Monday, November 1, 2010

Chronicle of September 2010

September 5

Toru Takemitsu's November Steps performed by Saito Kinen Festival Orchestra, in a program partially conducted by Tatsuya Shimono and Seiji Ozawa. Matsumoto, Japan. "Ozawa, looking thin and frail, moved cautiously across the stage and into position; his main difficulty, it seemed, was stepping onto and off the high podium. But once the music started, Mr. Ozawa threw himself physically into the fray, fiercely swooping and elegantly swaying, with only an occasional seated respite. The festival orchestra -- made up of professionals from around Japan and the world, most first- or second-generation beneficiaries of Saito’s training — reflected Mr. Ozawa’s intensity to a T, in an absolutely gripping and muscular performance, a tribute to both Saito and Mr. Ozawa, and a privilege to hear. The players seemed to be ripping the sound from their instruments to shattering effect. . . . The . . . program [including] . . . is Carnegie bound and gave more than a hint of the wonders to be expected under Mr. Ozawa’s baton" [James R. Oestreich, The New York Times, 9/6/10].

Premiere of Poul Ruders's Dancer in the Dark. Royal Danish Opera, Copenhagen, Denmark. Through September 27. "Widely recognized as Denmark’s leading composer, Poul Ruders established himself as a major force in opera with The Handmaid’s Tale, a harrowing treatment of Margaret Atwood’s futuristic best-seller that received its premiere at the Royal Danish Opera in 2000. This gripping work led Anthony Tommasini, writing in The New York Times in 2001, to observe that Mr. Ruders 'seems to have a Verdian understanding of the genre.' Mr. Ruders’s next opera, Kafka’s Trial, which interspersed scenes from Kafka’s life with a dramatization of his unfinished existential novel The Trial, could only strengthen that impression at its 2005 premiere in the first season of Copenhagen’s new opera house. Expectations were therefore high for Mr. Ruders’s latest opera, Dancer in the Dark, which had its premiere by the Royal Danish Opera on September 5. It thus comes as a major disappointment to report that Dancer in the Dark falls well short of its predecessors. The problems begin with Henrik Engelbrecht’s libretto, which is based on Lars von Trier’s screenplay for his 2000 film of the same title. Given that it takes longer to sing words than to speak them, condensation typically plays a major role in fashioning an opera. But why did the finished product here need to last fewer than 70 minutes, just about half the running time of the film? If there is such a thing as an opera that is too short, this is it. Among the casualties of excessive pruning is the central character of Selma -- a single mother in 1960's America, a Czech immigrant -- who suffers from a congenital eye defect. We never get to know her the way we do in the film, where she is memorably portrayed by the Icelandic singer Bjork as an endearing embodiment of naïve goodness, with thick glasses and a winning smile. Selma toils in a factory to save money for an operation to save her similarly afflicted son, Gene, from the blindness that she herself faces. Matters go tragically wrong when her neighbor and landlord, Bill, pressed for cash, learns of Selma’s nest egg. In a struggle over the money, Bill is shot and killed. Selma is ultimately condemned to death for his murder. In the film, tension builds after Bill sees Selma depositing her latest earnings in the tin box that contains her savings. Because of her feeble sight she doesn’t realize she has been observed. We wait for the heart wrenching moment when Selma discovers her loss. But in the opera it is all telescoped into a single scene: As soon as Bill learns of the money, they fight over it. The element of suspense never comes into play. Still, it will not do to criticize an opera simply because it fails to measure up to its source-work in certain details. Dancer in the Dark, however, suffers from another problem in the form of missed opportunity. Besides her devotion to Gene, Selma is motivated by a passion for American musical comedies, which Mr. von Trier embodies through song and dance routines that, led by Bjork, arise incongruously yet fascinatingly from the realistic setting. My guess was that those scenes were what attracted Mr. Ruders to the film. Yet he barely taps their potential. I envisioned big, imaginative episodes that would draw on the full potential of the operatic medium to blur the distinction between realism and fantasy and lift Dancer in the Dark above the routine of just another opera that adds music but otherwise rehashes its source. Early on, Selma’s co-workers do discard their black capes to reveal colorful costumes, designed by Maria Gyllenhoff, for one jaunty but brief number. And the popular idiom is also resourcefully used to characterize satirically the prosecutor in Selma’s trial. But when Selma’s big moment comes after she is found guilty, all she has is a rather simple folk-like song, which returns later in a somewhat more rhythmic guise. You wonder why Mr. Ruders even kept Mr. von Trier’s title when in fact so little dancing is involved. Given Mr. Ruders’s unquestioned musical skill, the music is often arresting, much of it in a dissonant, expressionistic yet powerfully post-Romantic style. It registers surely in the conductor Michael Schonwandt’s reading. The growling, sighing motif from instruments playing in the lowest registers ably limns the drama’s grim close. But the opera does nothing to mitigate the incredulity of the film. The fact that Selma’s money must be used either for competent legal counsel or for Gene’s operation is implausible. Any competent young lawyer with half an interest in pro bono work could have saved her from the gallows. The talented director Kasper Holten’s darkly monochromatic production, which is oddly set in a church -- the sets are by Christian Lemmerz -- doesn’t do a lot for the new opera either, smooth-running though it is" [George Loomis, 9/15/10].

[Royoji Ikeda - datamatics (ver. 2.0)]

September 10

Crossing the Line: Ryoji Ikeda. Florence Gould Theater, New York, NY. Approaching the work of Ryoji Ikeda, you risk becoming so mired in the what and the how that you can lose sight of something more pressing: the why. Since the mid-1990's Mr. Ikeda, a Japanese composer and multimedia artist now based in Paris, has fashioned music that explores and exploits aural perception by manipulating sounds at the outermost edges of what many listeners would term agreeable: extreme high and low frequencies; split-second variations in intensity, direction and duration; barely perceptible sounds; assaultive bursts of digital noise. Heard on his records, Mr. Ikeda’s rapid-pace barrage of sonic detritus -- the whine of a fax machine, the peal and hiss of a modem, the telltale glitch of a skipping CD -- can titillate and enchant. Connected with video in datamatics [ver. 2.0], presented by the French Institute Alliance Française and Japan Society at Florence Gould Hall to open the annual Crossing the Line festival . . . Mr. Ikeda’s music became something more: the living pulse of exotic new worlds conjured through an overload of mundane binary data. No element of performance is perceived in the 45-minute work, the latest iteration of a series Mr. Ikeda started in 2006. The experience is more like watching a movie: seated in a darkened theater, you face a video screen as music pumps out of loudspeakers at sometimes extravagant volume. (Earplugs were distributed at the door.) Mr. Ikeda’s presence scarcely seems necessary. The video component, programmed by Shohei Matsukawa, Daisuke Tsunoda, Tomonaga Tokuyama and Norimichi Hirakawa, starts out simply: white blocks of various sizes float up and down a black screen in sync with Mr. Ikeda’s peeps and blurps. Later, black-and-white bands racing at higher speeds yield illusory blobs of ghostly color. When tiny shapes in red and blue suddenly appear, the effect is jolting. In subsequent segments the video and the music grow more complex. Alphanumeric symbols race past like a stock ticker on overdrive. On a three-dimensional planar grid rotating slowly against a black expanse, the positions of stars appear with a resonant ping. Spidery lattices, like chemical models, whirl slowly in what might be a reactive dance. A steady rhythmic pulse, or at least the implication of one, is nearly omnipresent. It’s as if you had swallowed some science-fiction pill that laid bare the arithmetical formulas underlying everyday perception. If that sounds metaphysical, it’s meant to. Through crafty, thoughtful manipulation of the raw binary data and noise that course unnoticed through modern life, Mr. Ikeda and his collaborators evoke a world profoundly moving in its intricacy and elegance. A closing segment crunches art schematics from everything that preceded it with pulsating sounds in a frenetic bombardment of sensations, effecting a final transformation: from the heady to the hedonistic" [Steve Smith, The New York Times, 9/12/10].

September 13

Lunchtime Concerts presents Voxare String Quartet in Samuel Barber's String Quartet. Columbia University, New York, NY. "The programs are free, informal and short, lasting from 30 minutes to an hour at most. Only one work is presented, not as a concession to short attention spans but as an invitation to the audience to take a break at lunchtime, settle down and really listen. . . . This season, as Melissa Smey, the director of the Miller Theater, told the audience, the series will focus on “four of the founding fathers” of American music -- Barber, Copland, Ives and Thomson -- offering various works for voice, strings and piano. . . . Columbia was a hotbed of American music in the middle decades of the 20th century, as Ms. Smey told the audience. Among the works that had their first performances at Columbia were Barber’s ballet Medea, with choreography by Martha Graham; Copland’s 12 Poems of Emily Dickinson; Thomson’s opera The Mother of Us All; and Ives’s Unanswered Question. For many concertgoers hearing the 1936 Barber quartet is at once a familiar and an unfamiliar experience. In its version for string orchestra, the second movement, the Adagio, is among the world’s most famous classical works: the music of choice to commemorate tragic national anniversaries. Yet, curiously, the three-movement quartet does not turn up that often. Though essentially tonal, this early Barber score is harmonically inventive and structurally daring. The impassioned first movement is concise and elusive, with an assertive main theme played in unison followed in short order by a contrasting choralelike theme of hazy, unsettled chords. The finale is agitated and inexorable. In its original version, the famous Adagio emerges as intimate, poignant and achingly direct, especially as played here by the Voxare Quartet with such penetrating tone and lucid textures. These four young musicians -- Emily Ondracek-Peterson and Galina Zhdanova, violinists; Erik Peterson, violist; and Adrian Daurov, cellist -- were students at the Juilliard School when they formed the quartet in 2008, and it is rising fast" [Anthony Tommasini, The New York Times, 9/15/10].

September 14

Sarah Wolfson and Lydia Brown present Samuel Barber's Hermit Songs. Columbia University, New York, NY. "[A] glowing account . . . [of this] cycle written in the early 1950's for Leontyne Price, who recorded the songs with Barber at the piano for RCA. . . . In his Hermit Songs Barber, who loved Gaelic literature and was drawn to the subject of hermitage, choose texts by Irish monks and scholars from the 8th through the 13th centuries, some of them just jottings in the margins of scholarly books. A university reading room was an ideal place to hear the work: both songs like The Crucifixion, a contemplation on the sacrifice of Jesus, and The Monk and His Cat, a charming tribute by a monk to the solitary life he shares with Pangur, his white mouse-hunting cat. Ms. Wolfson sang with luminous sound and impressively focused high notes. A keenly intelligent artist, she projected the words about as clearly as was possible in this small, acoustically resonant room. Ms. Brown played the elaborate piano accompaniments beautifully" [Anthony Tommasini, The New York Times, 9/15/10].

[Grant Herreid at Bargemusic]

September 19

There and Then: The Road from Valencia, with the New York Consort of Viols. Bargemusic, New York, NY. "A pair of contemporary works, David Loeb’s intricate neo-Renaissance Fantasia Sobre Nani, Nani (1986), and Paul Ben-Haim’s Puncha, Puncha (1970), a vocal work with a clear Sephardic lineage, gave the program a modern coda" [Allan Kozinn, The New York Times, 10/20/10].

[Paul Ben-Haim - Spanish Song from Songs without Words]

[Red Light New Music: David Broome plays Charlie Wilmouth]

João Carlos Martins conducts the Filarmônica Bachiana in Villa-Lobos’s Bachianas Brasileiras No. 7, and music of Alberto Ginestera and Ennio Morricone. Avery Fisher Hall, New York, NY. "Speaking from the stage after a concert . . . with the Filarmônica Bachiana, an ensemble he founded in 2004, Mr. Martins, 70, recalled what he termed the worst day of his life, during a stint in the hospital. He found solace, he said, in Ennio Morricone’s music for Cinema Paradiso, which he heard when he turned on the television that day. As an encore, Mr. Martins (performing as pianist) and the orchestra offered excerpts from Cinema Paradiso and the Gabriel’s Oboe theme from Mr. Morricone’s score for The Mission. The second encore, Mateus Araújo’s arrangement of the Brazilian national anthem (composed by Francisco Manuel da Silva), had many in the enthusiastic Portuguese-speaking audience on their feet. . . . Bach strongly influenced several prominent South American composers, including Heitor Villas-Lobos of Brazil and Alberto Ginastera of Argentina. The Brazilian pianist Arthur Moreira Lima was the able soloist in Ginastera’s Piano Concerto No. 1, which blends 12-tone technique, Argentine dance rhythms and other folk and classical idioms. Mr. Lima, also 70 and a childhood friend of Mr. Martins’s, has emerged from a performing hiatus by giving piano recitals in Brazil’s remote interior, using the back of a semitrailer truck as a stage. Sunday’s performance was their first collaboration in North America in 30 years. The . . . program concluded with a vivacious reading of Villa-Lobos’s Bachianas Brasileiras No. 7, one of a series of nine suites in which the composer fuses Brazilian folk, popular and dance idioms with Bach’s contrapuntal and harmonic structures" [Vivien Schweitzer, The New York Times, 9/20/10].

September 20

Red Light New Music presents Between Classical and New: Variations on a Theme. Symphony Space, New York, NY. When contemporary artists tamper with time-honored masterpieces, those who object usually cite what they consider a reliably horrifying image: drawing a mustache on the Mona Lisa. But as Marcel Duchamp discovered in 1919, sometimes drawing a mustache on the Mona Lisa (or a copy of it) is exactly the right thing to do, and it may be that having the right artist paint the right mustache can yield some insight about the lady with the faint smile. The program the enterprising ensemble Red Light New Music played . . . was devoted largely to mustache painting. The group -- part new-music band, part composers’ collective -- dedicated most of the first half to Salvatore Sciarrino’s deftly iconoclastic reworking of four pieces by the Italian Renaissance composer Gesualdo. After intermission the musicians offered a freewheeling version of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 9 in which each movement was reconfigured by one of the composers who runs Red Light. This program was created and performed with a sense of humor. Mr. Sciarrino’s Gesualdo fantasy, Voci Sottovetro (1999), begins with a galliard in which a xylophone and a bass clarinet trace the contours of the courtly dance, and includes an instrumental canzone with speedy melodies darting through a slow, melancholy chord progression. In two madrigals, Tu m’uccidi, o crudele and Moro, lasso, the vocal lines, shaped gracefully here by Sonya Knussen, a mezzo-soprano, are offset by quirkily revised accompaniments that expand on Gesualdo’s penchant for acidic harmony. For the Mozart, the Red Light composers proposed a rule: the piano part would be left intact. As it turned out, all three arrangers bent the hands-off rule, necessarily, it seemed, because radical changes in the orchestral score invariably occasioned alterations in how the solo line was presented. Scott Wollschleger’s version of the opening Allegro -- subtitled The Impossibility of Disappearances: ‘Under Erasure’? -- imposed silences and sudden bursts of sound on Mozart’s score. Christopher Cerrone used heavily manipulated electronics, as well as tremolando string writing, in his tweaking of the Andantino, at times setting the piano line against a heavily processed computer track instead of live strings and woodwinds. Vincent Raikhel’s amusingly revised Rondo used electronics too, though more sparingly: a rhythmic clicking, like the sound of a phonograph needle on a worn 78-r.p.m. disc, was overlaid on the performance, which was otherwise distinguished by idiosyncratic scoring touches. An accordion, played by Nathan Koci (who also played horn in the earlier movements), participated fully in dialogues with the piano and fleetingly made the ensemble sound like an early-20th-century tearoom orchestra, and at times a vibraphone mirrored the piano writing. Yegor Shevtsov, the pianist, brought a suitably Mozartean elegance to his performance. He also played the prominent piano part in a movement from a chamber concerto, a work in progress by Liam Robinson, the fourth Red Light composer-director. And the group’s percussionist, Kevin Sims, held the spotlight in Charlie Wilmoth’s “Red Light,” which opened the program. The ensemble, conducted by Ted Hearne, played the entire program with admirable energy and precision" [Allan Kozinn, The New York Times, 10/21/10].

September 26

Masami Akita, a.k.a. Merzbow. Le Poisson Rouge, New York, NY. "Merzbow . . . spent about 75 minutes onstage . . . generating a constant fusillade of sound: from two laptops, four digital-effects stompboxes and a homemade metallic contraption slung around his neck by a guitar strap. In that time he could have been making a new record -- perhaps even an entire album. Since Merzbow started, about 30 years ago, his discography has become a peach orchard in perpetual summer: the problem is how to take in all of it, or even a very small part of it. Between January 2009 and January of this year, he released 13 new CDs under the title 13 Japanese Birds (They are now available as a boxed set called Ecobag/13 Birds in a Bag + 1). Since then there have been three more. The crazy bumper crop is a working tradition in noise: there’s the Michigan band Wolf Eyes, whose merchandise area at gigs becomes a groaning table of limited-edition CDRs and cassettes, and the Norwegian duo Jazkamer, which has undertaken the process of releasing a new album every month this year. It may or may not add up to fetishism about records per se, but Mr. Akita in particular definitely has feelings about fetishism (Some of his music and his books are inspired by, or directly about, sexual bondage and discipline). It might be more about creating an art that has no need of an overthought frame or conceit. It’s up to the listener to sort it out. “Noise is the unconsciousness of music,” he once said in an interview, and the thing about the unconscious is that it just keeps producing. And you can ignore it if you don’t have the desire to understand it. It would have been hard to ignore . . . [this] show. Mr. Akita, a drummer before his interest in electronics took over, has returned to using live drums in some of his recent music; he plays them himself on 13 Japanese Birds, but at Le Poisson Rouge he used the Hungarian drummer Balazs Pandi, who almost heroically accompanied all the cold, oscillating aggression coming from Mr. Akita’s side of the stage in a high-speed churn tattooed with blast-beats and double-pedaling. In short, it was fabulous: not really improvising, but suggesting the marathoning spirit of high-impact free jazz; not really composition, but held together with the technique and concentration of grindcore drumming. Just barely, through the amazing din and throughout the set, you could hear sounds that weren’t coming from Merzbow: the audience cheering. In one sense, Xiu Xiu, which preceded Merzbow on the evening’s bill, is a completely different animal. It’s a songwriting outfit, the project of the hyper-gifted singer and musician Jamie Stewart, who has definitely heard a few records by the Cure and Joy Division. But Mr. Stewart is on a similarly brave and stoical walk through the dark side: he’s committed to both seducing and burning his listeners. He pushed his voice from careful and confidential to breathy and overwrought, to the trembly verges of fear and excitement, obliquely referring to sex and trauma in his lyrics; the music followed a precise trail of ’80s-sounding electronic rhythm, guitar solos and cymbal crashes. Working with backing tracks and only one other musician, Angela Seo, on keyboards and percussion, Mr. Stewart worked hard to reproduce the density of Xiu Xiu’s albums; as he sweated over the music’s details, he seemed like a man who gets no rest" [Ben Ratliff, The New York Times, 9/27/10].