Early May Miscellany

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–  Anna will be playing my Piano Variations. She was one of the students who shared in a performance of the piece in 2016, having had the work brought to her attention by Temple U professor Lambert Orkis. More about the piece here.

– there was a very strong performance by the Lark Quartet at their 30th anniversary concert in NYC this past Monday. After urgent, authoritative playing in the Debussy Quartet, they offered a premiere for string octet by Andrew Waggoner in which the original members of the Lark joined the current members. The piece, called Ce morceau de tissu, was striking for its fierce antiphonies and roiling textures. It was impressive how Andrew was able to maintain high energy in the piece; sustained fast music is no small challenge to write. After intermission, the Harbison String Quartet No. 6 had its NYC premiere. In four movements, the piece begins with the first violin placed some distance from the rest of the quartet, gradually arriving at a conventional playing location, and the “3 + 1” conception returns later, though the positioning of the player remains normal. It was interesting to hear this quartet and Harbison’s Presences two weeks apart; two chamber works for strings featuring concertante writing for a member of the ensemble, though Presences is mostly at a higher dramatic temperature than the quartet with its lyrical and dancing textures. Both works linger in the mind.

No less intriguing was a chance to hear the Harbison Sixth in close juxtaposition with the recent Mario Davidovsky Sixth Quartet as played by the Juilliard Quartet on Sunday here in Philadelphia.  Both memorable pieces by senior masters, but with very different languages, of course. Mario’s piece is called Fragments, and its essentially athematic discourse relies on the careful deployment of characterful elements that, in Mario’s words: “do not offer the necessary pitch/rhythmic information to denote them clearly as motives, but can be described in basic ‘expressive’ terms as being very fast, percussive, or lyrical, etc.” These fragments are combined, juxtaposed, and transformed, with the result being mercurial, dramatic, playful and poetic by turn. The writing is animated by vividly alert textures that retain the influence of Mario’s days in the electronic music studio; at times it is as though an electronic component is embedded in the purely acoustic piece. The work was brilliantly played by the Juilliard on a program that also included the Mendelssohn a minor quartet and Beethoven Op. 130, with the Grosse Fuge – whew!

Here’s John Harbison with Andrew Waggoner and Kathryn Lockwood of the Lark after the concert:

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and Andy with his wife Caroline Stinson, cellist in the Lark:

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– I visited the Guggenheim the morning after the Lark performance, and I strongly recommend their current show, filled with myriad strong pieces! I lingered at works by Pollock, Klee, many Kandinskys, a Bonnard (not normally one of my favorites), Mondrian, and many more. I found this Picasso especially moving, spending a long time looking at the supremely elegant curving lines:

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You might complain that this is an “easy” work to like, compared with, for example, some of the Kandinskys in the show. But “easy” in art is never easy.

Wernick’s Ninth

I am preparing a pre-concert lecture for the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society concert this Friday, November 9, at the Kimmel Center’s Perelman Theater. The concert is at 8 pm, my talk at 6:45. The concert features the Juilliard String Quartet in the first performance of Richard Wernick’s String Quartet Nr. 9, a PCMS commission. Dick has let me study the score in preparation for my talk, and it looks to be very Wernickian in its tightness of construction, coupled with passionate expression. Dick has headed the second of the quartet’s two movements with a phrase from Dante – “per una selva oscura…”, and I think this slow movement will be quite haunting, a kind of night music, with striking short motives and an emerging poignant lyricism. The Mozart “Dissonant” and the Debussy Quartet round out the program.

The Name of the Game

I was speaking with a composer colleague a number of years ago, and remarked that the music of Richard Wernick is exceptionally under-appreciated. My friend thought for a moment, then replied, with some vehemence, “we’re all under-appreciated!” Well, that’s true, but more than some, Wernick’s music truly does deserve wider recognition and performance.

Not that he has been lacking for first-class advocates. The opening piece on Bridge’s most recent CD of his music is a horn quintet performed by no less than William Purvis and the Juilliard Quartet. The flavor of the harmony and the bustling texture of the work’s opening suggest Schoenberg, although frankly Wernick’s harmony makes more sense to my ear than that of the earlier master. Furthermore, the contrasting quieter sections in Wernick’s music have a stillness and meditative repose (though never static) that is foreign to Schoenberg’s expressive palette. I remember reading a record review years ago about Wernick’s first piano sonata, (recorded by Lambert Orkis for Bridge) in which the reviewer connected Wernick’s music with that of Morton Feldman. That reviewer was way off target, as Wernick is vitally interested in the meaningful pattern making that Feldman seems to studiously avoid. Rather than Feldman, I connect Wernick’s most inward moments with the crystalline slow movements that are sometimes found in the music of Ralph Shapey; I know Wernick admired the older composer’s work tremendously,

The CD also offers the Colorado Quartet playing Wernick’s Sixth Quartet. This is darkly intense music, as befits its impetus: a memorial work for a cousin of Wernick named Henry Levy who worked for forty years as a field executive for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. According to Wernick’s program note, Henry Levy was an extraordinary man, unstinting in his service to Jewish refugees from both Nazi and Communist regimes. Even after his retirement, Levy continued to support Jewish causes financially and eventually left the bulk of his assets to universities in Israel. Wernick honors this remarkable individual with a tightly focussed single movement work, entirely derived from a powerful unison opening.

The last major work on the disc, The Name of the Game, is for guitar and 11 players. David Starobin, creator of Bridge Records, is the featured soloist in this piece, originally written for Philadelphia’s Network for New Music, and here performed by the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), with Cliff Colnot conducting. Starobin is responsible for encouraging hundreds of composers (including Crumb, Carter, Davidovsky, Rouders, Foss, Schuller and Babbitt) to create new works with guitar, and Wernick honors him in a time-hallowed manner by deriving his musical material from the letters of Starobin’s name that correspond to musical pitches: D; A; vi; D; S (German “es”); and so forth. Starobin’s performance is typically virtuosic, full of varied colors, and Wernick draws a similarly kaleidoscopic array of sounds from the ensemble. Two short solo works played by Starobin round out the disc.

Although the charming picture on the cover of this CD shows Wernick tossing sheet music to the wind, he is not interested in randomly scattering notes – rather, what Richard Wernick accomplishes, through painstaking craft and deeply expressive intensity, is to give his music flight.