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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Andrew Rudin’s String Sonatas

Andrew Rudin

Three String Sonatas

Centaur CD CRC 3266

 

Composer Andrew Rudin worked on his three string sonatas in stages, premiering initial versions and then substantially revising them. He has also orchestrated two of the three into concertos (the violin and viola sonatas). The consummate craftsmanship is evident. These are pieces where every note counts and there is an evident emotional quality behind every gesture.

 

Although the connection to Debussy is seldom overt, Rudin cites his cello sonata as a touchstone. The four movements are structured so that each one gains a minute of runtime, moving from a lithe two minute “Proclamation” to a lyrical five minute long “Consolation.” The balance and pacing of the piece’s design is supported by the clarity and strong ensemble interplay of the performance by cellist Samuel Magill and pianist Beth Levin.

 

Written in memory of George Rochberg (the piece includes a quote from Rochberg’s Second Symphony), Rudin’s Viola Sonata has enjoyed a staunch advocate in Brett Deubner. Indeed, according to Rudin the violist made many valuable suggestions during the work’s genesis. Deubner also gave the premiere of the viola concerto based upon the work with Orchestra 2001. Joined here by the talented pianist Marcantonio Barone, the violist brings out the many demeanors and techniques present in the sonata – from lithe pizzicatos to angular melodic gestures – with nuance of dynamic shape and enviable accuracy.

 

Rudin’s Violin Sonata is cast in a single movement, marked “Amabile.” Within it is an imaginative formal design in which materials return recast with different demeanors. Thus, as Rudin describes it, “they are often heard in a manner that inverts their original emotional quality, so that what was wistful becomes angry, what was playful becomes nostalgic, etc.” The piece is given an extraordinarily detailed and passionate performance here by violinist Miranda Cuckson and pianist Steven Beck. If one is seeking music that balances technical rigor with strong emotional impact, they need look no further than Rudin’s sonatas.

 

 

Cuckson and McMillen play Carter and More

Carter – Sessions – Eckardt

Miranda Cuckson, violin; Blair McMillen, piano

Urlicht Audiovisual CD

 

Violinist Miranda Cuckson and pianist Blair McMillen have already proven themselves an estimable duo for works by American Modernists such as Shapey and Martino. Their latest outing features Elliott Carter’s Duo for Violin and Piano (1973), a formidable piece written in the midst of Carter’s most compositionally rigorous period. And while the twosome emphasize the brittle, cutoff phrases that frequently appear in the work, they also do a deft job of pointing up the places in which violin lines melt into the resonance of piano chords (and vice versa). Thus, theirs is a rendition that juxtaposes rigor and grace, violence and gentleness; this versatility makes it one of my favorite outings with this piece I’ve thus far heard.

 

Composed in 1953, Sonata for solo violin is one of Roger Sessions’ first large-scale attempts at 12-tone composition. Clocking in at over thirty minutes, it is a bear of a piece, demanding both virtuosity and considerable thoughtfulness from the violinist to bring it off: Cuckson has both in spades. I particularly enjoy her traversal of the work’s last movement, a brisk “Alla Marcia” with incendiary passagework and double stops aplenty. Cuckson brings laser beam accuracy to the numerous tricky to tune passages.

 

Jason Eckardt wrote Strömkarl to complement the other pieces on this recording. It is based upon a Northern European legend of violin playing sprites who took up residence near waterfalls; depending on the rendering of the story, either charming passersby with music or leading them to drown. Eckardt captures this mischievous ambiguity with pixellated altissimo violin writing and brittle pizzicati; the piano is also given an angularly terse role to play. My money is on Eckardt’s image of the sprite being a wicked little beastie, but either way the piece is vividly characterful and a real workout for the performances; one they assay handily.