Four Composers, Three Books

Recent reading:

Thomas Adès: Full of Noises. In this book of conversations with Tom Service, Adès offers plenty of iconoclastic opinions. Britten, Mahler, Brahms, Wagner, Verdi, and more all come in for some pungent criticism. The finale of the Brahms 4th is “a terrible waste of space.” On Simon Boccanegra: “Artistically it’s disastrous, but for some reason this music won’t lie down and die.” But there are interesting insights into his own creative process: “I was looking and looking at a particular C sharp, and as I put it under the microscope I saw or heard a writhing that turned into the piece” – that’s a marvelous image. He is given to aphorism, even of a Wildean sort: “Ethics are a distraction an artist cannot afford.” Snarky though some of this sounds, I came to understand Adès’s side of the conversation in a more playful light after seeing this video in which he gently offers terrific insights on Ravel’s La Valse in a piano master class, as well as displaying some impressive piano playing.

Eagle Minds: Selected Correspondence of Istvan Anhalt and George Rochberg (1961-2005).
Allan M. Gilmor, editor. I picked up this hoping to glean some biographical info about Rochberg, with whom I took two classes at Penn, and whose music I have performed on several occasions. I was not familiar with the music of Canadian composer Anhalt – you can hear Glenn Gould play his striking Fantasy here – and I must admit to focusing more on Rochberg’s side of the correspondence. However, there are only bits of biography here that provide a very modest supplement to Rochberg’s memoir Five Lines, Four Spaces, with a few letters mentioning such events as the ordeal of his son’s death, his rejoicing at being finished with administrative duties at Penn, and performances of new pieces, including the premiere of The Confidence Man at the Santa Fe Opera. Many of the letters are given over to bemoaning the state of culture, and railing against organized religion, musical modernism, and the murderous 20th century in general, with the tone becoming increasingly dark over time.

Leon Kirchner: Composer, Performer and Teacher, by Robert Riggs. Leon Kirchner (1919-2009) is yet another under-appreciated American composer (though perhaps the recent program of all four of his string quartets, given by the Orion Quartet, might signal a shift in his prominence). He was an considered an important name during my undergrad days, but I don’t think I ever heard his music live until I attended one of the first performances of his Music for Cello and Orchestra with Yo-Yo Ma and the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1992. The book is respectful and thorough, tracing Kirchner’s studies with Schoenberg and Sessions, his activities as pianist and conductor, (including a number of years at the Marlboro Festival) and as a teacher, most notably his extended stint at Harvard. I like what I have heard of his music, written in a dissonant idiom in which influences from modernist masters like Schoenberg, Bartok and Stravinsky are put at the service of a passionate, vivid, and personal idiom. Here is the opening of Kirchner’s early Piano Sonata No. 1, in a performance by Leon Fleisher:


Operas With a Future

Several of the pieces listed in the group of short essays in this Sunday’s NY Times about recent operas deserving of further performances were what you would expect, with works by Adams, Saariaho, and Adès featured. Two notable omissions that I would have included are Messiaen’s St. Francis and Harbison’s The Great Gatsby. I was surprised that the Messiaen was left out; sadly, not surprised about the masterful but under-appreciated Harbison. What would you have included?

Thomas Adès Missing

It’s happened again. In the magazine section of the New York Times for September 30th, there are two pages devoted to the costumes for Thomas Adès’s opera The Tempest, to be staged by the Met this season – but no mention of the composer. The Met’s trailer for the production here, and a bit from the Royal Opera house production here. Another missing composer here.

Recent listening – quick takes

A few items, new and old, that I have enjoyed recently:

Thomas Adès: Tevot, Violin Concerto, Three Studies from Couperin, Dances from Powder Her Face. The first two pieces are major statements. Tevot – the name means “ark” or a musical measure – is a big single movement orchestra piece, thickly layered, recalling Ligeti in its density; the concerto is of necessity more lightly scored. Both pieces share some of the same interests in repeated, layered cycles – both have memorable slowly descending quasi-tonal chord progressions – not unlike the infinitely unfolding slow music in Adès’ Asyla. The “non-tonal” or “quasi-tonal” successions of tonal chords recall some of the modal effects of Vaughan Williams, of all people, as well as some of John Adams’s preferred harmonies. Probably the neo-Riemannian harmonic analysis that has been in vogue for a bit (identifying compositional strategies that change just a note or two when moving from chord to chord) would work well on these passages in Adès.

Miles Davis: “Four” and More. Classic live material from 1964, with George Coleman, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams (only 18 at the time). Davis and his colleagues were done a disservice by whoever compiled so many insanely fast pieces into a single album. It is pretty hard to take straight through, but in smaller doses it is astonishing. I especially liked the energetic and constantly varied work of Williams. He is a very active player, but there is an airborne quality to the sound he gets from his set that keeps his playing from being overwhelming.

George Crumb: The Ghosts of the Alhambra, Voices From a Forgotten World. Volume 15 in the Complete Crumb Edition being issued by Bridge Records offers two vocal pieces. Alhambra returns to Crumb’s beloved Lorca, in settings for baritone, guitar and percussion, while Forgotten World is the fifth in Crumb’s cycle of American Songbooks, arrangements of traditional American tunes for voice (in this case, baritone Patrick Mason and mezzo Jamie Van Eyck) and a percussion orchestra manned by four players, plus amplified piano. Members of Orchestra 2001, led by James Freeman, are old hands at Crumb’s music, and the performances are superb. In the last stanza of the last song, “The Demon Lover”, the mezzo sings “And what hills, what hills are those, my love, Those hills so dark and low? and the baritone replies, “Those are the hills of Hell my love, Where you and I must go.” Crumb’s setting is appropriately disturbing and profoundly creepy.

Instant Encore playlist

Now playing at Instant Encore:

Ryan MacEvoy McCollough plays Andrew McPherson’s Secrets of Antikithera and John Harbison’s Second Piano Sonata.

two works of mine are available: the Albany Symphony playing Luminism (various posts about the piece begin here), and organist Karel Paukert playing my Meditation on “What Wondrous Love is This?”

Da Capo Chamber Players offer music by Cleveland composers Keith Fitch, Andrew Rindfleisch, and Greg D’Alessio.

Darknesse Visible, a piano work by Thomas Adés, played by Hoang Pham.

– the Ying Quartet offers Chou Wen-Chung’s First String Quartet, “Clouds”.

Saturday Doubleheader

It was a musical doubleheader in New York for me last Saturday as I attended both the Met matinee and the NY Phil in the evening.

I am not a big Puccini fan, (even though I cry at Bohème) but I was very impressed by Fanciulla, the last performance of the run at the Met. This was a strong cast, especially Deborah Voigt.  She sounded great, singing with both power and beauty of sound. The range of expressive types Minnie has to project is remarkable: she is playful, steely, vulnerable, kind, heroic, and Voigt conveyed them all. The theme of the piece is Wagnerian – a man redeemed through a woman’s love – but this time the woman survives to get her man, not just redeem him. Alex Ross smartly observes how Minnie beats the men in the piece at their own games (both literally – a poker game – and figuratively) “and then breaks down their macho codes”. The first and third acts end in a remarkably low key manner, with the ambiguities of the final curtain nicely summarized in the figure of the sheriff, left alone on stage, handling a gun, still wanting to kill the tenor, but unable to move. Ross found fault with the production, and it is on the literal side, at once a bit stiff and very busy. Voigt remarks in an interview how she has to handle tons of props in this staging. She seems to spend a long time in the first act putting away whiskey glasses. I suppose this is necessary given the amount of drinking that goes on – per capita at about at the level of an Albee play.

In the evening I heard two men named Thomas – Hampson’s Kindertotenlieder was deeply affecting, and Adés played his piano concerto with video, a collaboration with Tal Rosner. I am an Adés fan, but I was not consistently held by this piece. Anthony Tommasini’s review makes the music sound much more varied than it seemed to me. Too much of the work involved streams of regular durations, often layered against similar streams moving at slightly different speeds, but still lacking in sufficiently characterized rhythmic profile. Still, there was much to admire when the rhythms were less static. I found the video was at its most compelling when most dense, with various geometric patterns intricately overlaid. However, there were also brief moments that were dangerously close to screensaver images, or the visualizer in iTunes, or even the abstractions that accompany the Bach toccata and fugue in Disney’s Fantasia.  I appreciated the fact that the music and image were closely coordinated. I always hated the way the jump cuts from frantic activity to stasis in the Godfrey Reggio/Philip Glass collaboration Koyaanisqatsi are not quite in sync, but that is not the case here.

Update: hear the Adés on Instant Encore here.