Saturday, January 1, 2011

Chronicle of November 2010

November 3

The Brentano String Quartet plays Stephen Hartke's Night Songs for a Desert Flower (2009). Zankel Hall, New York, NY. "[The work] has a Classical four-movement structure, and Haydn and Beethoven would have found his syntax coherent. He also provides the players (and listeners) with plenty of melody. But those singing themes are sometimes angular and ear-catchingly out of kilter, and Mr. Hartke supports them with mildly acidic harmonies. He also uses techniques from outside Haydn’s and Beethoven’s sound worlds, like having long-spun melodies played entirely in harmonics, with a whistling sound produced by not depressing the string completely. In a program note, Mr. Hartke described the work as 'a book of madrigals for string quartet,' with a celebratory dance as its finale, and you could see what he meant. Much of it has the kind of dramatic arc that madrigals often do, and the finale, with its constantly shifting harmonies and hard-driving rhythm, had a dancelike vigor. The writing is democratic, with solo themes moving among the four lines, and the Brentano players addressed both their individual moments in the spotlight and the rhythmically vital ensemble passages with the kind of energy that comes of intense focus" [Allan Kozinn, The New York Times, 11/4/10].

November 6

The Riverside Symphony in Paul Hindemith's Cello Concerto, Jan Sibelius's Symphony No. 7, and George Tsontakis’s Laconika. Alice Tully Hall, New York, NY. "The ensemble, conducted by George Rothman, was in generally excellent shape. . . . Amit Peled, an Israeli cellist with a warm, glowing tone, was the soloist in Hindemith’s Cello Concerto (1940). The Hindemith is an odd work, as concertos go. Its dense scoring, rich in unrestrained brass, percussion and woodwind writing, leaves the cellist to cut through the din or, much of the time, to become a plaintive strand within the dense counterpoint. Mr. Peled gamely did both, and when Hindemith left the cello line free and clear, in the two sweetly melodic Andante con moto sections, he seized the moment, playing with a seductive timbre and an emotionally pointed approach to phrasing that made you want to hear him again in a more conventional work. George Tsontakis’s Laconika (2010), composed for the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra (hence the title), received the most memorable performance here. Mr. Tsontakis has become a magnificently free-spirited colorist in recent years, and in the five short movements . . . orchestral sections overlap and interact in ways that yield otherworldly textures. The opening movement, Alarming, for example, is built of sliding brass figures overlaid with crystalline vibraphone lines and acidic woodwind chords, and the closing Twilight is woven around an oscillating flute motif. Curiously, for all the orchestrational magic, the most affecting movement was Laconicrimosa, a straightforward meditation dominated by a lush string sound" [Allan Kozinn, The New York Times, 11/7/10].

November 9

Brad Mehldau, with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. Zankel Hall, New York, NY. "He has written song cycles for Renée Fleming and Anne Sofie von Otter, and both singers have recorded those works with Mr. Mehldau at the piano. His solo and ensemble recordings have touched on his classical leanings too. They show him grappling with formal notions of structure and thematic development, and seeking a balance between the precisely defined gestures of composed music and the freedom and spontaneity of improvisation. His recent Highway Rider (Nonesuch) is his grandest effort yet. Scored for an oddly constituted quintet (piano, bass, saxophone and two percussionists) and a chamber orchestra, the 15-movement piece is vaguely programmatic — Mr. Mehldau says it describes a journey — and is built around transformations of an ear-catching modal motif. Mr. Mehldau, who holds the Richard and Barbara Debs Composer’s Chair at Carnegie Hall this season, presided over a performance of Highway Rider at Zankel Hall on Tuesday evening, with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra as part of his band. The seriousness of Mr. Mehldau’s interest in classical composition is evident in his program note, which includes his observations about Beethoven’s use of motivic kernels as the DNA of larger works (with a supporting quotation from the musicologist Charles Rosen) and discusses the specifics of Strauss’s scoring for Metamorphosen. It is not just talk: you could hear how he took Beethoven’s process to heart, and in terms of both texture and spirit, the movements dominated by lush, dark-hued strings — Now You Must Climb Alone and Always Departing -- owe a lot to Metamorphosen. But jazz is Mr. Mehldau’s language, and nearly everything about Highway Rider -- not least Mr. Mehldau’s rhapsodic piano solos, Joshua Redman’s magnificently supple virtuosic saxophone playing, Larry Grenadier’s shapely bass lines and Jeff Ballard’s and Matt Chamberlain’s inventive, richly detailed drumming -- is couched in jazz’s bluesy chromaticism and fluid rhythms. Except in the few movements where the strings hold the spotlight, or where the woodwinds and horns elaborate briefly on a theme, the orchestral scoring is secondary, and for long stretches the St. Paul musicians sat silently. When they played, their contributions were vibrant and, in the Straussian movements, deeply soulful. Clearly unwilling to squander a visit to New York by performing as a backing band, the orchestra also played a short preconcert program devoted to Shostakovich’s Chamber Symphony in F (Op. 73a, actually Rudolf Barshai’s 1990 orchestration of the Third String Quartet). The arrangement works brilliantly. The passion of Shostakovich’s 1946 meditation on Word War II is magnified not only by the heftiness of the string textures but also by the broadened palette afforded by the winds and harp. The orchestra, led by its concertmaster, Steven Copes, produced a wonderfully focused, opulent sound" [Allan Kozinn, The New York Times, 10/11/20].

November 11

White Light Festival. Lincoln Center, New York, NY. "The overarching, some might say overreaching, theme . . . is to explore music as an expression of spirituality. As the festival continues, the participating artists keep coming up with intriguing choices of musical works that invite listeners to look inward. The violinist Gidon Kremer brought Kremerata Baltica, the string chamber orchestra he founded in 1997, to Alice Tully Hall to play mystical works by Lera Auerbach, Giya Kancheli and Beethoven. And later, in the Kaplan Penthouse, the veteran Russian pianist Alexei Lubimov played the first in a series of 60-minute Late-Night Elegies programs, offering eight shorter works. They ranged boldly from a restless and strangely reflective fantasia by C. P. E. Bach to an explosive and brutally spiritual 1988 piano sonata by Galina Ustvolskaya, bursting with dense cluster chords that Mr. Lubimov played with open hands and forearms. Mr. Lubimov’s program was ideally conceived for this festival. He moved from the C. P. E. Bach work to an undulant early piece by John Cage (In a Landscape); Liszt’s late, gloomy Lugubre Gondola II (with its stunningly modern harmonic language); and more, ending with The Messenger by Valentin Silvestrov, a hushed piece (played with the piano lid completely closed) that sounded like strangely altered bits of outtakes from a recording session of Mozart piano sonatas. Throughout, he played with clarity, sensitivity and beautiful colorings. Kremerata Baltica has championed living composers from the Baltics, Russia, and other Eastern European regions, many of whom have been immersed in spiritual dimensions of music, like Ms. Auerbach, whose Sogno di Stabat Mater opened [the] program in its New York premiere. This alluring, reflective piece is a reworking of an 18th-century Italian sacred work, the Stabat Mater by Pergolesi. Ms. Auerbach considers this 12-minute piece -- scored for violin (Mr. Kremer), viola (Ula Ulijona), vibraphone (Andrei Pushkarev) and string orchestra -- a dialogue across time. The sections of the piece that more closely follow Pergolesi are tweaked and slightly distorted, with pronounced walking bass lines and harmonies that mingle and blur. But the sections in which Ms. Auerbach riffs on the original to explore new sounds, chords and textures seem just as much a homage to Pergolesi. Mr. Kancheli’s Silent Prayer, a 25-minute score dedicated to Mr. Kremer and the cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, also received its New York premiere. Shortly after Mr. Kancheli finished writing the piece in 2007, Rostropovich died. As this performance began, the two soloists, Mr. Kremer and the cellist Giedre Dirvanauskaite, traded eerie, high, elliptical phrases against a hazy backdrop of pungent string harmonies. The piece evolves in contrasting episodes: skittish outbursts, followed by tinkle-tinkle spans that evoke a music box, segue into gravely ruminative music made more wistful by the inclusion of the recorded voice of a young girl singing a song from Mr. Kancheli’s native Georgia. . . . Who says having fun is inconsistent with exploring the spiritual? As encores Kremerata Baltica played a slinky Astor Piazzolla piece, then a new version of Ernst Toch’s Geographical Fugue. The original is a word-fugue for spoken voices sputtering the names of towns, cities and places. This version, with nonsensical text by Mr. Kremer, touched on the travails of the performing profession, as the uninhibited players shouted phrases like “gramophone” and “music business”
[Anthony Tommasini, The New York Times, 11/12/10].

November 12

Death of Henryk [Mikolaj] Gorecki (b. 12/6/33, Czernica, Poland), after being hospitalized with a lung infection, at 76. Katowice, Poland. "[He was] a renowned Polish composer whose early avant-garde style gave way to more approachable works rooted in his country’s folk songs and sacred music and whose Symphony No. 3 — an extended lamentation subtitled 'Symphony of Sorrowful Songs' -- sold more than a million copies on CD in the 1990's . . . . Gorecki (pronounced go-RET-zki), who with Witold Lutoslawski and Kzysztof Penderecki was one of Poland’s most revered contemporary composers, wrote music that often played with the extremes of musical expression. In works like Old Polish Music (1969), blocks of assertive, high-energy brass writing are juxtaposed with eerie, slow-moving, pianissimo string passages. His intensely focused Beatus Vir (1979) and Totus Tuus (1987), both dedicated to Pope John Paul II, draw on the simplicity of traditional chant as well as richly harmonized, intensely focused choral writing and, in the case of Beatus Vir, monumental orchestral scoring. And in Already It Is Dusk (1988), his first string quartet, Mr. Gorecki reconfigures Polish dances and dirges, casting the more outgoing sections in acidic harmonies that give the score a searing, angry edge. But the work for which Mr. Gorecki is most widely known, the Symphony No. 3 (1976), explores the gradations of a single mood: somber, introspective reflection, conveyed in three long, slow, quiet movements that last nearly an hour. Scored for orchestra and soprano, the work’s vocal sections include settings of a 15th-century sacred lamentation, a simple prayer ('Oh Mamma do not cry -- Immaculate Queen of Heaven support me always') scrawled by a young girl on the wall of a Gestapo prison in southern Poland, and a plaintive Polish folk song in which a mother grieves for a son lost in war. Mr. Gorecki surrounds these texts with a compelling amalgam of lush neo-Romanticism; open, entirely consonant tonality; and a gradual unfolding of themes and textures that struck many listeners as a distinctly Eastern European approach to Minimalism. The work quickly took on a life of its own. In 1985, the French director Maurice Pialat used an excerpt from the symphony on the soundtrack to Police, a film starring Gérard Depardieu. A recording of the full work, conducted by Ernest Bour, with the soprano Stefania Woytowicz, was released on the Erato label, and though it was packaged as a soundtrack album for Police -- a film virtually unknown in the United States -- it proved a first encounter with Mr. Gorecki’s music for many American listeners. Two more recordings were released, both with Ms. Woytowicz as the soloist. But the work did not achieve its explosive success -- a surprise, given its unceasingly mournful character -- until a recording by the soprano Dawn Upshaw, with David Zinman conducting the London Sinfonietta, was released on the Nonesuch label in 1992. The recording became a radio hit in Britain, where it broke into the Top 10 on the Music Week pop chart, and sold more than a million copies worldwide. For a while, Nonesuch said, it was selling 10,000 copies a day in the United States. The symphony was subsequently used as soundtrack music in Peter Weir’s Fearless (1993) and Julian Schnabel’s Basquiat (1996). Samples of the score were also used in recordings by several pop groups, most notably Gorecki by the English band Lamb. Henryk Mikolaj Gorecki was born . . . to parents who were amateur musicians. He began studying the violin when he was 10, and later took up the clarinet and piano. By the early 1950's he was composing songs and piano works while earning a living as a teacher. In 1955, he enrolled at the Music Academy in Katowice, where he spent the next five years as a composition student of Boleslaw Szabelski. But he was already beginning to make his name in Polish avant-garde circles with works like the Four Preludes (1955) for piano and the contrast-rich Sonata for Two Violins (1957). In Epitafium (1958), for mixed choir and instruments, he began experimenting with the spatial placement of his performing forces. In the Symphony No. 1 (1959) and Scontri (Collisions, 1960), he experimented with Serialism . . . and with the textural contrasts -- dense clusters versus spare, pointillistic solo lines -- that would become a hallmark in his later music. Mr. Gorecki continued to embrace Serialism through the 1960s, but mixed it with other techniques -- including whole-tone harmony and the use of ancient modal scales -- that made his music sound bracing and fresh, rather than doctrinaire. He became fascinated with choral and vocal music around 1970, and expanded his stylistic arsenal with folk music -- an extension of his interest in modal melodies -- and traditional Polish church music. Gradually, he jettisoned Serialism and moved toward the completely tonal, diatonic language that gave the Symphony No. 3 much of its immediate accessibility and appeal. . . . Other important works in Mr. Gorecki’s catalog include three string quartets -- Already It Is Dusk (1988), Quasi Una Fantasia (1991) and ... Songs Are Sung (1995), all written for the Kronos Quartet -- and the Kleines Requiem für eine Polka (1993) for piano and 13 instruments. Mr. Gorecki joined the faculty of the Music Academy in Katowice in 1968, and became a professor in 1972 and rector from 1975 to 1979. Among his composition students were his son, Mikolaj Gorecki, who survives him, as do his wife, Jadwiga, and his daughter, Anna Gorecka-Stanczyk. Mr. Gorecki left his post at the Music Academy in 1979 to protest the Polish government’s refusal to allow Pope John Paul II to visit Katowice. He also composed his Miserere (1981) as a protest, in this case against the government’s crackdown on members of Rural Solidarity in Bydgoszcz. But he always insisted on a distinction between his music and his politics. 'My dear, it would be a terrible poverty of life if music were political,' he told Bruce Duffie, a radio producer, in a 1994 interview. 'I cannot imagine it, because what does this mean -- ‘political music?’ That is why I ignore questions about political music, because music is music. Painting is painting. I can be involved in some political ideals. That would be my personal life.' Mr. Gorecki received honorary doctorates from the University of Warsaw, the Music Academy in Krakow and Concordia University in Quebec, and an honorary fellowship from Cardiff University. Last month Bronislaw Komorowski, the president of Poland, visited Mr. Gorecki in the hospital to award him the country’s highest honor, the Order of the White Eagle. 'I think about my audience, but I am not writing for them,' Mr. Gorecki said in his 1994 interview. 'If I were thinking of my audience and one likes this, one likes that, one likes another thing, I would never know what to write. Let every listener choose that which interests him. I have nothing against one person liking Mozart or Shostakovich or Leonard Bernstein, but doesn’t like Gorecki. That’s fine with me. I, too, like certain things'" [Allan Kozinn, The New York Times, 11/12/10].

November 13

Opera and Song. John Bilotta's Trifles and Yeats Songs, Edward Knight's Life Is Fine, Mark Alburger's Job: A Masque, and Sylvia Rickard's Three Cabaret Songs. Community Music Center, San Francisco, CA.