Signal Plays Staud at Miller (Concert Review)

Photos: Karli Cadel

 

Ensemble Signal Plays Johannes Maria Staud

Composer Portrait at Miller Theatre

April 8, 2017

Sequenza 21

By Christian Carey

 

NEW YORK – Austrian composer Johannes Maria Staud was given a prominent residency with the Cleveland Orchestra back in 2008-’10. Apart from this, he has not gained nearly as much notoriety in the United States as he deserves. His is one of the most fluent and and multi-faceted of the European “Second Modern” school of composition. A recent Composer Portrait concert, given at Miller Theatre by Ensemble Signal, demonstrated at least part of Staud’s considerable range as a composer. As usual, Signal, conducted by Brad Lubman, were most persuasive advocates, consummately well-prepared for every challenging turn that confronted them.

Highlights:

 

Syndenham Music – Composed for the “Debussy trio” of flute, harp, and viola, this piece was both inspired by the Debussy sonata for that combination and by the artwork of Pisarro. The latter catalyst was acquired during Staud’s time living in England; he stayed in Syndenham, in the London suburbs, where Pisarro painted, and wrote Syndenham Music for the Aldeburgh festival. Bent notes, percussive attacks, and microtonal inflections, especially prevalent in the harp, are balanced by soaring flute lines and harp glissandos straight out of the Impressionists’ playbook.

 

Black Moon – With close to a dozen music stands spread across the stage, one knew that this would be an involved and extensive piece. Bass clarinetist Adrián Sandí handled the myriad extended techniques – multiphonic passages, glissandos, microtones, percussive sounds, and altissimo wails – with poise and suavity. His performance embodied a seeming effortlessness that belied the endurance test supplied by the score.

 

Towards a Brighter Hue – Written for solo violin, this piece had its own long line of music stands (Ensemble Signal might consider iPads for their soloists). Olivia de Prato played Towards a Brighter Hue with impressive intensity and relentless energy. As it was the most aggressive of the pieces on offer, this was just what the composer ordered. However, after the hyperkinetic slashes of the coda, a curt altissimo gesture also afforded this piece a little wink at its conclusion; it seemed designed to afford the listener a sigh of relief (and, in this audience, a few chuckles) to alleviate the tension.

 

Wheat, Not Oats Dear, I’m Afraid – The famous line from Elizabeth Bishop’s poem provides Staud with the title for a septet with a bit of sly levity. Thus, typical gestures of post-Lachenmann modernity are paired with exaggerated exhalations from the entire ensemble, as well as more than a few microtonal chords and bent notes from the winds that provide a kind of analog to maudlin bluesiness.

 

Par Ici! – Written during a residency at IRCAM, the culminating work on the program is based on Le Voyage, a Baudelaire poem. Twelve notes on the piano are retuned a quarter tone high (so that’s why none of the previous works included it!) to create a sound spectra that is then replicated by most of the rest of the ensemble. A tension between pitched percussion, which doesn’t use the quarter tones from the spectra, and piano, creates a suppleness of harmony that blurs the edges of the proceedings. Rather than levity, here we are treated to an earnest approach, with a muscular catalog of gestures: one that Staud takes in many of his larger pieces. In Par Ici!, his focus on technical and instrumental combinations creates attractive gestural and textural palettes that are deftly deployed.

Thanks to Miller Theatre and Signal for tantalizing use with a panoply of his chamber works. Dare one hope that some of his orchestral music might be heard in New York next? Paging Jaap van Zweden …

 

 

Saturday: Record Store Day

Saturday: Record Store Day Celebrates Tenth Anniversary

 

April 22, 2017 is the tenth anniversary of Record Store Day, a celebration of brick-and-mortar record sellers. After a strong start and a bevy of good press for the venture, there has been some pushback of late. A lot of the debate over the past couple of years has centered around the efficacy of RSD for sellers. There are always the hot items that are grabbed up by opportunists to be flipped on eBay for exaggerated sums. However, of late there have also been reissues poured into the market by big labels who have not traditionally been supportive of nor representative of the fare that has made independent stores distinctive. Some of these releases seem to languish in seeming perpetuity. Perhaps in response to these issues, this year RSD has trimmed their list of “Exclusive” releases and acknowledged that some will continue in the bins for a while, and be resupplied, with the “Record Store Day First” category. Also, plastered all over the RSD site is the slogan,”Support stores, not flippers.”

 

My wife and I have “done” Record Store Day in some fashion or another every year since its inception. Even last year, when I had my surgeries and couldn’t go, Kay took a wish list to favorite record haunts on my behalf. We have chosen to ignore the ugly side of it – the grabby people, the line-cutters, and the crass commercialism that has creeped into what used to seem more genuinely about celebrating the love of records and record stores instead of exploiting both. We look at instead in a spirit of fun, as our own scavenger hunt for releases we will enjoy throughout the next year and beyond. So enjoy Record Store Day. Happy hunting and Caveat Emptor.

 

A few noteworthy Record Store releases:

Tompkins Square is reissuing Key, Meredith Monk’s 1971 debut LP. It features her early works for voice, composed from 1967-’70.

Dust-to-Digital is releasing a 45 of two of the label’s favorite Cambodian singers: Sinn Sisamouth and Ros Serey Sothea.

Nonesuch is reissuing recordings by Emmy Lou Harris, Randy Newman (his first five studio releases) and, the double LP I’m hoping to find, a compilation of selections by Allen Toussaint.

 

Christian’s Record Store Day “Wish List”

 

Animal Collective: Meeting of the Waters (12”)

Blitzen Trapper: Unreleased Recordings Series (12”)

Drive-By Truckers: Electric Lady Sessions (12”)

Bill Evans: Hillsun – Another Time (12”)

Follakzoi featuring J. Spaceman: London Sessions (12”)

Dexter Gordon: Walk the Blues (12”)

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit: Welcome to 1979 (12”)

Madrigal: S/T (12”)

Meredith Monk: Key (12”)

Thelonious Monk: Les Liasons Dangereuse 1960 (12”)

Lou Reed: Perfect Night – Live in London (Double 12”)

Sun Ra: Discipline 27-11 (12”)

Sun Ra: Janus (12”)

The Allen Toussaint Collection (2×12”)

Vangelis: Blade Runner Soundtrack (12” picture disc)

Various Artists: The Rough Guide to Delta Blues (12”)

Yes: 90215 (12” picture disc)

 

Bonnie Prince Billy: Beargrass Song (7”)

Nels Cline: In the Wee Small Hours (7”)

Iron and Wine: Archive Series Vol. 3 (7”)

Sinn Sisamouth and Ros Serey Sothea (7”)

 

Tigran Mansurian Requiem on ECM Records (CD Review)

Tigran Mansurian

Requiem

RIAS Kammerchor; Anja Petersen, soprano; Andrew Redmond, baritone;

Münchener Kammerorchester, Alexander Liebreich, conductor

ECM New Series 2508 CD

 

On the cover of this CD’s booklet is a picture from 1917, 100 years ago, of deportees from Turkey travelling through the desert to Aleppo in Syria. One thinks, “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.”

 

Tigran Mansurian’s Requiem is written to commemorate victims of the Armenian Genocide, which took place in Turkey from 1915-’17. It is a calamity that affected his own family and one that he has long wanted to address, albeit with some trepidation. In the copious liner notes, which include thoughtful essays both by writer Paul Griffiths and the composer, one learns that the tension of writing a Requiem using liturgical Latin while coming from the tradition of the Orthodox Church proved a significant challenge, both compositionally and culturally. How could Mansurian depict and honor the struggle and emotional condition of the Armenian people while using such decidedly Western material, with the weight of luminaries such as Mozart, Berlioz, and Verdi behind it?

 

 

 

The struggle to address this situation has proven well worth it. Mansurian’s solution is ingenious. Like Fauré, he is selective with the text, omitting much of the Dies Irae sequence (what remains is absolutely chilling). Mansurian also realized that the great Requiem masses from the 18-19th centuries often sounded as if their protagonists’ singing was “less like a prayer, more like a demand.” That would not do for depicting the mindset of Armenian Christians. Thus, Mansurian chose to try to reflect the Orthodox tradition in a Latin mass. He did so in two ways. The first was to incorporate melodic material, often modal or synthetic scales, that represent Eastern liturgical and folk music. The second was to include chanting reminiscent of Orthodox monodic singing, but with the Latin words as its textual basis.

 

These incorporations make the piece timeless in its sound world. Sections of chant, both in the tenors and in alternim sections between men and women’s voices, present haunting scalar passages that resonate with Eastern music. Two brief solos – one for soprano Anja Petersen and the other for baritone Andrew Redmond – are memorable parts of the Tuba Mirum and Domine Jesu Christe movements.

 

Despite the comparatively modest forces – four-part chorus (with no divisi) and strings – the texture does not rely solely on the spareness of chant. Indeed, there are moments of exceeding richness. Like so many Requiem masses, the key of d-minor, with a number of modal variants and splashes of D-major as well, is prevalent. Polychords press into bare triads (there is even a moment of C major amidst the plethora of minor key successions). The orchestration is particularly vivid, so much so that you don’t mind having strings accompany the “Tuba mirum” sans brass. Conductor Alexander Liebreich leads the combined forces of RIAS Kammerchor and Münchener Kammerorchester in a pitch perfect performance that is austere and emotive in just the right moments.

 

It is, of course, too soon to tell if Mansurian’s Requiem will be a piece for the ages. It is certainly a deeply touching and sensitive reimagination of a text that some may feel has long since been ossified by its own traditions. Perhaps more importantly, in addressing genocide and refugee crises from a century ago, Mansurian holds up a mirror to our own time and dares us to be unflinching in our gaze. For that alone, it is a work of great value.

Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Concerto for Yo-Yo Ma

Alan Gilbert conducts the New York Philharmonic in Esa-Pekka Salonen
Cello Concerto with Yo-Yo Ma and Berlioz
Symphonie fantastique at David Geffen Hall, 3/15/17. Photo by Chris Lee.

Yo-Yo Ma Premieres Salonen Concerto in New York

March 15, 2017

Sequenza 21

By Christian Carey

 

NEW YORK – One of the most eagerly anticipated New York premieres of 2017 was Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Cello Concerto, written for Yo-Yo Ma. It had been presented shortly before by the Chicago Symphony, and buzz had grown around the piece based on positive reports from the these concerts. At David Geffen Hall, the New York Philharmonic showed that the Chicagoans hadn’t cornered the market: they had much to offer in this engrossing work. Outgoing Music Director Alan Gilbert made a strong impression with a sensitive and detailed reading of the Salonen concerto. The composer was on hand before the performance to give an image-filled talk from the stage.

 

Opening in a chromatic environment, with stacks of bitonal chords (C+D# diminished noteworthy among them), hazy string tremolos are set against motoric patterns from winds, muted brass, and pitched percussion. The cello solo at first plays along with the cello section, then in counterpoint with it: a mournful melody that starts out in the cello’s medium upper register and works its way down to the open A string. The orchestra part juxtaposes the modernist palette of the opening with post-minimal repetitive gestures: sostenuto interludes from the strings also take part in the proceedings, giving the impression of the cello solo on steroids. The movement ends with the cello wending its way down from its upper register to the lower half of the cello, ending on the G-string. A low D# from bass clarinet and an icy vertical from the strings accompany it into a void where time seems to stop.

 

After a blazing brass crescendo, the second movement is often placid, with long stretches of fragility and transparency. A noteworthy feature is the concerto’s first (and primary) use of electronics. Loops are employed to project small sections of the cello part throughout the hall, building an army of ghostly apparitions out of the solo part. While there has been much more extensive incorporation of electronics in various pieces for orchestra, the sound of these loops whirring around Geffen Hall was impressive.

 

The third movement has been called by Salonen a nod to the musicianship Yo-Yo Ma has garnered with the Silk Road ensemble. To create a multi-cultural effect, and to buoy the dance rhythms that populate the closing movement, Philharmonic percussionist Christopher Lamb was on hand to play a vigorous part on bongos and congas. This isn’t the only duet Ma engages in. He is also given stretches of music to interact with other players, such as the contrabassoon and alto flute in movement two. That said, the pairing of percussion and cello brings out an intensity in the solo part. Cadenzas pile up alongside vigorous tutti, until at the last …

 

There’s “that high note” that is the penultimate gesture in the work (It is followed by electronics – loops from the second movement that burst into activity around the hall). It is a Bb7 (the last B-flat at the very top of the piano). In an interview with Alex Ross in the New Yorker, Salonen said that he originally pitched the note an octave lower, but Yo-Yo Ma said he could go even higher: hence, Bb7.

 

I was curious: how many other works for cello go this high (or higher)? I’ll admit, I crowdfunded the answer. A quick question on Facebook yielded several responses from friends that the cello has indeed been employed this high and even higher (B7 and C8). Cellist and composer Franklin Cox was kind enough to explain to me that even though the notes are past the end of the fingerboard, by squeezing the string against it, one can elicit these stratospheric pitches. Cox has written them, and Joseph Dangerfield cited Curve With Plateaux, a work by Jonathan Harvey ,that goes all the way up to C8. Andrew Rindfleisch shared JACK’s performance of his second string quartet, in which Jay Campbell plays A7, Bb7, and C8. Pianist Gloria Cheng nominated Thomas Adès’ Lieux retrouvés. Several people mentioned Matthias Pintscher and Salvatore Sciarrino (I haven’t tracked the scores down yet to verify this).

 

My sometimes curmudgeonly friend Andrew Rudin complained that these composers were trying to make the cello into a violin, but what I heard at David Geffen hall was nothing like the altissimo register of a violin. In some ways, it wasn’t about the extreme highness of the sound; apart from the harmony surrounding it, I don’t think it mattered that the pitch was Bb7 or C8; it seemed eminently attainable – and sustainable – by the soloist. What was remarkable was the long ringing quality it made – like a singing sword on steroids. Here’s hoping that someone – preferably our New Yorkers (while Mr. Gilbert remains with them) records this work ASAP.

James Matheson (CD Review)

Matheson-CD-cover_Esa

James Matheson

Violin Concerto, String Quartet, Time Alone
Baird Dodge, violin; Chicago Symphony, conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen;

Color Field Quartet

Laura Strickling, soprano; Thomas Sauer, piano

Yarlung Records

On his latest CD for Yarlung, composer James Matheson presents strong essays in both the concerto and string quartet genres. His String Quartet, played in vibrant fashion by Color Field Quartet, is filled with overlapping scales and glissandos, post-minimal ostinatos, and impressionist harmonic colors. Thus, it presents as a postmodern response both to composers such as Ravel and Debussy and more recent figures such as John Adams and Aaron Jay Kernis.

There is a similar variety of instrumental color in Matheson’s violin concerto. Its conductor, Esa-Pekka Salonen, is described in the liner notes as a great champion of the piece, helping to arrange for its recording (a live tape of the Chicago Symphony). The muscularly motoric violin part, played here by Baird Dodge,  is formidable. The violin soloist is required to execute limpid runs clear up into the stratosphere of the instrument’s compass. In addition to its impressive solo part, the concerto’s orchestration has a cinematic sweep that is most engaging. The second movement, Chaconne, features a gradual build by the soloist, with the part starting down near rumbling cellos and basses and concluding within striking distance of high flutes (which seem to mimic gestures from movement one in slow motion). The concerto concludes with Dance, a moto perpetuo in which the violinist faces off with a boisterous orchestra (which ends on the supertonic!).

The songs are idiomatically set, but I was left wishing for a less diffident performance than the one provided here. They were written for Kiera Duffy; perhaps we can hope that she gives them a hearing soon.

Matheson’s musical language is appealing in its variety. He is also a creative orchestrator, parsing multiple threads of activity yet always providing music with a clear surface.

Lei Liang: “Luminous” (CD Review)

Lei Liang

Luminous

The Formosa Quartet, Aleck Karis, piano; Third Coast Percussion, Daniel Schlosberg, piano; Michael Lewanski, conductor; Mark Dresser, contrabass solo; The Palimpsest Ensemble, Steven Schick, percussion, conductor

New World CD

Luminous, composer Lei Liang’s latest CD for New World, is among his most imaginative releases yet. In an email exchange, Liang cited fruitful artistic partnerships as central to his inspiration for the five works on the CD. Percussionist/conductor Steven Schick is central to the project. The percussion solo Trans, written for Schick’s fiftieth birthday also incorporates an effective use of audience participation: 100 or so people were given small pairs of stones to knock together, creating a sheen, like ardent rainfall, that provides a backdrop of sound to Shick’s virtuosic playing of a multi-instrument kit.

 

Another piece that features percussion is Inkscape. Written for a consortium of ensembles, this piano/percussion work is performed here by Third Coast Percussion and pianist Daniel Schlosberg and conducted by Michael Lewanski. The piece moves from a diaphanously mysterious saturation of soft dynamics and textures to a more fragmented, stentorian presentation. Thus, Liang puts two of the most important aspects of any percussion piece – those of texture and dynamics – in opposition, crafting an overall formal design that is quite elegant. The end of the piece takes these juxtapositions and presents them in smaller chunks, allowing the listener moments of reverie only to be thrust again into fortissimo passages.

Verge Quartet is, in part, based on Mongolian folk music, its gestural language as well as its folksongs. That said, it is no pastiche piece. The folk influences are integrated into Liang’s overall compositional approach, not as an East-meets-West hybridization, but in truly organic fashion. One could compare his approach in Verge Quartet to those of  Béla Bartók, György LigetiUnsuk Chin, and Michael Finnissy, composers who make the incorporation of folk material a seamless yet integral part of their respective musical languages. The Formosa Quartet plays the work with brilliant energy and carefully detailed authenticity.

Alec Karis is an authoritative pianist on the solo work “The Moon is Following Us,” demonstrating the capacity to evoke all manner of dynamic shadings and varied phrasing with nimble accuracy. Starting with brash repeated clusters, the music gradually moves through assorted ostinatos to a shimmering palette of added note chords. Neo-impressionist touches, such as harp-like arpeggiations and quickly unspun treble register melodies, gradually soften the hard-edged modernism of the opening into a more fluid sound world.

The title work is a concerto for double bass, written for the contemporary music virtuoso (in both of notated and creative improvised music) Mark Dresser. Schick conducts the Palimpsest Ensemble, the new music group in residence at University of California San Diego, where both Liang and he teach, in this challenging and ambitious composition. In the album’s liner notes (excellently curated by the BSO’s Robert Kirzinger), Liang writes of Luminosity:

“The instrument’s rich spectra embody ‘voices’ that encompass extreme opposites—lightness and darkness, angels and ghosts, paradise and inferno—unified by a singular vibrating body. The composition explores these voices in a few large sections, starting with bowing on one string that produces multiphonics, double-stop bowing, and pizzicati. It concludes with the threading technique (attaching the bow from beneath the string), which allows the performer to bow multiple strings simultaneously. The last section is subtitled ‘The Answer Questioned’ as an homage to Charles Ives and György Kurtág.”

This summer, Liang’s Gobi Canticle will be premiered at the Festival of Contemporary Music at Tanglewood. I very much forward to hearing it.