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 …

 

 

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.

Miranda Cuckson at Miller Theatre (concert review)

The violinist Miranda Cuckson (USA), New York, New York, April 8, 2013. Photograph © Beowulf Sheehan http://www.beowulfsheehan.com

Miranda Cuckson – Pop Up Concert at Miller Theatre

March 7, 2017

Published in Sequenza 21

By Christian Carey

 

NEW YORK – Violinist Miranda Cuckson is one of the stars of new music in New York: a fearless, visionary, and tremendously talented artist. On March 7th, she presented a solo program of 20th and 21st century works in a “Pop Up Concert” at Columbia University’s Miller Theatre. In her introduction to the event, Miller Theatre’s Executive Director Melissa Smey pointed out that their “Pop Up Series” has hosted dozens of world and New York premieres. Cuckson’s program was no exception, leading off with the New York premiere of En Soi (2017) composed by Steve Lehman, a Columbia alumnus who is now on the faculty of CalArts. It is a very strong piece, written with a bevy of plucked passages using both hands. This is designed to make the violin resemble an African instrument called the ngoni. To further cement this association, Lehman specified a microtonal tuning and scordatura. Accordingly, Cuckson performed En Soi with one violin and the rest of the program with another.

 

Two pieces by Aaron Jay Kernis followed. Both showed the Pulitzer prize winner’s absolute command of idiomatic writing for strings. Aria-Lament (1992) departs from an introduction filled with soft altissimo passages to a gradual buildup of energy in the main section, incorporating meaty double stops and angular allegro melodic lines. A Dance of Life (2010) juxtaposes fast moving chromatic passages with ruminative sections of achingly sustained lines.

 

Cuckson has performed a great deal of Michael Hersch’s music. A recent work composed specifically for her, the weather and landscape are on our side (2016), demonstrated the composer’s keen affinity for Cuckson’s capabilities. A multi-movement work, it features numerous delicate passages, employing bowing techniques, pizzicato, and harmonics to differentiate gestures. All was not introversion however, as the piece also accorded the violinist dynamic sections which burst forth in eruptive fashion.

 

The concert culminated with Huang Ruo’s Four Fragments (2006), pieces requiring considerable virtuosity that use sliding tones and melodic patterns from traditional Chinese music. The frequent resemblance to vocalisms from Chinese opera were striking. The Fragments were a thrilling way to end the concert.

 

Cuckson is an ideal emissary for contemporary music. Assaying a formidable program, her preparation was exquisite and presentation consistently engaging. Miller has more “Pop Up” events in the Spring, including performances by the Orlando Consort, ICE, Ensemble Signal, JACK, and Mivos Quartet. The price can’t be beat – free – and one can even enjoy a libation to boot.

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Francois Couturier and Anja Lechner at Greenwich Music House (Concert Review)

anja-and-francois-at-greenwich-house
Anja Lechner and François Couturier Greenwich House, NYC February 18, 2017. Photo by Claire Stefani

 

Francois Couturier and Anja Lechner

Greenwich Music House

New York

February 18, 2017

By Christian Carey

 

Five Things to Like About Francois Couturier and Anja Lechner in duo performance

 

  1. Versatility — These are two musicians who are able to play in a plethora of styles: classical, jazz, world music, et cetera. I first interviewed cellist Anja Lechner for a Signal to Noise feature about the bandoneonist Dino Saluzzi. I was impressed with her versatility then and remain so today. Pianist Francois Couturier is an eminently qualified performing partner for Lechner.
  2. Ensemble — Even though most of their set consisted of composed pieces — Couturier had sheet music on the piano throughout — the improvisational directions that they took the works featured a plethora of surprises and sharp turns into different musical terrain. The duo hardly needed to look at each other to turn on a dime into a new section or tempo.
  3. Variety — The concert included pieces by Couturier, with the back-to-back presentation of Voyage and Papillons creating a swirl of timbres and techniques. Federico Mompou also featured prominently, with renditions of three of his works on the program, including Soleil Rouge, a sumptuous encore. Komitas, Gurdjieff, and a transcription of an Abel piece originally for viola da gamba were other offerings. But the standout was Anouar Brahem’s Vagues, a work that the duo had previously performed with the composer. It brought out a tenderness and poise that was most impressive.
  4. Technique and effects — Both Couturier and Lechner demonstrated abundant performing ability. However, conventional playing was just a part of their presentation. The duo used a host of effects, Couturier playing inside the piano, Lechner supplying all manner of harmonics, pizzicatos, and alternate bowing techniques. This gave the abundant lyricism of their performance just the right amount of seasoning.
  5. Tarkovsky Quartet CD — Happily for those who missed this intimate event, or for those who heard it and want more, Couturier and Lechner appear as members of the Tarkovsky Quartet (which also includes soprano saxophonist Jean-Marc Lerché and accordionist Jean-Louis Matinier) on a new ECM CD, Nuit Blanche.

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New York Philharmonic Premieres HK Gruber’s Piano Concerto

Hi All. This fell off the blog for some reason. I am re-hosting it today. 

 

New York Philharmonic Premieres H.K. Gruber

New York Philharmonic

Photos: Chris Lee

 

Avery Fisher Hall, New York

January 7, 2017

By Christian Carey

Five Things to Love About the NY Phil’s January 7th Concert

  1. Kurt Weill’s Kleine Dreigroschenmusik (Little Threepenny Music) for Wind Ensemble: A truly charming work that also demonstrates the composer’s affinity for early jazz orchestration, Little Threepenny Music showed off the wind section of the Philharmonic at their very best, and it was wonderful to hear banjo in the mix. Mack the Knife alone is worth many three-pennies!
  2. Emmanuel Ax playing H.K. Gruber: As Ax himself admits (see video embed below), his training is classical, not jazz-oriented. That said, he acquitted himself well in the premiere of H.K. Gruber’s Piano Concerto, spinning swinging fistfuls of notes into the air at a nearly relentless pace with his characteristic musicality.
  3. H.K. Gruber’s Piano Concerto: It is audaciously orchestrated, cast for a large orchestra with tons of contrapuntal imitation thickening the texture — yet somehow the piano comes through in brilliant fashion. There are elements of Weill’s early jazz, notably “shimmy music” from his opera Tales from the Vienna Woods. But the piece contains an even more pronounced strain of modern jazz: one could imagine the late Eric Dolphy fitting right in, taking a seat among the winds.
  4. Thoughtful programming: H.K. Gruber has performed works by Kurt Weill as a chansonnier. Schubert’s early Second Symphony hasn’t been performed since Kurt Masur was Music Director of the NY Phil (I saw that performance too; more about it momentarily).
  5. Alan Gilbert conducting Franz Schubert: When I heard Masur’s performance of Schubert’s Second Symphony in 1994, I was convinced that the teenage composer had the capacity to be a proto-Brahms with high Romantic spirits. Gilbert’s interpretation of the piece stands in stark contrast. It is much quicker, putting the strings through fleet-footed paces and distilling Schubert’s admiration for Mozart into each of the work’s movements. I wouldn’t want to be without either rendition, and am grateful to have heard them both. That said, January 7th’s masterful performance is just going to make me miss Alan Gilbert at the helm of the NY Phil even more.

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Gidon Kremer at McCarter

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Gidon Kremer and Kremerata Baltica

McCarter Theatre Center

Friday, February 3, 2017

By Christian Carey

 

PRINCETON – I’ve wanted to hear violinist Gidon Kremer perform Estonian composer Arvo Pärt’s iconic work Fratres live since I was a teenager. Back then, Kremer’s rendition of the work on an ECM Records New Series CD was transfixing and game changing: it became an almost totemic art object for me as a composition student. On February 3rd, I got my wish at McCarter Theatre in Princeton. Unlike the recording, here Kremer pushed the proceedings forward, taking a quicker tempo and engaging in more taut phrasing than he did on the CD. The work is still transfixing, but it was moving to hear its story retold in a new way.

 

Kremer and Kremerata Baltica, the chamber orchestra of Eastern European musicians that he leads, have a new ECM CD out, this one of the Chamber Symphonies of Mieczysław Weinberg, late works that sit astride Mahlerian late Romanticism and modernism that is a close cousin to the works of Shostakovich. Clarinetist Mate Bekavac, who also appears on the recording, was a sterling-toned soloist, unwinding breathless phrases and coordinating and blending seamlessly with the strings.

 

The second half of the concert had an interested concept that provided a bit of dramatic flair. Kremer began it with Tchaikovsky’s Serenade Melancolique, leaving the stage on the last note, which led directly into Kremerata Baltica’s rendition of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. This was resolutely played, but the absence of brass and winds led to some strangely attenuated passages (Andrei Pushkarev, a percussionist, performed formidable gymnastics to reach all of the score’s instruments). At the piece’s conclusion, Kremer returned to the stage, playing Valentin Silvestrov’s solo Serenade nearly attacca.

 

There were yet more surprises to come. Two encores, Stankovich’s Lullaby and Alfred Schnittke’s Polka gave the audience distinct flavors of music-making – one poignant and one buoyant – to send them home.

 

This is Kremer’s seventieth birthday year. To celebrate, he has not only released the Weinberg disc on ECM, but has also recorded Rachmaninov’s Piano Trios and the Philip Glass’s Violin Concerto (available on vinyl!) for DG.

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Beat Furrer at Miller Theatre

Beat Furrer
Beat Furrer

Composer Portrait – Beat Furrer

Miller Theatre

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Either/Or Ensemble; Richard Carrick, conductor

By Christian Carey

 

NEW YORK – Miller Theatre has long had plans for a Composer Portrait evening of Beat Furrer’s music. In 2001, the event was disrupted by 9/11, which made it impossible to bring in the musicians slated to perform. After a long hiatus, the American ensemble Either/Or, conducted by Richard Carrick, was invited to undertake the first Miller portrait event in 2017, finally featuring Furrer’s compositions. The concert was masterfully performed and artistically satisfying. Alas, this time out, it was Furrer who could not attend. The Swiss-born, Austrian-based composer had taken ill and his doctors advised him against flying. One felt sorry that Furrer had missed a chance to hear his work at Columbia not once, but twice. What’s more, audience members were denied a planned onstage conversation with the composer about his work. Thankfully, Miller has continued to employ Paul Griffiths, one of the foremost writers on contemporary music, as their program note writer. Griffiths supplied a great deal of biographical background and information about the pieces, giving listeners a fine entryway into Furrer’s compositional aesthetic.

 

Carrick conducted the largest work on the program, the nonet linea dell-orizzonte (2012), which includes winds, brass, strings, piano, percussion, and electric guitar. Propulsive rhythmic activity underscored frequent glissandos. Rollicking gestures from Taka Kigawa’s piano, string harmonics, and guitar distortion, courtesy of Dann Lippel, created a hazy sound world, which gradually receded into syncopated brass, from trumpeter Gareth Flowers and trombonist Chris McIntyre, and percussion outbursts offset by rests, from Russell Greenberg and Dennis Sullivan.

 

Ira-Arca (2012), a duo for the unusual combination of bass flute and double-bass, was given a characterful performance by flutist Margaret Lancaster and bassist Ken Filiano. The piece frequently had the two mimic each other’s gestures, creating a nimble duet leavened with copious effects: exhalations, key clicks, flute and bass harmonics, slaps, and all manner of pizzicatos.

 

The quintet Spur (1998), for piano and string quartet, is one of Furrer’s most popular works. Kigawa played its repeated note gestures with fleet-fingered dexterity, while the quartet – violinists Jennifer Choi and Pala Garcia, violist Erin Wright and cellist Erin Popham – haloed the octaves, sevenths, and ninths of the piano part with pizzicato and altissimo lines, their sense of ensemble nicely complementing the keyboard ostinatos. In several places, the overall ascent of this central line breaks down into more diverse textures and gradual processes, but it is the piece’s inexorable drive and propulsive character that make it a strong entry in the composer’s catalog.

 

The second half of the concert was devoted entirely to the US premiere of one of Furrer’s most recent pieces – the clarinet quintet intorno al bianco (2016). It was in this piece that the composer most clearly demonstrated his affinity for spectral harmonies. Extended passages built out of overtones shimmering brightly. Clarinettist Vasko Dukovski blended seamlessly with the aforementioned string players, at times seeming to find the breath support to buoy impossibly long lines and performing with an enviably dulcet tone. The climax of intorno al bianco chimes chords with stratospheric highs before receding into a sumptuous denouement. It showed a different facet of Furrer’s music entirely. One felt that both his gestural and overtone-based pieces reveal potential avenues of further inquiry. While Miller tends to give composers a single portrait concert, another of Furrer’s music, this time with him in attendance to talk about it, would be most welcome.