Saturday, October 1, 2011
Chronicle of August 2011
Jon Pareles takes in the sound of gridlock. Holland Tunnel entrance, New York, NY. "A red-white-and-blue sign at the corner of West Broadway and Watts Street in SoHo reads, Don’t Honk -- $350 Penalty. It is, shall we say, not always heeded. This corner is a five-way crossing, where Broome Street forks into Watts, which leads to the Holland Tunnel, and crosses West Broadway, which has two-way traffic. The tunnel entrances themselves run smoothly, if slowly; traffic police officers are there. But the New Jersey exodus has to back up somewhere, and this corner is one of those places. Amid this gridlock is a whole lot of self-expression via car horns and the occasional, ah, verbal admonition. That’s why I was there . . . with a notebook, a digital recorder, a pair of omnidirectional microphones and some of the spirit of John Cage, who showed us how to find music everywhere. Critics for The New York Times have been observing the city’s unintentional artistic experiences this summer, and a rush-hour bottleneck is a smorgasbord of sonic interactions. Besides, I’ve always liked horn sections. As I took in the tone poem of gridlock, there was no doubt that the horns were the main attention getters. They were loud and varied, and they sounded from every direction in a 360-degree panorama. But the larger musical experience was a meditative drone a Minimalist would respect: sustained but subtly varying, punctuated by crescendos of activity and by contrapuntal outbreaks of honking. It was episodic, not narrative. The continuous drone was engine noise, purring and rumbling and revving, sometimes roaring with muffler trouble or the flamboyance of a loud motorcycle. Technically it was something like pink noise: the whoosh of white noise with the lower frequencies boosted. It had an underlying cycle that was suggested but not exactly enforced by the stoplights, which only stopped some people from driving into the intersection and blocking things up. Yet what was bad for traffic flow was good for listening; the more locked the grid was, the more the horns blared. There were quieter sounds, too: the squeak and chirp of suddenly deployed brakes, the rattle of loosely attached auto parts, the repeated cries of a soft-drink vendor, even a few stray sparrows twittering in West Broadway’s sparse foliage. There was sidewalk conversation in a half-dozen languages. There were stray samples of hip-hop, salsa and Top 40 coming from car radios, getting transposed downward by the Doppler effect as they faded away. Every so often there was a rhythm section too: the clack of heels and platform soles against the sidewalk, and, at one point, the clattering respiration of a Thermo King refrigerator truck (Had I been recording a few days later, I could have had a more constant, more industrial beat: the clanks of metal scaffolding being disassembled a block away on Wooster Street, with the steel tubes being heaved onto a pile for their next use, one after another at a steady clip). There was a full bestiary of horns out there, and drivers behind them. Most car horns generate at least two tones, the better to project and draw attention; some are closer than a semitone (two adjacent piano keys) for a biting attack, and some are chordal. A majority, by far, use the cheerful interval of a major third, suggestive of a fanfare, with some nonconformist minor thirds heard now and then. But there were other, more dissonant motifs, like the clogged tone of a Kia horn, a truck’s blast, and my favorite discordant moment: the sickly tone cluster of an apparently ailing Camry horn, with its pitches drooping as the driver sustained it. Sustain it she did; going nowhere, she leaned on it good and long, an exhausted snarl of frustration that did not open up the intersection one bit. The many horn soloists showed individual styles and schools. There were the one-beep wonders, satisfied with a brief hoot or heavier-handed, like the Camry lady. There were the two-timers, equally spacing their double honks or going short then long, be-beeep. There were the Morse code dots and dashers and the heavy repeaters: four, five, nine beeps. Often it seemed that one battery-powered voice would set off a cascade of responses: two notes from here and there and over there in quick succession, major third answered by minor third as if arguing over the key, or like automotive mating calls across the asphalt jungle. Every so often a virtual melody converged from multiple locations. It was far less organized than the electric car-horn organ invented by the composer Wendy Mae Chambers, or as communal as the music for squeeze-bulb horns played by the Ghanaian taxi drivers in La Drivers Union Por Por Group, but the ear pieced together something like a tune or two. There was a performance aspect along with the sounds: a suspenseful vehicular ballet of incremental progress, small spaces immediately exploited, and the sudden relieved acceleration of drivers headed uptown — not to the tunnel -- after they squeezed through the Jersey-bound hordes, sometimes making sharp zigzags into barely adjacent gaps. And at times there were what might as well have been lead vocals: angrily shouted instructions to 'Move to the left! You in the Infiniti!' ('How?' asked a burly passenger after walking back a few cars to the would-be driving coach) and the nervy voices of pedestrians steeling themselves to cross the street through the mass of cars. 'This is where we die,' one young woman announced to another. Under the Don’t Honk sign a woman attempted to wrangle her party -- a companion, a toddler and a stroller not made to fit between bumper-to-bumper bumpers -- across both Watts and Broome. 'I mean,' she said, waving at the growling, honking, unmoving cars, 'this is ridiculous, that people do this.' As she and her group ventured into the mess, the horns might have been saluting her fortitude, or warning her to watch out. Either way, it sounded better than it ever will behind the wheel" [Jon Pareles, The New York Times, 8/11/11].
Festival of Contemporary Music. Tanglewood Music Center, Lenox, MA. Programs through August 7. "In the world at large -- particularly if you spend much time watching the pop-inspired, genre-hopping goings-on at Bang on a Can, the MATA Festival, Issue Project Room, Galapagos, the Stone and Le Poisson Rouge -- recent shifts have seemed more sudden and cataclysmic. Charles Wuorinen, the composer who directed this year’s festival, which ran from [August 3 through 7] made an effort to bring together the old new music and the new new music in his programming. And he made this very much a festival of the here and now: except for several works by Milton Babbitt, who died this year, the programs were devoted fully to music by living composers. But for reasons that included composers’ goals, performers’ emphases, Mr. Wuorinen’s choices among his colleagues’ works and perhaps the atmosphere at Seiji Ozawa Hall, listeners’ expectations were often thwarted. Generally, that was a good thing: having your preconceptions about, say, Babbitt’s music overturned can be an enlivening experience. That happened on Thursday, when the cellist Fred Sherry gave a reading of Babbitt’s More Melismata (2006) that was so warm and enveloping that the piece sounded almost Bachian. If, by contrast, you are drawn to John Zorn’s music for its often antic melding of jazz, exotic pop and classical elements, you might have been surprised by À Rebours, a complex, angular tribute to Gyorgy Ligeti. Mr. Sherry and a well-trained student ensemble led by Brad Lubman played Mr. Zorn’s involved score with energy and virtuosity . . . . Mr. Lubman also led Signal, his own ensemble, in Tobias Picker’s Sextet No. 2 ('Halle’s Ravine,' 1977), an early essay in a sparkling, thorny style that has given way to more overt lyricism now that Mr. Picker is writing for the opera stage. And though you might have expected Jonathan Dawe’s Horn Trio (1993) to betray its structural DNA -- a 12-tone row borrowed from a Stockhausen work -- Mr. Dawe shaped the music with such vitality and drama that it registered as almost neo-Romantic. That is not to say that the festival’s composers were all represented by works in unaccustomed styles. Brian Ferneyhough’s Terrain (2005) is aggressive and harmonically dense, like much of his other work. But it also has the benefit of a sizzling solo violin line to rescue it from becoming an exercise in dry abstraction. Christopher Otto played that violin part brilliantly . . . with Mr. Lubman and Signal" [Allan Kozinn, The New York Times, 8/9/11].
Festival of Contemporary Music. Tanglewood Music Center, Lenox, MA. David Fulmer . . . [performed] his Violin Concerto (2010) . . . . Fulmer is both a skilled composer and a violinist with technique to burn. . . . [H]e packed his solo line with difficult twists and played it himself . . . he was equally generous with the unremittingly spiky ensemble writing. Mr. Fulmer’s piece was one of several that used an electronic track, though a fairly subtle one built of conventional instrumental sounds. Eve Beglarian uses more tactile, inventively morphing sounds in Robin Redbreast (2003), an odd but evocative setting of a Stanley Kunitz poem for tenor (Martin Bakari) and piccolo (Henrik Heide). John Chowning’s Voices (2005) wraps a soprano line, sung here with admirable fluidity by Amy Petrongelli, in a cloak of shimmering, otherworldly timbres and processed voice recordings. And David Felder’s electronic sounds magnified the already eerie orchestral scoring in Inner Sky (1994-99), though the main focus was the flute line (more precisely, piccolo, alto, bass and standard flute lines), which Marie Tachouet played with extraordinary agility. . . . [T]wo . . . typical Babbitt works were performed . . . . In “No Longer Very Clear” (1994), a John Ashbery setting . . . the athletic soprano line is treated almost as if it were part of the instrumental ensemble. Adrienne Pardee sang it with an urbane charm, and if she was unable to project the text distinctly, she had it on Babbitt’s authority -- by way of an interview quoted in the program book -- that making the text understandable was not important here. The third Babbitt work was It Takes Twelve to Tango (1984), a short, lively version of the Argentine dance, refracted through a dodecaphonic prism. The pianist Ursula Oppens captured its lilt and understated humor . . . in a recital that also included pointed, energetic accounts of Jason Eckardt’s harmonically brittle Cuts (1996); Bernard Rands’s fragmented but glancingly Debussian Tre Espressioni (1960); Mr. Picker’s rollicking Four Études for Ursula (1996); and Jo Kondo’s High Window (1996), a hypnotic score built on tolling, slowly shifting chords" [Allan Kozinn, The New York Times, 8/9/11].
Stravinsky Too: International Contemporary Ensemble, led by Pablo Heras-Casado. Kaplan Penthouse and Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center, New York, NY. "In 2007 Claire Chase, an accomplished flutist and an ambitious, industrious organizer, spelled out her hopes for the International Contemporary Ensemble, which she founded in 2001 with a group of fellow graduates of the Oberlin Conservatory in Ohio. 'We want to become the first large-scale, flexible contemporary ensemble in the United States that is as important and indispensable as a city’s symphony orchestras, opera companies and theater companies,' she said in an interview with The New York Times in 2007. Four years and countless memorable events later, Ms. Chase and her colleagues are serving as artists in residence this year at the Mostly Mozart Festival at Lincoln Center. The two concerts that the ensemble presented on Monday evening showed that insinuation into the mainstream has come without compromise: a sign of the group’s integrity and evidence of the evolution afoot at Mostly Mozart over the last decade. Both events were part of Stravinsky Too, a festival subseries devoted to Stravinsky’s music. . . . [T]he concert program’s notes attest[ed] to [Stravinsky's] crabby admiration for Mozart’s music . . . . [I]n Stravinsky’s chamber works . . . you could discern echoes of Mozart’s Classical clarity and economy, as well as his ribald humor. In an imaginative stroke the concert opened with a player piano — a Yamaha Disklavier programmed by Cory Smythe, actually -- merrily rattling its mechanized way through Stravinsky’s Study for Pianola. More works followed in seamless sequence, leaping across decades. Two trumpeters in a balcony played the astringent Fanfare for a New Theater (1964); two bassoonists across the hall answered with Lied ohne Worte (1916-18), a gangly duo. Epitaphium, a funerary 12-tone miniature for trio from 1959, eased into Three Pieces for String Quartet, a modestly radical polytonal work from 1914. . . . [T]he ensemble made its way through increasingly larger, more complex pieces, including the puckish Ragtime, built around a cimbalom’s clang, and the suave Neo-Baroque Concerto in E flat ('Dumbarton Oaks'). The climax came in a bracing, exuberant account of the Concerto for Piano and Winds, with the pianist Peter Serkin as the dynamic soloist. . . . Epitaphium returned for a close-up in an after-hours event at the Kaplan Penthouse, held up as a model for a sequence of tributes on the occasion of Stravinsky’s death in 1971, composed by Edison Denisov, Luciano Berio, Elliott Carter and Alfred Schnittke. All were impressive for their earnest economy; the Denisov and Schnittke works moved most with their evocations of fragility and tenuousness. Michael Finnissy’s Untitled Piece to Honour Igor Stravinsky, composed in 1967 and revised in 1971, rose from gauzy microtonal mystery to wiry clamor in its first American performance. John Zorn’s precocious, scuttling Canon for Igor Stravinsky (Ode for a Crayfish), a pithy 1972 homage, received its world premiere in a last-minute addition to the program. Fittingly, Stravinsky had the last word, in an exactingly performed, exuberant account of his ingenious Octet conducted by Mr. Heras-Casado" [Steve Smith, The New York Times, 8/9/11].
Some Like It Hot -- The Music of Marilyn Monroe: Rebecca Kilgore, with the Harry Allen Quartet. Feinstein's, Loews Regency, New York, NY. "In 1920 Irving Berlin wrote After You Get What You Want, one of the best songs ever written about the heart of a fickle playboy, which Monroe sang 34 years later in the movie There’s No Business Like Show Business. 'You’re like a baby,' announces a song that distills the dynamics of the restless erotic chase and its aftermath. 'After you get what you want, you don’t want what you wanted at all.' To hear Rebecca Kilgore sing it as a bouncy jazz number in her wonderful show . . . was to hear a mature woman’s touch affectionately applied to lyrics that could bite, if sung with an accusatory edge. Ms. Kilgore, accompanied by the Harry Allen Quartet (Mr. Allen on tenor saxophone, Rossano Sportiello on piano, Joel Forbes on bass and Chuck Riggs on drums), took the sex-kitten gloss out of songs to which Monroe had half-jokingly applied a flirtatious wink while retaining Monroe’s attitude of playful camaraderie. A pop-jazz singer whose fluent voice conjures sunlight glinting on running water, Ms. Kilgore infuses everything she performs with a sense of lighthearted enjoyment. Her phrasing, like Monroe’s, is naturally curvaceous, although underlined with a stronger current of swing. Instead of striking the pose of a singing pin-up, she conveys the frisky, fun-loving sensibility of a good sport. Delivering ballads like I’m Through With Love and Incurably Romantic, she refrained from moping. Mr. Allen is more than a bandleader. He is Ms. Kilgore’s musical partner in a tribute that is entirely loving and respectful. His saxophone, alternately exuberant and husky, gave the show a steady pulse of sexy good humor, and his solos caught fire. Ms. Kilgore conceded that some of the material, like Jim Scott’s She Acts Like a Woman Should, which Monroe recorded in 1953, was 'a little unliberated,' but resisted applying an ironic edge. Her most poignant story recalled Monroe’s close friendship with Ella Fitzgerald. Dave Frishberg and Alan Broadbent’s little-known song Marilyn Monroe supplied the evening’s epilogue in its evocation of a goddess who was dreaming, along with her audience, of 'a friendly world where a little girl could be real and true.' Who was she? 'She was Hollywood/She was Marilyn Monroe'" [Stephen Holden, The New York Times, 8/11/11].
39th Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival: Orion String Quartet. St. Francis Auditorium, Santa Fe, NM. "The program . . . offered Lowell Liebermann’s Quartet for Piano and Strings (2010). Now 50, Mr. Liebermann is a prolific composer who has gained popularity for works written in an accessible, neo-Romantic style. This work, a single 18-minute movement, begins with the piano playing a murmuring, repetitive figure and softly chiming chords. The three strings enter, one at a time, with a wistful melody. Mostly pensive, the piece has only one surprise, when the instruments break into whirling, frenzied figurations. The music, though skillfully written, is safe, tame and eager to please. But the pianist Joyce Yang, the violinist Giora Schmidt, the violist Lily Francis and the cellist Felix Fan gave a sensitive performance" [Anthony Tommasini, The New York Times, 8/12/11].
Lincoln Center Out of Doors: Todd Reynolds, Sxip Shirey, Adam Matta, Laurie Anderson, and Lou Reed. "[T]his . . . was a double bill of idiosyncratic violinist-composers . . . . Todd Reynolds . . . shar[ed] the stage with Sxip Shirey, a composer and multi-instrumentalist, and Adam Matta, who makes percussion sounds vocally. Laurie Anderson closed the show with “The Real New York,” a work that she wrote in recent weeks. Laurie Anderson closed the show with “The Real New York,” a work that she wrote in recent weeks. Ms. Anderson’s concerts usually present expansive, semitheatrical, multimedia pieces, and you could see the seeds of such a production here, though she was backed by a small ensemble -- Rob Burger on piano and electric keyboards, Eyvind Kang on viola -- with nothing in the way of video, thematic projections or stage movement. Ms. Anderson sometimes played her electric violin, mostly in instrumental interludes, and recited a characteristically amusing -- or was it depressing? -- text laced with tart observations about modern life, particularly though not exclusively in New York. There were timely references to mayhem on Wall Street, riots in London, the earthquake in Japan and the civil lawsuit filed against Dominique Strauss-Kahn. Words or short phrases -- 'hard times' and 'delirium,' which were also titles of discrete sections of the piece -- returned like leitmotifs. And Ms. Anderson looked amused when police or ambulance sirens on Amsterdam Avenue seemed to fit snugly into the musical texture, built mostly around hypnotic beats and repeated short figures. As a lagniappe of sorts, Ms. Anderson’s husband, Lou Reed, joined the ensemble for the closing piece, a short instrumental jam in which Mr. Reed played a tentative, quirkily melodic solo line against the vigorous chordal backdrop provided by Ms. Anderson and company. Mr. Reynolds began with an exploration of looping -- an electronic technique in which phrases are played live, then repeated on recording as accompaniment to new live material -- from his recent CD, “Outerborough,” and a spirited account of Michael Lowenstern’s “Crossroads,” a mashup of the old Robert Johnson recording and bluesy violin figures. But most of Mr. Reynolds’s set was a freewheeling stage party, in which he was joined by a posse of new-music fiddlers and a tuba player, as well as Mr. Shirey and Mr. Matta. Some of the ensemble’s offerings were untitled improvisations. Mr. Shirey played harmonica, a modified guitar (with paper clips on the strings) and a table full of quotidian objects used as percussion; Mr. Matta provided beats; and Mr. Reynolds filled in the spaces. The group closed the set with a high-energy account of Mr. Shirey’s I Live in New York City: as it turned out, a contrastingly upbeat curtain raiser to Ms. Anderson’s piece" [Allan Kozinn, The New York Times, 8/11/11].
Gian Carlo Menotti’s Last Savage. Santa Fe Opera, Santa Fe, NM. "[When it] had its American premiere at the Metropolitan Opera in early 1964, after its introduction at the Opéra Comique in Paris, its poor reception was explained by defenders as a case of bad timing. Just two months after the assassination of John F. Kennedy and with the civil-rights movement spawning both courageous demonstrations and brutal crackdowns, audiences were not disposed, it was thought, to an absurd comedy about the perky daughter of an American millionaire who, as a project for an anthropology degree, is determined to find a primitive man, the 'last savage,' and take him to America for studies. The Met production featured a starry cast, including George London, Roberta Peters, Nicolai Gedda and Teresa Stratas, with Thomas Schippers conducting. Though the opening night Met audience cheered, The Last Savage soon fizzled and has never caught on. The Santa Fe Opera has gambled that in this year of Menotti’s centennial the time has come for a fresh look at The Last Savage. A colorful, antic-filled and shamelessly campy production, directed by Ned Canty, opened here [in July]. On [August 14] the audience laughed and cheered Menotti’s inane entertainment. I was glad for the chance to see this curious rarity. The gifted cast, headed by the appealing bass-baritone Daniel Okulitch . . . was uninhibitedly exuberant. George Manahan led a vibrant account of Menotti’s score, which has moments of real invention amid much lightweight filler. Still, I’m not sure there will ever be a right time for this silly opera. . . . [There are] demonstrations of avant-garde art, including a snippet of music in the 'new alien dodecaphonic style,' performed by a string quartet and a severe soprano singing phony German. The contemporary-music wars of the 1960s did a lot of harm, and 12-tone dogma invites kidding. . . . Now that those partisan decades are past and composers are free to write as they choose, Menotti’s music can be heard anew. The long overture has breezy grace, rather like a Broadway take on Gilbert and Sullivan. Some Neo-Classical bits in the manner of jaunty Prokofiev are fun. The ensembles, for the most part, are deftly written and amusing. Now and then Menotti digs down and comes up with pungent, colorfully orchestrated harmonies" [Anthony Tommasini, The New York Times, 8/14/11].
39th Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival. St. Francis Auditorium, Santa Fe, NM. "A terrific new piece . . . Sean Shepherd’s Quartet for Oboe and Strings, in its premiere performance. And Mr. Shepherd, 32, is from Reno, Nev., which should make Southwesterners here proud. Last year his chamber work These Particular Circumstances received its premiere in the New York Philharmonic’s Contact! series. . . . Shepherd’s engrossing 12-minute work begins with the oboe playing a fidgety, twisting melody, prodded along by plunked sounds and curt chords in the strings. Is the oboe line agitated or playful? The mood is wonderfully ambiguous, as is Mr. Shepherd’s pungent harmonic voice. The oboe maintains its lead role as the piece evolves, spinning out long, restless lines, setting the strings off into a rush of dotted-note-rhythm busyness. When the oboe turns elegiac, the strings play strummed chords, like a quasi-atonal guitar accompaniment. Eventually the strings take charge, for a while anyway. There are episodes of minimalist repetitions and yearning melodic flights before the dotted-note riffs return, in a transfigured state, to end the work." [Anthony Tommasini, The New York Times, 8/12/11].
Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. Santa Fe Opera, Santa Fe, NM. "[A revival of the] haunting, spare 2001 production by the director Daniel Slater. In his company debut the conductor David Robertson drew a searingly beautiful performance from the inspired orchestra and impressive cast. . . . Robertson emphasized the violent contrasts of the music, while drawing out the wondrous subtleties." [Anthony Tommasini, The New York Times, 8/14/11].
Tan Dun conducts the Metropolis Ensemble in his Martial-Arts Trilogy. Damrosch Park, New York, NY. "Tan Dun first attracted attention with skillfully wrought concert works in which ancient Chinese folkloric instruments and techniques mingled in potent collusion with a Western avant-garde vocabulary. But it was as a composer of lavish scores for a series of prominent martial-arts films that Mr. Tan . . . became an international celebrity. His high profile drew an overflow crowd . . . for . . . a splashy multimedia event derived from three popular film scores. . . . [T]he project linked quasi-concerto suites from Mr. Tan’s music for Hero; Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; and The Banquet into an evening-length sequence, with scenes from the films projected on a screen behind the musicians. Mr. Tan, who conducted, clearly sees the trilogy as more than a greatest-hits medley; in effusive comments from the stage he termed it a cycle and likened it to Wagner’s Ring. If you knew the films, you recognized themes of honor, obligation and forbidden love running throughout the scenes, which were difficult to see at the start of the concert but became sharper as a gorgeous summer night wore on. Even if you couldn’t discern a plot that linked these fleeting visions of lovers and schemers, clashing armies and spectacular flying warriors, you could admire Mr. Tan’s knack for giving each film and scene its own character. His language, a mix of Hollywood grandeur and primal, percussive vitality, was consistent throughout the evening, yet each segment had its own distinct sound. In Hero Concerto the soloist Ryu Goto played two violins -- one tuned down to a violalike sob -- over passages that jolted like Prokofiev and thundered like Basil Poledouris’s potent 1982 score for Conan the Barbarian. The cellist Dane Johansen performed the extensive, ravishing solos in Mr. Tan’s warm, eloquent Crouching Tiger Concerto. In the concluding Banquet Concerto, originally fashioned for Lang Lang, the exciting young pianist Jiayi Sun barreled through Bartok-inflected combat scenes and tenderly caressed rhapsodic swells plainly inspired by Rachmaninoff. The Collegiate Chorale lent the music an epic quality . . . . The Metropolis Ensemble, a talented freelance orchestra, responded with skill and exuberance to Mr. Tan’s thrusting arms and clutching fingers. Now and then his face, captured by a camera on his music stand, filled the screen overhead: like his film music, oversize and imperious yet clearly meant to entertain" [Steve Smith, The New York Times, 8/14/11].
Bard Music Festival: Sibelius and His World. Bard College, Annandale-On-Hudson, NY. "At one point here this weekend, the opening minutes of a documentary about Jean Sibelius were screened. The film’s score is the classic, almost unbearably emotional recording Sibelius made when he emerged from retirement to conduct his “Andante Festivo” over the radio in 1939. On screen was newly shot video of a car driving through the forest, then a manuscript -- meant to be Sibelius’s lost Eighth Symphony — burning in a fireplace, its corners curling in the flames. The sequence follows our traditional sense of Sibelius: a crackly recording, the snowy woods of his native Finland, a reclusive composer in a provincial land. Disturbing this fundamentally cozy image and presenting a Sibelius more complex, spiky and international are the goals of this year’s Bard Music Festival . . . . Over the first of the festival’s two weekends his work began to seem less picturesquely melancholy and more nihilistic, with structures that build just to be broken. . . . All the concerts were long and ambitious, and already at the first . . . [could be heard] intensity of the violinist Henning Kraggerud, the soloist in four of Sibelius’s Humoresques, a lively series of concertolike pieces from 1917. Mr. Botstein and the orchestra did emphasize the disturbing aspects of the works. In the second movement of the Third Symphony, a lyrical phrase travels around the orchestra, innocuous enough, but its insistent repetition becomes eerie, especially when the violins pluck over it like spiders" [Zachary Woolfe, The New York Times, 8/15/11].
Bard Music Festival: Sibelius and His World. Bard College, Annandale-On-Hudson, NY. "At a panel discussion . . . the musicologist Scott Burnham said that the slashing chords at the end of his Fifth Symphony sound 'as though we were hearing the creation of the universe taken back.' Apart from short, early stints in Berlin and Vienna and some travels later on, Sibelius, who was born in 1865, lived his entire life in Finland, where he became a supercelebrity, his music employed in the nationalistic fervor that led to the country’s independence from Russia in 1917. With well-placed fans like Olin Downes, the powerful music critic of The New York Times, he became one of the most famous composers of the early 20th century, beloved for grand, accessible orchestral works that seemed to hark back to a time before the disconcerting innovations of Schoenberg and Stravinsky. A vague mixture of factors -- pressure from his fans; depression; alcoholism -- slowed and then halted his composing in the mid-1930s. The Eighth Symphony, never finished, disappeared, and he produced next to nothing in his final decades before dying in 1957 at 91. At least in retrospect, his work is permeated by intimations of this 'mysterious lapse into silence,' as the Sibelius scholar Glenda Dawn Goss called it on Saturday. As early as the 1890s, in the first movement of his huge choral symphony, Kullervo, the strings echo a phrase in the brasses, first at full volume. Then the brasses play it again, and the echo is softer. Then it’s plucked. Then it’s just a single note. The world in Sibelius is imposing but constantly on the verge of dissolving away. As always at the Bard festival, there was a mixture of the famous -- Finlandia, Valse Triste, the Third and Fifth Symphonies -- and the less so. Kullervo got a rare hearing, as did some of Sibelius’s gorgeous songs for male chorus, his chamber pieces and works by his teachers and Scandinavian contemporaries. The festival remains, as Steve Smith memorably put it four years ago in The New York Times, 'part boot camp for the brain, part spa for the spirit' . . . Sibelius’s gifts for atmosphere and coloristic range were . . . demonstrated in the selections from his chamber music . . . Playing Kullervo . . . the orchestra . . . was roused to a mighty finale by powerful singing from the Bard Festival Chorale, prepared by James Bagwell. Here, as at the end of the Fifth Symphony, Sibelius pulls us into a kind of slow motion, before folk melodies begin pouring out of the winds over a dirgelike march in the lower strings and brasses. . . The festival . . . attempt[ed] to connect Sibelius to styles he would have encountered when he went to Berlin and Vienna . . . and in the programs juxtaposing him with his fellow Scandinavians, he blew them out of the water; only Grieg held his own" [Zachary Woolfe, The New York Times, 8/15/11].
Bard Music Festival: Sibelius and His World: To the Finland Station: Sibelius and Russia. Bard College, Annandale-On-Hudson, NY. "[T]he festival . . . achieved true musical and conceptual coherence in the last program . . . . The connection between Sibelius and the Russian tradition — an influence that went in both directions — is the subject of an excellent essay by Philip Ross Bullock in the book accompanying the festival, Jean Sibelius and His World, from Princeton University Press . . . . Sibelius’s Canzonetta (1911) sounded like an Italian melody lost in northern woods. Arranged in 1963 by Stravinsky, who had been awarded a prize named after Sibelius, it emphasizes the line’s melancholy lilt in an octet of winds, brasses and a single double bass. Sibelius’s songs, performed by the eloquent mezzo-soprano Melis Jaatinen, sounded like extensions of Tchaikovsky’s and Rimsky-Korsakov’s, starker but with the same potent mixture of folksiness and urbanity. And in the middle of Rachmaninoff’s tumultuously virtuosic Suite No. 2 for two pianos, bookended by a Presto waltz movement and a Presto tarantella, there is a soaring Romance. Coming at the close of the weekend, it was a perfectly Sibelian gesture, a hymn in the midst of discord" [Zachary Woolfe, The New York Times, 8/15/11].
Igor Stravinsky's Symphonies of Wind Instruments performed by the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra, conducted by Jonathan Nott. Avery Fisher Hall, New York, NY. "Mr. Nott arrived at the festival amid considerable expectations. In 2009 he presented two outstanding concertswith his Bamberg orchestra at Avery Fisher Hall, programs that included all three Bartok piano concertos in scintillating performances with the pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard. I had high hopes on Tuesday for his take on Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Wind Instruments, a score of just 12 minutes written in 1920 and revised in 1947, one of the composer’s most original and wondrously strange works. But the performance was disappointingly sluggish. Perhaps this elusive, challenging score is just not right for these players in this festival context, which involves rehearsing a lot of pieces during a crowded schedule. As its unusual title (“symphonies”) implies, the piece is Stravinsky’s exploration of myriad ways that woodwind and brass instruments can sound together. The score is a daring patchwork of fleeting episodes that variously evoke reedy pastoral music, somber organ chorales, skittish dancing and eerily syncopated chord patterns. But as played here the episodes lacked continuity and forward thrust. Mr. Nott drew some richly textured sounds from the players. Still, the performance was tentative" [Anthony Tommasini, The New York Times, 8/17/11].
Songs of Music Vale Festival. Salem, CT. Through 21. "When the artist and sometime impresario Annie Pugsley hired the flutist Joseph FireCrow to appear at an art show and concert to raise money for a charity that helps Lakota Indians, she invited him to spend a day with her at Music Vale Farm, her property in Salem, Conn., where she will hold the event. . . . [F]or Mr. FireCrow, it was all in a day’s work. A Northern Cheyenne tribesman who knows the gritty realities of reservation life, he dutifully accommodates the powwows, festivals, singular events and quirky requests that constitute the workaday life of an American Indian musician, even one with a Grammy nomination and a Native American Music Award as artist of the year. . . . Powwows and festivals often attract thousands of visitors and scores of American Indian singers and dancers -- most of them far less known than Mr. FireCrow -- who compete for modest pools of prize money. Some of the performers put on displays that play to public stereotypes, but many others offer presentations of such subtlety that the details of their execution are lost on the public. 'It’s like a duck on the water,' said Jerry Rivera, a member of the Red Storm Drum and Dance Troupe, a Staten Island-based group that will be appearing at the Nimham powwow, which will be held at the Putnam County Veterans Memorial Park. 'It looks very graceful along the surface, but when you look down underneath, you see the duck is paddling' vigorously. Mr. Rivera, whose heritage is Navajo, Apache and Southern Cheyenne, pointed to the subtleties of Native chanting. What may seem to the uninitiated to be an undifferentiated sonic stew is actually a structured set of articulated words and vocables -- syllables like 'ya' and 'hey' -- sung in a range that defines the broad geographic area the vocalists come from. Southern-style chanting lingers in the lower registers, while Northern-style chanting employs a kind of falsetto produced deep in the throat. Subtleties of rhythm are also often at play. Far from the simplistic renderings of standard Hollywood fare, the distribution of accents in Native music is a nuanced affair. It is infused with 'honor beats' -- points at which the drums break from the established rhythm -- ranging from slow and few to rapid and many, depending on whether the mallet work is mimicking muskets, machine guns or weapons that repeat at a rate in between those extremes. Typically, the rhythmic patterns are integrated with the vocals and dance moves -- which may vary widely in style and substance, depending on factors like gender, tribe and where the artist falls on the spectrum, from traditional to contemporary -- to form a complex theatrical depiction that furthers a narrative. . . . [W]ar is hardly the only subject favored in Native song; love is another. That is where the flute plays a special role as the instrument of courtship and the vehicle through which many American Indian musicians cross over into the wider contemporary music scene. Flutists, who typically fashion their instruments out of wood or bamboo, are so popular that festival organizers often hire them to perform outside of the competitions. . . . For his part, Mr. FireCrow says he is careful about how he adapts traditional themes for contemporary use. Rather than run afoul of tribal elders, he alerts them to new projects before committing himself to recordings. Once the tracks have been laid down, he is judicious about how he uses them in live performance. . . . 'The message is pretty simple,' Mr. FireCrow he said, 'and it can be done as a solo performer with just flutes and rattles and, of course, your voice'" [Philip Lutz, The New York Times, 8/12/11].
54th birthday of Tan Dun.
Bargemusic: Doris Stevenson. New York, NY. "Stevenson is a focused, thoughtful player with a strong technique and little in the way of flamboyance. That combination of qualities served her well in her curtain-raiser, two movements -- Night, with its delicate treble tracery, and the heftier but equally attractive Father’s Lullaby — from Allen Shawn’s Childhood Scenes (2002). Mr. Shawn’s Tango (2000), heard at the start of the second half, wrapped the traditional rhythms of the dance in a harmonically tart fabric. David Shohl’s Blue Guitar (2000) evokes the magical guitar in the Wallace Stevens poem The Man With the Blue Guitar, about which Stevens wrote, 'Things as they are/Are changed upon the blue guitar.' Mr. Shohl conveyed that cryptic image imaginatively, using vaguely guitarlike figuration (broken chords and tight counterpoint), but avoiding the instrument’s natural constraints — which note combinations can be reached, for example, or how many notes a chord can have. Did the piece alter reality beyond that? Not so much, but it was an interesting start. Mr. Shohl was on hand to introduce his piece, as was David Kechley, who said he composed Pogled u Buducnost/Pogled u Proslost (Looking Forward/Looking Backward) on a visit to Sarajevo, a city that wants to move forward but also wants the world to remember what happened to it during the wars that broke up Yugoslavia in the early 1990s. The work, a seven-movement suite in a mildly dissonant, angular style, captures some of that duality: in the early movements playful sections collapse into anxious, dark writing, and in the later movements the music’s tensions gradually clear, though the innocence of the opening Prologue is not quite mirrored in the Bartokian passagework of the Epilogue. Ms. Stevenson closed her concert with Frederic Rzewski’s monumental De Profundis (1991), an idiosyncratically theatrical setting of Oscar Wilde’s painfully reflective, angry prison correspondence. Mr. Rzewski asks much of a performer here: apart from reciting the text, which is interspersed through a long, dense, changeable score, the pianist must do a bit of text-free vocalizing and gesturing. Ms. Stevenson threw herself into all this gamely, and if her reading lacked the intensity that Lisa Moore and Anthony de Mare bring to the work, it still conveyed the wrenching qualities of Wilde’s text and the passion of Mr. Rzewski’s response to it" [Allan Kozinn, The New York Times, 8/21/11].
Louis Langrée conducts the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra in Igor Stravinsky's Symphony in C. Avery Fisher Hall, New York, NY. Repeated August 20. "Stravinsky composed the Symphony in C (1938-40) at a difficult time: with the beginning of World War II as a backdrop, he had recently buried, in quick succession, a daughter, his first wife and his mother, and had himself received a diagnosis of tuberculosis. But except for a few portentous, bass-heavy bars at the start of the work’s second and fourth movements, you would never guess from this sunny, rhythmically vital music that anything was amiss in his world. Any doubts about whether Stravinsky wanted the piece to sound as bright and ebullient as the score itself suggests are dispelled by a fascinating tape of him rehearsing the CBC Symphony Orchestra in the work. Though his comments are mostly technical (which bar the players should begin at, which instruments he wants to hear more forcefully), the performance itself says a great deal. Mr. Langrée’s reading on Saturday captured the textural trimness and transparency that Stravinsky seemed to be aiming for, and the nearly 50 years of new-music experience that have elapsed between the recording and the performance is telling: the Mostly Mozart musicians moved through the piece with a breezy ease and far greater precision than the players on the tape" [Allan Kozinn, The New York Times, 8/21/11].
A Little Night Music: Jenny Lin plays Stravinsky and Mompou. Stanley H. Kaplan Penthouse, New York, NY. "[A] dazzling, incisive interpretation of the early Four Études (Op. 7, from 1908) and a thrill-filled, virtuosic performance of the final three sections of The Firebird, in Guido Agosti’s composer-approved transcription. The Catalonian composer Federico Mompou’s Segreto, Ms. Lin’s gentle, searching encore, fell entirely outside the program’s theme but was a reminder that her recent recording of Mompou’s piano music is worth searching out" [Allan Kozinn, The New York Times, 8/21/11].
Taka Kigawa. Le Poisson Rouge, New York, NY. "The French pianist Yvonne Loriod, who died last year, is said to have burst into tears when asked to perform Pierre Boulez’s daunting Piano Sonata No. 2 in the early 1950s. It’s hard to imagine that any work could intimidate Ms. Loriod, Messiaen’s wife and a brilliant advocate of new music by her husband and other composers. But Mr. Boulez’s sonata undoubtedly presents fiendish challenges for both performer and listener. The pianist Taka Kigawa, a gifted interpreter of 20th-century and contemporary repertory, offered that four-movement work during a well-attended recital . . . . Many of Mr. Boulez’s later pieces, particularly those for small ensemble, are densely complex but also visceral and colorful. But the second sonata -- with which Mr. Boulez wanted to destroy the traditional sonata form -- represents the composer at his most formidable. The work’s technical difficulties are immediately evident, but the greatest challenge for the performer is to make interpretative sense of its modernist tangents and sustain momentum for the 30-minute duration. . . . Kigawa, who grew up in Japan, said he first heard the [Stockhausen] as a child and 'couldn’t believe my ears.' Stockhausen referred to his Klavierstück series, which originated as a set of four small pieces in 1952, as 'drawings.' The 10th, written in 1961, is a colorful mix of cluster chords, glissandos and dramatic dynamic contrasts. Mr. Kigawa vividly conveyed the kaleidoscopic sonic effects, punctuated throughout by long silences. The program also included Kaija Saariaho’s Prelude and Ballade, which Mr. Kigawa aptly described as 'very atmospheric and powerful.' He offered an elegant performance of this enigmatic piece, in which fragments of melody are interwoven with rumbling figurations in the left hand. The three encores included Ligeti’s Étude No. 2, Open Strings.' Inspired by Scarlatti, Chopin, Schumann and Debussy, Ligeti said his 'own inadequate piano technique' was another impetus to compose a set of virtuosic études. The second in the set, played here with aplomb by Mr. Kigawa, explores the interval of a fifth, beginning lyrically and becoming agitated and dissonant. Mr. Kigawa also offered a colorful rendition of Feux d’artifice (Fireworks), from Debussy’s second book of preludes, and an excerpt from Mr. Boulez’s Piano Sonata No. 3" [Vivien Schweitzer, The New York Times, 8/24/11].
Olga Kern, Leonard Slatkin, and tthe Los Angeles Philharmonic in Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, plus Elliott Carter's 'Holiday' Overture. Hollywood Bowl, Los Angeles, CA. "Slatkin and the Philharmonic allowed Kern plenty of room, at the same time firmly supporting and sustaining the inspired ebb and flow of her interpretation. Though Kern may have ebbed and flowed a bit too much in the melodious 18th variation, her fierce concentration and absolute mastery of this daunting score made it work. She blazed through its many difficult passages, articulating them cleanly. She also warmly conveyed its many moments of repose. It was a mischievous account, suiting the composer’s witty inventions, and Kern’s delivery of the finale’s surprisingly quiet coda elicited audible delight from the audience of 7,903. A prolonged standing ovation brought Kern back for a single encore: Rachmaninoff’s Moments musicaux Op.16, No. 4, crisply executed. . . . The concert’s curtain-raiser, the Philharmonic’s first performance of Elliott Carter’s 'Holiday' Overture, written in 1944 to celebrate the Allied liberation of Paris, was terrific. Its brassy Coplandesque exuberance could hardly hide Carter’s own complexly rhythmic voice just starting to emerge. Carter, who will turn 103 in December, still had a lot more to say" [Rick Schultz, Los Angeles Times, 8/26/11].
George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess, with the Boston Symphony. Tanglewood Festival, Lenox, MA. "Both tuneful and bracing, a kind of amalgam of Bizet’s Carmen and Berg’s Wozzeck, Porgy and Bess is at the center of issues that continue to vex us: race, for one thing, and the confusion of genres. Is the work an opera or a musical? Are its characters underdrawn ciphers or larger-than-life archetypes? These questions have been loudly revived by a debate that has broken out over a new production, directed by Diane Paulus in Cambridge, Mass., that is expected to move to Broadway in December. In an article this month in The New York Times Ms. Paulus and her collaborators, including the playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, highlighted the weaknesses they saw in the work, particularly what Ms. Parks called 'cardboard cutout characters.' In the process of 'excavating and shaping and modernizing the story,' as Ms. Paulus put it, to sell it as a commercial musical, they planned to create scenes, adjust the dialogue, invent some back stories and interpolate a more hopeful ending. In a stinging, widely read letter to The Times, Stephen Sondheim shot back that 'there is a difference between reinterpretation and wholesale rewriting.' The Tanglewood Porgy -- performed concert style, with no costumes and very limited staging -- wasn’t part of this controversy, but it made clear that the work is not a mistake to be fixed but a challenge to be met. Its characters are indeed broadly drawn, as any opera’s are. Their depths are expressed through Gershwin’s omnivorous, dazzling music rather than solely through the text, and the challenge for performers is a typically operatic one: endowing archetypes with life and individuality. Porgy in particular seems to have a dully consistent saintliness. But . . . the bass-baritone Alfred Walker gave him a wide-eyed edge of loneliness, even despair: tiny moments and inflections that created a rounded portrayal. You were reminded how powerful performances fill out operatic characters, which become more than the sum of their parts. When Sportin’ Life (the vibrant Jermaine Smith) first tempts Bess (the smooth, occasionally vague Laquita Mitchell) with a move to New York, she answers, 'I ain’t come to that yet,' and the line is set with a broken syncopation, over ominous strings and brass stabs, that speaks, far more eloquently than the line itself, to both her fragility and her dignity. This nominally unsympathetic character, a slutty drug addict, instantly becomes human. It’s far more interesting and ultimately rewarding for a performer and a director to search out the fullness of the character in these elusive corners of the score than to dismiss that score as insufficient. What the score also was . . . was incomplete. George Gershwin and his writing partners -- his brother Ira, and DeBose Heyward -- were men of the theater, amenable to cuts and adjustments, and there is no grail-like 'true' text. But while some of the changes early in the work’s history seem to have been made for dramaturgical reasons, many others were made for logistical ones, like sparing the audience a four-hour evening and sparing Porgy yet another strenuous aria (the gloomy 'Buzzard Song') in Act II that he would have had to sing eight times a week. . . . The standard cuts that were made for the original New York production in 1935 were retained . . . and others were added. Porgy is an example of an opera in which shorter does not always feel shorter: the cuts paradoxically make the piece more unwieldy and less organic. Taking out Porgy’s 'Buzzard Song,' for example, removes the first swerve of the plot toward real darkness, sapping urgency from the dramatic arc" [Zachary Woolfe, The New York Times, 8/28/11].
Philip Glass's Powaqqatsi: Life in Transformation. Hollywood Bowl, Los Angeles, CA. "The transformation was that of the southern hemisphere in the mid '80s. The life is timeless in this essay in spiritual wonder, astounding humanity and miraculous beauty. The film [by Godfrey Reggio] has become an art-circuit classic, occasionally screened with Glass playing the soundtrack live. But Powaqqatsi has probably never looked better, sounded more sumptuous or mattered more than . . . [this performance] at the Hollywood Bowl. It looked so good because of the startlingly vivid projection on a large screen draped over the shell, which helped the Bowl to function like a sacred space on this dark night. Glass’ score sounded new because it was. Two summers ago the Los Angeles Philharmonic commissioned Glass to make an orchestral version of his score to Koyaanisqatsi for the Bowl. [This concert] . . . was the premiere of a newly orchestrated version of the sequel (which was originally released in 1988), once more commissioned by the orchestra, and this time also utilizing the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus along with the Philip Glass Ensemble. The film mattered because it deals with critical issues about how traditional cultures endure in the modern world. At the Bowl, a collective some 7,500 strong gathered outdoors attending to the profane and profound urgencies of a planet and its inhabitants in a ceremony of image and sound. What Powaqqatsi means is a topic for a long conversation. The word is Hopi for the sorcerer in us that consumes the life forces of others in order to further our own life. Reggio’s film consists entirely of images, offered without comment or overt judgment, of cities and villages in Brazil, Egypt, Kenya, Peru, India, Hong Kong, Israel, France, Nepal and Berlin. Glass visited all the locations, many during the shooting with Reggio. The score and film were made together, and the diversity of subject matter is dizzying.
Powaqqatsi begins in an enormous open-pit gold mine in Brazil, where tens of thousands of miners carry heavy sacks of dirt in a choreography of hardship but also of an astonishing collective will. A worker is injured and carried out, Christ-like. The searing vision is unforgettable. Reggio’s camera falls in love in with faces, young and old, of all ethnicities. . . . Tawdry São Paulo skyscrapers, seen from a helicopter’s perspective, are like eerie, fantastic canyons, and at the Bowl we saw them while helicopters militantly flew over our heads. Whew! Glass’ score sews different threads. Always a composer with an attachment for world music (his first Minimalist musings in the '60s were inspired by Ravi Shankar), he made here one of his first large-scale works that tied together a number of musical cultures. Of particular note was the application of African music. The Gambian singer and kora player, Foday Musa Suso, Glass' guide in Africa, collaborated on the soundtrack. The score also features Glass' most extensive and exciting use of percussion up to the time. The original Powaqqatsi score was mainly for Glass’ small keyboard, winds and vocal ensemble, enhanced by strings, brass, percussion and a small Latin American children’s chorus. For the Bowl, the ensemble, with Glass as one of the keyboard players and Michael Riesman expertly conducting, was enhanced by the full orchestra and children’s chorus with a certain amount of caution, lest the larger orchestration take away some of the punch heard on the ensemble’s Powaqqatsi recording. Still, an added sonic scale suited both the grandeur of Reggio’s camera and the venue. The L.A. Children’s chorus made the biggest impression, their massed voices were thrilling from the first moments of the evening when they began the national anthem a cappella. But I did miss Glass' curious arrangement of the national anthem that he made for Koyaanisqatsi at the Bowl in 2009. Ben Youcef sang Suso’s stirring call to prayer. Perhaps the greatest accomplishment of this Powaqqatsi presentation was its ability to create a mood at the Bowl. Hollywood, whether it’s the Bowl or the business, doesn’t have a strong record these days in holding an audience’s high-minded attention. Not everyone . . . turned away from picnics to watch the film, refrained from talking or could stop the urge to check cellphones for messages. But for the vast majority, the bigger message was that a large world outside our narrow concerns calls for our undivided attention, and that made this Powaqqatsi uniquely moving and important" [Mark Swed, The New York Times, 8/31/11].
Goat Hall Productions presents The Kurt Weill Project. Cafe Royale, San Francisco, CA.
Opera Moderne presents A Modern Tryst: George Crumb's Ancient Voices of Children, and music of Tobias Picker and Libby Larsen. Galapagos Art Space, New York, NY. " Kristin Sampson . . . [sang] three passionately delivered arias from Tobias Picker’s 1996 opera, Emmeline. . . . The soprano Laura Strickling brought a flexible voice, crystalline diction and warm presence to Libby Larsen’s poignant Songs From Letters (1989), set to selections from notes that the notorious frontierswoman Calamity Jane wrote to her daughter, Jane, but never sent. With spare, angular vocal lines and accompaniment (provided sensitively by the pianist Liza Stepanova), the songs shift with swift effectiveness from anger to tenderness and back again. George Crumb’s gorgeous Ancient Voices of Children, which he set to surreally vivid texts by Federico García Lorca in 1970, was the concert’s highlight. Mr. Crumb arranged fragments of those poems into five songs and two interludes that are something between a Bach cantata and an exotic ritual. The work’s mezzo-soprano (here the focused, elaborately made up Suzanne Chadwick) moves from keening vocalise to ghostly lyricism. . . . The music hypnotically juxtaposes tiny, almost inaudible sensations with grand gestures and huge, shimmering crashes" [Zachary Woolfe, The New York Times, 9/1/11].