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.

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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.

Tallis Scholars at St. Mary’s (Concert Review)

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Tallis Scholars at St. Mary’s: Bass Hit

Sequenza 21

By Christian Carey

 

NEW YORK – On December 10th, the Tallis Scholars found themselves in a bit of a quandary. Scheduled to give their annual Renaissance Christmas concert as part of Miller Theatre’s Early Music Series at Church of St. Mary the Virgin, the ten-voice ensemble was decimated to nine. Long-time member bass Robert Macdonald was ill and had been rendered voiceless. Peter Phillips, the Tallis Scholars’ director, quipped from onstage that unless he sang, which the rest of the singers “felt unwise,” the group’s other bass, Tim Whiteley, would have to go it alone. MacDonald did not appear to be the only member suffering. During the course of the concert, there were several sniffles onstage and far more water being chugged than is the group’s usual practice. Gamely they had decided to appear regardless.

 

There was yet another wrinkle to the story. During the first half of the concert the Tallis Scholars had planned to feature Cipriano de Rore’s Missa Praeter rerum seriem, a composition that includes many divisi, including a number of passages where each bass has his own part. A substitution was in order, and the solution was a welcome one: Giovanni Perluigi da Palestrina’s Missa Assumpta est Maria. One of the composer’s last works, it demonstrates his movement from a more modal to a quasi-tonal harmonic method of organization. Although outnumbered, Whiteley never seemed vocally outgunned. Indeed, the Tallis Scholars’ long association helped them to rebalance their forces in seemingly effortless fashion. The clarity of lines and fine-tuned chords which resulted were truly remarkable sounding.

em_tallisscholars_matthewmurphy_12-10-11

Although the audience had been deprived of De Rore on the first half, the second provided some compensation with a sprightly, joyous rendition of his Hodie Christus natus est setting. Magnificat Primi Toni, by Tomás Luis de Victoria, features antiphonal division of the choir into two four-part units. Fortunately for this occasion it doesn’t include bass divisi, but there are some stellar passages for high sopranos that arched angelically upward, as well as sturdy tutti declamation.

 

Victoria, Palestrina, and even de Rore are familiar composers to many Renaissance listeners, but the next two selections on the program, both Salve Regina settings, were composed by figures who aren’t yet “household names.” Based on the quality of these works alone, they should be. Claudin de Sermisy’s Salve Regina was filled with imitative counterpoint, including four-voice canons and fetching duets, which were delivered with abundant precision by the Tallis Scholars. Hernando de Franco, a Spanish composer who resided in Mexico, must have enjoyed setting the Salve Regina text – or at the very least been frequently requested to do so – there are five of them attributed to him. Here, chant was weaved into the fabric of the piece, interspersing thick-voiced passages of contrapuntal activity.

 

The concert concluded with O Splendor Gloriae, a composition that appears to have been a collaboration between John Taverner and Christopher Tye. The piece never feels like a ragtag assemblage, but there are significant differences among its various sections. O Splendor has a long-ish text, describing the Creation story from the Fall to Christ’s Resurrection and Ascension. Even after such a taxing program, and under harried circumstances, the Tallis Scholars brought a warm sound to bear here. This is no mean feat, as the work contains a number of high-lying lines. In addition to the sopranos who sustained these, Whiteley must be commended for his efforts. The bass brought sonorous support to the work’s chordal passages and hardy declamation during sections for subsets of the ensemble. It was a testament to the Tallis Scholars’ consummate professionalism that, despite challenging circumstances,  they made such stirring music.  

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.