Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Chronicle / Of November 2013

November 5

Ned Rorem Celebration.  Merkin Concert Hall, New York, NY.  "Ned Rorem, the composer of poetic art songs and author of sharp-witted essays and diaries, turned 90 last month. He didn’t look a day over 70 on [November 5] as he acknowledged, with a wry smile, a standing ovation . . . after an evening-long birthday tribute by the New York Festival of Song. It contained all the key ingredients of his work: a deep poetic sensibility laced with sardonic wit and a romantic’s receptivity to the sublime in nature parceled into forms that have all the economy of New York apartment living.  Mr. Rorem had much to smile about. The composer in him must have been delighted to hear his work performed by two outstanding recitalists, the baritone Andrew Garland and the mezzo-soprano Kate Lindsey. The man of ideas -- and barbs and indiscretions -- may also have been gratified by the warmth and thoughtfulness of the program put together by Steven Blier and Michael Barrett, the festival’s artistic directors, highlighting Mr. Rorem’s take-it-or-leave-it sense of self. This includes his homosexuality --  cheerfully publicized when it was imprudent or even dangerous to do so   --  his pacifism, and his affinity for French culture and music, with which he snubbed large segments of the midcentury establishment.  It was revealing to hear Ms. Lindsey’s exquisite rendition of Poulenc’s C next to Mr. Rorem’s Lordly Hudson, which was inspired by it. Mr. Garland’s robust, glowing performance of that song contrasted with Ms. Lindsey’s gauzy, veiled sound in the Poulenc, yet the common theme of nature, rather than politics, as a locus of patriotism came through.  Aside from Mr. Rorem’s own songs, the program included works by composers he worked with, befriended, or admired, among them Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein and Virgil Thomson. Harmonically, these songs are overwhelmingly tonal, yet capable of troubling the ear with the use of a sudden questioning chord or unorthodox time signatures.  Ms. Lindsey brought great expression and vocal shadings to Bernstein’s wintry What Lips My Lips Have Kissed, a setting from Songfest of a sonnet by Edna St. Vincent Millay, and impetuous charm to Thomson’s Sigh No More, Ladies from Five Shakespeare Songs. In Copland’s Dear March, Come In! from the song cycle Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson, she vividly drew a character who is nerdy, coy and clever in equal measure.  An affecting sequence of songs about war linked works by Samuel Barber, Marc Blitzstein, and Mr. Rorem, with Mr. Garland slipping in and out of a wide range of characters and emotions. In his choice of texts -- for example by Walt Whitman, Gertrude Stein, Robert Browning, and Robert Frost -- Mr. Rorem reveals a sybaritic delight in first-rate poetry. His unobtrusive but finely observed settings invite performers and audiences alike to share that delight [Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim, The New York Times, 11/8/13].

November 8

San Francisco Composers Chamber Orchestra presents Fellow Travelers: Mark Alburger's Double Piano Concerto ("Fellow Travellers"), Philip Freihofner's Filled with Moonlight, Eduard Prosek's The Curse, Lisa Scola Prosek's Two Excerpts from "The Lariat", David Sprung's Haiku, and Davide Verotta's Invitation.  Old First Church, San Francisco, CA.

Cincinnati Symphony, conducted by Louis Langree, in Aaron Copland's Lincoln Portrait (narrated by Maya Angelou) and Jennifer Higdon's On a Wire.  Music Hall, Cincinnati, OH.  Jennifer Higdon’s On a Wire [is] a sprightly chamber concerto composed in 2010 for the young sextet called eighth blackbird, whose members did graduate study at the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music.  It begins with the six soloists surrounding the open body of the piano, pulling rosined fishing wire around certain strings to elicit haunting whalelike calls from them.  The players eventually disperse to their own instruments, but periodically return to the piano, including for a slow passage in which the eerie calls alternate with nocturnal marimba colors over lyrical surges in the orchestra.  The muscle and emotion of Copland’s “Lincoln Portrait,” which was commissioned by the conductor André Kostelanetz and given its premiere by Kostelanetz and the Cincinnati Symphony in 1942, highlighted the ensemble’s characteristic sound: the different sections adroitly balanced and focused yet never harsh, with bronzed, burnished brasses infusing a strings section that plays with warm, cohesive bite. Ms. Angelou brought her inimitable combination of majesty and folksiness to the speaking part, drawn from Lincoln’s writings, ferociously digging into the final words of the Gettysburg Address" [Zachary Woolfe, The New York Times, 11/10/13].

November 14

Liang Wang Performs Christopher Rouse’s Oboe Concerto, with the New York Philharmonic.  Avery Fisher Hall, New York, NY.  "Alan Gilbert, the Philharmonic’s music director, has been a steadfast advocate for [Christopher] Rouse, who is that orchestra’s composer in residence. But Mr. Rouse composed this work for Minnesota, whose long-serving principal oboist Basil Reeve, who retired last year, gave the premiere in a 2009 concert conducted by Osmo Vanska. . . .  Rouse’s concerto showed how deep the Philharmonic’s connection to his music has become -- and how open-minded and flexible its players are, too, since the piece is unlike much of what we have heard from Mr. Rouse.  In particular, few living composers rival Mr. Rouse’s knack for the grotesque, the elemental and the bombastic. And the oboe, for all its politesse, is capable of producing positively hideous multiphonics and other unorthodox effects. Liang Wang, the Philharmonic’s principal oboist, evidently has not yet encountered a technique he could not master or a challenge he could not meet.  But in Mr. Rouse’s concerto, the principal test for the soloist is to produce seemingly endless lines that float weightless over aural backgrounds that shimmer and sigh in summer-afternoon languor. This Mr. Wang handled sublimely, with ceaseless breath and immaculate intonation.  He handled faster figurations with equal aplomb, and the Philharmonic’s collective wheels gripped the track truly in Mr. Rouse’s writhing odd-meter sprints" [Steve Smith, The New York Times, 11/17/13].

November 15

Benjamin Britten's Noye’s Fludde.  Park Avenue United Methodist Church, New York, NY.  "Enchanting" [Anthony Tommasini, The New York Times, 11/20/13].

November 17

American Symphony, conducted by Leon Botstein, performs an all - Elliott Carter program.  Carnegie Hall, New York, NY.  "When it comes to ambitious, fearless orchestral programming, there is Leon Botstein, the music director of the American Symphony Orchestra, and then there is everyone else. Say what you will about Mr. Botstein’s esoteric tastes, professorial inclinations, or limitations as a conductor. It’s all been said before, endlessly, and it’s not indicative of the edifying experiences his concerts tend to be for anyone whose tastes extend past the safety zone in which most other orchestras huddle.  That said, in some ways the concert Mr. Botstein and the orchestra presented . . . seemed more than usually quixotic. The program included music by Elliott Carter, the towering American modernist who died just over a year ago at 103 — and nothing but.  For all the rowdy ovations and newfound acceptance that Carter earned during the efflorescence of his final decades, for most concertgoers his name still causes unease. Serving up his music in the generous portions that Mr. Botstein favors is already a tall order . . . .  And the orchestra, while undeniably fine, is a freelance ensemble with limited rehearsal time: not a condition that lends itself to the kind of precision needed to make Carter’s music sing.  Turned out Mr. Botstein could not have been more thoughtful in his planning. The program started with Carter’s 1960 suite from the ballet Pocahontas, written in 1936 and orchestrated in 1938-39. The music is brash and colorful, brimming with folksy melodies and vivacious rhythms. Opening with it showed where Carter started before he became the composer we know while also offering reassurance to an audience of respectable size, most of which remained in place throughout the afternoon.  Sound Fields, from 2007, showed a side to Carter that even his admirers might not have encountered before. Its near-motionless flickers and sighs for strings conjured a color-field canvas dominated by limited hues, with minute gradations.  Carter’s Clarinet Concerto (1996) is less a grandiloquent showpiece than a sequence of succinct conversations between the soloist and various small instrumental groups. Anthony McGill, a brilliant young principal clarinetist of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, wandered the stage animatedly, pausing here and there to burble alongside drummers or melt into a muted-brass lullaby.  The concert’s second half brought two elegant vocal works from 1943.  Warble for Lilac-Time, a vernal Walt Whitman setting, featured sweet, gracious singing by the soprano Mary Mackenzie; Voyage, based on Hart Crane, benefited from the mezzo-soprano Teresa Buchholz’s luscious tone. At times I wished for stronger projection from Ms. Mackenzie, firmer diction from Ms. Buchholz and a subtler touch from Mr. Botstein, but on the whole the works were admirably done.  The program ended with the Concerto for Orchestra (1969), a virtuosic piece in which Carter imposes order upon chaos with an architect’s rigor and a poet’s imagination. Whatever Mr. Botstein and his orchestra may have lacked in machine-tooled precision, they made up with commitment and heart, as well as a bravado that any orchestra might envy -- and ought to" [Steve Smith, The New York Times, 11/18/13].

November 19

White Light Festival: In the Dark.  JACK Quartet Performs Georg Friedrich Haas in the Dark.  Clark Studio Theater, New York, NY.  "Darkness enveloped me as I listened to the Austrian composer Georg Friedrich Haas’s String Quartet No. 3 . . . . This is the way the composer intended for the piece to be performed. As much as I was engrossed by the music, the performance by the JACK Quartet and the rare experience of hearing music with others in darkness, I could not help feeling that some uncomfortable assumptions were being made for this event . . . .  In welcoming remarks before the performance, Jane Moss, the artistic director of Lincoln Center, invited the audience to what she said would be an “extreme listening experience.” In a discussion afterward, led by the WNYC radio announcer John Schaefer, the thoughtful Mr. Haas said that darkness is something “we have lost in our lives” and that we suppress the tension it creates.  Of course, a significant number of people live with darkness every day. And those of us who take sight for granted have to be careful about assuming what it is like for blind people to hear and perform music. Still, this event was another highlight of the White Light Festival, which becomes richer and more interesting every season.  It is very rare for a concert to begin with a test of darkness for the sake of the audience. But that is what happened with this performance of Mr. Haas’s quartet, written in 2001. The quartet is subtitled In iij. Noct., a reference to the Third Nocturn of the Roman Catholic Tenebrae services, held by tradition in the dark during the days before Easter. But, as Ms. Moss explained to the audience in her comments, some people can become anxious in this situation, even with the music. So the lights in the studio were turned off and the audience of 140 people, which was all the space could accommodate, was plunged into silent darkness for about a minute (The concert was long sold out).  When the lights came back on, Ms. Moss invited anyone who found the darkness unnerving to leave with “no shame.” What she and the musicians did not want was for anyone to leave during the performance. Sure enough, about two minutes into the hushed and tentative first section of the work, one person, using a red light from an electronic device to find the way, walked down the aisle and out the back.  Mr. Haas, now teaching at Columbia University, has used darkness as an essential element of some earlier pieces. But this quartet is his boldest exploration.  The four players are instructed to be as far apart as possible. The JACK musicians sat in the four corners of the studio. The opening and closing sections of the quartet are fully notated. But the work is structured as a series of 18 “situations,” the composer’s preferred term for sections. Given the darkness, the players must perform from memory. But the sequence of the situations, and how many times each one is played, is determined by the performers in the moment. Any musician can invite the others to begin a section by playing a gesture from it; the others may accept or decline the invitation, until they come to agreement and proceed. The adventurous JACK Quartet, which has performed the piece 21 times, usually takes just over an hour to complete it, as happened [here] .  Would a vision-impaired person hearing Mr. Haas’s Third Quartet have an automatic advantage in experiencing the piece? Is “In iij. Noct.” primarily intended for those who can see, which includes most of us? I have no answers to these questions. I would have felt better, though, had Mr. Haas or someone involved in this fascinating performance raised them.  That said, hearing the quartet’s assured, intensely subdued and atmospheric performance, I was riveted by Mr. Haas’s piece, with its shifting episodes and contrasting moods. Short riffs flickered by; collective scraping sounds built into banshee shrieks that morphed into angelic harmonies. Thick, piercing cluster chords would emerge and linger, and somehow the players always found what seemed the right pitches at the right time.  There were some driving, insistent passages, though over all the music seldom had a strong pulse to move things forward. At one point, as indicated in the score, the musicians played a quotation from a choral piece that the 16th-century composer Gesualdo wrote for a Tenebrae service. Gesualdo’s language, alive with strange harmonies and unstable elements, performed with melting richness by the impressive JACK Quartet, melded wondrously into the astringent modernism of Mr. Haas’s music" [Anthony Tommasini, The New York Times, 11/20/13].