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Thursday, April 23, 2009

ALEA III - Celebrating Yehudi

On Wednesday night the new music ensemble ALEA III, based at Boston University, performed their fifth and final concert of the season. It called for an impressive roster of musicians in combinations for chamber ensemble and chamber orchestra. ALEA III, now in their 31st season, is comprised of the best and the brightest of Boston-area freelance talent. Thanks to Boston University, the Greek Ministry of Culture, and other generous sponsors, their concerts are free and open to the public. In times of tight household budgets, public concerts such as these are a great value and public service. The audience was large and enthusiastic.

This final concert of ALEA’s season was dedicated entirely to the music of Pulitzer Prize-winning Yehudi Wyner – presumably in celebration of the composers’ upcoming 80th birthday on June 1st, 2009. It was a musical party not to be missed, and it seemed as if the entire community of composers in Boston came out in tribute. I glanced upon many familiar faces of composers that have in one way or another been touched by Wyner’s music, and in some instances studied with him directly. Noted composers such as Marty Boykan, Scott Wheeler, Rodney Lister, John Harbison, Yu-Hui Chang, Malcolm Peyton, Eric Chasalow, Peter Child, Michael Gandolfi, Richard Cornell, Mark DeVoto, and Gunther Schuller were just a few present TSAI Performance Center at Boston University. I’m sure there were many others that I didn’t observe or didn’t recognize. (Oddly, I noticed that the majority of these composers situated themselves in the back row of the ground-level, with John Harbison seated almost exactly in the middle of the pack. The seating arrangement assumed an aura of ritualistic ceremony).

The large and enthusiastic audience also included some small children eager to stay up late on a school vacation night. A few of them had parents performing in ALEA III, and would wave to mom or dad on the stage after the music had been played. For the most part the kids took in Wyner’s modern music pretty well, but I did have to filter out more than the usual amount of giggling, uncontrolled bad winter coughs, and nervous chatter. Two thirds of the way through the first work on the program – Wyner’s Horntrio (1997) – one little girl belted out the comment “what’s this song?” That was a good existential question, but it went unanswered since her parent-guardian was wearing earphones and listening to an entirely different concert on his iPod.

But the 16-minute Horntrio is a great piece, and Yehudi played the piano part with the skill and panache of a composer who knows every note of the work frontward and back. He was joined by Krista Buckland Reisner on violin and Laura Carter on French horn who also played as if they had a hand in composing the piece. The work sounded well-rehearsed and carefully shaped and articulated – even in the legendary crappy-sounding acoustics of TSAI hall. It would be nice to hear it again in a room purposely designed for the performance of music: such as Jordan Hall at NEC or the new Distler Performance Hall at Tufts University. The first time I heard the Wyner's Horntrio was at Slosberg Hall at Brandeis, with Yehudi at the piano, and the good acoustics there make a difference. Reisner was in her element. She appeared totally absorbed by the music and at times seemed consumed by it. It was interesting to see the three musicians eye contact, facial expressions and gestures as they interacted with each other to bring this energetic music to life. This is what makes live performance exciting.

The last movement of the Horntrio is remarkable for the synthesis of vernacular music from Wyner’s youth and a uniquely American brand of post-Schoenbergian modernism. Elements of Tin Pan Alley popular song found their way the fast final movement as a natural but explicit consequence of the musical flow. Wyner - an intuitive composer who follows his ear - has classical, pop, and jazz harmony in his bones. Perhaps he inherited his musical language genetically from his father, Lazar Weiner, who was the preeminent composer of Yiddish art songs in America. According to Yehudi’s own program notes for the Horntrio, fragments for “Chattanooga Choo Choo,” “Lazybones,” and “Who Cares?” by George Gershwin infiltrate the music.

I’m glad that I usually read the program notes AFTER I listen to a piece. The music of Gershwin did occur to me as I listened to the ending movement of the Horntrio. I did hear the influence of Gershwin and music of that era, but it was in the context of a new musical language that integrated out-of-context fragments that we have come to associate with pop music of that time. Isolated chords, clich├ęd riffs, and jazzy gestures all conspire to remind us of music of the 30s and 40s, yet it functions in an entirely different way. The dissonances do not resolve, the harmony flows sideways, and the music exhibits modernist ticks, sudden outbursts, and flows with a more contemporary migration of ideas. It’s as if we had been listening to Gershwin while in a dream state, or if his iconic music had been refracted through the lens of a kaleidoscope and broken into discrete snippets of exqusite sound. Yet the texture is new and the music somehow all relates, correlates, and follows the natural laws of musical composition without violating my sensibility of what that should be. The composer assumes that we are educated listeners, and his work asks for our full participation, but Wyner gives us familiar landmarks along the way to latch onto. While there is a lot of sampling of familiar territory in the Horntrio and the sounds of pop culture are skillfully reassembled into a tapestry of twenty-first century “serious” music, the overall design and musical integrity of the work is both fresh and ingenious. Wyner plays with notes the way the Harlem Globetrotters play with a ball. It’s a pleasure to experience, and a marvel to listen to.

Next on the program was the 25-minute Quartet (1999) for oboe, violin, viola, and cello. It was played by Jennifer Slowieck (oboe), Krista Buckland Reisner (violin), Peter Sulski (viola), and Leo Eguchi (cello). These are all fine Boston-area musicians, and I know first hand from working personally with Reisner and Sulski that they pay much attention to detail. They bring unparallelled dedication to every performance, which was certainly the case with Wyner’s Quartet where they all were on the “same page” both figuratively and literally. The music was balanced, unified, and direct. The magic we hope to hear in any performance of chamber music was clearly evident in this case. In particular I remember some off-the-beat attacks in the strings in a dance-like regular pulse that seemed whimsical. Reisner almost laughed out loud as she played this playful passage with her 4-stringed colleagues. There were many other exciting details too, such as wicked fast string tremolos set against a deliberate cantus firmus-like theme in the oboe. Slowik had a difficult part to play on the oboe. Her part (written originally for Peggy Pearson) is a beautiful but stands in contrast to the strings. The oboe is somewhat unforgiving instrument that quite frankly lacks the contrast of dynamic and tone color possible with strings. But Wyner’s Quartet accounts for this, and almost treats the oboe as a soloist in places, although the work is equal to - if not a elaboration of – any major work written for the traditional string quartet (with two violins). In other words, the oboe does not play second fiddle.

Yet, as sonically captivating as the oboe Quartet is, I found my mind wandering a bit when it should have been slave to the musical narrative. I don’t think the music should have gone on for nearly a half an hour, and the content and subsequent development of ideas in the piece to my mind did not adequately rise to meet the intended breadth and scope of the work as a whole. I did hear what seemed to be variations in the later half, and my speculation about this formal structure was confirmed when I read Wyner’s program notes after the fact. Perhaps it was not articulated well, either in notation or in performance, since by the end I was worn down by the stopping and starting of musical sections. It seemed over-articulated, equally spaced, and repetitive in places, although my first general impression of the piece is positive. But aside from my petty qualms about the formal structure of the Quartet, the surface texture of the music with its elegant melodic and harmonic language could seduce even the most die-hard critics of modern music. It is nicely written for the instruments and a joy to listen to.

During the intermission, I had the good fortune to have a long and inspiring conversation with composer, conductor, and all-around musical guru Gunther Schuller. We were somewhat secluded in the balcony, so we were sheltered from the disruptions, interjections, and intrusions that usually occur from his avid fans. It gave us time to discuss music, mano a mano, and that’s an opportunity that I couldn’t pass up.

After the intermission the heavy artillery came out on the stage. There were two chamber orchestra works expertly conducted by Venezuela-born Francisco Noya. The first of these two pieces was Passage Part I, which Wyner composer to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the new music ensemble Collage. Passage was conceived as the first movement of a larger multi-movement chamber work. I marveled at the conservatism of the musical language, although it wasn’t tonal per se. While it referenced tonality, the music doesn’t appear to follow any of the standard doctrines associated with either traditional harmony or popular song. It was outside of the tonal system, but the sonorities were clearly made from a 19th century musical fabric. Gunther Schuller, who I had just been talking to, had conducted the premiere of this piece in 1983 with Collage. The piece has a consistent mood, and a sentiment that is mellow, dark, unpretentious, but distinctly American.

The final large work on the program was a song cycle for soprano and chamber orchestra titled The Second Madrigal: Voices of Women. Karyl Ryczek was the soprano, and sang the 10 songs with grace, varied emotion, and vocal clarity. I knew this work from a version for soprano and piano that the composer had recently broadcast with Dominique Labelle live on WGBH radio. Labelle had also recorded The Second Madrigal on Bridge Records with Wyner conducting. The song “Cosmetics Do No Good” is one of two poems at the heart of the song cycle, and musically I find this to be the most engaging and memorable piece in the set. Vocal music is challenging on many levels, and only the most skilled of composers can create the requisite emotional synthesis between text and sound. It’s a miracle if and when all of the parameters finally come together - text, music, and performance – in unified and cohesive new form. I think Wyner achieved this allusive goal in his cycle The Second Madrigal. It’s as if he hit upon poems that resonated with his outlook on life, and then let his muse loose to cook the goose.

It is hard for me to fathom that Yehudi is about to enter his 8th decade. Although he has been writing music since before I was born, I clearly remember his Intermedio - Lyric ballet for soprano and strings. It was performed (and recorded on CRI Records) by the American Composer’s Orchestra around 1975. I attended the concert at Alice Tully Hall in NY, and was extremely impressed by his musical language. I was also impressed with the soprano in that performance, a respected musician and conductor-to-be named Susan Devanny Wyner. Susan accompanied her composer husband in the audience at the ALEA III concert Wednesday evening.

Even back in the early 70s, Yehudi Wyner was known to me for forging a convincing unity between the tonal and atonal systems of music. I regret that I did not take my father’s advice, and enroll as an undergraduate at SUNY Purchase where a young and upcoming Wyner had been appointed as Dean of the Music Division. But wanting to get away from the daunting and oppressive artistic orbit of the NY metro area, I choose to study in the provincial city of Boston instead. As fate would have it, many decades later Wyner would join the faculty of Brandeis, albeit well after I was kicked out of the music department for loitering. We’ve met informally, but I know him mostly from his music.

The Wyner tribute concert was inspiring in several ways. For one thing, it is encouraging to me as a middle-aged composer that someone with a few decades on me is approaching their pinnacle of success. I’ve always been playing catch-up with composers in their 80s, 90s, and beyond. I found it very telling that the oldest work on the ALEA III program was written in 1997. Could it be that composers don’t hit their full stride until late in life? Is the field of music composition one of the few areas in life where being a “geezer” pays dividends? Or is the converse true – keeping one’s mind busy by writing complex music is an anti-aging formula worthy of FDA approval? If my hunch is right, we can expect to hear a lot of great new music from Wyner and his generational peers (Schuller, Babbitt, and Carter just to name a few). I’m not sure how agile they are at golf or tennis, but its clear to me that they are at the top of their game when it comes to writing music.

All of the performers in ALEA III rose to the occasion for the Wyner celebration concert. It appears that good music inspires good performances. In a good and orderly world, that’s they way it should be. Thankfully that’s the way it was on Wednesday evening at the TSAI Performance Center in Boston.

If you missed the ALEA III concert, don’t despair. Three of the pieces on the program have been recorded on Bridge Records at

You can learn more about Yehudi Wyner and his available recordings from the following links:

Theodore Antoniou, Music Director
Wednesday, April 22, 2009
TSAI Performance Center
Boston University, Boston