Friday, May 1, 2009

Chronicle of March 2009

March 3

Opening Nights Festival. Alice Tully Hall, New York, NY. "[A] five-and-a-half-hour celebration of what was once called downtown music, although it long ago moved uptown to places like Tully, and from the avant-garde into the mainstream. As a prelude, the idiosyncratic string quartet Ethel gave the premiere of Phil Kline’s Space as a free concert in the hall’s large new public area. The quartet’s players were deployed individually to the north, south, east and west of the restaurant and waiting area, and a loudspeaker in each corner carried the amplified, electronically processed sound of one musician. (The sound designer, Jody Elff, was given equal billing with Mr. Kline.) Mr. Kline’s hypnotically attractive 45-minute work begins with the quartet playing a tremolando figure that gradually shifts to new harmonies and textures before moving through the lexicon of string ensemble effects. Along the way it explores sustained tones and lightly dissonant harmonies, with a bagpipelike timbre; pizzicato figures supporting soaring, lyrical viola and cello lines; and ornate violin solos bathed in tape delay that created an almost fugal illusion. The main concert, New York, New Music, New Hall, inside the renovated hall, was presented as a look at three generations of new-music ensembles and the composers they are drawn to, beginning with the youngest, Alarm Will Sound, and moving backward through the Bang on a Can All-Stars to the venerable Steve Reich and Musicians. But the multigeneration idea didn’t mean much. There is scarcely any stylistic difference between the music Alarm Will Sound and the Bang on a Can group play, and both ensembles perform Mr. Reich’s work. Alarm Will Sound, conducted by Alan Pierson, began its set with Derek Bermel’s Three Rivers (2001). The title, Mr. Bermel wrote, refers to his melding of classical, jazz and pop influences in the score. But jazz, which has tendrils in the other two styles, dominated, and many of its flavors, from swing to avant-garde, were represented. Cartoonish touches turned up as well: a police whistle followed quickly by a xylophone figure fleetingly evoked Spike Jones. Caleb Burhans’s oh ye of little faith ... (do you know where your children are?), commissioned for this concert, covers vast stylistic ground in only 10 minutes, beginning with a softly angular, almost music-box-like celesta and vibraphone ostinato and building toward a sunburst crescendo based on crunching electric-guitar chords. Much of the piece is elegiac: a melancholy string figure, set against the pitched percussion ostinato, is akin in spirit to Arvo Pärt’s Fratres. But that theme takes on a more robust character when the strings surrender it to the woodwinds and brasses, and it’s a short leap from there to the guitar-driven denouement. Between the Bermel and the Burhans, Oscar Bianchi’s Mezzogiorno (2005) explored the contrast between raucous pop currents and hazy introspection effectively, if less memorably. Bang on a Can started in the mid-1980's as an alliance of the composers Michael Gordon, Julia Wolfe and David Lang, and evolved into an ensemble that mostly plays music by others. But for the Tully concert, the group returned to its roots. The players revived Ms. Wolfe’s Lick (1994), in which short bursts grow into a rhythmically complex mechanism, and offered the New York premiere of Mr. Lang’s chromatic, style-hopping Sunray (2006) and the world premiere of Mr. Gordon’s luminous, texturally shimmering For Madeleine (2009). The Bang on a Can players also poached repertory that should have been in Alarm Will Sound’s territory if the multigeneration concept meant anything: Glenn Kotche, the drummer for the rock band Wilco, joined the ensemble to perform his own bright-edged, vigorously syncopated Mobile (2007). The concert ended with Mr. Reich and his group giving a supple account of Music for 18 Musicians (1976), a pivotal work in Mr. Reich’s canon and a score that helps define the boundary between Minimalism and post-Minimalism. Its Minimalist DNA -- the insistent ostinato that runs through the hourlong score, and note-by-note evolution of the superimposed themes -- grabs the attention. But the density and variety of those themes are the work’s real meat, and they were a revolution for Mr. Reich. With his later works in mind, a listener can now hear the roots of other developments here too. A repeating, chordal crescendo, for example, turns up in The Desert Music (1984), and a two-note descending slide found its way into Different Trains (1988).

March 4

Clash Tango: The Orchestra of St. Luke’s Chamber Ensemble. Morgan Library & Museum. "[T]he clashes in the essentially tonal, melodic music were few and actual tangos even fewer. To the extent that tangos were heard, Astor Piazzolla was somehow involved, if not as a composer then as an inspiration. Unalloyed Piazzolla -- the spirited, flute- and clarinet-dominated Muerte del Angel -- closed the concert. And the first half included Osvaldo Golijov’s Last Round (1996), a memorial to Piazzolla, who died in 1992. . . . In another work, Lullaby and Doina (2001), Mr. Golijov sublimated his Latin roots to his Jewish ones, quoting a Yiddish melody and pairing it with a klezmer-tinged dance, scored to allow the theme to pass among the clarinet, the cello and the flute, all played with a rich, singing tone. In the Piazzolla and Golijov pieces popular and classical elements are tightly intertwined. Other works lean more decisively in one direction or the other. Clovis Pereira’s Três Peças Nordestinas (1971, heard in a 1993 quartet arrangement) sounds as if it were meant to be played in an elegant tearoom. . . . Both the Pereira and Paquito D’Rivera’s rhythmically vital Wapango (a variation on the Mexican huapango dance form), also for quartet, use pizzicato figures to evoke the sound of the guitar. And Guido López-Gavilán’s Mi Menor Conga, for string quintet, turns the string players into part-time percussionists and singers: at several points the musicians tap out conga rhythms on their instruments, and toward the end they vocalize. At the more formal end of the spectrum Gabriela Lena Frank makes modest but effective use of extended flute techniques (including multiphonics and an evocation of a distantly howling wind) to suggest an imagined pre-Incan antiquity in her Cuatro Bosquejos Pre-Incaicos (2006), for flute and cello. And the program’s oldest work, Villa-Lobos’s Piano Trio No. 1 (1911), pays homage to European models so completely that if the score embodies any specifically Brazilian themes, rhythms or textures, as so many of Villa-Lobos’s later works do, they are thoroughly submerged" [Allan Kozinn, The New York Times, 3/6/09].

March 12

Kurt Weill’s operetta The Firebrand of Florence. Alice Tully Hall, New York, NY. "[The work] was doomed by an inadequate cast and a lackluster staging when it opened on Broadway in March 1945. It closed a month later and (except for a few songs) was neglected until a decade or so ago. A lively semistaged performance . . . revealed both the intricacies of Weill’s vibrant score and the libretto’s comedic elements, aptly framed by Roger Rees’s narration and direction. Ted Sperling conducted the Collegiate Chorale, the New York City Opera Orchestra and stars from the opera and theater worlds in a taut, snappily paced rendition of Firebrand, one of six musicals Weill composed for Broadway. The lyrical score shifts rapidly between satirical musical-theater-style excerpts and more serious, quasi-operatic numbers. The operetta, with lyrics by Ira Gershwin, is based on Edwin Justus Mayer’s 1924 play about the 16th-century Florentine sculptor and goldsmith Benvenuto Cellini (also the subject of an opera by Berlioz). Benvenuto escapes being hanged after the Duke of Florence frees him so he can finish a previously commissioned sculpture. Benvenuto then energetically woos Angela (his favorite model, whom the Duke also has a crush on) while the Duchess of Florence chases the wily sculptor. . .
There was plenty of amusing onstage chemistry. Victoria Clark portrayed the man-eating Duchess with flair and apt comic timing. (The role was first sung by Lotte Lenya, Weill’s wife, who was panned in the original production.) The baritone Nathan Gunn was charismatic as the womanizing Benvenuto, swaggering around the even sleazier Duke, given a dynamic performance by Terrence Mann. The soprano Anna Christy was sweetly coy as Angela. The excellent cast also included David Pittu in roles including the villainous Count Maffio; Krysty Swann as Emilia (Benvenuto’s maid); and Patrick Goss as the treacherous Ottaviano de’ Medici" [Vivien Schweitzer, The New York Times, 3/13/09].

March 13

Composer Portraits: Arlene Sierra. International Contemporary Ensemble performs five of the composer's works, conducted by Jace Ogren. Miller Theater, New York, NY. "Arlene Sierra has been inspired by an unusually wide range of sources, including bees, poetry and Chinese and Roman military tactics. . . . Sierra uses a colorful palette in compositions like Neruda Settings, for 10 players and soprano . . . . In one [movement], Ode to the Lizard, darting, coloristic fragments from a flute, a celeste, a harp and a violin are woven around the text. The music ebbed and flowed in intensity, reaching a peak at 'To/a fly/you are the dart/of an annihilating dragon.' . . . The other three poems in Ms. Sierra’s set are Ode to the Artichoke, Ode to the Plate, and Ode to the Table. Susan Narucki sang them (in Spanish) with expressive conviction. . . . [S]tudying East Asian history at Oberlin College had provided fodder for compositions like Cicada Shell for septet. Militaristic and rhythmically driven in Marziale (the first section) and more subdued in the ensuing Misterioso, espressivo, the work was inspired by ancient Chinese battle tactics. Military themes also figure prominently in Surrounded Ground, whose three movements -- Preamble, Feigned Retreat, and Egress -- were composed as a companion to Aaron Copland’s 1933 Sextet. The marchlike rhythms of the first section are followed by a vivacious dialogue between instruments and an almost jazzy finale. The program also included the world premiere of Colmena (Spanish for beehive), whose multilayered textures and colorful effects mimic those of its namesake insect. The concert concluded with the kaleidoscopic Ballistae. Inspired by the ballista, an ancient artillery machine, the work is built on percussion riffs; uneasy, fluttering fragments; and repeated motifs, ending with a bang" [Vivien Schweitzer, The New York Times, 3/16/09]