Robert Levin on Mozart

The piano recital by Robert Levin that I attended last winter at Harvard, featuring music of Yehudi Wyner, John Harbison, and Bernard Rands, was dazzlingly good, but Levin is perhaps best known for his astonishing work with Mozart. Astonishing is not too strong a word, for he doesn’t just play beautifully, he improvises beautifully in Mozart’s style. Here are some fascinating videos. The first is an excerpt from the second, an improvisation on themes suggested by the audience that serves to close the lecture given complete in the second video – if you don’t have time for the whole lecture, at least give the first video a try.

 

 

Then this one on composing Mozart is the sequel to the previous lecture:

“Motherless Child” in Philly, “The Call” and “Contraption” in Boston

I’m back now from my trip to Boston to hear the first performance of my George Herbert setting, The Call, as given by Ryan Turner and Emmanuel Music, as well as Christopher Oldfather’s performance of Pure Contraption, Absolute Gift on a Collage New Music program at the Longy School.

The visit was immediately after I played the slow movement of my Piano Quintet with the Daedalus Quartet last Friday night on Penn’s “Wail of the Voice!” concert. The movement is a set of variations, or a “meditation” as I put it in the movement title, on the African-American Spiritual “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.” I stick close to the tune for the first two statements, first by high cello over thick, soft piano chords, then by viola, over a simple pizzicato cello line. The next section breaks away from the form of the tune, instead building to a big climax of keening strings over a piano ostinato derived from the tune’s intervals. For the last statement of the theme, the second violin plays the tune one last time, while the first violin is a ghostly shadow of the second, playing in a higher register, more slowly, and in a different key. The lower strings and piano accompany with very soft and gradually sinking clustered harmonies. I was very impressed with the eloquence of all the quartet members throughout, but especially in their solos. I knew the Daedalus to be a superb ensemble, especially from hearing them play my own music. But performing with them let me know in a more intimate way just how fine this group truly is.

Here’s a shot of me with the quartet (Min-Young Kim, Matilda Kaul, Jessica Thompson, and Tom Kraines):

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and here is a picture of the four composers on the “Wail” concert, Anna Weesner, Jay Reise, Mike Fiday and myself:

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After the concert I caught an overnight Amtrak to Boston (thank God for the quiet car), which arrived early enough to let me hang out at a Starbucks reading this before heading over to Emmanuel Church for the first rehearsal of the new motet.

The singers of Emmanuel Music are incredibly fast learners, and I have been rather reckless at throwing challenges at them in the series of motets I have done for them over the years, both in terms of rhythm and pitch. They have never let me down. Ryan Turner’s rehearsal technique is thoughtful and efficient; he knew just what areas to pinpoint and work on. I learn more about the subtleties of the choral medium – the interaction of vowel color and intonation, for example – every time I observe him rehearse.

After rehearsal I enjoyed a tasty lunch at 29 Newbury with Ryan and Emmanuel’s energetic executive director, Pat Krol. Then it was off to meet with John Harbison and try out his Leonard Stein Anagrams, the set of short piano pieces I will be playing on a concert at Penn on February 26. I didn’t play too badly, and John generously overlooked my blunders and praised the things that (accidentally or otherwise) worked OK. Most importantly, I got my questions answered – about how certain notations should be interpreted (for example, a tenuto dash under a slur at the beginning of a phrase can mean a durational accent, not just a dynamic one.)

The next morning’s performance of The Call at the liturgy went well. There were two liturgical events especially worth mentioning. Rector Pamela Werntz preached, and tied in my piece with the gospel reading about Jesus calling the disciples – “listen to the call!” she said, and at that moment, a cell phone rang. The place cracked up. “It’s Jesus calling!” Pam remarked. The other moment was quite touching to me – being prayed for by name as part of the intercessions – thanks to Pam’s spouse, Joy Howard, who offered that petition.

Robert Levin’s recital that afternoon at Harvard’s Sanders Theater was astounding. I followed the scores I had brought for the Harbison 2nd sonata and the Bernard Rands Preludes, and you could have issued the concert as a CD, I don’t think he dropped a note, and the dynamics and articulations were so clearly articulated, you could have taken them down in dictation. That makes his playing sound cold, but it was far from that – the dark power of the Harbison and the exquisite color and lyricism of the Rands were fully present. There were charming and fierce short pieces by Yehudi Wyner and a premiere from a composer new to me, Hans Peter Türk. Here are the principals at a post-concert reception (L to R, Yehudi Wyner, John Harbison, Robert Levin, and Bernard Rands):

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Now it was time for the Collage concert at the Longy School. The expert Collage players capably met the formidable demands of David Lang’s These Broken Wings. Crystallography by Kati Agócs was charming, like a folk music from some hitherto unknown culture. Brenna Wells was the vocal soloist, spinning lilting lines. After intermission, Christopher Oldfather played my piano consortium commission piece, Pure Contraption, Absolute Gift with beauty of sound and no small amount of insight. He had a firm grasp of the character of the pieces. I was delighted by how he was able to clearly delineate multiple layers of events in the music. The warm effusions of Charles Fussell’s Pilgrim Voyage closed the program. I was honored to get some generously positive feedback from colleagues who were in attendance, including Yehudi Wyner and Robert Beaser. Gunther Schuller was there, 88 years old, looking rather frail – yet, he was present at both the Levin recital and the Collage concert. I was touched by his kind comments on my piece, as well as his remembrance of my time at Tanglewood some 30 years ago.

The Boston Musical Intelligencer reports on the Collage concert here.

Wail – 2014 edition and more

I’m taking a break from working on my piece for this to let you know about some upcoming events. It will be a very busy few days at the end of this week. On Friday, January 24, Penn will offer its annual “Wail of the Voice!” program, featuring faculty and alumni composers. There will be music by current faculty Jay Reise, Anna Weesner, and myself, as well as alum Mike Fiday, performed by the Daedalus Quartet, flutist Michele Kelly and pianists Greg DeTurck, Matthew Bengtson, and myself. The concert will be in Rose Recital Hall, on the 4th floor of Fisher-Bennett Hall, found at 34th and Walnut on the Penn campus here in Philadelphia. The 8:00 pm concert will be preceded by a 7:00 pm pre-concert discussion, with Penn grad student Neil Crimes as moderator.

It will be my first time playing piano in a concert performance in quite a while (playing at church or in the classroom is a different matter). The Daedalus and I will offer the slow movement from my 1996 Piano Quintet, a set of variations on “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child”. As I remarked at rehearsal with the Daedalus, “you guys sound great, and my part is easy”, so this bodes well for a fine performance.

I’ll post the program notes for the Wail! concert during the course of this week. For now, let me point out the rest of my own busy weekend. After the concert at Penn I will take an overnight train to Boston, arriving for a Saturday morning rehearsal of my new setting of The Call, with Emmanuel Music and Ryan Turner conducting. That piece will receive its first performance at Emmanuel Church’s Sunday Eucharist, 10:00 am on January 26. On Sunday evening I will attend Christopher Oldfather’s performance of my consortium commission piano piece, Pure Contraption, Absolute Gift on a Collage New Music concert. It’s an 8:00 pm concert, 7:15 pre-concert chat, this at the Longy School in Cambridge. Between my two Sunday performances, I hope to attend Robert Levin’s piano recital at Harvard, featuring piano works by Wyner, Harbison, Türk, and Rands. And on Saturday afternoon (assuming I haven’t collapsed from lack of sleep on the train) I will meet with John Harbison to try out some of his Leonard Stein Anagrams for him, in preparation for my February 26 performance of them here in Philadelphia.