Saturday, September 1, 2012

21ST-CENTURY MUSIC / September 2012


September 2012

Volume 19, Number 9

Calendar for September 2012

Chronicle of July 2012

Illustration / Nico Muhly

Editorial Staff

Mark Alburger


Harriet March Page

Patti Noel Deuter

Erling Wold

Elizabeth Agnew
Alexis Alrich
Katherine Buono
Ken Bullock
A.J. Churchill
David Cleary
Jeff Dunn
Phillip George
Elliot Harmon
Brian Holmes
Jeff Kaliss
John Lane
Arel Lucas
Michael McDonagh
Chip Michael
Tom Moore
William Rowland
Lisa Scola Prosek
Andrew Shapiro
Alice Shields


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Calendar for September 2012

September 8

Erik Satie's Vexations. Berkeley Arts Festival, Berkeley, CA. Repeated 9/9/12.

Chronicle of July 2012

July 1

Death of Evelyn [Shulman] Lear (b. 1/8/26, New York, NY), at 86. Sandy Spring, MD. "[She was] an American soprano who became a star in Europe in the 1950's and later won acclaim in the United States for singing some of the most difficult roles in contemporary opera. Miss Lear, who sang more than 90 performances with the Metropolitan Opera in the 1960's and afterward, was praised on both sides of the Atlantic for her vocal warmth, expressive musicality and dramatic stage presence. As a recitalist, she was also known for her versatility, singing the work of composers from Mozart to Schoenberg to Sondheim. She was especially renowned as an interpreter of Alban Berg. In midcentury Europe, Miss Lear was considered one of the pre-eminent interpreters of Berg’s Lulu, the doomed, murderous prostitute at the heart of his 1937 opera of that name. At the Met, Miss Lear sang Marie in Wozzeck . . . . Reviewing her Marie there in 1969, Harold C. Schonberg wrote in The New York Times that Miss Lear was 'intelligent, capable of producing floods of well-focused tone, dramatically intense.' He added, however, that her physical attractiveness worked against her, making Marie’s affair with 'that lout of a Wozzeck' implausible. . . . Her maternal grandfather, Savel Kwartin, was a distinguished cantor in Europe and the United States. Her mother, Nina Kwartin Shulman, was an opera and concert singer who largely forsook her career for marriage and motherhood. Young Evelyn had determined to be a singer by the time she was 3, but was waylaid by piano and French horn studies. After an early marriage to Walter Lear, a doctor, ended in divorce, she decided to pursue vocal training in earnest and enrolled at the Juilliard School. In 1955 she married a classmate, the baritone Thomas Stewart, with whom she would appear often in recital and on recordings. Like many homegrown singers of their day, Miss Lear and Mr. Stewart labored under the onus of being American. American opera houses of the period displayed a marked bias toward the Old World, with first-rate American singers often passed over in favor of second-rate European ones. Mr. Stewart was on the point of abandoning music for a job with I.B.M. when both he and Miss Lear were awarded Fulbright fellowships for study in Germany. They moved to Europe, where they made their reputations. In 1958 Miss Lear drew wide notice for singing Richard Strauss’s Four Last Songs with the London Philharmonic under Sir Adrian Boult. She had learned the score in just four days. Her talent for quick study served her well two years later, when the Vienna Festival asked her to take over the part of Lulu -- a role she had never sung -- on short notice. . . . 'Why does this have to be so damn hard?' Miss Lear recalled thinking as she was learning the role. But she mastered it in a matter of weeks, and her performance, under Karl Böhm, brought international renown. Miss Lear made her Met debut in 1967, under Zubin Mehta, as Lavinia (the counterpart of Electra) in the world premiere of Mourning Becomes Electra. The opera, by Marvin David Levy, is an adaptation of Eugene O’Neill’s drama, itself a reworking of the Greek myth of Orestes. . . . Her . . . Met roles include Octavian in Richard Strauss’s Rosenkavalier and the Composer in his Ariadne auf Naxos . . . and, in later years, Countess Geschwitz in Lulu. . . .If Miss Lear was best known for appearing in operas of murder, incest and that sort of thing, then her reputation, she made clear, did not faze her. 'I love to do Handel, Mozart and Strauss, and I love to do my neurotic modern heroines too,' she told The New York Times in 1967. 'I am never afraid to make an ugly sound on stage because it is real and reality is never ugly.' [Marglit Fox, The New York Times, 7/4/12].

Trinity Choir performs works by Nico Muhly, Herbert Howells, and William Byrd. St. Paul’s Chapel, Trinity Church, New York, NY. "Julian Wachner . . . presided over a candlelit concert of recent sacred works . . . . Muhly began his musical career as a chorister, and in his program notes for A Good Understanding, a recent Decca recording of his choral music, he wrote of 'an addiction to the textures and rapturous moments that define the Anglican choral tradition from the 16th century to the 21st.' You can hear that passion in Bright Mass With Canons (2005), the movements of which Mr. Wachner spread through the program, with other works interspersed. Driven, joyful motifs, couched in a harmonic language that oscillates between light dissonance and a firmly traditional, Renaissance-like openness, propel the Kyrie, parts of the Gloria and the Sanctus. Those same musical moves take a more introspective, purely devotional turn in the Agnus Dei. Mr. Muhly was also represented by the premiere of the rhythmically focused In One Place (2012) and a handful of shorter settings. These included a shapely Pater Noster (2008) cloaked in antique harmonies, and The Sweets of Evening (2006), which begins with a move that Steve Reich used in his Desert Music -- a quickly repeating chordal figure -- but blossoms into an entrancing melodic work, sung ably by Trinity’s children’s choir. To open the second half Mr. Wachner gave a vivid account of Mr. Muhly’s O Antiphon Preludes (2010), a set of seven organ fantasies preceded by choral renderings of the Advent chants on which each is based. Offsetting Mr. Muhly’s works -- and, in a way, explaining their roots -- were a few richly harmonized Howells hymns, and selections from Byrd’s sublime Great Service" [Allan Kozinn, The New York Times, 7/2/12].

July 8

Iktus Percussion presents a John Cage centenary concert. Le Poisson Rouge, New York, NY. 'Cage’s music has never been absent from New York’s concert halls, but this year’s celebration of his centenary has brought more of it into the rotation than usual, with precisely the effect Cage would have wanted: Whether the works at hand are relatively sedate early pieces, or later essays in odd timbres, chance operations and studied eccentricity, an all-Cage concert is bound to leave you smiling with the recognition of having heard something strange, wonderfully wayward and provocative. Much of Cage’s music treats the spirit of the moment as an unseen ensemble member, so even works you have heard often -- this year Credo in Us (1942) has supplanted Third Construction (1941) and 4’33'' (1952) at the top of the Cage hit parade --invariably yield fresh ideas. That doesn’t mean you can’t quibble. . . . Iktus Percussion, the pianist Taka Kigawa and the toy-piano player Phyllis Chen performed nine works with admirable clarity, precision and focused energy: qualities that are usually not causes for complaint and that certainly illuminated aspects of these scores. But you missed the ramshackle touch of the unplanned that animates Cage’s work. Credo in Us, for example, which closed the program, typically includes a player dialing through a radio to pick up random sounds that become part of a piano-and-percussion fabric, though Cage proposed using recordings as an alternative (he figured that Romantic symphonists would do). The Iktus players updated this instruction by playing samples of harpsichord and orchestral music, rock and funk from a laptop, which allowed them to control which sections of each sample were heard. It was a clever, thoroughly 2012 approach, but what of Cage’s desire that happenstance be part of the piece? Cagean philosophy aside, the playing was uniformly superb. Iktus Percussion began with a short, amusing rendering of But What About the Noise of Crumpling Paper Which He Used to Do in Order to Paint the Series of ‘Papiers Froissés’ or Tearing Up Paper to Make ‘Papiers Déchirés?’ Arp Was Stimulated by Water (Sea, Lake and Flowing Waters Like Rivers), Forests (1985), using a table full of mostly metal and glass objects, as well as a sheet of paper (waved, not crumpled). They moved with no break into the exotically melodic, gamelan-accented Double Music (1941), a collaboration between Cage and Lou Harrison. Mr. Kigawa, playing a prepared piano that produced both percussive sounds and pure tones, joined the ensemble for a focused, pointillistic account of Amores (1943). Ms. Chen, in her short set, offered a dynamically supple reading of the Suite for Toy Piano (1948), a study in innocent tunefulness, as well as a more complex but brief rendering of Music for Carillon No. 2 (1954), using a toy piano and a music box to produce what sounded like electronic timbres. Mr. Kigawa played And the Earth Shall Bear Again (1942) with an alluring fluidity before removing the screws and other objects from the piano’s strings for a graceful interpretation of the impressionistic In a Landscape (1948) and a sizzling, virtuosic performance of the angular Études Australes, No. 1 (1974)" [Allan Kozinn, The New York Times, 7/9/12].

July 16

International Keyboard Festival: Prestige Series. Alexander Schimpf plays Scriabin’s Five Preludes (Op. 74, 1914) and of Ravel’s Tombeau de Couperin. "[A] beautifully colored, crisp and lively account [of the Ravel]" [Anthony Tommasini, The New York Times, 7/17/12].

July 19

Kaija Saariaho’s Émilie, a monodrama for soprano and orchestra, presented by the Lincoln Center Festival. Gerald W. Lynch Theater, New York, NY. "Of all the various operatic forms, the hardest for a composer to pull off may be the monodrama. What could be more dramatic than having a solo singer on stage giving a tour-de-force performance of a character in crisis or at some emotional turning point? Yet how long can a monodrama be sustained before the dramatic tension slackens and a sameness sets in? This may explain why not many monodramas have taken hold in the repertory. The most successful of them tend to be short, like Schoenberg’s Erwartung, which presents a disoriented woman searching a forest at night for her lover, a searing Expressionist work that wisely lasts just a half-hour. Kaija Saariaho’s Émilie lasts about 75 minutes. The monodrama genre may not be able to prop up a work of that length, even something as involving and intense as Émilie, which featured the soprano Elizabeth Futral in a vocally luminous, emotionally vulnerable and brilliant performance, with John Kennedy conducting the excellent Ensemble ACJW. With an elemental, eerily subdued and restless score and a poignant, literate French libretto by Amin Maalouf, Émilie presents the pioneering French physicist, mathematician and philosopher Émilie du Châtelet, who died in 1749 at 42. Châtelet, who as a willful, ambitious and unconventional woman is a compelling subject for a monodrama, is shown in the final days of her tumultuous life. Pregnant by her younger lover, the poet Saint-Lambert, Émilie sits at her desk writing a letter to him and recalling her life and work. She thinks back to her long affair with Voltaire and dreads the birth of her child, feeling trapped in her' swollen body' by this 'visitor,' this 'passenger.' Most of all, Émilie is seized with fear that she will never finish her French translation, with commentary, of Newton’s Principia Mathematica, and shaken with premonitions of death. Premonitions well founded, it turned out: Châtelet died nine days after the birth of her baby girl. Ms. Futral was magnificent. That Ms. Saariaho, one of the major composers of our time, was inspired by her subject comes through in this rich, complex and wondrously colorful score. Still, the monodrama is structured in nine episodes with thematic titles, like Pressentiments (Forebodings), Tombe (Tomb) and Voltaire. And the scenic structure lends a formal element to the work that undermines the dramatic immediacy. During passages in which Ms. Futral essentially faced the audience and gave voice to her character’s thoughts and fears, the piece, for all its intensity, began to seem an overextended aria. In a program note, Ms. Saariaho writes that for this work she wanted to 'devise a very intimate type of music.' That seems the right instinct for the subject, and though the scoring is richly varied, including harpsichord and electronic elements, the orchestra is small. But what resulted from this striving for intimacy is a score that lacks variety. Below the surface, as always, Ms. Saariaho’s music teems with jagged lines, astringent sonorities and uncanny instrumental effects. Her language is so distinctive, so rich with spectral colors, eerie glissandos and hazy harmonies that you cannot reduce it to tonal and atonal elements. And subtle rhythmic figures gurgle and swirl constantly. Châtelet played the harpsichord, and Émilie’s most personal forebodings and memories are often accompanied by harpsichord passages lightly evoking Baroque styles. Yet on the surface there is a sameness to the score. In the climactic moments of the final episode, Against Oblivion, the orchestra breaks into wrenching fury and slashing dissonance. Émilie could have used more such violent and searing moments. . . . Ms. Futral inhabits this role and sings this demanding work with a mesmerizing combination of vocal elegance and expressive ferocity. . . . It is hard to quibble with such an intelligent and affecting work. But Émilie might be an overpowering monodrama were it a little shorter, certainly under an hour" [Anthony Tommasini, 7/20/12].

July 25

Karol Szymanowski's King Roger. Santa Fe Opera, Santa Fe, NM. "Someone with my job should probably be able to explain why a seemingly great work has never caught on. But after attending the Santa Fe Opera’s new production of Karol Szymanowski’s King Roger . . . I am more baffled about why this mystical, sumptuous and daring Polish opera, which had its premiere in Warsaw in 1926, remains such a rarity. With a libretto by Szymanowski and the Polish writer Jaroslaw Iwaszkiewicz, King Roger finds a wrenchingly personal way to explore a timeless theme prone to cliché: the duality of human nature, or the struggle to balance reason and duty with erotic ecstasy. . . . Szymanowski, who died in 1937 at the age of 54, is finally gaining recognition, not just as the father of 20th-century Polish composition, but also as a modernist on his own terms. As a young man, Szymanowski absorbed the music of Germany, France and Russia. But his trips to southern Italy, with its remnants of ancient Greek culture, and to northern Africa, proved formative. Szymanowski saw the Mediterranean region as a melting pot of cultures and religions. King Roger has a melting-pot score, urgent and quickly paced, lasting about 80 minutes. Hints of Wagner, Strauss, Debussy and Scriabin are also charged with Middle Eastern sensuality. The conductor Evan Rogister had a great night, performing the three-act work without an intermission. He drew nuanced and voluptuous playing from the Santa Fe Opera orchestra. King Roger was a work of brave personal exploration for Szymanowski, a homosexual who wrote homoerotic love poems and a philosophical novel intended for his friends. . . . The opera opens with an entrancing choral scene, beautifully sung here, set in a Byzantine church in Sicily" [Anthony Tommasini, The New York Times, 7/27/12].

July 26

Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival. Music of Magnus Lindberg, Samuel Barber, Oliver Knussen, and Bela Bartok. St. Francis Auditorium, Santa Fe, NM. "It was a close call. Before the program began, Steven Ovitsky, the festival’s executive director, announced that Mr. Lindberg had put 'the final touches' on the piece at 1:30 that morning and came up with the title at the last moment as well. That would be Acequia Madre, and when the savvy audience heard it, people broke out laughing. The Spanish phrase, which means 'Mother Ditch,' refers to the oldest irrigation ditch in Santa Fe. The commanding performance of this 11-minute piece suggested that the final touches may not have been that extensive, or that [clarinetist Chen] Halevi and Mr. Lindberg are experts at the honorable musical tradition of faking. Acequia Madre opens with a stern, four-note theme, punched out on the piano, embedded in thick chords and driven home by the clarinet with raspy power. The music unfolds in fits, hurtling forward with cluster chords, skittish piano runs and wailing clarinet lines that segue into elusive riffs. Overall the harmonic language is modernist and steely. Yet in an intriguing internal conflict, the musical gestures are often stirring and neo-Romantic, like something Rachmaninoff might write if he were working today. The intense music keeps threatening to break out into some form of animated release but never does. After Acequia Madre these two musicians were joined by the cellist Anssi Karttunen for a performance of Mr. Lindberg’s Trio for Clarinet, Cello, and Piano (2008). The first movement opens with ominous, grumbling figures in the lowest range of the piano. The clarinet and cello come to the rescue by playing rising, beckoning melodic lines that animate the stuck-in-place piano and crest to intense highs, only to dissolve over and over into descending cascades. I liked best the third and final movement, in which for the first time the piece settles into an extended episode of pulsating music, all breathless energy and fractured phrases. . . . The Miró Quartet . . . opened a different program with an ardent performance of Barber’s early String Quartet in B. The achingly sad, slow movement is famous in its guise as a work for string orchestra, Adagio for Strings. . . . The brilliant pianist Kirill Gerstein gave a fleecy account of Oliver Knussen’s bewitching piano piece Ophelia’s Last Dance. . . . [He was joined by] violinist Ida Kavafian . . . [and] Halevi for Bartok’s Contrasts, a performance so rhapsodic and impish you would have thought the players were improvising" [Anthony Tommasini, The New York Times, 7/29/12].

Lincoln Center Festival presents the New York premiere of Guo Wenjing's Feng Yi Ting (2004). Gerald W. Lynch Theater, John Jay College, New York, NY. "In his beguiling score Mr. Guo deftly fuses Chinese and Western classical styles. The distinctive sounds of four Chinese instruments -- pipa (a lute), dizi (a flute), erhu (a fiddle) and sheng (a mouth organ) -- blend with those of a Western chamber group: here, the Ensemble ACJW, potently conducted by Ken Lam. Much of the instrumental music rises and falls in singing cadences; more than once, though, Mr. Guo shows off an impressive assimilation of film-noir moodiness and jazzy swing. Ms. Shen [Tiemei] sings in the traditional pinched, nasal style of Chinese opera, her voice rising and falling with an oboe’s penetrating tone and an erhu’s haunting slur. Physically, she embodies Diao [Chan] in a perfectly pitched balance of archetypal gesture and relatable characterization. Jiang Qihu, the countertenor who portrays Lu [Bu] in his few, brief scenes, is more a clarinet; a rounder warble and less pointed projection make his character’s agitation credible. . . . If there is a complaint to be lodged, it surely must be the brief duration [45 minutes]; when it was over, I just wanted more" [Smith, Steve, The New York Times, 7/27/12].

July 27

Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival: A Tribute to Peter Lieberson. St. Francis Auditorium, Santa Fe, NM. "[A] program . . . in honor of this . . . American composer, who died last year at 64 (Mr. Lieberson lived in Santa Fe for the last years of his life) . . . [T]wo Lieberson works for cello and piano were performed, both wonderful, and both played beautifully by the cellist Felix Fan and the pianist Andrew Russo: Three Variations (1996) and Remembering Schumann (2009), a three-movement piece that evokes the spirit and musical gestures of Schumann but is through-and-through Lieberson. . . . There was also a performance of [Oliver] Knussen’s Requiem: Songs for Sue, an affecting piece for soprano (Tony Arnold) and chamber orchestra (conducted by Jeffrey Milarsky), written in memory of Mr. Knussen’s wife, who died in 2003" [Anthony Tommasini, The New York Times, 7/29/12].