Da Capo Players at Merkin (Concert Review)

Da Capo Chamber Players Perform a Potpourri of American Works


Da Capo Chamber Players

Da Capo Chamber Players

Merkin Concert Hall

June 4, 2018


NEW YORK – Themed programs and portrait concerts are all the rage these days. As such, it is refreshing when an ensemble goes eclectic, presenting a diverse array of music. Such was the case on Monday, June 4th, when Da Capo Chamber Players performed eight pieces by living American composers who write in a plethora of styles. Consisting of violinist Curtis Macomber, cellist Chris Gross, flutist Patricia Spencer, pianist Steven Beck and joined by guest artists soprano Lucy Shelton, clarinetists Marianne Glythfeldt and Carlos Cordeiro, and percussionist Michael Lipsey, the musicians are a formidable cadre of some of New York’s best new music performers. This was handily demonstrated in all of the works on offer at Merkin — how often can you depend on that level of consistency?


Few groups perform the rhythmic patternings of minimalism more assuredly than the Da Capo Players. Here they clearly delineated the differences between various types of ostinatos. Sweet air (1999) by David Lang juxtaposed its repetitions with distressed dissonances, In the sole premiere on the program, Dylan Mattingly’s Ecstasy #3 (2018) presented passages filled with an alt-folk-inflected melody. An arrangement by Robert Moran of Philip Glass’s Modern Love Waltz (1980) may have explored repetition in the most straightforward way of the pieces here, but its fluid playfulness made it a fetching addition to the proceedings.


The modernist wing of composition was represented too. Elliott Carter’s Canon for Four (1984) received an incisive rendition, with the contrapuntal details of the work vividly underscored. Tanoa León’s One Mo’ Time (2016) mixed a varied palette of chromaticism with inflections of gospel and jazz. She is one of the best at allowing these two traditions to coexist in her music in organic fashion. Christopher Cerrone supplied one of the evening’s most imaginative works. Hoyt=Schermerhorn for keyboard mixed a gradual build-up of soft textures that was somewhat indebted to the works of Feldman but through quicker changes of harmony. Over time, effects such as reverb and treble register loops brought the piece from its eighties origins into the twenty-first century. Amalgam (2015) by Taylor Brook, was the concert’s most experimental piece, with the players (and soprano Lucy Shelton) moving from disparate roles to unison playing, then heterophonic treatment of the piece’s melody. Amalgam is a fascinating composition that certainly proved to be a successful experiment for Da Capo.


The concert’s standout was Romancero (1983), for soprano and ensemble, settings of four medieval poems thought to be from the Sephardic Jewish tradition by Mario Davidovsky. Shelton was as expressive as ever and well-matched for the angular challenges posed by Romancero’s post-tonal pitch vocabulary. Her voice ranged from delicately floating pianissimo passages to forceful forte declamations. The instrumental parts are quite demanding as well, reminiscent of the complexly articulate language of Davidovsky’s electroacoustic Synchronisms. Shelton is a frequent collaborator with Da Capo (see a recent video of their rendition of Arnold Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire below), and their association showed in the intricate interplay between voice and instruments: a gem of a performance.


As if to remind us of the celebratory catholicity of taste that bound together the disparate strands of this program, its finale was the brief, yet brilliantly multi-faceted, Encore (1991) by Bruce Adolphe. Composed to celebrate the Da Capo Players’ twentieth anniversary, it has remained a staple of their repertoire. It is hard to believe that the group has now been going for 48 years. Based on the vigor with which they performed at Merkin Hall, the sky’s the limit for their upcoming golden anniversary season.



Sheila Silver Composer Portrait at Merkin Hall

Sheila Silver


The Music of Sheila Silver: A Celebration

Merkin Concert Hall

February 8, 2018

By Christian Carey

Published on Sequenza 21


NEW YORK – Composer Sheila Silver has taught at Stony Brook University since 1979. On February 8th at Merkin Concert Hall, an all-Silver program celebrated her tenure at the university. In addition to colleagues and students past and present, the hall was filled with area musicians – including multiple generations of composers – who were most enthusiastic in their reception of Silver and the estimable renditions of her work.


Even when composing instrumental music, Silver often bases her work on literature and describes it in terms of its narrative quality. The earliest piece on the program, To the Spirit Unconquered (1992), played by Trio de Novo – Brian Bak, violin, Phuc Phan Do, cello, and Hsin-Chiao Liao, piano – is inspired by the writings of Primo Levi, a survivor of the Holocaust who was imprisoned in Auschwitz. One of Silver’s most dramatic compositions, in places it is rife with dissonance and juxtaposes violent angularity with uneasy passages of calm. In the video below, Silver mentions trying to imbue it both with the searing quality of Levi’s struggle and, at its conclusion, some sense of hope based on his indomitability in the midst of horrendous experiences. Trio de Novo are a talented group who performed with detailed intensity and imparted the final movement, marked “stately,” with exceptional poise.


Soprano Risa Renae Harman and pianist Timothy Long performed an aria from the opera The Wooden Sword (2010), in which Harman displayed impressive high notes to spare. Her acting skills were on display – comedically sassy – in “Thursday,” one of the songs from Beauty Intolerable (2013), Silver’s cycle of Edna St. Vincent Millay settings. Soprano Lucy Fitz Gibbon, joined by pianist Ryan McCullough, presented another, more serious, Millay song, “What My Lips Have Kissed.” With Bak providing additional atmosphere, they also performed an aria from Silver’s current work-in-progress, the opera A Thousand Splendid Suns. Gibbon sang with considerable flexibility and purity of tone, at one point exuberantly spinning around while effortlessly holding a high note. Currently part of the group workshopping the opera, she seems perfectly cast. The songs and arias displayed a sumptuousness that served as a fine contrast to the denser language of the piano trio.


Dawn Upshaw was slated to perform with pianist (and longtime Stony Brook faculty member) Gilbert Kalish. Sadly, Upshaw had bronchitis and couldn’t sing on the concert. Gibbon valiantly stepped in, learning Silver’s On Loving, Three Songs in Memory of Diane Kalish (2015) in just two days. Her performance on the concert was supremely confident, betraying none of the last minute nature of the switch. Indeed, the three songs – settings of Shakespeare, St. Vincent Millay, and Khalil Gibran, were among the most stirring of Silver’s works on the program, displaying an autumnal lyricism and wistful poignancy. Kalish, a renowned accompanist, played with characteristic grace.


The second half of the concert showed still two more aspects of Silver’s work: a short film score and a more overtly political chamber piece. The first, Subway Sunset (1999), is a collaboration with her husband, the filmmaker John Feldman. It intersperses scenes of busy commuters with a gradually encroaching sunset adorning the sky near the World Trade Center. Although filmed before 2001, the duo dedicated it to the victims of 9/11. Seeing the towers on film will always be haunting. The musical accompaniment, a duet played by bassoonist Gili Sharret and pianist Arielle Levioff, created a solemn stillness that left space to contemplate the various implications of what used to be a normal scene for twentieth century commuters.


The program concluded with Twilight’s Last Gleaming (2008), a work for two pianists and two percussionists that is a commentary on the post 9/11 state of affairs. Its three movements’ titles – War Approaching, Souls Ascending, Peace Pretending – give a broad outline for the work’s impetus. Twilight’s Last Gleaming requires stalwart performers and Kalish, joined by pianist Christina Dahl (also on Stony Brook’s faculty) and percussionists Lusha Anthony and Brian Smith, provided a committed and energetic account of this challenging and penetrating piece. The large percussion setup included a considerable assortment of gongs as well as various pitched instruments and drums. The percussionists engaged in a complex choreography between parts, at times catwalking around the gongs’ stands to arrive perfectly in time for their next entrance. In the piece’s final section, an extended musical deconstruction of “The Star-Spangled Banner” takes place with all of the musicians engaging in an increasingly fragmented presentation of the tune. The piece closes leaving the penultimate line “The Land of the Free…” cut off by a musical question mark: a powerful ending to an evening of eloquent music.


Liza Lim: “How Forests Think” (Video)


Liza Lim



On August 14th at Merkin Concert Hall, International Contemporary Ensemble will give the U.S. Premiere of Liza Lim’s How Forests Think as part of a Mostly Mozart Festival concert featuring music by female composers. The program also includes a US premiere of Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s Aequilibria and Earth Ears by the recently departed Pauline Oliveros. All three composers are favorites of mine – great programming ICE!

(7:30 PM start time; tickets here)