Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Chronicle of October 2010

October 18

Ryuichi Sakamoto. Skirball Center for the Performing Art, New York University, New York, NY. "Can a concert be too beautiful for comfort? The question seemed pertinent for a long stretch of a rare local performance by Ryuichi Sakamoto. . . . Sakamoto, 58, is a figure whose renown encompasses a plethora of disparate activities. Apart from being a skillful keyboardist, he is a pop-culture hero in his native Japan, a composer of film scores and symphonic works, a record producer and entrepreneur, an actor and, most recently, an environmental activist. Elements from all those roles surfaced in one way or another during Mr. Sakamoto’s concert, part of an eco-friendly American tour. Much of the material came from his new Decca album, a repackaging of two of his recent discs: Playing the Piano, a collection of solo reveries, and Out of Noise, a grittier project involving dissonance, environmental ambience and contributions from other performers, including the English viol consort Fretwork and the Austrian electronic musician Christian Fennesz. Mr. Sakamoto opened his concert with music from Out of Noise, the desolate electro-acoustic rumble of Glacier emanating from loudspeakers even before he took the stage. Slipping on in nearly complete darkness, Mr. Sakamoto reached into one of the two grand pianos on the stage, plucking and scraping the strings as hazy video images shifted and wobbled on a screen overhead. Arched low over the keyboard, with curtains of white hair framing his still-boyish face, Mr. Sakamoto offered four further selections from that album. The grainy burr of recorded viols gave Still Life an air of melancholy. Elsewhere the piano drifted in amniotic electronic washes, at times conjuring the mesmerizing collaborations of Brian Eno and Harold Budd from the 1980's. But when Mr. Sakamoto shifted his attention to material from Playing the Piano, rich ambiguity ceded to consonance and simplicity.

Radically stripped-down versions of familiar themes from his scores for the movies The Sheltering Sky and

The Last Emperor mingled with similarly streamlined versions of songs from Smoochy, a bossa-nova-inspired album from 1997. All this was undeniably beautiful: Mr. Sakamoto has a deft touch and a knack for memorable melodies. At its best, the music found common ground among Chopin, Satie, Bill Evans, and Antonio Carlos Jobim. Still, too many limpid ballads and twinkling, twirling miniatures in sequence became soporific. In jazzier compositions you longed for an improviser’s spontaneity and development rather than a decorousness better suited to a fern-throttled piano bar. This was clearly a minority view: hearty responses from a capacity audience compelled three encores. During spirited versions of Behind the Mask and Happy End, songs by Mr. Sakamoto’s seminal 1980s electro-pop trio, Yellow Magic Orchestra, a long-dormant second piano came to life, offering accompaniment programmed beforehand. And one admirer’s satisfied sigh sounded out through a ripple of applause that greeted the twinkling opening figures of Mr. Sakamoto’s most beguiling creation, his theme for Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence" [Steve Smith, The New York Times, 10/19/10].

October 21

Baracka Flacka Flames / James Davis's Head of the State splaced on YouTube. "'I’m the head of the state!' President Obama shouts, with a blend of jubilation and indignation on his face. Except that’s not exactly what he says -- the sentence is spiked with an expletive and a racial epithet. And, of course, it’s not Mr. Obama, but an extremely convincing impersonator, James Davis, performing as Baracka Flacka Flames in a video called Head of the State. . . . . The clip, which has been viewed more than million times since Thursday, is a spoof of the bombastic Hard in Da Paint, the recent hit by the rowdy Atlanta rapper Waka Flocka Flame" [Jon Caramanica, The New York Times, 10/25/10].

[Matthias Pintscher, discussing his Songs from Solomon's Garden]

Composer Portraits: Matthias Pintscher. Miller Theatre, Columbia University, New York, NY. "Matthias Pintscher’s music whispers far more often than it shouts. But when this imaginative 39-year-old German composer and conductor wants an ensemble to produce a big sound, he is not shy about asking its percussionists to supply a generous helping of thunder, sometimes supported by full-throttle, harmonically dense contributions from the brasses and woodwinds. . . . [T]he four pieces on the program conveyed a sense of the extremes at which he works, as well as the peculiar sensibility that drives his music. What appears to interest him most is texture, but as soon as he finds an alluring one -- it could be a delicate, repeated arpeggio, sparkling softly at the top of the keyboard, or the blend of an airy flute, a not-quite-on-the-note violin tremolando and metallic percussion -- he has it morph into something else. The most ambitious score here was Sonic Eclipse (2010), a three-movement work built around a fascinating structural notion. The first two movements -- celestial object I and celestial object II -- are essentially brief concertos, the first for trumpet, the second for horn. In the finale, occultation, elements of the first two movements are overlaid -- an idea suggested by the mechanics of a solar eclipse. The result is a colorful, energetic movement in which the trumpet and horn lines are alternately independent and interlocking. The mostly introspective trumpet writing, played with nuanced virtuosity by Gareth Flowers, begins with a toneless figure -- air blown through the instrument, with a rhythmic undercurrent created by depressing the valves -- and includes muted passagework that toward the end explodes into a rhapsodic solo. The French horn part in celestial object II, more assertive from the start, explores the instrument’s full range, from growling bass notes to more ecstatic high pitches. David Byrd-Marrow’s tour of the line’s intricacies and quick figuration was stunning and assured. But if the trumpet and horn lines naturally commanded the attention, it was not because the orchestral scoring, with its continuous, otherworldly texture shifting, lacked attractions of its own. Mr. Pintscher drew a vivid performance from the expert musicians of the International Contemporary Ensemble. He also led the group, with the flexible soprano Tony Arnold, in a twilight’s song (1997), a fluid E. E. Cummings setting. Mr. Pintscher’s vocal writing is wedded to the poetry’s spirit, if not its surface. In a twilight’s song, that meant plenty of octave leaping to capture the stark emotionality that underlies Cummings’s meditative verses. His setting of an Octavio Paz poem, Un despertar (An awakening), from 2008, is more subdued, and was performed gracefully by Evan Hughes, a bass-baritone with a light, appealing timbre, and Cory Smythe, the pianist who also played on a clear day (2004), the gentle, soft-edged piano work that opened the program" [Allan Kozinn, The New York Times, 10/24/10].

[Dmitri Shostakovich - String Quartet No. 3: III, performed by the Emerson Quartet]

October 26

Pacifica Quartet. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY. "[[T]his group has a passion for completeness: its New York performances in recent years have included a Beethoven cycle (in 2007) and the five Elliott Carter quartets (in 2002 and 2008). And now that the introductions are out of the way, it is returning to the immersive programming it prefers. This season is devoted to Shostakovich’s 15 quartets . . . . The first installment of the Shostakovich cycle . . . was a reminder of the quirks that have become the Pacifica Quartet’s signature sound. Mainly, these musicians -- Simin Ganatra and Sibbi Bernhardsson, violinists; Masumi Per Rostad, violist; and Brandon Vamos, cellist -- seem drawn to extremes. The restraint and precision they bring to quiet passages can sound antiseptic at times, as if unity of gesture were an absolute value to be achieved, even if it means putting the music’s emotional core at arm’s length. Yet when a score requires more vivid expressivity -- pathos, anger, terror, melancholy -- they produce a sound that can sing exquisitely or throttle you with its grittiness and energy. Shostakovich demands that full range in his quartets. If his symphonies can seem to be ambiguous public declarations that toe the Soviet line, sometimes with hidden, contradictory subtexts, his quartets are a more intimate diary of the soul. The Quartet No. 1 in C was composed in 1938, after his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District had been denounced as 'formalist,' but also after he had reclaimed his reputation with the Fifth Symphony. He treads lightly at first: the opening Moderato is a sweet, graceful Neo-Classical movement that darkens only slightly. The key to the work is its second movement, another Moderato, with its plaintive solo viola opening, played with exquisite warmth here by Mr. Rostad. Shostakovich repeats this telling juxtaposition with the graceful, scherzolike third movement and the fast, angrily brusque finale. He is more unbuttoned in the Quartet No. 2 in A, a 1944 work steeped in the pain of wartime that includes a harrowing, nondancelike Waltz movement, as well as an Adagio built around mournful, chromatic themes in a Jewish folk style. Here the focus is as much on solo playing as on ensemble heft: the heart of the Adagio is a series of soulful violin solos that Ms. Ganatra performed with wrenching intensity and bittersweet tone, and the variations in the finale give each player a moment in the spotlight. The Pacifica began the second half with a leap to the Quartet No. 7 in F Sharp Minor, a short, dark work with a smoldering Allegro finale, and ended the concert with the monumental Quartet No. 3 in F, Shostakovich’s five-movement reflection on World War II. As always, the group was at its best when Shostakovich’s scoring was either assertively brash (in the Allegro non troppo, which represents the invasion of Russia) or irresistibly plangent (in the Adagio, which mourns the dead) and less striking in the comparatively bright outer movements. But the focus and passion of the performance as a whole left you eager to hear what they will do with the 11 remaining works" [Allan Kozinn, The New York Times, 10/26/10].

October 27

New York City Opera presents Leonard Bernstein's A Quiet Place. New York State Theater, New York, NY. "City Opera’s vibrant new production of Leonard Bernstein’s only full-length opera. . . . Introduced in 1983 at the Houston Grand Opera, A Quiet Place was met with vehemently negative reviews. A thoroughly revised version fared somewhat better in subsequent stagings. Still, the opera has languished since and had never been tried out in New York, Bernstein’s adopted hometown. Mr. Steel believed in the piece and found an ally in the director Christopher Alden . . . [who] has now brought theatrical magic to his contemporary staging . . . . The cast is terrific. Jayce Ogren, a young American conductor . . . had an impressive City Opera debut, drawing a pulsing, sensitive and brilliant account of this stylistically far-ranging score from the orchestra. The lingering criticism of “A Quiet Place” is that the piece is an awkward hybrid both musically and dramatically. This reflects the general criticism of Bernstein as a composer: that his head was so full of all kinds of music he could not find his own voice. The structure of the opera is inevitable, given its genesis. Bernstein’s first idea was to compose an operatic sequel to Trouble in Tahiti, his bleakly comic, jazzy one-act opera from 1952, with his own libretto. As originally conceived, the sequel, with a libretto by the director Stephen Wadsworth, showed what happened in later years to the sorry suburban family from the early work: the self-absorbed businessman Sam and his alcohol-dependent wife, Dinah. In A Quiet Place we meet Dede, the couple’s flighty daughter, and Junior, their mentally troubled gay son, as well as Fran├žois, Dede’s husband and also (formerly or currently, we are not sure) Junior’s lover. After the failure of the Houston premiere, Bernstein and Mr. Wadsworth were persuaded to adapt A Quiet Place into a three-act work that incorporates Trouble in Tahiti as flashbacks in the second act. The musical mixing, however, seemed a hodgepodge to many. But these days we are more accustomed to composers who juxtapose styles and draw from all idioms. Think of William Bolcom, John Adams, and Osvaldo Golijov. In this production, A Quiet Place came across throughout as pure Bernstein. You hear his acute ear finding the right notes to make some piercing harmony. Mahlerian blasts are fractured with jagged, jazzy riffs. For someone who polemically criticized 12-tone music, Bernstein found his own way to fashion atonal elements to his own ends. And, of course, the bits of pop songs and jazz, like the swing trio that serves as a Greek chorus in the Trouble in Tahiti scenes, come through with authenticity. The orchestral prelude to Act III, with its layered chromatic counterpoint and yearning melodic lines, is Bernstein at his most sublime. The problem is not the hybrid score but the dramatic pacing. There are some captivating arias and monologues in this work, but Bernstein milks them for too long. At more than three hours (with two intermissions) A Quiet Place is not that oversized for an opera. Still, it feels stretched out. The back-and-forth dramatic quality of A Quiet Place is made much less problematic thanks to Mr. Alden’s production, which has an integrated flow and consistently dark tone. It opens at a funeral parlor where guests, many of them jaded, are dealing with Dinah’s death from an auto accident (perhaps a suicide). . . . Mr. Alden draws nuanced performances from this gifted cast. . . . During the prolonged ovations, when Mr. Wadsworth . . . took a bow, he made a moving gesture with his arm as if to embrace his missing colleague. If only Bernstein could have been there to see the reaction to his opera" [Anthony Tommasini, The New York Times, 10/28/20].

October 28

Opening of Lincoln Center's White Light Festival, with Meredith Monk. David Rubenstein Atrium, New York, NY. When Meredith Monk performed her Click Song No. 1 on Thursday, it sounded as if she was accompanied by an array of percussion. But she was alone onstage as she offered a taste of her remarkable extended vocal technique, a petite figure framed by an enormous bright blue screen that changed colors throughout the program. . . . Ms. Monk, a singer, composer, dancer, choreographer, director and filmmaker, has been creating multidisciplinary works since the 1960's, when she developed her distinctive form of singing. Cries, clucks and noises that might evoke exotic birdcalls unfold over humming and chanting. With this unusual vocalizing, Ms. Monk, her trademark braids flowing down her back, seemed an apt choice to open the festival. Ms. Monk, a Buddhist with a stage presence that ranges from serene to charmingly girlish, calls her voice her “soul’s messenger”; that was also the title of her program, which included works from the last four decades, performed solo or with members of her vocal ensemble. The pieces for unaccompanied voices were the highlights, beginning with Monk solos. Ms. Monk was joined by the mezzo-soprano Katie Geissinger for several unaccompanied duo selections, including the remarkable Hocket. The two women stood facing each other, a stream of sounds juggled between them like balls until it was hard to tell whose mouth was producing which sound. The works for voice and piano were less striking, largely because the piano writing, which veered toward New Age, brought Ms. Monk’s otherworldly vocalizing down to earth. In Madwoman’s Vision, which she sang while accompanying herself at the piano, the simple piano chords seemed prosaic as she unleashed an avalanche of sounds, ranging from high-pitched utterances to grumbly lows and noises that suggested an alien animal caught in a trap. The electronic keyboard (which Ms. Monk referred to as a “period instrument from 1982”) better suited her songs. She ended the program with ensemble works -- with Ms. Geissinger; Allison Sniffin, a soprano; and Bohdan Hilash, a clarinetist -- that again illustrated her distinctive sound world" [Vivien Schweitzer, The New York Times, 10/29/10].

An Evening with Christine Brewer. David H. Koch Theater, New York, NY. "[A] 70-minute program of arias, songs and orchestral pieces . . . was a welcome opportunity to hear this elusive dramatic soprano, one of the best in the business. George Manahan conducted the City Opera Orchestra, which played on the renovated theater’s new elevated pit. Ms. Brewer’s big, sumptuous voice is ideally suited to the Wagner and Strauss repertory. At 55, she is in her prime and sounding glorious. Yet she has chosen, it would seem, to maintain the freshness of her voice by limiting her appearances, especially in staged productions. Her Metropolitan Opera career consists so far of two performances in Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos in 2003. To open the program, Ms. Brewer gave a vocally blazing yet lyrically sensual performance of In questa reggia from Puccini’s Turandot. The voices of many dramatic sopranos come girded in steel. Ms. Brewer is the uncommon singer of her vocal type whose voice can slice through a thick orchestra while still sounding lustrous, and it was thrilling to hear her as the icy, avenging Princess Turandot. Mr. Manahan then conducted the orchestra in Courtly Dances from Britten’s opera Gloriana, about Queen Elizabeth I. But it was frustrating to know that Ms. Brewer, who sang Elizabeth formidably in a 2005 production of the work with the Opera Theater of St. Louis, was sitting backstage when she could have been singing an excerpt from the opera. . . . Brewer concluded the program with stylish and bluesy accounts of musical theater songs by Arlen and Kern. Arlen’s I Had Myself a True Love and Kern’s Bill (from Show Boat) were especially beguiling. Ms. Brewer, who spoke warmly to the audience about the songs, used a hand-held microphone (though not held too close) for the Kern numbers, which allowed her to scale down her voice and make the words count. As an encore, she sang a comic Victor Herbert song, Art Is Calling for Me, putting an impish spin on the first lines of the chorus: 'I long to be a prima donna, donna, donna,/ I long to shine upon the stage'" [Anthony Tommasini, 10/10/29].

[Dan Deacon - Of the Mountains (Moogfest, October 29)]

October 29

Moogfest. Ashville, NC. Through November 2. "Mark Mothersbaugh, the keyboardist and singer of Devo, reminisced . . . about visiting the R. A. Moog Company’s synthesizer factory in Buffalo some time in 1971 or 1972. 'It was like heaven,' he said. He was onstage here at Moogfest, a three-day festival with more than 60 acts -- bands and disc jockeys, theremin soloists and professed synthesizer geeks -- to celebrate the Moog synthesizer, an instrument that transformed music by giving composers countless new sounds. At the factory, Mr. Mothersbaugh said, he saw shelves holding rows of Minimoogs, the pioneering, suitcase-size synthesizer that was introduced in 1970 and made electronic music portable. It was, he declared, 'the most futuristic thing I’d ever seen.' That future was four decades ago, before digital synthesizers, laptop computers and smartphones put the tools for electronic music on desks and in pockets. Moog Music, as the company was renamed, is now in Asheville, in the mountains of western North Carolina where Robert Moog (pronounced to rhyme with 'rogue'), the inventor behind the synthesizer, lived from 1978 until his death, in 2005. The nonprofit Bob Moog Foundation is raising money to build a 'Moogseum' here based around Mr. Moog’s extensive archives, and it presented daytime panel discussions on the history of the synthesizer, featuring Mr. Moog’s collaborators and resurrecting some of his early equipment. A display case at the Orange Peel, a club commandeered by Moogfest, held a Minimoogseum: a history of the Minimoog and a playable theremin. The festival drew 7,000 to 7,500 people a day and offered five stages at places in downtown Asheville that ranged from clubs to arenas. Visitors saw many Moogs, recent and antique, come and go. But Moogs were not mandatory for acts wanting a festival booking. 'It’s a thread, it’s not a box,' said Ashley Capps, whose company, AC Entertainment, produced Moogfest. Matmos, an electronic duo whose brilliant set built terse loops into overarching, evolving structures -- largely meditative, occasionally wry -- confessed that it was using Roland synthesizers. There were also Korgs, Yamahas, Nords and plenty of unassuming laptops, many of them loaded with Moog samples, in a lineup oriented toward the electronic and the experimental. Moogfest included rock (Massive Attack, Sleigh Bells, Caribou, Jonsi, MGMT, Thievery Corporation); pop (Hot Chip); funk (Disco Biscuits); hip-hop (Big Boi, El-P); and electronica both abstract and aimed at the dance floor (Four Tet, Pretty Lights, Bonobo, Jon Hopkins, Dan Deacon, Marty Party). Mr. Moog’s original 1964 synthesizer -- he called it the Abominatron -- was bulky, balky and sometimes unpredictable. It was analog, not digital, creating sounds by sending a continuous electronic signal to a speaker, not a stream of numbers through a converter. To analog devotees that continuous signal is intrinsically superior to digital music, which reproduces sound with tens of thousands of samples per second, which means tens of thousands of infinitesimal gaps between them. Analog sound, said Amos Gaynes, Moog Music’s applications engineer, has infinite resolution, 'down to the granular level at which reality is perceived.' The first commercial Moog synthesizers could play only one note at a time, not always in tune. Early synthesizer users had no preset sounds to fall back on: they plugged in patch cords, turned knobs and experimented. A musician could create a sound, but the synthesizer had no memory; once the sound was changed, it was gone, possibly forever. Heat and humidity also affected the instrument. When digital synthesizers arrived, in the 1980's, sales and prices plunged for those primitive analog synthesizers. They seemed destined for obsolescence. But not so fast. From their sometimes-unstable oscillators, filters and amplifiers, Moogs and other analog synthesizers produced sounds that more reliable digital synthesizers would not: buzzes, swoops, whooshes, scrapes, gurgles, screeches, burps, crackles and countless other onomatopoeia-worthy noises. Interactions among the waveforms that were generated by the oscillators, and modulated by waveforms from other oscillators, or from a noise generator, were often untamed. Turning a knob or wiggling a wheel on the Minimoog could radically change a timbre in mid-note, making it feel more handmade, less synthetic. Analog sounds are a funky corrective to sterile digital tones; colliding waveforms make a beautiful noise. Moogfest was a festival of strange sounds and monumental beats, of drones and loops, and of synthetic tones that grew to feel natural. For extra oddity a good part of the audience wore Halloween costumes all weekend. Neon Indian’s wistful pop marches emerged from thickets of staticky synthesizer noise and disappeared back into them. Panda Bear, from Animal Collective, sang high, chantlike melodies over unswerving synthesizer and guitar drones in what came to sound like cries from the heart. Omar Souleyman, from Syria, sang heartily about love and street life over booming 4/4 drumbeats, while his keyboardist simulated traditional Middle Eastern instruments on two synthesizers. Emeralds played one continuous, very gradually unfolding song, with Moog sounds rippling and percolating through it. From their laptops and mixers, disc jockey-producers dispensed reveries and onslaughts. Saturn Never Sleeps, the duo of King Britt and Rucyl (both working mixers) backed Rucyl’s airy, echoing voice with fits and starts of percussion and a bass undertow. Mimosa played quick-change remixes, switching from verse to verse among harsh drumbeats, quasi-classical strings, even a little ragtime. Ikonika played a magnificently aggressive set of revved-up hyperdub, a blitz of drumbeats. Moogfest even included unsynthesized music, in two sets of lapidary, elegant pop by Clare and the Reasons, who played Clare Muldaur Manchon’s songs and then backed up the elusive songwriter (and Beach Boys collaborator in the 1960's) Van Dyke Parks. For younger bands analog synthesizers are a means to summon and twist nostalgia. Moog sounds are inseparable from some of the most influential music of the 1970s: new wave, synth-pop, funk. Gerald Casale of Devo said in an interview that in Devo’s music 'we called the Moog a poison gas vapor,' adding, 'It was allowed to come in and swirl around and interject rude and random things that didn’t fit a rock ’n’ roll lexicon. We were hoping for that.' At Moogfest, Devo was given the Moog Innovator award -- and a new Minimoog Voyager XL, which combines analog modules with some digital conveniences. But Devo could not perform, because three days before the festival its guitarist, Bob Mothersbaugh (Mark’s brother) severely injured his hand. The Octopus Project -- an Austin, Tex., band that infuses its rock with Minimalist patterns and features a theremin -- learned two Devo songs on the way to Moogfest and backed up Mark Mothersbaugh and Mr. Casale. The original Minimoog benefited not only from its portability but also from a design flaw. Bill Hemsath, who was Moog’s chief engineer and the main inventor of the Minimoog, revealed that some specifications for the Minimoog’s filter section were incorrect, overdriving it by about 15 decibels. 'Nobody caught it, and it went into production,' Mr. Hemsath said, adding that it gave the Minimoog a ferocious bass sound musicians soon exploited. The synthesizer bass lines that pumped through 1970's funk -- and have been recycled by hip-hop ' were spearheaded by the keyboardist Bernie Worrell in Parliament’s 1977 song Flash Light using three connected Minimoogs; he has also received a Moog Award. Mr. Worrell performed at Moogfest with Headtronics, a trio with drumbeats and vinyl scratching from DJ Spooky and Freekbass on bass; he poked and teased at the melodies, making his Minimoog cackle and whoosh. 'It’s a dinosaur, but you still can’t beat that sound,' he said in an interview. The comeback of analog synthesis has been accelerated by software that simulates the interactions of the old oscillators, filters and amplifiers. Instead of pampering some aging (and increasingly expensive) equipment, computer users can, if they wish, turn an infinite number of virtual knobs and plug in an infinite number of virtual patch cords — and then, if they wish, output the digitally generated voltage through analog components. Moog Music recently released an iPhone app, Filtatron, that looks like classic Moog modules and creates similar sounds. “This is actually the best time in human history to be into analog synthesis,” said Mr. Gaynes, the applications engineer. At Moogfest what once seemed primitive was claiming its own future" [John Pareles, The New York Times, 11/1/10].