Wednesday, July 27, 2016
The Friday concert at the Festival of Contemporary Music (FCM) at Tanglewood featured the New Fromm Players in a quartet of quartets written in the last eight years. No theme suggested itself for the afternoon, but “searching for a voice” came to mind. All four works had to confront the history of this archetypal ensemble and find a way to make it personal. None succeeded entirely, but some grappled more effectively than others. To my ear, the study in fragility that is Hans Abrahamsen’s (b. 1952) String Quartet No. 3 lingered longest. Wisps of melody intertwined to create a minimalist surface, but the mechanisms that created the music were fluid and subtly various, and often played at the edge of audibility; the last movement was performed entirely with metal practice mutes. It was willing to court tedium, but even when it threatened to sound like (hushed, urgent) finger exercises, there was something going on that compelled attention. Its most extroverted moments occurred in the third movement, where lines kept running up to linger in clinging suspensions. It reminded me of Morton Feldman’s music in its denser, chromatic moments. But at its best, especially in that movement marked Molto tranquillo e lontano e legato, it has a simplicity and elusive charm that seemed to silence even the crows who commented throughout the afternoon. Joseph Phibbs’s (b. 1974) String Quartet No. 1 searches for its voice by rummaging in the attic of past music. It opens with a selfconsciously archaic sound, calling to mind the last movement of Ben Johnston’s last quartet but without his microtonal haze to justify it (or the surprise Johnston buries in it). But once Phibbs finishes with that, he goes looking farther afield, calling to mind milder Shostakovich or rhetorical Britten; lyrical, modal melody of early 20th-century English composers; and angular stomping recalling watered-down Bartok or early Lutoslawksi. There’s so much of this going on that it is tempting to call it postmodernism, but with no hint of humor or irony in any of it. If this is appropriation, it is dead-serious, even desperate. That is a perfectly understandable reaction for a contemporary composer to have in the face of the mountain of historical repertoire, and Phibbs does find something of his own in this collection, but it is fitfully audible, and threatens to be buried by the very skill of his borrowing. Certainly he does not lack for ambition or musical skill: the quartet has five strongly contrasting movements, and sustains interest for nearly all of its nearly half-hour length. Having waited until he was 40 to write a quartet, Phibbs wrote his second a year later, and the program notes said a third is in the works. The searching intellect on display in this first work encourages one to see what more he has discovered, or will discover. Donnacha Dennehy’s (b. 1970) One Hundred Goodbyes (Cead Slan) was one of two works that added electronics, in this case heavily sampled and arranged recordings of Irish traditional songs and Gaelic speech. The recordings were made in the late 1920s by Wilhelm Doegen and Karl Tempel, funded by the new Irish government to capture what was already recognized as a dying rural way of life. The songs are played in distant, muffled monophonic fragments while the quartet skirls around them. The instruments respond to the voices with everything from overt echos or anticipations to slight changes in texture, rhythm or balance. The inevitable comparison has to be with Steve Reich’s Different Trains, but without Reich’s overt theatricality and with a suppler minimalist technique. This makes for a more modest piece, one which pays gentle tribute to a society now dead. Unfortunately, its modesty is not enough to support its scale; each movement threatens to exhaust interest before its end, and although the peculiar vocal production of the last recorded singer was not to be missed, the piece itself felt overextended. Perhaps some of this might be laid at the foot of the players. The New Fromm Players (Jordan Koransky and Natsuki Kumagai, violin; Mary Ferrillo, viola; Francesca McNeeley, cello) are all TMC alumni brought together under the aegis of the Fromm Foundation for the purpose of playing new music. As such, they are each formidable technicians and expressive players with strong personalities (longtime attendees at NEC concerts might even recognize Kumagai and her forthright playing). An expressly temporary ensemble, they must struggle to find a collective voice, and the group personality projected on this occasion was powerful, even intimidating, while a touch aloof. Dennehy’s work may have demanded more heart-on-sleeve that they were able to offer. Donnacha Dennehy’s One Hundred Goodbyes (Céad Slán) (Hilary-Scott photo) I am aware that Sebastian Currier (b. 1959) had something of a sensation with the BSO last year when they played his Divisions, which I did not hear. So I was looking forward to his Deep-Sky Objects, a 10-song cycle for soprano, quartet, and piano, and came away confused and disappointed. Like Dennehey, Currier wrote the work in 2011 and used electronics, but there the similarities end. The electronics here are an intrusive array of samples programmed into a keyboard, many of which call to mind hoary planetarium music and sound effects. This is apparently on purpose: the texts (by Sarah Manguso, in collaboration with the composer) talk of satellites and stars, the sky and the universe. Not only the texts but their one-word titles (“Satellite”, “Star”, “Time”; you get the idea) are set, the titles pronounced by electronic voices distorted and seemingly autotuned. The notes quote the composer as saying these title-bits sound “almost like ringtones”, so I suppose I’m getting the right impression; it just failed. The sounds are tinny and mechanical—nothing ages so fast as new technology—and to ensure their supremacy all the players were miked and mixed, meaning the sound came at the audience from a flat plane with no depth. The mixing in this case was expert—the sound system in Ozawa Hall seems quite oversized and I have sat through other electronic works that were painful. Even so, the voice of soprano Sophia Burgos was hard to assess and robbed of resonance. She certainly navigated the trickier moments with aplomb, grace and accuracy. The music is not strong enough to hold its own against the gimmickry that surrounds it; the texts are romantic and longing and pleasant enough, but the whole things smacks of intellectual laziness, taking on some big concepts about the universe and turning them into scifi high art. Even computer science gets into the game, with the line “Oh tremendous wall of numbers —/Oh 011110010110111101110101”, which is just as awkward to hear sung as you imagine. The notes tell us this spells “You” in binary. I’ll spare Intelligencer readers my software engineering background, but feel free to imagine me holding my forehead in frustration. The Fromm Players, with pianist Jordan Marzan, played gamely and athletically, and to be fair there were moments of cold lyricism that were executed perfectly. But the lingering image is of Max Grafe, credited with “electronics”, sitting at the sample-loaded keyboard, pressing a single key to allow another squib of electronica into the mix. As we approached the conclusion, there was a long moment of sound dissolving into nothingness, given over entirely to the electronics, and so we watched the talented young musicians sit there, motionless, silent, waiting for the piece to end. Brian Schuth graduated from Harvard with a Philosophy degree, so in lieu of a normal career he has been a clarinetist, theater director and software engineer. He currently resides in Boston after spending the last 15 years in Eastport, Maine. The post FCM Opens Mixed Bag of Modernity appeared first on The Boston Musical Intelligencer .
The Brothers Grimm cited the date as 26 June 1284; Robert Browning gave 22 July 1376. Different dates, same event: the occasion when the Pied Piper, cheated of his promised reward for clearing Hamelin of its infestation of rats, led the children of the town away and into a mountainous cavern, never to be seen again. We’ll go with Browning’s anniversary, since it coincides with the post date for this week’s blog. It’s time to mark Ratcatcher’s Day, 2016! Here’s how Browning’s famous poem begins: Hamelin Town’s in Brunswick, By famous Hanover city; The river Weser, deep and wide, Washes its wall on the southern side; A pleasanter spot you never spied; But, when begins my ditty, Almost five hundred years ago, To see the townsfolk suffer so From vermin, was a pity. In 1990, the American composer Robert Jager (b. 1939) set an adaptation of Browning’s poem to music in his The Pied Piper of Hamelin (9.70023 ). Using full orchestra and narrator, the result is an entertaining tone poem in the truest sense, depicting the plague of vermine, the mayor’s treachery and the Pied Piper’s revenge. The appearance of voices late in the work was intended to be performed falsetto by members of the orchestra, but on our recording it’s taken by an actual children’s chorus. Here’s the action surrounding the piper’s blow-up with the mayor and the children’s exodus from the town . Armed with their bags of poison, ratcatchers in 17th-century England apparently specialised in the treatment of venereal disease as well as the extermination of rodents. A strange symbiosis of talents, maybe, but they must have been a jolly fraternity judging by this extract from The Famous Ratcatcher (8.557672 ), a catchy street song of the time : There was a rare ratcatcher, Did about the country wander; The soundest blade of all his trade, Or I should him deeply slander: For still would he cry, a rat tat tat, Tara rat rat ever: To catch a mouse, or to carouse, Such a ratter I saw never Upon a pole he carried Full forty fullsome vermin, Whose cursed lives without any knives To take he did determine For still would he cry, a rat tat tat, Tara rat rat ever: To catch a mouse, or to carouse, Such a ratter I saw never His talk was all of India The voyage and the Navy What mice or rats or wild polecats What stoats of weasels have ye For still would he cry, a rat tat tat, Tara rat rat ever: To catch a mouse, or to carouse, Such a ratter I saw never Rat Riddles is the first of Three Songs (8.559197 ) written in 1930 and 1932 by the American composer Ruth Crawford Seeger (1901–1953) and scored for two groups of performers: the first comprises voice, oboe, percussion and piano; the second, which is instructed to sit as far away from the first as possible, is made up of thirteen other instrumentalists and takes the role of an ostinato. The words, by Carl Sandburg, are obscurely intriguing. They are riddles, after all… Here’s the opening . There was a gray rat looked at me with green eyes out of a rathole. “Hello, rat,” I said “Is there any chance for me to get on to the language of the rats?” And the green eyes blinked at me, blinked from a gray rat’s rathole. Benjamin Britten (1913–1976) wrote Our Hunting Fathers (8.557206 ) in 1936; it’s a 5-movement symphonic cycle for high voice and orchestra. Britten was 22 years old when he completed the work and confidently expressed in a diary entry that it was “my op. 1 alright”. His optimism about the work, however, didn’t gain traction with the general public and it has languished as one of the most neglected of his major works. On the surface, the piece is concerned with man’s relationship with animals, but the foment in Europe at the time of its composition might suggest a sub-text of man’s relationship with man. The second movement is titled Rats Away! The orchestration portrays the creatures’ frantic scurrying while the soprano exorcist utters her commands amid vocal pyrotechnics, as can be heard in the movement’s opening section . I command all the rats that are hereabout That none dwell in this place, within or without: Through the virtue of Jesus that Mary bore, Whom all creatures must ever adore; And through the virtue of Mark, Matthew, Luke and John, All four Archangels that are as one; Through the virtue of Saint Gertrude, that maid clean, God grant in grace That no rats dwell in the place That these names were uttered in… We end with an example of where rats traditionally keep company with others. Other animals, that is. In the Chinese zodiac. That particular astrological system relates each year to an animal following a twelve-year cycle, not a specific portion of the calendar year. I was born in 1951, a Year of the Rabbit, for example; but my December birth date labels me a Sagittarian in the western zodiac. The advantage is that you can choose to believe the astrological forecast that augurs better for you! The twelve animals are grouped into trines—sets of three—unified by similar traits. The trine of the Rat, Dragon and Monkey, is described as extroverted, dynamic, and passionate. The Taiwanese composer Chiayu captured this essence in her 12 Signs for solo viola (8.559713 ) through fast tempos, energy and power. Here’s the first movement: Rat .
“The truth is, it’s over. The confident forward march in British music that handed us a lineage of great composers – Britten, Tippett, Maxwell Davies, Birtwistle – has shattered. Given that all the obvious “isms” have been exhausted, composers now face an existential crisis over where music might head next; and, anyway, our culture has decided to privilege ephemeral celebrity over anyone who cares enough about the future to utter anything difficult or challenging. And clued-up composers realise that.”
Pet Shop Boys. By Pelle Crépin © Pet Shop Boys Partnership, 2016 Red velvet, stucco cherubs and a whole lot of gilt: the main stage of the Royal Opera House has offered a glamorous home to opera and ballet since 1856. But why stop there? Over the years the ROH has moonlighted as a venue for pantomimes , ice-skating and glitzy award ceremonies – and most recently as a destination for leading pop artists. Pet Shop Boys take over the main stage for four shows this summer , becoming the latest in a starry roll-call of ROH performers. The ROH’s relatively short history of playing host to pop started in December 2001, with Björk . The gig was part of her world tour for the album Vespertine, and included new songs with previous hits. Included in Björk’s ensemble were electronic duo Matmos, an Icelandic choir, an onstage harpist and a full orchestra in the pit. Responses to this new venture were mixed: The Guardian saw cynical manoeuvres on both sides, the ROH in ‘search for a younger clientele’ and the pop world stuck in an ‘ongoing obsession with conservatism’. But there’s no denying the power of Björk’s performance. There was a lot less controversy around Elton John ’s ROH show the following year, a gala performance to raise funds for, and awareness of, his new scholarship fund for his alma mater the Royal Academy of Music . He and his band joined with a large orchestra and choir drawn from current RAM students, in a set of 11 songs arranged on massive scale. The show was broadcast by the BBC, presenting to a wide audience the argument that the worlds of pop and classical are in some ways closely linked. In 2004, Motörhead became the first band to venture beyond the main auditorium, in characteristically eardrum-busting performance in the Floral Hall – a lofty, light-filled structure usually home to the ROH champagne bar. Two years later, Snow Patrol followed (somewhat more sedately) in their footsteps with a ‘secret gig’ held as part of their Eyes Open world tour. The idea was to offer a free, spontaneous gig at an unusual venue: enter the Floral Hall once more. The set included three new songs, including Chasing Cars, and was later broadcast on Channel 4. Later that year choreographer Wayne McGregor pushing the envelope further, creating the ballet Chroma to an arrangement of White Stripes songs by Divine Comedy keyboardist Joby Talbot (now a veteran ballet composer). The ballet’s uproarious acclaim paved the way for McGregor’s appointment as The Royal Ballet’s Resident Choreographer. In 2012 McGregor made pop even more central to his work in Carbon Life , a collaboration with Mark Ronson and Andrew Wyatt of Miike Snow that saw performers including Boy George and Alison Mosshart of The Kills join Royal Ballet dancers on stage. In recent years the ROH’s previously quiet summer period has become its regular pop slot. Sting swooped by in 2007, not to sing but to act in a show celebrating Robert and Clara Schumann. In 2008 Damon Albarn of Blur brought his stage extravaganza Monkey: Journey to the West, based on a Tang Dynasty manuscript. Rufus Wainwright was joined by father Loudon and sisters Martha and Lucy for a five-night residency in 2011 that included both his Judy Garland tribute and his opera Prima Donna. In 2013 Antony and the Johnsons presented Swanlights , originally commissioned by the New York Museum of Modern Art and accompanied here by the Britten Sinfonia . So it’s never going to be your usual gig – but then it is the Royal Opera House. Antony and the Johnsons: Swanlights © Clive Osbourne Pet Shop Boys: Inner Sanctum runs 20–23 July 2016. Tickets are sold out. Chroma/New Wayne McGregor/Carbon Life runs 10–19 November 2016. Tickets are currently available.
The Elms ballroom (Gavin Ashworth photo) The grand ballroom of the Elms mansion in Newport resounded on Tuesday with a quadruple affinity of player, composer, instrument; the positively room bloomed when the Vienna Piano Trio opened a delightful 11 a.m. concert for the Newport Music Festival. The Enlightenment execution of Haydn’s Piano Trio in E Major H.15 No. 28 somehow achieved an inevitable congruence with the environs, as the VPT’s evocation of the classical style awakened the Gilded Age paintings and reliefs of nymphs and shepherds; Stefan Mendl coaxed an apposite woody affect from the 9-ft Yamaha. On the 50th anniversary of his hatchment, the pianist found yet another way to share wisdom accumulated over his long career. Through Mendl’s prestidigitation, one could easily imagine the tones of the English piano by Clementi which the master purchased during a London sojourn; such instruments were warmer and more powerful than the bright but delicate ones of his Viennese home. The violin playing of the ensemble’s latest addition David McCarroll immediately rose to our notice in this trio since Haydn assigns the cello a mostly supportive role. Though he remained alert to when the composer pointed his spotlight elsewhere, the violinist’s bright tone often dominated, especially against the rather dry piano. That McCarroll was capable also of darkly luscious colors only became apparent in the subsequent Brahms. Throughout the morning event, VPT produced, through experience and perfection of technique, dialectics which admitted us directly into the mind of each composer. It was especially interesting to hear their alertness to the Zeitgeists of their two very different Landesmänner. To Brahms’s Piano Trio No. 3 in C Minor (1886), the threesome brought a soundworld dense yet permeable. Passionately grappling with the later master’s grand emotions with generous portamenti and wider vibrato, the players surged with waves of yearning and consolation. If there is such a thing as a Viennese style, it paraded past us with corsets unlaced. Mendl’s arsenal included rippling Donau shimmers as well as symphonic ferocity. Yet his intellect kept, as Grillparzer might have said of Beethoven, alles in ordnung. One wonders if he carries any genes for creativity and originality from the namesake geneticist. One could hardly credit Frank Bridge as the major teacher of the more inward Benjamin Britten on the basis of the former’s hyper-romantic Phantasie in C Minor for Piano Trio. Fit more for a stormy night at the Breakers than a genteel morn at the Elms, the one-movement six-section work except for a cleansing fairy dance, revved in emotional waves of balls-out* expressionism surging on the rockbound shore. It provided stirring solo opportunities for cellist Matthias Gredler, whose generous sonic effusions contrasted strangely with a phlegmatic countenance. Stefan Mendl, Matthias Gredler, and David MacCarroll in Elms butler pantry/green room (BMInt Staff photo) Maurice Ravel’s single venture into the piano trio summoned from VPT an elegance and tender clarity that relieved us mightily following the Bridge. After the piano introduced the first theme almost sans expression, McCarroll came in tenderly, soon breaking into a scamper which unfolded with a quicksilver brilliance and delicacy that were entirely his own. The manner in which the players lilted with the F major tune of movement II, Pantoum (Assez vif in both 4/2 and 3/4), served as a luxury gondola conveyance. In the next movement, the first theme gets tossed back and forth with swelling passion before fading to a quiet place. The animated Final perorated to a powerful close. Recalled twice, the Trio encored with the first movement of Brahms’s Opus 8 in its original (1854) form, altogether securing the required moto, brio, and tranquillo elements. The Newport Festival would be wise to bring in more established ensembles. Such levels of interpretative perfection as we heard Tuesday can seldom be attained by the festival’s more typically ad-hoc assemblages. *Refers to the governor on a steam engine Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer. The post Trio Expertise Makes Newport News appeared first on The Boston Musical Intelligencer .
Absolutely no complaints about the performances of the Shanghai Quartet at Maverick Concerts in Woodstock on Sunday will come from this writer. Everything was played splendidly. I do have some reservations about one of the pieces, though. Frank Bridge’s claim to fame seems to be having taught Benjamin Britten. But Bridge’s music definitely deserves our attention without that connection. His relatively early Three (1904, when the composer was 25) finds the composer still completely settled in the romantic idiom from which he later escaped. And it’s not a masterpiece. But although clearly late-romantic music, it doesn’t sound exactly like anyone else and it certainly holds the attention, especially in a lush, passionate performance like the one the Shanghai Quartet gave us. Mendelssohn’s String Quartet No. 6, in F Minor, Op. 80, is not only the last of his string quartets, it’s also the last music he wrote. If I’m correct, it’s the only piece he composed between the sudden death of his sister Fanny, which affected him profoundly, and his own death six months later. We don’t usually think of Mendelssohn as a tragic composer, but there’s no other way to describe this heartfelt and affecting expression of the composer’s grief. If I weren’t inclined to avoid superlatives I’d be tempted to say that it’s Mendelssohn’s greatest work. It’s certainly up there in his stratosphere. I’ve heard other performances of this music that tried to make it sound more “Mendelssohnian” and less heavy, but not this one. The Shanghai Quartet really dug in, even momentarily sacrificing some precision for passion in the coda of the first movement. The ensemble expressed an almost orchestral sound across a huge dynamic range with strong contrasts emphasized throughout. Recognizing how special this performance was, the audience gave it a standing O at intermission. Shanghai String Quartet I don’t dislike Edvard Grieg, not at all. But I do consider this fine and original composer as essentially a miniaturist. Even his popular piano concerto shows some signs of effort in holding together a longish span. (One pianist I know told me he’d never play it again; “I can’t stand that endless progression of eight-bar phrases,” he said.) Grieg’s String Quartet in G Minor, Op. 27, seems to me a deeply flawed work even while it displays the folk-influenced style of the composer at his best. The opening theme of the first movement is, frankly, dumb, and shows the excessive repetition which obtains throughout. If you’ve never heard this quartet before you’d likely still recognize its composer from the numerous familiar phrases scattered throughout. The themes seem to me poured into pre-existing forms into which they don’t fit comfortably; the Intermezzo is particularly padded with repetitions and the Finale seems cobbled together from diverse elements. Don’t tell any of this to the Shanghai Quartet, though. They advocated fervently and “sold” it to the audience, which responded with great enthusiasm. Forgive me if I have to stand aside but I admired the performance much more than the music. Leslie Gerber, who lives in Woodstock, New York, has been reviewing professionally since 1966, for such venues as Performance Today, Fanfare, and Amazon.com. He also publishes the Parnassus Records label. The post Great Performances Redeem Lesser Works appeared first on The Boston Musical Intelligencer .
Benjamin Britten (22 November 1913 - 4 December 1976) was an English composer, conductor, and pianist. Showing prodigious talent from an early age he composed his Quatre Chansons françaises for soprano and orchestra at the age of fourteen he first came to public attention with the a cappella choral work A Boy Was Born. With the premiere of his opera Peter Grimes in 1945 Britten leapt to international fame, and for the next fifteen years he devoted much of his compositional attention to writing operas, several of which now appear regularly on international stages. Britten's interests as a composer were wide-ranging; he produced important music in such varied genres as orchestral, choral, solo vocal (much of it written for the tenor Peter Pears), chamber and instrumental, as well as film music. Britten also took a great interest in writing music for children and amateur performers, and was considered a fine pianist and conductor.
Great composers of classical music