Heard in 2014

This is the first installment in a series of posts listing some discs I enjoyed in 2014.

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Shake the Tree
Robert Carl (Innova)
Three works for piano by a composer with a transcendent vision, an epic quality I associate with Shapey, Rochberg and Crumb, all of whom were Robert’s teachers. The highlight here for me was the title piece, an unbroken arc lasting 20 minutes for piano, four-hands. Donald Berman and John McDonald are the indomitable pianists for this monumental journey, while Moritz Eggert offers a set of short pieces called Braided Bagatelles and Erberk Eryilmaz plays the spacious Piano Sonata No. 2, “The Big Room”.

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Useful Knowledge
Paul Moravec (Naxos)
Two works with voice and a set of character pieces for piano by the 2004 Pultizer Prize winner. Soprano Amy Burton is soloist for Vita Brevis, a deeply touching set of five songs on texts by various poets; Simon Mulligan is brilliant in Characteristics, each piece inspired by a different musical colleague; and Randall Scarlata is featured in a quirky and ultimately moving cantata on a text by Benjamin Franklin, Useful Knowledge.

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Secrets of Antikythera
Andrew McPherson (Innova)
Andrew is the only composition student of mine at Penn who came to the school having already earned a degree from MIT with a double major in music and electrical engineering. Those two areas of expertise come together in the title work from this album, scored for the magnetic resonator piano, an instrument devised by Andrew in which the strings of a standard grand piano are set in motion by electromagnets without having first been struck by the piano’s hammers. This resource is available simultaneously with the possibility of playing the instrument conventionally. The result is an uncanny array of sustained sounds that spring naturally from the piano’s timbre, yet offer a great contrast with the conventional piano attack. Impressive as Andrew’s command of technology may be, he is also an eloquent composer, well capable of sustaining the 38 minute title work. Pieces for solo violin and solo viola, the later with the accompaniment of the magnetic resonator piano, round out the disc. Performances by Martin Shultz, violin; Nadia Sirota, viola; and Ryan MacEvoy McCollough are uniformly fine.

Robert Carl on New Music Box

timthumbComposer Robert Carl (a fellow Penn alum) is a transcendentalist – to me, that visionary quality is the thread running through his diverse educational background (including work with Crumb, Rochberg, Shapey, Xenakis, and more), his varied musical interests, and his deeply moving compositions. An interview with Robert is featured on New Music Box this month; they have also posted his remarks to the Westfield State University New Music Festival. Check out Robert’s website here.

Répons redux

My Répons post below is a longer version of a letter I wrote to the editor of the NY Times Arts and Leisure section. I got word from the Times today that they “hope to print…it in an upcoming issue.” I’ll be interested to see if there is any reaction if the letter appears.

For now, let me add that there used to be a project some 20+  years ago called “AT&T American Encore”, which supported repeat performances of American compositions. The Philadelphia Orchestra and the LA Philharmonic were involved, and the pieces performed as part of this project included works by Harbison, Crumb, Stucky, Argento, Harrison, and Kirchner. It also supported performances of older pieces that seem to me to hardly need special advocacy – the Copland 3rd and Ives’s Unanswered Question. We could surely use an encore for “Encore”, though I would hope that the focus would be more exclusively on recent music.

We are engulfed by a multiplicity of interpretations of older music, but that is not often the case with new music. Think of pieces that have usually been associated with the composer’s own performances. Our perception of Music for Eighteen Musicians changed with the release of the Grand Valley State University recording. Meredith Monk’s work has changed with the appearance of The M6 ensemble. Robert Carl’s fine book on In C documents how the widely varied recordings of the piece speak to its richness. (Read an interview with Robert about the book, conducted by Frank Oteri of the American Music Center’s New Music Box here.) We are used to comparing myriad versions of a Schubert song cycle, but it was an uncommon experience to attend a performance of John Harbison’s Mirabai Songs at Songfest a few years ago with each song performed by a different singer: six different lights cast upon the same musical object, each revealing new facets, new shadows.

To speak of the multiple performance issue from a different angle: I’ve had the privilege of performing Crumb’s Celestial Mechanics with pianist Lambert Orkis on numerous occasions. That piece feels extremely different to me as a performer compared with all those pieces that I’ve played once and had to set aside.  It’s not just a matter of comfort, of having the piece more securely in hand. It’s about a deeper level of understanding the piece. We take it for granted with a Beethoven sonata, but in new music we too often have to do without the depth that repetition alone can provide. Multiple performers, repeat performances – we need them for a healthy new music culture.

Here’s a picture of Lambert and I playing the Crumb at the Trondheim Chamber Music Festival. Jan Orkis assists as page turner and third pianist in the six-hand passages.