Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Chronicle of January 2011

January 11

The Knights present the premiere of Yotam Haber's New Ghetto Music. Baryshnikov Arts Center, New York, NY. "During a 2008 residency at the American Academy in Rome, Mr. Haber uncovered a cache of tapes featuring Roman Jewish cantors recorded from the 1940's to the 60's. For New Ghetto Music he drew on the penetrating emotional delivery he heard on the tapes, combining it with modern orchestral techniques and a bracing rawness inspired by tenores vocal traditions from Sardinia. Featured in Mr. Haber’s piece was Christina Courtin, a Knights violinist and an admired indie-pop singer and songwriter, who sang her own lyrics and those of Barbara Ras, a contemporary poet. Ms. Courtin loosed her plaintive, affecting yelp in urgent, incantatory gushes over her frenetic fiddling. Behind her, vivacious, odd-metered dance rhythms paced a kaleidoscopic orchestral roil. The performance, ably conducted by Eric Jacobsen, had its rough spots, but intensity, exuberance and commitment more than compensated. . . . Gracious instrumental versions of two Schubert songs -- Gretchen am Spinnrade, orchestrated by Lev Zhurbin (known as Ljova); and “Des Baches Wiegenlied,” reworked by the violinist Colin Jacobsen (the conductor’s brother) -- preceded Mr. Haber’s work. After it, dance held sway in a pert account of Stravinsky’s Pulcinella Suite and the intoxicating whirl of Ascending Bird, a Persian folk melody arranged by Colin Jacobsen and Siamak Aghaei" [Steve Smith, The New York Times, 1/13/11].

Renée Fleming. Carnegie Hall, New York, NY. "[A] fascinating recital . . . with the elegant German pianist Hartmut Höll, who has been her frequent accompanist since 2001. . . . Fleming took her audience into the artistic circle in Vienna in the early years of the 20th century [in a repertory] that centered on the composer Alexander Zemlinsky. Born in Vienna in 1871, Zemlinsky was championed in the mid-1890s by Brahms. Around the same time he gave lessons in counterpoint to Schoenberg, who was only three years younger. Zemlinsky’s sister Mathilde became Schoenberg’s first wife. Focusing on music written in 1907, Ms. Fleming sang a single song by Schoenberg, Jane Grey, and Five Songs by Zemlinsky. Jane Grey sets a poem by Heinrich Ammann about the young noblewoman who was elevated to queen of England for nine days in 1553 before being executed for treason. In this lush, texturally murky music you hear Schoenberg roaming unmoored through new harmonic waters. The vocal line shifts from stretches of elegiac lyricism to bursts of Expressionist anguish, which Ms. Fleming sang with an alluring blend of plush colorings and expressive restraint. Zemlinsky’s Fünf Lieder, settings of five poems by Richard Dehmel, tells a tortured story of an adulterous affair. The year Zemlinsky wrote this work Mathilde began an affair with a painter that nearly wrecked her marriage to Schoenberg. If not quite as daring as Schoenberg’s Jane Grey, the Zemlinsky songs speak a similar musical language. In the piano passages thick, wayward chromatic chords are pierced with twisting inner voices, played here with a rich sound and suppleness by Mr. Höll. . . . To end the first half she performed three songs by Korngold, born in 1897, and another Zemlinsky student. After the Schoenberg and Zemlinsky works, the lush Korngold songs sounded almost like Puccini. . . . Fleming leapt to a work from 2005, Songs From ‘The Book of Hours: Love Poems to God,’ settings of Rilke texts by the jazz pianist and composer Brad Mehldau. As performed here Mr. Mehldau’s harmonic language, dense with wayward chords, seemed like a latter-day riff on Zemlinsky and his circle. Except, that is, for bursts of Ellington energy and some restless Mingus-like bass lines. Mr. Mehldau clearly wrote these songs to showcase Ms. Fleming’s voice. . . . No music suits Ms. Fleming more than Strauss, and she sounded terrific in four Strauss songs that ended the program. Familiar fare came only during the encores, with the Korngold aria Marietta’s Lied and Bernstein’s I Feel Pretty from West Side Story. The audience cheered the Bernstein, though I found it overly theatrical and a little goofy. But I cannot remember hearing a more exquisite performance of Strauss’s Morgen, her final encore" [Anthony Tommasini, 1/12/11].

January 17

Haven String Quartet and S. Luke's Steel Band. St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, New Haven, CT. "The concert . . . will . . . offer works of hip-hop-inspired classicism and classically inspired rap. vant to them . . . . [T]he Haven String Quartet . . . will perform two pieces on its own: the Lyric Quartet, a three-part suite in the Debussy mode written in 1960 by the African-American composer William Grant Still, and Rosa Parks, part of A Civil Rights Reader, an ongoing project of the Haitian-American violinist and composer Daniel Bernard Roumain. . . . The decision to focus on Mr. Roumain, 40, who seems as comfortable writing string quartets as he was appearing with Lady Gaga on American Idol, is an apt one. Told of Music Haven’s decision to play Parks, he expressed appreciation, noting that the piece was his fifth for string quartet, and a sixth had been commissioned by Community Music Works in Providence, R.I. . . . For a work with credibility in the classical world, Parks -- especially the second movement, Klap Ur Handz, which instructs the musicians to clap and stomp in a kind of call-and-response pattern -- generates unusual enthusiasm among young urban audiences. When the Haven String Quartet previewed the movement at a recent 'performance party,' one of the gatherings at which Music Haven students play for family and friends, the crowd spontaneously clapped along. . . . The mixing of string quartet and steel band cultures is not the only collaboration that will take place at the concert. Netta Hadari, a London-born violinist of Israeli heritage who spent much of his adolescence in South Africa, will bring his experience to the table with Music Haven Rap" [Phillip Lutz, The New York Times, 1/14/11].

January 18

Diotima Quartet. Frick Collection, New York, NY. Also January 19, Austrian Cultural Forum.
"[T]he Diotima offered works from around the edges of the standard repertory. . . . The Frick performance closed with a supercharged, tightly unified account of the Ravel Quartet, but as driven and dazzling as the outer movements were, the reading’s most memorable moments were in the slow movement. The haunting juxtaposition of a dark-hued theme and its tremolando accompaniment was perfectly balanced, and muted passages played with a vibratoless, almost organlike tone were especially affecting. At the Austrian Cultural Forum the quartet put its modernist side on display. The ability to switch gears quickly and fluidly, as it did in the Janacek, served it particularly well here, and that talent was tested immediately in the restlessly assertive String Quartet No. 6 (2010) by the Scottish composer James Dillon. Mr. Dillon’s sound world is variegated and changeable: sudden crescendos evaporate in pianissimo chords; quiet pizzicato passages unfold into sequences of descending slides that evoke whining, at times, and exoticism elsewhere. After the Dillon, Webern’s Five Movements (1909) sounded like an antiquity. It was not that the players underemphasized Webern’s free use of dissonance and spare, often eerie timbres; they reveled in them. But they also made the most of occasional backward glances that, even where they last only a bar or two, offer what in this reading seemed a wistful memory of a vanishing world. Roger Reynolds’s Elliott (2008) opens with an exquisite soliloquy for violin -- given a virtuosic reading by Mr. Zhao (the two violinists alternate in the first chair) -- and expands into a concise but intense meditation that has elements in common with the Dillon score. The quartet closed its program with Thomas Larcher’s spacious, five-movement Madhares (2007), a work it recorded for an ECM compilation of Mr. Larcher’s music, released last year. It is an extraordinary piece: like the Dillon, it is rich in effects, and its language can be abstruse, even terrifying. One section seemed to combine the avian swarm of Hitchcock’s Birds with the violin stabs in Bernard Hermann’s Psycho score. Yet these tense sections often melt into something entirely different -- modal, folksy melodies, refracted through lightly dissonant harmonies, for example, or unabashedly shimmering Romanticism. The score, inspired by the White Mountains of Crete, was both familiar and otherworldly, and left a listener eager to hear it again" [Allan Kozinn, The New York Times, 1/18/11].

January 21

Pianist Jonathan Biss. Carnegie Hall, New York, NY. "On this snowy winter night he drew an enthusiastic audience and played very well . . . his program [including] Janacek’s Sonata 1.X.1905 [and] a recent work by Bernard Rands . . . The Moravian-born Janacek’s mesmerizing sonata, subtitled 'From the Street,' was written in reaction to a wrenching public event in 1905: a young carpenter was killed during a demonstration to demand an autonomous university where courses were conducted in Czech, not German. Janacek was an early enthusiasm for Mr. Biss, and he gave a rhapsodic account of this elusive work, which alternates spiraling, misty outbursts with staggered phrases of elegiac melodies. Mr. Rands wrote Three Pieces for Piano last year for Mr. Biss, who has been playing them on tour. This was the first New York performance. The pieces were inspired, Mr. Rands notes, by the piano music of Scriabin, Debussy and Ravel. In a way Scriabin’s restless flights, Debussy’s intense tranquillity and Ravel’s dazzling colors are evoked at once. Caprice is all runs and riffs and fitful chords. In the slow middle piece, Aubade, melodic fragments are woven into strings of thick yet lucid chords with hints of Berg, Messiaen and Bill Evans. Arabesque is an exercise in quick repeated notes and skittish spurts. Mr. Biss played this brilliant 13-minute group of pieces with nimble technique and myriad colorings" [Anthony Tommasini, The New York Times, 1/23/11].

January 29

Death of Milton [Byron] Babbitt (b. 5/10/16, Philadelphia, PA) at 94. Princeton, NJ. "[He was] an influential composer, theorist and teacher who wrote music that was intensely rational and for many listeners impenetrably abstruse . . . . Babbitt, who had a lively sense of humor despite the reputation for severity that his music fostered, sometimes referred to himself as a maximalist to stress the musical and philosophical distance between his style and the simpler, more direct style of younger contemporaries like Philip Glass, Steve Reich and other Minimalist composers. It was an apt description. Although he dabbled early in his career with theater music, his Composition for Orchestra (1940) ushered in a structurally complex, profoundly organized style that was rooted in Arnold Schoenberg’s serial method. But Mr. Babbitt expanded on Mr. Schoenberg’s approach. In Mr. Schoenberg’s system, a composer begins by arranging the 12 notes of the Western scale in a particular order called a tone row, or series, on which the work is based. Mr. Babbitt was the first to use this serial ordering not only with pitches but also with dynamics, timbre, duration, registration and other elements. His methods became the basis of the 'total serialism' championed in the 1950s by Pierre Boulez, Luigi Nono and other European composers. Mr. Babbitt began exploring this path in Three Compositions for Piano (1947) and Composition for Four Instruments (1948), and adhered to it through his entire career. He composed prolifically for chamber ensembles and instrumental soloists and created a substantial and varied catalog of vocal works. He also composed a compact but vital group of orchestral pieces and an enduring series of works for synthesizer, often in combination with voices or acoustic instruments. Mr. Babbitt liked to give his pieces colorful titles, often with puns (The Joy of More Sextets, for example), and said that in selecting titles he tried to avoid both the stale and the obscure. Yet when Mr. Babbitt explained his compositional approach in essays, lectures and program notes, they could be as difficult to understand as his music. In one program note, he spoke of 'models of similar, interval-preserving, registrally uninterpreted pitch-class and metrically durationally uninterpreted time-point aggregate arrays.' He often said in interviews that every note in a contemporary composition should be so thoroughly justified that the alteration of a tone color or a dynamic would ruin the work’s structure. And although colleagues who worked in atonal music objected when their music was described as cerebral or academic, Mr. Babbitt embraced both terms and came to be regarded as the standard-bearer of the ultrarational extreme in American composition. That reputation was based in part on an article published by High Fidelity magazine in February 1958 under the title Who Cares if You Listen? The headline was often cited as evidence of contemporary composers’ disregard for the public’s sensibilities, and Mr. Babbitt objected that it had been added by an editor, without his permission. But whatever his objections, the article did argue that contemporary composition was a business for specialists, on both the composing and listening end of the transaction, and that the general public’s objections were irrelevant. 'Why refuse to recognize the possibility that contemporary music has reached a stage long since attained by other forms of activity?' Mr. Babbitt wrote. 'The time has passed when the normally well-educated man without special preparation could understand the most advanced work in, for example, mathematics, philosophy and physics. Advanced music, to the extent that it reflects the knowledge and originality of the informed composer, scarcely can be expected to appear more intelligible than these arts and sciences to the person whose musical education usually has been even less extensive than his background in other fields.' Listeners who overlooked Mr. Babbitt’s philosophical abstractions and thorny analyses -- who simply sat back and listened, rather than trying to understand his harmonies and structural processes -- often discovered works of great expressive variety. These range from the intense emotionality of A Solo Requiem (1976) to the shimmering surfaces and eerie pictorialism of Philomel (1964) and the poetic flow of some of the solo piano works, which have the spirit of advanced jazz improvisations. Indeed, in his All Set for Jazz (1957), for winds, brasses and percussion, he achieved a freely improvisatory feeling within an atonal harmonic context. . . . Babbitt . . . grew up in Jackson, Miss. He began studying the violin when he was 4 but soon switched to clarinet and saxophone. Early in his life he was attracted to jazz and theater music. He was making his own arrangements of popular songs at 7, and when he was 13, he won a local songwriting contest. Although the music he went on to write rejected the easily assimilated tonal language of popular music, Mr. Babbitt retained a fondness for theater songs all his life and was said to have an encyclopedic knowledge of the style. 'If you know anybody who knows more popular music of the ’20s or ’30s than I do, I want to know who it is,' he said in an Internet interview with the New Music Box in 2001. 'I grew up playing every kind of music in the world, and I know more pop music from the ’20s and ’30s, it’s because of where I grew up. We had to imitate Jan Garber one night; we had to imitate Jean Goldkette the next night. We heard everything from the radio; we had to do it all by ear. We took down their arrangements; we stole their arrangements; we transcribed them, approximately. We played them for a country club dance one night and for a high school dance the next.' In 1946, Mr. Babbitt tried his hand at a musical, a collaboration with Richard Koch and Richard S. Childs called Fabulous Voyage. The work was not produced, but in 1982 Mr. Babbitt published three of its songs, which showed a firm command of the idiom and considerable charm. But Mr. Babbitt set his course toward serious avant-garde composition in 1932, when he played through the scores of some Schoenberg piano music that an uncle had brought home from Europe. At the time, Mr. Babbitt was a 16-year-old philosophy student at the University of Pennsylvania. The next year he became a composition student of Marion Bauer and Philip James at New York University, and in 1935 he began studying privately with Roger Sessions. In 1938, Sessions invited Mr. Babbitt to join the Princeton composition faculty, and Mr. Babbitt succeeded him as the William Shubael Conant Professor of Music in 1965. Mr. Babbitt was also on the faculty of the Juilliard School, where he began teaching in 1973, as well as at the Salzburg Seminar in American Studies; the Berkshire Music Center at Tanglewood; the new-music academy at Darmstadt, Germany; and the New England Conservatory in Boston. A series of six lectures he gave at the University of Wisconsin was published as Words About Music in 1987. Mr. Babbitt’s articles about music were published as The Collected Essays of Milton Babbitt by Princeton University Press in 2003. His students included Mario Davidovsky and John Eaton, who have followed essentially in Mr. Babbitt’s atonal path (although Mr. Eaton later broke away), and the theater composer Stephen Sondheim. During World War II, Mr. Babbitt taught mathematics at Princeton and undertook secret research in Washington. He also evolved his extended form of serialism during these years. But immediately after the war he pursued a split musical path, exploring his rigorous serial style in his abstract concert works, on one hand, and completing “Fabulous Voyage” and a film score, “Into the Ground” (1949). In the 1950s Mr. Babbitt was hired as a consultant by RCA, which was developing the most sophisticated electronic-music instrument of the time, the Mark II synthesizer. The Mark II became the centerpiece of the new Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center in 1959. Mr. Babbitt was one of the center’s first directors, along with Sessions, Vladimir Ussachevsky and Otto Luening. Mr. Babbitt’s earliest electronic pieces, Composition for Synthesizer (1961) and Ensembles for Synthesizer (1964), were as intensely organized as his instrumental music had been. Indeed, he saw the synthesizer as a kind of liberation from the physical limitations of living performers. 'The medium provides a kind of full satisfaction for the composer,' he said in a 1969 interview with The New York Times. 'I love going to the studio with my work in my head, realizing it while I am there and walking out with the tape under my arm. I can then send it anywhere in the world, knowing exactly how it will sound.' The early synthesizer pieces have become classics, but Mr. Babbitt quickly moved forward, writing works in which electronic soundtracks accompanied live performers. Particularly striking are the vocal works Vision and Prayer (1961) and Philomel, and Reflections (1975) for piano and tape. He stopped composing music with an electronic component in 1976, when the Columbia-Princeton studio was vandalized, and it was decided that restoring it would be too expensive. Many of Mr. Babbitt’s works have been recorded, and he has always had the loyalty of performers willing to devote the effort required to render his music sensibly. Among his earliest champions were the soprano Bethany Beardslee, for whom he wrote many of his vocal works (A Solo Requiem was written in memory of her husband, Godfrey Winham); the Juilliard String Quartet; the pianists Robert Miller and Robert Helps; the Contemporary Chamber Ensemble; and the Group of Contemporary Music. In the 1970s and 1980s, a generation of young instrumentalists inured to the complexities of contemporary music became eloquent champions of Mr. Babbitt’s music . Among them are the pianists Robert Taub and the guitarist David Starobin, who have commissioned and recorded Mr. Babbitt’s works. Mr. Babbitt’s orchestral music is so exceedingly complex that both the New York Philharmonic, in 1969, and the Philadelphia Orchestra, in 1989, postponed premieres when the available rehearsal time proved insufficient. He did, however, have champions among top-flight conductors, the most notable being James Levine, who in 1967, as a 24-year-old fledgling conductor, led the premiere of Mr. Babbitt’s Correspondences. Mr. Levine later recorded Mr. Babbitt’s music with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and commissioned his Second Piano Concerto for the Met Orchestra and Mr. Taub in 1998. He regularly included Mr. Babbitt’s chamber works on his Met Chamber Ensemble programs, and in 2004 Mr. Babbitt dedicated his Concerti for Orchestra to Mr. Levine and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, which commissioned it. Mr. Babbitt received a special Pulitzer citation for his life’s work in 1982, and in 1986 he was awarded a $300,000 MacArthur Fellowship. His earlier awards included the Joseph Bearns Prize from Columbia University, for his Music for the Mass in 1941; the New York Music Critics Circle Awards, for Composition for Four Instruments in 1949 and for Philomel in 1964; and the Creative Arts Award from Brandeis University in 1970. He was elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1965" [Allan Kozinn, 1/29/11].