Sunday, January 1, 2012

Chronicle of November 2011

November 1

Incubator presents chamber music of Robert Ashley. St. Mark's Church, New York, NY. "For any composer who also serves as his or her own primary interpreter, the question of legacy eventually arises. What happens when an artist is no longer able or available to perform? Robert Ashley, a veteran composer chiefly known for an extensive series of elaborate multimedia operas, is still writing new pieces at 81. But he has also been involved lately in creating performable editions of his older works, and in a surge of events last week fresh interpreters put their own stamp on Mr. Ashley’s music. First performers associated with the Incubator Arts Project offered three programs devoted to Mr. Ashley’s chamber music, spread across four evenings at St. Mark’s Church in the Bowery. . . . The Incubator series, in its initial program . . . showed that Mr. Ashley’s chamber music, a small and overlooked part of his output, warrants far more attention. For Andie Springer, a 2010 duet, began with Ms. Springer, the violinist of the title, standing in near darkness, enunciating the work’s full name: For Andie Springer Showing the Form of a Melody, ‘Standing in the Shadows,’ by Robert Ashley. A humble melody gradually coalesced from the vaporous call-and-response of Ms. Springer’s feathery strokes and the guitarist James Moore’s bowed one-note drone. Ringing harmonics evoked funereal bells; when actual bells tolled outside the church near the end, they seemed to fit. The Flux Quartet brought a quiet intensity and focus to in memoriam ... Esteban Gomez, a 1963 graphic score, fashioning an elemental beauty with uninflected notes and swarming overtones. Tract, conceived in 1955 as a Wallace Stevens setting for orchestra and quickly abandoned, was rebooted as a wordless vocalise for the baritone Thomas Buckner with electronic accompaniment by Tom Hamilton in 1992; here Mr. Buckner and Mr. Hamilton offered luminosity and penetrating melancholy" [Steve Smith, The New York Times, 11/8/11].

November 4

Michael Morgan conducts the Oakland East Bay Symphony in Leonard Bernstein's Symphony No. 2 ("The Age of Anxiety”), George Gershwin’s An American in Paris, Duke Ellington’s New World a-Comin’ and Alberto Ginastera's Estancia. Paramount Theater, Oakland, CA. "Morgan said, 'we have a black conductor, a transgendered pianist, and we’re playing Bernstein, Duke and Gershwin. What more could you possibly want?'" [Kevin Berger, The New York Times, 11/3/11].

November 6

Varispeed performs Robert Ashley’s Perfect Lives. New York, NY. "For any composer who also serves as his or her own primary interpreter, the question of legacy eventually arises. What happens when an artist is no longer able or available to perform? Robert Ashley, a veteran composer chiefly known for an extensive series of elaborate multimedia operas, is still writing new pieces at 81. But he has also been involved lately in creating performable editions of his older works, and in a surge of events last week fresh interpreters put their own stamp on Mr. Ashley’s music. . . . Varispeed -- a collective comprising members of the ensembles thingNY, Panoply Performance Laboratory and Why Lie? -- transplanted a live version of Mr. Ashley’s video opera Perfect Lives that it had mounted in Brooklyn in June to Greenwich Village, SoHo, and other surrounding neighborhoods. . . . You could argue that no interpretation is required for Perfect Lives. Though its parts were shaped on stage from 1977 to 1983, the work took its final form as a multimedia opera made for television. Contributions from the pianist 'Blue' Gene Tyranny, the video director John Sanborn and the music producer Peter Gordon are integral to the work, which was broadcast by Channel 4 in London in 1984 and is now available on DVD. So the Varispeed production, presented as part of the Performa 11 festival, was less an act of rescuing a work from oblivion than one of repurposing its materials to unleash latent potential, while remaining faithful to its textural integrity and structural rigor. The seven segments of Perfect Lives -- which together obliquely and poetically describe a conceptual Corn Belt bank heist, its participants and its witnesses -- take place at two-hour intervals during a single day. Accordingly, Varispeed presented Perfect Lives in real time, organizing its episodes chronologically and assigning them to different arrangers. A steadily swelling audience attended the ensemble’s trek, which began at 11 a.m. in Washington Square Park with Gelsey Bell’s modest village-band interpretation of The Park. Brian McCorkle, performing in The Bank at 1 p.m. in front of a Citibank in the Village and The Bar at 11 p.m. in a crowded NoHo pub, amplified the lilting cadences of Mr. Ashley’s speech with an intensity that underscored links to (and among) evangelists, rock stars, and carnival barkers. Dave Ruder, playing the preacher of The Church at Trinity Lower East Side Lutheran Parish at 5 p.m., inflated Mr. Ashley’s seductive drawl; a distributed 'hymnal' elicited audience participation. In The Supermarket, staged at 3 p.m., the troupe paced through the aisles at Essex Street Market, delighting some shoppers and perplexing others, as Paul Pinto’s rapid-fire declamation emanated from the public-address system. Texts for The Living Room, staged in a private residence at 9 p.m., were distributed among a narrator, Aliza Simons, and two characters played by Mendi and Keith Obadike. Ms. Simons, an uncanny mimic of Mr. Ashley’s delivery, was also featured in Varispeed’s most haunting deviation, The Backyard, staged at the Performa Hub Schoolyard at 7 p.m. Illuminated by fairy lights and flickering heat lamps, Ms. Simons declaimed dreamily over burbling tabla and keyboard. The voices of nearby chorus members sounded as if from a great distance through hand-held radios distributed among audience members. Now and then, piano and clarinet lines wafted from windows overhead in lonely accord. That Varispeed’s members could express themselves so readily through Mr. Ashley’s work while remaining faithful to it was impressive. . . . [The performance] suggests that the idiosyncratic legacy of this consummate collaborative artist is in sure hands" [Steve Smith, The New York Times, 11/8/11].

Nigel Short and Tennebrae. Church of St. Mary the Virgin, New York, NY. "The program was an overview of mostly sacred British choral music of the last century, with works by Holst, Vaughan Williams, and Parry at the early end; scores by John Tavener and Richard Rodney Bennett from the 1980s and ’90s holding the middle ground; and expansive settings by Paul Mealor and Joby Talbot, both born in the ’70s, representing recent approaches to choral writing. If harmonic language were the only measure, the distance between the earliest and latest scores was not vast. Intense dissonance has rarely interested choruses (or their audiences), nor has the angularity of contemporary music for solo voice found much success in ensemble music. That is not to say that dissonance has been banished entirely; but composers -- Holst and Vaughan Williams as well as Mr. Mealor and Mr. Talbot -- have tended to use it judiciously to create shimmering, tantalizingly unbalanced textures that invariably resolve into sumptuous consonance that flatters the voice and seduces the ear. The difference between the old and new works was more a matter of scope. Mr. Mealor’s four-movement cycle “Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal” (2010) uses soaring soprano lines, lushly harmonized rhythmic counterpoint and varied articulation to explore the imagery of the rose as both a secular (mostly amorous but naturalistic as well) and religious symbol. Mr. Talbot’s León and Santiago -- two movements excerpted from the hourlong Path of Miracles (2005) -- dramatizes a religious pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, in Spain, with passages in English, Galician and Latin; juxtapositions of intense serenity and celebratory robustness; and an ecstatic finale that includes a processional by the choir through the church. All that was almost but not quite enough to make a listener forget the appeal of the first half of the program. Its highlights included Holst’s Evening Watch (1924), a dialogue between the weary body and the transcendent soul that was given a strikingly rich-hued reading, as was Mr. Tavener’s Funeral Ikos (1981), a moving, ethereal evocation of the hour of death, physical and spiritual" [Allan Kozinn, The New York Times, 11/8/11].

November 13

Adam Gyorgy plays his Improvisations. Carnegie Hall, New York, NY.

November 15

Jon Gillock plays Olivier Messiaen's Méditations sur la Mystère de la Sainte Trinité. Church of the Ascension, New York, NY. Before an audience that packed the church, Mr. Gillock played Messiaen’s Méditations sur la Mystère de la Sainte Trinité, a 90-minute work in nine parts: music of awesome, mystical, eerie and shattering power, and Messiaen’s longest organ composition. Mr. Gillock’s palpable command of this daunting piece came through in every moment, even, I would suspect, to those who did not know of his close association with the composer. When he was not busy being one of the most influential composers of the 20th century, Messiaen was the organist at the Church of the Holy Trinity in Paris, a post he held from 1931 until his death in 1992. For the rededication of the church’s refurbished organ in 1967, a noted theologian gave sermons on the Holy Trinity, with improvised musical responses on the organ played by Messiaen. These improvisations were the beginnings of what would become the Méditations, composed in 1969. The work was published in 1973. And in January 1974 Mr. Gillock gave the New York premiere at the Church of the Ascension, a performance that began a series of performances of the work across America. This was before Mr. Gillock studied with Messiaen at the Paris Conservatory and became a champion of the master’s works. That Mr. Gillock’s program notes were so helpful was not surprising. His book, Performing Messiaen’s Organ Works: 66 Masterclasses, published last year by Indiana University Press, has been acclaimed for its exhaustive scope and insights. He describes the Méditations as a 'veritable religious-opera in sound, theatrical, dramatic and expansive,' that even includes Wagner-style leitmotifs for the 'three principal characters,' as he puts it: God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. The first meditation begins with the motif of the Father played in heaving blasts, followed by a repeat of the theme played ominously on the pedals as transfixing chords hover above in Messiaen’s distinctive brand of harmony: thick with notes yet somehow grounded and organic. As the meditations progress, assertive statements of the mingling motifs are sometimes enshrouded in celestial harmonies and regularly interrupted by skittish birdcalls. Quotations from plainchant are answered by alluring chord progressions in which piercing clusters gradually thin out until only a holistic diatonic harmony remains. But these blissful moments are no more spiritual that the gnarly stretches in which the organ growls in aggressively dissonant chords or crazed bursts of runs and riffs. . . . What a privilege to hear Mr. Gillock play this eclectic Messiaen masterwork, which he will be recording at the church this week. During the ovation, he held up his well-worn copy of the score" [Anthony Tommasini, The New York Times, 11/16/22].

November 16

American premiere of Peter Maxwell Davies's Kommilitonen! Peter Jay Sharp Theater, Juilliard School, New York, NY. Through November 20. "There are many impressive things about Kommilitonen!, the new opera by Peter Maxwell Davies, with a libretto by David Pountney . . . . Best of all is Mr. Davies’s exhilarating score. Here, for once, is a modern opera that exudes musical modernism. The spirited conductor Anne Manson drew an incisive, colorful performance of this demanding score from the Juilliard Orchestra. Its composer, Peter Maxwell Davies, passes Occupy Wall Street members with placards linking their protests to his opera about unrest. In Europe operas with comparably spiky atonal scores are routine. But there seems to be a widespread assumption among the managers of American companies that the best way to entice audiences to new works is to recruit composers who write musically accessible operas: harmonically bland and cloyingly lyrical, however contemporary the subject matter. Mr. Davies was a major figure in the European avant-garde. Over the years he may have softened the hard edges of his modernist language. But at 77 he still writes bracingly gritty and complex music. Kommilitonen!, which loosely translates from the German as 'fellow students,' is an exploration of political activism and protest movements that entwines three stories based on real people. One concerns the black student James Meredith, who in 1962, in the face of violent opposition, compelled the segregated University of Mississippi to enroll him. Another focuses on two Chinese students caught up in the Cultural Revolution, who were forced to denounce their parents, dedicated schoolteachers. The final story involves a brother and sister in Nazi Germany who joined the White Rose resistance movement but were caught and executed. The opera, a joint project developed by the Royal Academy of Music in London and the Juilliard School, received its premiere in London in March. In his many dramatic works and unconventional operas, Mr. Davies has excelled at putting contemporary-music techniques to arresting theatrical purposes. “Kommilitonen!” opens with a fidgety fanfare. On the surface the music is brash and brassy; the fractured rhythms and pointed harmonies rattle you. The music continues in that vein. In a ruminative aria for James Meredith, the churning orchestra blends pentatonic phrases from a spiritual into subdued, restless atonal harmonies. Above it, Meredith sings in recitativelike lines that hug the words and avoid lyrical effusions. Yet it comes across as a character-defining aria, especially as sung here by Will Liverman, a mellow-voiced and charismatic baritone. The way the opera cuts continually from one group of characters to another lends the work cinematic vibrancy. The story of the young Germans working in the resistance movement centers on Sophie Scholl (Deanna Breiwick, a rich-voiced soprano) and her brother Hans (Alexander Hajek, a robust baritone). In one scene a member of their group acquires a duplicating machine to help with printing leaflets. The young people find it wondrous, an emotion conveyed by Mr. Davies in strangely celestial music. But the moment that got me was a domestic scene, an evening of lieder around the house piano, in which one of the activists, Willi Graf, plays accompaniments in the style of early Schoenberg as others sing. This Willi, Leo Radosavljevic, a bass-baritone, actually played the difficult piano part very well. The story of the Chinese brother and sister, Wu (a gifted mezzo-soprano, Wallis Giunta) and Li (Heather Engebretson, a sweet-voiced soprano), was included, Mr. Pountney explains in a director’s note, to show 'mass manipulations of young people.' For these scenes Mr. Davies evokes Chinese folk music through the onstage playing of a subdued erhu and satirizes official Communist music with bombastic marches. Mr. Pountney directed the stunning production of Zimmermann’s opera Die Soldaten presented by Lincoln Center at the Park Avenue Armory in 2008. This production, with sets and costumes by Robert Innes Hopkins and puppetry by Blind Summit Theater, is a triumph of simplicity and fluid stage maneuvers. In a recent interview with The New York Times, Mr. Pountney said that Kommilitonen! was conceived in 2008, when 'there wasn’t any' student activism. By the time of the premiere earlier this year, protests had broken out worldwide. . . . [A]bout two dozen protesters from the Occupy Wall Street movement stood outside the Juilliard building. I spoke with a couple, who said they were not protesting Juilliard, though there were denunciations of David H. Koch, the billionaire supporter of right-wing causes and of arts institutions. They were there, they said, to continue their campaign on behalf of the 99 percent and show that activism is alive. One protester invoked the last line of the opera: 'There is no quota on freedom'" [Anthony Tommasini, The New York Times, 11/17/11].

November 19

Revival of Robert Ashley’s first opera That Morning Thing, with Varispeed. The Kitchen, New York, NY.

The Music Box. New Orleans, LA. "The Music Box, the project of which this tower is a part, is one of those things that requires a hyphen or a compound word to describe; Delaney Martin, its curator, calls it 'a shantytown-sound laboratory.' In more literal terms, it is a collection of tumbledown wooden and metal structures built on the site, and almost entirely from the remains of a late-18th-century Creole cottage that collapsed a couple of years ago here in the historic, bohemian Bywater neighborhood. Each structure houses an instrument, or two or three. In some cases the structures are musical instruments themselves. There is the thatched-roof hut that is home to an elaborate arrangement of Balinese vibraphones, the shack with amplified floorboards, the rusty spiral staircase that is also a foot-operated pipe organ and the little glass house containing what looks like a giant, bell-lined hoop skirt. They are all clustered together on the narrow lot, like the stage set of a fairy tale that takes place in a junkyard. The Music Box, as art installation and orchestra . . . is also a test run for a larger project: a giant, musical house called Dithyrambalina, which will eventually be built on the same spot after The Music Box is dismantled. The big name involved in this is Swoon, the New York installation artist known for, among other things, creating a flotilla of jerry-built boats that floated down the Hudson River and showed up at the Venice Biennale. She designed Dithyrambalina, and her elaborate paper cutout figures adorn the walls of the temporary structures of The Music Box. But the idea for the house came about collaboratively, as Swoon and several of her friends who live here discussed what to do with the collapsing cottage. Jay Pennington, who with Ms. Martin had started an arts organization called New Orleans Airlift, owned the cottage, and lives next to the lot where the house will be built. . . . Ms. Martin decided that the musical house needed a research-and-development phase, a temporary artwork in itself, which became The Music Box. In April she sent an e-mail to people she variously calls 'tinkerers and makers,' 'wonderful eccentric genius types' and 'weirdos,' of whom there is no shortage in this city. She asked each to design and build a shack, and within it an instrument for The Music Box, with the idea that lessons learned in that project could inform the eventual design of the house. She also required that the instrument 'somehow engage the idea of housiness.' Thus there is an organ with a sound that suggests the eerie music of water traveling through pipes, another instrument that evokes the murmur of voices on the other side of a wall, and another that echoes the sound of cars passing by with speakers blasting. There were 23 artists involved in creating the shantytown, including tinkerers local and international, like the Swiss musician Simon Berz, who created an amped-up and reconfigured rocking chair. The inventors of the instruments, in most cases, did not meet the performers who would use them. There is a rotating cast of performers for the concerts, and the range is eclectic. On the Balinese vibraphones on Saturday night was Dickie Landry, a saxophonist who lives in Lafayette, La., and was a founding member of the Philip Glass Ensemble; up there on the microphone was Nicky Da B, a rapper on the New Orleans Bounce scene; sitting in the canopy of bells was Theris Valvery, a Mardi Gras Indian in full dress. The score consisted of eight rather simple instructions, like Dream Sequence and Evolve Into Noise!!! Conducting was a musician named Quintron, who also contributed a synthesizer that looks like a stand-alone drainpipe and plays one droning chord that changes with exposure to sun, wind and water. Before some 200 spectators -- who sat on wooden bleachers, stood against Mr. Pennington’s house and in some cases sat in the shacks themselves -- Quintron stood, holding several signs on sticks. He held up a yellow square, and somewhere within the rickety town a rhythm began. It started to build, growing, then fading, according to Quintron’s signage. The concert lasted about a half-hour, and ranged from a rattling rhythm to a sheet of noise to an eerie, fading drone, almost like the sound of a storm passing through. Then everyone in the audience got up and explored the little town, walking into and around the shacks. This was a limited chance to look; the town will most likely be dismantled over the winter. It would be hard-pressed to endure the crime and storms that are never far out of mind here, and of course there is that new house to build" [Campbell Robertson, 11/21/11].