“Dark the Star” at Florida State

My Dark the Star for baritone and chamber ensemble was selected to be performed at the Florida State University Festival of New music next week. Here are the details:

Thursday, February 2, 2017, 7:30 pm: Dark the Star

Evan T. Jones, baritone
Deborah Bish, clarinet
Greg Sauer, cello
Heidi Williams, piano
Peter Soroka, percussion
Alexander Jimenez, conductor
Opperman Music Hall
Florida State University
Tallahassee, FL

A great deal of music is packed into the three days of the Festival – go to the Festival website for more information.

Special guest performers for the Festival include the Bugallo-Williams Piano Duo, and violinist Monica Germino. The featured composer is Louis Andriessen. I’ve never met Andriessen, but I played his 1963 work Registers for piano at the 1977 Gaudeamus Interpreters Competition in Rotterdam. This graphic score is very different from the later music for which he is principally known, with its influences from minimalism and Stravinsky. You can get some sense of what the score looks like in this video, though the image is quite reduced in size. (A shame the performer in the video is not identified.)

Heidi Williams, the pianist for the performance of Dark the Star, is in the midst of a big CD project with soprano Mary Mackenzie, including quite a lot of my vocal music. I will linger in Florida after the Festival to attend a recording session for my Three Folk Hymns with Mary and Heidi. (Mary just gave a wonderful performance at a Collegium Institute event at Penn, along with pianist Eric Sedgwick.)

Here’s the first movement of Dark the Star in the Bridge recording made by the forces for whom the piece was written: William Sharp, the 21st Century Consort, and Christopher Kendall, conductor.

Voices from the Heartland

George Crumb says he has now finished his American Songbook project, with the final installment premiered last night in Philadelphia by Orchestra 2001 with James Freeman conducting. This has been a huge undertaking: seven big cycles of folk song settings, all for solo voice or two singers, accompanied by percussion quartet plus amplified piano. This last set, called Voices from the Heartland, includes settings of “Softly and Tenderly” “Lord, Let Me Fly!”, and “Beulah Land”, among others, as well as a couple of American Indian chants. There is a delightfully Ivesian treatment of “Come All Ye Fair and Tender Maidens” combined with “On Top Of Old Smokey” – the two songs are sung simultaneously in different keys. In a sense, the pieces break no new ground for Crumb – he has his language  – but within that language they are unfailingly imaginative, varied, and beautiful. The performance was very fine, with George’s daughter Ann and baritone Patrick Mason as soloists. These singers, along with the instrumentalists of Orchestra 2001, are so experienced in performing Crumb’s music that the special demands he places on them – whispered vocal effects, or myriad non-Western percussion instruments – pose no problems. It is uncommon to hear players, for example, consistently command the extremely soft dynamics that George often requests.

I do wish the voices had been amplified more subtly – not just more softly, but not as closely miked. I feel there must be a way to use the amplification to support the voices and help them compete with the loudest percussion passages while still making it feel like the voices and the percussion are in the same acoustical space. In contrast, the amplification of the piano made some of its more delicate effects audible while keeping the instrument integrated with the non-amplified percussion. You were constantly aware of the voices being amplified – it shouldn’t draw attention to itself in this way.

The amplification was also a bit too loud for the Boulez Anthèmes 2 on the first half of the concert, in a virtuosic performance by Gloria Justen, with Peter Price assisting at the laptop.  As for the piece itself, it is a pleasant 8 minute demonstration of how a computer can process live violin sound. Unfortunately, the piece went on for 3 times that length. While the sounds were attractive, Boulez just presents them, never shaping them into a narrative. Not that every piece has to have a linear narrative; a succession (rather than a progression) of contrasting gestures can work, but if you are going to have a piece that long, you would need less repetition of gestures, or at least some genuinely extended phrases, rather than short phrases going on at length. A comparison with the Crumb is instructive: both pieces rely on an unusual sound palette, but the carefully shaped forms and the sensitive attention to timing in George’s music makes for a vastly more successful piece.

The concert began with a short piece by Louis Andriessen, a setting of a letter he received from mezzo Cathy Berberian, the spouse of composer Luciano Berio. In the letter she speaks of how Stravinsky re-shaped what became his Elegy for J. F. K. for her. The piece is straightforward, light in manner, with a hint of elegiaic tone, for it memorializes an artist who died too young. Ann Crumb served the piece well with her charismatic theatrical flair.

Here I am with George after the performance:

 

More about George and the Songbooks, here, here, and here.

Feldman at the NY Phil

I was saddened to read of the New York Philharmonic’s unprofessional behavior at rehearsals of Morton Feldman’s Coptic Light in 1986. I was at the performance of that piece. It is worth noting that the conductor for that concert, if I recall correctly, was Gunther Schuller. It is hard to imagine Gunther participating in that kind of unprofessionalism, even though this would have been music rather distant from his own principal interests. Note too, that (again, if memory serves), Gunther conducted Arvo Pärt’s Tabula Rasa on the same program; this two years after I heard him conduct Andriessen’s De Staat at Tanglewood. I have heard some label Gunther as one of the big bad high-modernists, narrow-minded both in his own writing and in his programming, but the fact is a rather more nuanced picture would be more accurate.