Thursday: League of Composers at Miller Theatre (7:30 start time)

On Thursday, May 25th at 7:30 PM, the Orchestra of the League of Composers, directed by Louis Karchin along with conductor David Fulmer, will present a program of works by Arvo Pärt, Fred Lerdahl, Lisa Bielawa, and Sheree Clement (a new piece commissioned by League of Composers/ISCM) at Columbia University’s Miller Theatre. Tickets are $25/$15 for students/seniors

Below is my program note for the concert, which should supply some background in advance of the concert.

 

Program note: Season Finale: Orchestra of the League of Composers/ISCM

By Christian Carey

 

One of the fundamental ways in which the League of Composers fulfills its mission is by programming a diverse selection of music. As with past “season finale” concerts given by the League’s orchestra, tonight’s program encompasses works from the United States and abroad in a variety of styles. Commissioning and highlighting new work is a particular focus; the concert includes a world premiere (written by Sheree Clement and commissioned by the League).

 

The concert begins with Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten, one of Arvo Pärt’s important first forays into the tintinnabuli style for which he has become best known. The composer’s style has often been described as minimalism (“holy minimalism” by opportunistic broadcasters and less-than-kind critics), but this strand of repetition-based composition is quite different from American varieties. Rather than being based primarily on unfolding repetitive processes, like the approach taken early on in music by Glass and Reich, or being based on the omnipresent ostinatos of post-minimalists such as John Adams and Michael Torke, Pärt’s approach is based on melodic formulations: canon and monodic stepwise melodies set against bell-like triadic sonorities. While the materials themselves are simple, they are variously combined in an accumulation of gestures that is anything but.

 

Whereas Pärt’s piece doesn’t include a single accidental, Sheree Clement’s Stories I Cannot Tell You, revels in a labyrinthine chromaticism. There is also significant attention paid to timbre: a panoply of orchestral combinations and colors supply this work with still more intricacy and mystery. The portentous quality of repeated notes from a bass drum delineates and unifies the piece’s three connected movements. While the composer avows that Stories is not specifically programmatic, her program note is filled with visceral images and powerful emotions – which are equaled by the music’s expressionist quality – descended from Schoenberg yet firmly on 21st century footing.

 

Originally composed for American Composers’ Orchestra and the pianist Anton Armstrong (who also performs the work on this program), Lisa Bielawa’s Start is the last section of The Right Weather, a four-part work whose movement titles derive from the key words of a quote from Aleksandr Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin: Roam, Wait, Beckon, Start. It is not a minimal work per se, although it shares some features with minimalist compositions. Start uses the aforementioned trope of American minimalism – the ostinato – as the motor in a variegated postmodern atmosphere. In addition to local ostinatos, there is an overarching repetitive process at work as well, a fascinating structural device that starts as a repeated single note in the slow section midway through the piece. Gradually, this “big beat” accumulates more and more pitches until it is a rearticulated chord and then – in one of the piece’s culminating gestures – an emphatically presented cluster. In a craftily enigmatic close, we are treated to an echo – a triad with a split third – presenting both major and minor in countervailing tension.

 

Fred Lerdahl supplies his own 21st century reset of a 20th century style; in this case, neoclassicism. Composed for the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, Time and Again is a lithely scored but powerfully articulate piece. Initially, this music was sketched for truly Spartan resources: as a duo for violin and cello called Give and Take. While there is an element of “theme and variations” here, the material isn’t exactly reiterated. Rather, continual transformations, particularly in the rhythmic domain, take place. Three large sections of development speed and slow the material in myriad ways, creating an unpredictable whorl of gestures. The coda builds a sustained unison to a cadence that is deflected by one final, puckish flourish.

Composer Christian Carey is an Associate Professor of Music at Westminster Choir College in Princeton, New Jersey. He edits the contemporary classical website Sequenza 21 (christianbarey.com).

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 …

 

 

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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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.

New York Polyphony at St. Mary’s

New York Polyphony Photo: Chris Owyoung
New York Polyphony
Photo: Chris Owyoung

New York Polyphony sings works by Ivan Moody and Giovanni Perluigi da Palestrina

Miller Theatre’s Early Music series at Church of St. Mary the Virgin

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Sequenza 21

by Christian Carey

NEW YORK – As part of Miller Theatre’s Early Music series, the male vocal quartet New York Polyphony (Geoffrey Williams, countertenor; Steven Caldicott Wilson, tenor; Christopher Dylan Herbert, baritone; and Craig Phillips, bass-baritone) celebrated their ensemble’s tenth anniversary with a concert at Church of St. Mary the Virgin on Saturday, January 21st. Speaking from the stage, the group acknowledged their long relationship with both Miller Theatre and St.Mary’s; they have appeared on a number of concerts curated by Miller and began their association when they were singers in the choir at the church. The concert began with Sicut cervus, a seamlessly beautiful motet by the evening’s star composer, Giovanni Perluigi da Palestrina.

For the occasion, New York Polyphony commissioned a new work that received its world premiere. Ivan Moody’s Vespers Sequence demonstrates his abiding interest in incorporating music and liturgical practices from the Orthodox church into his composition language. In addition to settings in English from Protestant and Catholic liturgies (St. Mary’s is an Anglo-Catholic Episcopal church), the piece featured chant and texts from the Russian, Serbian, and Greek traditions. In his program notes, Moody even provided a connection to Jewish liturgical practices in one of the psalms he chose to set. However, and fittingly for the location, special attention was paid to Marian texts: the piece culminates in a lustrous rendition of Rejoice, Virgin Mother of God, the Byzantine rite version of “Ave Maria.” Moody juxtaposes chant with chords featuring stacked seconds and fifths, which provide the proceedings with a shimmering quality. Another distinctive part of his language is the use of canon and other imitative passages to overlay melodic material into polytonal or polymodal pile-ups, again allowing dissonance to season the chant-inspired atmosphere. It is an often haunting and always elegantly written piece.

bis-2203

Like Sicut cervus, all of the selections on the second half of the concert were by Palestrina; all were also programmed on New York Polyphony’s latest BIS CD, Roma Aeterna. This segment featured the core quartet alongside three additional singers: Timothy Keeler, countertenor; Andrew Fuchs, tenor; and Jonathon Woody, bass-baritone. Clearly there was an affinity among the entire group’s membership; the additional trio’s tone quality and flowing legato fit right in with the New York Polyphony “sound.” Tu es Petrus, a six-part motet, was rendered in exuberant fashion. It was followed by the concert, and the compact disc’s, centerpiece, one of the most famous and beloved pieces of the Sixteenth century: Missa Papae Marcelli by Palestrina. Roma Aeterna is the first recording of this piece of which I am aware to feature countertenors, rather than trebles or sopranos, on the top lines of the mass. Herein lies a choice that changes the entire sound world of the piece. Williams is a countertenor of the alto, rather than male soprano, variety. And while there is little consensus on absolute pitch in the Renaissance, this leads to a transposition of the mass that is lower than the norm. Thus, where one was previously accustomed to bright sonorities and bustling rhythmic activity, New York Polyphony instead accentuated sonorousness, lyricism, and a supple gentleness. They provide an entirely different, and often appealing, version of this masterwork.

The audience’s applause demanded an encore, and the quartet complied, but with a somewhat out-of-season selection: the Christmas folksong “I Wonder as I Wander,” arranged by Williams. While it was well performed, it ended the evening in somewhat curious fashion. I wouldn’t have minded another Palestrina motet or a reprise of Moody’s “O Gladsome Light” in its place.