Boston composer Scott Wheeler is a prolific creator of large-scale compositions. However, his latest Bridge CD, Portraits and Tributes, reveals a different side of the composer: the author of occasional pieces. Twenty-seven pieces devoted to friends and family, anniversaries and birthdays, reveal Wheeler’s comfort in an array of styles, ranging from Copland-esque Americana to ragtime. The latter style plays an important role in this collection: Wheeler seems to love ragtime with an enthusiasm rarely heard since William Bolcom’s principal works were in wide circulation. I’m particularly fond of those pieces, such as “Bleeker Study,” that blend styles – it channels both Kurt Weill and early Arnold Schoenberg with equal skill. The gentle “Cowley Meditation” is also a nice contrast to the plethora of rags here.
Donald Berman is the fleet-fingered pianist who plays all of the works on the CD. Like Wheeler, he has chameleon like tendencies when it comes to interpreting various styles. Any collection of occasional pieces is bound to vary in quality to a certain degree, but Portraits and Tributes is surprisingly strong and, perhaps even more crucially, entertaining from beginning to end.
The Locrian Players present music from the past decade. The repertoire that their curators find is always a fascinating listen and often includes several premieres. Check them out (for free) on Friday.
Friday, August 26 at 8PM
Derek Bermel A Short History of the Universe
Martin Suckling Visiones after Goya**
Elliott Carter Figment IV
Royden Tze Starscape***
Jonathan Dawe Silent like the Snow
Julian Grant Know Thy Kings and Queens
Louis Conti Ohne Heimath
* World Premiere ** U.S. Premiere *** New York Premiere
To celebrate this year’s fiftieth anniversary season, Lincoln Center’s Mostly Mozart charged International Contemporary Ensemble with performing fifty new pieces over the course of the festival. Numbers 45-49 were presented at Merkin Hall on Tuesday, August 23rd. The fiftieth, music by Tyshawn Sorey celebrating Joséphine Baker, was slated for the 24th.
Tuesday’s program consisted entirely of concertos. In some cases, the composers used the term rather loosely, creating amorphously constructed entities rather than the formally distinct works one might expect in the genre. Nearly all were longer than their advertised times: starting at 7:30 PM, the first half alone was ninety minutes. At the concert’s conclusion, we dashed out the door for our train at a few minutes before ten. This loquacity did not always show the works in their best possible lights: all of the composers created fascinating sound worlds, but some tightening of construction would have served several of them well. Karina Canellakis, a prominent young conductor and violinist with an impressive pedigree in both areas, assuredly led ICE. With elegant gestures, she assumed a calming presence amid the maelstroms of complexity being wrought onstage.
The entire program was reordered, but the audience was guided through the changes by brief remarks from the stage by flutist Claire Chase and each of the composers (all four were present — a rare treat). The best piece on the program was also presented first. Marcos Balter’s Violin Concerto displayed formal clarity, abundant virtuosity, and a fascinating use of small percussion instruments (played by the ever nimble Nathan Davis). Violinist David Bowlin played one cascade after another of high harmonics and multi-stops with scintillating aplomb.
In Anthony Cheung’s Assumed Roles, violist Maiya Papach was given a more challenging set-up in which to operate. An unorthodox ensemble grouping, which included several instruments that played in or near the viola’s register and an electric guitar, meant that Cheung had to be judicious in his choice of demeanor for the soloist. He decided to have Papach vacillate between “roles,” working with the ensemble, playing prominently in front of them, and sometimes disappearing beneath their billowing sheets of sound.
The premiere of Dai Fujikura’s Cello Concerto featured a labyrinthine structure. Soloist Katinka Kleijn’s supple tone was challenged by often piercing responses from the ensemble. Cast in a single expansive movement, it was sometimes difficult on first hearing to follow the thread, but several signposts — sections where the cello played open strings and prominent harmonics — helped one to be reoriented.
Wang Lu’s Cloud Intimacy is designed to feature all the members of its ensemble in spotlight moments. It is also meant to be a commentary on technophilia. One heard the tapping of computer keys and ICE musicians got to ham it up with cell phones; the piece ends with a “selfie.” The soloistic aspects of the concerto were less prominently dealt with than the depiction, or distraction, of “Tinder.” However, guitarist Dan Lippel did get a chance to “rock out,” which he did with abandon.
The evening culminated with the US premiere of Fujikura’s Flute Concerto. Written for Chase, it contains many of her signature extended techniques: beat-boxing, multiphonic glisses, harmonics, and pitch bends. It also requires her to employ an array of instruments, from piccolo all the way down to the enormous (and voluptuous sounding) contrabass flute. Interestingly, rather than relying on its strident altissimo register, Fujikura features the underutilized lower register of the piccolo. Cast in five sections, the movement between instruments by Chase helped to delineate the piece’s form. The Flute Concerto has two versions, the chamber one heard here, and another in which Chase is accompanied by full orchestra, already premiered and recorded for Sony/Minabel. The chamber version was plenty for the intimate environs of Merkin Hall and proved to be an ebullient showcase for Chase.
Matthew Sharp cello Orchestra X / Nicholas Kok conductor The Continuum Ensemble, Ensemble X / Philip Headlam conductor Quartet X
Tim Harries bass guitar Errollyn Wallen voice
NMC Recordings NMC D221
A composer, vocalist, and pianist, Errollyn Wallenwears many hats and works in a plethora of styles. Photography, a disc devoted to her orchestra music, demonstrates that polystylism in exuberant abundance. References to Bach, Britten, and Vaughan Williams appear alongside moments that remind one of Duke Ellington. Wallen’s Cello Concerto alone mixes Impressionist harmonies, modernist angularity, touches of modal jazz, and ebullient virtuosity. The solo part’s challenges are handled with assuredness by Matthew Sharp, an artist who plays the cello with particular sweetness in its upper register and fleet trills (technical demands incorporated by Wallen). Conductor Nicolas Kok shapes the sometimes intricate counterpoint found in the orchestral writing with crystalline clarity.
Philip Headlam leads the Continuum Ensemble in The Hunger, a muscular piece with brawny brass fanfares, explosive interjections from percussion, and darkly hued interludes for the whole ensemble. It is some of Wallen’s weightiest and most portentous writing for instruments to date.
The title work, on the other hand, beams with vivacity. The first movement’s burbling ostinatos give way to the second movement’s stately fugato texture. The third movement, at first lyrically reflective, fills with ominous pile-ups of dissonance. Wallen has said that the final movement revolves around the type of modality in favor with the English pastoral school. So it does, but she puts her own stamp on it with a bustling dance over a drone that closes out the piece in exuberant fashion.
Wallen herself joins Quartet X and bass guitarist Tim Harries for In Earth, a gloss on Purcell’s famous aria from Dido and Aeneas. The piece features a long introduction populated by extended techniques and glissandos. Gradually, the famous ground bass and melody emerge from these textures, followed by Wallen, singing sotto voce, in a supple and poignant rendition of the aria. Certain melodic passages are fragmented and extended, making for a fascinating kaleidoscope of materials. Photography often deals with music of the past, but Wallen brings it vividly into communication with music of the present.
Björk’s most recent studio album has already received two releases: Vulnicura and the “unplugged version” Vulnicura Strings. Each has their virtues, but Vulnicura Live brings the best aspects of both, darkly hued electronica and sensuous strings respectively, together with singularly emotive performances by the singer. Thus, one could make a case that Live is even more appealing than the studio albums. It outlines her recent breakup and recovery from it with an on the surface display of feelings that many other singers could learn from — if they dared to be as vulnerable as Björk.
On the electronics side, Björk receives aid from Arca and Haxan Cloak. The textures that they weave are a pensive counterweight to the sonorous strings, allowing them to be underpinned with an anguished mixture of beats and synthetic textures just as appealing as they are at times distressing. The strings, supplied by members of Alarm Will Sound and New Heritage Orchestra, keen with abandon when called upon as an amplification of the singer’s grief. Correspondingly, they bring warmth to the proceedings’ latter half, in which Björk begins to share songs of resilience and recovery.
So, is this the breakup album you’d recommend to a friend on the outs with their ex? That all depends on their own proclivities – are they up for the ride? Björk presents grief and resiliency in equal measure and finds her own way to catharsis by Live’s conclusion. My take? It’s an object lesson that will likely help empower many in the throes of distress. That, in addition to its many musical merits, makes Live one of Björk’s most vital offerings to date.
Eirik Hegdal, saxophones/clarinettes; Trygve Seim, saxophones; Thomas T Dahl, guitar; Rob Waring, vibraphone/marimba; Harmen Fraanje, piano/fender rhodes; Olavi Louhivuori, drums; Mats Eilertsen, bass
In his debut as a leader on ECM, Rubicon, bassist Mats Eilertsen fronts a formidable septet of musicians with whom he has collaborated on many previous sessions. To be fair, many of the tracks on Rubicon feature subsets of the larger group, but the overall musical effect is filled with fascinating textures regardless. Apart from a single tune by pianist Harmen Fraanje and a group-composed piece, the compositions here are all by Eilertsen. He proves to be as adept a creator as he is a performer.
It is particularly interesting to hear Eilertsen interact with the comping instruments, Thomas T. Dahl’s guitar, Rob Waring’s vibraphone and marimba, and Fraanje’s piano and Fender Rhodes. There is a sense in which the bass’s walking lines set up another whole layer of harmony, allowing chordal interjections to be interposed with linear excursions by all three aforementioned players. This sense of “walking harmony” and the rhythmically propulsive quality in Eilertsen’s playing is equally savory when juxtaposed against the playing of the two saxophonists on the date, Eirik Hegdal and Trygve Seim. Seim is well known to ECM listeners; Hegdal makes his debut. The enveloping quality of their duets is stirring and it makes for formidable counterpoint against the rhythm section.
Album opener “Canto” begins with a winds cadenza, accompanied by marimba, after which Eilertsen makes his presence known and Fraanje supplies a wistful solo. Eilertsen’s subsequent solo is pristine in its lyricism and drummer Olavi Louhivuori provides subtle interjections. “March” may be a slow-paced composition, but it has an adroit buildup and memorable melodic material. Waring’s vibraphone playing is marvelous. “Lago” begins sparely, with a duet between Fraanje and Eilertsen that only gradually cedes some territory to the saxophone. Fraanje shapes his solo with technical poise and a keen sense of pacing, later further developing its melodic material alongside the saxophones.
“Wood and Water,” co-composed by Eilertsen with Waring and Hegdal, features the latter musician playing clarinet. It begins misterioso, but in two minutes travels to considerably more jocular terrain. Short and sweet, but one wishes this trio played on longer. More expansive is album standout “September” which is given its motor by a riff first stated in the vibraphone and then taken over by the bass. The vibraphone takes on a more linear role, joined by saxophone and guitar on overlapping melodies. Both guitar and vibraphone are given ample room to solo and eventually are joined in ensemble passages by the saxophone. All of this builds to the piece’s climax, followed by a denouement that returns the proceedings to the simple ostinato riff from the opening in the vibraphone, gently coaxed to its conclusion by the other ensemble members. Whether the band is given room to develop material or are directed to take a more aphoristic collective approach, Eilertsen’s Rubicon has many moments of noteworthy music-making.
The Sunday concert at Tanglewood’s Festival of Contemporary Music is always something of a marathon. It starts at 10 AM and is chock full of offerings that usually challenge the ear as much as tantalize it. The Sunday concert has traditionally also been the one that tests the capacities of the TMC Fellows most thoroughly. This year was no exception, although it was a horse race between Sunday’s chamber music concert and Monday’s presentation of Messiaen’s formidable Turungalila-Symphonie, a work that vibrated and thundered with intensity, shaped with eminently detailed care by conductor Stefan Asbury.
Ander’s Hillborg’s Brass Quintet is one of his most often played pieces, and one can readily hear why. Its opening antiphonally spiralling textures reveal a kinship to a more recent orchestra piece, Hillborg’s Vaporized Tivoli: both make a similarly captivating impression. There is an excellent use of repeated note textures, and the bold harmonic language makes it clear he’s studied a fair bit of Copland.
Brett Dean’s Sextet (Old Kings in Exile) is a cleverly crafted Pierrot plus Percussion piece with a number of scoring touches that set it apart from the average piece in the genre. There’s the clever use of percussion, with bowed vibraphone and gongs occurring simultaneously to create a two-headed beast of an instrument. The middle movement gives a nod to Carter’s Triple Duo by splitting the ensemble into a double trio. There’s also some mid-movement scordatura that changes up the harmony and proves to be quite an impressive feat from the strings. Jonathan Harvey’s Song Offerings, settings of Tagore, featured soprano Sarah Tuttle. The piece combines several of the composer’s harmonic interests, including spectralism, microtonality, serialism, and modality. Glissandos and melismas are ably deployed to further variegate the texture.
David Fulmer has appeared at Tanglewood as a string soloist and composer. In the intervening time he has added conductor to his resume, and he did a fine job leading two pieces on Sunday’s concert. The first was Pierre Boulez’s Derive 1, one of his finest chamber pieces from the 1980s. Much shorter than his later Derive 2, seven minutes compared to nearly an hour, it is a compact utterance, but an eloquent one. Long sustained harmonic regions are parsed out again fast melodic filigrees and rapid trills. Christian Rief led Franco Donatoni’s Arpege, a piece that was originally a vibraphone piece and was later built up to a Pierrot plus Percussion Sextet. As one might expect, the vibraphone’s arpeggios lead the proceedings, in a curious amalgam of post-tonality and minimalist figuration. The ostinatos appear in almost “locked hands” scoring at first, then gradually stagger to create a lustrous shimmering from the ensemble.
Fulmer returned to the podium to conduct Harold Meltzer’s song cycle Variations on a Summer Day, settings of Wallace Stevens. The cycle has grown over time; I saw an earlier performance at Symphony Space that had, if recollection serves, around eight songs. It has since expanded to sixteen. Not only are the Variations longer, they have become more elaborate. There is a use of microtones in the winds that is quite attractive. The vocal part, here performed by the estimable Quinn Middleman, takes up far more vertical real estate, casting down into a nearly contralto register and up to high soprano notes. Middleman is billed as a mezzo soprano and her effort here was impressive, but I’m curious if subsequent performances might benefit from using two singers, a mezzo and a soprano, to better capture the distinct registers required by the songs. It is clear that Meltzer has lived with the poetry for a long time, and his settings of it are imaginative, ranging from terse utterances to attractively varied textures. Those who eschew the morning hour on Sundays at the Festival of Contemporary Music miss out.