“Eighty-Eight Lately” Cancelled Tonight

Tonight’s “Eighty-Eight Lately” concert has been cancelled due to weather-related travel difficulties faced by pianist Gregory DeTurck. An attempt will be made to re-schedule the concert for next season. Please be with us for the final concert in the series, featuring Matthew Bengtson and James Primosch, next Wednesday, February 24, at 8 pm in Rose Recital Hall, 34th and Walnut Streets, on the Penn campus. The program will include works by Carter, Bolcom, Ligeti, Nancarrow, Takemitsu, Berio, and Melinda Wagner.

On Sequenza IV

Gregory DeTurck will play the bulk of  this coming Wednesday’s Eighty-Eight Lately concert (Feb. 17, 8 pm, Rose Recital Hall, 34th and Walnut on the University of Pennsylvania campus in Philadelphia). Greg will play music by Perle, Dutilleux and the first book of Makrokosmos by George Crumb. My contribution to the program will be Sequenza IV by Luciano Berio. Here is a program note on the piece.

In the program note on Sequenza IV included in the Deutsche Grammophon recording of the complete Sequenzas, Berio writes (as translated by David Osmond-Smith):

Sequenza IV can be viewed as a voyage of exploration through diversely characterized instrumental articulations, and as a dialogue between chordal development and linear development of the same material. Two independent harmonic sequences are developed simultaneously and at times interpenetrate: one of them real and assigned to the keyboard, and the other in a certain sense virtual, and assigned to the sustaining pedal. Sequenza IV was written in 1966 for Jocy de Corvalho.

Although Osmond-Smith chose the words “sustaining pedal”, the term more commonly applied to the pedal in question is “sostenuto pedal” – the middle pedal of the piano’s three. This pedal does not permit all the strings of the instrument to vibrate freely as does the right pedal, but only those strings whose keys are being depressed at the moment the pedal is applied. This selective sustain permits the intermingling of resounding and detached sounds characteristic of the work.

The “linear development” to which Berio refers involves much high-speed figuration, sometimes bound closely to the underlying harmonies, at other times spinning in wider, more eccentric orbits that include chromatic clusters played with the palm of the hand. These are sometimes arpeggiated by rotating the hand, and the effect recalls the cluster glissandi in Stockhausen’s Klavierstuck X of 1961. The chattering textures and rapid juxtapositions of contrasting character bring to mind the mercurially shifting gestures of which singer Cathy Berberian was capable, and which Berio exploited in Sequenza III for solo voice, written for Berberian. Amidst the clusters and dense chords, there is something lyrical – or at least vocal – at play in Sequenza IV.

The program notes for the DG recording mentioned above offer prefatory verses by Edoardo Sanguineti for each piece. For Sequenza IV, Sanguineti writes (as translated by Stewart Spencer):

I draw myself against all your many mirrors, I transform myself with my veins, with my feet: I shut myself up inside all your eyes.

The work’s “many mirrors” reflect back to us our memories of past harmonic blocks and ephemeral figurations with uncommon solidity. Through this dialogue between event and recollection, Berio’s “voyage of exploration” traverses the ocean of what Sanguineti calls (in reference to the entire series of Sequenzas) “the music of music.”

I recommend Philip Thomas’s excellent 2007 article “Berio’s Sequenza IV: Approaches to Performance and Interpretation”, found in the journal Contemporary Music Review.

Post-Hiatus Miscellany

My pieces for the Mendelssohn Club and Prism (with Marilyn Nonken) are completed, and while I still need to put in a great deal of practice time on the music I will be playing at Penn on February 17 and 24 (more info below), I want to take a moment and catch up on a few things.

– First of all, a big thank you to the Philadelphia Sinfonia and its music director Gary White for their fine performance of my Variations on a Hymn Tune. I was terrifically impressed by the group and by Gary. Their hard work paid off in a performance that was spirited and elegantly shaped. Likewise, thank you to the Society for New Music for programming my Dancepiece – I heard from Neva Pilgrim that the performance went very well and was warmly received.

– the Eighty-Eight Lately series of concerts at Penn, featuring new and recent music for piano, continues with performances by Gregory DeTurck on February 17 (works by Crumb, Perle and Dutilleux) and by Matthew Bengtson on February 24 (works by Carter, Nancarrow, Melinda Wagner, Bolcom, Ligeti, and Takemitsu). In addition to the music Greg and Matt will play, I will contribute one piece to each program. On the 17th I will play the Berio Sequenza and on the 24th, a movement from Donald Martino’s Fantasies and Impromptus. Both concerts are at 8 pm, and take place in Rose Recital Hall, found on the 4th floor of Fisher-Bennett Hall, 34th and Walnut, on the University of Pennsylvania campus in Philadelphia.

– word has come in of a few additional performances this season. My Oboe Quartet has been programmed by the organization Weekend of Chamber Music. The performers will be Peggy Pearson, who commissioned and premiered the piece; Ari Streisfeld of the JACK Quartet; and Kathryn Lockwood and Caroline Stinson of the Lark Quartet – this is quite an all-star group. They will be at the Tenri Cultural Institute in NYC on March 25, and at The Cooperage in Honesdale, PA on March 26. On April 1, soprano Sarah Noone will sing my Four Sacred Songs for voice and chamber ensemble at Notre Dame University. And on Friday, April 8, my music will be heard at Bargemusic in NYC for the first time when pianist Geoffrey Burleson plays Pure Contraption, Absolute Gift. You can always find a complete list of upcoming performances in the footer at the bottom of each page on this website. That information is also on the Performances page, along with an archive of past events.

Marilyn Nonken at Penn for “88 Lately”

88l8telyThis Wednesday, January 27, at 8:00 pm, Penn will welcome the first of three remarkable pianists for the series of concerts devoted to new music, Eighty-Eight Lately. Marilyn Nonken was an outstanding artist on the scene in the later part of my time as a student in New York in the ’80s, and she has continued to be a tremendous advocate for living composers. She is particularly associated with spectralist composers like Murail and Dufourt, in part because of her elegant book, The Spectral Piano. Pieces by those two composers will be on the January 27 concert, along with music by David Rakowski, Mikel Kuehn, Richard Carrick (the works by the latter two composers are premieres), and Christopher Trapani. Later installments of the Eighty-Eight Lately series will feature Gregory DeTurck and Matthew Bengston. All the concerts are at Rose Recital Hall in Fisher-Bennett Hall on the Penn campus at 34th and Walnut.

Here’s a video of Marilyn playing Rakowski’s Fists of Fury:

Be it Resolved

A major focus for my New Year’s resolutions is the piano. I will be reviving a couple of challenging pieces that I learned years ago – the Berio piano Sequenza and the first movement from Martino’s Fantasies and Impromptus – for performances at Penn as part of the “Eighty-Eight Lately” series, so I need to be more disciplined about practice than I sometimes am. (My performances will be guest appearances on recitals by Greg DeTurck (February 17) and Matt Bengston (February 24)).

While the Berio and Martino will obviously be my primary concern in the coming weeks, I’ve been thinking about my work at the piano in general as well. I have a large stack of exercise books (it seemed every teacher I ever worked with recommended different ones), but I will rely principally on the most succinct yet comprehensive, the Dohnányi “Essential Finger Exercises”. Regarding standard rep, I have spent more time with Bach (mostly the Well-Tempered), Beethoven sonatas, and the Chopin Etudes than anything else – certainly no surprises there – and expect to continue to do so in the coming year, though I will naturally dip into other areas as well.  Bach has particularly been on my mind lately, how I want to be more methodical in my work on his music, more thoughtful in my approach to choosing fingerings and articulations, trying to set aside the fact that I usually feel like I don’t know how to make those choices. These issues manifest with every composer, but seem especially acute with Bach. I was never taught how to choose fingerings, at least not in a systematic way, though I got some spotty hints here and there. But at least I can be more thorough in making my decisions, in not letting anything slide, except the occasional slide from black key to white! Of course, this is bound up with the mysteries of phrasing and articulation. I want to get away from the generic “legato sixteenths, staccato eighths” approach, though, like fingering, I am not too confident about how to make choices. But make conscious choices I will, and being conscious, consistent and thorough will constitute an improvement on my usual habits. It will help to be less inhibited about marking up my scores; I’ve tended to be too sparing about that, perhaps in reaction to a teacher who spattered my scores with slashes, circles, words of encouragement and criticism, visual debris that could obscure the picture of the score. Still, I’ve been told that there are first-class artists whose scores are thickly coated with an impasto of markings, providing a historical record of varied approaches to each passage.

Another strategy for being methodical with Bach is a path through the WTC that was suggested by something I stumbled across in the Hinson book on piano repertoire. I’ve never seen it, but there is a Bartók edition of the WTC that offers an ordering of the pieces by degree of difficulty. Of course there is something arbitrary about this, but still, it gives me a structure for choosing pieces on which to work rather than simply wandering through the collection at random or trying to work through the set in the chromatically ascending order in which they are usually printed. (It’s not surprising that I know the easier among first ten or so pieces in the first volume as usually printed better than any others in the set.) There’s plenty of room for argument here. For example, I find the D major in Book One easier than several pieces Bartok has placed before it. Here’s the Bartók listing:

bach listing copy


Composing for the Piano

88l8telyI was assigned a graduate composition seminar this fall at my day job, and decided to make composing for piano the focus. I further decided to plan a few recitals and talks relating to the course, under the title “Eighty-Eight Lately”, and with the support of a generous grant from Penn’s School of Arts and Sciences, the following roster of events has taken shape, all on the Penn campus:
September 29, 2015: “The Spectral Piano” – a colloquium with Dr. Marilyn Nonken of New York University – read more below.
October 28, 2015: piano recital by Gregory DeTurck and myself. Greg will play works by Crumb, Perle, and Dutilleux, and I will offer the Berio Sequenza IV. UPDATE: this program has been postponed until February 17, 2016.
January 27, 2016: Marilyn Nonken will return to campus for a recital including pieces she mentioned in her talk this past week. The list of composers may bet tweaked a little, but the plan is for her to play Rakowski, Murail, Carrick, Dufourt, and Kuehn. The Carrick and Kuehn works will be premieres.
February 24, 2016: Matthew Bengtson and I will share a program. I’ll play one or two movements from the Martino Fantasies and Impromptus, and Matt will play Carter, Ligeti, Nancarrow, Bolcom, and Melinda Wagner. Mindy will give a talk on her music earlier that day.
The class so far has only met a few times. In these first meetings we have been spending time with some early 20th century classic, but the main focus of the class will be post-WWII. So far we have looked at:
– Debussy: various Preludes
– Ravel: Gaspard de la Nuit
– Copland: Piano Variations
– Ives: “Concord” Sonata
– Barber: Sonata
– Bartok: Sonata
– Schoenberg, Six Little Piano Pieces
We will look at the Webern Variations next, with Messiaen to follow.
Marilyn Nonken’s talk this past Tuesday drew upon her elegant and thoughtful book The Spectral Piano, and she talked about the spectralist attitude, with sound itself, – its overtone content and its characteristic attacks and decays – as the stuff of a composition rather than pitches or motives. She discussed the music of Murail, Grisey, Dufourt, and Edmund Campion, as well as playing for us a short work by Joshua Fineberg. You can see a video of the lecture here.