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Sunday, February 21, 2010

Concert Review: Hirsch-Pinkas Duo


Sunday afternoon should be reserved for listening to live chamber music.

This afternoon I attended a Faculty Artist Recital at the Longy School of Music Edward Pickman Concert Hall in Cambridge. The featured performers were the Hirsch-Pinkas Piano Duo.

The Hirsch-Pinkas Piano Duo is comprised of two of the best well-known pianists in the Boston-area: Evan Hirsch and Sally Pinkas. I've followed both of their solo careers closely since the 1980s, but it is only since about 1995 that they have teamed up to perform together as an ensemble. They also happen to be husband and wife.

It turns out that there is more than enough two-piano (and four-hand/one-piano) literature to keep them busy. Not only is the repertory rich with music written originally for their instrument(s), but plenty of transcriptions made from other pieces are abundant. In addition, the Duo actively seeks out new works to record or perform both locally and on their numerous world tours.

The concert earlier today included a nice selection of pieces by Edvard Grieg, Robert Schumann, Alexander Tcherepnin, Nathan Davis, and Aaron Copland.

The work by Edvard Grieg (1843-1907) was a four-hand arrangement in 1976 by the German composer Adof Ruthardt (1888-1892) of five selections of Grieg's popular Incidental Music for Peer Gynt. It's a familiar work that we have all heard in an orchestral version. In fact, two orchestral suites exist: Opus 46, and Opus 55.

It was interesting to observe the detail and clarity of articulation that Hersh and Pinkas summoned from their grand piano in the Peer Gynt selections. They were very careful to match and coordinate every small and subtle detail of their articulation, particularly when one or more melodic lines shifted between them. As a listener, I could clearly comprehend the unity and coherence of their combined musical expression and thought process as performers. They were clearly on the same page, and in a manner that is not only precise, but extremely musical in character.

The acoustic of Pickman Hall is rather good, and the Steinway pianos at the Longy School of Music sound superb. It was almost obligatory to hear their playing as orchestral in the Grieg (and later in the Copland). It made me realize that the piano is more than an autonomous stand-alone instrument, but can also function as a surrogate for other combinations of instruments too. For example, composers often do their work at the piano while thinking about other instruments. It's not uncommon for them to imagine actual piano sonorities as strings, winds, or percussion. Thus the piano can function as a musical chameleon, assuming different tone colors depending on the performers' ability to express them, and the listeners' imaginative capacity to hear them.

Tone color does play a major role in music, and the orchestra is a unique beast in this regard. For the most part, Ruthardt's transcriptions of the Grieg were a sensitive and faithful rendering of the original orchestral score, but with one possible exception: the second movement (Aase's Death Op. 46, No.2). When it's played on the piano keyboard the music does not seem to resonate with enough color variation to sustain the slow and contemplative musical discourse. Unfortunately, the pondering suspended block chords of this movement as played on the piano can only die out. In the orchestral version Grieg surely had more options available in his pallet to "colorize" his musical statement.

The second work on the program was Bilder aus Osten, Six Impromptus for Piano four-hands, Op. 66 by Robert Schumann (1810-1856). Schumann composed this set in Dresden as a surprise Christmas present for his wife Clara in 1848. It's a mature work by the composer and full of wonderfully complex 19th-century tunes and harmony. It's piano music at its' best. You could detect a mutual admiration for this piece in the confident and cozy performance by this couple. It was intellectual, yet warm and fuzzy.

After the Intermission, the Hirsch-Pinkas Duo focused on music from the 20th and 21st centuries (as they often do). First, we were treated with an energetic Rondo in D Major (Op 87a) by Alexander Tcherepnin (1899-1977). Just as we may hear the piano in transcription as a proxy for the orchestra, so too are we inclined to hear native piano music as potential material to be orchestrated. Such is the case with this piece. The pounding rhythmic nature of this two-piano work implies an application of colorful orchestration. After hearing them play it, I read in the program notes that Tcherepnin did in fact transcribe his spirited Rondo for orchestra. It became the fourth movement of his Suite Op 87.

Tcherepnin's Rondo reminded me at times of Stravinsky's famous ballet Petrushka (which also exists in a piano version) - but without all of the "dissonance." It was nearly a neo-classic work, exploiting the D-Major scale, but also mixing in other coloristic tonal and quasi-tonal materials as well. As I listened to this short and peppy piece for the first time, I wondered if it was really composed by a Russian. The music is rather joyous, happy, and unabashedly optimistic - not exactly what you'd expect from a Russian.

Perhaps the explanation is that Tcherepnin composed the Rondo during his American period. He had long left his St. Petersburg home where his father Nikolai was a prominate composer. As a "White Russian" he moved from place to place with his family - first to Tbilisi and then to Paris, also spending some years in China and Japan. I recall learning about Alexander Tcherepnin as a child from piano books when I was growing up. His easy piano pieces (such as the "Happy Stowaway" and "Mic and Mac") along with simple piano works by other Russians (such as Kabalevsky and Prokofiev) were amount the stables of my initial introduction to modern music. Somewhere in my archives I keep a worn and faded newspaper clipping of Alexander Tcherepnin's 1977 obituary from the NY Times.

It's difficult for me not to associate Alexander with his son, Ivan Tcherepnin whom I had made acquaintances with before his untimely death in 1998. Ivan was a composer who taught at Harvard and who specialized (along with his brother Serge) in analog electronic music synthesis- a speciality that was all of the rage in the early 1970s. I've heard that the distinguished Tcherepnin composer dynasty continues on even today.

Following the Rondo in D Major, the Hersch-Pinkas Duo returned to the stage to present the Boston Premiere of a new work by Nathan Davis (b. 1980). The World Premiere had occurred earlier this week when the Duo performed at the Hopkins Center for the Arts in Hanover NH.

Davis' piece, Passacaglia, was composed in 2009. Davis grew up in New Hampshire, but currently resides in Madison, Wisconsin ("with his wife and their two cats"), but he has a strong connection with the Boston-area. Davis obtained several degrees from Brandeis University in music and mathematics. At Brandeis he studied piano with Evan Hirsch and music composition with Marty Boykan, David Rakowski and Ross Bauer (to name a few). Davis went on to obtain his PhD in music composition at UC Davis. He has written his own software for electronic music synthesis and composition, and is founder and owner of his own securities trading firm based in New York City. [readers should note that there is another (but unrelated) composer-percussionist based in NYC with the same name].

Davis' Passacaglia is on first impression a very strong piece. It's carefully written for piano four-hands with both the vertical and linear aspects of pianistic sound production in mind. We hear the chromatically rising "ostinato" very clearly at the onset of the work, and can follow how the composer deduces the variations that flow on logically from it. The short work is thematically convincing, resonates resoundingly, and appears to be constructed with a rock-solid methodology. I was impressed.

I was not surprised to read in Davis' bio that he had worked extensively in the field of electronic music, since one section of his Passacaglia reminded me of an acoustical phenomenon known as "Shepard's Tones." Electronically produced Shepard's Tones create the audio illusion of constantly rising pitches - as in a never ending spiral of sound. One section of the Passacaglia gave me this impression.

While there was an embryonic inkling and a subtle hint of impending fast melodic finger work in Passacaglia, it never got to a point where that idea erupted into a fast frenzy of musical hyper-activity. I was expecting lift-off, but was equally satisfied with a safe, sound, and uneventful flight.

Billy the Kid is one of those pieces of music destined to become an American classic - if it isn't already one. It's best known today in its' 1940 concert suite edition which Aaron Copland extracted from this acclaimed ballet. The first performance of the work took place on October 6, 1938 by Ballet Caravan in Chicago in Copland's original conception of the work for two pianos. That's the version that the Hersch-Pinkas Duo performed on Sunday.

However, the more familiar version of Billy the Kid for full orchestra (completed in 1939 by Copland) is what we are inclined to imagine in our heads as we listen to the two-piano score. Copland definitely thought for orchestra, and had most certainly intended to orchestrate his work from the onset. However, in its initial version, Copland is careful to write pianistically. Hirsch and Pinkas made note of this in their program notes.


The distribution of material between the two instruments takes advantage not only of their antiphonality, but the fact that there are two distinct performers. The pianos sometimes share portions of the same texture, but at other times operate on quite independent planes.

We heard six excerpts from Copland's ballet, beginning with "The Open Prairie" and ending with "The Open Prairie Again." One has to marvel at Copland's ability to keep it both simple and interesting. He spaces triads in unusual ways, and is able to manipulate his notes to create an almost cinematic vision. His cowboy and Mexican music verges on stereotypical, but his overriding skill as a composer makes the journey worthwhile.

As the concert concluded with Copland's American cowboy music (followed by an encore), I couldn't help but think that this Cambridge audience was both happy and satisfied. I think they may have been hungry too, and inspired by the Americana may have ventured over to Redbones in Cambridge for a late lunch or early supper of down-home Texas BBQ with beans, coleslaw, and dirty rice. Yum.

Links:

Artists' website
http://www.hirsch-pinkas.org/

Naxos press release about Circles of Fire by George Rochberg:
http://www.naxos.com/catalogue/item.asp?item_code=8.559631

Listen to Circles of Fire:
http://artofthestates.org/cgi-bin/piece.pl?pid=101

About Shepard Tones:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shepard_tone

About Redbones BBQ:
http://www.redbones.com/

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Continuum performs at Harvard

The rocking new music group from NY that goes by the name Continuum brought their contemporary music show on the road this week with not one, but two marathon concerts at Harvard's Paine Hall. The event was sponsored by the "Fromm Players at Harvard" endowment which the music department oversees, organizes, and curates on an annual basis.

The central theme this year was "Intersections." According to the detailed and elaborate program notes written by Joel Sachs (Continuum co-director, pianist, conductor, and event curator), the raison d'être for the concert was to explore the global phenomenon of cultural interaction - a process of musical fusion that began in the 19th century with Debussy's fusion of musical elements from East and West. Fusion was also a concept championed by the American experimentalist composer Henry Cowell who exhibited an "impetus toward a more all-embracing concept of 'cultural hybridizing.'"

Asserting that "intersections of culture" is a powerful force in today's music, Continuum selected 16 contemporary works for the 2010 Fromm Foundation concerts at Harvard. The two concerts featured 13 composers from all around the world. Their homelands included Mexico, Azerbaijan, Argentina, China, Cambodia, Israel, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Indonesia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. It should be noted that many of these composers at one time or another studied or resided in the America or in Western Europe.

While the number of composers is too numerous, and the scope of their work is too broad, to fairly review here, I will say that the performances by Continuum were extremely impressive. They brought an entire chamber orchestra up from NY for our entrainment. Their troupe consists of about 20 musicians and support staff. I commend Harvard for investing in what must have been a pretty expensive new music variety show.

The soloist's with Continuum that stuck out were Taiwan-born cellist Mimi Yu, clarinetist Moran Katz, violist Stephanie Griffin, and pianist/Continuum co-director Cheryl Seltzer. Cheryl had a lot on her plate, and she really played up a storm - both inside the piano and on the keyboard.

(Note that last month in this blog I reviewed a concert by Continuum in NY. The link is provided below).

Taking a 40-thousand foot view of the two Fromm Players at Harvard concerts this year, I came away with some general reactions to the notion of cultural fusion in music. Here is how I see it...

Cultural identity is not only a key aspect of the identity of a musical work, it is a necessary and unavoidable attribute of the composer's intent. On the other hand, cultural identity should not override or preempt the primary objective of the creative endeavor - that of expressing sound as organized into abstract and aesthetically pleasing patterns and ideas.

There are voluminous gray areas here, including the overlap between cultural identity, and say Nationalism. Personally, I've never cared much for Nationalistic music. It often carries with it an overtone of politics and propaganda, or least the potential to be exploited politically without the composer's explicit or implicit consent or knowledge of the fact. Aaron Copland was a wonderful composer, but how many times have we heard his music put into a context to represent the "great American way."

Often "cultural identity" clutters the musical idea, by bringing with it too many external associations. For example, I find the music of Stravinsky's late period to be much more communicative and direct than music his much more popular Russian period. I find Bartók's music to be much more interesting when he composed in a purely modern style, and avoided explicit quotes of Hungarian folk tunes.

Composers who have created something distinctive and original often forge a brand new language to work in. While their new language may have derived in some way from the folk and art music traditions of their native culture, these composers moved on beyond their provincial milieu to invent what in many instances can be regarded as a cross-cultural, universal, and holistic viewpoint. As great composers they stand as a full-fledged contributors on the international stage.

The new music scene today is fragmented, confused, and suffering from a chronic identity crisis. If there ever existed a common international musical language, it was left behind at the end of the 20th century. Perhaps there was once a time when composers from all around the world could write in a similar or common modernist style. For example, I never regarded Tōru Takemitsu as Japanese, Luciano Berio as Italian, or Elliott Carter as American. They all composed darn good contemporary music that has an identity associated with them as individual artists. It doesn't matter which country they come from, since they speak in a more or less universal musical language that apparently has world-wide universal appeal.

But fusion sells. The commercial success of "cross-over albums" is unmistakable. Combining world music and traditional classical music is a profitable enterprise, and the international acclaim of Yo-Yo Ma's Silk Road Project and Osvaldo Golijov's The St. Mark Passion are testaments to this fact (the later case observed by Joel Sachs in his program notes).

This phenomenon is a fact that does not go unnoticed by composers, especially by composers who are more often than not accustomed to being unnoticed. To put it crudely, by emphasising one's country of origin, a certain degree of marketing cachet can be derived. International bios are always more interesting to read than local and provincial ones.

I'm not sure that I like hearing the world's indigenous music re-tooled, re-interpreted, and performed on modern Western orchestral instruments. Such was my generalized take-way from the two "Intersections" new music concerts by Continuum.

It's not that there is a lot of interesting music and wealth of material to be derived from long-established and diverse musical cultures, it's that exploiting this music merely for self-promotion purposes bores me.

I noticed that "Intersections" concerts focused on composers who in one way or another utilized non-Western materials which derived specifically from their own specific homeland. I'm much more interested in composers who expand their personal horizons, and go beyond their own culture or place of birth. For example, Americans George Crumb, Lou Harrison, and Harry Partch were influenced by Asian music. Luciano Berio's classic "Folk Songs" take the listener on a global trek across many different non-Italian cultures - including the Appalachia mountains of North America. You don't have to be of African-American descent to play jazz. Mozart transcended his culture when he composed the Alla Turca movement of his Piano Sonata No. 11 in A major, K331.

It's my personal bias to avoid explicit cultural associations in my own music. I'm not going to whip out an accordion just because I'm of Italian-American decent. I might incorporate an accordion in a work because it's unique or interesting sounds, but the music would probably bare little if any resemblance to the popular song, "Nel blu dipinto di blu" - more commonly known as "Volare" - sung by the Italian pop singer Domenico Modugno. I prefer my music to be as abstract as possible, original, and with little or no cultural bias or baggage.

In our age we are bombarded by culture. Forging a new culture out of the old sometimes means burning bridges and destroying what has been the status quo. Phoenix rose from the ashes. Contemporary music should be able to stand on its own feet without the crutch of external forces.

In the end I think most composers would like to be thought of as a "composer" rather than as a "[fill the national or ethnic label] composer." The commonalities between composers are much more important and interesting than their national or ethnic differences.

Now here is Domenico Modugno singing "Volare" (Nel blu dipinto di blu) in 1958...

Friday, February 19, 2010

Discovering Vermeulen

Visiting Dutch composer Rob Zuidam delivered the first of three public lectures at Harvard on Thursday afternoon. Zuidam (b. 1964) holds the distinction of being Harvard's "Erasmus Visiting Professor" for the Spring of 2010. The Erasmus Lectures are dedicated to the History and Civilization of the Netherlands and Flanders, and funded by a generous endowment. I already know of Zuidam from hearing some of his music in the 90s when his "Three Mechanisms" was performed at Tanglewood. Since then he has composed four operas.


From Room 2 of the music building (directly adjacent to the composer's office), Zuidam chose for the subject of his first Erasmus lecture a rather obscure Dutch composer from the 20th century. The talk was about a composer who is still rarely heard outside of his native country today, and who was virtually ignored for most of his career within Holland as well. His name was Matthijs Vermeulen (not to be confused with the famous Grand Prix motorcycle racing champ, Chris Vermeulen).


Matthijs Vermeulen
(1888-1967) was by all accounts a maverick. He was known for his sharp tongue and outspokenness as a music critic (his primary source of income). He famously yelled "Long live Sousa" after a performance at the Concertgebouw of a piece by Cornelius Dopper - a rather conventional Dutch composer. Vermeulen didn't like music that derived from the Germanic tradition, and he was no fan of Sousa. To make matters worse, much of the audience thought he was shouting the name of a socialist revolutionary who had a attempted to bring down the Dutch government a few days prior. Vermeulen was banned from attending future concerts by the management of the Concertgebouw.


His Second Symphony (page two of the score is shown below) is without a doubt his best-known work.

Vermeulen composed this symphony in 1920. The piece has a complex main theme with no particular tonal center, which is constructed from large interval jumps and a mixture of chromatic/whole-tone interval structures. The theme goes through an elaborate development process which Vermeulen may have honed from his study of the Dutch polyphonic composers. Underneath the relentless counterpoint and thematic development, the Second Symphony pounds away in tone-clusters and a battery of non-pitched percussion instruments. It's very reminiscent of Edgard Varèse - although Vermeulen most definitely came upon his unique stylistic bent quite independently.

The maverick aspect of Vermeulen's career is not unlike that of Charles Ives in America. Vermeulen didn't get along with Mengelberg, the omni-present and all-powerful Music Director of the Concertgebow Orchestra. He frequently hammered the conductor in his published music criticism, and this rift probably resulted in his orchestral music being ignored by conductors for decades - at least in the cultural capital of Amsterdam. Although his Second Symphony was composed in 1920, it did not receive a reading until 1953 at what was said to be a flawed performance. Vermeulen himself first heard this work in 1956 - a full 36 years after he wrote it.

Vermeulen lived in near abject poverty with his family, and had to leave Amsterdam for a journalism position near Paris. In France, he lived in self-imposed exile for decades. His music was largely ignored both in Holland and abroad. His vision of what 20th century music composition should be was in sharp contrast to both the prevailing Stravinsky-inspired neo-classicism and those who adhered to Schoenberg's 12-tone school compositional process. Vermeulen had in fact invented his own musical language which only he was able to converse in. Somehow he found the means to survive in his own self-invented bubble without falling victim to the effects of bitterness, anger, or dejection.

Eventually Vermeulen returned from France to the Netherlands. Toward the end of his life the Dutch took a second look at his music, and Vermeulen ultimately received more frequent performances of his work. Although recordings have finally been made of most of Vermeulen's work, according to Rob Zuidam's comment in the Q&A session following the talk, "it does not travel well." It's not easy to obtain his CDs outside of Holland, and I suspect the only way most of us will be able to hear this music performed live is to travel to the Netherlands.

Even today, the Concertgebouw Orchestra rarely performs Vermeulen, and his name does not appear on the walls of the Concertgebouw concert hall along with the better-known Dutch composers of his generation. In fact, in the great city of Amsterdam where virtually every composer has a street named after them (see my link to "Composer-Streets" below), Vermeulen is conspicuously absent from the map (although there is a street in his name in Amersfoort in the Province of Utrecht).

Vermeulen was never part, and probably never will be, a member of the Dutch musical establishment.



In 1967 Vermeulen died in Laren, a small and idyllic town in the province of North Holland (which I have visited many times).


(The photo on the right is from the
collection of Odilia Vermeulen in Laren)



We look forward to Rob Zuidam's additional presentations about contemporary Dutch music at Harvard's "Erasmus Visiting Professor" lecture series. If you can't make it in person, the text of the lectures will be posted on Zuidam's website (link below).


The two remaining lectures in the series are scheduled for March 11th and April 10th, 2010 at 5:15 PM. It's free and open to all.

Links:

deconstructing-jim.blogspot.com/2008/08/composer-streets.html
www.classical-composers.org/comp/vermeule
www.RobertZuidam.com/essays

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Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Remembering Roger Sessions

From my perspective, one of the greatest American-born composers was Roger Sessions (1896-1985).

Unfortunately, Roger Sessions is not a household name in the broader world of classical music. While he did command a dominant role in American music for several decades before and after WW II, it's pretty rare to hear any of his music performed today. This oversight is one of the great travesties of our current culture. One would hope that his chamber, orchestral, and operatic repertory would at some point be rediscovered and reintroduced into the concert repertory for a new generation of listeners.

For now, most of what I know about Sessions and his music is from old recordings, dusty scores, and fading memories of the man himself.

I was still a teenager when I watched him from a distance in the halls at Juilliard when I was an Extension Division student there in the early 1970s. At that time I learned about him through his students, such as Ellen Taaffe Zwilich and Andrew Violette. He was a very well-liked teacher. Sessions had a very European outlook (having lived there for so many years). This world view stuck with him in NY (and at Princeton, NJ where he lived and taught). I recall that Mr. Sessions liked to have lunch at an upscale Italian restaurant near Juilliard known as "Mario's."

From my naïve and uninformed perspective at that time, Sessions seemed really ancient. In the avant-garde 70s, he was still writing Symphonies - how "retro." His aging hand appeared to be glued to his pipe, although I never saw smoke coming from it. He spoke in a soft voice, and sat silently much of the time looking off into space deep in thought. When he did speak, it was in a nearly incomprehensible drone and with a low-pitched mumble. His pace of speech was agonizingly slow. Sessions seemed to be the antithesis of some of the hyper-charged forces of nature that permeated the Juilliard culture, and in my teenage ignorance, I didn't realize how sharp the old man really was.

Besides his private students in composition at Juilliard, I recall that Sessions taught a class in counterpoint and that his classroom was directly adjacent to my L&M (Literature and Materials) classroom. All I know about counterpoint is probably the result of intra-classroom osmosis.

It was over the course of the next few years that I would hear, study, and experience Sessions music with a more informed eye and ear. His published books about music are amongst the finest I have ever read. His body of music is substantial and of the highest quality. I'm a huge fan of his nine Symphonies, the Violin Concerto, his piano sonatas, and the Solo Sonata for violin - just to name a few.

Sessions was also one of the most influential teachers of the late 20th century, and was the driving force behind an entire generation of composers, some of which I have studied with. I suppose that I'm an indirect recipient of some of his knowledge, since his students included the likes of Earl Kim, Robert Cogan, Robert Ceely, Malcolm Peyton, Milton Babbitt, and Donald Martino. I guess I'm a second-generation Session-ite, a bona fide Sec-session-ist.

Fortunately, up until his death in 1985 Sessions remained active and received a number of major commissions. He completed some of his most important orchestral works late in life, and penned some rather challenging and impressive piano pieces in this period too (Sessions was an excellent pianist).

My shameful first impression of him in the early 70s as "an old man" was quickly rectified. It soon became clear to me that Sessions had more brainpower and musical chops than I could ever hope for, and over the years I have been rather embarrassed by my misinformed youthful first impression.

One of the big turning points for me, where I became a huge fan of his work, came after I moved to Boston. The Boston Opera Company, under the direction and leadership of visionary conductor Sarah Caldwell, mounted one of Session's operas: Montezuma (1963). The opera in three acts, lasts 2 1/4 hours, and contains dense atonal music and great singing from beginning to end. It's a 20th century masterpiece. The thought provoking libretto was written by Giuseppe Antonio Borgese.

While Montezuma had had it's premiere over a decade earlier in Berlin, the Boston Opera Company delivered the American premiere in the Spring of 1976. (Once, at a reception that followed a Fromm Music Foundation concert at Harvard, I met a Sessions-look-alike Physics professor who in 1964 had attended the Berlin premiere of Montezuma - a copy of the program is shown below).




The Boston premiere of Montezuma was a real happening. I still recall the excitement in the hall at the old (and physically decaying) Orpheum Theatre. Throngs of prominent composers had made the pilgrimage to hear Sessions' work. (I recall that Don Martino, Robert Cogan, Malcolm Peyton, Robert Ceely, Francis Judd Cooke, Ezra Sims, Harry Chalmiers, Rodney Lister, and Scott Wheeler were at the performance that I attended). A scan of a page from my copy of the Boston Opera Company program book is shown below...



The vocal roster included Donald Gramm and Phyllis Bryn-Julson. I just noticed some familiar names in the orchestra too, such as Marylou Speaker (Churchill) who was the Boston Opera Company's Concertmaster before moving on to a post with the Boston Symphony. She passed away just recently at the age of 64. Andre Lizotte (who I knew at Berklee) and Robert Annis (from NEC) were in the clarinet section. Robert played bass clarinet in Montezuma. Dean Andersen and Dennis Sullivan were among the battery of six percussionists. In an interesting roll of the dice, 25 years later I would work with Dennis as colleague in the Information Systems group at Zurich Scudder Kemper Investments. The chorus drafted to sing in Montezuma was a rag-tag band of mostly amateur singers from the local colleges, including Lowell State, Regis College, and Tufts.

Given the complexity of the vocal, choral and orchestral music in this work, the Boston Opera Company production was rather good. I think everyone present at those performances knew that history was being made, and that this was a really important musical event - not only for Boston - but the the country as well.

What we didn't know at that time, or didn't even suspect, was that this great seminal work by one of America's leading composers was probably receiving its' final performance.




Montezuma, as important and outstanding as it is, did not enter into the repertory of opera houses across the US or across the world. Even worse, it was never commercially recorded. For the limited number of composers of my generation and older who were fortunate enough to be present at the Boston Opera House to hear Montezuma live, this was a unique and "once in a lifetime" experience.







While I have a piano vocal score of the Montezuma to study, it would be nice to see it performed again on the operatic stage. I'd even settle for a good quality commercial recording of the work. But, given the current musical climate, it's pretty doubtful that this will ever happen.


But all is not lost. Deconstructing-Jim (being the pack-rat that I am) has unearthed some old cassette tapes made of the April 4th, 1976 Montezuma live radio broadcast. The sound quality is not the best, but you can hear the singing pretty well. These rare recordings are all that we have, and I hope that listening to Montezuma in its' entirety will resonate with those of you who never had an opportunity to hear this great work before. Feel free to download it to your media player or iPod. Each of the three Acts are lengthy, and the MP3 file size is approximately 40 MB for each section.

Enjoy...

Montezuma, ACT 1 40 MB
 

Montezuma, ACT 2 42.3 MB
 

Montezuma, ACT 3 38.8 MB


Links:
http://www.uncwil.edu/music/Sessionssociety/
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roger_Sessions


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Monday, February 15, 2010

Factoid




There are approximately 6.8 billion people living in the world today.




About 5 billion of them have cell phones.




--------------------

Good morning Dushanbe!

Hello to all of my fans in Dushanbe, Tajikistan!



If we can believe the data generated by Google Analytics, someone in Tajikistan paid a visit to my composer-centric website earlier today.

The mystery visitor launched directly into my site without looking it up in a search engine, or from clicking on a link. Their operating system is Windows XP, screen resolution set for 1280 x 1024, and browser of choice is Chrome. The mystery visitor uses tj-shuhrat as an ISP, and the language configured on their computer is the US version of English.



Dushanbe Tajikistan looks like a nice place. About 679,400 people live there.

Currently Dusanbe is comprised of 83.4% Tajiks, 9.1% Uzbeks, 5.1% Russians, 2.4% other groups. Shown on the right is the Ismail Samani Monument.

Dushanbe was once called Stalinabad, after Joseph Stalin.

Greetings to all of my fans in that part of the world!

I hope that you like my avant-garde modernist music!



Link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dushanbe

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Sunday, February 14, 2010

Pepsi Refresh Project

Free money for innovation is always a good idea.

The Pepsi Cola Company has begun a program to give away $1,300,000 each month to fund great ideas voted on by the public. You can apply, and make your project submissions online.

Pepsi accepts up to a 1000 applications per month. Although this month is already filled up, you can still submit your application for the next submission cycle which begins on March 1st.

Grant money will be awarded in amounts of $5k, $25k, $50k, or $250k. That's a lot of cans of soda.

How does it work?

Anyone (with Internet access) can submit their ideas online at

http://www.refresheverything.com/


The purpose of the Pepsi Refresh Project is that "people, businesses, and non-profits with ideas that will have a positive impact."

As a member of the public, you can go online and vote for up to 10 of your favorite ideas daily. If you submit your own grant proposal, you are allowed to vote for it. It's populism on steroids.

The categories are: Health, Food & Shelter, The Planet (Earth, I assume), Neighborhoods, Education, and my favorite: Arts & Culture.

I've already seen some cool music-related projects on the submissions list, including a composer looking to produce a new musical.

Pepsi has enlisted subject area specialists as advisers for each category of grant consideration. For example, the Arts & Culture Ambassador is blogger Rebecca McQuigg Rigal. Ms. Rigal is said to be a "trend analyst, consultant and writer in the areas of arts and culture, new media, youth trends, retail, fashion, marketing and consumer behavior."

(Hey, that job description sounds like what "Deconstructing-Jim" is about. I didn't even know that I was an online "Arts & Culture Ambassador" Look mom, I'm an Ambassador!!!).

It's great that the Pepsi Generation has wrestled control of the Internet out of the hands of the Department of Defense (DARPA). Let's monitor the Pepsi Refresh Project for its results.

Pass me a Coke, err... Diet Pepsi, please.



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Reduce the Guilt

Kettle Cooked Potato Chips from TRADER JOE'S...


33% less fat than regular potato chips. No preservatives. No artificial colors or flavors. No trans-fat. 120 calories per 6g serving (50 from fat).


You can't eliminate the guilt, but you can reduce it.


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Passing the torch

It was a pleasure to hit upon the topic of classical music on today's Sunday morning television where most of the talking heads are typically politicians or political pundits.

Urban Update on WBZ-TV Channel 7 - a "multi-cultural program that examines news events and issues that have a broad impact on New England's minority communities." The program is hosted by Byron Barnett.

It was a rare opportunity to hear a clip from the world-premiere performance last September of an excerpt of "On Williows and Birches," - a new concerto written by composer John Williams for harpist Ann Hobson Pilot.

Hobson Pilot, who recently retired from the orchestra after a glorious 40-year stint, joined the BSO in 1969 (a few before I moved to Boston). In 1980 she was promoted to the position of principal harpist for the orchestra.

She was joined on Urban Update by her BSO colleagues Mark Volpe (Managing Director), Owen Young (Cellist), and her protege and successor Jessica Zhou (Harpist). Zhou, who was born in Beijing, joined the BSO at the beginning of the 2009/2010 season.

One of the things that struck me after attending a BSO concert last week was how the orchestra personnel has changed so completely over the years. Virtually every member of the orchestra has retired or moved on relative to the time when I was a regular and dedicated BSO patron in the early 1970s. Frank Epstein perhaps would be one of the exceptions, but oddly I did not see him on the stage with the percussion section in Elliott Carter's Flute Concerto last week. I did notice the new harpist Jessica Zhou, since she had a rather important part in Carter's new work.

It's a little bitter sweet that the distinguished Ann Hobson Pilot has passed the torch to Jessica Zhou, but we can rest assured that the BSO harp section (all one of her) seems to be in good hands.

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Friday, February 12, 2010

The digital_university

My random thought today is about higher education.

In the United States, there is a rather diverse approach to university learning. There is pretty much something for everyone.

But a new bread of colleges have emerged that are profit-driven, and they do not hide the fact that their primary responsibility is to the stock holders. But, profit verses non-profit is often just a matter of tax-status, book-keeping, and type of incorporation. In some regard, all institutions of higher learning perceive their students as customers, and those customers are most often reliant on Title IV funding to purchase their education. Purchasing a home, car, or college education on borrowed funds has become one of the staples of the great American dream. I'm not disputing that.

But what do you get for your money, and are you buying the real deal or an illusion or dream? It's a murky area.

A few colleges seem to take the approach that their product is "theatre." Everything about their campus is designed to provide an illusion of the prototypical educational experience: clean classrooms, a library, and actors for program chairs, deans, and faculty. Merchandise, such as sweatshirts with the university logo exist to reinforce and support the brand identity. Even the graduation ceremony is part of the Disneyland-inspired illusion.

College is a booming business, and the cost of higher education has risen at an alarming rate relative to GDP. However, the tangible result of a 2 or 4 year degree in many instances is unclear, especially when the "theatre" aspect of an education outweighs the results-oriented approach of traditional learning. At some schools you can attend college without actually doing any real work to improve your mind. Student-customers are sometimes coaxed into purchasing a hefty college experience package - and in some cases it's a pretty darn good simulation for the real thing.

The fact that the public has trouble understanding what is real and what is theatre is part of the charm. Frankly, there are more than a few profit-driven, shady institutions out there. They skillfully use confusion about "what is college" to their advantage, often tout their non-traditional modes of engagement as a new wave in higher education. But in reality their product is simply a cost-effective delivery of a degree.

And if the university as theatre issue was not complex enough, higher education is going through a transformation regarding online access and the granting of degrees. Many believe that the digital_university is the future. It represents a paradigm shift in how a rapidly growing number of Americans will interact with college.

In my view, the best way to offer online studies is to simulate the real classroom setting. In other words, your teacher would have an Avatar, as would you and your fellow classmates. You'd have to raise your hand to ask a question, the the teacher would "see" your Avatar on the screen and respond accordingly. It would bring all of the social aspects of classroom learning back into the equation again. True, it's education as video game, but the paradigm has many advantages too. In reality you could be sitting at home in your pajamas on a cold and snowy day while attending class.

I believe that the Avatar is the future of online programs. The technology is already here, but it still needs to be developed and deployed.

What does this mean for teachers? Well, at some brick-and-mortar colleges teachers seem to be hired purely for their acting skills. They are required to look the part and present the aura of a stereotypical "Professor." Yet, in practice they are merely working on contract as one of many actors in the grand educational pageant show. At some business-run schools, instructors are asked to dress for the part and run through the motions of what people expect college to look like - otherwise they wouldn't have have invested in the illusion.

I guess it's time that we all sat down with our Avatars and had a long talk. The future is coming faster than we realize.

Pretty soon real-world teaching jobs (in a brick-and-mortar classrooms) will become "unreal" - like acting in a performance. On the other hand, the online classroom will become a true reality, with our Avatars leading the charge.

The digital_university is our future.

Embrace it, or become a Thespian.

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Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Elliott Carter's Flute Concerto


Elliott Carter (b. 1908) is still going strong. Really strong.

Last evening I heard the American premiere of his new 14-minute Flute Concerto (2008).

He composed the piece on a joint commission from the Berlin Philharmonic and Boston Symphony Orchestra. The world premiere took place in Jerusalem in September of 2008, and it later performed in Berlin in June of 2009.

Carter worked on his Flute Concerto in his Greenwich Village apartment from mid-September 2007 to March 2008.

It is a very lucid and carefully constructed piece. The flute writing is both expressive and virtuosic. Great care was taken to prevent the soloist from being drowned out by the orchestra (an all too common issue with flute concerti).

As his followers have come to appreciate, Carter's music progresses on layers of evolving time lines and contrasting tempi. Non-pitched percussion sounds (including lots of wood instruments) logically tick and tok away in the Flute Concerto. Pointed staccato orchestral events - from isolated solo notes to blaring full-frontal tutti - mark the temporal ictus of a magnificent celestial clock constructed by the composer to represent the patterns of the Universe against an almost perceptible grid of Einsteinian time-space.

There is everything you'd want in a 21st century flute concerto: Fast music, slow music, rapturous romantic tunes, angular virtuosic modernism, orchestral transparency, tone color, a sense of direction and form, harmony, rhythmic excitement, and some just plain old cool riffs for the flute. This concerto was the showcase work for the BSO's new Principal Flutist, Elizabeth Rowe. It was her coming out party as a soloist - and she did a spectacular job.

Elliott Carter is not going to take it easy. He's got a tall stack of commissions on his desk to satisfy. Carter recently completed a new work, Concertino for Bass Clarinet and Chamber Orchestra written for his friend and assistant Virgil Blackwell. It's so new that a premiere has not yet been scheduled.

The composer seems to be exploring some new areas too. In 2008 I heard his fascinating string orchestra work Sound Fields at Tanglewood. The word is that Carter scripted a new piece in the same vein titled Wind Rose.

Other Carter works "hot off the press" include On Conversing with Paradise which was premiered in June of 2009 at the Aldeburgh Festival, and Poems of Louis Zukofsky for mezzo-soprano and clarinet. The later work was premiered at Tanglewood this past summer.

In a few days, on February 11th, Carter's new wind quintet Nine by Five will receive its world premiere in New York.

Look too for a brand new Carter piece to be premiered at the Aldeburgh Festival this coming June. It's a work for soprano and orchestra titled What Are Years and based on poems of Marianne Moore. If you can't make it to England, James Levine and the BSO will give the US premiere of the work this summer at Tanglewood.

The Tuesday evening audience at Symphony Hall was rather sparse. I estimate that only one third of the seats were filled. The only composer I spied in the crowd was Gunther Schuller, but others could have been lurking in the dark nooks and crannies of the voluminous building. Of course, this was the last of a series of concerts with this selection of works, and many of Boston's composers may have attended earlier in the week when Carter himself was sitting in the historic old concert hall.

The BSO also performed works by Schubert (excerpts from the incidental music to "Rosamunde") and the Brahms 4th Symphony. The Brahms was super, and Levine and the BSO practically blew the roof off of the house. I found myself making comparisons between Brahms and Carter, and see some similarity in their technique and relationship to music. Perhaps that's why Levine paired these works up on this week's program.

Elliott Carter is clearly "on a roll." My late father (who was born the same year as Carter) use to say jokingly in his old age, "the first 100 years are the hardest." Perhaps he was right about that. 110 is the new 50.

Here is a YouTube of BSO Principal Flutist Elizabeth Rowe discussing her performance of the Carter. Enjoy...


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Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Herbert Brenon's Peter Pan

Cable Access TV's "Classic Arts Showcase" aired a sizable clip of the 1924 silent film directed by Herbert Brenon titled Peter Pan.

It was delightful. The plot appeared to be faithful to the original J. M. Barrie book, and also quite similar to subsequent movies and musical versions as well.
(Barrie was very involved in the 1924 film, and selected the actors).

The excerpt I viewed starred Betty Bronson (as Peter Pan - shown on the right in the photo below) and Mary Brian (as Wendy - on the left in the same photo). This film also featured the Chinese-American actress Tiger Lily as the Indian Princes, but I'll have to rent the movie to see her acting.


Actress Brian (Wendy) went on to have a long career in movies and died in 2002 at the age of 96. Bronson (Peter Pan) was a big star Hollywood too, and died in 1971 at the age of 65.

The "special effects" were rather impressive for 1924. You couldn't see the wires that held the kids as they flew around the room - and eventually out the window of the flat. There is also an actor in a rather convincing furry dog costume who displays amazing human facial expressions and expressive body language. As you would expect, Tinker Bell is often shown as a flashing light.

The Peter Pan story is timeless, universal, and great entertainment for all ages.

Link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_Pan_(1924_film)

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Jan Sandström

Last evening while watching "Classic Arts Showcase" on cable access TV, I found something rather surprising. It was an excerpt from a ballet by Swedish composer Jan Sandström (b. 1954) titled EN HERRGÅRDSSÄGEN (A Manor Saga) from 1987.

The dancers, choreography, direction, lighting, and set design were great, but the music really captivated me. The composer created a wonderful soundscape of beautiful orchestral sounds. It was quazi-tonal, but sustained and sospeso. The colors were vivid. I was very impressed.

I've never heard of Sandström. He seems to be a prominent figure in Sweden and as indicated on his website has composed a great deal of music. One of his popular works, Trombone Concerto #1 (the Motorbike Concerto), has been performed over 600 times. The composer studied with Brian Ferneyhough, but you wouldn't know it from the ballet excerpt that I heard. Although I did sense a composer who's music is informed by the techniques and aesthetics of late 20th century practice - including serialism.

I hope to hear more of Jan Sandström someday.


Link: http://www.jansandstrom.com/

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Monday, February 8, 2010

Salzburg-gate

Where there's tons of money, you can usually find greed, corruption, embezzlement, and fraud.

If this sounds like the subject matter of grand opera, your right.

The European press is buzzing with shocking tales of intrigue, secret foreign bank accounts, and attempted suicide. The news revolves around the world-renown music festival in Salzburg founded in 1967 by the legendary conductor Herbert von Karajan.

Allegedly, the Directors of the Salzburg Easter Festival have created a complex Ponzi scheme utilizing shell companies and a network of intertwined International bank accounts. They are said to have enlisted family members to launder embezzled funds. In addition, their travel expenses have been heavily padded, and now politicians are wondering where all of the generous funds collected from corporate sponsors has gone.

I have ranted about this mindset before in my blog. The classical music biz is big business. I've gone so far as to coin the term "Music Industrial Complex" to describe it.

Apparently, the music industrial complex has an Enron situation on it's hands. I'm not surprised. When greedy businessmen see an opportunity to skim 2.5 million Euros (over $3 million dollars) from the budget of a profitable music festival without getting caught, their temptation is proportionally Wagneresque.

We'll have to wait and see if the fat lady sings as this story develops, but my advice would be to support your locally grown artists, musicians, and composers. Making an investment in the culture and art of your neighborhood is less likely to end up in the pockets of some not-for-profit administrator wearing a $3,000 Armani suit.

Link: http://www.dw-world.de/dw/article/0,,5220087,00.html

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Composer as Interior Decorator

Today's random thought is about interior spaces.

Q: What's the difference between Interior Decorators and Composers?

A: Less than you might think.

Both professionals deal with selecting, arranging, or rearranging objects into aesthetically pleasing patterns. In both trades the goal is to design the characteristics of a space where the client can experience something out of the ordinary. Interior Decorators and Composers function in a sense consultants - freelance advisers with a unique flair and talent for innovative creation and coherent design. They use their skills to select moods, colors, and thematic elements in a unified way to implicitly or explicitly communicate an experience or make a statement.

While Interior Decorators deal with actual objects and materials to express their art either in the home or office setting, Composers tend to work more abstractly and thrive in the concert hall or on recorded media. Composers make note of the their ideas either with traditional pen and paper, or using special-purpose software to design and notate their sonic patterns. Interior Decorators on the other hand compose with their eyes, and work primarily in a visual environment - although some use special purpose software as well.

In the end, the actual commercial product of both disciplines is rather similar. Wallpaper is wallpaper regardless of the speciality. The primary difference is that one profession relies on light while the other on sound waves. More fundamentally, both professions rely on a customer-base that directly or indirectly contracts for their services and professional expertise.

From my perspective, there is not a lot of difference between pushing notes around on a piece of paper, and designing the space of an elegant and inviting room. It's not the actual material of individual notes on the page or tangible objects that form the experience, but how they are organized for the client that counts. In every sense of the term, a musical composition is an "interior design" that will ultimately reside in the mind of the listener. No more, and no less.

Both trades rely heavily on recycled artifacts. Interior Decorators might reuse old lamps or side-tables. Composers re-engineer from a pallet of standardized sounds, rhythms, and pitch combinations. In both cases, the basic material is rather limited, but the possible combinations and resulting patterns of expression are nearly infinte.

Both professions often exploit and drawn upon prior cultural associations that are psychologically and socially mapped to the artifacts that they deploy in their works. Well-designed musical compositions and physical spaces are more often than not associated with one or more cultural/ethnic patterns. "Cross-over" and "Fusion" is a popular current trend in both domains of artistic expression.

There is one difference: Interior Decorators on average get paid more than Composers.

Next week: ruminations on Composer as Short Order Cook.

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Sunday, February 7, 2010

Concert Review: Musicians of the Old Post Road


On Saturday evening February 6th, 2010 the Musicians of the Old Post Road (MOPR) performed a concert at Harvard Epworth Church in Cambridge under the collective theme "From the Romantic Salon."

Despite the frigid weather, the concert drew a capacity audience in Cambridge (which was a repeat performance of the same work from the evening before in Wayland, MA). Although the heating system at Harvard Epworth was in disrepair, the music provided a cozy setting that warmed all.

Members of the MOPR had done their homework not only preparing well-rehearsed pieces for this public performance, but in researching and finding under-performed or long forgotten gems in the classical music repertory.

The unifying theme of the "Romantic Salon" concert centered on one instrument: the guitar. MOPR guest artist Olav Chris Henriksen was featured in all of the five works on the program. He performed on, and spoke about, his family heirloom - a school of Stauffer six-string guitar made in Vienna around 1805. The instrument has been passed down through generations of guitar playing members of his Viennese-Norwegian family.

The concert featured little performed works by Francesco Molino, I.A. Preis, Nicolò Paganini, Friedrich Burgmüller, Wenzel Matiegka (but arranged for quartet by a 17-year old Franz Schubert).

The work by I.A. Preis was a set of variations for flute and guitar. Nothing is known about this composer, and the MOPR performance was undoubtedly the first time the work has been performed in the 21st century. While not a rediscovered masterpiece, the work was competently constructed and of certifiable salon music quality. It's yet another example of a skilled composer who has faded into the black hole of history. Apparently, even the most adept musicologists have been unable to unearth basic information about this now obscure composer - such as when her (or she) was born and died. No other works by Preis have been uncovered.

Flutist and MOPR co-director Suzanne Stumpf performed on a historic old system flute dating from around 1815. It was also made in Vienna. She indicated to the audience that perhaps her flute and Henriksen's guitar had met before in Vienna in the early 19th century. Stumpf performed on her historic wood instrument with both agility and tonal clairty.

The Paganini Serenade in C Major for viola, cello, and guitar was a delight. Paganini was a master of string writing, and one of a small circle of composers to take on the guitar in an intelligent and engaging way. Paganini could probably play the guitar and viola part himself, but I was impressed with the cello writing too. Cellist (and MOPR co-director) Daniel Ryan often soloed high above the treble clef, and managed to make his instrument sound cantabile the entire time.

The final work for the evening was Notturno for the entire MOPR ensemble - a piece originally composed by the Czech guitarist Wenzel Matiegka but re-tooled and arranged by Franz Schubert. Schubert most likely made the arrangement for his family to play at home. He re-distributed the original viola part between viola and cello. Schubert also added his own compositional improvements as well, such as doubling, and a rambunctious virtuosic cello solo in the theme and variations that concludes the work. The work was originally believed to have been penned entirely by Schubert, and thus assigned a Deutsch number of D. 96.

Violist Sarah Darling played a significant chamber music role in both the Matiegka/Schubert piece, and in the Paganini Serenade as well. She has another life as a new music specialist, and when not performing traditional works with MOPR, is championing the music of contemporary composers. She has been involved with more than 100 premieres.

Refreshments followed the program, and musicians, friends, and audience all mingled at the rear of the hall.

Several concerts remain on the 2009-10 MOPR Season, including "Virtuosi Italiani" in March (in Boston and Worcester) and "Conversations Galantes: Music of the French Baroque" in April (at Wellesley College).
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The next great hope

Recently a 28-year-old composer was described by New York Magazine as “one of the next great hopes for the future of classical music.”

By virtually all measures of success, this young composer's career has rocketed to unimaginable levels of notoriety.

Since I don't get out of the house much, I have yet to hear his music performed. But I see that his works are commissioned and performed all over the world. The composer has over 3000 followers on Twitter, and finds time in his busy schedule while traveling the globe to frequently update his fans on his whereabouts and ruminations - including what, where, and with whom he is dining.

From all accounts (such as the New York Magazine accolade) our long and venerable classical music tradition has been rescued from its' malaise by someone who hasn't even hit his stride. I'm glad to see that a talented young composer has stepped up to the plate, and infused the new music repertory and public consciousness with groundbreaking works that will set the standard for the 21st century.

The last composer that forged such a broad impact on society was Igor Stravinsky. Stravinsky's shoes would be hard to fill, but if the buzz, Internet chatter, and mainstream press surrounding this rapidly emerging composer is well-founded, we have a true contender.

Only history will tell.

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Hypermusic Prologue comes to Boston

Perhaps you read about it here on Deconstructing-Jim back in 2008...

http://deconstructing-jim.blogspot.com/2008/12/hypermusic-prologue.html

Now you can see the opera Hypermusic Prologue live at the Longy School of Music in Cambridge on Saturday, Feb. 27th, 2010 at 7:30 pm.

Here is an excerpt from Longy's Press Release:

Barcelona composer Hector Parra of the Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique in Paris, will perform a version of the popular Hypermusic Prologue, a unique project for intercommunication between science, music and art. The opera libretto was written by theoretical physicist Lisa Randall of Harvard and a member of Longy's Board of Visitors. The work has been described as "one of the great achievements of European contemporary music in this century."

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Monday, February 1, 2010

Pierre-Laurent Aimard

The French pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard is in town. On Friday January 29th he was the guest of Cathy Fuller on WCRB.




Aimard is one of a few new music specialists who have made significant headway into the larger classical music tent. Completely at home with challenging works such as George Benjamin’s Piano Figures or Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Klavierstück IX, Aimard also plays more mainstream works by Ravel and Debussy with insight and passion.

He is in town to perform Elliott Carter's Dialogues (2003) and Ravel’s Concerto for the Left Hand with James Levine and the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

After three performances, the pianist, conductor, and orchestra travel to Carnegie Hall for a performance in the Big Apple. The BSO program also includes two of my favorites: Daphnis et Chloé Suite No. 2 and Harold in Italy by Berlioz with the Steven Ansell as soloist.

On WCRB Airmad spoke and played a number of short pieces. His short program included Ravel, Messiaen, and four of the early 12-tone pieces from Notations by Pierre Boulez (numbers 7, 1, 9, and 10). These little piano pieces eventually ended up as humongous orchestral work - expanded and orchestrated by the composer many years after the fact. You can check out my review of the 2008 BSO performance of Notations I-IV (for grand orchestra)... http://deconstructing-jim.blogspot.com/2008/10/concert-review-bso-102308.html

Aimard is a full-fledged member of the inner-circle of 20th century French music. His teacher was Yvonne Loriod - Oliver Messiaen's wife, and he worked a long stint as pianist in Boulez' Ensemble Intercomtemporain. In fact, after the concerts in Boston and NY, Aimard is off to Cleveland where he will make a recording of both the Ravel piano concertos with the 85 year old composer/conductor. Later, Aimard plans to record the Bartók Double Concerto with Maestro Boulez and the Chicago Symphony.

A huge fan of Elliott Carter, Aimard performed a short piece on WCRB written by the American composer for the birthday of James Levine's mother. It's called Matribute. I've heard it before. It consists of just two polyphonic lines (a little sparse for Carter), that contrast and interact with one another. One line is slow and sustained, the other more moody, scherzando, and percussive in nature. The two lines ultimately cross each other in register on the keyboard.

I heard James Levine premiere Matribute for a small group at Harvard last year, and a Ursula Oppens performance at Tanglewood. I liked their performances, but Aimard's interpretation is very pristine and sharp. He and Cathy Fuller discussed the final staccato note in the piece, which not only finishes the work with certainty, but also exhibits a degree of the composer's wit and humor.

I tuned back into WCRB Saturday night to hear the BSO live-broadcast. Carter's Dialogues (2003) led the concert. I caught this work out at Tanglewood at the Carter Festival, but now it seems more mainstream when presented on a program by a major orchestra along with traditional works. Dialogues reminds me a lot of another recent work by Carter, Interventions. Interventions was performed by the BSO in December of 2008, and reviewed by yours truly... http://deconstructing-jim.blogspot.com/2008/12/concert-review-bso-carter-interventions.html

Pierre-Laurent Aimard is clearly a pianist to follow. He can make new music sound convincing and user-friendly to the larger public. That can only be a good thing.

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The Tangelwood Festival of Contemporary Music

Mark your calenders!

The Tanglewood Music Center (TMC) and the Boston Symphony Orchestra will hold it's annual Festival of Contemporary Music August 14-16th, 2010.



The featured composers this summer will be Gunther Schuller (left),

John Harbison (right), and

Oliver Knussen (below).




The details of the programming are still to be announced, but the program on August 16th will include Aaron Copland's Third Symphony.

The prestigious trio of composers directing/programing this years' festival all chaired the composition activities at the TMC at one time or another.

As usual, I look forward to the event. See you there.
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