Anonymous yet personal, this Blog chronicles
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“Deconstructing Jim” is simply here to
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Saturday, November 29, 2008

La Voce

Metropolitan Opera star Renée Fleming has joined the ranks of other high-profile celebs in using her name to sell product. The American-born soprano follows closely on the heels of boxer/grill-master George Forman, the movie star twins/fashion icons Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, and actor "Mr. T" who is hocking the FlavorWave Turbo Oven on a TV infomercial.

Ms. Fleming has allied with Coty, the world’s largest fragrance company, to create a limited-edition fragrance called La Voce. The perfume, sold as "La Voce by Renée Fleming," retails for about $200 (That's where you can spend your economic stimulus check). The fragrance can be purchased at select high-end retailers worldwide, including Saks Fifth Avenue, Bergdorf Goodman and Harrods.

The packaging is "tastefully" designed to resemble the 1970's-sheik Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center, and the bottle design was inspired by the landmark's distinctive chandeliers. But wait! If you order now the package includes a wearable brooch.

The perfumer released the following statement about this unique product....

Inspired by the artistry of the singer, La Voce by Renée Fleming is a sophisticated floriental fragrance that opens with top notes of passion fruit and white truffle accord and transcends to a rich floral heart of jasmine and lily of the valley. Notes of dark chocolate mousse and ebony wood winds complete this luxurious fragrance.

Coty shares a small piece of the profit with the Metropolitan Opera for every bottle sold, so it is not surprising that they are fully onboard with this venture and promote La Voce on their website.

I caught Fleming on the Bloomberg Business TV network promoting her new fragrance and CD. The CD is with conductor Christian Thielemann and the Munich Philharmonic of the Strauss "Four Last Songs." I was surprised, since her 1995 recording of the Strauss with conductor Christoph Eshenbach and Houston Symphony Orchestra is rather good and still in print. I would have much rather heard something new from her - perhaps Schoenberg's Erwartung.

While there is nothing wrong with an artist making an honest living, I am slightly dismayed by the distorted image of opera and classical music that Fleming's commercial venture tends to promote. Too many people already have a notion of opera as an elitist art form of the ultra-wealthy, and high-profile perfume commercials like this only reinforce that unfortunate stereotype. I don't think that inner-city kids or soccer moms are going to rush out to hear Strauss because of La Voce perfume, and many of them will actually be turned off by the association.

But I have an open mind. Perhaps composers should get into the act too.

Care for a Brahms Cigar?

A chilled Vodka Shostachovich?

a Satie Parasol?

how about a Boulez Bonbon?



Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Abandoned Piano

The following news item appeared in the Cape Cod Times on November 23rd, and has since mushroomed into a nationally-covered story...

Baldwin piano discovered in Harwich woods

November 23, 2008

HARWICH — Police are seeking key evidence to solve the mystery of a piano found in the Bells Neck woods yesterday.

At 3 p.m., a woman walking on trails inside the conservation area discovered a piano in the middle of the woods. The Baldwin piano, which had a matching bench, is in perfect working condition, police said.

The piano is extremely heavy, and it took more than a half-dozen men to load it onto a truck, according to police.

Because of its daunting weight and superb condition, the piano was not simply pushed out of a vehicle in the woods, police said.

Police said they have no idea how the piano came to rest in the middle of musical nowhere. A general notice has gone out to area police departments in an attempt to figure out whether the piano was stolen or lost.

Television news reports indicated that the Bells Neck woods in Harwich is a very remote area. The piano is said to be well-maintained, and even in good tune. I noticed that it is a Baldwin "Acrosonic" Spinet, and read a report that its' serial number is 773746. The Acrosonic was introduced by Baldwin in 1936, and eventually became the largest selling piano type of all time.

It's gotta be Aliens. They "borrowed it" in the mid-1950's to study the esoteric technology of equal-temperament and string tension. Now that they have traversed space, and reverse-engineered it in their labs, they returned their specimen back to Earth this week in the middle of a remote woods.



Concert Preview: Janice Weber

Yesterday afternoon Richard Knisely, host of WGBH radio's Classical Performances, invited Boston-area pianist and novelist Janice Weber in for a live preview of her upcoming recital at Boston Conservatory.



The recital will feature the Chopin Sonata No. 3 in b minor, along with relatively obscure works by equally obscure composers:

IGNACY JAN PADEREWSKI: Variations and Fugue on an original theme, op. 33
ERWIN SCHULHOFF: Piano Sonata No. 1 "Jazz Sonata"
DANA NADINE SUESSE: The Cocktail Suite

Weber, who has just returned from Phoenix where she performed the infamous Piano Concerto by Adolf von Henselt, played live and spoke with Knisely about the upcoming Boston Conservatory "Piano Master's Series" program.

Weber began her radio spot with the Piano Sonata No. 1 "Jazz Sonata" by Erwin Schulhoff (1894-1942), a Prague-born composer-pianist. Schulhoff's music alternated radically in style, from works influenced by directly by Strauss and Scribain, to impressionism, expressionism, modernism, neoclassicism, American jazz, and Dadaism. As a pianist, he championed the mircotonal music of the Czech composer Alois Hába, but also freelanced as a jazz pianist.

Wikipedia notes that:

In his Dadaist phase, Schulhoff composed a number of pieces with absurdist elements; notable among these is "In futurum" (from the Fünf Pittoresken for piano) -- a completely silent piece made up entirely of rests that anticipates John Cage's 4'33" by over thirty years.

Schulhoff, a Communist, was deported by the Nazi's to the Wülzburg concentration camp in 1941 (near Weißenburg, Bavaria), where he died a year later.

The Polish composer, virtuoso pianist, and diplomat Paderewski (1860-1941) was quite an eccentric. Weber said he would travel the country by car with his entourage, wife, and parrot. In addition to his musical activities, he was the third Prime Minister of Poland.

Weber played Paderewski's difficult Variations and Fugue on an original theme (op. 33). Apparently, it was the composition that the composer was most satisfied with. Although the "theme" is pretty stark and nothing to write home about, the music picks up quickly after that. The variation that I remember the most was the 20th (right before the grand fugue), where the left hand closely imitates the theme played by the right in octaves. It was more angular than the meandering 19th century fortified harmony the prevails in other variations, although there were some really fast octave gymnastics that must make the fingers bleed.

The WGBH studio performance concluded with the delightful Bacardi (Rumba) movement from "The Cocktail Suite" by Dana Nadine Suesse (1909-1987). Suesse was tagged "the girl Gershwin" by the 1930's press, and comfortably composed music that straddled in-between the narrowing lines of vernacular and classical music of that era.

In between works, Knisely and Weber chatted informally about her not-so-secret career as a published novelist. Weber indicated that she has written 8 or 9 novels (although one of them will never see the light of day). She recently co-authored a book "School of Fortune" with Amanda Brown (of "Legally Blonde" fame), and their collaboration continues as they work together on a television screenplay. She said it is a very different kind of writing, where every word counts and timing is critical. Ms. Weber joked that she read dictionaries as a child.

The concert is this coming Tuesday...

Piano Masters Series
Janice Weber
December 02, 2008, 8:00 PM
Seully Hall, Boston Conservatory
Tickets are $12


Monday, November 24, 2008

Music in the OR

Music is everywhere, even in the hospital OR (Operating Room). But what genre or sub-genre of music should be on the playlist?: Techno, Bluegrass, Heavy-Metal, Classical, R&B, or Rap? And who decides, the patient or the medical staff?

In 1994 the NY Times reported that surgeons "did better" when they heard music that they preferred...
...surgeons' faith in music was bolstered recently by the results of a study recently published in The Journal of the American Medical Association. The study concluded that surgeons were likely to do a better job when working to the accompaniment of music they liked. The 50 doctors tested had lower blood pressure and pulse rates and performed better on nonsurgical mental exercises while listening to their favorite musical selections.
In some hospitals, the anesthesiologist takes on the function of "DJ of the operating room" - selecting the "tracks to relax."

Years ago, when I had outpatient surgery at Boston's Brigham and Women's hospital, the music blaring from the boom box was an annoying variant of "adult" rock. The OR was crowded, and the surgical team (which included several young medical students), played their musical selections rather loudly.

The doctors had given me permission to listen to my own music on the personal headphones and portable CD player I had brought along. I had preselected the Elliott Carter Double Concerto as my surgical entertainment. Carter's complex concerto kept my mind distracted from the worries of the medical procedure. Fully conscious and alert, my musical experience was intense and unconditional - despite the "cocktail" of Valium and other industrial-strength meds intravenously flowing into my bloodstream.

The assortment of hi-tech machinery around me, either beeped sporadically, or drew squiggly lines on a roll of slowly rotating graph paper to methodically document changes in my vital signs. I could view the changes real-time, and I assumed the patterns were charting my blood-pressure and heart-rate. In my mind, the graphs seemed to correspond perfectly to the formal design of Carter's Double Concerto. Somehow my biology was synchronized with the intricate and controlled musical architecture of the piece. It was the right selection for the situation. As I had anticipated, my nerves were somehow calmed by the frenetic nervousness of Carter's music. It may be counter-intuitive, but its' hyper-activity provided security and comfort.

Ever since then, I have sought out music that is life-affirming rather than an opiate.

The science behind the therapeutic affect of music on humans is still in its infancy. But music may play an important role in our well-being and general health. I've convinced of that.



Saturday, November 22, 2008

A moral insult

The first page of the Boston Globe reports today of a scandal at Symphony Hall. The famed Russian maestro Gennady Rozhdestvensky suddenly backed out of a four concert engagement with the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

The 77-year old conductor is fuming because during a break from the rehearsal on Wednesday, he and his wife, Viktoria Postnikova, noticed a promotional poster that gave the soloist - cellist Lynn Harrell - top billing.

Jeremy Eichler writing for the Boston Globe quite astutely observes...

In may ways, the incident seemed to emphasize the yawning gap between old-world notions of cultural eminence and American-style marketing strategies, which often foreground the names and images most immediately recognizable to the greatest number of people.

To make matters worse, the BSO inserted into their printed program an explanatory note - and updated their web page - indicating that the Russian conductor was "not able to conduct the program."

Later Rozhdestvensky spoke to a reporter in an emotional private interview from Brookline and said "I felt insulted by the actions of the administration. I feel not only slighted, but I suffered what is called in Russian a moral insult. I must say that I was able to conduct. And how!"

I applaud Rozhdestvensky for drawing a line in the sand and taking a deliberate stance against the marketing industrial complex. The controlling interest in arts organizations should not be run by business executives in three-piece suits with little or no interest other than to indiscriminately sell as many season subscriptions they can.

Selling tickets is a fiscal goal, not a measure of artistic success. Too many people purchase tickets and attend a concert for the wrong reason (e.g. social status). I'm tired of seeing people at the right concert for the wrong reason. A concert hall with empty seats is better than one filled with seats of empty people.

Perhaps it is time to blindfold the audience, and proactively shield them from the distractions of pretty faces, glamour, superstars, and name brands. In a perfect world, one would only need ears to judge a performance.


Friday, November 21, 2008

CD Review: Martino's Violin Music

Miranda Cuckson wrote the following in the liner notes of her Centaur CD: Music by Donald Martino:

While planning this CD, I had the most fleeting of exchanges with Donald Martino. Having decided to apply for a Copland Fund grant to make a recording of his music, I wrote him a letter asking if I could obtain scores to two of his recent works: the Sonata for Solo Violin, and Romanza. He emailed me in return, saying he was sending the pieces. He thanked me for my interest in his work and suggested we talk in a few weeks, after he returned from his vacation. About a week later, I was looking at his website,, and I was shocked to read there a notice that he had just passed away while on a cruise ship in the Caribbean.

Though haunted by an eerie feeling of sadness, I soon continued with my plans. As I looked through his violin music, I realized I should also obtain his Sonata No. 2, for violin and piano. I contacted his wife, Lora, who kindly found a copy of it in his office and mailed it to me. Some months later, the Copland grant came through.

Reading Ms. Cuckson’s touching notes reminded me of my interactions around this time with Donald Martino (1931-2005), who had been my teacher and long-time friend.

Permit me to digress and supply some background information and a personal account. As a co-Director of the new music ensemble LUMEN, I had been in close contact with him. In fact, a small contingent of former students (and spouses) had dinner at his house just a few days prior to his ill-fated trip. This group of students included John Watrous, Peter Lieberson, Armand Qualliotine, and myself.

LUMEN had been planning to celebrate Martino’s 75th birthday with performances of his Sonata No. 2 and Trio which had recently been completed. But after we received the shocking news of his death, it was determined that the concert should go on anyway as a tribute. Months earlier, while preparing a press-release for what I thought would be a birthday concert, I asked Martino for some background information about his two works. I naïvely inquired if these would be first performances, and if the works had been commissioned by anyone. He emailed back a long response on August 25th, 2005, and in the following excerpt, one can detect a tinge of bitterness in this his response.

These two works were both written in 2004. Neither one was written to a commission. I have written almost exclusively to commission for the last 30 years. The last commissioned work was the Solo Violin Sonata written in 2000, commissioned by the Naumburg Foundation to honor Robert Mann (I am flattered that of those he could have chosen, he chose me) for performance by the Naumburg Violin Competition winner in 2001. Since then, despite extensive sojourns in the hospital each year, I have managed to write ten pieces-- none of them commissioned. I seem to be "out of the loop." Both these pieces are approximately half as long as my "big" works until 2000. But they are no less dramatic or expressive although the particulars of expression do not require the fussy notation that has been associated with my music since 1968. They tend in mood to associate more with my early music from 1945 to 1967. Oh, and since no one commissioned the works, they are undedicated…

But his mood and outlook improved greatly near the beginning of December 2005 when he received a commission from the Tanglewood Music Center for a new work. When Martino left with his wife Lora for a Caribbean cruise, he was brimming with renewed vigor, boundless energy, and a breath of optimism about the future. At times Martino would start his work day at 3 AM - crafting his masterpieces with boundless energy and conviction, and continue working in his basement workshop until late afternoon or into the early evening. He’d become completely consumed by a piece, and live with it until the music was fully distilled, emotionally concentrated, and polished like a diamond. He always held himself to the highest of standards, and would not compromise or settle for anything less than perfection.

While he was “vacationing” on the cruise ship, I suspect that Martino continued to throw himself whole-heartedly into his work - characteristically entering notes with a mouse into the Sibelius software loaded on his new Dell notebook. He was working on the opening bars of his Concertino for Violin and Chamber Orchestra, his anticipated Tanglewood Music Center commission. At this time, his rate of musical invention had accelerated to an amazing pace. It seemed as if he caught a strong wind in his sails, a wind that would provide him with newly discovered artistic energy and freedom which led his career on a journey to new and uncharted territory. Music that had been pent up inside during years of doctor’s visits, operations, hospitalization, physical pain, and deteriorating health was literally spewing out faster than he could write it down – or enter the notes onto the luminous screen of his computer.

When you consider how comprehensive Martino’s catalogue of works is, it is remarkable that much of the music creation progressed at a pace of only two or three seconds per day. As just one of his many students, I strived to attain the same fanatical commitment to music composition, but have had great difficulty in maintaining anything close to his level of artistic intensity.

The entire musical community was shocked when the news arrived that he died suddenly at the age of 74 from diabetes-related heart failure. Martino never got to hear his next-to-last final completed compositions – the Sonata No. 2 and Trio – both from 2004.

LUMEN’s premiere of Martino’s Sonata No. 2 for Violin and Piano (2004) took place on February 5th, 2006 and was performed by Sunghae Anna Lim (violin) and Donald Berman (piano). Also on the program was the cello work Parisonatina Al’Dodecafonia (1963) performed by Rhonda Rider, and the first performance of his Trio for Violin, Violoncello and Piano (2004) with Lim, Rider, and Berman.

The performances were inspiring, and the reaction from the audience at Harvard’s Paine Hall – which included many former students, friends and colleagues - was one of awe and amazement. The directness, power, and artistic quality of these late works reveals an aesthetic shift. It indicates a new direction for this composer. Martino was in a sense charting new territory while simultaneously coming to terms with the “Bartókian” musical roots of his beginnings. The two premieres, occurring in early 2006, were formally nominated by his publishing company, Dantalian, for the 2007 Pulitzer Prize in Music (Martino had already received a Pulitzer Prize in 1974 for his chamber work Notturno).

The abruptness of Martino’s departure still haunts everyone who knew or worked with him. But his music is carefully notated and is in many ways self-explanatory. His beautifully notated scores supply answers to most of the questions that a performer might ask. The correct musical interpretation can be discovered in the depths and detail of the music’s printed page.

As someone quite familiar with Martino’s music, I listened very intently to Ms. Cuckson’s new Centaur recording of Martino’s violin music. Sitting with score in hand, armed with the critical ear of many prior performances fresh in my mind, I was deeply moved by the sensitivity, insight, raw technical skill, and informed musical intelligence inherent in her playing. It’s no secret that Martino’s music dazzles me, and hearing it performed is not unlike preaching to the converted, but I continue to be amazed by the elegance and virtuosity of his compositions when they are performed exceptionally well, as they most certainly are in this case.

Cuckson brings something new to the table too. She has a wisdom and perspective that does not derive from training alone, but must be felt intuitively. Either you love Martino’s music, or it befuddles you. For most listeners, it seems like there is no in-between. In my mind Cuckson feels this music in her bones, it’s part of her DNA, and I have no doubt whatsoever that Martino would have praised her splendid playing. Although it is true that they never met in person, and only communicated fleetingly by email, Cuckson and Martino are on the same wavelength.

Martino’s music is full of gesture, sporadic outbursts, and a bebop-like funkiness. Cuckson not only gets it, but has a commanding control over the extended universe of sounds emitting from her instrument. Her violin playing is incredibly agile and can instantaneously traverse in timbre from the faint whisper of a wistful sul ponticello double-stop - to a battery of full-fledged frontal attacks played fortississimo.

Cuckson’s musical ability is evident on the CD with her rendering of Martino’s classic fiddle piece Fantasy-Variations which dates from 1962. This 12-minute virtuosic solo work was hailed as one of the landmarks of the composer’s generation – not only for it’s violinistic expressivity, but for the 12-tone complexity of its’ rigorous construction. When I was a student at the New England Conservatory in the 1970’s, the composers were frustrated that the Chair of the String Department, violinist Eric Rosenblith, forebode his students to perform works by student composers. Yet, despite his reactionary stance, Rosenblith recommended that his advanced students learn Martino’s Fantasy-Variations, and consider making it a part of their permanent repertory. Rosenblith understood the importance of this work, and knew that the composition is written exceptionally well for the instrument. Martino, who was not a violinist, may have benefited from some real-time feedback from his first wife – a professional violinist – but he also was very adept at abstractly working out the intricate mechanics of the dark and secret art of violin fingering.

How is it that a young violinist of Taiwanese, Austrian, and English decent - born in Australia, years before the Fantasy-Variations was composed, could perform this work with such innate confidence, conviction, and an intuitive sense about how it should go?

Perhaps the devil is in the detail of the notation. Ms. Cuckson in her CD notes observes the following about the work…

The Fantasy-Variations for Violin (1962) presents a veritable encyclopedia of violin effects, ranging from may sorts of pizzicato to harmonic, glissandi, varied bowing styles, and combinations thereof. Martino indicated in minute detail not only the desired dynamics, but in many cases, extremely specific nuances of phrasing and pacing.

The amount of detailed information notated into the score of the Fantasy-Variations is overwhelming. Already in the first three measures of the piece, the composer presents a richly-colored collection of expressive sounds that expose the “tone row” in a kaleidoscopically shifting pallet of violently-contrasting ideas. Every note or two has its’ own dynamic, articulation, form of attack, tempo, and written expression mark. For example, the opening thematic minor-tenth (low B-flat up to D-flat) is notated with the dynamic fff. Both notes are to be played down-bow on the G-string, and with a dotted slur connecting the notes. There is an indication to play the two-note gesture using the “full bow.” And these two notes are just an example of the performance challenges to follow in the densely written eleven-page score.

The composer wrote that “the opening is deceptive in that it is not a ‘theme’ which is then dealt with in discrete terms.” He goes on to indicate that the piece uses “timbre and register to stratify simultaneously-progressing total-set forms.” Anyone seeking to learn more about the underline construction of Fantasy-Variations can refer to the article "Donald Martino's Fantasy Variations: The First Three Measures" by James Boros. It was published in the Martino Festschrift issue of Perspectives of New Music (volume 29, no. 2).

While this piece is perhaps representative of the tendency to write highly complex music in our recent history, Fantasy-Variations clearly transcends the perceived jaded aesthetic and academic canon of the 1960’s “Princeton School.” The work is performed rather often today and lauded for its’ unique lyricism and distinctive style.

The Romanza for Solo Violin (2002) was written 40 years after the Fantasy-Variations. While the Romanza is more freely constructed than the earlier work, it is no less-challenging to play. Written for the virtuoso new music guru, Rolf Schulte, this piece does not shy away from virtuosic 19th century Romantic gestures and rich sonorities (such as a preponderance of octaves). There are many molto cantabile and dolce moments, but also fast and extended con anima passages that careen by in an arc of fire. Looking at the score, I am reminded that this was the first publication where Martino had abandoned the laborious process of writing the final copy in pen and ink. In late 1999 I had introduced him to Sibelius software, and Romanza was his music publishing software début. (I have always harbored mixed feeling about this dubious distinction, since Martino was also famous for his award-winning music autography).

Ms. Cuckson has a natural ability for this music, and it stems in part from her education. She began her studies at the age of nine in the Pre-College Division of the Juilliard school, and went on to receive her Bachelor's, Master's, and Doctorate degrees from that esteemed institution. Among her many fine teachers was Robert Mann, the long-standing first violinist of the Juilliard Quartet. It was the Juilliard Quartet who commissioned and premiered Martino’s Fourth String Quartet (1983). Mann and Martino had worked together professionally for many years. It is not surprising that Martino's dedication of his Sonata for Solo Violin (2003) reads: "To Robert Mann, whose performances conjure the depths of the composer's soul."

Perhaps some of the insight and vision Cuckson brings to these pieces was handed down, at least indirectly, from her teacher Mann. Although I have learned that he never coached her specifically on these works, we can credit Mann for suggesting Martino's music to Cuckson.

It's fitting that the lead track on Cuckson’s CD is the Sonata for Solo Violin. Mann and Martino conferred about the technical aspects of the creation of this 22-minute, four-movement work. It is a large-scale piece written with the Bartók Sonata clearly in mind. (Bartók’s piece was a favorite of Martino’s, and he had selected it as one of the works to be studied for the PhD general exams I took at Brandeis).

Martino’s Sonata for Solo Violin is a much broader work than Romanza, and the musical ideas are grander and more triumphant. But something completely new happens in the third movement. The Intermezzo: Fughetta in omaggio is a fugue played entirely with pizzicato. Lasting for only two minutes, it is unlike anything I’ve heard played on a violin before. The aggregate sound is similar to what you might expect coming out of a string ensemble. In fact, it is technically so difficult that there were some initial questions if it could be played at all. I recall that Martino consulted a well-known violinist about this movement, who replied that he did not believe it was playable. But it was Robert Mann who looked more closely at the score, and with some of his suggested changes, Martino was able to work out a solution. The published score comes with a comprehensive raw polyphonic vision by Martino (version "IIIa" written densely on two staves, and concluding in an eight-note texture). It is implied that the violinist can take a degree of artistic leeway in making a viable custom realization out of the base-music the composer provides. However the score also includes a sample solution, which supplies a fully-written realization (with fingering) in a transcription by Robert Mann. Ms. Cuckson utilied a couple of Mann's ideas, but found another way of playing it. This movement is an example of composer-performer collaboration at its best. There is no official way of performing the Intermezzo: Fughetta in omaggio, and it will be realized quite differently with each new performance.

It must have been quite liberating for Martino to hear his Sonata for Solo Violin performed by Frank Huang at his NY Recital after winning the 2003 Naumburg Foundation competition. It seems as if Martino's music takes on a different trajectory from this moment on. The Bartók influence that was so evident in the early works of his youth, such as the Sonata No. 1 for Violin and Piano (1952), begins to reemerge. (Martino jokingly called his early piece "Bartók's 3rd" Sonata for Violin and Piano).

Martino's Sonata No. 2 for Violin and Piano (2004), written more than 50 years after his earlier work in this instrumental combination, is in no way a nostalgic return to the comforts of a previous era. Sonata No. 2 is an impressive work that integrates a life-time of musical experiences into a musical language that is transcending and timeless. It avoids the note-to-note nuance of his earlier work and goes directly for the benefits and simplicity of a longer line. The score is sparsely notated and carries just the bare necessities of articulation and expression marks. Musically, it is abound with regular pulse, cantabile melodies, clearly discernible phrases, dramatic climaxes, and is quite “accessible” to all without ceding anything from his past. Martino never abandoned his personalized and flexible flavor of the 12-tone system, although his work is (by some definitions) considered “serial.” Yet the explicit appearances of the row are largely thematic, and seem to be articulated in such an obvious way that I have to wonder if they were put there simply to annoy his vindictive 12-tone critics. I know for a fact that he did not consider tone rows to be necessary or relevant to the music, even though he still used them primarily out of habit.

Let’s remember that Martino’s late works - as Bartókian as they sound – were written without commission and faced uncertain prospects for performance (In fact, his last completed composition - the remarkable Concerto for Orchestra - is still awaiting a first performance). In the first few years of the 21st century, Martino’s career suffered unjustly from his prior association with the Princeton-school of composition, despite that fact that his music had long-evolved and kept up with the spirit of the times. He was not an academic.

Fortunately, an upcoming generation of talented musicians, such as violinist Miranda Cuckson and pianist Blair McMillen, are dispelling the misleading labels and musicological vitriol. They seek and discover music that simply appeals to them. As pessimistic as one can be concerning the future of modern music in our present state of cultural affairs, the emergence of a CD devoted to the music of Donald Martino supplies a much needed beacon of hope.

Music by Donald Martino
Miranda Cuckson, violin
Blair McMillen, piano
Centaur Records, Inc.
CRC 2955
Links :


Thursday, November 20, 2008

Concert Review: Duo Atlantica and Friends

An audience of close to ninety people gathered on Sunday afternoon November 16th, 2008, to hear Duo Atlantica perform in concert with their friends at the First Parish Unitarian Universalist Church in Arlington, Massachusetts.

This concert marked the 15th anniversary of Duo Atlantica. Flutists Mies Boet-Whitaker and Willemien Insinger grew up in The Netherlands, but met after having moved to the Boston area. They started playing as a flute duo in 1993, performing flute music ranging from the Baroque period to newly-commissioned works of the 21st century. They play it all with dedication and zeal. The program featured a wide range of flute compositions in various combinations. The two flutists were joined by guests artists on the violoncello (Corinne Boet-Whitaker), English horn (Carl Schlaikjer), and piano (Victor Troll).

The concert opened with the Sonate in fis-Moll for two flutes (1944) by Harald Genzmer (1909-2007). Genzmer, a German composer who studied with Paul Hindemith in Berlin, was also an acquaintance of Richard Strauss. During the second world war he played as a clarinetist in a military band, and after the war taught at the Munich Hochschule für Musik (1957 to 1974). Genzmer’s music is mercurial and vaguely impressionistic. His musical language does not fall easily into any particular lineage, style, or school. The Sonata is in four movements (Allegro Moderato – Andante - Grazioso e giocoso – Tranquillo), and rather subdued given what must have been occurring around him in Germany at the close of the war.

Next on the program Mies Boet-Whitaker was joined by Corinne Boet-Whitaker on violoncello as they performed Dixième Concert (Les Goûts Réunis) by François Couperin (1668 – 1733). This work comes from a set of pieces that “join together tastes” of diverse instruments in the key of A minor. The three movements (Prelude, Air Tendre et Louré, and La Tromba) sounded rich and splendid in the flute-cello combination. Couperin, a keyboard virtuoso, came from a family of musicians, and in 1685 was appointed to his father’s former position as organist at the church of Saint Gervais in Paris. Regarded through the ages as a “composers’ composer” he was admired by the likes of J.S. Bach, Johannes Brahms, Richard Strauss, and Maurice Ravel. This listener too felt privileged and enriched by the fine performance and elegant music.

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827) didn’t compose any chamber music specifically for the flute, but the Trio, Op. 87, which was originally written for two oboes and English horn, works quite well in transcription. Despite the high opus number, it is an early work by Beethoven and reminds us of the wit of Mozart and Haydn. It was first published in 1806 and is in four movements, the first three of which were performed at this concert (Allegro, Adagio, Menuetto). Flutists Boet-Whitaker and Insinger were joined on the stage by Carl Schlaikjer, who plays the English horn with enormous control and skill. The ensemble playing was well-balanced and the trio of musicians clearly enjoyed making music together. It was delightful to the ear.

Indigo Blue for flute and piano (2004) by James Ricci (b. 1954) was the most contemporary work on the program. Ms. Insinger was joined by pianist Victor Troll for this moody and atmospheric piece. The short work begins with a sequence of block chords in the piano that outline a progression that could be a fusion of Schoenberg and the jazz pianist Bill Evans. The flute then enters with a freely-written line delivered as a recitative, which is accompanied by a series of sharp, accented chords in the piano which resonate in the air afterwards. Eventually, the two instruments come together and unite in a short Viennese-blues. Composer Ricci was in the audience, and looked very satisfied with the performance as he took his bow.

Another modern work by the American composer Robert Muczynski (b. 1929) followed. Muczynski, who is also a pianist, studied composition with Alexander Tcherepnin in the late 1940’s. His Duos for Flutes, Op. 34 (1974) are rather virtuosic and very well written for the instrument. Duo Atlantica played the Andante Molto with conviction and grace. The Allegro Risoluto really sailed by in a dazzling display of fast and frenetic lines.

A work by the renowned Italian-born composer, pianist, conductor, theorist, and music educator Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924) was the next work featured on the program. Busoni taught at the New England Conservatory in the 1890’s and stands as a major figure in twentieth century music. He had several important composition pupils, including Kurt Weill, Edgard Varèse and Stefan Wolpe. His manifesto from 1907, Sketch of a New Aesthetic of Music, explored new areas such as electronic music and microtonal music. He was an important supporter of Schoenberg, and his Piano Concerto Op. 30 is regarded by some as the longest and most difficult concerto ever composed. His Duo for two flutes and piano, Op. 43 was written in 1880 before he moved to Boston. The piano part is conceived and realized as an equal participant, going well beyond the traditional role of accompaniment. Pianist Victor Troll excelled in the ensemble playing and together with Ms. Boet-Whitaker and Ms. Insinger, the three provided an expressive performance of this substantial but rarely heard late-Romantic work.

Busoni was also a famous transcriber of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 – 1750), so it was appropriate that Bach’s Trio Sonata BWV 1037 in C major was the concluding work on the program. Originally written for two violins and basso continuo, it sounds equally pleasing in modern transcription for two flutes and piano. The work is now attributed to Johann Gottlieb Goldberg - a German virtuoso harpsichordist, organist, and composer of the late Baroque and early Classical period whose claim to fame derived from giving the world premiere of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Hearing the Trio Sonata was the perfect finish to a musical afternoon. Here is a video sampling of the opening Adagio...

Duo Atlantica is a fine ensemble, and their playing is skillful and poised. They are very thoughtful about their program selection, which often includes a diversity of guest artists and musical styles. Mies Boet-Whitaker and Willemien Insinger play on matched Brannen Brothers flutes, which may contribute to their unified and even sound. The flutists take turns regarding who takes the upper line, but as individual contributors they convey an expressive personality and enthusiasm that shines through in every note.

A reception followed the performance, and many people lingered to meet the musicians and share in the post-concert excitement.

Duo Atlantica and Friends
November 16th, 2008
First Parish Unitarian Universalist Church
Arlington, Massachusetts

Mies Boet-Whitaker and Willemien Insinger, flutes
Corinne Boet-Whitaker, violoncello
Carl Schlaikjer, English horn
Victor Troll, piano



Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Stockhausen's Helicopter String Quartet

An excerpt from the Salzburg Festival 2003

The composer explains...
(bandwidth permitted, you can view both videos simultaneously)

Helicopter String Quartet
Performed by the Arditti Quartet
A film by Frank Scheffer
NAXOS Video June 2008

Monday, November 17, 2008

Concert Review: BMV and BMOP

Friday evening November 14th was a busy one in Boston. The streets were filled with people coming and going to events of one kind or another. The Boston Celtics were playing the Denver Nuggets at the TD Bank North Garden (which explained the green shirts on the T), the Smashing Pumpkins rocked at the Citi Wang Theatre, and the modern dance company Phildanco appeared at the ICA (Institute of Contemporary Art).

It also appeared that every freelance musician within a 150 miles of Boston was hard at work with engagements either at Jordan Hall playing in BMOP (The Boston Modern Orchestra Project), or down the street with BMV (Boston Musica Viva) at the Tsai Performance Center. As it turned out, both BMOP and BMV had scheduled their concerts for the same evening, and both of those events included several world premieres by Boston-area composers that I wanted to hear.

The problem before me was “how can I defy the laws of physics by being in two places at once?” And, to make things worse, I had just contracted a severe case of acute viral nasopharyngitis (aka the common cold) and I felt as sick as a dog.

Undeterred, I popped some vitamin C and searched for a way to warp the time-space continuum. By contacting one of the composers – Erza Sims – I arranged to tag along with him to the dress rehearsal of his new work Landscapes with Boston Musica Viva which was scheduled for Friday morning.

I drove to his house in Cambridge where we’d planned leave my car on the street and hop on the Green Line to the Tsai Center. But at 9:30 there were no commuter trams to be seen at Lechmere, and we heard mention of major problems on the “T” (it later turned out to be a wreck near Boylston station). Rushing for time, we hopped into my car and raced down to that area of town, where I dropped Ezra off in front of the building just in time for his 10 AM rehearsal. I drove around looking for parking, and joined him not that much later at the rehearsal too.

PART I: Boston Musica Viva (BMV)

It was interesting to see Sims at work with BMV’s music director Richard Pittman and the wonderful musicians in the ensemble. As with any new piece there were lots of questions about interpretation, and Sims was quite articulate and decisive in expressing his musical intentions. He offered constructive ideas about how the players might achieve improved results in challenging passages, and made suggestions in particular about articulation, phrasing, and balance. For example, the overall dynamics in the work had to be re-adjusted for the Tsai Performance Center, and the placement of a crescendo at end of the work was tweaked to yield the appropriate level of sound at the climax.

Landscapes (2008) is the most recent work from a long legacy of pieces that BMV has commissioned from Ezra Sims over the decades. BMV is celebrating its 40th anniversary season, and Sims (who is in his 80th year) has been a part of this new music ensembles’ repertory for the majority of those decades. I do not believe that I have ever missed a premiere of a new Sims composition by the BMV, so I did not want to miss his most recent piece.

Landscapes is scored for Flute, Clarinet, Violin, Viola, and Violoncello, and is comprised of a set of five linked movements which alternate in tempo, mood, and intention. These movements develop from - and elaborate on – ideas that were germinated in a previous song cycle titled im Mirabell. The songs are based on settings of German Expressionist poetry from Friedrich Nietzsche and Georg Trakl (im Mirabell was premiered by NotaRiotous).

The musical elements from im Mirabell reappear in Landscapes transformed and skillfully reworked into a composition that is purely instrumental and new. I think of Landscapes as a “Songs without Words” in the tradition of Mendelssohn, but of course with the unmistakable stamp that Sims brings to all of his music – a sense of purpose, importance, and drama.

Over the years Sims has developed a personalized musical language based on a coherent system of microtonal tunings and scales. To perform his music, musicians need to be comfortable negotiating divisions of the octave that are smaller than the semitone. Intervals 1/4, 1/6, or 1/12 the size of a traditional semitone are an integral part of his system and unique sound. From this core intervallic foundation he builds pieces using a system of scales and harmonies that, in the end, sound quite traditional to the ear. For many, the net result is that his music sounds remarkably “in tune.”

Aside from a few extra musical symbols that are combined with standard ones, his musical notation is completely traditional. Even though for the most seasoned of musicians there probably still is a learning curve, his microtonal music has proven to be quite playable. In fact, a second generation of musicians (and several like-minded composers) have grown up with this system and are now quite comfortable with it. From what I observed in the rehearsal, there were very few questions or concerns relating to pitch. The majority of the rehearsal time was dedicated to the age old mechanics of musical expression – phrasing, dynamics, and articulation. Playing in microtones is no longer an obscure talent or technical obstacle. It’s an accepted standard.

I was fortunate to hear Landscapes played through a few times at the rehearsal. Although it was only a preview of the official world premiere performance that would occur tonight, at least I was able to hear Ezra’s new work. Hopefully funds will be secured to take Landscapes into the recording studio by the Boston Musica Viva for a CD recording.

Performing with BMV were some of my favorite Boston-area musicians, including two members of the QX String Quartet: violist Peter Sulski and cellist Jan Müller-Szeraws. Also playing in the Sims were Ann K. Bobo on flute, William Kirkley on clarinet, and Bayla Keyes on violin. All are versatile and dedicated musicians who take their work very seriously. Without musicians like them, composers would most likely shrivel up and die.

(I would hear the other half of the QX String Quartet in a few hours, as violinists Krista Buckland Reisner and Rohan Gregory would appear in Jordan Hall with BMOP. As I said, every freelance musician was busy Friday night).


Part II: Boston Modern Orchestra Project (BMOP)

BMOP is a remarkable organization. It “is considered to be the premier orchestra in the United States dedicated exclusively to commissioning, performing, and recording music of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.” Founded by Artistic Director Gil Rose, it has been in operation since 1996 and based at the New England Conservatory of Music. A glance at the roster of musicians who perform in the orchestra reads like a “who’s who” of contemporary music performance. The list of prestigious soloists is even more impressive. Given the challenges and fiscal pressures that all symphony orchestras in America are presently consumed with, it amazes me that BMOP has been able to survive. I pray for their continued existence and applaud their good work. I’ve heard that BMOP receives approximately 700 to 800 scores in the mail from composers and publishers every month, so it is clear that they are performing an important service to the new music community.

Friday evening BMOP performed five works – two of which were world premieres.

First on the program was Chamber Concerto VI: Mr. Jefferson (2008) by Elliott Schwartz (b. 1936).

Before the work was played Mr. Schwartz took the mike and delivered some verbal program notes about his composition. The piece took form while Schwartz was conducting research at the Library of Congress in Washington DC. He learned that Thomas Jefferson, in addition to all of his other talents, was an accomplished violinist and well-rounded amateur musician. It was said that Jefferson would practice for three hours per day. His personal library included a collection of 18th century scores, including violin concerti by Vivaldi, Corelli, Handel, and Haydn. Jefferson, interested in everything and a vivid by-product of the Age of Enlightenment, could play many of these works himself. One of his fine violins was an Amati that is still in the possession of the Library of Congress.

Schwartz took all of this historical and biographical information about Jefferson, and incorporated it into a very Ivesian sounding work. Chamber Concerto VI is full of enigmatic codes that thematically reference Jefferson with other people (similar to how Alban Berg’s embedded a love song within his Lyric Suite). While Schwartz’s overall musical language is strictly modern, his piece frequently lapses into the arpeggios of violin riffs lifted from 18th century concerti, and fleeting scalar figures from the keyboard Inventions of J.S. Bach. Not only that, but the music is peppered with allusions or direct quotes from 20th century European composers that post-date Jefferson’s America - such as Gustav Holst. At one point the soloist (Charles Dimmick) could be heard bowing the opening theme from Berg’s famous Violin Concerto – as if he were channeling modern music from the future through the eyes and ears of President Jefferson himself. (Who says music can’t transport you).

Chamber Concerto VI is a piece filled with a high density of ideas, and quite interesting from the wealth of it. But for all of the internal associations found within, the sonic result is rather traditional and unpretentious. The five movements - played continuously - are denoted by the changing timbres of the keyboard player - who alternates between piano, harpsichord, and celesta to contrast sections of the work.


Next on the program was Talus, Concerto for Viola and Orchestra (2007) by Ken Ueno. Wendy Richman was the viola soloist. Ueno (b. 1970) is a very eclectic composer with an interesting background (his education includes West Point, Berklee, and a PhD from Harvard). Talus is the third concerto, and the forth work of his overall to be performed by BMOP.

Talus is written specifically by Ueno for his friend Wendy Richman who is an extraordinarily talented violist. The genesis of Talus was born from an unfortunate accident that Ms. Richman incurred when she broke her ankle during a stage performance at a new music event in Western MA. When Ueno saw the X-ray of her broken talus, biba, and fibula bones, he said “it immediately suggested harmonic possibilities to me.” According to Ueno “some of the harmonies in this piece are, in fact, generated from analysis of the x-ray.” He conducted a spectral analysis of the fracture, and reproduced it using instrumental string sounds.

Talus begins in an unexpected way (consumer warning: if you don’t want me to spill the beans about the beginning, please skip past this paragraph). Talus starts boldly after the musicians are seated and the audience is calm, relaxed and ready for the opening music when the viola soloist lets out a bloodcurdling scream at the top of her lungs. It’s rather unpleasant. (Robert Ceely did something similar at the beginning of his opera Automobile Graveyard when the conductor suddenly pulls out a revolver and fires a deafening shot into the air). Ueno’s scream may be a metaphor, an allusion to the iconic painting by the Norwegian painter Edvard Munch commenting on our modern psyche, or perhaps a more literal reference to the penultimate murder scene in Alban Berg’s opera Lulu.

But, given a beginning like that I immediately knew that I had heard this piece before. Last spring Talus was performed by Richman in its electronics version at all-microtone concert put on by the new music ensemble NotaRiotuous sponsored by the Boston Microtonal Society. It began in the same way, except that the scream was generously amplified.

From what I could hear, the viola solo part of the orchestral version of Talus as performed by BMOP is exactly the same as the version with electronics. It progresses slowly with non-traditional string sounds including plenty of scratching, sul ponticello, and harmonics. There is perhaps more white noise than discernible pitch, at least in the solo part. Only very occasionally does the listener hear an emergence of perceptible lines - and then for only the span of a few notes (which tend to be long and drawn out).

It seems as if the viola part in Ueno’s Talus stands as a constant, where the music can be accompanied diversely and framed in different contexts: either with electronically processed sounds or with string orchestra. This form of expansion and variation on a base piece is nothing new. Luciano Berio accomplished this quite successfully his Sequenza VI for Viola (1967). Berio followed his solo work with a version for viola and nine instruments titled Chemins II (1967), which was then followed by an even more robust version for full orchestra: Chemins III (1968). Finally the pieces spawned into parallel versions (e.g. Chemins IIb which replaces the viola with a bass clarinet). In fact the reworking of works by composers into new molds is nothing new. For example J.S. Bach “transcribed” violin concerti into keyboard concerti.

The string orchestra accompaniment in Talus is somewhat reminiscent of the classic work Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima composed in 1960 by the Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki. Ueno, like Penderecki, treats the string orchestra as a large sound-generator capable of multiple arcs of glissandi and homogeneous walls of sound configured in clusters.

To my ear, Ueno’s music draws heavily upon the experimental works of the 1960’s and is almost religious in its adherence to the avant garde aesthetics of that period. Perhaps it is because I lived through an era when these works were new that I do not share the same nostalgia. Penderecki moved on in the mid-1970’s to write pieces leaning more towards a conservative romanticism, even penning works in G minor. So this begs the question, is the general tendency toward conservatism in music a symptom of individual composers mellowing (or regressing) with age, or a broader aesthetic movement? Either way, Ueno appears steadfast in his convictions, and while that territory was explored by others in the 1960’s there apparently is a new generation that is discovering “classic” avant garde music for the first time.


In the upside-down world of 21st century music, old is new and new is old.

The next work on the BMOP program was Fantasy for Cello and Orchestra by Robert Erickson (1917-1997). The work, dating from 1954 was beautifully played by cellist Rafael Popper-Keizer, who served out long and elegant cantabile lines in the opening recitative as if they were exquisite appetizers at the onset of a fine gourmet meal. Erickson’s work stems from a twelve-tone Viennese lineage, but one can hear shared stylistic similarities with the music of his notable contemporaries: Ben Weber and George Perle. The single-movement Fantasy for Cello and Orchestra, which lasts 15 minutes, was premiered by the Hamburg Radio Symphony led by Ernst Krenek. To my ears, Erickson’s piece sounded new and refreshing. Yet, he must have yearned for something new, since by the end of the 1950’s he was deeply involved with much more experimental models.


After intermission BMOP filled the stage in anticipation of Martin Boykan’s new Concerto for Violin and Orchestra. Boykan (b. 1931) had completed the work in 2003, but BMOP had to coordinate with NY-based violinist Curtis Macomber on a mutually-agreeable performance schedule. In his program notes Boykan writes:

I tend to think of my violin concerto in terms of a musical narrative that extends across three movements, from the private, meditative world of the opening to the public, celebratory finale. This narrative unfolds as a dialogue between the individual (represented by the solo) and the crowd.

The violin begins the concerto with a fluid phrase that becomes a germinal idea of the piece. This idea can be found in various forms in all of three of the connected movements. I was struck by the elegance of the solo violin writing, and how it builds on solo and chamber works the composer has written over his lifetime. (I wrote a chapter of my yet-to-be-completed doctoral dissertation on a solo violin work by Boykan, and found some interesting similarities. The interval of an ascending major second is important in the work I studied, and also seems to play a role in the theme of this concerto too).

As someone who is very familiar with Boykan’s chamber music, I was very interested to hear how he would approach the orchestra. While there are many personal characteristics that we have come to associate with Boykan’s highly refined language in the chamber music arena (e.g. a laser-sharp clarity of harmony and a fondness for trills), orchestral writing is a different animal altogether. Although attention for our ear was dominated by the soloist, it was indeed a great pleasure to hear Boykan’s musical intelligence projected onto the larger sound palette provided by an orchestra. The richness of his romantic expression is particularly evident in the second movement, where Berg-like chords pile up in a thickly-scored chorale of harmonic succession. It all comes undone when a percussion battery is gradually introduced, which leads into the fast, energetic, and quickly changing music of the finale.

Curtis Macomber, who is on the faculty of the Juilliard School and Manhattan School of Music in New York, was enthusiastically praised by the Boston audience, the composer, conductor Gil Rose, and by members of BMOP. He is a great champion of contemporary music, and the best advocate a composer can have. Let’s hope that the success generated by Boykan’s Violin Concerto will stimulate additional performances of this work and inspire additional orchestral commissions from him as well.


The final work on the BMOP program was the rarely performed Concerto for String Quartet and Orchestra (1933) by Arnold Schoenberg. This work featured four amazing and gifted soloists drawn from within BMOP, including violinists Krista Buckland Reisner, Gabriela Diaz, violist Joan Ellersick, and cellist Rafael Popper-Keiszer.

The Concerto, written in the tragic summer of 1933 when the Nazi’s were coming to power, is completely atypical of his music. It does not fall anywhere within the trajectory of his life-time stylistic evolution. While Schoenberg had written plenty of tonal music over his career, the Concerto is unusual in the fact that it comes across as happy light-classical schlock. It’s hard to get past the Germanic kitsch in this music, and even admit that a great master like Schoenberg could compose such a beast. The fact that the composer did not assign an opus number indicated that he wanted this music to be regarded apart from his more serious works.

The surrealistic and bizarre world of the Concerto draws upon Handel’s Concerto Grosso in B-flat number 6 as a model, and yet Schoenberg feels the necessity to “improve” on Handel’s work by enriching it with new material and editing out what he grows bored with. It’s a transcription gone wild – the fun, games, and lunacy of a genius.

My reading of the piece is that Schoenberg needed a distraction from his intensely serious work in music composition and deep thought. He chose to divert his mind from the terror around him and – at least for the summer - escape into a self-created artificial world of musical experimentation and temporary comfort. One gets the sense that there is great craft in the Concerto, but it is completely detached from the raw emotion we normally associate with Schoenberg, almost as if we stumbled upon him in private recreation: doodling, painting, completing crossword puzzles, or mechanically executing exercises in species counterpoint.

The writing for the solo string quartet members is hefty and non-trivial. It’s clearly a very difficult piece to play, and the music was intensely rendered by the BMOP soloists – particularly Krista Buckland Reisner who has a pizzicato so penetrating that it could be used as a lethal weapon. The quartet writing in the Concerto represents a combined unit of group identity, and the musicians almost always communicate in a singular “group speak” – quite unlike the rich inter-soloist dialogue that one can hear in Beethoven’s Triple Concerto (for Violin, Cello, and Piano in C major, Op. 56).

The BMOP concert ended quite late, and the effects of a day-long feast of contemporary music was beginning to wear me down – and I don’t usually tire easily. I hopped on the Green Line and headed for the relative quiet of home.

November 14, 2008
Boston Musica Viva
Tsai Performance Center
Boston, MA

November 14, 2008
Boston Modern Orchestra Project
Jordan Hall
Boston, MA


Saturday, November 15, 2008

Twelve-tone commercial

Audio: a production, done in 1977 by Robert Conrad, the founder of WCLV classical radio in Cleveland, Ohio, USA. The script was written by conductor Kenneth Jean and Mathias Bamert is said to have had a role in the production. Video: ascvideo (Arnold Schönberg Center, Wien)

(Thanks for the link Laura!)

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Concert Review: ALEA III

In a concert titled “Harps, Strings, Colors, etc…” the new music ensemble ALEA III performed a half dozen works of contemporary music in the second concert of its 31st season.


Founded in 1978 by composer and music director Theodore Antoniou, ALEA III has performed about 1200 works by 700 different composers. That’s a lot of new music, and they added additional works to their already impressive legacy last evening with a very diverse assortment of pieces.

The program began with an Octet in three movements by the Greek violinist and composer Nikos Skalkottas (1904-1949). It is scored for string quartet plus woodwinds (flute, oboe, B flat clarinet, and bassoon). The Octet was written and first performed in Berlin when the composer was finishing his studies on a Greek scholarship with Arnold Schoenberg during the years 1927 to 1931. Schoenberg, who was the successor to Busoni at the Prussian Academy of Arts, had a number of important students during this period in addition to Skalkottas, including Roberto Gerhard and Josef Rufer.

Schoenberg was dismissed from his post in Berlin and forced into exile when the Nazis came to power in 1933. He escaped to Paris before emigrating to the United States where he briefly took a position at the Malkin Conservatory in Boston. Skalkottas fled Germany too, leaving for Greece. With all of terror related to the war, he stopped composing for about three years. In his hasty departure from Berlin he left the score for his Octet behind. The Octet was presumed lost, but his manuscript was serendipitously rediscovered in 1955 at the shop of a music dealer by Greek pianist George Hadjinikos.

During the last years of his life Skalkottas survived as a back-desk violinist in various Greek orchestras while composing in complete isolation on the side. In 1949, at the age of 45, he died unexpectedly from a ruptured hernia leaving several of his works unfinished.

The Octet is a very traditional work written in the dodecaphonic style championed by Schoenberg. You can clearly hear his teacher’s strong influence on the Octet, which seems to embrace Schoenberg’s 12-tone method and compositional style whole-heartedly. The form, gestures, phrasing, and surface rhythm closely resemble works of Schoenberg from this period, including the Suite Op. 29, and Third String Quartet Op. 30. Skalkottas would surely have been familiar with these pieces. In the splendid performance of the Octet last evening, the craft of composition is quite evident, even though the work was composed in the shadows of his famous teacher. Skalkottas would ultimately develop a voice of his own, and incorporate a more pronounced Greek accent into his stylistic expression. This new voice would emerge during his remaining years.

The second work on the program was Sonata No. 2 for Flute and Piano by Martin Amlin. It was performed by flutist Linda Toot with the composer at the piano. According to the program notes, the Sonata is based on a [0,1,5,8] tetrachord (aka the pitches of a major seventh chord) and this base sonority is reflected throughout the work in an array of ambient chords or in luminous melodic lines. The piece begins with a pedal point which nicely supports the unfolding of the harmonic material that the work is based on. The internal logic of the piece draws the listener in, and the composer knows how to manipulate the age-old sonata-allegro form to achieve a musical narrative that is both convincing and direct.

Guest artist, conductor, and composer Michalis Economou (b. 1973) was featured in the performance of this own 2nd String QuartetAllion” dating from 1998. Dr. Economou received his early musical training in violin, theory, and composition in Greece, but has extensive Boston connections and advanced degrees from Boston University. He is currently conductor of the Athens Symphony Orchestra and a professor at Athens Technical University. His work fully exploits the rich pallet of modern string techniques but takes it step beyond in this piece with the addition of wind chimes and an off-stage recorder. The work fluctuates back and forth freely between clusters of microtonal dissonance and areas of open consonance and repose. It is a skillful work that challenges both the musicians who play it - and audience who absorbs it - to listen carefully to the subtle details that live within the vast universe of a single note.

Recueil de pierre et de sable by Joshua Fineberg derives its title from a book by a 13th century Zen monk. The work was commissioned by Radio France and received its premiere in 1999. Recueil is scored for two harps (that appeared to be tuned a quarter-tone apart), two flutes, clarinet, violin, viola, and cello. The two harps (played with much aplomb by Virginia Crumb and Judy Saiki) are positioned in the foreground - both visually and musically. Their percussive utterances shape and articulate the musical direction of the work. In his program notes, Fineberg equates the role of the combined microtonal “super-harp” with that of a rake applied to the sand and rock of traditional Japanese gardens. Recueil is a work that creates a unique world of sustained sonic events overlaid with percussive attacks that ultimately blend into a pleasing organic whole. The instrumental writing emphasizes harmonics, bent notes, changes in dynamics over time, and a careful utilization of register to achieve its sonic impact. One of the more discernible and elegant moments was near the beginning when a descending quasi-chromatic line could be heard emerging out of the pervading complex texture. Near the end, the work drops into a void of empty silence only to emerge again with a few final, but welcome whimpers of latent energy.

The solo violin work Romanza by Donald Martino (1931-2005) was performed by the young and upcoming virtuoso Yevgeny Kutik. The 23-year old Kutik, Russian-born, is pursuing his Master’s degree at the New England Conservatory of Music. He has already aquired extensive experience as a soloist, in the performance of chamber music, and is emerging as an expert in modern music too.

Martino’s Romanza, completed in January 2000, was written for violinist Rolf Schulte. Schulte premiered the work at Harvard’s Paine Hall on November 16th that year - which was nearly eight years ago from today. The piece was recently released on Centaur Records with violinist Miranda Cuckson playing (look for an upcoming CD review on this blog). Romanza and other solo works for violin by Martino (Fantasy Variations and the Sonata for Solo Violin) appear destined to be incorporated into the modern solo violin repertory along side of landmark works by Béla Bartók, Roger Sessions, and Elliott Carter.

Paul Griffiths, reviewing Schulte’s NY performance of Martino’s work for the NY Times (12/27/2000) aptly called Romanza “a substantial exploration of a single state of passionate but controlled lyricism.” I agree with that observation, but hear the work as expressing more than a single idea. It is a hyper-expressive study in virtuosity, bustling with contrasting tempi, quickly shifting musical sentiments, and the refined perspective and scope of a grand romantic vision.

From the first notes of Romanza, a cantabile figure quickly divides the texture into distinct musical voices. Additional layers of dialogue emerge in expanding registers, and are clearly communicated through a carefully constructed maze of contrasting timbres, modes of attack (e.g. bowed verses pizz.), and violinistically-appropriate gestural characteristics. It is interesting that Martino, who was not a violinist, could write so effectively for the instrument by using a made-to-scale diagram of the violin fret board that he called “String-O-Graph.” He used it as an integrated but practical tool in his compositional process. By working out the details with regard to fingering, reach, harmonics, as well as the mechanics of a preponderance of double and triple stops, the composer was able to push the envelope of instrumental virtuosity to the edge while maintaining a close connection to his compositional process. It’s a remarkable late work that builds on top of an already impressive career of writing music for strings, including his wonderful Violin Concerto.

I found the performance by Kutik quite genuine, although more relaxed than the frenetic sounding premiere by Rolf Schulte in 2000. Kutik savored the long notes and shaped the intricate phrases like a seasoned pro. His intonation was exact and his penetrating sound projected reasonably well in the less-than-ideal acoustics of the Tsai Performance Center. However I wish that the alternating rapid fire pizzicato notes written in the final bars of Romanza could have be heard a little clearer.

Ending the program was Colors for 9 Instruments, a 13-minute piece by composer, conductor, and ALEA III founder Theodore Antoniou. Antoniou composed this work in 2007 for the Orchestra of Colors in Greece. It is scored for clarinet, bassoon, trumpet (also playing metal wind chimes), 2 violins, viola, cello, 2 double basses, and a hammered string instrument called the cymbalum. However, since the cymbalum and the musicians who can play it are fairly rare in America, its part in Colors was re-tooled to be performed on an altered upright piano retrofitted with thumb tacks inserted into the felt hammers. The instrument plays a very dominant role in the work, and is central to the unique timbrel affect.

Pianist Yukiko Shimazaki was skillful in her delivery of the peusdo-cymbalum music, often playing inside the honky-tonk like piano by directly deadening or plucking the strings. The finely-honed orchestration inherent in Colors is a well-known trademark of Antoniou, who’s vast experience accumulated through composing and conducting hundreds of contemporary pieces over the decades. This experience makes him a treasure trove of applied musical knowledge and wealth. Although the piece is rather tame - even by his own standards - it is intended as such. Colors draws upon previous incidental music that the composer wrote for an Aeschylus tragedy.

Theodore Antoniou, Music Director
Wednesday, November 12th, 2008
Tsai Performance Center, Boston