chamber ensembles. After coming to prominence in the 1950's, he received commissions from major American orchestras; his solo and chamber works were given premieres by distinguished artists like the pianist Gary Graffman, the violinist Ruggiero Ricci and the Budapest and Tokyo String Quartets. At the same time, however, Mr. Lees stood somewhat apart from the marquee names of contemporary music. That stance, to judge from his characteristically candid interviews over the years, suited him just fine. 'I want a composer who communicates,' he told The New York Times in 1982, 'not one who plays cerebral games.' Among Mr. Lees’s best-known compositions are his Symphony No.4 ('Memorial Candles'), for soprano, violin and orchestra, written in 1985 . . . and Symphony No.5 ('Kalmar Nyckel') . . . . His Concerto for String Quartet and Orchestra, composed in 1964, remains one of his most widely performed pieces. In 1960, Mr. Lees’s Symphony No.2 (1958) drew an admiring review from the Times critic Howard Taubman at its New York premiere, performed by the Cleveland Orchestra in Carnegie Hall under George Szell. With the symphony, Mr. Taubman wrote, Mr. Lees 'proclaims himself as a composer of marked individuality.' . . . Above all he disdained serialism, a compositional technique most closely associated with Arnold Schoenberg . . . . 'I tried the technique, but couldn’t do it,' Mr. Lees told The Los Angeles Times in 1992. 'It was like making love to a corpse.' Described most often as conservative or Neo-Classical, Mr. Lees’s style was known for its thoughtful construction (he was a watchmaker’s son), attention to the sonorities of individual instruments, and rhythmic and melodic twists. His champions praised his music for being accessible to the ordinary listener. His detractors criticized it for precisely the same thing. . . . [He was] the son of Jewish parents who had fled pogroms in their native Ukraine. The Lisnianskys came to the United States in 1925, Americanizing their name in the process. They settled first in San Francisco and later in Los Angeles. Benjamin began piano lessons at 5 and started composing as a teenager. After Army service in World War II, he attended the University of Southern California; he later studied privately for several years with the American modernist composer George Antheil. Mr. Lees came to wide public attention in 1954, when his composition Profile for Orchestra was performed by the NBC Symphony on a national radio broadcast. In the 1960's and 70's, Mr. Lees taught composition at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, Queens College, the Manhattan School of Music and the Juilliard School before concluding that teaching was not for him. 'Either you have a talented student, in which case you’re frightened because you don’t want to ruin the talent, or you have someone who has a very nice personality but no talent and should be taking animal husbandry,' he told The Los Angeles Times in 2004. . . . Mr. Lees’s work has been widely recorded. In 2003, he was nominated for a Grammy Award for Kalmar Nyckel. The recording, for Albany Records, was by the Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz, a German orchestra, under Stephen Gunzenhauser. Honored, Mr. Lees attended the awards ceremony in Los Angeles. He did not win. (That year’s Grammy for best classical contemporary composition went to the American composer Dominick Argento for his song cycle Casa Guidi.) Mr. Lees was philosophical. After the ceremony, as he told The San Jose Mercury News in 2004, “' came back, I took out the garbage, and life goes on'" [Margalit Fox, The New York Times, 6/7/10].