NEW YORK – On Sunday, the Vienna Boys Choir performed a Christmas program at Carnegie Hall. It included much standard Christmas fare, both carols and pops selections. However, there were also a number of more substantial pieces, both Renaissance polyphony and 20/21st century music. The superlative musicianship of both the choir and its director/pianist Manuel Huber were impressive throughout, and the flexibility in navigating the various styles of the programmed music seamlessly was noteworthy.
Although the membership rotates through some hundred members at a given time, with various touring groups and educational activities, the sound of the choir remains distinctive. Unlike English boys choirs, the sound up top is narrower yet retains a bell-like consistency. Several members of the group are in the midst of their voices changing, which allowed for tenor and baritone registers to be accessed in select places. The retention of adolescents not only allows for the group’s larger compass, it is also a compassionate way to treat young people, flouting the long tradition of dismissing choristers whose voices have “broken.”
The choir entered from offstage singing plainchant. This was followed by a selection of Latin church music by Palestrina, Duruflé, Salazar, and Verdi. The latter piece was the most taxing on the program and the singers navigated it with aplomb. Gerald Wirth has long been the music director for Vienna Boys Choir, arranging and composing pieces for the group. The Sanctus-Benedictus from his Missa-apostolica showed the choir’s voices to best advantage. Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer’s pentatonic vocalization of Gamelan sounds was another winning selection. A nod to America included “I Bought Me a Cat” from Aaron Copland’s Old American Songs, “Somewhere” from Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story, and Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm.”On the pops selections, choirmaster Manuel Huber provided jaunty accompaniments at the piano with cocktail jazz embellishments.
The second half of the program was divided between carols and pops selections. Es ist ein Rose entsprungen, Adeste Fideles, O Holy Night, and otherswere performed with gossamer tone and considerable musicianship, putting paid the many stolid renditions one must endure during the holiday shopping season. A new carol to me, Es Wird sho glei dumpa, from Upper Austria, will certainly feature in my own Christmas performances in the future.
The closing set of pops numbers included “White Christmas” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” – it was once again impressive to hear the change in tone the choir was able to adopt between stylistic margins of the program. The inclusion of “Let it Snow,” which is more suggestive than the other pops tunes, marked a questionable choice. Ending with “Stille Nacht” made far more sense for this fine group of young singers.
Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Music Director and Conductor
Janine Jansen, Violin
March 13, 2018
Published on Sequenza21.com
By Christian Carey
NEW YORK – Dutch composer Michel Van der Aa (b. 1970) is best known for his imaginative and formidably-constructed multimedia works that incorporate both film and electronics. Notable among these are the operas Blank Out(2016) and Sunken Garden(2012), as well as a music theater work based on Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa’sThe Book of Disquiet (2008). Even pieces for acoustic ensembles, such as the clarinet chamber concerto Hysteresis (2013), have frequently incorporated electronics as part of their makeup. Thus, when Van der Aa composed his Violin Concerto (2014) for soloist Janine Jansen and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, the absence of electronics was significant. (Interestingly, after the success of the concerto, his follow up piece for orchestra, Reversal (2016), also abstains from the electronic domain). However, even in the analog realm, Van der Aa incorporates a sound world that acknowledges his interest in decidedly non-classical elements.
The score indicates that the solo violin part should be played with the vibrato, portamento, and usual techniques common to the instrument in contemporary concertos. The accompanying strings however, are asked to refrain from using vibrato in sustained passages, creating a kind of sine tone effect. Various styles are incorporated in the solo part, from bluegrass fiddling to more angular contemporary passages. Other aspects of the orchestration hearken to pop music terrain: near the end of the first movement, for instance, a climax approaches house music in its boisterous brass and percussion.
On March 13th, joined by Jansen, the Philadelphia Orchestra, conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin, delivered an energetic and assured performance of the concerto at Carnegie Hall. The violinist played with the supreme confidence of a soloist who has endeavored to make a work entirely her own. With its variety of solo demeanors, both shaded and nuanced and explosive and mercurial, Van Der Aa’s Violin Concerto seems the ideal vehicle for Jansen’s multi-faceted artistry. The Philadelphians matched her playing with equal confidence, with strings sensitively taking up the “sine tone” accompaniment of the sostenuto passages and winds, brass, and percussion gamely taking on roles in the electronica mimicry of wide swaths of the piece. Interpretively speaking, Jansen and Nézet-Séguin were on the same page throughout. In a dramatic conclusion to the piece, the violinist played her last gesture nose to nose with the conductor, eliciting surprised exhalation and then sustained applause from the audience.
Sergei Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony is one of my favorite of the composer’s works and I have seen a number of performances of it in concert. While I might quibble here or there with Nézet-Séguin’s tempo choices, the conductor’s tendency to press ahead during the potentially “schmaltzy” moments of the piece rendered it free of several layers of sentimental “varnish:” still emotive yet utterly fresh-sounding. The Philadelphia Orchestra’s strings are justly renowned and were exemplary here, but the winds, brass, and percussion each contributed in both spotlight and ensemble moments as well. Thus, it was a touching exchange onstage when the conductor insisted on walking out to each of them in turn, bestowing embraces and well-earned praise.
Jansen and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, conducted by Vladimir Jurowski, have recorded Van Der Aa’s Violin Concerto for Disquiet Media. It is paired with the aforementioned Hysteresis, performed by Amsterdam Sinfonietta, directed by Candida Thompson, with Kari Krikku as soloist. The performances are detailed and evocative, giving an excellent sense of the composer’s approach to ensemble works. One hopes that both the recent high-profile performances of the Violin Concerto and this persuasive recording prove inviting to other soloists and ensembles: Van der Aa’s work is worthy of wider currency.
An article on mentorship in music, which includes interviews with Fred Hersch, his student James Shipp, and James’s student Ian Burroughs, has been published in Carnegie Hall’s 125th AnniversaryMagazine, Beyond the Stage (read here).
WMI Magazine, an annual publication by Carnegie Hall,includes my article on music mentorship. Featuring interviews with three artists, including jazz pianist Fred Hersch, it can be read for free online via Issuu.
Pianist Orli Shaham is not only a gifted solo artist in a wide range of repertoire: She is also committed to nurturing the next generation of classical music performers and audiences. Her education projects are wide-ranging and encompass work for a variety of age groups. For instance, the project Baby Got Bachfinds Shaham, its founder, and others instructing the youngest of new listeners (and their parents), instilling in them an appreciation of classical music.
On Sunday, March 5th, Shaham works with musicians who are slightly older, but still in the early stages of their careers. Sheappears in a concert at Carnegie Hall with the New York Youth Symphony (tickets here), playing Beethoven’s Piano ConcertoNo. 4. The performance will be at 2 PM in Stern Auditorium and also includes a performance of Sibelius’s Second Symphony and Mojave Music, a new work by Ethan Braun.
More artists should take a cue from Shaham, who realizes that in giving her time and energies to working with young musicians, she is helping to preserve music’s place in people’s lives for future generations.
This week, Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony Orchestra visit Carnegie Hall for performances from February 28th through March 2nd. They feature the New York premieres of two works. On February 28th, Russian composer Sofia Gubaidulina’sTriple Concerto for violin cello and bayan, featuring violinist Baiba Skride, cellist Harriet Krijgh, and bayan player Elsbeth Moser, a piece co-commissioned by the BSO and Carnegie Hall, will be performed alongside Dmitri Shostakovich’sSeventh “Leningrad” Symphony.
On March 2nd, George Benjamin’s Dream of the Song, featuring countertenor Bejun Mehta and the vocal group Lorelei Ensemble, will be performed along with works by MauriceRavel (Le Tombeau de Couperin) and Hector Berlioz (Symphony Fantastique). On March 1st, the program consists of the recently departed Gunther Schuller’sSeven Studies on Themes of Paul Klee,Emanuel Ax in Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 22, and Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony #3.
With the kind help of a translator (alas, I don’t yet speak Russian), I recently interviewed Sofia Gubaidulina about her new piece and the process of working with Nelsons and the BSO on its premiere.
For those who aren’t familiar with the instrument, what does the bayan’s repertoire sound like?
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the bayan played an entirely secondary role–as an accompanying instrument for songs, for light music, for dancing. Its repertoire was folk music. It was only in the twentieth century, really only in the second halfof the twentieth century that the bayan came into its own as an instrument for serious music on the symphonic stage, on a par with the traditional instruments of the orchestra. And that was thanks to the initiative and efforts of superb bayanists dedicated to their instrument, to expanding its repertoire and enhancing its prestige.
You’ve written for bayan and orchestra several times. Which instruments do you like to use to accompany it?
I think string instruments are most congenial in combination with the bayan. There is a natural alliance between these instruments. To be honest, if I had the inclination to pursue this further, I would love to try to combine the bayan with brass instruments,with French horns, for example. There is an episode in this piece where I combined it with trombones. In principle, I love the idea of combining the bayan with brass instruments—with French horns, Wagner tubas. It also sounds marvelous together with percussion instruments. I think it goes less well with woodwind instruments, because the bayan contains all those possibilities already, both the bassoon register and those of flute and oboe. You won’t have the same kind of contrast or enrichment. But I would love to combine it with brass.
How did you decide to write a Triple Concerto using bayan, violin, and cello?
The impetus for this work came from the bayanist Elsbeth Moser, a marvelous musician who is passionately devoted to her instrument and with whom I have worked for many years. Approaching a milestone in her life, she invited seven composers to write works for her. She asked me to write a concerto and specified the solo instruments: violin, cello and bayan. I was delighted to accept; I found the challenge of writing for this combination of instruments and full orchestra very stimulating.
You’ve mentioned that each of your concertos has a different narrative. What is the relationship between soloists and orchestra in the Triple Concerto?
The relationship of the three soloists is very complex. It could be described as an entire cosmos: the upwards, the downwards and the connecting function of the bayan. When a composer fantasizes, it often turns into something that subsequently can’t readily be described in words. The cosmic plan isn’t easily verbalized.
The bayan part here is a very important persona. To employ the metaphor of the trinity, the high and low registers of the violin and cello are united by the bayan playing glissando clusters. The bayan part in this concerto is the root from which a tree grows. The melodic, harmonic and intervallic structure of the piece derives from this tree. The breathing of the bayan is a distinctive property of the instrument. And the tree of the orchestral fabric grows out of this breathing, producing great energy. In other words, the energy that leads upwards develops from this root. This isn’t a virtuoso showpiece with many complex textures. On the contrary, my approach to this instrument—as the root from which everything grows—is very rigorous. The bayan is the persona uniting the high with the low.
How has it been collaborating with Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony?
It has been a fortunate circumstance. On the one hand, the young conductor Andris Nelsons is a very deep musician, very deep and talented, with intensely energized pathos. Spiritually, I feel very close to someone like this. So for me the experience has been a happy one. As far as the orchestra is concerned, this is not the first time I have encountered it. And every time I do, my admiration for its musicians is unbounded. The first time I came to Boston, for the performance of Offertorium in 1988, I observed that every musician in the orchestra possessed a distinctive individuality, even those in peripheral roles, say in the rear desks of the violas. It makes no difference: the quality is so high, and the attention to the sound so exacting, that I am a true enthusiast of the orchestra.
What are you composing now?
I don’t want to formulate my next steps because they demand unpredictability.
Fifty for the Future Commissioning Project — Kronos used Saturday February 11th’s concert to showcase some of the early entries in their “Fifty for the Future” project. Not only is Kronos recording all of the pieces for young quartets to hear; their website also includes free to download PDFs of scores and parts. Thus, they are creating a new repertory for quartets eager to learn about contemporary music.
Garth Knox — Some of the pieces, such as renowned violist Garth Knox’s “Dimensions” from Satellites, take on a didactic function. Knox features all manner of bowing techniques, including the surprisingly potent hissing sound of “air bowing.” It is a piece that is a catalog of special effects, but they are organically incorporated and the music is a brisk tour: it doesn’t overstay its welcome and stretch one’s appreciation of its charms.
Malian percussionist Fode Lassana Diabate’s Sundata’s Time: The master balafonist joined Kronos onstage for the first completed “Fifty For the Future” composition: Sundata’s Time. Each movement spotlighted a different instrument, along with a few extra cadenzas for balafon thrown in. These were most welcome. Diabate plays with an extraordinary grace and fluidity that not only was stirring in its own right, but brought out a different character entirely in Kronos’s playing. It was a most simpatico collaboration.
Kala Ramnath’s Amrit contains major scale ragas that craft a poignantly stirring work combining Eastern and Western gestures in a bold attempt to bring the two hemispheres’s musical traditions together.
Rhiannon Giddens’s At the Purchaser’s Option brought blues and roots music to the fore, genres that Kronos has played eloquently since their inception. Perhaps the most attractive piece on the program in terms of musical surface, its message went deeper, serving as a sober reminder of slave trade in 19th Century America. Giddens has a new Nonesuch CD out this coming Friday, titled Freedom Highway.
If Giddens’s piece was the most attractive on a surface level, Steve Reich’s Triple Quartet remained the weightiest in ambition and most thoroughly constructed of the programmed works. Written for Kronos, it features two virtual quartets on tape that accompany the live musicians (Kay and I are lobbying for more live performances of all three quartets, as that would really be something!). Overlapping ostinatos and stabbing melodic gestures provide a serious demeanor that resembles another piece played by Kronos with tape (of human voices): Different Trains. The rhythmic contours and syncopations provide ample amounts of challenges, but Kronos played seamlessly with the avatar-filled tape part. While “Fifty for the Future” is an important mission for Kronos, it is also heartening to hear some of their older repertoire being revived. The encore for the concert: an arrangement of “Strange Fruit,” the jazz protest song made famous by Billie Holiday.