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Friday, January 15, 2010

Report from NY: Continuum performs Mamlok

Composer Ursula Mamlok will be celebrating her 87th birthday on February 1st, 2010.

On Wednesday evening January 13th, the New York-based new music ensemble Continuum got an early start in what I hope will be a slew of birthday celebrations for the composer. Continuum's celebratory concert of Mamlok's music was held at the Merkin Concert Hall on 67th street in New York. (By the way, this long-standing NY-based new music group named Continuum should not to be confused with the Amsterdam-based new music group going by the name).

The eleven works selected for the concert were drawn from a body of some sixty works to the composers' name. The pieces were written during a time-span of about a half century, although the concert featured three world premieres.

I was thrilled to learn that Contiuum would be presenting a concert dedicated to Mamlok's work while I was visiting New York. I'm glad to report that the concert lived up to - and even exceeded - my already high expectations.

Mamlok has an interesting bio. She was born in Berlin in 1923, and escaped with her family from Nazi Germany at the last moment in 1939, ending up in Ecuador. Looking to further her studies in composition, she eventually obtained a visa to the United States, and in 1940 traveled alone to NYC to study with Maestro George Szell at the Mannes School of Music on scholarship. Her NY years were fruitful, full of musical stimulus and artistic influence. Aside from her work with Szell, she studied with the many of the prominent NY-based composers of the period, including Sessions, Giannini, Wolpe, and Shapey.

Mamlok's String Quartet No. 1 caught the attention of Edgard Varèse, who dialed her up on the telephone after the premiere and praised her work enthusiastically. (Mamlok's elegant String Quartet No. 2 from 1998 was performed on the Continuum concert). Later, Mamlok would mention to her friends that the strong support from Varèse early on in her career gave her a boost in confidence. Varèse, of course, was very prominent and well-respected composer.

Mamlok's works selected for the concert ranged in creation date from her Arabesque for Solo Flute (1960) to Aphorisms II for Clarinet Duo (2009). Aphorisms II is "hot off the press" and I heard anecdotally that the final edits and changes were communicated to the performers just a week or two prior to the premiere. Although we can perceive a stylistic evolution over the decades in her work - ranging from hard-edged pointillism to a more assessable, direct, and warm style - there is also a steadfast and un-compromising persistence omnipresent in the composer's life-long musical expression that binds it all together into a logical, continuous and flowing unity.

What strikes me after hearing all of the eleven works presented on the program is the sensitivity of Mamlok's ear. Every note has its' place, and the domain of musical pitch is one of the creative gardens that she revels to play in. (The subject of gardening is a theme that has nourished her music over the years).

Another interesting trait in Mamlok's work is her utilization of pedal point. Apparent even in the early flute pieces from 1960-61 when she was under the tutelage of Stefan Wolpe, Mamlok learned that all notes are not created equal. By emphasizing certain pitches in certain registers, the composer is able to carve out tonal plateaus for the listener to hang on to and refer to as important reference points.

The pedal-point technique was particularly evident in From My Garden (viola version, 1983). The performer is provided with a stage to dance around the pitch D above middle C, which acts as a tonal center without ever implying a specific tonality or mode. The idea of the piece is to exploit the viola in various ingenious ways to get at and combine the pitch D in the context of a shifting and on-going musical dialogue. In this instance, the composers' game is both skillful and a pleasure to listen to. In the program notes, the composer is quoted as saying, "The slow unfolding of pitches, frequently returning to the initial pitch, may remind the listener of tonality, an effect arrived at by serial procedures."

Mamlok was a reluctant serialist. Like many post-war composers, she was intrigued by the music of Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern. Living in NY in the later 20th century, 12-tone/serial music was the big thing. Yet, she adopted it to her own needs and apparently uses precompositional charts as road maps for her work.

With our current perspective of 20-20 hindsight from the 21st century, we can see that Mamlock's somewhat more intuitive compositional method has stood the test of time. She is at heart a conservative pragmatist, and allows the impulse of her work itself to guide the results. Regarding her own working-methods, she writes, "While I often use the principle of continuous variation as a compositional method, in my longer works I allow some sections to return, preferring rounded forms with large formal divisions to the through-composed forms."

For me, the most impressive work on the program was Confluences dating from 2001. The work was originally commissioned by Continuum and premeired by them at the Sonic Boom Festival at the Knitting Factory in NY. There is interesting dialogue between the instruments, and great contrast and energy within the work and between the movements. The final movement, "Still (as if suspended)" is sparse and Zen-like. It creates a meditative calm that focuses the musician's thoughts and energy on every note. Confluences breaks with tradition by ending with a quiet, slow, and soft movement, but everyone in the audience could hear that the musical idea was just right, and close to perfect.

As a former New Yorker who grew up in the early 1970s very attuned to what was happening in the vibrant Manhattan new music scene, I was aware of Mamlok's work from hearing her pieces performed during that period. I also remember her presence at concerts of that period. She was a fixture of the NY new music scene. However, after moving to Boston in 1973, I did not have the fortune of hearing much of her work other than one recording on the CRI record label.

It is fair to say that Mamlok, who as of late has obtained much deserved attention and recognition, worked quietly and in relative obscurity for much of her career. She has moved back to her native Berlin, where she reportedly is extremely active composing, and lecturing. The music publisher Boosey & Hawkes recognising an opportunity, has recently signed her on. Performances (such as this Mamlok retrospective in NYC) are on the increase. To put it another way... on the cusp of her 87th birthday, composer Ursula Mamlok is a hot ticket. It's great to see a composer finally gain wider recognition, even if it is in his or her late 80's (or '90s or '00s).

Just after the intermission, Cheryl Seltzer - pianist and Continuum co-Director - led a short panel discussion (without an actual physical panel) featuring six friends, musicians, and colleagues of the composer. Mamlok could not attend the concert herself, since Berlin is covered in snow, and international air travel for people in their late 80's traveling alone is, long, uncomfortable, rather cumbersome, and somewhat difficult.

I was glad to see my friend and teacher Marty Boykan as one of the members of the panel. He told a story about how he first became acquainted with Mamlok's music in the mid-1980s when he was a member of the jury for a composer grant committee. The score and recording of Mamlok's submitted piece made a lasting impression on him. Later he wrote her a note, complimenting her for her work while apologizing for the short-sightedness of the committee which (despite his recommendation) had in the end selected other composers for the award. Years later, when Boykan and Mamlok finally met face-to-face, Mary was very surprised by her comment, "I remember your mother." As it turned out, when Boykan was a 12-year old youngster, his mom would take him to the Mannes College of Music to have lessons in 16th century counterpoint with George Szell. While he had his lesson, Ursula Mamlok and Marty's mother would chat outside the door. Mamlok's lesson was just after Marty's. Even though Marty didn't realize it until many decades later, they had shared this early connection.

The performers were superb. Continuum featured Charles Neidich and Ayako Oshima (clarinets), Ulla Suokko (flute), Moran Katz (clarinet), Renée Jolles and Airi Yoshioka (violins), Stephanie Griffin (viola), and Joanne Lin (cello).

As it so happened, seated next to me during the concert was a very close friend of Ursula Mamlok - a woman by the name of Ursula Eastman. Eastman and Mamlok go way back, and she had been in contact by telephone just days before the concert. Eastman brought me up to speed on what Mamlok is up to, since I had not even known that the composer had left New York. Ursula Eastman had worked for the music publisher Schirmer as a publicist.

The Directors of Continuum are Cheryl Seltzer (piano) and Joel Sachs (piano and conductor). 2009/10 is Continuum's 44th season, and I fondly remember their assorted composer retrospective concerts from the early 1970s in NY (such as the one for John Cage). Continuum is one of the long-standing and most distinguished, landmark new music groups. They have a number of CDs out in circulation, and there are plans to record a CD of Mamlok's music. The group is among the oldest of the new music avant-gardists (if that is not a contradiction of terms).

When Continuum came to Boston in 1978, they gave the New England premiere of Milton Babbitt's A Solo Requiem with soprano Bethany Beardslee at NEC's Jordan Hall. As it turned out, I was asked by composer and concert organizer Malcolm Peyton to be Ms. Seltzer's page turner. I still have anxiety attacks about that job, since to my eyes Babbitt's Xeroxed score looked like a swarm of ants at a picnic. The tiny dots on the page were difficult to follow as the complex music whirled by. My job would have been a tad easier if Ms. Saltzer had been less animated. Given the highly-active body language of her performing, her page-turn head nods turned out to be completely indiscernible from all the other involuntary actions and random contortions that Babbitt's music seemed to invoke in her.

More than 30 year later I can report that Ms. Seltzer is still a very animated performer - although not with the same amount of violent display or dance-like expression of the 70s. It's actually a great pleasure to watch her perform live, since she physically embodies the music and seems to thrive on it.

In particular, her facial expressions while performing in the various works of Mamlok caught my eye and attention. For example, it was telling that both she and I would smile at the same spots in Mamlok's music - sections that would coincide with a particularly witty figure or catchy musical idea. You can tell if music is well-performed if it evokes a physical response, either from the audience or the performer.

After the concert, everyone was invited up to the second floor of Merkin for a generous reception - complete with a dry chardonnay and a spread of assorted cheese, fruit, and crackers. I feasted along with the impressive crowd of NY new music intelligentsia. I got to speak with Marty and Susan Boykan, composer Elliott Schwartz (who like me and the Boykans, were visiting NYC from New England). I also met musicians from Continuum, and its' esteemed and inspiring Music Directors Cheryl Seltzer and Joel Sachs.

From afar, I spied a familiar face amongst the crowd at the busy reception. It turned out to be the charismatic violinist-extraordinaire Miranda Cuckson, whom I've blogged about in Deconstructing-Jim previously ( ). While I had never met Miranda in person, I introduced myself and we had a chance to chat. It turns out that she had once premiered a work for violin and clarinet written for her by Ursula Mamlok shortly after the composers' return to Berlin. We shared thoughts about the inspiring concert.

It was good to hear from Joel Sachs that Continuum will be performing on February 19th and 20th at Harvard. It's for the annual Fromm Music Foundation festival, and this year the concerts will feature an array of broadly-international works by Conlon Nancarrow, Oleg Felzer, Betty Olivero, Guo Wenjing, Pablo Ortiz, Chinary Ung, Roberto Sierra, Franghiz Ali-Zadeh, Benjamin Yusupov, Du Yun, Tony Prabowo, Tania Leon, and Dmitri Yanov-Yanovsky. I certainly plan to attend.

Celebrating Ursula Mamlok
Wednesday, January 13th, 2010
Merkin Concert Hall at the Kaufman Center
129 West 67th Street
New York, NY