An Evening with Simone Dinnerstein (Concert review)

Photo: Lisa Marie Mazzucco

Simone Dinnerstein in Recital

Miller Theatre – Columbia University

December 8, 2018

Published on Sequenza21.com

By Christian Carey

NEW YORK – On Saturday, December 8th, pianist Simone Dinnerstein made a return appearance to Miller Theatre to perform an intriguing and eclectic solo recital. The stage was set with subdued lighting, with electric “candles” placed throughout and, over the course of the evening, small shifts of color. Ms. Dinnerstein, dressed in elegant, flowing attire, created an atmosphere through her performance demeanor as well. The recital was announced with no intermission and the pianist paused from playing only once, midway through, to acknowledge applause and take a brief break. However, by otherwise starting each piece immediately after the final notes of the one it preceded, she communicated clearly that this was not to be an event in which musical continuity would be broken by applause between numbers. Thankfully the audience complied, mutually agreeing to allow the atmosphere to envelop them too.

Dinnerstein played two pieces by the Eighteenth century harpsichord composer Francois Couperin, one at the beginning and another right before the break. This is the first time she has programmed the composer. Her approach to Les Barriades mystérieueses was sonorous, eschewing ornamentation in favor of unadorned, shapely melodies. Like the Goldberg Variations, the second piece required interlacing the hands to play everything on the piano keyboard that would have required two manuals on the harpsichord. Le Tic-Toc-Choc, ou Les Mallotins featured motoric clockwork and brisk filigrees that were an excellent foil for the Philip Glass work that immediately preceded it.

Mad Rush (1979), one of Glass’s best known piano pieces, was first composed for the organ at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, where the composer performed it for an appearance by the Dalai Lama. Arranged for piano, the piece is forceful and filled with contrasts. Its delicate passages were played with a spacious sense of breath by Dinnerstein, while the more emphatic central section in piece’s the repeating loop was performed powerfully with fleet-fingered accuracy. Last year, Dinnerstein’s account of Glass’s Third Piano Concerto was impressive; here, she made a further case for a place in the pantheon of Glass pianists. Contrast played a large role in Dinnerstein’s rendition of Robert Schumann’s Arabesque. Once again, she emphasized the breath between phrases, allowing the audience a sense of deft transition between the various emotive sections as they unspun.

Erik Satie’s Gnossiene No. 3 received the mysterious performance its ambiguous markings and lack of bar-lines evokes. One part cafe music and another modal Impressionist excursion, the piece was rendered with an evasive, lilting quality.

The pianist, in general, avoids overt and flashy displays of hyper-virtuosity, preferring instead to pick distinct places in which she allows her playing to be unrestrained. Dinnerstein’s performance of Schumann’s Kreisleriana provided several excellent opportunities for effusive virtuosity, and they seemed all the more special for the way that the pianist set them in relief against the more contemplative portions of the work. Fleet arpeggiations flew and the fugal passage in the final movement was a brisk cannonade.

Dinnerstein’s aforementioned penchant for allowing the music to breathe, as well as the atmosphere she created for her performance, encouraged a normally bustling New York audience to truly slow down and breathe themselves: a welcome respite during the busy holiday season. When the encore she favored them with was not some barnstormer but instead a reprise of Les Barriades, allowing the program to come full circle, it seemed entirely appropriate.

Best Chamber Portrait CD and Best New Recording Artist 2017

Scott Wollschleger, Soft Aberration (New Focus, 2017)

Longleash, Passage (New Focus, 2017)

Scott Wollschleger’s compositions are written in an amalgam of different styles, onto which he puts a personal stamp, creating pieces that are full of savory surprises. Wollschleger’s debut portrait CD on New Focus, Soft Aberration, contains five pieces that show his eclecticism to best advantage.

It certainly helps that the performers he has enlisted are some of the most talented youngish players on New York’s contemporary classical scene. The piano trio Longleash is a powerhouse. They present Wollschleger’s ostinato-laden Brontal Symmetry with kinetic verve and an eye towards detail. The work’s more active passages are eruptive. Just as you think that the groove is locked in, a beautifully meditative section interrupts the inexorable gallop with haloing harmonics and the introduction of less dissonant harmonies. Eventually, the opening material returns, now transformed to contain less symmetry. Slowly, the gears grind to a halt.

Longleash’s cellist, John Popham, presents the multiple simultaneous strands of America both distinctly and as interlocking motoric rhythms. The piece is a cousin to Brontal Symmetry, and its range of activity makes it an impressive showcase. Soft Aberration demonstrates a bit of a Morton Feldman influence, if one that is compressed into a fourteen minute long piece. Still, the use of soft, slow, off-kilter repetitions and the way in which wayward viola melodies are harmonized by piquant piano verticals is striking. Violist Anne Lanzilotti and pianist Karl Larson present a focused, riveting performance.

On three separate tracks distributed throughout the CD, soprano Corrine Byrne and trumpeter Andrew Kozar (who also plays in loadbang) perform sections of Bring Something Incomprehensible Into this World (Parts 1-3).  Chirruping high notes from Byrne are matched by muted interjections from Kozar; both get an ample dose of  microtonal inflections and glissandos to impart. These duets demonstrate a playful side to Wollschleger’s work that is appealing.

Mivos Quartet performs “White Wall,” a two-movement string quartet in which short motives played in harmonics, rustling string noise, whistling glissandos and, for good measure, more harmonics of the plucked variety, create a fragilely intense atmosphere. The second movement moves us into one of Wollschleger’s trademark off-kilter grooves, interrupted with multi-stop glissandos. It then goes sideways into a sostenuto passage for solo cello. A gradual build-up back to tempo is established, this time with the lower register leading the foray. The presence of the upper strings is fully reestablished and then the cello too climbs upward. A return to the effects-laden character of the beginning of the quartet resumes. Vertical harmonies tantalize with pitch centers, but destabilize things just as quickly, making the overall trajectory seem to ooze further and further away from conclusion: a moving target. Another soft cello interlude appears, this time made up of string noise and harmonics. Whispered text and a gale of loud pizzicatos abruptly thrust the piece into a coda that then dissolves into hushed spookiness.

Violinist Pala Garcia and pianist Renate Rohlfing met Popham during their studies in New York at Manhattan School of Music and the Juilliard School. They gave their first concert as Longleash in 2013. The name comes from a covert CIA program that was used to advance contemporary American music in Europe during the Cold War.  The trio released Passage, their debut CD, in Fall 2017. As on Softer Aberration, Longleash plays vivaciously, expressively, and with keen virtuosity that extends to a host of extended techniques.

Christopher Trapini’s Passing Through, Staying Put is, according to the composer, “a study in contrasts between motion and stasis.” String chords slide from harmony to harmony, sharp melodic stabs and pizzicatos are offset by angular keyboard verticals. The material morphs from more active to reposeful demeanors in an effective series of contrasts. Il dolore dell’ombra, by Clara Iannotta, is written in homage to Ravel’s Piano Trio in A minor. One can hear scraps of material that reference Ravel’s language in whisps and fragments but, as is the intent, it is nearly engulfed by the strong presence of Iannotta’s interest in resonances from both pitch and noise-based spectra. Once again, cascading string glissandos, some bleating like birdsong, wreath a more propulsive piano part that explores the bass register of the piano in contrast to the prevailing altissimo range inhabited by the strings. The second movement finds the piano bifurcated between extreme treble and bass registers, while the strings enact screeching slides. This is interrupted by a more inward-directed interlude, with sustained harmonics and pianissimo chordal interjections from the piano. Impressionist harmonies burble to the surface; Ravel’s trio asserts itself while the 21st century techniques momentarily seem in retreat. The third movement returns to a more energetic, almost dance-like demeanor. Once again harmonics and inside-the-piano work reign supreme.

Yukiko Watanabe’s ver_flies_sen is inspired by the water imagery in the art of Brazilian painter Adriana Varejã. A diaphanous-textured miniature, its use of glissandos and harmonics reflects a similar palette to the one in Trapini’s piece; but here it is deployed with extreme delicacy and gradual pacing. Juan de Dios Magdaleno’s Strange Attractors, intricately constructed using fractal mathematics, has a less straightforward trajectory than the other works on the CD, but it is no less compelling. Indeed, its labyrinthine structure shows an imaginative composer at work. The disc closes with Corde vuolte by Francesco Filidei: a horse of another color, it is a paean to open string sonorities.

Passage demonstrates that even in the midst of the advanced techniques now again in vogue in the early 21st century, there are a plethora of manners of deployment of these materials. The performers are top notch advocates for composers at the vanguard of the second modern movement. One can envision a bright future for both Longleash and the composers they champion.

Scott Wollschleger’s Soft Aberration is Sequenza 21’s Best Chamber Portrait Recording 2017. Longleash are Sequenza 21’s Best New Recording Artists 2017.

Best Recording 2017 – Tyshawn Sorey’s Verisimilitude

Verisimilitude

Verisimilitude

Tyshawn Sorey

Tyshawn Sorey, drums, percussion, composer; Cory Smythe, piano, toy piano, electronics; Chris Tordini, bass

Pi Records PI70

Tyshawn Sorey has had quite a year of musical accomplishments. After recently finishing up his doctorate at Columbia, he succeeded Anthony Braxton on the faculty at Wesleyan University, won a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, and received several other major awards and commissions. He has remained active in a number of ensembles, playing a pivotal role on another of this year’s best CDs, Vijay Iyer Sextet’s Far From Over (ECM). Verisimilitude, for Pi Recordings, is his sixth recorded outing as leader. Sorey is joined by pianist Corey Smythe and bassist Chris Tordini in five adventurous and stimulating compositions.

 

A suitable overture, “Cascade in Slow Motion,” is buoyed by interlocking arpeggios from pizzicato bass and piano and punctuated by supply drummed polyrhythms. Clocking in at four and a half minutes, it is the only relative miniature here. Thereafter, Sorey and his colleagues explore long form music-making. An arco bass solo leads off “Flowers for Prashant,” which then turns into a dovetailing duet. A gradual intensification led by this duet texture takes place, only to hew back to drone-based passages of repeated notes.

 

Smythe uses electronics and Tordini high-pitched arco lines to begin “Obsidian.” After an extended introduction exploring these timbres, Tordini plays lower pitched glissandos and Smythe sepulcral bass note stabs. Sorey enters with textural percussion: a gong, a host of woody fills, and shimmering cymbals. A fulsome groove is established; Tordini returns to pizzicato bass, Smythe repeats bass register chords, and Sorey deploys a cannonade at the kit. Eventually, pointillism is reasserted with upper register piano chords and throbbing bass notes; Sorey moves back to cymbals and auxiliary percussion instruments. Smythe’s basso reiterations lead to a coda based on the second section. Then there is a gradual denouement, punctuated by long gong strokes and slithering bass register glissandos.

 

“Algid November” is the half-hour long centerpiece of Verisimilitude and is Sorey’s most ambitious piece for trio yet. Once again, the emphasis is on gradually morphing from one set of textures and playing demeanors to the next. The musical fabric consists at first of a prevailingly soft dynamic and slow tempo, one undergirded with big beats (never amorphous) that contains numerous angular feints and jabs from all three players. Sorey is a master at contrasting the resounding of instruments such as gongs and cymbals with the faster decay of drums and small percussion instruments; all interactions and decays are timed with precision. After a long period in which these juxtapositions are the focal point, Sorey performs at the drum kit with zeal, while Smythe and Tordini operate in a dissonant language of jagged filigrees.

 

A little less than halfway through, the piece moves from post-tonality to post-bop, with cascading arpeggiations from Smythe and walking lines from Tordini locked in a tight groove that Sorey simultaneously supports and overlays with contrasting elements. Just when one feels their toes tapping, the trio moves sideways in lockstep, back to the big beats of the opener but with a fuller overall texture. Rearticulated verticals, first low and then high, signal yet another change in direction. Smythe’s repeated notes pile up in an ostinato haze and Tordini grooves in still another timeframe while Sorey engages in lithe ornamentation. Two thirds of the way through the piece, a visceral build up leads to a huge crash of cymbals.

 

Afterwards, the musicians resume the slow tempo and fragile soundscape that began “Algid November.” Pitched percussion, quickly plucked bass melodies, and chiming piano lines give way to rattling reiterations from Sorey and Smythe. It is as if the big crash that signalled the piece’s climax is being allowed successive echos. Interpolations of the swing section, in tiny slices that last merely a breath or two, are juxtaposed with barbed jabs and intricately constructed rhythmic passages. Another gale storm threatens, then is subdued, devolving into muted piano notes and quietly reverberant gong rolls.

 

The final work on the CD, “Contemplating Tranquility,” opens with the same muted material that closed “Algid November.” Gongs and temple bells gradually coalesce into  a new, still slow, pulse stream of pitched percussion, toy piano ,and then grand piano. Glassy piano harmonies are pitted against reiterated soundings of the gong. Smythe gradually adds arpeggios in the low register to replicate the lowest sounding frequencies of the gong. Filling in the registers, Sorey suddenly switches roles, adding trebly unpitched percussion to the proceedings where there had been piano. Toy piano and pitched percussion engage in a duet that is joined by a low rumbling and then sustained upper register arco lines and a generous dose of harmonics from Tordini. Smythe begins to build verticals in a more harmonically conceived direction, buoyed by more consonance — even an octave here and there — from the bass player. As things converge around the low E string of the bass, Tordini then has some fun of his own, throwing in notes that rend the heretofore harmonically grounded passage asunder. While Sorey weaves sustained cymbal passages, pianist and bassist create a duet that ebbs and flows in an ever narrowing dynamic spectrum. Temple bells suggests a possible return to the more contemplative demeanor of the opening. Instead, it is a signal that the meditation is over. Thus ends Sorey’s Verisimilitude, Sequenza 21’s Best Recording of 2017.

 

Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Concerto for Yo-Yo Ma

Alan Gilbert conducts the New York Philharmonic in Esa-Pekka Salonen
Cello Concerto with Yo-Yo Ma and Berlioz
Symphonie fantastique at David Geffen Hall, 3/15/17. Photo by Chris Lee.

Yo-Yo Ma Premieres Salonen Concerto in New York

March 15, 2017

Sequenza 21

By Christian Carey

 

NEW YORK – One of the most eagerly anticipated New York premieres of 2017 was Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Cello Concerto, written for Yo-Yo Ma. It had been presented shortly before by the Chicago Symphony, and buzz had grown around the piece based on positive reports from the these concerts. At David Geffen Hall, the New York Philharmonic showed that the Chicagoans hadn’t cornered the market: they had much to offer in this engrossing work. Outgoing Music Director Alan Gilbert made a strong impression with a sensitive and detailed reading of the Salonen concerto. The composer was on hand before the performance to give an image-filled talk from the stage.

 

Opening in a chromatic environment, with stacks of bitonal chords (C+D# diminished noteworthy among them), hazy string tremolos are set against motoric patterns from winds, muted brass, and pitched percussion. The cello solo at first plays along with the cello section, then in counterpoint with it: a mournful melody that starts out in the cello’s medium upper register and works its way down to the open A string. The orchestra part juxtaposes the modernist palette of the opening with post-minimal repetitive gestures: sostenuto interludes from the strings also take part in the proceedings, giving the impression of the cello solo on steroids. The movement ends with the cello wending its way down from its upper register to the lower half of the cello, ending on the G-string. A low D# from bass clarinet and an icy vertical from the strings accompany it into a void where time seems to stop.

 

After a blazing brass crescendo, the second movement is often placid, with long stretches of fragility and transparency. A noteworthy feature is the concerto’s first (and primary) use of electronics. Loops are employed to project small sections of the cello part throughout the hall, building an army of ghostly apparitions out of the solo part. While there has been much more extensive incorporation of electronics in various pieces for orchestra, the sound of these loops whirring around Geffen Hall was impressive.

 

The third movement has been called by Salonen a nod to the musicianship Yo-Yo Ma has garnered with the Silk Road ensemble. To create a multi-cultural effect, and to buoy the dance rhythms that populate the closing movement, Philharmonic percussionist Christopher Lamb was on hand to play a vigorous part on bongos and congas. This isn’t the only duet Ma engages in. He is also given stretches of music to interact with other players, such as the contrabassoon and alto flute in movement two. That said, the pairing of percussion and cello brings out an intensity in the solo part. Cadenzas pile up alongside vigorous tutti, until at the last …

 

There’s “that high note” that is the penultimate gesture in the work (It is followed by electronics – loops from the second movement that burst into activity around the hall). It is a Bb7 (the last B-flat at the very top of the piano). In an interview with Alex Ross in the New Yorker, Salonen said that he originally pitched the note an octave lower, but Yo-Yo Ma said he could go even higher: hence, Bb7.

 

I was curious: how many other works for cello go this high (or higher)? I’ll admit, I crowdfunded the answer. A quick question on Facebook yielded several responses from friends that the cello has indeed been employed this high and even higher (B7 and C8). Cellist and composer Franklin Cox was kind enough to explain to me that even though the notes are past the end of the fingerboard, by squeezing the string against it, one can elicit these stratospheric pitches. Cox has written them, and Joseph Dangerfield cited Curve With Plateaux, a work by Jonathan Harvey ,that goes all the way up to C8. Andrew Rindfleisch shared JACK’s performance of his second string quartet, in which Jay Campbell plays A7, Bb7, and C8. Pianist Gloria Cheng nominated Thomas Adès’ Lieux retrouvés. Several people mentioned Matthias Pintscher and Salvatore Sciarrino (I haven’t tracked the scores down yet to verify this).

 

My sometimes curmudgeonly friend Andrew Rudin complained that these composers were trying to make the cello into a violin, but what I heard at David Geffen hall was nothing like the altissimo register of a violin. In some ways, it wasn’t about the extreme highness of the sound; apart from the harmony surrounding it, I don’t think it mattered that the pitch was Bb7 or C8; it seemed eminently attainable – and sustainable – by the soloist. What was remarkable was the long ringing quality it made – like a singing sword on steroids. Here’s hoping that someone – preferably our New Yorkers (while Mr. Gilbert remains with them) records this work ASAP.