Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Chronicle of February 2009

February 1

Death of Lukas Foss, at 86. New York, NY. "[He] also had a home in Bridgehampton, NY. His wife, Cornelia, announced his death. Although he was a German émigré, Mr. Foss was, from the start of his composing career, considered an important voice in the burgeoning world of American composition, along with Aaron Copland, Samuel Barber, Elliott Carter and Leonard Bernstein. And like Bernstein, he enthusiastically championed the works of his colleagues. But where Bernstein, in his compositions, melded jazz and theater music with a lush symphonic neo-Romanticism -- or wrote theater music outright -- Mr. Foss preferred to explore the byways of the avant-garde, focusing at different times on techniques from serialism and electronic music to Minimalism and improvisation. But as he moved from style to style, his voice remained distinctive, partly because he distrusted rules and never fully adhered to those of the approaches he adopted, and partly because a current of mercurial wit ran through his work. He took particular pleasure in finding common ground between opposing languages and techniques. His String Quartet No. 3 (1975), for example, is essentially a Minimalist work, but it has a mildly atonal edge and uses dynamics more dramatically than other Minimalist works of the time. Sometimes Mr. Foss would combine contemporary styles with those of the distant musical past. His Baroque Variations (1967) is a partly improvisatory, partly mischievous deconstruction of works by Handel, Scarlatti and Bach. In his Salomon Rossi Suite (1975) and Renaissance Concerto for flute and orchestra (1985), fragments of 16th-century works are refracted entertainingly through a modernist lens. The British musicologist Wilfred Mellers once described Mr. Foss’s body of work as 'a pocket history of American music during the 20th century.' Mr. Foss was aware that his detractors regarded his style-hopping as the sign of a dabbler, and that the critics complained that he tended to follow stylistic trends rather than to originate them. He rejected those criticisms and took particular pride in the fact that even listeners who followed his music closely never knew what to expect of his latest works. 'I would agree that my curiosity has led me absolutely everywhere,' he told The New York Times in 1979. 'But I make one qualification: I’ve never done anything at the O.K. time. In other words, I’ve never been a bandwagon jumper. I’ve never belonged to any school. I’ve never written a 12-tone piece when it was fashionable to do so.' As a conductor, Mr. Foss held several important posts, or more precisely he took several minor podiums and transformed them into important ones. In the seven years he directed the Buffalo Philharmonic, from 1963 to 1970, he joined forces with composers on the faculty of the State University of New York at Buffalo to raise the city’s profile as a center of musical experimentation. When he took over the Brooklyn Philharmonia in 1971 it was essentially a community orchestra that played a handful of concerts every season. Within five years, he had revamped the roster, polished its sound considerably, expanded its regular programming and added special series like Meet the Moderns, in which he presented an inclusive overview of contemporary composition. By the time he relinquished the podium, in 1990, he had turned the orchestra, renamed the Brooklyn Philharmonic, into one of New York City’s most vital ensembles. Mr. Foss also directed the Jerusalem Symphony (1972-76) and the Milwaukee Symphony (1980-86). 'I conduct because I love to make love to the past,' he said in a 1975 interview with the New York Arts Journal. 'I think man has this need, and the need to discover the future as well. The more my own composition is busy with exploration and experimentation, the greater is my need to keep my tie with the past which made me a musician in the first place; my tie with Bach, Mozart and Beethoven, and Wagner and Verdi and Handel and Schubert.' Mr. Foss was born Lukas Fuchs in Berlin, the son of a lawyer and a painter. The date was probably Aug. 15, 1922, although in 1997, when he was honored with several concerts of his music on his 75th birthday, he said that he was not entirely sure when he was born. 'The weird thing is that I’ll never know if it’s really my 75th birthday,' he told The Times, 'because I have no birth certificate. I have a passport, but the birth date on it was the result of guesswork.' When he was 7, Mr. Foss began studying piano and music theory with Julius Goldstein Herford. He started composing almost immediately, and sketched out an opera when he was 11. When the Nazis came to power, in 1933, the family fled to Paris, where Mr. Foss enrolled at the Conservatoire and studied piano with Lazare Lévy, flute with Louis Moyse, composition with Noël Gallon and orchestration with Felix Wolfes. After his arrival in the United States, in 1937, he continued his studies at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. The pianist Isabelle Vengerova, the conductor Fritz Reiner and the composers Rosario Scalero and Randall Thompson were his principal teachers. After his graduation in 1940, he pursued further studies in conducting with Serge Koussevitzky at Tanglewood and in composition with Paul Hindemith at Yale. He became an American citizen in 1942. He received his first important commissions in the early 1940s, including incidental music for a production of Shakespeare’s Tempest, which he later arranged as a suite for orchestra. His 1944 cantata The Prairie, based on Carl Sandburg’s poem, showed that he had assimilated the pastoral American style that was Copland’s specialty at the time. Koussevitzky gave the work its premiere with the Boston Symphony, and in 1944 it won the New York Critic’s Circle Award. Koussevitzky then hired the young composer to be the pianist of the Boston Symphony, Mr. Foss remembered, 'so I could have a job and compose.' Mr. Foss’s music in this early period was tonal and eclectic, and he was already showing his ability to move easily between styles. Works like The Song of Songs (1946) were dramatic and emotional; his String Quartet No. 1 (1947) was more chromatic and abstract, and his first mature opera, The Jumping Frog of Calaveras County (1949), based on Mark Twain’s story, was even folksier than The Prairie. Several prominent conductors -- Reiner, George Szell, Eugene Ormandy and Ernest Ansermet, among them -- performed his works. Mr. Foss performed them, too: he conducted the premiere of his First Symphony in 1946, and was the soloist in his Second Piano Concerto in 1951. He also occasionally appeared as the soloist in a Bach or Mozart concerto on programs that also included his orchestral music. A turning point in Mr. Foss’s career came in 1953, when he succeeded Arnold Schoenberg as the head of the composition department at the University of California at Los Angeles. As a way to try to lead his composition students away from what he called 'the tyranny of the printed note,' he encouraged them to improvise. To set an example, he formed his own Improvisation Chamber Ensemble in 1957. In his own music, improvisatory sections mingled with fully scored passages. A major work from this period was Time Cycle (1960), a four-movement vocal setting of texts by Auden, Housman, Kafka and Nietzsche, with either chamber or orchestral accompaniment. Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic gave the premiere and made the first recording of the work. 'Lenny was interested in my ensemble,' Mr. Foss explained in 1997, “and he was upset that I didn’t give him my 'Improvisational Concerto,’ which Ormandy did with Philadelphia. He complained that Time Cycle didn’t have any improvisations, and I said, ‘O.K., we’ll come and improvise between the songs.’ I was joking, but he took it seriously, so we did it, and we recorded it with the improvised interludes.' Mr. Foss expanded his vocabulary further in the late 1960s. In Concert for Cello, composed for Mstislav Rostropovich in 1966, and in Baroque Variations, he toyed with the tension and interplay between Baroque and modern musical impulses. Currents of humor run through these: in the cello work, the live cellist and a recorded cello line gradually distort a Bach sarabande; in the Bach section of the Baroque Variations, a bottle is smashed with a hammer, and Johann Sebastian Bach is spelled out in Morse code by a xylophone. In Paradigm (1968), Mr. Foss used an electric guitar (or optional sitar) as a nod to the world of psychedelic rock music. He never used rock techniques as such, but he used borrowed amplified timbres again in Geod (1969), which includes electric piano and organ, and in a later work, the elegiac Night Music for John Lennon (1981), which includes a plaintive electric guitar line. Although synthesizers and tape interested him only peripherally, he mimicked electronic timbres in his 1972 wind quintet, The Cave of Winds. And he continued to mine the latest stylistic innovations. His Three Airs for Frank O’Hara’s Angel, composed in 1972, touches on moves that were then exclusive to the early Minimalists. Mr. Foss’s 1978 setting of the Wallace Stevens poem 13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird and his quasi-Minimalist Solo for piano (1981) show lingering traces of his interest in the avant-garde. . . . After the early 1980's, Mr. Foss’s music became increasingly listener-friendly. But he did not consider this more mellow style to be an abandonment of his earlier exploratory approach. 'I’m not sure the works I’ve done since my so-called avant-garde period are less adventurous,' he told The Times in 1997. 'The whole point now is that I can be just as crazy tonally as I was before atonally. Crazy in the sense of unexpected'" [Allan Kozinn, The New York Times, 2/1/09].

February 3

Anne Akiko Meyers, in selections from her new album Smile. Le Poisson Rouge, New York, NY. "The bulk of Ms. Meyers’s program consisted of works from the disc, an eclectic collection of mostly short, tuneful pieces: Charlie Chaplin’s nostalgic Smile, Astor Piazzolla’s seductive Milonga en Re and Introducción al Ángel, Michio Miyagi’s wistful Haru no Umi (Sea in Spring). She played with an unfailingly sweet tone, molding her phrases like a singer. The pianist Akira Eguchi, Ms. Meyers’s partner here and on the CD, played with his customary clarity and taste. . . . Borrowing a bit of nightclub jargon, Ms. Meyer announced that she would be “closing her set” with Harold Arlen’s Over the Rainbow. Her gorgeous phrasing in that well-worn chestnut had a refreshing spontaneity. Along with her encore, an unaccompanied arrangement of Gershwin’s Summertime, it made you wish there had been another set to come" [Steve Smith, The New York Times, 2/5/09].

February 4

Cellist André Emelianoff. Merkin Concert Hall, New York, NY. "[The concert featured a] number of talented colleagues performing a disparate clutch of works, bound together by Mr. Emelianoff’s imposing intellect and probing curiosity . . . . Emelianoff, according to his program notes, hears similarities between the Serenade of Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire and the second movement of Debussy’s Cello Sonata, also labeled Serenade. To illustrate, he programmed the Schoenberg movement side by side with the Debussy work . . . . Happily, the music gave no cause for complaint. Mr. Emelianoff approaches old and new works alike with a refreshingly old-fashioned physicality; his intonation can slip during charged moments, but the personality in his playing more than compensates. The Cadenza from George Perle’s Sonata for Cello and Piano, for instance, had a soulful gravity that smoothed the music’s rough whorls. The pianist Noreen Polera was a marvel throughout the evening, managing a wide range of styles with authority and taste. The flutist Patricia Spencer, Mr. Emelianoff’s longtime colleague in the Da Capo Chamber Players, was a playful foil in Elliott Carter’s Enchanted Preludes. Serena Benedetti, a soprano, sang beautifully in the Debussy numbers. Meighan Stoops, another Da Capo member, showed an impressive agility and a supple sound on bass clarinet as Mr. Emelianoff’s partner in Three Little Expressions (Homage to Brahms), a likably gabby new duet by Gunther Schuller that opened the second half of the program" [Steve Smith, The New York Times, 2/6/09].

Cleveland Orchestra, conducted by Franz Welser-Most, in Georgy Ligeti's Atmospheres and Richard Strauss's An Alpine Symphony. Carnegie Hall, New York, NY. The orchestra sounded terrific . . . in its glittering, rhapsodic and beautifully textured performance of Strauss’s 50-minute tone poem. . . . Ligeti’s Atmosphères [is] a landmark 1961 work of just 10 minutes, an experiment in complete musical stasis through a matrix of hushed, shimmering, fidgeting inner voices and out-of-focus harmonies. The ingeniously constructed score is actually a pile-up of individual lines of counterpoint. But the subdued flow and constricted thematic contour of the lines create a mass of organic, cosmic sound, full of riveting colors and hauntingly dissonant clusters. It certainly makes a difference to have this exploration of myriad instrumental effects played by a deluxe orchestra. . . . The Strauss performance was brilliant. Completed in 1915, when Strauss was over 50, the piece recalls an Alpine hiking venture he took as a boy. It is scored for an enormous orchestra, complete with an organ, a wind machine, a thunder sheet and batteries of brass playing offstage. With technical skill and cinematic flourish, Strauss evokes the scenes of the adventure: the stirrings of daylight as the boy wakes up, the climb up the mountain, the sounds of a waterfall, a sudden and battering storm. But Mr. Welser-Möst took the “symphony” part of the piece’s title seriously, emphasizing its structural coherence. Nor did he overdo the musical picture-painting, instead bringing restraint and textural subtlety to his shaping of the music" [Anthony Tommasini, The New York Times, 2/5/08].

February 5

Pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard in J.S. Bach’s Art of Fugue and Elliott Carter’s piano works. Zankel Hall, New York, NY. "[You might think that the two composers] have little in common beyond braininess and intensity. But the force of Mr. Aimard’s imagination and musicality helps you see it his way, at least most of the time. There are all kinds of reasons this pairing should not work. Bach’s music, however chromatic it gets, dwells in a thoroughly tonal universe, where key relationships are the flesh, bone and spirit of musical syntax. His rhythmic world is thoroughly ordered too, and though his structures are complex, they are built of themes simple enough to hum after a single hearing. Mr. Carter, by contrast, has set tonal harmony aside and couches his musical lines with complete rhythmic freedom, shaping phrases as anything from long lines to short, jagged bursts. Melodies? They’re in there, but if you want to hum them, you need to spend time with the scores and have a good ear for difficult leaps and odd meters. But Mr. Aimard chose his Bach and Carter groupings carefully, finding works by Mr. Carter that, if only briefly, moved to the same heartbeat as the Bach fugues that immediately preceded them. He began with the Contrapunctus I and II from The Art of Fugue, and Mr. Carter’s Two Diversions (1999) proved an apt modern rejoinder, beginning in the same relatively sober tones as the second of the Bach pieces. Bach’s Contrapunctus XII, a mirror fugue (actually two fugues, the second an inversion of the first) was a sensible mate for Mr. Carter’s fitful Night Fantasies (1980), an involved evocation of sleeplessness. Mr. Aimard played the Carter with a fluidity that gave it a phantasmagorical quality. Probably the most striking segue began with another mirror fugue (Contrapunctus XIII) and moved on to the Fugue on Three Subjects, which Bach left unfinished. Usually, the dangling, interrupted phrase with which the work trails off comes as a shock. But Mr. Aimard leaped right into Intermittences (2005), which begins with a burst of chords that, for a second, sounded like a continuation (though a strange, modern one) of Bach’s idea. The work that followed, Caténaires — the zesty perpetual-motion piece that Mr. Carter wrote for Mr. Aimard in 2006 — was the perfect conclusion to the program. Its almost tonal feel and its insistent drive make it more akin to Bach than any of Mr. Carter’s other works. It was, in a peculiar way, the exception that proved Mr. Aimard’s point" [Allan Kozinn, The New York Times, 2/6/09].

February 6

Francesco Cilea's Adriana Lecouvreur. Metropolitan Opera, New York, NY. "Not many opera buffs would argue that . . . Lecouvreur is a great work. Still, this well-made and effective music drama, which enjoyed an enormously successful 1902 premiere in Milan, is a prime example of the verismo style then flourishing in Italy. Loosely basing the work on the life of Adriana Lecouvreur, a tremendously popular actress of the Comédie-Française in early 18th-century Paris, Cilea deftly balanced elements of unabashed melodrama with touches of subtle humor during backstage scenes with the acting troupe. The music is modest and appealing, with a couple of 'gotcha' arias. Thanks to a line of great Italian sopranos who have found the title role irresistible, Adriana Lecouvreur has clung to a place in the repertory of major houses, including the Metropolitan Opera, which brought it back after 15 years . . . in a performance stylishly conducted by Marco Armilliato. You can understand the appeal of the character. Adriana is a dedicated artist, a worldly woman who falls for a dashing count, Maurizio, who has made political enemies. She vies for his affections with the ruthless Princess de Bouillon, who used to be Maurizio’s lover and will not let him go. . . . The Ukrainian soprano Maria Guleghina sings the title role, opposite Plácido Domingo as Maurizio, the role of his Met debut 40 years ago. Ms. Guleghina brings her trademark vocal and dramatic intensity to her work. Yet the music also calls for a soprano with Italianate legato and creamy lyricism. Ms. Guleghina sings with fervor and honorably tries hard to shape phrases with subtlety and nuance. . . . At that 1968 debut Mr. Domingo sang Maurizio opposite Tebaldi, no less. Now 68, he remains a wonder of vocal longevity. He missed the dress rehearsal because of a cold and took time to clear his throat and warm up during the performance . . . . But soon he was singing with vigor, stylistic insight and ringing top notes. Some of the music was transposed down to suit Mr. Domingo’s current comfort zone. 'That’s cheating,' purists might complain. But the trade-off is a Maurizio sung by a major tenor who still sounds like one. The mezzo-soprano Olga Borodina dominates every scene she is in as the princess, singing with dusky colorings, supple phrasing and unforced power. The baritone Roberto Frontali brings dignity to the role of Michonnet, the good-hearted theater director who adores Adriana. Ms. Guleghina was at her best when it counted most, in the musically rich final act. Believing that Maurizio has sent her a nosegay of wilted violets to indicate, brutally, that their relationship has died, she breathes in the flowers’ scent, then sings a tragic aria, Poveri fiori. In fact the princess has sent the violets, which are spiked with poison. During the ovations audience members tossed flowers to both Mr. Domingo and Ms. Guleghina. No violets, thank goodness" [Anthony Tommasini, The New York Times, 2/8/09].

Cleveland Philharmonic in Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7 and George Benjamin's Duet for Piano and Orchestra. Carnegie Hall, New York, NY. "New York audiences have heard this piece interpreted often enough by Russian orchestras and conductors (most notably Yuri Temirkanov) to look for a brutal, caustic edge in the playing, often at some cost in refinement. The Cleveland Orchestra — with a refinement bred in the bone, which served beautifully in the long string lines — relied instead on sheer magnificent force to create a sense of indomitability if not brutalization. Mr. Welser-Möst staked a lot on an experiment in this work, stationing brass players high in the balconies and thus enveloping the audience in the performance. This sort of thing is tricky to arrange quickly in an unfamiliar setting, and the effect was not entirely successful. Having sat idle through much of the first movement, the trumpeters and trombonists on one side of the balcony made their first entrance at the height of the invasion turmoil and, finally set loose, raced ahead of Mr. Welser-Möst and his other troops. Though they quickly fell back into line, some slippage between stage and balcony in other movements kept a listener on guard. But a real payoff came in the final peroration, which set off a mighty ovation. The . . . program opened with the New York premiere of Mr. Benjamin’s Duet for Piano and Orchestra, with Pierre-Laurent Aimard as soloist. Mr. Benjamin evidently thought long and hard about what the program note calls “the inherently disparate sound qualities of the piano and orchestral instruments,” matters that composers have historically taken for granted. For various acoustical reasons Mr. Benjamin decided to scrap the violins and emphasize tuned percussion instruments, harp and pizzicatos in the remaining strings. And though the work opens with a cadenza of sorts, Mr. Benjamin largely avoids concertolike opposition between soloist and orchestra. What results is an attractive if unremarkable 15-minute piece in a spare post-Bartokian idiom. The structure is loosely episodic with, for example, ominous trombones giving way to sweet stirrings from the harp. Though much of the piano writing sounds fairly rudimentary, there are blistering passages, which Mr. Aimard handled with his customary ease" [James R. Oestreich, The New York Times, 2/8/09].

February 7

Cleveland Orchestra and Chorus performance of Leos Janacek’s Glagolitic Mass and Claude Debussy's Nocturnes. Carnegie Hall, New York, NY. "This is a thrilling work of immense originality that is too seldom heard, and will probably be heard even less as the recession cuts into orchestras’ budgets for large, expensive choral presentations. The Glagolitic Mass, completed in 1927, is named for the ancient alphabet originally used to convey its text in Old Church Slavonic. That text is more or less familiar to fanciers of choral music from a cappella settings by Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff and others for Russian Orthodox services, at which instruments are forbidden. Janacek uses instruments with a vengeance, and brilliantly. Leos Janacek (born in 1854) was a late bloomer as a composer, and his characteristic style is intimately related to speech in its rhythms and contours. The exchanges of phrases and snippets between chorus and orchestra in the Mass, and their endless transmogrifications, are wondrous to hear. The music itself foreshadows Messiaen in some of its harmonies and Minimalism and even current sampling techniques in its repetitions. Above all this is a work of savage conviction, and Mr. Welser-Möst drew an impassioned performance from orchestra, chorus and soloists. The most prominent of the vocal soloists was the soprano Measha Brueggergosman, who projected over the orchestral clamor better than one might have expected . . . . Debussy’s Nocturnes . . . seemed more concerned with sonic clarity and impact than with atmosphere and mystery: a dubious choice in a work that begins with Clouds and ends with Sirens (the female variety)" [James R. Oestreich, The New York Times, 2/8/09].

February 8

Concert performance of Marc Blitzstein's The Cradle Will Rock. St. Mark's in the Bowery, New York, NY. A long line of people eager to get into . . . [the] agitprop musical . . . and grateful for the warm weather, waited patiently . . . . Maybe the current economic crisis makes it an opportune time to hear this leftist 1937 theater piece — a gritty if heavy-handed Brechtian allegory of capitalist greed and oppression of laborers — with music, lyrics and book by Blitzstein. But then, The Cradle Will Rock is a landmark music-theater work that audiences have heard about but seldom get to see, which also accounts for the packed house at this one-time, minimally staged concert performance from Downtown Music Productions in conjunction with the East Village Concert Series. The original 1938 Broadway production was directed by Orson Welles and produced by John Houseman. Set in 'Steeltown, USA,' The Cradle Will Rock follows the campaign by Larry Foreman to unionize workers at a factory owned by the corrupt, rapacious businessman Mr. Mister [!]. Assorted characters are ensnared in the struggle: Mr. Mister’s haughty wife and spoiled children, a family-store druggist barely hanging on, sellout artists in pursuit of patrons, a Liberty Committee of anti-union agitators, and the Moll, a good-hearted prostitute. Blitzstein’s score brashly mingles jazz, popular song, church chorales, marches, arias and recitative. A gifted musical parodist, Blitzstein evokes these diverse styles while still displaying a keen ear for the modernist musical languages of his day. In many ways this bare-bones performance, with a cast of 19 singing on book and accompanied only by a piano, was appropriate to the piece. More than the work’s political agenda, the hectoring tone of The Cradle Will Rock is its most dated element. . . . The best performances were subtler, like Laura Newman’s tender, streetwise Moll and Steve Sieck’s beleaguered Harry Druggist. Jeannine Otis, as a bereft factory worker whose pro-union brother has died on the job in a suspicious accident, stopped the show with the wrenching song Joe Worker. Blitzstein’s vision and the ingenuity of his music still came through in this performance. There was the madhouse scene at the night court, when the citizens of the Liberty Committee, mistakenly arrested by a cop sent to shut down a union rally, break into a complex, multi-voiced chorus. In Freedom of the Press, for Mr. Mister and Editor Daily (Michael Schilke), the music is cleverly Neo-Classical and spiked with dissonance in the manner of Prokofiev. The time may be ripe for a full production of The Cradle Will Rock, with Blitzstein’s original orchestrations. Leaving the theater I overheard several people muttering variations on 'Nothing changes'" [Anthony Tommasini, The New York Times, 2/9/09].

February 10

Boston Symphony Orchestra, conducted by James Levine, in Gunther Schuller's Where the Word Ends. Carnegie Hall, New York, NY. "The 83-year-old composer . . . has long been affiliated with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, which has introduced many of his works. “Where the Word Ends,” [is] a 125th-anniversary commission from the orchestra . . . .
The work is scored for a vast orchestra, and musicians were crammed onto the Carnegie stage. Almost two-thirds of Mr. Schuller’s catalog of nearly 200 works are orchestral pieces. A former horn player in the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and other ensembles and the son of a New York Philharmonic violinist, Mr. Schuller (who once said he “was born in an orchestra”) has been particularly influenced by Stravinsky and Schoenberg. Where the Word Ends, a 25-minute work divided in four sections played without pause, opens with a gentle shimmering trill in the strings before rapid figurations are played over bold statements from the lower strings and brass. The colorful, theatrical score builds in intensity to a riotous conclusion before an introspective Adagio with lush string melodies. The lower strings provided a steady ostinato pattern in the Scherzo, over which a flurry of dialogue ensued among brass and percussion and other instruments. The hints of jazz reflect Mr. Schuller’s significant experience as a jazz performer and composer" [Vivien Schweitzer, The New York Times, 2/10/09].