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 …

 

 

Signal plays Steve Reich at Miller

Steve Reich

Steve Reich. Photo: Jeffrey Herman

 

Opening Night at Miller Theater

 

On September 15, Ensemble Signal, conducted by Brad Lubman, presented an all-Steve Reich program to open the season at Columbia University’s Miller Theatre. There was a sold out crowd, populated both by contemporary music devotees and over 200 Columbia students. Reich turns eighty later this year, and this is one of the many birthday concerts that will fete the composer.

 

Signal has recorded several albums of Reich’s music, including a 2016 release on Harmonia Mundi that features his Double Sextet and Radio Rewrite, recent works that demonstrate the undiminished energy and invention of their creator. The Miller Theatre concert focused on two sets of “variations,” composed in the prior decade: Daniel Variations (2006) and You Are Variations (2004). The amplified ensemble featured a superlative small complement of singers, a string quintet, a quartet of grand pianos, and a bevy of percussion and wind instruments. They were recording the concert, one hopes for subsequent release.

 

Daniel Variations is, in terms of instrumentation, the slightly smaller of the two. Alongside the aforementioned piano/percussion group, Reich employs a quartet of vocalists (two sopranos and two tenors, singing in a high tessitura for much of the piece), string quartet, and two clarinets. There are two textual sources for the piece. The first are the words of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, who, while reporting on the conflict in Pakistan in 2002, was captured and killed by Islamic extremists. These are offset by quotations from the Book of Daniel, a text from the Old Testament of the Bible. The texts underscore Pearl’s Judaism and also his love of music (he was an amateur string player). Indeed, the last movement of the piece, “I sure hope Daniel likes my music, when the day is done,” is a trope on a Stuff Smith song, “I Sure Hope Gabriel Likes My Music,” found in Pearl’s record collection after his death.

 

You Are Variations finds Reich exploring texts from his spiritual roots, including Psalm 16, quotes from the Talmud, the Hasidic Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, and Wittgenstein (Reich’s undergraduate thesis subject). Musical quotes are diverse as well, ranging from L’Homme Arme to a song by James Brown. The harmony is prevailingly in D mixolydian but unorthodox bass progressions and layering often give it a polytonal feel. From where I was sitting, the vocals seemed a little recessed in favor of the winds, something that I am confident can be worked out in subsequent mixing of the projected recording. It still worked live, giving the impression that the singers were sometimes supported by the ensemble and sometimes vying in a struggle for discernment of the weighty texts.

 

Lubman conducts Reich’s work with the authority of someone who has both an intimate knowledge of the scores and of the formidable musicians at his disposal. Reich seemed to approve. Taking the stage with trademark baseball cap firmly planted on his head, he volubly demonstrated his pleasure to everyone from Lubman to the sound designer. The percussionists, in particular, beamed as they accepted his greetings: they had done right by Reich.

 

Ensemble Signal Records Steve Reich (CD Review)

Steve Reich Played by Signal

Steve Reich

Double Sextet (2007) and Radio Rewrite (2013)

Ensemble Signal, Brad Lubman, conductor

Harmonia Mundi CD

 

There are several recordings out this year commemorating Steve Reich at eighty (Allan Kozinn provides more about this in an excellent WSJ article). I haven’t yet heard the LSO’s CD, but I agree with Kozinn’s assessment that both Third Coast Percussion and Ensemble Signal have provided us with stirring listening in their respective new entries into Reich’s discography.

Brad Lubman leads Signal in musically detailed and energetic performances of both of the pieces included on this Harmonia Mundi CD. The first, Double Sextet (2007), garnered Reich the 2009 Pulitzer Prize in Music. Originally composed for six musicians – the chamber ensemble Eighth Blackbird – to play against prerecorded versions of themselves, here Double Sextet is recast as a work for a dozen individual performers. Within each movement’s overall tempo, there are overlapping time strands operating at various tempi. The combination of these two factors – compositional and performative – allows for a virtuosic level of syncronization. This complexity of rhythm corresponds to the enhanced harmonic palette that Reich employs here, with many more “crunch chords” than is his usual wont.

Sure, Radio Rewrite does contain elements of two Radiohead songs: “Everything in its Right Place” and “Jigsaw Falling into Place.” Their appearances are ephemeral and one gathers that the songs’ influence is to be felt far more beneath the surface of the piece than is to be found in mere quotation; they stoke the motoric engine that buoys this energetic and engaging work.

Friday: Taka Kigawa and Ensemble LPR

On Friday, pianist Taka Kigawa joins Ensemble LPR for a program of contemporary classical music, both watershed works and new offerings. The concert’s centerpiece is Ligeti’s Piano Concerto. The Ensemble also performs Varèse’s Octandre and Gallery Music by composer/conductor Brad Lubman (best known for his work with Ensemble Signal).

Kigawa also plays two solo pieces, Joule by Dai Fujikura and The Thinking Eye by area (Columbia U.) composer Zosha Di Castri. 

Check out a video of the Fujikura work below.

Taka Kigawa, piano; Ensemble LPR, Oliver Hagen, conductor

Friday, January 24th 8pm, at (le) Poisson Rouge.

Program

Edgard Varèse: Octandre
Brad Lubman: Gallery Music
Zosha Di Castri: The Thinking Eye
Dai Fujikura: Joule
György Ligeti: Piano Concerto

For more info and tickets, visit LPR’s website.