Yale in New York Champions the Legacy of Hindemith

Despite this concert having been anticipated in The Wall Street Journal and these pages), it was not particularly well attended, with the lion’s share of seats empty. Indeed, Paul Hindemith remains unknown even among some who consider themselves classical music fans. A reappraisal of his work and influence is thus always welcome, and this well-curated program shed new light on the composer, his pedagogy, his protégés, and even his personality. Yale School of Music brought faculty, students, and alumni to Zankel Hall at Carnegie Hall to forge a direct musical link to this master of theory, melody, form, and fugue.

In Kleine Kammermusik, Op. 24, No. 2, the composer captured the frenetic pace of industrial growth that characterized the inter-war years. No one would call this musical language atonal, but it contains humor alongside a tongue-in-cheek dark, dissociative pensiveness and sense of disturbance not usually found in the romantic tradition. At the same time, there is something very primal and peasant-like in the bouncy tough rhythms.


Paul Hindemith

In the opening movement, Lustig, phrases of urgent square rhythms are separated by recit.-like laments of the oboe (Timothy Gocklin) and flute (Jacob Mende-Fridkis). Hindemith does much with just 5 instruments, able to combine three distinct musical ideas, like larger orchestral layers stripped down to the bare essentials. The Walzer movement is clearly not for dancing feet! Rather, this is a waltz of dancing light and quantum energy. In Ruhig the horn player (Philip Browne) was able to produce very high timbres more characteristic of trumpet. The flexible timing of the players did not at all compromise their neat ensemble sound. In the final Sehr Lebhaft the players delight in making all sorts of strange harmonic intervals take flight.

Trills, anyone? Alvin Etler’s Suite for flute, oboe, and clarinet turns the venerable ornamentation into a musical motive in its own right. The melodies of each instrument often inhabit the same small range, brushing up against one another, sometimes sensually, but often discourteously. They say that a dog and its owner gradually, over time, begin to resemble one another, and that strange effect is discernable in the Pavane, as the players approach each other’s timbre so that we are hearing a conversation between siblings. The piece’s Finale employs great dynamic range, and then a trick ending.

Performers stood for Mel Powell’s Woodwind Quintet (1985), and the oboe (Hsuan-Fong Chen) and flute (Christina Hughes) were like birds of paradise both in their playing and in their charming red dresses. The musical action here is compressed into short bursts that either die out into a lucid silence, or sustain one note; either way, there is a conscious effort to arrest time. We hear five travelers, each speaking a different language, trying to strike up a conversation and being very expressive to make themselves understood. Upon hearing Powell’s first essay into twelve-tone composition, Hindemith is alleged to have said, “So, you’ve gone over to the other side.”

The composer Yehudi Wyner (84!) played piano in his Concordance for piano and strings (2013). This quartet opens with an explosive major seventh stretched out over several octaves. Like the previous piece, the subtle juxtaposition of different timbres is treated in an experimental way. The slow decay of piano notes against sustained pianissimo violin bowing resembles parallel lines eventually converging in the deep curve of space.

After the intermission, jazz musician and scholar Willie Ruff shared a remembrance of Hindemith and a testimony to his influence. When Ruff heard that Charlie Parker’s unrealized dream was to sit at the feet of Hindemith and study music, Ruff decided to do the same. He auditioned at Yale, and to his surprise, was accepted. He recounted how Hindemith would have his students play and sing through the music of all eras from the middle ages to the present, including the opening chord of Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms, “the most fun you can have with your pants on.”
Ruff shared his undiminished awe at how Carl Sagan contacted Hindemith to help translate his fascination with the astronomer Johannes Kepler into a “Sound of the Earth” for the golden record now aboard the Voyager spacecraft about to exit our solar system.

The opening movement of Hindemith’s Sonata for four horns demonstrates the composer’s love of fugue. A rising fifth, the most fundamental partial on any brass instrument, calls our attention to its subsequent spinning out into a beautiful tapestry. The Variationen are difficult to follow explicitly, but easier to feel, to intuit.
Bill Purvis (Yale faculty) and the students with which he played this piece seemed quite at ease with the material, even devotional in their measured approach to this exploration of musical space. The final modest chord was a quiet genuflection to the timelessness of consonant harmony.

Lukas Foss’s Three American Pieces for violin and piano initially seem more influenced by Satie than by Hindemith. In the last movement, Composer’s Holiday, very simple ideas are developed into lively acrobatics. As in the first movement, the interval of a third hops up and down the range of the violin against varied harmonic contexts, never getting dull.

The concert ended with Hindemith’s Kammermusik No. 1, Op. 24, audaciously scored for string quintet, flute, clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, percussion, piano and harmonium (for which a synth was employed. I would’ve preferred to hear the optional accordion; during the sound-check, the amplifier screamed and terrified the audience). During the Quartett: Sehr Langsam und mit Ausdruck, conductor Bill Purvis simply dropped his head and his hands and allowed the clarinet (Eric Anderson) and flute (Isabel Lepanto Gleicher) to conduct their slow, somber dialogue, punctuated by the sounding of a celestial F# on a tone chime. The final movement begins with a primordial rumble swelling and eventually attacked by machine gun shots from the snare drum. Virtuosic piano runs by Henry Kramer, trumpet lines full of pomp by Jean Laurenz, and a final ambulance wail helped the ensemble lay down the composer’s road map for a 20th century of messy but exciting democracy.

What, then, was the influence of Hindemith on his Yale students? Clearly, they seem to have resisted the pull of minimalism and post-minimalism. Their music does not seek to induce a trance-like state, but rather places gripping demands on the musical intellect of the listener. The essential considerations of his Neue Sachlichkeit (new objectivity) from the 1920s (structure, accessibility, and independent lines, according to program annotator Dana Astmann) seem to have survived throughout the century in the work of his students. They made do quite well without his characteristically strict rhythmic organization, but indulged in the harmonic possibilities unleashed by his bold theoretical ideas. Much as theoretical physicists seek a unified theory of everything, the Hindemith school honors the formal considerations and rhythmic impulses of the tonal era while expanding the range of harmonic and melodic possibilities to encompass effects that approach the disorienting sounds of serialism, the clash of modernity with the tradition, even the beauty of birdsong.


Zorn@60 – The Improvisatory Embrace of New York and Japan

I had only really known John Zorn as the founder of East Village not-for-profit performance space The Stone, and as the producer of funk-metal band Mr. Bungle’s eponymous album.  I came to the Japan Society on Friday October 4th for an evening of improvisatory collaboration between Zorn (alto sax) and Ryuichi Sakamoto, Academy and Grammy award-winning composer and musician (prepared piano).  The venue was fitting, as Zorn once maintained a home in Tokyo for a decade, absorbing Japanese culture, and the evening commemorated his kanreki, or 60th birthday, a special milestone of longevity and renewal in Japanese tradition, and a temporal launching pad for future creative endeavors.

Image            Sakamoto-san caressed the piano wire with a variety of implements and surfaces, creating a buzz and hum made somewhat more penetrating by amplification.  Zorn joined with very Mannerist sound-sculptures; imagine time-lapse video of bamboo growing, burning, battered by wind and quietly surviving.  At one point the musical conspiracy encountered David Lynch on the lost highway, buried him up to his head in the blue sand and whispered sweet nothings into his sick, greasy hair.

Image             Zorn, in loose-fitting camouflage pants, kept his left foot up on a folding chair, to be able to pivot his sax and mute it against his thigh, the spirit maintaining a gripping voice through repeated bouts of strangulation.  The meditation was light-heartedly interrupted as he emptied about a half-pint of spit from his sax, the audience chuckled and he looked up suggestively at us, eliminating the distance between cerebral detachment and humor.  He soon resumed with a squeaking, reed-sucking kiss-marathon (with us?  with the piano?).

Sakamoto, having spent much time standing hunched over the fallboard, tinkering like a pathologist with the exposed vocal chords of a chanteuse, sat down and constructed an atom whose nucleus was the sadly insistent B-flat of Gaspard’s Le Gibet, and whose tentative electrons approached and scurried away nearby on the keys.  Zorn joined in, sending one pure tone out to the cosmos.  Distant piano, back still hunched, head now hung over the keyboard, resonance stifled, space shrunk to what’s inside my skull.  Ornette Coleman Hawkins stopped by for a drink and I failed to look up from the feet of the woman sitting next to me.  The saxophone was pestering a lover already long-exhausted.  I though I heard another quotation from the sax, this one the frenetic episode from late in Rhapsody in Blue.

Sympathetic vibrations of piano wire, and Zorn’s virtuosic yet unstudied runs on the sax, helped me recall the work of other artists who have left indelible impressions – John Carpenter, Kahlil Gibran, the horror and the love.  It is very interesting, and strangely at once disorienting and comforting, that sitting stationary in a theater one can give one the impression of traveling vast distances.  Zorn and Sakamoto seemed to rush eastward through the currents of the Pacific, encountering no resistance, hounding radioactive molecules from Fukushima and trying patiently to exorcise the spirit of dark technology before it made landfall in the Americas.

What stories do the tefillin tell?  A mystery.  Also a mystery – no one ever sings happy birthday in tune.

On the Transmigration of Jazz and Modernity: John Adams at the Lincoln Center Festival

[first published on i care if you listen] John Adams conducted the Orchestra of The Juilliard School and the Royal Academy of Music in three works that showcased the expressiveness and energy of this precocious Anglo-American ensemble. I just love the upbeat communal vibe of these types of off-season concerts. The musicians were visibly reveling in the program, and savored the opportunity to follow the baton of one of the few composers who successfully embrace modern culture as source material for large-scale program music. Although the concert was billed as a ‘preview’ for next Monday’s concert in London, the event pointed to nothing but it’s own dedicated participants, imbuing the present moment with an astonishing grasp of some very dense orchestral textures.

Otto Respighi holds the reputation, along with composers like Rachmaninov, of being a throw-back, eschewing modernism and latching onto Romanticism long past its sell-by date. His Feste Romane (1929-1931) is said in the program notes to harken back to the symphonic poems of Liszt and Strauss, but to me it evoked nothing so much as passages from Scriabin’s Poem of Fire, in its hypnotic repetition of dense, charged chords; the use of piano and violin solo; and folk-like percussive motifs. The piece begins with a brief, ominous tutti explosion followed directly by an offstage fanfare of trumpets. The composer explained this opening section, Circenses (circuses) thus: “A threatening sky hangs over Circus Maximus, but it is the people’s holiday: Ave Nero! The iron doors are unlocked, the strains of a religious song and the howling of wild beasts float on the air…” This is program music, but not too gooey. A 1932 treatise against modernism, which the composer authored with nine colleagues, may induce us to think of his music as anachronistic, but the architecture of the piece seems very free and unplanned, and thus, in a way, modern. The brass section from the orchestra handled a wide range of timbres quite admirably.

Maurice Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G Major (1928) needs no such stylistic defense; the piece is unabashedly modern, evoking the urban space, femininity, and technological complexity of the jazz age, and, of course, embracing the jazz idiom, with its abundant “blue” notes (flatted 3rds over major harmony). It was impressive to hear a young orchestra achieve such effulgence and burnished sound, and do justice to the Gershwin-esque lilts and sighs. Wizened, mystical harp passages in the opening movement prepare us for big, bluesy tutti, although it’s important to point out that the piece lacks the improvisatory soul of true jazz.

In the second movement, pianist Imogen Cooper’s introduction was a bit pedestrian, but was followed by an expansive orchestral response with a very moving flute solo. This slow waltz never became tiresome, establishing a very poignant and aurally generous ebb and flow, sending up a truly elegant oboe solo, and dying out with a placid piano trill. For the third movement, Adams demanded a more rigorous scherzando energy than the orchestra was able to deliver with clarity, but the transitions and stand-alone statements were convincing. Cooper’s manic keyboard work recalled the absurd assembly line frenzy of Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times.

John Adams

I first saw John Adams conduct his own work during a dress rehearsal for Nixon in China at the Metropolitan Opera. I was impressed by how he intertwined the minimalist idiom with more lush passages reminiscent of Wagner, but I remember thinking that the music was somewhat straight-jacketed by a dedication to the characters, which were oftentimes stiff and guarded (it was Nixon and Mao, after all). Nevertheless, I was impressed with his mastery of zeitgeist. City Noir suffers from no such limitations. Its stylistic scope is alarming and awesome. Inspired by Kevin Starr’s “Dream” books, this piece is the last of three orchestral works that explore the California experience. Moreover, it gives us pause to consider that 80 years after Ravel, composers are still grappling with the process of integrating jazz into symphonic music.

Post-war, film noir Los Angeles has never been so scary and all-consuming. Orson Welles gave us A Touch of Evil, and Adams gives us fifty-seven evil anvils dropped from skyscrapers of varying heights. In the first section, The City and its Double, a hip, cool jazz drum kit foments a background that becomes foreground as improvisatory ideas are spun out and then scurry away before a blaring tutti. Here is Adams as conductor cum bandleader, egging on, rather than conducting, instrumental groups as they take their turn spitting out bad-ass statements of sophisticated savagery. Paranoia and imminent danger are expressed in a forward, frenzied tumult of the ugliest, most outer-spacey harmonies you ever heard. Orchestral tone colors, arrested strings bleeding magically into buzzing brass, evoke the potential of freeway disaster, as well as a starry sky ready to receive the souls of those who perish at the edge of the L.A. night.

The next section, The Song is for You, features a melodic alto sax solo flirting with traditional jazz language. The trombone takes over in an exclamatory passage approaching the knife-edge between anger and insanity, which the composer compares to the instrument’s appearance in the works of Duke Ellington. The concluding section, Boulevard Night, delivers a trumpet solo that the composer likens to the soundtrack of Polanski’e Chinatown, with its elegiac statement, helping to make sense of this danger-scape of glamorous illusions. Ejaculatory bursts of staccato strings bring us back to the narrative of life in the fast lane. This is a hostile atmosphere, but human beauty asserts itself in a saxophone theme, and a cerebral improvisatory marimba passage; and then back to a full complement of the bizarre and the grotesque. We thought California was about humans imposing their stylish will on nature, but goddamn – throbbing jungle night! This is the musical equivalent of the most abrasive Jackson Pollack vomit-canvas.
I thought at one point, “too cluttered… [ahem…] too many notes, my dear [Adams].” But then I reflected, a composer so brimming with ideas, connected by an overarching IDEA, owes us nothing in the way of spare texture. Indeed, zeitgeist isn’t about pensiveness and personal space; it’s about exposed nerves, an unwhetted appetite for spectacle, scandal, transgressive sex. This must be the music that Ralph Steadman hears as he sketches the humanoid creatures of his nightmares. It is not a can of diet coke. It is a bottle of Patron, swilled in three gulps by a convincing transvestite and smashed against the headlight of a police cruiser.

I have newfound respect for John Adams. He has convinced me of the need to marry an inner voice with the outer world of modern culture, no matter how fractured it may be. Hold a mirror up to us, and we will supply our own fun-house effects. That is the role of the contemporary composer.

Thresholds – the healing power of music

[first published at i care if you listen] Saturday night at St. Paul the Apostle on Manhattan’s west side, the Schola Cantorum on Hudson (SCH) brought the audience their season’s final concert, Thresholds, based on the theme of healing. As artistic director and founder Dr. Deborah Simpkin King states in the program, this “theme was chosen in honor and commemoration of those lost, and those left suddenly and unexpectedly behind, by the terrorist attacks of ten years ago… it was our feeling that our national grieving had only barely gotten underway when war engulfed national attention, thereby short-circuiting the healing process.” To restore this process, the ensemble performed works based on texts that highlight the transitory nature of life’s events, and of life itself, from a wide range of cultures: pre-Colombian New World, medieval Europe, and the Himalayas.

SCH is a 35-voice choir with an impressive collaborative mission. ‘Thresholds’ was sung with the Caldwell College Choir, the soloists were chosen from SCH membership, and the ensemble supports new music by organizing a Featured Composer Program, which this year highlighted the work of Ivo Antognini. His Life is a Circle is based on a text by Black Elk of the Oglala Sioux:

The sun comes forth and
Goes down again in a circle.
The moon does the same
And both are round.
Even the seasons form a great circle
in their changing
and always come back
to where they were.

This meditation on the cyclical nature of existence was captured with very gentle beauty by SCH, whose high and low voices wove around one another through the great vaulted space of the church.

Following the sparkle of wind chimes, a spare series of plucked harp notes, and an electronic track of droning voices, the choir achieved a very convincing medieval chant atmosphere with “Media Vita,” a chant by Irish monk Notker Balbalus (9th century), set by Michael McGlynn. The refrain pleads, “Holy God, holy and mighty, holy and merciful Savior / Do not give us over to the harshness of death” and the low voices imbued these lines with a humility and resignation pointing to acceptance of the chant’s opening and closing line, “In the midst of life we are in death.” Soloist Alexander Wentworth took advantage of the natural resonance of his space with sostenuto delivery of stark, unadorned phrases.

Following the intermission came the featured offering, the cantata Tse Go La by Andrea Clearfield, in the premiere of its chamber scoring (mixed and treble voices, electronics, piano, harp, flute and the original scoring for three percussionists). In 2008, Network for New Music commissioned the composer to collaborate with painter Maureen Drdak, whose art is inspired by Buddhist iconography. Together with cultural anthropologist Sienna Craig, they traveled to the remote Lo Monthang, a culturally Tibetan region which, since it is located in Nepal, escaped the cultural destruction that is still visited upon Chinese-occupied Tibet. Clearfield recorded over 130 gar glu (court songs) and tro glu (traditional folk songs) of Tashi Tsering, the last of the royal court singers of Lo Monthang. She sent cassette tapes of these recordings along with boom boxes to Lo Monthang to preserve the songs for posterity.

Andrea Clearfield

Tse Go La opened with a prologue which features a feverish repetition of the word do, Tibetan for ‘stone,’ which found kinship ringing out within this marble edifice. The first movement, Kye (birth) is a poem by Sienna Craig, a meditation on the mystery of the creation of life, and the marriage of matter and spirit. The Tibetan words for the elements earth, water, fire, wind, and space are whispered by the choir (Sa, lung, chu, me, nam kha), along with an electronic track of sounds derived from these elements, which Clearfield recorded in Lo Monthang.

Shar Ki Ri (mountain in the east), for treble choir, is punctuated with vocal percussion (‘tss, tss, tss’) that helps mark time for this folksong-inspired movement, which the audience is invited to imagine being sung to dancing. ‘Thresholds’ could also definitely apply to the space between these six movements, as they lead into and out of each other with the smoothness of time, and yet use time to delineate the introduction of a new musical frame of mind. The next movement, Tse Go La (at the threshold of this life) gave soprano Sara Livolsi and tenor Kerry Stubbs the chance to sing of the desire, awakened by nature, which seeks the union of marriage: “This high mountain pasture nurtures luscious grass, / Just as this is so, it is my karma to wed this beautiful bride.” A bass flute solo plumbs the depths of a valley as seen from these high mountain passes. Kusum, the next movement, climaxes in explosive percussion, followed by conch shells and flute, phasing in and out of unison. A lament is sung with doleful piano accompaniment, mourning the departure of a queen. The cantata closes with an aleatoric reprise of the “do” motif, and the singers empty the performance space in processional, ringing bowls in hand, the basses chanting the Heart Sutra mantra.

What impresses me the most about Andrea Clearfield’s compositional ethos is her fidelity to both the spirit and the form of Tibetan chant. When Stravinsky and his colleagues set out to recreate ancient pagan Russian rituals in Le Sacre du Printemps, they used considerable artistic license, and musicologists have sometimes pointed out that it shouldn’t be seen as an authentic ethnological treatise. The tremendous global upheavals in the last century have made plain the fragility of indigenous cultural traditions, and artists like Clearfield and her colleagues should be commended for celebrating these traditions in a way designed to save them from extinction, with a view to preserving their authenticity. This is not the routine, ritual music of detachment heard in a yoga class, but a more polished meditative exercise, the piano, harp and percussion poking and plucking out points in time while the choir chants in a weightless probing of space. Anthropology, musical elegance and creativity, and a spirit of interconnected human experience coexist in her work in an organic way, which obviates the question, “Is it activism, or is it art?”

De Profundis: The Deep End – Yale in New York closes season with music for low instruments

Bassoon, trombone, tuba, double bass, cello – in many musical textures, low voices are employed as a harmonic foundation, while a violin or soprano steals the spotlight and carries a melody.  Tonight at Carnegie’s Weill Recital Hall, Yale students, alumni and faculty demonstrate what instruments with low registers can do on their own.  From the Baroque era to our own new century, composers have employed bass and tenor voices to create music ranging from jocose to somber, crafting melodies which test the limits of these instruments’ ranges, and even dispensing with melodies altogether in a profusion of experimental timbres.  It must be a great privilege for students and recent alumni to perform with such accomplished faculty as bassoonist Frank Morelli, but also the ultimate incentive for musical discipline and maturity, which were on full display, though without detracting from the festive, sometimes tongue-in-cheek atmosphere of this exclusive club of musical characters.

Mozart’s Duo for bassoon and cello in B-flat major, K. 292 starts simply enough with the notes of the tonic triad, and as the instruments move either in parallel thirds or independently of one another, it is refreshing to hear the bassoon with the space to express itself removed from a thick orchestral texture where it often doubles another instrument.  Morelli reached up into the high tenor range effortlessly and made good use of the hall, a great space for this throaty timbre.  His vibrato was very smooth and natural.  He and faculty cellist Ole Akahoshi proved this to be no mere novelty piece, but a full expression of Mozart’s expressive grace.

Penderecki’s Serenata for three cellos (2007) was composed for his wife’s birthday.  Opening with hesitant pizzicato notes, the theme then emerges with the first five notes of a chromatic scale, thus: 5-4-1-2-3-4.  A climax is reached with bowing so violent that it resonates more as slashing and grating than as tone.  Akahoshi, alum Arnold Choi and student Sungchan David Chang ended the piece with an aggressive minor pizzicato chord.  The composer’s Capriccio for solo tuba (1980) employs notes and scale fragments from widely different registers, which when juxtaposed give the effect of several voices interjecting upon one another.  Alum Jerome Stover demonstrated an impressive array of timbres, from warm and smooth to rattling of bones.  His controlled bursts of breathing almost become part of the musical line.  The piece ends with a final flurry, a Gordian knot of indeterminate tone and flood of breath, before a final octave cadence.

Jacob Druckman’s Valentine (1969) for solo double bass is a real showcase of a performer’s extended techniques and even comic delivery.  Donald Palma (faculty) begins playing the instrument with a timpani mallet, on the tailpiece, and eventually over every surface of the instrument.  He whispers musical instructions (“performer switches from mallet to bow”) in a hurried frenzy, to the delight of the unsuspecting audience, then engages in vocal percussion while bowing, essentially creating a duet with the voice – “Yow! Whoop?”, as though it were a Roy Lichtenstein pop art piece turned into performance art.  Pizzicato tremolo is matched with “Manamanamana” – is he mocking his own instrument?!  His teachers Copland and Persichetti no doubt, influenced Druckman in the dominance of these comic events and surprise rhythms, but passages of the piece almost resemble an ironic, self-deprecating kabuki-meets-Luciano Berio.

Prokofiev’s Humorous Scherzo for eight bassoons is the sound of a circus tent being struck, the instruments evoking many characters, from an elephant to a trapeze artist, but coming together in a rich harmony.  The same instruments, plus contrabassoon, tackle a monumental transcription of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor.  Although it starts out sounding like a novelty arrangement, it becomes evident that the performers (Morelli and assorted students) are driven to prove their bassoons equal to the task of expressing the diverse styles contained in this piece.  Imitative passages showed the subtle differences in tone between individual instruments.

Schütz’s Absalon, fili mi was the sole Baroque piece in the program, scored for four sackbuts, bass voice and continuo and based on a text from the second book of Samuel.  The sackbut is progenitor to the trombone, with a smaller bell flare and tubing of varying length, and these instruments handle resolutions of dissonant suspensions and cadences in various keys – hallmarks of the Schütz style – with elegance.  One wonders why such beautiful instruments ever went out of fashion, able to achieve the brightness of a trumpet without losing their essential richness and warmth.  Bass-baritone Taylor Ward captures the dignified lament of the biblical tale of David losing his third son.

Sofia Gubaidulina

Sofia Gubaidulina’s Concerto for bassoon and low strings (1975), conducted by Ranson Wilson (faculty), featured Morelli as soloist and an assortment of students and recent alums on four cellos and three double bass.  It opens on a bassoon recitative in the extremely high register (a nod to Le Sacre du Printemps?).  Strings echo short bassoon motifs, but these motifs then quickly decompose into tremolo glissandos.  Tutti sections experiment with abrasive timbres and effects from all the instrumentalists.  Harmonics in the strings provide a Ligeti-like atmospheric dread.  The second movement features tone-clouds in the strings, dry, but moving in step, until they coalesce into a single tone, taken up by the bassoon, only to have the soloist break down into a multi-phonic growl.  Nature sounds can be heard in the third movement, birdsong in the bassoon, buzzing of locusts created by cello harmonics, etc.  There is a playful experimental quality in the bow-bouncing (spiccato), unpredictable dynamic and rhythmic surprises, the eight voices rarely producing the same sound but always clearly outlining a compositional plan.  The fourth movement is an industrial frenzy, not so much composed as choreographed, the instruments striking poses, which seem like the antithesis of melody (laughing in the bassoon!).  The last movement features aleatoric pizzicato (the conductor standing still and allowing freedom to the performers) and col legno battuto (hitting with the wood of the bow) while the bassoon spins out a jazzy swing line.

It is often suspected that unusual scoring is a contemporary composer’s attempt at a new marketing strategy, but tonight’s inclusion of repertoire from diverse historical periods proves that the focus on low voices has long been fertile ground for creative experimentation.  As listeners, we strive to develop our appreciation of musical idiosyncrasies as well as more standard fare, and Yale in New York’s engaging program, for which Artistic Director David Shifrin should be commended, successfully brings these low voices “out of the depths” and onto equal footing with their higher-register relatives.

Jean-Guihen Queyras and Ensemble Resonanz, reconciling the classical and modern in Amsterdam

[first published on i care if you listen] Jean-Guihen Queyras and Ensemble Resonanz lit up the Ij Haven last night in Amsterdam’s Muzikgebouw aan’t Ij. There was a twinkling view of the harbor through this great glass house, and the Ensemble matched this crystalline vision with a lush dynamic ebb and flow in the treatment of the four pieces programmed. With floors of naked cedarwood, red plush seats, blue light glowing through the latticed walls, and lighting and tech equipment exposed at the ceiling, the concert hall has the feel of Carnegie’s Zankel Hall, but more spacious. Throughout the evening, the respect of the audience was astonishing; not a cough was to be heard until the general applause, so that diminuendos in the music and the space between movements enjoyed a profound and utter silence.

muziekgebouw aan't IJ

The Concerto in E-flat ‘Dumbarton Oaks’ (1938) is core to Stravinsky’s neo-classical output. Commissioned for a wedding anniversary and composed before the outbreak of World War II, it is a buoyant and sunny piece, intricate in orchestration, very much a 20th century nod to the Brandenburg concertos, it has always seemed to me. Movement 1, Tempo giusto brims with playful melodies, forward motion, and very individual statements on the flute, horn, bassoon and strings. The small chamber force (only ten strings) handled well these symphony-heavy melodies. The third movement, con moto, has some of the possessed ritual outbursts familiar from Le Sacre du Printemps. By the time this was written, film music was already coming into its own as an orchestral genre, and I believe we can hear a pictorial suggestiveness here, much more than in any of the abstract music which had dominated art music in the previous two decades. These ornate, driving musical churnings describe the complexity and fast pace of modern urban life. If Schoenberg emancipated the dissonance, Stravinsky in Dumbarton Oaks had revitalized the whole diatonic language. Chromatic events are well-disguised and introduced gently.

Schnittke’s Triosonate (1985) is a true hodgepodge of styles, but thematically unified in a mood of dread. Written for a larger consort of strings, it features disjunct, atonal violin melodies anchored by droning fifths in the lower strings. A more homophonic tutti in 6/8 emerges, setting up a very touching minor-mode cadential phrase. Atmospheric white noise is achieved with special bowing techniques. Before long, though, the Psycho-slashing tutti is back to plead with us manically. Schnittke’s music seems to be about the exposure of and confrontation with life’s stuggles. Important melodic themes are revisited after rumination; the 6/8 passage makes a final return, leading to more dark instrospection. Whereas Dumbarton Oaks gives a sense of a choir of voices, Triosonate is the soul-searching of a tortured individual consciousness. Consonant triads, bringing a brief respite to the sinister turns of phrase, eventually give way to the pervasive sense of dread. Ensemble Resonanz handled stark shifts in dynamics quite cleanly without a conductor, as Queyras had joined the cello section.

Arvo Pärt’s Fratres (1977), or ‘brothers,’ maintains a very uniform texture throughout, with very static harmonic rhythm: a low drone supports an upper strings chorale. These chords float and pine for their never-quite-achieved resolution. Phrases are outlined by a refrain on the bass drum and clave – “doorklinkende Klank” according to the program. Although the ensemble had the unity of a great chamber group, the decay of these lamenting chords was like the dispersal of smoke, immeasurable and elusive.

Queyras paid his dues in the Ensemble InterContemporain and is known as a great Haydn specialist. Here, the classical master’s Celloconcert nr. 1 in C (ca. 1761-69) closed the concert, forming “classical” bookends (with the Stravinsky) to the more modern and idiosyncratic composers within. Queyras gave Haydn a chiaroscuro texture, switching deftly between dynamic extremes. The hall’s acoustics had nowhere for fortissimo notes to hide, so big gestures were arresting, and yet soft statements floated very lightly from the stage. The first movement cadenza shows Haydn to be harmonically adventurous for his time. The adagio takes the form of a stately procession. Anyone who doubts Haydn’s influence on Mozart should listen to this beautiful slow movement. The final movement, another sonata allegro, is bursting with an operatic urgency. The rhythmic precision required of this early Classical work was well-served by Ensemble Resonanz and the soloist, who made it seem a matter of spontaneous expression.

Le Poisson Rouge pays tribute to a Polish icon

[published on i care if you listen]
November 8, 2011
In Memoriam Henryk Mikołaj Górecki

I finally made it to Le Poisson Rouge, which I have heard so much about, to hear this tribute concert on the first anniversary of the composer’s passing. As I walked down the stairs, it all came back to me – this used to be a nightclub called “Life”! I remembered dancing here to disco music in the late ‘90s, and wondered how such a space could be converted to a curated classical music space. I was pleasantly surprised – LPR’s business model seems to have succeeded in making classical music sexy. Tables are laid out, cabaret-style, in a dark, low-ceilinged room, and one hears the languorous murmur of a mixed bohemian / bourgeois crowd sipping their drinks.

The evening began with a brief interview of Bob Hurwitz (Nonesuch records) by Ronan of LPR. Asked how Nonesuch came to work with Górecki, Hurwitz related that there had already been a recording of the composer’s 3rd symphony, but he’d never heard it live until March ’89, by the London Sinfonietta, during a festival of Górecki and Schnittke. “I was there to hear lyrical music, and they were using extra players (70-80), in a room for only 500 people, and just the live experience was overwhelming. Dawn Upshaw had a beautiful, clear, bell-like sound, and I decided to record this.” At CTS Studios, London, with David Zinman conducting, the composer was present during the recording “and so there was this reverence for him; I didn’t know if Dawn would be able to sing, but the recording took only four hours. It sold itself through word of mouth, and even Górecki was shocked. There were no royalty participants, so when the record started selling, we decided to give Dawn, Dave and Górecki royalties.” The latter carried the check around for two years. “He was stunned that people were affected by the piece.”

String Quartet No. 2 (“Quasi una Fantasia”), Op. 64 (1990-91)
JACK Quartet

The beginning of this piece immediately establishes a somber atmosphere. Over patient, repeated bass notes from the cello, the viola explores first a major seventh, sliding down to a minor seventh, then up to a minor 9th, common dissonances in contemporary music, but treated in such a simple texture that vibrato takes a lead role, interrupted only by the stark flat tone of an open string. With the introduction of the violins a dominant harmony asserts itself, hypnotic and trance-like. It was very easy to paint mental pictures to this music while seated in this intimate space. The pedal of the cello becomes so entrenched, the ultimate one-note drone, only to break loose into Psycho-shower-scene music (2nd movement, Deciso – Energico). The recapitulations of earlier themes feel a bit like musical non-sequiturs, but the JACK Quartet has impressive ensemble unity, like a four-headed beast, alternately hunting musical prey, and digesting that prey in an attitude of repose.


The third movement (Arioso, adagio cantabile) explores parallel minor 9ths in the violins, while a mournful 2-chord progression in the lower strings connects directly with the listener via meditative simplicity. The final movement is a high-voltage strain of minimalist texture, funky rhythms alternating with a madcap minuet triplet rhythm. Such is the sawing away that the cellist holds his bow like a meat-cleaver!

The JACK Quartet’s style is immediate and engaging. The few moments that witnessed a lyrical line by the violins could’ve benefited by a somewhat more refined elegance. The insistence on seeing music of this generation of Polish artists through the lens of WWII ensures that at least a substantial part of the audience is going to replay scenes from Schindler’s list in their heads as their truffled mac and cheese ($9) gets cold. But with some effort one can easily make various emotional interpretations of Górecki’s music. It’s starkness has a beauty all its own, and does not have to be seen as programmatic.

Kleines Requiem für Eine Polka, Op. 66 (1993)
Ensemble Signal
Brad Lubman, conductor

I’ve always thought that the question, “How will this performance be received?” has much to do with the measured use of time. Ensemble Signal was able, like the preceding quartet, to capture the hypnotism of Górecki’s style by deftly molding the passage of time. The composer’s insistent use of claustrophobic melodic cells, which are suddenly smothered to allow the piano a zero-gravity recitative, played particularly well in this dark subterranean space. I would call this style “argumentative minimalism” – if you express something simple, loud and long enough, people will get it, and internalize it. Then vary it by staggering themes, introducing canon, etc, and you are leading the audience somewhere contemplative and yet uncluttered. Eventually, the Polka from the piece’s title is introduced, quite an exciting oompah scherzo, with a dark side.

While LPR’s amplified sound system seemed to work well with the string quartet (sudden silences were stamped by the briefest velvety reverb), I wondered whether it was necessary with this mixed ensemble of winds, brass, strings, piano and bells. The chorale-like interludes in this piece were soothing and reassuring after the machine-gun assault of vivo sections. Polytonality from the piano and bells made sense in this relaxed temporal plane.

The audience gave a very generous applause, perhaps hoping for an encore, but to kill any such expectation, the sound engineer began playing “All Tomorrow’s Parties” by the Velvet Underground as the lights went on. It was a fitting reminder that open-mindedness and a spirit of unfussy, artistic adventure are crucial in the endeavor to pass on the classical music heritage to a new demographic.