Summer Solstice Miscellany

– my Shadow Memory, a voice and piano song on a text by Susan Orlean, will be performed at 7:30 pm this coming Saturday, June 24, 2017 at SongFest. The concert takes place in Zipper Hall at The Colburn School. Soprano Bahareh Poureslami and pianist Nathan Cheung will perform. You can read more about the piece here and here.

IMG_2336– I went to see the National Orchestral Institute’s concert at the University of Maryland last Saturday. This is a training orchestra, in existence for 30 years now, and the playing is at a very high level. It has to be at that level to take on a program like last Saturday’s: Sun-Treader of Carl Ruggles, Steven Stucky’s Second Concerto for Orchestra, and the John Harbison 4th Symphony. David Alan Miller, director of the Albany symphony, conducted. This was a program of pieces that I never expected to hear in person. (I’m afraid there is an awfully long list of very good pieces that fall into that category.) Sun-Treader – not exactly a light-hearted concert opener – sounded rather like a Second Viennese School work in its expressionist grandeur, probably not what Ruggles had in mind, except for the grandeur part. The Stucky Concerto is full of the orchestral brilliance one associates with that composer, but there is emotional heat as well, notably in the big variations set that forms the second movement. John Harbison’s 4th Symphony is in five movements, ranging widely over a varied expressive terrain. It thinks, it’s playful, and in the remarkable Threnody that constitutes the fourth movement, it looks into an abyss. Throughout the piece there is an overarching intelligence, expressed in the unexpected but logical formal shapes.

It was terrifically impressive to hear the young players tackle this challenging program. You will be able to hear for yourself, as the program was recorded for eventual release on Naxos. All praise to David Alan Miller, who continues to be an extraordinary champion of American music – at one point on Saturday, John Harbison referred to him as the Koussevitzky of our time.

Here is John, along with Will Robin, at a pre-concert chat:

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– It wasn’t on my summer reading list (that was only a partial list anyway), but I picked up Mat Johnson’s Loving Day at the recommendation of my friend Guthrie Ramsey, and am enjoying it greatly. This is partly for the familiarity of its Philadelphia setting, but more importantly for being touching and funny and thought-provoking. The NY Times review puts it well: “cerebral comedy with pathos.”

Remembering and forgetting Varèse

The Lincoln Center Varèse concerts are this week; Alex Ross has various links and video of Varèse as a silent film actor. (I’m afraid I found the ICE theatrical trailer pretty dopey.)

These concerts remind me of being a student at Columbia at the time of the Varese centennial, and, as we were all Chou Wen-Chung students, being roped into working on an all-Varese concert. There was a panel discussion earlier in the day – all these elderly folks, I think Otto Luening and Meyer Schapiro among them – reminiscing about Varèse. Or, actually, talking about all kinds of things except Varèse. (The panel was called “Remembering Varèse”, but fellow student Paul Moravec referred to it as ‘Forgetting Varèse”.) The climax of the panel was when it was time for Varèse’s widow Louise to speak. Finally, we thought, this will be the real thing, the profound insight, the key to understanding the man and the artist. Louise leaned toward the microphone and said:
“There was never a dull moment.”
And that was all she said.
I notice that the Lincoln Center programs omit one very rare piece. Varèse actually composed three electronic works – everybody knows the Poéme and Deserts, but he also did some electronic music for a film by Thomas Bouchard called Around and About Joan Miro. The music was for a portion of the film called Procession at Verges. I only know about this because we projected the relevant portion of the film at that all-Varese concert at Columbia, along with some home movies of Varèse talking with Carl Ruggles. Ruggles sounded like Jimmy Cagney playing a gangster (“I thought Walt Whitman was the greatest American poet, see?”) while Varèse sounded like, well, like somebody doing an imitation of a cosmopolitan boulevardier.
(The image above is of Calder’s wire sculpture of Varese)