Here are some random events and a few other items.

- Ensemble 20/21, the Curtis Institute’s new music ensemble, does an all-Stucky program this coming Friday, March 1. Concert at 8 pm, interview with the composer at 7:30.

- New York Virtuoso Singers has another concert packed with premieres, including works by: Richard Wernick, Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, Aaron Jay Kernis, David Lang, Mark Adamo, Richard Danielpour, Augusta Read Thomas, Thea Musgrave, Joseph Schwantner, William Bolcom, Roger Davidson, David Felder and Joan Tower. Merkin Concert Hall in NYC, Sunday, March 3 at 3 pm.

- Matthew Greenbaum’s Amphibian series returns with a program by the Temple University Percussion ensemble, with Cyndie Berthézène, soprano. Works by
Augusta Reade Thomas, James Tenney, and Andrew Taylor along with a showing of Maya Deren’s classic experimental film Meshes of the Afternoon (1943) and a new piece by Matthew himself for video animation and electronic sound. The HIART Gallery 227 W29 St. in NYC,  March 7 at 8pm.

- Soprano Stacey Mastrian will offer a program of 20th century Italian music at the University of Pennsylvania on March 13 at 8 pm. The big piece will be Luigi Nono’s La fabbrica illuminata for soprano and four-channel electronic sound; the program will also include the Berio Sequenza for voice and works by Dallapiccola and others.

- My current Lenten reading is The Genesee Diary: Report from a Trappist Monastery, a fairly early book by Henri Nouwen. This is reminiscent of Thomas Merton‘s journals, a mix of narrative about life in the monastery combined with deeper, heartfelt reflections on what Nouwen confronted during his months living there. You gotta love a book where one of the chapter titles is “Nixon and St. Bernard” (Nouwen is writing at the time of Watergate).

- Here is a list of 500 movies you can see online, legally (so far as I know), and for free.

My colleague Steven Stucky is the latest composer to claim that the symphony, as a genre, ain’t dead yet. His new Symphony, performed by the LA Philharmonic, can be heard this weekend, streamed live on Sunday, Sept. 30, at 5 Eastern / 2 Pacific over both KUSC.org and NPR. The NPR site will also have a live chat room available. The performance will be archived online at NPR music and KUSC.org through Oct 7, and will then be available for streaming from Oct 8-14 on APM’s Symphonycast on over 130 radio stations and at Symphonycast. The piece will also be done by the New York Philharmonic on Nov. 29 and 30, and Dec. 1.

The contemporary symphony seems to be an American phenomenon – besides Stucky, one can think of Harbison, Rouse, Wernick, Zwillich, Wuorinen, Hartke, and several others. It’s harder to name living European composers who write symphonies – only Henze, Knussen and Davies come to mind. Who am I forgetting?

I don’t get out to concerts as much as I would like, or as much as I should, but at the moment I am in the midst of a string of musical events. Here’s a first report.

Last Friday, the New York Philharmonic, with its music director Alan Gilbert, did what musicians call a run-out, bringing the program of Stucky, Berlioz, and Mussorgsky/Ravel they were playing for their weekly subscription series at Lincoln Center to the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia. Steven Stucky’s name is deservedly prominent at the moment, and he is best known for a big catalog of masterful orchestral music. (I mean a big catalog, Stucky is another one of those characters who makes me feel slow and lazy.)  His Son Et Lumière is from 1988. The music is rooted in a Franco/Russian musical world (hence the apt programming) and is influenced (as I’m sure Steve is tired of hearing said) by Lutoslawski’s language: the preference for harmonies with a very clear intervallic identity, particularly big euphonious stacks of thirds; the vibrant, bustling textures, emphasizing transparent orchestral colors, even when those textures are at their busiest; and forms often shaped by juxtaposition of contrasting sections, like cinematic cuts. The quest for harmonic clarity in this idiom can sometimes affect the melodic profile – there are spots in Lutoslawski where the melodies (say, the first part of Mi-Parti) are little more than arpeggiations of the underlying harmony, with relatively little embellishment. There is a hint of that in Steve’s music of this period, but I think he was aware of the issue, and he successfully avoids the static, somewhat flat quality that can result.

Compositions can be understood as critiques of other compositions, and Son et Lumiére responds to minimalism’s emphasis on regular pulsation by employing motor rhythms, but with a richer, less static harmonic language. Despite the reliance on ostinato throughout a good bit of the piece, Steve’s keen sense of timing moves us along at just the right moment. The repeated patterns serve the music, rather than themselves being the musical focus.

A darker expressive character inhabits the closing two and a half minutes of the piece. After a tremendous low pedal tone, the ostinatos that have driven the piece so far are set aside, and brief interjections are layered over an impassioned string cantilena, the interjections finally crystallizing into short sharp high trumpet chords. The cantilena cuts off, the glittering, slicing trumpet chords continue for a moment, and then a three-note motto from the unpitched percussion – which had served as a playful call to attention earlier in the piece – now brutally cuts off further discussion.

I may be wrong, but I don’t think the Philadelphia Orchestra has played Steve’s music since the premiere of his Concerto for Orchestra back in the 1980’s (not to be confused with his Pulitzer Prize-winning Second Concerto for Orchestra from 2003). Here’s hoping that oversight gets rectified soon. (Update: only on re-reading this post did I recall that Olly Knussen conducted the Philadelphia in Steve’s arrangement of Purcell’s Funeral Music for Queen Mary several years ago.) There is an excellent recording of Son et Lumiére by the Albany Symphony, David Alan Miller conducting.

After the brilliance of the Stucky, the Philharmonic showed itself capable of subtle nuances in its accompaniment of Joyce DiDonato in Berlioz’s Nuit d’Eté. It is hard to overpraise Ms. DiDonato – her varied, perfectly controlled, but always gorgeous sound is put at the service of  intensely characterful expression. The Berlioz is more about languid gestures than the coloratura of which she is capable, and I was most struck by the inward moments of the piece, the especially quiet spots where DiDonato drew the listeners into the music; a mere superficial projection of the music outward for us to admire is not her way.

The performance of Pictures at an Exhibition that closed the program returned to the dazzling mode of Stucky’s curtain raiser. I’m afraid I have to somewhat agree with Peter Dobrin’s sense that there were moments of imperfect balance, but these were offset by tremendous virtuosity, both of soloists and the ensemble as a whole. One moment of imbalance, at least where I was sitting, was the sampled church bell in the last movement of the Mussorgsky – it sounded great, so much better than the usual compromises –  (it is a big problem to get a truly low bell sound on an orchestral stage) but it was a bit too much of a good thing.

Comment on the Network/Felyx_M concerts from this past weekend, plus the upcoming Eric Owens recital and next week’s Philadelphia Orchestra concerts with James Gaffigan yet to come.

- I’ll be hearing lots of music in the next few days – the Network/Mendelssohn Club/Philadelphia Chamber Music Society performances of my Ariel Songs this weekend;  the NY Phil at the Kimmel Center here in Philadelphia tonight (a run-out of this week’s subscription program of Stucky, Berlioz and Mussorgsky-Ravel, with Joyce DiDonato, Alan Gilbert conducting) as well as Eric Owens‘s recital, again at Kimmel, next Tuesday.

- My hometown is also home to an amazing book store.

- A lovely post for the beginning of Lent.

- Many of these are quite funny.

 

A great concert tonight in Philly by Dolce Suono with the amazing Eric Owens as soloist in new works by David Ludwig, Stratis Minakakis (both Penn alums), Fang Man, Steve Stucky, and Steve Mackey. (The Steves were absent due to performances in Carnegie Hall (Stucky) and with the LA Phil (Mackey). Ah, to have such problems…) Owens also did the Mahler Songs of a Wayfarer in the Schoenberg arrangement, and the underappreciated pianist Charles Abramovic offered an elegant performance of the Schoenberg Op. 19 piano pieces (with some idiot’s cell phone ringing during the last delicate movement). This is the first concert in a project commemorating the 100th anniversary of Mahler’s death and the 60th anniversary of Schoenberg’s death, and the commissioned works all had threads of connection with those composers.

A new website for violinist extraordinaire Miranda Cuckson – check out the media page for lots of video and audio; and a newly revamped website, now with a blog, for composer extraordinaire Steve Mackey. A Mackey premiere here in Philly at the Dolce Suono concert this coming Wednesday, along with new pieces by Steven Stucky, Fang Man, Stratis Minakakis, and David Ludwig. Eric Owens will be the soloist.

What does it say about our musical culture that James Oestreich can write the following in a spring preview piece in the Times about a festival of visiting orchestras at Carnegie Hall:

Though top-rank orchestras are eligible, few American behemoths have yet shown interest. But the Montreal Symphony is here with Kent Nagano leading a program tracing the evolution of the symphony, from Gabrieli brass works and Bach sinfonias to Beethoven’s Fifth. Jaap van Zweden leads the Dallas Symphony in a work it commissioned for the Lyndon B. Johnson centenary in 2008, “August 4, 1964.”

The other orchestras for the inaugural season are the Albany Symphony (with an evening of reimagined spirituals), the Toledo Symphony, the Oregon Symphony, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra of New York. All tickets are $25.

and fail to mention the name of the composer of “August 4, 1964″? This is not some five-minute curtain raiser, but a well-received evening-length oratorio by Pulitzer Prize winner Steven Stucky. (I give you a quote of that length so that you can see the context.) It was even Oestreich who reviewed the piece for the Times.

I am reminded of the newspaper picture of the entire company bowing after a performance of Richard Danielpour’s opera “Margaret Garner” a few years ago. The caption identified everyone in the picture except Richard.

If you buy Ned Rorem’s suggestion that the world is divided into the French and the German, Gloria Cheng’s Telarc album of piano pieces by Lutoslawski, Stucky, and Salonen is an album of French music composed by a Pole, an American, and a Finn. As Stucky writes in his booklet notes for the album, both he and Salonen look to Lutoslawski as a musical father, while all three composers share “the whole Debussy/Stravinsky outlook”.

The Stucky pieces on the disc are miniatures, a set of Four Album Leaves, and a even briefer set of variations in honor of David Zinman. Throughout, Stucky’s exquisite ear for harmony is in evidence, along with a touch of Ligeti’s influential piano etudes in the faster movements. The Salonen pieces are bigger: YTA II,  Three Preludes, and Dichotomie, the last sonata-like in its dimensions. Lutoslawski’s influence is heard in the emphasis on harmony and texture rather than melody. But there are also traces of Berio and minimalism. When Salonen gets the whole piano resounding, he manages to engage the sound of the romantic, heroic 19th century piano, but without nostalgia. The Lutoslawski Sonata on the disc is a very early work from 1934; it is good to hear this piece, but would that we had a second big solo piano piece from this composer, one in his mature style. We do have his powerful piano concerto – recently recorded by Leif Ove Andsnes and the Bavarian Radio Symphony under Welser-Möst to spendid effect.

Gloria Cheng’s playing throughout the disc is exemplary, commanding fine details, brilliant passage work, and grand gestures. The beautiful piano sound – neither too close nor too distant,  neither too dry nor too reverberant, was captured by Grammy-winning producer and engineer Judith Sherman.

Yes, Meryl Streep was at the American Academy of Arts and Letters Ceremonial week before last, being inducted as an honorary member. But somehow she didn’t get into the following pictures, so you will have to be satisfied with a bunch of composers.

L to R: James Primosch, Steven Stucky, Ellen Taafe Zwilich, Pierre Jalbert, Shulamit Ran, Daniel Asia, David Felder, Barbara Petersen of BMI

L to R: David Felder, Daniel Asia, James Primosch

New music trivia buffs will have noted that all the composers in these pictures are published by the Theodore Presser Company – so thank you to Judith Ilika, head of promotion at Presser, for wielding the camera.

Anthony Tommasini’s Arts and Leisure essay in the Times today speaks about the end of dogma in programming new music, citing an evening by the Ensemble ACJW at Poisson Rouge to make the case.  Tommasini mentions the stylistic debates that dominated the lunch table during his time as a student at Yale, but it is not news that those arguments have quieted down.

More interesting to me in the article is the staying power of the high modernist composers that everybody is supposed to hate (the article mentions Babbitt and Davidovsky among others). It turns out that the music is less about compositional ideology (Davidovsky in particular is the most asystematic of uptown composers) and more about – among other things – a celebration of virtuosity. Since a performer is always happy to play something that makes him/her sound brilliant, it is not surprising that Ensemble ACJW would program Davidovsky’s Synchronisms #9 or that the Jack Quartet would advocate for Xenakis, or that the superb violinist Miranda Cuckson would issue first-rate discs of music by Shapey and Martino (about which more in a future post).

The other point of interest for me is one that Tommasini makes, but then backs away from as a “passing worry for now”, and this is the problem of the neglected “notes and rhythms” composer, to use the playful phrase of John Harbison that the article quotes. Tommasini mentions Hartke, Stucky, Rouse, Melinda Wagner, Currier, and Tower as (quasi-)mainstream  voices that may be “slipping from the view of young musicians and audiences”. (I say “quasi-mainstream” because “mainstream” is a pretty vexed concept today. Also, check the composer links at right if you want to add more names to the list.) Part of the problem here is that these composers offer journalists or publicists little on which to hang a story – nothing about identity politics, technology or violent rebellion against mentors – merely excellent music.  (The exception on that list being Sebastian Currier, whose impressive use of multimedia has not yet received the recognition it deserves.) If these composers are “slipping from view”, it is because their pieces all too often “slip away” after the premiere – the problem of the 2nd performance that I wrote about earlier. This is not a “someday” problem, as Tommasini suggests; rather, it is a problem now. Shouldn’t there be a dozen flutists planning to play Melinda Wagner’s Flute Concerto? Shouldn’t there be young groups touring with the string quartets of Harbison or Currier? In a healthier musical climate, repeated performances would mean the merely excellent would remain squarely before us instead of slipping from view.