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Thursday, October 30, 2008

Lament for the Globe Calendar Section

For as long as I can remember, Thursday was Boston Globe "Calendar Day." With my morning coffee in hand, I would dive into the paper and pull out the "Calendar Section" to read and analyse the concert listings for the coming week. My schedule would often revolve around attending one or more of the obscure events listed in those pages. It was a great service to the community. Non-profit organizations, colleges, and grass-roots arts groups could submit their listings for free and get the word out about their event or lecture. Event listings were concise, informative, and carefully broken down into sub-categories. You could easily navigate the section to find the lecture, art, drama, music, or family event of your choosing.

This all ended today when the NY Times Publishing Company (parent of the Boston Globe) revamped its Arts insert section in the name of progress. The Calendar was replaced with "g" - a bland and generic Style, Arts, Things-to-do, TV, Comics, and Puzzles section. It has more color photos and commercial advertising than its predecessor, and it does list a few select mainstream concerts and events that the editor has recommended. But the Globe's increasingly scant coverage of arts events with reviews and articles now seems to be relegated to this small area of the paper.

Starting today, I have no idea how small arts groups will get the word out about their up-coming events. New Music ensembles in particular will be hard hit by this change since they live day-to-day and just can't afford to purchase advertising. While event listings still may be found online at www.boston.com/thingstodo, it is not the same as seeing it in news print. The negative impact on fringe arts organizations who are already struggling is going to be severe.

Perhaps it is just a sign of the times, but I will sorely miss the utility and value provided by the old Boston Globe Calendar section.

The rest is just noise.

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Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Concert Review: Carter's Complete Piano Music

The Piano Masters Series at the Boston Conservatory was host to Grammy nominated master pianist Ursula Oppens Tuesday evening in a program dedicated to the complete solo piano music of her long time friend and colleague - Elliott Carter.



Carter, who will turn 100 on December 11, 2008, has enjoyed numerous performances in his Centenary year (see my July 21st, 2008 posting about the Elliott Carter Celebration at Tanglewood).



Fortunately, Boston is a local stop on the tour of Ms. Oppens' recital program, which includes Symphony Space in NY and at San Francisco Performances on the West Coast. She was recently appointed to a position of Distinguished Professor at the Brooklyn College Conservatory of Music in her native New York.

Throughout her career Ms. Oppens has been a dedicated champion and staunch proponent of Carter's works. All of my adult life I've listened to her wonderful performances of Carter, including performances in the early 70's with the new music group Speculum Musicae (which she co-founded in 1971), the composer's Piano Concerto with the London Sinfonetta (at Queen Elizabeth Hall on the South Bank circa 1984), and this past summer as harpsichord soloist in the Double Concerto at Tanglewood.

If you can't make it to one or her live performances, Oppens can be seen in a fascinating movie by Dutch director Frank Scheffer performing the Carter Piano Quintet. The film is available on DVD, and it clearly documents the vigor and intensity of her playing.



http://www.amazon.com/Elliott-Carter-Quintets-Voices/dp/B0000C2IX9

Oppens is a powerhouse in a broad range of piano repertory, but her over-riding preference to perform new music stems from a deep-seated commitment and personal obligation to express modernist works. If members of the general public could vote for future recipients of the National Medal of Art at the Kennedy Center awards in Washington DC, Oppens would head my list of recommended honorees.

The program at Boston Conservatory was centered around two of Carter's major works for the piano, with shorter pieces grouped together at the beginning and end of the concert. Oppens spoke briefly about each piece before hand, but maintained her concentration throughout a program which was comprised almost entirely of works that are known to be technically challenging - to say the least.

The first collection of short pieces on the concert featured 90+ (1994), Retrouvailles (2000), and Two Diversions (1999).

90+ is a short work written to celebrate the 90th birthday of his friend, Italian composer Gofredo Petrassi. It is built around a skeleton of more than 90 short accented notes, against which other musical gestures occur in a changing context. Ms. Oppens mentioned that the piece actually contains additional notes (hence the "+") as a wish of additional years to his friend.

Retrouvailles is another birthday piece, this time for Carter's friend composer-conductor Pierre Boulez. The work quotes from two previous pieces that he composed for Boulez's 60th and 70th birthdays and utilizes a motto associated with Boulez's name. Check out her 1/17/08 performance of Retrouvailles at Symphony Space on YouTube...




Two Diversions which is dedicated to Ursula Oppens "deals with a glowing contrast between simultaneous musical ideas."

The first Diversion is based on a line with paired notes that sound at a more or less constant pulse throughout (mm quarter = 40). But the context around that base pulse and harmonic progression of dyads changes (often using a rhythmic technique Carter invented called "metric modulation"). A melodic line accompanies the dyads - first in the bass register (starting with the initial low E-flat), and then gradually it moves to encompass the full expanse of the keyboard.

The second Diversion ups the ante by introducing a shifting pulse between two single voices played between the right and left hands. The general plan of the piece calls for the right hand to generally get faster (from mm=115 in measure 4 to mm=480 in measure 82). The left hand generally gets slower (from mm=108 to mm=20 in measure 82). Of course, as with all of Carter's music there are exceptions to the rule and additional layers of contrast and abstraction. The piece end with a long and B-natural held low in the bass by the left hand as the right hand plays a soft flourish in septuplets "as fast as possible" ending up high on B-flat.

Together, these Two Diversions serve as a good introduction to Carter for the casual listener as well as for upcoming gifted young pianists for which it was written to be played.

Carter's formative, 22-minute single movement work Night Fantasies (1980) was premiered by Oppens at the Bath Festival in England in June of 1980. This is a work that was uniquely commissioned by four pianists and friends of the composer: Paul Jacobs, Gilbert Kalish, Ursula Oppens, and Charles Rosen. Ms. Oppens explained that all four of them had individually asked Mr. Carter for a new piece, but nothing new for solo piano came from the composer pen since his Piano Sonata which had been completed back in 1946. They realized that Carter didn't want to hurt the feelings of any of them, so the pianists decided to commission him collectively for a new composition. The result was Night Fantasies, which the composer worked on from 1978 to 1980. It is amazing to hear how the composer's voice changed during the 34-year span between his Piano Sonata and Night Fantasies.

In the interest of full-disclosure, I must explain that I had a unique introduction to this work. When I was a composition fellow at the Yale-Norfolk Summer School of Music in 1981, Carter was one of the distinguished visiting composition instructors. Among the works he played for us was a recording of Night Fantasies. I was instantly amazed and dazzled by the piece, although the composer soon stopped playing the recording because he felt the speakers were distorting the sound. Carter did not talk about the mechanics of his composition, and it was not until I read the excellent article "The Composition of Elliott Carter's Night Fantasies" by John F. Link that I learned about some of the complex underpinnings of his piece. Dr. Link studied all of the notes and manuscripts for the work along with related sketches at the Paul Sacher Foundation in Basel, Switzerland.

Without boring you with too much with the technical detail, Dr. Link writes..

Harmonically, Night Fantasies is based on a collection of twelve-note "all-interval" chords in which each of the twelve pitch classes and, between consecutive notes, each of the eleven intervals occurs exactly once. Carter treats these chords - each of which spans five and one-half octaves - as a repertoire of harmonic possibilities.

It is thought that Carter was introduced to the properties of these unique chords in a 1963 article by Stefan Bauer-Mengelberg and Melvin Ferentz titled "On Eleven-Interval Twelve-Tone Rows" in the music theory journal Perspectives of New Music.

The piano piece was composed from an initial set of fragments based on about 70 of these all-interval chords... "Then he simply pinned them to the wall of his studio and rearranged them until he found an ordering he liked." Gradually, about half of these chords were discarded, and new material was added to join and transition between them.

Before the world premiere of Night Fantasies, Ms. Oppens received the score from the composer in pieces, and the last third batch arrived by mail just a few weeks before the scheduled performance. She has performed the work many times, and with 28 years to perfect it, her performance last evening in Boston is still as riveting as ever.

Don't worry if you can't hear the interaction of the two large-scale pulse streams over the course of the 20 minute work. One pulse stream has accents every roughly every 5 1/2 seconds, and the other at an interval of about 7 seconds apart. The 216 to 175 polyrhythm only coincides twice during the piece: once at the down beat of measure three, and with the final note of the work in measure 516. Just knowing it is there makes you appreciate it. I'm not sure that I "buy" Carters' explanation that he was influenced by Robert Schumann in this work. He is very attached to his system.

Others have performed it as well, and I also like the Charles Rosen rendition which comes across as masterful, informed, and elegant. Pierre-Laurent Aimard recently recorded it, and he plays the piece with an entirely different sensibility than either Rosen or Oppens. Aimard takes some passages with a light and gentle touch, and is very literal with his execution of staccato notes.

After intermission, Oppens performed the classic Piano Sonata written just after World War II. Although Carter had written and published works going all the way back to the 1930's, it is said that the Sonata is perhaps his first mature work. When you consider that Carter was 38 years old when he wrote it, we might consider him to be a "late bloomer." Certainly it put his name on the map. But I am actually of the opinion that - as skillful and competent the Sonata is - it does not yet represent Carter's mature musical voice. To my mind he did not discover and perfect his musical language until a number of years later during the period of his First String Quartet in 1951.

The Piano Sonata is a romantic work, which bears a strong resemblance to other American neo-classic pieces being written in that era. Shades of Arthur Berger, Igor Stravinsky, Harold Shapero, and Aaron Copland come to mind. Clearly the influence of Nadia Boulanger (Carter's teacher) is evident throughout. And while the musical language straddles the line between classicism (exemplified by key signatures and a fugue) and modernism (with irregularly grouped spans of 15-note spans in subdivisions of 7+8, 5+5+5, and 5+4+6), there are some striking similarities between the Sonata and Night Fantasies.

Both the Piano Sonata and Night Fantasies exploit the piano for all of its capabilities. They are both about 22 minutes long, and contain some very fast and challenging passages. I would even venture to say that the Sonata is the more difficult of the two. Oppens played it with the same intensity that she is famous for, but also allowed herself to relax in the beautiful Andante "chorale" that opens the second movement and which peacefully concludes the work. But in the end I think the Sonata has significance as an early work by a great composer, not a great work in itself. I don't know how often it would be played today if it were written by someone unknown.

I also like the historic 1966 recording of the Sonata by Beveridge Webster, which I have on LP. I suspect that Ms. Oppens could have been influenced by his rendition since Webster was teaching at Juilliard when Oppens studied there for her Master's degree with Felix Galimir and Rosina Lhévinne.

The program ended with some quite recent works by Carter titled Two Thoughts About the Piano.

The first of these pieces is Intermittences (2005) which was inspired by a chapter of Marcel Proust's novel Intermittences du Coeur. The piece exploits textures, colors, changes its context frequently, and is pact full of contrasting ideas. Ms. Oppens explained that the work relies heavily on the sostenuto pedal to sustain selected notes.

The second piece Caténaires (2006) was the final composition on the printed recital program. It is a fascinating study in writing a virtuosic one-line piece for the piano. It is extremely fast, and uses different spacings, accents, and colorings to bring out connections between non-adjacent notes. I had to wonder whether Carter had been listening to E-Machines by David Rakowski, or other piano etudes by that composer. There were some interesting similarities - at least on the surface. As a sidebar, here is a YouTube video of E-Machines by Rakowski as performed by Jenny Chai...


For an encore Oppens explained that the advertised program of the "Complete Piano Music of Elliott Carter" was not entirely accurate. Carter continues to write more piano music, and has written several pieces for BSO conductor James Levine. The first of which is called Matribute. Matribute was written as birthday tribute for Levine's mother. While Levine did perform the premiere for a small group at Harvard last year (which I heard), Oppens had to be called in to perform the work at Tanglewood this past summer. Levine was unable to do so because of health issues.

The Complete Piano Music of Elliott Carter
Celebrating the Composer's 100th Birthday Year
Ursula Oppens, Piano
October 28th, 2008
Seully Hall
Boston Conservatory

Note that The Piano Masters Series at Boston Conservatory continues on December 2nd with the Boston-based pianist and novelist Janice Weber. It's not to be missed.

Links:

www.bostonconservatory.edu/tickets

www.wpunj.edu/coac/music/link/sonus/sonuspaper.html

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Monday, October 27, 2008

Concert Review: Dave Bryant Quartet

So called "free jazz" has always been something close to my heart. As a teenager in the late 60's and early 70's I'd hop on the commuter train and head into NY city with my friend and musical associate Floyd to get our musical fix. We ventured into standard and obscure jazz venues all around the city. For example I remember the hearing a young Dave Liebman at a mid-town loft, Don Cherry in the East Village (a concert attended by poet Allen Ginsburg), Yusef Lateef at Slug's, The Bill Evans Trio at the Village Vanguard, Carla Bley with the Jazz Composers Orchestra at Cami Hall on 57th Street, composer/arranger Gil Evans run through some new pieces at the artist colony Westbeth (with my guitar teacher Steve Khan playing in the orchestra), and violinist Leeroy Jenkins uptown at the Harlem Music and Arts Center.

I would also take home stacks of albums from the NY Public Library at Lincoln Center, and listen to contemporary classical works (e.g. Ives, Bartók, Schoenberg, Varese, Carter), and some really "far out" experimental jazz recordings too. There was a lot of cross fertilization happening between the avant garde movements of jazz and composers from the classical tradition. Gunther Schuller actually created a whole new movement called "Third Stream" that epitomized the fusion of these two musical worlds. In a way, both jazz and classical composers were flirting with the same ideas, as if there was a common goal or a need to express the same violent outrage. Charlie Parker and Edgard Varèse greatly admired each other. Before them it was George Gershwin and Alban Berg who grooved on each other's works. This cross-fertilization continues even today.

One record that I borrowed from the library in the 60's was by avant garde pianist Burtan Greene. Greene played the piano - inside and out, and would actually climb inside of the instrument to bang on the strings with a felt percussion mallet. It wasn't clear if he was a "jazz" or "classical" musician, but ultimately it didn't matter. The recording also featured a female singer who would respond to his rather violent improvisational gestures with a kind of singing that resembled the guttural screaming of a tormented psychotic. As I'd play this recording at home at high volume, my mother (who was trained as a singer in the bel canto operatic tradition) was rather perturbed. This only made me more interested in this rouge and dangerous music. In the "six-degrees-of-separation" category of life, it would turn out that my future wife Willemien would be Greene's neighbor in an apartment building in Amsterdam.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Burton_Greene

Later when I studied music in Boston, jazz pianist Cecil Taylor (who had attended the New England Conservatory) came to Berklee to meet with students for a colloquium. It was great to meet Taylor, whose intense and personal brand of "atonal" piano playing attempts to synthesize elements from a lot of diverse influences. Taylor plays like a bull in a China shop.

But I think that my very first exposure to free jazz was in a 1967 album by Ornette Coleman titled "Out of the Foxhole." My brother Larry had found it somewhere. I can't explain it even today, but the way that the music holds together without relying on any of the obvious traditional rules of order is an important lesson of music and life. Coleman's playing and his associated compositions are fascinating to listen to. They have a magic and spirit that forces the listener to get involved and participate in the process mentally, and in real-time. It's not mainstream music for the masses by any means, but something about it clearly perks my sonic imagination and makes me smile from ear to ear with delight. At its best, free jazz contains the rawest elements of the essence of musical expression. Composers of fully notated contemporary musical compositions can learn a lot from the visceral energy and loosely constrained musical chaos of free jazz. The result in live performance can be hit or miss, but when it hits - it hits really hard. That's the nature of improvisation. It's risky business, but the payoff can be extraordinary.

So it was with great pleasure and a sense of personal nostalgia that I attended a concert by Dave Bryant (on keyboards), Neil Leonard (reeds and electronics), Jane Wang (amplified acoustic bass), and Curt Newton (drums and percussion) at Zeitgeist's Outpost 186 in Inman Square in Cambridge Saturday night.



I can report that "Free Jazz" is alive and well in the hands of these talented musicians. It appears that this brand of jazz has survived and evolved fully from its' initial period of infancy and experimentation in the 1960's. It's incredible for me to think of "free jazz" as a now standard music genre with a dedicated following of supporters. It clearly has an established performance practice and has been adapted into the curriculum of major music schools (e.g. Bryant teaches his craft at the prestigious Longy School of Music).

The group began their set with an untitled composition by Neil Leonard. Unfortunately we were a little late and missed the beginning, but it is a work that flirts with tradition without adapting it. Leonard plays the sax with a full-range of expressive power and color. He can find the right notes at the right time, and interacts with not only members of the band and his electronics, but the audience at large.



The second piece, entitled "Check Your Lid" by Dave Bryant stems from the Bebop tradition. It has a tight quirkly tune at its head and reminds me a little of his mentor and former band-leader Ornette Coleman. (Bryant played in Coleman's band for about a decade). It's not surprising that Bryant inherited some of Coleman's musical sensibility and creative energy. He plays with ferocious tenacity, and has more than ample technique to back it up. I found his solos to be physical, imaginative, convincing, and the expression of an unapologetic modernist. Yet, it is clear that jazz is at the core of Byrant's roots, as he often lapses purposely into musical fragments that are connected to - and stem from - his traditional background.

The third piece was an open improvisation that featured everybody, including Jane Wang on bass and Curt Newton on drums. Everyone got a chance to solo alone, and real-time sound processing from software and hardware controlled by Leonard with his Macintosh notebook allowed them to interact with their own playing as well - especially Bryant, who's solos began to reflect on and respond to the content of his previous gestures and utterances.

Jane Wang played on an amplified acoustic bass, and was very skilled in exploiting various extended bass techniques to achieve her musical goals and objectives. Her technique draws upon not only pizzicato and bowed notes, but non-pitched percussive sounds which support the ensemble and underline musical process. She would at times tap with a percussion mallet on the strings and wood to make her bass speak.

Curt Newton contributed significantly to the overall sound scape by playing sensitively on the drums with an assortment of implements as strikers. He used drum sticks, fingers, brushes, and at one point whacked his instrument with a piece of cloth. I noticed that he played the spaces as well as the notes - meaning that he understood the power and musical significance of silence.

This was the second of a new series of concerts curated by Bryant and held monthly at Outpost 186. Last month renowned tabla player Badal Roy appeared as a special guest artist with his group. We look forward to future events by Bryant and his ensemble, who dedicate themselves to the long-established tradition of playing free jazz.


Dave Bryant – keyboards
Neil Leonard – reeds and electronics
Jane Wang – bass
Curt Newton – drums

Saturday, October 25, 2008
Outpost 186
186 1/2 Hampshire Street
Inman Square
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Saturday, October 25, 2008

Classic Arts Showcase


Classic Arts Showcase
PERFORMING - VISUAL - FILM

Created in 1994 by the late Lloyd E. Rigler, Classic Arts Showcase is a not-for-profit organization that has been presenting video of animation, architectural art, ballet, chamber and choral music, dance, folk art, museum art, musical theater, opera, orchestral, recital, solo instrumental, solo vocal, theatrical performances, as well as classic film and archival documentaries for free to the public. CAS is completely funded by the Lloyd E. Rigler - Lawrence E. Deutsch Foundation and based in Burbank, California.

CAS broadcasts 24-hours a day from Satellite Galaxy 15 Transponder 5, and is picked up by over 500 channels in the United States alone. I view it on Verizon FiOS local channels 24 and 26, but have seen it on RCN cable as well.

Most of CSA's clips come from the record companies who have graciously given them permission to air them, at no cost, in an effort to aid CSA's public service goal to create a new audience for the arts. They show NO ADVERTISING!

Each week they edit together a new 8-hour show, broken down into one hour blocks, featuring approximately 150 new classic art clips that have been provided by a formative list of sources. The programs typically air on Friday evening and repeat throughout the weekend.

I am a big CAS fan, and have often been glued to the television watching everything from experimental film and dance video to historic classical music and opera performances to fascinating interviews. I strongly recommend it, although not every video is of interest.

Here is a sample list of sources who supply content to CAS:

ALLEGRO CORPORATION
AMBERSON
ANGEL RECORDS
ATLANTIC CLASSICS
BALLET FOLKLORICO DE MEXICO
BANG ON A CAN
BEL CANTO SOCIETY, INC.
CENTRAL PARK MEDIA CORPORATION
CLEARVUE
CONSUMER VIDEO MARKETING
CORINTH VIDEO
DANCE FILMS ASSOC., INC.
DANCE HORIZONS
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON
DUQUESNE UNIVERSITY TAMBURITZANS
EMI CLASSICS / ANGEL / VIRGIN
FILM AMERICA
FILMS FOR THE HUMANITIES AND SCIENCES
FRIEDSON ENTERPRISES
G.B. PRODUCTIONS
GRUEN
IDEALE AUDIENCE
KINO INTERNATIONAL
KROLL PRODUCTIONS, INC.
KRONOS QUARTET
KULTUR VIDEO
LUMIVISION CORP.
MILESTONE FILM AND VIDEOPO
MIRAMAR
MUSIC PROJECT FOR TELEVISION
NATIONAL GALLERY OF
NAXOS
NIKOLAIS LOUIS FOUNDATION FOR DANCE
NONESUCH
NY EXPOSITION OF SHORT FILM AND VIDEO AND INTERACTIVE MULTIMEDIA
OPTICUS FILMS
PBS VIDEO
PETER ROSEN PRODUCTIONS
POLYGRAM CLASSICS AND JAZZ (UNIVERSAL)
PROSCENIUM
PUBLIC MEDIA HOME VIDEO
PYRAMID FILM & VIDEO
RHINO HOME
RHOMBUS MEDIA INC.
SEVENTH ART RELEASING
SIGHT AND SOUND
SONY CLASSICAL
UNIVERSAL STUDIOS HOME VIDEO VIDEO ARTISTS INTERNATIONAL
VOYAGER LASERDISC
WINSTAR
WOODLEAF CORPORATION

Link:
http://www.classicartsshowcase.org/index.html

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Friday, October 24, 2008

Concert Review: BSO 10/23/08

French music was a unifying theme of the Boston Symphony Orchestra concert last evening at Symphony Hall. Maestro James Levine - now in his fifth season as Music Director - programmed and conducted a concert featuring the music of Messiaen, Boulez, and Berlioz.


I attended primarily to hear a live performance of the work Notations I-IV by Pierre Boulez. Because of the massive forces demanded by the score, the work is not performed very frequently.

This was the first BSO concert that I attended in the 2008-2009 season, and as in seasons past, it is always a pleasure to return to Symphony Hall. I immediately noticed one difference in the building upon entering the hall. There are now large arched transparent windows which reveal the outside world and allow sunlight to enter in. These windows had been boarded over as a precautionary "black out" during World War II. Boston never was attacked by air - but it must have been a wartime concern. Now, over 60 years later, sound-insulated glass was installed as part of a continuing building restoration project. It's amazing it has taken so long to "see the light." From where I was sitting, lights from two Back Bay skyscrapers were clearly visible through the new windows. Both of which would not have been seen in the early 20th century since these buildings were built much later.

It's not inconvenient or pricey to hear the BSO perform live. I went on a $9 "rush ticket" (see my September 25, 2008 blog post on how to get one). Perhaps it was the modern music that scared the public away, or perhaps people are concerned about the dire state of the world economy, but there were plenty of empty seats last evening. I was able to sit in my regular spot in the second balcony. It was a "jump seat" on the left side where the sound is good and I can peer over the top of the orchestra and conductor's podium.

The pre-concert talk by Robert Kirzinger was informative. There was also a fascinating exhibit of photos, manuscripts, notes, color-coded work charts, and letters for the Elliott Carter Centenary on display in the Cabot-Cahners room on the 2nd floor. The Paul Sacher Foundation of Basel provided support for this special exhibition, and I've read that a publication is due out with much of the same material. I had to squeeze past more than a few well-dressed and well-healed symphony patrons sipping away on their wine to study the detailed manuscripts hanging on the wall, but it was worth the inconvenient gymnastics. While these same items about Carter were on display during the summer at Tanglewood, I didn't get to view them (See my July 21st, 2008 blog posting for more information about the Elliott Carter festival).


The concert began with Oliver Messiaen's five movement classic for winds, brass, and percussion: Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum. It is a work that I had studied in detail during my student days. I probably wore out my phonograph recording of Bernard Haitink with the Concertgebouw Orchestra, but it's been many years since I've heard the work live. The piece is often done by student ensembles at the conservatories (For more about Messiaen see my blog post for July 2nd, 2008).

Levine, sitting on his swivel chair, took long pauses between the movements - lasting perhaps 2 or 3 minutes each - and allowed silence to nicely frame each section. These meditative articulations between sections were quite welcome, and the audience did not get restless (although a lot of coughs could be heard). It allowed one's ear to rest and the mind to prepare for what might come next in the music.

Messiaen's work draws upon his knowledge of bird song, medieval plainchant, gamelan music, Indian music, and his work as a church organist. The way he orchestrates thickly scored chords in the work result in a sound similar to the brass and wind stops of a huge pipe organ. The resonant space of Symphony Hall cooperated by reverberating joyously - if not in spirit, at least in amplitude. Amongst the musicians performing in the Messiaen piece was one of the last remaining BSO musicians that I remember from the early 1970's - percussionist, new music specialist, and Amsterdam-transplant Frank Epstein. He really rocked on a set of tam-tams, including one behind him spanning a mammoth 5-foot diameter.

http://www.percuweb.ca/en/people/portraits/f_epstein.html


During the intermission, the stage was reset for the Boulez. In preparation, the front rows had been removed from the audience of Symphony Hall, and a stage extension of about 2o feet had been added on to accommodate the massive orchestra.




Boulez's work has an interesting genesis. Notations was originally a 10 minute work for solo piano (in 12 movements) that Boulez had written in 1945 as a young composer in post-war Paris. It contains influences from Stravinsky, Schoenberg, French Impressionist composers, and Occidental music. Nearly 30 years after he re-discovered his early piano pieces, Boulez began "orchestrating" some of the movements - although the result is much more than a transcription. The orchestral version of Notations is an elaboration and orchestral expansion of ideas that existed in the original set of piano pieces. The collection of orchestral settings of Notations is an on-going work-in-progress that began with a commission in 1978, and continues with both revisions and new movements. Last night the BSO performed Notations I - IV, although Boulez completed an additional nine minute movement (Notation VII) in 1997.

To get a sense of the massive size of the orchestra, here is an instrument listing from the publishers' website for Notations I:

http://www.universaledition.com/truman/en_templates/paste.php3?template=werkinfo&spr=en&werk=7345&komp_uid=88&details=true


Although long ago I attended the American premiere of the composers' Rituel in memoriam Bruno Maderna with the NY Philharmonic, Notations is a work from the same period that has eluded me for many years. I wasn't in Boston when the composer conducted it with the BSO in 1986. I only know the work from two DVDs: one with Boulez in rehearsal with the Vienna Philharmonic and one with Daniel Barenboim conducting the work on a tour in Köln with the Chicago Symphony. The Boulez rehearsal is just that, a rough first-rehearsal of a large and complex work. Boulez is a quintessential professional, politely correcting wrong notes and fluently instructing the conservative orchestral musicians in their native language. A minor point of discussion came up during an interchange regarding trombone mutes, where Boulez resorted to the international language of English to clarify his point by saying "straight mute." Unfortunately, it is not easy to get a solid impression about the work from this rehearsal DVD. In contrast, the Barenboim performance with the Chicago Symphony seems rather good, but hearing 125 musicians play over tiny television loudspeakers probably does not convey the true concert experience. I was very eager to hear this piece up close, and live.

My expectations were very high, perhaps too high. Boulez is unquestionably one of the world's finest conductors, and a phenomenal musician. As a renowned composer with a life-time of experience conducting orchestral works of all kinds, one would assume that his sense of orchestration is formative, if not fully perfected.

After hearing Notations I-IV live, in what I would assume was a rather good and accurate rendering by Levine and the BSO, I am puzzled about the outcome. It just seems as if the work is over-orchestrated and over-saturated with notes. Notations calls for eight percussionists who never stop banging on something, and they tend to dominate the sonic gestalt. It seems as if every possible percussion instrument available is used, except for the kitchen sink (although it does call for steel pipes). A humongous string section hammers away in lines divided into countless parts while a grand piano, celesta, and three harps play intently - but entirely inaudible to the listener. I watched and paid very close attention to what the those instruments were playing, and I could not hear a single note coming from any of them. You would think that a grand piano (with an open top on half stick) could be heard over the orchestra, but not even that! I noticed that BSO recording engineer John Newton from Sound/Mirror had been very busy onstage moving microphones around, particularly in front of the celesta and three harps prior to the performance. Hopefully balances can be adjusted in the mixing room after the fact, but my overall impression of Notations is that it has issues related to orchestral clarity and dynamic balance.

It is one thing to have everyone in the orchestra join forces to create a synthesis of complex sound where the totality overrides the individual contributors. This was not the case or intention here. Other 20th-century works from the 70's by some of Boulez's contemporaries - such as György Ligeti, Luciano Berio, Elliott Carter - all posses an orchestral imagination that seems to be lacking in Notations. Even Messiaen's orchestral writing (e.g. the Turangalîla Symphony) and experimental works coming from the "Spectral" school of composers exploit the orchestra in ways that Boulez comes up short - at least in this work.

All in all, I was disappointed. It was a lot of musicians working very hard to play a lot of difficult notes for a result that was in the end rather minimal and ordinary. I could see from the tall score Levine was conducting from that it contained more music staffs than I'd like to think about, and he zipped through the pages quickly. Zillions of notes, and so little to take away from the experience.

The movement that contained a hope of interest to me was Notations II (which was played last). This fast movement gains its momentum from the brisk repetition of regularly pulsed angular rhythms arranged in irregularly grouped bars, but unfortunately the piece is over before the music has a chance to develop or grow. The brief movement is full of glissandi, clustered chords, and tremolo, but somehow the combination of pitched and unpitched percussion alternating via sharply articulated pulses provide just enough contrast to make interesting music.

The evening's concert ended with the tranquility of Harold in Italy, Opus 16 by Hector Berlioz. BSO Principal Violist Steven Ansell was the soloist.

Boston Symphony Orchestra
October 23rd, 2008
Symphony Hall
Boston, MA

Links:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pierre_Boulez
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Olivier_Messiaen
http://www.bso.org/
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gy%C3%B6rgy_Ligeti
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Luciano_Berio

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Thursday, October 23, 2008

Salome in High Definition

LIVE FROM THE MET - sort of

Last night I went to see the opera Salome Opus 54 by Richard Strauss. Traveling down to NY would have been a bit out of my way and a major drain on my modest entertainment budget, so I opted to attend one of the Live HD Broadcasts at my local movie theatre for $18. It wasn't exactly live. The actual Metropolitan Opera performance took place on October 11th, but it was sold out, so I had to settle for a re-transmitted encore presentation.

In his award winning book about modern music "The Rest is Noise" by Alex Ross (now out in paperback), he begins his extensive history lesson with this astute observation on page 1:

When Richard Strauss conducted his opera Salome on May 16, 1906, in the Austrian city of Graz, several crowned heads of European music gathered to witness the event. The premiere of Salome had taken place in Dresden five months earlier, and word had got out that Strauss had created something beyond the pale -an ultra-dissonant biblical spectacle based on a play by a British degenerate whose name was not mentioned in polite company, a work so frightful in its depiction of adolescent lust that the imperial censors had banned it from the Court Opera in Vienna.


In attendance that night were the composers Giacomo Puccini, Gustav Mahler (with Alma), Arnold Schoenberg, Alexander Zemlinsky, and Alban Berg.

It is not a stretch of the facts to say that modernism in music began with the opera Salome just over 100 years ago. Today people still find this piece to be a extremely rich and a challenge to our senses both musically and dramatically. It is overwhelming.

In preparation for my HD operatic experience, I spent a few days re familiarizing myself with the music by listening to three recordings while following all of the details closely in the orchestral score: Jessye Norman (Staatskapelle Dresden conducted by Seiji Ozawa), Catherine Malfitano (Wiener Philharmoniker conducted by Christoph von Dohnanyi), and my old phonographic recording of Hildegard Behrens (Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Herbert von Karajian).

As with anything, repetition improves familiarity. But there are always differences in performances too, and every singer has his or her distinctive voice. Of these recordings, Jessye Norman certainly stands out as a great Salome, but unfortunately the orchestra under Ozawa seems to lack clarity. Soprano Behrens is also wonderful in the demanding role of Salome, and was probably more agile on the stage than Norman (I can't imagine Norman dancing the vigorous Dance of the Seven Veils). The Wiener Philharmoniker under von Dohnanyi is markedly sharper in tone and balance, but I was pleasantly surprised with the orchestral sound coming from von Karajan and the Vienna Philharmonic in a studio recording dating from May of 1977. Although there are some very noticeable and annoying tape splices, I could hear things emerge from the orchestral texture that were just lost in the other recordings. My opinion of von Karajan has improved.

I would like a gig playing the off stage harmonium and organ part, that adds an unearthly pedal point into the orchestral terrain at a couple of strategic moments in the operatic score. The heckelphone has some good riffs too. There is a logic to the music that finds unity in thematic association and from relating keys to particular characters (e.g. C-sharp minor and major for Salome, C minor and major for the baritone Jochanaan). Visually in the score there are areas where the key signature indicates a particular key area related to one character, but the singer overrides the notated tonal center with accidentals on every note indicating their own key association. The levels of embedded meaning in an opera can lead to information overload - if not to a lifetime of rehearings, study, and new discoveries.

So that brings us to the Met HD performance...



The Finish soprano Karita Mattila was the star. She had caused a sensation when she sang Salome in Paris in 2003 and at the Met 2004, but she has held diverse roles throughout her impressive career.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Karita_Mattila

One of the interesting moments in the HD presentation was seeing Mattila just moments emerging from her stage room door and before the curtain went up. How does an artist psych themselves before such a demanding role? Surely one would lose 20 pounds in a performance.

When the 47-year old Mattila was asked by an interviewer for a comment immediately before walking to the stage, she replied sharply "let's kick ass!" She looked as if she had just consumed 400 cups of strong coffee and was ready to cut off someones head. Mattila was mesmerizing in her role of Salome, and somehow increased the intensity of her performance all the way up to the climatic, but repulsively graphic and grotesque ending.

Salome is a one act opera that goes on at full intensity for something like and hour and a half. Not only does the part played by Salome need to sing with Wagnerian strength to be heard over the massive orchestra, but she needs to do so while acting, dancing, and moving around the stage in unnatural ways. I just find it amazing that anyone could memorize all of the complex music and perform it note perfect.

The conductor was Patrick Summers (his first Salome), but I could not hear the orchestral detail as I had in my recordings. Orchestras performing in the "pit" obscure the sound. I much prefer concert versions of opera for this reason. Perhaps the HD sound was not HD enough, or that the movie theatre speaker systems were optimized more for Star Wars than Strauss.

Also singing in this production were Ildikó Komlósi, Juha Uusitalo, Kim Begley, and Joseph Kaiser. They all "kicked ass."

The dramatic stage production was by Jürgen Flimm from Germany. As seems to be the established trend with opera productions, directors have license to alter the original work to contemporize it in some way - perhaps in an effort to make it more relevant or trendy. Personally I find this all to be a terrible distraction. I would much prefer to experience an opera in a production that is close to the original staging. Much effort has been made to perform music in its "original" context, with original instruments and performance technique. We honor the text of the libretto and do not alter it for convenience or language translation. Why should stage sets, costumes, and stage design represent an unrelated era or social context? Does the opera Salome not have enough thought and content to keep my interest, so additional layers of meaning need to be superimposed on the work to make it interesting? I think not. Seeing the singers parade around the steel and glass stage in tuxedos while sipping from bottles of champagne did not add to my understanding of this complex work. I found the libretto by Oscar Wilde to be complex enough, with his portrayal of Jochanaan (John the Baptist) at a fascinating nexus of world religions. I can make my own interpretation, and don't need a stage director to tell me what to think. Let the opera speak for itself, on its own terms.

But this does raise the question.... How does a 100-year old opera translate to a movie theatre in the suburbs? I was not overly impressed. The sound was not a good as I had hoped, the smell of popcorn was oppressive, and the floors were dirty and sticky. A man sitting in front of me kept checking his iPhone for text messages.

There were technical difficulties too. At one point the picture went out, and someone had to be asked to reboot the system. I didn't like the half hour of commercials prior to the "feature presentation" either.

I was also a little disappointed with the visual presentation too. I had assumed and expected that it would be more or less camera neutral. When you attend an opera you can see everything in its entirety, and you choose what area of the stage you want to focus on. But the producers of the Met HD Live series take a different philosophical approach. They utilize a lot of cameras, cut between them frequently, and come in for close-ups of their choosing. By doing so you miss out on the interaction between characters (especially in ensembles), and get a distorted perception of the overall space. I'd prefer be in the theatre and see the actors from a distance while maintaining a panoramic view of the entire stage. We don't need to see close-ups of severed heads and dripping stage blood on the large screen. That works a lot better in the "Chucky" horror movies than it does in televised Grand-Opera. When will they learn it's about the plot and the music, not the costumes and the staging?

But you should check it out for yourself. "Dr. Atomic" by John Adams is the next HD broadcast from the Met. I haven't made up my mind if I'm going to attend or not.

Related links:
http://www.metoperafamily.org/metopera/broadcast/hd_events_next.aspx

http://www.fathomevents.com/details.aspx?seriesid=626

http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9401E4D71731F934A25750C0A9629C8B63

http://www.nytimes.com/2007/10/28/books/review/1028-1st-ross.html?pagewanted=print


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Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Autumn in New England





Photos taken by Willemien on October 12th, 2008
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Saturday, October 18, 2008

East meets West

(Thanks for the link Maurice)

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Friday, October 17, 2008

Concert Review: Tufts Composers

Last evening the Music Department at Tufts University presented a free concert of new music at Distler Hall - which is located in the universities’ new state-of-the-art Granoff Music Center.




I have to say that I have sat in a lot of concert halls, but find the acoustics and atmosphere of Distler to be among the finest I’ve experienced. The Granoff Music Center, inaugurated last year, dwarfs the facilities of most university music departments. Aside from being an architectural gem, it is filled to the brim with new Steinway grand pianos housed in bright and comfortable climate-controlled rooms which are spacious as well as acoustically isolated. Tufts should be proud of their new music center.

But buildings don’t make music. They are the accouterments of culture, not culture itself. Ultimately it is the how the space is utilized and what transpires within its’ hallowed walls that count. If the Tufts Composers concert I attended last evening is any indication of that, I am glad to report that new music is being well served at the Tufts campus in Medford.

Those of you who have been following this blog know that it is not intended for mass-consumption. I am essentially writing about things that are on my mind as a way to keep busy (and relatively sane) since I have way too much free time on my hands. My readers are essentially a small circle of friends and family: some of which are musicians, but many of which are not. So, while I may digress into areas that may seem obscure or even theoretical, think of my postings simply as random items in my journal. Given my inclinations, the subject matter will often relate to contemporary music. You are welcome to take it or leave it.

As a white-haired “mid-career” composer, I have consistently made an effort to get out and hear what’s happening in the arena of new music - especially to hear scores penned by young composers at the cusp of their careers who are experimenting with innovative ideas. I find this a necessary and important aspect of the profession, although I often have to force myself to be curious and open-minded given the amount of listening options that present themselves to us. Confronting new music ideally challenges our beliefs - either directly or indirectly. Often my own sense of musical aesthetics and cultural mindset (developed and cultivated over the past 40 years or so) are challenged in ways that surprise me – even today. And I don’t allow myself the luxury of an excuse to avoid a new music concert because it will provide a mental distraction to projects that I might be working on. It’s true that writing music is a 7 x 24 process, and like many of my colleagues I don’t easily “turn on” or “turn off” pieces that I’m in the process of composing. But working in complete isolation would be artistic death, and it fosters the negative mentality of the ivory tower.

That said, the Composition Department at Tufts is pretty unique. It is led by formative composer/pianist John McDonald who teaches by example. The Tufts Composers series is impressively “non-hierarchical.” There does not seem to be any social segregation between students, faculty, or music department graduates. Everyone is there to contribute to the success of the concert experience as an equal participant, and talent is tapped and praised wherever it comes from. Intermingling is strongly encouraged and all approaches to music are fair game. Impressive guest artists join the core faculty in providing instruction and mentoring. It appears that departmental comradely goes a long way to support Tufts composers – even after graduation.

Another interesting characteristic of music making at Tufts that it encourages self-performance. John McDonald not only skillfully performs his own works, but that of his colleagues and students. He is an stellar example of the “composer-musician” who is intimately involved in the music making process from beginning to end. Although willing to experiment and take risks, it is clear that he instills in his students a sense of respect for the performer while inspiring them to exploit musical instruments – of all kinds – to the fullest extent, and if possible perform themselves.

The featured guest artist at the concert last evening was Su Lian Tan, also a formative composer-musician. Tan, a new music flutist extraordinaire, along with McDonald shouldered the major responsibility for performance last evening. She has a strong penetrating sound, and feels at home with extended flute techniques such as key slaps and live electronics – although I didn’t hear any mutiphonics in this concert. Oddly enough, we did not get to hear Tan play flute in one of her own compositions at this concert. Her featured work was a large solo piano piece from 2006 titled “Orfeo In Asia.”

Su Lian Tan has a long and impressive bio which I will not recall here, but she does represent a trend in music that embraces the musical zeitgeist of the 21st century. What I heard in her piano work was a willingness to incorporate musical elements from whatever time and culture she finds interesting – without pretense or self-consciousness. Her large three-movement piano work alternated seamlessly between 19th-century Lisztian romanticism and Balinese gamelan music. And yet it does not come across as a synthesis between East and West similar to that of Stravinsky, Ravel, or Debussy. Rather, Tan’s music is more akin to a stylistic juxtaposition – almost a direct confrontation – between the two distant worlds. Tan introduced her piano piece verbally by alluding to a personalized narrative deriving from the Orpheus and Eurydice myth.

After her impromptu introductory comments, her piece was performed confidently by McDonald who used his formative experience and skill to lead us around the work like a magical tour guide. McDonald held his concentration throughout his energetic performance Tan’s long but intriguing musical landscape, particularly during the ferocious and climatic third movement. It was a North American premiere.

I spoke briefly with Su Lain Tan after the concert, and found it interesting that she studied composition with a former classmate of mine at Brandeis. Her PhD advisor at Princeton was Steven Mackey.

Another highlight of the Tufts Composers concert was McDonald’s two works for flute and piano. The first, “Brief Lyric,” was born during a spontaneous single-day of inspiration in 1994. It was the only 20th-century work on the program (most of the other works were “hot of the press” from earlier this year). One could clearly hear a difference in language and sentiment between “Brief Lyric” and his new “Flute On the Bottom” which was written specifically for Tan supported by the upper registers of the piano. The former work is deliberate, astute, methodical, and - like a fine art print - delicately etched. The recent work is wild, rambunctious, and unabashedly exploits the raw sound of the two instruments, although the two works are clearly by the same composer. McDonald is always looking for new things to say, and with over 440 compositions to his name, he continues to find and express new ideas in music everyday.

McDonald and Tan performed several works together on the program - including well-titled “Grand Theft Flauto” written for flute and video game controller. The work by Peter Hamlin utilized real-time sound processing of the flute with a microphone, notebook computer, and audio output to two very strange looking hi-tech speakers on the stage. John McDonald performed his part on a Sony PlayStation II game controller, which was programmed to capture musical phrases uttered by the flute or to trigger the playback of the captured but altered sounds while Tan added fresh new layers of music on top. For the most part it went well, except for a tad of unintentional feedback as the piece progressed. It would be interesting to hear “Grand Theft Flauto” in additional performances to see how much of the overall texture remains consistent.

McDonald and Tan also performed a six movement piece by Mary Montgomery Koppel titled "Horizons" which depicts the passage of a day. Later the two musicans rocked in "Down at the Crossroads" by Montana-based composer Matthew La Rocca where Tan was featured alternating between playing flute and singing the blues.

Throughout the evening, a number of pieces of music drew specifically upon the culture, philosophy, and music of Asia. I don’t know if this was consciously intended as a unifying theme for the program, or is just an overwhelming fascination with the subject by the composers. One example was “Kangeki” - a solo cello work by Justin Tierney. The title can be translated from Japanese as space, interval, or void, but the music is eloquently written for the western violoncello. It utilized some nice double-stops which were often mixed with harmonics (such as at the end).

Giving Tan and McDonald a performance breather was faculty member Elizabeth Reian Bennett on shakuhachi. She was joined by Tufts graduate and freelance cellist Jason Colman. The acoustics of Distler Hall came to life when the two played “Forest Whispers” by Marty Regan. It was as if the music was specifically written to emphasize the characteristics of this unique performance space. The work utilizes a proportional notation system that gives the performer some leeway in the durations of notes based on breath and I would assume the brightness of the hall.

Cellist Colman also performed two solo cello works - “Capriccio” by Roberto Toscano and “Kangeki” by Justin Tierney – in addition to his own virtuosic “Revel.”

John McDonald performed solo in "Solin" by Kota Nakamura. The rather expressionistic work exploited the rich sonorities of the piano and (to my ear) was a dramatic study in contrast and color.

The 2008/2009 concert season is in full swing, and I'm going to be busy hearing lots of new music. I'm glad that the Tufts Composers series is a major stop on my Boston-area musicial tour.


Tufts Composers - featuring composer and flutist Su Lian Tan
October 16th, 2008
Distler Hall
Tufts University
Medford, MA

Links:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Su_Lian_Tan

http://www.middlebury.edu/academics/ump/majors/music/hours/tan.htm

http://johndmcdonald.com/

http://www.tufts.edu/musiccenter/events/calendar.html

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Monday, October 13, 2008

Mermaid or Alien?

This is really weird...

Fact or fiction?


"Village residents from the Rostov region of Russia caught a weird creature two weeks ago after a strong storm in the Sea of Azov. The shark-looking creature was producing strange squeaky sounds. The fishermen originally believed that they had caught an alien and decided to film the monster with the help of a cell phone camera. The footage clearly shows the creatures' head, body and long tail. The bizarre catch was weighing almost 100 kilograms, the Komsomolskaya Pravda reports. However, ufologists and scientists were greatly disappointed when they found out that the fishermen had eaten the monster. They said that they were not scared of the creature so they decided to use it as food. One of the men said that it was the most delicious dish he had ever eaten. Chairman of the Anomalous Phenomena Service, Andrei Gorodovoi, stated that the creature, which he could see on the short video, was an anomalous being. However, it could hardly be described as an extraterrestrial form of life, he added. Gorodovoi rejected the version about mermaids too. 'There are many legends about mermaids living in the Sea of Azov. Nevertheless, specialists of the Service for Anomalous Phenomena have never confirmed those fairytales. On the other hand, we do not deny the possibility of other forms of life in the Sea of Azov,' the ufologist sad. A spokesman for the Rostov-based zoo, Alexander Lipkovich, contacted local ichthyologists and asked their opinion about the Azov alien. 'They said that the fish bears resemblance to a sturgeon. It was an extremely interesting individual. I have never seen anything like this before in my whole life,' the specialist said."

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Friday, October 10, 2008

Concert Review: Xanthos Ensemble

Boston has been the home of several fine and long-established music ensembles that specialize in the performance of new music. These groups, well-known to new music aficionados, include the likes of the Boston Musica Viva, Collage, Alea III, and Dinosaur Annex. Although these core music organizations have maintained a valued and persistent presence over the past three decades, a number of young and vibrant new music ensembles are beginning to break into the fore: Firebird, Notariotous, and the Xanthos.


Last evening I got to hear the Xanthos Ensemble. They were founded in 2005 and appear to be filling an important niche in Boston’s new music performance scene. They collaborate with conservatories, colleges, and universities to provide concerts, seminars, and workshops for composers and students. Xanthos presented programs associated with composers from Boston Conservatory, Berklee, Composers in Red Sneakers (in NYC), and last evening they inaugurated a new season of concerts in conjunction with the Boston University College of Fine Arts School of Music Department of Composition and Theory. When you think that Boston University already has a long-standing resident new music ensemble called Alea III, it is commendable that BU is going the extra-mile in times of fiscal constraint to support contemporary music. The size of the audience last evening was decent by new music standards, so it appears that there is ample room for all of Boston’s new music groups to coexist without flooding the market with too much of a good thing.

For the most part the Xanthos concert last evening featured composers from the established mainstream: Franco Donatoni, Gunther Schuller, Luciano Berio, and Donald Martino - although the younger generation was represented by a new work written for the ensemble by Lansing McLoskey.

Arpège by Franco Donatoni began the program. After an introductory section of beautifully scored chords chiming from the piano and vibraphone, Arpège breaks into an energetic dance of fury and fire. Although the 15 minute work seemed to go on a little too long for my taste, Donatoni (who died in 2000) had a wonderful musical ear and possessed a steadfast command over his craft. Listening to the work, I reminisced about meeting him in 1984 in Amsterdam, and am glad that his music is gradually gaining more exposure in the United States.

Phantasmata is a duo for violin and marimba by Boston-based composer Gunther Schuller. It is in four movements, highly virtuosic, and almost 1960’s cool jazz in character. It was played beautifully by Brenda van der Merwe (violin) and George Nickson (marimba), who vividly interacted with each other and brought out the improvisatory nature of the piece. I could easily follow the lines and gestures of the work, particularly the exploration of register, but somehow its overall formal design eluded me.

Yellow written by the Lansing McLoskey (b. 1964), provided a little fresh air to a program that mostly represented works of the old guard. Dr. McLoskey received his Ph.D. from Harvard and is now a professor at the University of Miami, Florida. Yellow - written for the Xanthos Ensemble - seems to exploit the players’ youthful energy and rhythmic drive, especially guest artist Jessica Lizak on assorted flutes. But the music comes across like a community drum-circle event, where everyone gets to participate in an act of free self-expression – at least until the percussionist puts an end to the rampage with a loud and somewhat unexpected crash involving a hammer. Bang on a Can or the dance show Stomp would be proud.

Soprano Jennifer Ashe joined the ensemble in a warm but informed performance of the chamber version of O King (1968) by Luciano Berio – a heartfelt elegy that the composer wrote as in homage to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. shortly after his assignation. This short work demonstrates that modernism can be both emotionally expressive and abstract at the same time. Berio was a master of communication, both through his music and as a teacher. He died in 2003 in a hospital in Rome.

The final and substantial work for the evening was the classic piece Notturno by Donald Martino which won him the Pulitzer-prize in 1974. Notturno is a musical gem, a tour de force for the listener and a right of passage for any up-and-coming new music group wanting to prove themselves. It is also about as technically-tight as a piece of music can possibly be, and a prime example of this composer’s synthesis of intense rationality with lyric expressionism and raw emotional intent. Notturno’s wealth of ideas continue to challenge us 35 years after it was written. It is part of a grand legacy of music left behind by this important composer who passed away abruptly in 2005. I’ve heard Notturno many times, including the first performance in 1973 by the NY-based Speculum Musicae. That performance and Speculum’s subsequent Nonsuch recording became the benchmark by which subsequent generations of new music groups across the globe have measured themselves. Notturno could be veiwed as America's response to Pierre Boulez's influential work Le marteau sans maitre.

Performances of Martino’s Notturno have flourished in number over the decades and the work has clearly established itself in the concert repertory. But Notturno is still a very difficult work to bring off for any group of musicians. While a few ensembles such as Eighth Blackbird have performed it without conductor and a single percussionist, the Xanthos performance last evening took the more conservative route of dividing the percussion part between two players and using a conductor. Given the short amount of rehearsal time they could devote to this program, this made good sense. Yet one would hope that Notturno will remain in their permanent repertory and that they will reach for those heights in future performances.

Notturno is full of music that showcases individual musicians within the context of fluid and texturally-rich ensemble writing. Everyone shined last night: Jessi Rosinski on piccolo, flute and alto flute; Chi-Ju Juliet Lai on clarinet and bass clarinet; Brenda van der Merwe on violin and viola; the 19-year old Sebastian Bäverstam on cello; Eunyoung Kim on piano, and percussionists George Nickson and Daniel Zawodniak. Conductor Jeffrey Means directed with conviction, confidence, and a steady hand.

If the Xanthos Ensemble and other recently born new music ensembles bring a “disruptive innovation” to the Boston-area status quo, we welcome it. You can’t have too much of a good thing, at least when it comes to top-quality performances of contemporary concert music.

Xanthos Ensemble
Thursday, October 9th, 2008 at 7:30 p.m.
Boston University College of Fine Arts Concert Hall

http://www.xanthosensemble.com/


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Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Warren

I have had the economy on my mind, to the point where I hear voices in my head.

The voices are screaming. Some of the yelling seems to be coming from unsolicited financial planners telling me what to do with my retirement savings (or what's left of it). I hear the mantra "volatility is your friend" over and over again.

One of the voices is coming from a 78 year-old business man in Omaha, Nebraska named Warren.


Warren plays the Ukulele

Warren works extremely hard and is very thrifty. Although he recently donated his 2001 Lincoln Town car to charity, for years he drove himself all around Omaha looking for bargains.


The image of Warren stopping off at a McDonald's drive-through window to pick up lunch sticks with me. I would assume that he is a coupon clipper too.

Warren has his own company (actually several), and they have done very well. He does not have any experts advising him, but reads through piles of boring financial statements late into the night. He has a good instinct for when to buy and when to sell.

According to Forbes Magazine, Warren Buffett recently surpassed Bill Gates as the wealthiest American citizen. Both Obama and McCain have suggested Buffett as a potential nominee to lead the US Treasury.

What is Warren buying in this down economy?

Goldman Sachs and General Electric

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Warren_Buffett

Alice Schroeder has published Warren's official biography, and it promises to be a good read...

http://www.amazon.com/Snowball-Warren-Buffett-Business-Life/dp/0553805096

Remember, "volatility is your friend."

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Sunday, October 5, 2008

America's Got Talent - Republicans Perform

Richard ("Tricky Dick") Nixon performs his very own Piano Concerto:


http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MCsGSMze_6Q




Condoleezza ("Condi") Rice performs the Dvorak Piano Quintet (1st Movement) with Eric Wong, Ken Hamao (violins), Lydia Bunn (viola), and Aleisha Verner (cello) at the Benedict Music Tent in Aspen Colorado Aspen Music Festival.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LfSYwJuq3Vg





Alaska Governor and Republican Vice Presidential candidate Sarah ("Drill Baby Drill") Palin plays the flute at a beauty pageant in 1984. (Consumer Beware: This is rather painful to listen to)...
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fvp7woNA9gw





What does is say that they are all Republicans?

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Saturday, October 4, 2008

S.K. Thoth

Here is a very interesting 42 minute documentary Directed by Sarah Kernochan. The movie won an Oscar in 2002 and is about a homeless street performer and composer named Thoth. Thoth (b. 1956) is completely dedicated to his art and in the film gives inspired public "prayformances" of his work in New York's Central Park and on Wall Street. Thoth has created his own unique brand of music, mythology, and an imaginary fantasy land he calls "Festad."



http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vGVGwpxg7yA

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/S._K._Thoth

http://www.skthoth.com/

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