Bach, Mahler, Murail, Eastman

Alex Ross recently posted a list of concerts and operas he attended during a recent European trip. I haven’t been to Europe lately, but I did get to a memorable and varied series of concerts in Philadelphia recently. Here are some brief comments.

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I was delighted to see the Church of the Holy Trinity filled for a program of Bach cantatas – it seats about 1100! Very fine performances, with the singers and obbligato players ably commanding Bach’s long lines. The second aria in BWV 170 is a contender for the strangest Bach aria ever, with the organ playing the obbligato while the violins in unison play the bass!

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My favorite pieces here were the Murail works and the Messiaen. The latter was written on the death of his mother, while the former on the death of his teacher Messiaen; good to hear those in succession. The big hall at the Barnes is not ideal for every concert situation, but it worked for the spectralist pieces with their emphasis on resonance, sculpted in sensuous layers in Marilyn’s virtuosic performance. Here’s how the piano was set up, followed by a shot from the Q and A with Marilyn and Robert Whalen, co-artistic director, along with Katharine Skovira, of the concerts at the Barnes.

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  • The Philadelphia Orchestra offered the Mahler 3rd in its last subscription set of the season. I was there for the May 19 performance.

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This was a magnificent performance of a staggering piece. Certainly hearing the orchestra in full cry was thrilling, but I was constantly struck by the intensely eloquent solo playing – trombone in the first movement, offstage “posthorn” (I assume played on trumpet?) in the third, to name just two of many. Karen Cargill’s voice was richly sonorous, and the choirs were splendid. Am I the only person who hears an echo of “I’ll be seeing you in all the old familiar places” in the cello tune of the finale?

  • The last event in my recent bout of concert going was the final concert of the Julius Eastman retrospective presented by Bowerbird at The Rotunda.

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The ensemble pieces were intriguing, but the highlight for me was the a cappella solo performance of Eastman’s Prelude to the Holy Presence of Joan D’Arc by Davóne Tines. He was positioned at the lectern pictured above. His powerful bass-baritone cast an incantatory spell as he repeated the work’s few short musical phrases, a setting of this text:

Saint Michael said
Saint Margaret said
Saint Catherine said
They said
He said
She said
Joan
Speak Boldly
When they question you

The piece served as an invocation, and I sensed an unusual concentration in the audience; it was exceptionally quiet during the pauses between phrases, giving us a chance to attend to the reverberation The Rotunda offers.

Hear Davóne singing music of Caroline Shaw here, and Jerome Kern here.

Heat Wave Miscellany

– Two upcoming concerts by the Argento Ensemble feature important French composers and celebrate the renovation of Philadelphia’s Rodin Museum. Music by Tristan Murail on Sunday, July 22 at and by Philipe Hurel on Saturday, July 28 – both concerts at 5:30.

– A massive interview with Fred Hersch has been posted at Do the Math.

– The International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE to you) has put up a nICE library of videos – performances as well as chats.

– Miss Ella shares her thoughts on the weather.

– Blogging will continue to be very intermittent until more progress is made on the current composition projects including this one.

Boston Adventure, part two

After Saturday morning’s rehearsal with Emmanuel Music, I had a great lunch at 29 Newbury with Ryan Turner (Emmanuel Music Director) and Pat Krol (Emmanuel executive director). (Check out the tomato soup and the pulled pork sandwich.) After a long walk in the Public Garden (amazing tulips) I made my way over to Brandeis where the 2011 BEAMS Electronic Music Marathon was in progress. Twelve hours of electronic and mixed media works! I caught nearly half the event, arriving – regrettably – too late for music by some familiar names, among them: David Felder, James Dashow, William Coble, Kaija Saariaho, Hans Tutschku, and Dennis Miller – and some not so familiar names: Ferdinando De Sena, Jeremy Podgursky, Michel van der Aa, Malin Bång, and a good many others. The unfamiliar names were mostly European, and one of the good things about the mix of pieces was the inclusion of music from Europe that is not often heard in this country. There was a chronological mix as well including older pieces such as …sofferte onde serene… of Nono, from 1976 (has not worn well) and Mortuos Plango, Vivos Voco from 1980 by Jonathan Harvey (still sounds fabulous, especially nice to hear it in a hall with a multi-channel setup). There were a lot of pieces that involved live processing, but much of this mostly just involved putting a live player through a laptop that served as a sophisticated stomp box providing variations on delay. There seemed to be a limited array of compositional options: either the processed version accumulates the notes as though the piano pedal was depressed (the homophony strategy); or something that was just played gets repeated, looped or not (sort of canon at the unison). Pieces for what we used to call “instrument and tape” – now the expression is “instrument and fixed media” – were also heard. Performances were at a very high level throughout the evening. A few standouts:

the forgotten dialect of autumn by Heather Stebbins – memorably lyric violin lines played by Krista Buckland Reisner, with live electronics.

Winter Fragments by spectralist master Tristan Murail – the Boston-based group Sound Icon playing with live processing, plus video imagery by Herve Bailly-Basin – mostly aqueous images, sometimes crystalline, mostly responding to the music in a direct way, and therefore suggesting a high end  iTunes visualizer. (Just as the laptop ends up being a fancy stompbox. Fancy technology does not always mean a fancy result.)

Rope and Chasm by Matthew Greenbaum –  Re’ut Ben Ze’ev, mezzo soprano, narrating, singing, and interacting with a video. The piece is based on Nietzche’s Also Sprach Zarathustra; one memorable moment was when the mezzo reached up her hand to a wounded figure in the video, casting her hand’s shadow onto the screen – a simple gesture, but quite touching.

Strange Autumn by Steven Kazuo Takasugi – a theater piece with narration, electronic sound and a percussionist making amplified noises with various pieces of paper. Something oddly moving about making a piece with such impoverished means.

Scuffle & Snap by Eric Chasalow – an heir to the Davidovsky tradition, Brandeis faculty member Chasalow, who curated the marathon, offered another one of his finely crafted studies in, as he put it in a program note, “building heightened dramatic structures around traditional instruments”. He continues, “I like to use a wide variety of sound sources, recontextualized, but very resonant with memories.” Chasalow’s work is important because he is not just an electronic music composer, he is an electronic music composer; the way he carefully shapes musical gestures and their interaction was a welcome contrast with much of the music heard that day.

The last piece I heard was Davidovsky’s Synchronism No. 12, played with her customary verve and lively array of colors by clarinetist Jean Kopperud. This is the most recent in the series of pieces for instruments and electronic sound by the original maestro of the medium. Here is Jean just before playing the piece:

By now it was getting close to midnight, and time for me to go get some sleep before the next morning’s church service with my motet at Emmanuel. More soon.

Wednesday afternoon miscellany

-The Pew Fellowships in the Arts, a program of the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage, has begun a blog. Check out the “100 Fellows” video here.

Mario Davidovsky gets the Composer Portrait treatment – a full evening of his music – at Miller Theater on the Columbia University campus in New York this Friday. I’ll be there, will be blogging about it.

Marilyn Nonken plays the music of Tristan Murail at Delaware County Community College in suburban Philadelphia this Sunday, March 6.

(at left: Mario Davidovsky)