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Sunday, March 29, 2009

Music in Suburbia

It’s foggy on this Sunday morning. I’m usually up early on the weekend and have a little time for reflexion and to type a few thoughts into this blog.

For those of you who follow my activities closely, you are aware that my ability to attend and review a fair amount of concerts (as well as compose my own music) is in part directly proportional to an abundance of excess time. My abundance of “excess time” is due to my “under employment.” My “under employment” is due to the “F@!#ed-up economy.”

The ailing economy has forced hardship on a lot of people, but fortunately I am surviving. However I can report first hand that it does not seem like the job market is improving at all. I just filed for my 39th week of unemployment, which means that I have been looking for work for nine months. Even with recent extensions of unemployment benefits that were approved by Congress as part of the stimulus package, I will exhaust my benefit this coming summer. The clock is running out, and the reality of my situation coupled with the daily onslaught of grim financial news weighs one down.

I often go to concerts for therapy. Good music provides a psychological lift. I find that listening to musicians perform live music is an excellent defense against the current recession. At least it gets me out of the house.

Aside from all of the rich musical events that occur in Boston-Cambridge, the local suburbs are becoming a hotbed of classical music culture.

One such example of this blooming musical activity was the musical soiree that Willemien and I were invited to attended at the home of Nancy Burstein on February 27th, 2009. Nancy periodically opens up her living room to host performances by a range of eager musicians and vocalists – some professional and some amateur. It’s an inspiring evening of fun, and may I add it makes for some excellent food and company too. The highlight that evening was a energetic performance of the Beethoven 4th Piano Concerto by a visiting Israeli composer/pianist named Rami. He was joined by my friend Eric Schwartz who expertly provided the orchestral accompaniment (you can read more about Eric in the blog post titled "Power Lunch"). Rami performed on Nancy’s Steinway model M, while Eric played orchestrally on an upright piano sitting near by. Other performers included a recorder trio, Willemien playing a Telemann duet on flute, and soprano Marion Leeds Carroll, who sang Schubert lieder.


The following Friday evening, on March 6th, Willemien and I attended a wonderful recital by flutist Jill Dreeben. It was part of a group of concerts curated by Pasquale Tassone called the Menotomy Concert Series. The series takes place in Arlington’s historic Town Hall – which has surprisingly good acoustics. Ms. Dreeben was joined by Irina Chelnokova (Piano), Sandi-Jo Malmon (cello), Diane Heffner (clarinet), Beth Welty (violin) and Dani Rimoni (viola) in a program of diverse chamber music. The program included some interesting music from the 20th century French repertory and a set of four new pieces for solo flute by Arlington composer John Kusiak. The Prelude, Recitative, and Variations Op.3 by Maurice Durufle was unknown to me, but a real gem. I really appreciate that the concerts in the Monotomy Concert Series are free and open to the public (although a voluntary contribution is gladly accepted in a jar at the entrance).

Occasionally I’ll splurge on entertainment. Last evening as I arrived at the entrance of a local chamber music concert by Winsor Music I took notice that the ticket prices were a little more than I usually allow myself to spend. There were discounts for students and seniors, but all other tickets were priced at $20. Impulsively deciding to go for it, I looked at the ticket agent and requested “just one” - hoping that she might mistake me for either a student or a senior. Unfortunately, I apparently fall within that narrow window of people too old to pass as a student, and too young to pass as a senior (although I once proudly held AARP a membership card). Given my state of mind, $20 was not an inordinate amount of money if the concert would lift my spirits and provide a temporary escape from reality. But it’s unfortunate that there wasn’t a ticket discount category for the legions of “structurally unemployed.” That would have been a nice touch in these times of financial stress.


The concert was the last event in a five-concert chamber music series produced by Winsor Music, Inc. The group was founded in 1996 by oboist Peggy Pearson and provides concerts at the Follen Community Church in Lexington as well as St. Paul’s in Brookline MA. The ensemble is superb, and comprised of the crème de la crème of musicians from the Boston-metro area. Boston is blessed to have a rock solid community of professional classical musicians who seem to be omni-present in the cultural affairs of the region. The same faces appear and reappear continually in different contexts throughout the concert season. I’ve heard various subsets of these gifted musicians in performance with BMOP, Fromm Players at Harvard, Musicians of the Old Post Road, the Composers Conference at Wellesley College, Longy, Brandeis New Music, New England Conservatory, and Emmanuel Music. The list could go on indefinitely.

What’s interesting about this configuration of musicians that perform with Winsor Chamber Music, is that they seem to form an extension (or satellite) of the Emmanuel Music organization. I noticed that Leonard Matczynski is on the Board of Directors for Winsor. Lenny is a violist and the Executive Director for Emmanuel Music where he contracts musicians and assists the Artistic Director. It is almost as if the strategy of Winsor Music is to spread the Emmanuel Music artistic and business model, and transpose their success out into the realm of the burbs. The management of Winsor Music, Inc. may have learned much from the musical “incubator” championed by the late Criag Smith at Emmanuel Music. Smith’s vision, organizational model, and mission statement seems to have worked exceedingly well in Boston. It appears that it can work equally well, perhaps even better, in the affluent suburbs. The outskirts of the city represent a fertile artistic space. It’s a large cultural void yearning to be filled, but the implementation needs to be grass-roots oriented and tied-in with the community to work. Prospective patrons are much more likely to support their own home-grown talent.

The similarities between these two organizations (Emmanuel Music and Winsor Music) appear to go well beyond a common cadre of musicians and organizational philosophy. Emmanuel and Winsor share a similar appetite for musical repertory and draw from a well-established network of notable Boston-area composers and artists. While their artistic administrators appear to take a broad view of classical music and expire to a world-class interest in repertory spanning from the Baroque-era through contemporary works, Winsor Music also actively engages established local-area composers and artists. For example, they commission new Hymns, and the one featured in this concert was composed by James Matheson (b. 1970). It’s the real deal.

While this was the first concert by Winsor that I have attended, I have been well aware of their activities over the years. For example the Boston Globe ran a feature article on this particular concert. In a time when the classical music barely receives mention or reviews in the major press, it is quite remarkable that a concert taking place in a suburb outside of Boston proper made it onto the Globe’s “G Section” at all. This just goes to show that Winsor Music has established itself as a respected entity in Bean Town.

The Winsor program book is professionally produced, and chock-full of paid commercial advertising. It also contains several pages of financial supporters who contributed at various levels of support (from Partners to Friends). I always pay close attention to this section of the program book and peruse it for leads and associations that might related to my own interests and projects. There were the familiar names – such as David Rockefeller and the Aaron Copland Fund for Music, but also individual personal contributions from some of the movers and shakers of the larger arts world: Peter Sellars, Mark Morris, Benjamin Zander, Robert Levin, Yehudi Whyner, and Lexington residents Wha Kyung Byun and Russell Sherman (to name a few). I was also struck that many of the contributors on the list are familiar to us as Boston-area musicians. The list includes the likes of flutist Fenwick Smith, mezzo-soprano Pamela Dellal (who performed on this concert), violist Kate Vincent, and pianist Lois Shapiro (from Triple Helix). Seeing that kind of support from one’s colleagues must be rather encouraging, and a model that all chamber music organizations would be happy to aspire to.

The Boston-area network of professional musicians is a unified and cohesive family. It’s almost as if there are two musical worlds: on one side resides the dominant Boston Symphony Orchestra establishment, and on the other a virtual group of nomadic freelance musicians who provide everything else musical in the cultural space. The road-warrior counter-culture musicians work job-to-job and seem to find enough employment to survive in the non-BSO musical sub-economy. By choice or by circumstance, they are dedicated full-time professional musicians who earn their livelihood from multiple sources of income from a wide-range of ensembles. They work comfortably in diverse venues and in a variety of musical subgenres. These eclectic and versatile performers are well-known to each other and in the professional circles they travel in. To the public, they are seen as associated with one or more branding strategies (e.g. Winsor Music, Emmanuel Music, BMOP, etc). But regardless of the sponsoring non-profit organization, these talented musicians faithfully deliver wonderful music to our city, and as cultural ambassadors they deserve our full support as integral participants in the arts community.

I was also impressed with how many “new music” specialists were performing n the large chamber ensemble of Winsor Music. These musicians seem equally comfortable and content performing the music of Bach and Telemann interspersed with challenging contemporary works.

There has been a movement in recent decades for musicians and musical ensembles to specialize in one particular era or style. For example, new music groups tend to play only music from the 20 and 21st century. Early music ensembles perform on period instruments utilizing the turning systems appropriate to the age. There are also ensembles that focus on particular composers, regions, cultures, idioms, and styles. For better or worse, concert music has developed into the pastime of specialists. This has been a disruptive phenomenon for some of the older musical establishments, such as the Boston Symphony Orchestra. They are losing their audience and being pressured to perform music that falls within a very limited band of repertory. Educated listeners are more likely today to shun the performance Mozart or Beethoven executed on modern instruments – even if directed by celebrity conductors. Likewise, major orchestras are often surprisingly ill-equipped or not adequately adapted - to perform some of the advanced contemporary music that is being composed at the cutting edge of our time. That leaves the major establishment orchestras with programs that tend to be dry. Often their administrators fall into a pattern which rehash a short list of 19th century war horses, season after season after season.

The Winsor Music musicians don’t seem to mind mixing and matching a musical playlist from diverse periods and styles. They are equally comfortable negotiating Baroque-period ornamentation and figured-bass or the rhythmic and pitch complexities of challenging contemporary works. It’s all one happy musical universe to them, and nobody in the ensemble (or in the audience) seems to mind crossing boundaries. In fact, their wide-range of repertory seems not only conscious and intentional, but serves as a deliberate mechanism to balance, contrast, and vary the overall musical experience. People who would not otherwise come to hear an entire evening of contemporary music (e.g. at a Dinosaur Annex or Collage event), might sit through a new work on the program if it were balanced with a fine performance of a Cantata by J.S. Bach.

But this eclecticism comes without challenges and compromises. The first piece on the program last evening was the Concerto for flute, oboe d’amore and viola d’amore by Georg Philipp Telemann. It’s an 18th century work that features a trio of soloists where the soloists play both individually and together. Violist Marcus Thompson provided a short “musical instrument petting zoo” demonstration prior to the Concerto. He played on a period instrument, which had seven regular gut strings and seven sympathetic strings. When he played the viola d’amore alone, the audience could hear its’ unique timbre. But when the entire ensemble performed, there were balance problems – even in the small space and fine acoustic of Follen Community Church. The orchestra string players were playing on modernized instruments and bows without gut strings. The other solo parts were performed on modern instruments (flute and English horn), and the huge harpsichord sounded with industrial strength brilliance and amplitude. The replica of the viola d’amore (or a viola d’moor as the original instrument maker may have been thinking), couldn’t adequately compete with the Baroque-ensemble-on-steroids. I suspect that there were other historic compromises as well, such yielding to a modern-day pitch standard set at A 440 and equal-tempered tuning.

Yet the musicians, performed the Telemann (and later the Bach) beautifully and without a hint of Early Music-related guilt or reserve. Early Music purists would probably have disagreed too with the use of a female children’s chorus in the Bach Cantata (BWV 115) which closed the evening’s program. Yet, I would be very hard pressed myself to distinguish major differences in timbre between girls singing and boys singing in the closing Chorale. If anything, girls voices provide more pitch clarity and better definition - a deliberately 21st century musical preference.

The part of the Winsor Music program that drew me in last evening were the contemporary works. For me, these pieces were the main course. The Baroque music, as nice as it was, provided some historical context and comfort to their base supporters. But it’s the new music that get my juices flowing, and the featured composer that I came to hear was John Heiss.

John Heiss is very well known in the Boston area as a composer, flutist, and dedicated teacher. I first learned of him when I came to Boston in the early 1970s where I heard him perform flute with the new music ensemble Boston Musica Viva. I’m also familiar with his compositions as performed by himself and others at the New England Conservatory of Music going back over many years.

I remember him before he started wearing his signature visor hat – which today seems to be permanently glued to his skull. I’ve noticed that a number of the composers (past and present) on the faculty at New England like to wear hats (e.g. Lee Hyla). Red Sneakers were big in the 70s. Now it’s hats.

Heiss is an expert in extended flute techniques, and recall his Etudes (1979) for solo flute (published by Elkus & Son). One of the Etudes use some very interesting key-clicks that sound much lower than you would think possible on the flute.

His introspective and somber Songs of Nature (1974-75) for mezzo soprano, flute, clarinet, violin, cello, and piano (published by Boosey & Hawkes) has been performed often and recorded on Nonesuch (H-71351). I attended the premiere by the Boston Musica Viva in 1975 at the Longy School of Music. Soon after I purchased the score and, and like every other composer who studied in the Boston area, immersed myself in the somber but beautiful work. The fourth song “Men Say” on text by Thoreau, is duet for soprano and flute. A lot is expressed in just over a minute of music.

I have also attempted to play the Four Short Pieces (1977) for piano. These miniatures are very much akin to Arnold Schoenberg’s Six Little Pieces Op. 19, and are written in a free atonal musical language. There are spots where 014 trichords are abundant, although Heiss also seems to like major seconds too (e.g. in piece number 2).

While I don’t remember all of the specifics, I believe that I did attend the world premiere his piece Inventions, contours and colors at Alice Tully Hall in New York. Heiss wrote it for the new music group Speculum Musicae, and it was recorded for a CRI release on LP by that same ensemble.

When I attended the NEC as a student, Heiss was extremely active as a teacher, and sought out by students of all kinds. He led (and still leads) the contemporary music ensemble, and coached or conducted exceptional renditions of the classics. One interesting story relates to a Stravinsky festival that occurred. Stravinsky scholar Robert Kraft was rehearsing an orchestral late 12-tone orchestral work. John Heiss, Lorna Cooke DeVaron, and various students were listening to the rehearsal. At one point John Heiss heard wrong notes in the French horns (which Kraft missed), and ran up to podium to inform the conductor of the error. It was not the first time his pitch-perfect hearing was put to good use. Many years prior he had assisted Stravinsky in rehearsal in a similar capacity. Stravinsky labeled Heiss “the pitch doctor.”

NEC had a lot of students, and it seemed as if every other student was a flutist. Heiss would get them all together from time to time for ad hoc master classes on contemporary flute works. I sat in on one of these dedicated to the Sequenza for flute by Italian composer Luciano Berio. Assorted flute students would perform the work, and Heiss would make technical recommendations on their playing and speak about the music and how he would be interpret it. It was very engaging, and asked a lot of questions interactively. I remember he asked me what year I thought Berio’s piece was composed in. Luckily I knew it right of the bat, and replied, “1954.” Even in the late 1970s, 1954 in musical terms seemed like “a very long time ago.” I'm convinced that "new music time" passes faster than "biological time."

Another treasured annual event at NEC was when Heiss would bring his young daughter to school for a demonstration-performance of “The Owl and the Pussycat” by Stravinsky. Heiss had taught his daughter to sing the 12-tone melody of this penultimate work by the great Russian-American master. After all these years I clearly remember her old-fashioned dress, pig-tails, and the wicker basket she carried. Her singing, expertly coached by her dad, was right-on too.

You might think that John Heiss with a B.A. in mathematics and a master’s degree from Princeton University (where he studied composition with Milton Babbitt) would be a staunch 12-tone composer. The opposite is the case. Heiss is skeptical about systems, and prefers to let his ears do the driving. Rather than associate Heiss with serial composers, I think it would be fair to say that the Transcendental perspective of Charles Ives has been one of his major influences in composition. Not only does Heiss have an affinity for music of American roots, but he has taken some Ivesian techniques and incorporated them into his own thinking. One example of this is the technique of taking a well-known tune, and then shifting its’ rhythms around to something unrelated while maintaining the original pitches. Where Ives and Heiss diverge is with regard to extraneous notes and musical clutter. Ives is full of extra baggage, but you will not find an uncontemplated note in any work of Heiss. His music is very lean, deliberate, and highly refined. Perhaps you could say his works are similar to Anton Webern in economy, but exude Charles Ives in spirit.

At least when I attended NEC in the 1970s, Heiss had a reputation for instilling a sense of musical reality in his students (e.g. David Rakowski). He would often ask his composition students to execute a complex rhythm which they had just notated in their score, or to sing a line. While I never studied musical composition directly with Heiss, there are many composers who have over the years. His influence as a teacher is formative.

With all of this background and history, it is no surprise that I’d want to attend the world première of a revised and updated work by Heiss. Winsor Music had commissioned a new version of his “Sandburg Songs.” I had never heard the work in its original version – which dates from 1963. At the concert Heiss was invited to come up and say a few words about his updated version of the piece. He spoke briefly about the instrumentation and scoring. Originally scored for children’s chorus with piano and bassoon accompaniment, he was glad to take this opportunity to revise it for chamber ensemble. He indicated that the new version improves the clarity of the counterpoint as compared to the original. Heiss noted that the bassoon player who had performed in the original performance was present in the audience, and invited that gentleman stood up and took a bow.

Heiss went on to describe the three songs: Limited, Fog, and Freedom is a Habit. “Limited” is about a train, and begins with a musical version of the gradual chu-chu sounds that steam engines exhibit. The musical fabric of the song “Fog” is rather chromatic, and “Freedom is a Habit” is in the spirit of a popular song.

The quality of singing coming from the Boston Childrens’ Chorus, was superb. The choir was led by Anthony Treck-King, and his confidence, musicality and skill was evident to all. The concluding song in the set featured some wonderful solo singing by a young singer who was not identified in the program.

Heiss’ “Sandburg Songs” were a joy to hear, and were written in a style that hint at a degree of influence from neoclassical Stravinsky, while at the same time this early music is informed by other musical cross-currents of the 1960s. It’s intelligent contemporary vocal music, but performable by children. That’s not an easy feat.

At the intermission I caught up with Heiss, who after so many years didn’t remember me from the conservatory. But he was very pleasant and appeared to be very happy to have a work performed with his family by his side. Heiss, now in his early 70s, has two children and three grandchildren.

The audience was very enthusiastic, and the composer was greeted by many old friends. I didn’t see many young composers or graduate students at the premiere – as one often does at NEC – but Lexington on a Saturday night is a long way from Boston if you are a student without access to wheels.

As a certified people watcher, I couldn’t help but observe that his daughter - who I had last seen 30 years ago singing the atonal “The Owl and the Pussycat” by Stravinsky – is now a grown mother with several children of her own. Oddly enough, her daughter looks just like her when she sang at the Conservatory way back when.

Unbeknownst to them, it provided me with a reference point, a “time-warp moment” that reminds one that the clock is ticking.

How fast 30 years seems to have passed by!