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.

Many, Many Synchronisms

198_davidovsky1It’s a remarkable event: 10 of Mario Davidovsky’s masterful Synchronisms – works for live instrumentalists combined with pre-recorded electronic sound – will be performed on December 8 and 9 in Philadelphia at Holy Apostles & the Mediator Episcopal Church, 260 S. 51st Street. This has been organized by harpist Elizabeth Huston, and you can read more about the concert here. Like the evening of Berio Sequenzas that Elizabeth staged in 2014, this program will position the performers in various spaces throughout the church. Mario was one of the pioneers of the “instrument and tape” genre – folks call it “instrument and fixed media” these days – and nobody has done it better. His Synchronism Nr. 6 for piano and tape won the Pulitzer Prize in 1970. Here it is, played by Aleck Karis:

Leaf Raking Miscellany

It’s a good day to rake leaves, but I want to take a break to say:

  • I’m sorry to be missing the Christopher Rouse Organ Concerto with the Philadelphia Orchestra this week. There is one more performance tonight (November 19) at 8. Read program notes for the concert here.
  • It’s a pleasure to see my colleague Eric Moe‘s picture in the NY Times Arts and Leisure section today in connection with a counter)induction program at National Sawdust featuring him as both composer and pianist – this at a moment when it seems especially difficult for some composers of our generation to get the attention of the media.
  • On Monday, Nov. 21, I’ll be doing a pre-concert lecture for the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society’s concert featuring pianists Lydia Artymiw, Charles Abramovic, Cynthia Raim and Natalie Zhu, plus Philadelphia Orchestra percussionists Don Liuzzi and Chris Deviney. My talk will be at 6:45 before the 8:00 pm concert at Philadelphia’s Kimmel Center. The program includes the Bartok Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion, the Mozart two-piano Sonata, and two works by Smetana for two pianos, eight hands – a one-movement Sonata and a Rondo. No, I haven’t heard the Smetana works before either! And yet I found this video of both pieces with Martha Argerich and colleagues performing:
  • I’ve been pondering Mario Davidovsky‘s work after hearing his masterful Flashbacks in two brilliant performances by the New York New Music Ensemble recently. I hope to post here about his work soon; for now, here is the NYNME recording, from a Bridge CD:

“Dark the Star” in Philadelphia and New York

6a00d83453ebeb69e201a511c84960970c-320wiPoetry of Rilke and Susan Stewart, plus a verse from Psalm 116 – these are the texts I set in Dark the Star, a 2008 work for baritone, clarinet, cello, piano and percussion. The New York New Music Ensemble with soloist Thomas Meglioranza (at left) will perform the piece twice in early November. Here are the details: the first performance is in Philadelphia on Sunday, November 6 at 2 pm. The free concert will be in Rose Recital Hall, on the 4th floor of Fisher-Bennett Hall, located on the southeast corner of 34th and Walnut on the University of Pennsylvania campus. (Make sure your clock is set correctly, as Eastern Standard Time returns that weekend!) NYNME will repeat the program in New York the next day, November 7. The New York performance is at 8:30 pm, at the Tenri Cultural Center, 43a West 13th Street. Music by Melinda Wagner, Mario Davidovsky, and Augusta Read Thomas will round out the program.

I’ve been fortunate to work with the extraordinary musicians of NYNME for over 20 years. The rapport among these players is near telepathic, and their performances are electrifying.

Here is my program note on Dark the Star:

Composing this cycle of songs began with my discovery of three poems in Susan Stewart’s collection Columbarium that I knew I must set to music. The deep, dreamlike wisdom of these poems haunted me, just as I had experienced with Susan’s poem “Cinder” that had served as the fulcrum of my song cycle Holy the Firm. Eventually, texts by Rilke and an earlier setting I had done of a psalm verse were drawn into the gravitational orbit of Susan’s poems. I ordered the texts in a nearly symmetrical pattern, with two texts set a second time in versions that shadow their first readings. This is partly for the sake of the formal design, but, more importantly, to re-examine the poems in the penumbra of what comes before. Rounding the cycle in this way reflects not only the circles and repetitions in Susan Stewart’s texts, but also the way in which, as Rilke writes, the things we have let go of yet encircle us. The work was composed for William Sharp and the 21st Century Consort, who gave the premiere, with Christopher Kendall conducting.

Sample the Bridge recording of the piece on YouTube, with the forces for whom the piece was written:

Mario at the Americas Society

ICE presented an all-Davidovsky concert last Friday at the Americas Society in New York, and the program covered a remarkable span of time. The earliest piece was the Chacona for piano trio dating from 1971, and the newest was from this year, a premiere for flute, clarinet, piano, percussion, and four strings called Divertimento No. 8, “Ambiguous Symmetries”.  This was Mario’s return to composing after a hiatus of several years, and although he described it in an intermission conversation has having an entirely different syntax from his earlier music, it still had the electric crackle, sly wit, and poignant lyricism for which his music is so admired. The program began with soprano Tony Arnold’s vivid rendition of Romancero, a set of four songs on anonymous Spanish texts. Here a mixed quartet of strings and winds frame the voice with alert gestures, or shadow it with plaintive musings. David Bowlin was a brilliant soloist in the Synchronisms No. 9 for violin and electronic sound, with the live and recorded elements merging into a hybrid “super-instrument”. It was beautiful to see the young players of ICE advocating for this music with such passionate commitment, and reassuring to know that the tradition of virtuosity called for by this body of work continues.

Here’s Mario during that intermission talk:

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Thursday Miscellany

– I was sad to see that Frank Music has closed. I’ve not experienced any combination of internet resources that can compare with going into a shop, leafing through every page of a score, comparing it with another edition of the same piece, consulting with a knowledgeable salesperson about options, and fortuitously finding items that you didn’t know you needed, beyond anything an Amazonian algorithm can offer.

– an all-Davidovsky concert with ICE is coming tomorrow, March 13, at the Americas Society in NYC, including the premiere of a new piece.

– go here for a podcast in which Charles Rosen talks about Chopin, illustrating his points at the piano.

Mario at Merkin

It was a fantastic concert of music by Mario Davidovsky in honor of his 80th birthday tonight at Merkin in NYC. There were several veteran performers on hand, players I first met in 1979 at the Composers’ Conference that Mario still directs, now at Wellesley College. All the musicians, longtime Davidovsky advocates or not, projected the scintillating and lyrical gestures of this music vividly, and with pinpoint precision. It was a pleasure to hear such commanding performances.

Hearing a string of Mario’s pieces in succession brought home to me just what a remarkable body of work he has created. The music is full of high contrast juxtapositions yet manages to convey a sense of long line. The point of view is consistently contrapuntal, but with aerated, economical textures. Always, there is an a exquisite sense of timing – none of these pieces outstay their welcome.

Here are a few pictures. Mario taking a bow, with cellist Chris Finckel at right:

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Mario and I, after the concert:

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some Columbia classmates (l to r, Hayes Biggs, Sheree Clement, myself, Rick Baitz): IMG_3899

Mario speaking with another Columbia classmate, Eric Chasalow (Nice hat, Mario!):

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“Meditation” concluded; upcoming:

– I just hit send on an e-mail with the PDFs for my brand-new Meditation on “Amazing Grace”, the short work for trumpet, contrabass and piano that I have written for Network for New Music’s April 4 concert. Terell Stafford and Mary Javian will join me for the premiere.

– Tonight is the concert for Mario Davidovsky’s 80th birthday at Merkin Hall in NYC. I’ll be there, and I anticipate a good number of colleagues will also want to attend to pay honor to  one of the great masters of our time.

– I have already begun sketching my new work for The Crossing, to be performed on a concert at The Icebox in Philadelphia on June 28. The piece will combine the Latin Ordinary of the Mass with poems by Denise Levertov inspired by the Mass texts. I’ve written numerous short motets over the years, but this will be my biggest a cappella piece by far.

Mario at 80

cpemcMario Davidovsky will soon be turning 80. His birthday, and his music, will be celebrated at an all-Mario concert, to be held in NYC at Merkin Concert Hall on March 4. The performers are first-rate and include several long-time advocates of his work:

Cygnus Ensemble
Elizabeth Farnum, soprano
Aleck Karis, piano
Curtis Macomber, violin
Barry Crawford, flute
Chris Finckel, cello
Lois Martin, viola

I had the privilege of studying with Mario in the 1980’s, and have always admired his music for its passion, wit, and exquisite craft.

Go here for a New Music Box interview with Mario.

The picture above shows Mario with colleagues at one of the studios of the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center – I would say this is from the mid-sixties.  In the front row (L to R) are Milton Babbitt, Vladimir Ussachevsky, and Otto Luening; behind them are Bulent Arel, Pril Smiley, Mario Davidovsky, and Alice Shields. (For you gearheads: yes, that’s a Buchla that Milton is leaning his hand on; I think the 4-track that Otto is leaning against is an Ampex. The mixer is behind Pril and Mario, and is a custom-built device with rotary potentiometers, not sliders, and switches to direct a channel’s signal to various locations in the studio. The rotary knobs permitted tricks like doing a one-handed crossfade by fitting a rubber band around adjacent knobs with a twist in the band – turn one knob clockwise, the other would move counterclockwise. On the tape recorder behind Alice, the part sticking up above the device at a slight angle held an adjustable capstan. You could run the tape up to that capstan, which would permit you to adjust the distance between the recorder’s heads, resulting in longer or shorter intervals of time between attacks for tape echo.)

Network plays Chamber Concerto

Network for New Music gave an excellent performance last night of my Chamber Concerto. This is not an easy piece – I wrote it for the hyper-virtuosi of Speculum Musicae, with Allen Blustine as clarinet soloist – but the Network ensemble pulled it off in style. Soloist Ben Fingland had full command of the part, not only the rapid flurries of notes, but the most delicate nuances, including some uncannily soft high register tones. The players relished the jazzy parts of the last movement. My one small regret was that I don’t feel I tweaked some of the synthesizer patches quite properly; Linda Reichert covered the part just fine, but if the piece is done again I would make some of the patches a little more resonant, with longer decays and capable of a wider dynamic range. Besides Ben and Linda, the players were Paul Arnold, violin; Tom Kraines, cello; Mary Javian, double bass; Christopher Deviney, percussion; and Charles Abramovic, piano, with Jan Krzywicki conducting.

The other works on the program were performed to the customary high Network standard – Paul Arnold’s violin was alternately dancing and lyrical in Judith Shatin‘s Penelope’s Song; Hirono Oka, Burchard Tang and Thom Kraines were an exceptionally refined string trio in Paul Lansky‘s As If. (It’s odd to realize that I was a tech person for the premiere of the Lansky in 1981 at Columbia University – “tech” only in the sense of being assigned to move speakers around.)  Arne Running gracefully commanded the sleight-of-hand narrative of Mario Davidovsky‘s clarinet Synchronisms.

Network’s Third Space festival continues, with programs at Temple U on Sunday night, at Community College of Philadelphia on Monday, and with a reprise of the Sunday program at Haverford College on Friday. Read more details at the Network website.

In addition to tomorrow’s Network concert, you will want to be present for the premieres of works by Melinda Wagner and Richard Brodhead at Marcantonio Barone’s piano recital this Sunday, sponsored by the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society, and presented at the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia.