– Michael Gordon‘s remarkable Timber (written about previously here, with a link to video) will be played by Mantra Percussion at the Crane Arts Center in Philadelphia on Friday November 11 at 8:00. The evening-length work is scored for 6 2X4s – talk about Music for Pieces of Wood!
I’ve already blogged about my recent experience in Albany here, here and here, but am only now getting around to a word about how the May 22nd concert went. David Alan Miller, Albany Symphony music director, began the program with two new movements from Stacy Garrop’s planned Mythology Symphony. Her Becoming Medusa was performed by the Albany last fall (you can hear the performance here), and at David’s suggestion, she is adding additional movements to the piece. The new ones deal with The Sirens and The Fates. She has a handle on a big orchestral sound, with grand, vivid, even overpowering gestures (perhaps there is a Christopher Rouse influence here?). Both new pieces drive to huge climaxes; in the Fates movement, the peaks contrast with some eloquent (and beautifully played) solo cello writing. Stacy says she is planning a Pandora movement to round out the piece. It is a smart strategy to write independent pieces that can combine to make up a grander vision – think of George Tsontakis’s T.S. Eliot pieces; Rouse’s Phantasmata; Carter’s big Symphonia; and Augusta Read Thomas’s Helios Choros ballet tryptich (go here and scroll down), worthy pieces all. Or at least it seems like a smart strategy. The problem is to get the entire set performed as a unit. This partly has to do with the problem of the second performance that I wrote about here; but it also has to do with the unavailability of a 40 minute slot for a new piece on an orchestral concert.
The best thing about the next piece on the program, a percussion concerto by Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara, was the commanding performance by soloist Colin Currie, who is perhaps best known for his performances and recording of Jennifer Higdon’s Grammy-winning Percussion Concerto. I found the Rautavarra rather square and unimaginative. It is saying something when the most interesting composing in a concerto is the cadenza which has been written not by the composer, but by the soloist! Currie is a remarkable virtuoso, and made as much as he could of the often stiffly constructed solo part. I hope to hear him in a more inspired work soon.
My own Luminism followed the intermission. (You can read my program note here.) Rather than try to describe it more, I’ll let you hear it for yourself when it becomes available on Instant Encore. For now, I’ll just report that David and the Albany did a fantastic job – David paced the piece beautifully, there was wonderful solo playing (thank you, horns, for the beautifully echoing nocturnal passage), and the full ensemble had power and precision.
The concert closed with a suite from John Harbison’s opera The Great Gatsby. Berg extracted a Lulu Suite from his opera, but he also planned a Lulu Symphony, and Harbison’s suite tends toward the symphonic in character. Although sometimes the transitions are abrupt, the piece is more than a simple stringing together of excerpts. There is something symphonic about the tension created when the 20s style pop tunes Harbison created are juxtaposed with the music for the story’s more dramatic moments. Both kinds of music share some of the same motivic material and it is as though that material is being developed in two different keys. With the music alone, Harbison is able to convey something of the expressive impact of the opera on this smaller canvas. Take the words and scenery out of many contemporary operas, and you will have mere background music. That’s not the case with Gatsby. There is an affecting drama deep in the music’s bones.
Apart from this symphonic drama, there is plenty of charm in the piece. The witty, expertly crafted 20s songs – foxtrots, a tango, and so forth – are played by a sort of cafe orchestra embedded in the larger ensemble. There are sometimes tiny hints of Ives when the pop songs collide with something else – for example, a very high, soft violin obligato played over one of the pop tunes feels like something from another world – and I would have enjoyed more of that. Let’s hope this impressive suite inspires more productions of the opera itself.
It was a fantastic experience in Albany. David, let’s do it again soon!
Later this month, I will be traveling to Albany for the premiere of my new orchestral piece, Luminism, to be played by the Albany Symphony, led by David Alan Miller. This is part of the Albany’s American Music Festival, and the program will include music by John Harbison, Stacy Garrop, and Einojuhani Rautavaara. The concert takes place at EMPAC, a performing arts center on the campus of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.
Here is my program note for the piece:
When David Alan Miller invited me to compose a new work for the Albany Symphony, he asked me to consider writing a piece inspired by the paintings of the Hudson River School, the so-called Luminist painters. As I got to know the work of such painters as Thomas Cole, Albert Bierstadt, Frederic Edwin Church, and others, I took pleasure in their intense and sumptuous effects of light as it illuminates varied landscapes. I noticed how these painters explored the light of different times of day – dawn, moonlight, day, sunset. My work does not reflect on specific paintings, but is a meditation on the various forms of light throughout the day, as conveyed in Luminist painting. The piece is framed by passages that suggest the absence of light: I needed night to make day glow more intensely.
The Albany Symphony is playing very well these days – just listen to some of their numerous recordings. I am very much looking forward to reuniting with David (our first encounter goes back to a New York Youth Symphony premiere in 1987) and with the Albany Symphony (they premiered my Some Glad Mystery in 1992).
The image above at left is Morning, Looking East Over the Hudson Valley from the Catskill Mountains by Frederic Edwin Church, from the collection of the Albany Institute of History and Art.
I’ve been enjoying listening to a recent release from Cedille Records, featuring works inspired by the poetry of Billy Collins. The disc is titled The Billy Collins Suite, and the CD cover describes the contents as “songs inspired by his poetry”, but both of those concepts are a little far-fetched – these pieces, by five different composers, are really independent works, and not all of them are truly songs. Pierre Jalbert’s The Invention of the Saxophone, is scored for narrator, saxophone and piano, but could work just as well if not better as a powerful purely instrumental sax and piano fantasia.* The Collins poem read by the narrator serves merely as a sort of program note, a meditation on the nature of “saxophone-ness”.
Among the actual songs on the disc are the pieces that make up Stacy Garrop’s contribution, a cycle called Ars Poetica, scored for mezzo and piano trio, and full of imaginative and dramatic musical imagery. I like the way this set encompasses such a wide variety of harmony – there are many shades of light and dark here.
While the Jalbert and Garrop pieces are musically very compelling, they may be too vivid for the poetry at hand. Setting Collins is no easy task. Both Garrop and Jalbert trade in direct, clear, passionate musical gestures; but Collins’s strategies are sly, indirect, oblique, even though he is known for being an accessible poet. Expressive depth in the poetry lies some distance from the often whimsical surface, while musical expression is direct and immediate in Garrop’s and Jalbert’s compositions. Jalbert’s piece is more passionate than anything in the Collins poem from which it takes off. I am not saying that the Jalbert and Garrop pieces are superficial – simply that the music’s expressive temperature is hotter than that of the poetry, and a certain formal dissonance results.
Pieces by Vivian Fung, Lita Grier, and Zhou Tian round out the disc, and the performances are uniformly fine. Would that Philadelphia had its version of Cedille Records, with an organization like the Chicago Classical Recording Foundation behind it.
*) I am reminded of the time I sat next to a senior colleague at a performance of Schoenberg’s Ode to Napoleon for narrator and piano quintet. Halfway through, my colleague leaned over and remarked that he wished the narrator would shut up so he could hear the piece. By the way, Jalbert is a fellow winner of a recently announced award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.