Sunday, September 6, 2009

New Music Festival 2009 at Symphony Space

New Music Festival 2009 at Symphony Space
The Soundmind Review, April 20, 2009

This evening I attended an "inspiring" concert called "Inspiration – What Sparks the Imagination?" Five pieces were played, and each left me with an "impression," from a wide range of passion to despair, and humor to awe.

The concert opened with a very lively piece by Kyle Gann, born in 1955 and both a composer and prolific author of books on music, as well as articles appearing in such publications as the Village Voice. His music is often "microtonal," using up to 37 pitches per octave, although this piece for piano solo, called "Private Dances," is not. Originally written in 6 movements, there were 3 played this evening. Appealingly rhythmic, and with alliterative subtitles "Sexy," "Sad," and "Swingin’," the first one was "tango-like," with a left -hand repetitive rhythm, overlaid with a sultry right-hand melody. It almost made one want to get up and move to the pulsating rhythm. "Sad," according to the composer, has "a clear harmonic rhythm while thoroughly obscuring the meter." The final "Swingin’" was "blues" at its best, with a highly syncopated boogie-woogie melody. The pianist, Justin Kolb, was simply outstanding, and played the piece with the energy and drive it deserved.

Paul Yeon Lee has had commissions from the American Composers Orchestra, the Charles Ives Scholarship from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a doctorate in music composition from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, and compositional studies with Bright Sheng and William Bolcom, whose music concluded the evening. He also has written a piano rendition, with permission from the Poulenc family, of "Babar the Elephant," frequently played by Pascal Roge. Lee’s "Three Images for B-flat Clarinet and Cello," played tonight, contained provocation, pleasure, and pulsation, with three subtitled movements called "Labyrinth," "Love," and "Passion." The fragment of a melody was the subject of a dream Mr. Lee experienced, and although he wasn’t able to remember the entire tune, he grabbed on to a small portion, and enlarged it. Tom Piercy was the clarinetist, and is so fantastic he could probably burn holes in a plastic straw and play it! Maxine Neuman was the cellist, with a fiery sound that made the piece come to life. The interplay of both instruments, and the feelings of vitality they conveyed, was incredible. From the highest overtones a cello plays to the highest clarinet notes, the spirit was strikingly felt, with impressive animation.

"Language Instruction," by Derek Bermel, concluded the first part of the evening. Mr. Bermel has distinguished himself with the Rome Prize, Guggenheim and Fulbright Fellowships, and awards from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Here we have the "humor" part of the program. The school bell rings, and for the first five or so minutes the musicians arrive, one by one, with the first, the cellist (Maxine Neuman), presenting an "apple" to the teacher, clarinetist Meighan Stoops. The violinist, Renee Jolles, then comes in talking on a cell phone, very laidback, and taking time to "set up." The clarinetist is trying to instruct both to "play what I’m playing!" Of course, they can’t yet, and the pianist arrives (Molly Morkoski), quite late. Now we have four musicians who begin to take on a humorous mixture of Victor Borge and the Marx Brothers! After countless hilarious "tries," the fragments finally come together, and the piece begins to have a life of its own. Of course, all things must come to an end; the school bell rings again, the session is over, and they all high-tail it out. Clever and very amusing!

The composer, Mark Grey, described his "inspiration" for "A Rax Dawn," for piano (world premiere), from watching the play of emerging colors of sunlight and sky in a southern part of Austria, a bit south of Vienna, where he has a residence; Rax Alpen is a mountain range southwest of Vienna. Mr. Grey’s music has been performed worldwide, but he is equally famous as the sound designer for Avery Fisher Hall, the Chicago Lyric Opera, and the Metropolitan Opera’s 2008 production of John Adams’s "Doctor Atomic." In "A Rax Dawn," he uses "suggestive" remnants of Mahler, Mozart, Beethoven, Schoenberg, and Strauss (these composers were familiar with this part of Austria, and years ago the area was a main artery en route to Italy) -- in addition to the dynamism of Ravel’s and Debussy’s "Impressionism." This is a major piece of music, filled with awe, energy, and power, easily matching the scenery of southern Austria and that "inspiring" morning. Molly Morkoski played with enough vigor to fill two grand pianos; the piece was written specifically for her. This is expansive music, "cinemascopic" music, mountainous music, and towards the end, a surprising, and tenderly beautiful, lullaby-type melody breaks in -– almost as a relief to what had been already played. The conclusion suggested to me the first hints of a fragrant morning rain just beginning to fall from beneath the mountain clouds.

William Bolcom is world famous, and has enjoyed major success with many commissions and premieres, including a symphony last year conducted by James Levine at Carnegie Hall. This piece concluded the concert: "Trio for Clarinet (Meighan Stoops), Violin (Renee Jolles), and Piano (Molly Morkoski)." Monumental in scope and craftsmanship, and in two binary movements, the opening "Twist of Fate / Mazurka," begins with loud energy and concludes quietly, "march-like" rhythms melting away into a quiet waltz of melancholy. The second "binary" movement, "Apotheosis / Dithyramb," is a personal homage to his teacher, John Verrall. According to the composer, "Here, headlong and frenetic, the music’s forward drive is lightly held back toward midpoint by a recall of the mysterious first section from ‘Twist of Fate." A return to the main tempo and a frenetic "coda" ends the piece. And then an encore! William Bolcom at the piano, and his wife, Joan Morris, singing a Cabaret Song (one of twenty-four he wrote) called "Song of Black Max." It doesn’t get any better than that!

Major music by leading and emerging contemporary composers, and as the subtitle of the program suggested, music that’s impressive and "inspirational."

Written by William A. Verdone

"On Musical Interpretation In Percussion Performance" by Tony Cirone

"On Musical Interpretation In Percussion Performance" by Tony Cirone, January 10, 2009 

It doesn't get better than this...

Tony Cirone's book should be required reading for those students and professionals who are serious in percussion interpretation. After a lifetime of performing with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, Mr. Cirone brings his skills and experiences of percussion playing to the highest level of musicianship and analysis in this book. This is scholarly work, and indispensable in understanding what the composer intended, what correct phrasing and execution should be imployed, and, additionally, discovering the "clues" of notation found in the score.

Mr. Cirone is a true pro with an amazing 36 year career; this insight is vital to those who study and play percussion instruments.

Review of Lei Liang's CD Brush-Stroke on

An Emerging Force to be Reckoned With! - September 4, 2009

By William A. Verdone (NYC)
Lei Liang's music is completely captivating and this listener can only wish for more of his music to be "out there." The 10 compositions on this CD are magnificent, and for me in particular, the one called "Brush-Stroke," is an 11 minute masterpiece! The tonalities he uses, the evocative mixtures of sound and voice, spun in a gossamer web of nuance, then creating an eruption of sound - then "vanishing into the void" is nothing less than brilliant! "Serashi Fragments" is uneasy music, full of darkness, mystery, and drama, and is a "tour de force" in string composition, incorporating Bartok pizzicato's, glissando's, and amazing harmonics. As I mentioned before, Lei Liang is an up and coming dynamo on the Contemporary Music scene, and all of us who enjoy his music, his compositional style and orchestration, and his superb musicianship look forward to more exciting and truly original pieces written for a variety of instrumental combinations. I, for one, will always sing his praises, promote his music, and will make it a point to attend concerts where his music will be featured. Listen to him, and you will be musically rewarded. An emerging force -- indeed!

William A. Verdone

Sunday, August 30, 2009

The Composers/Pianists Concert Series, Merkin Hall

The Composers/Pianists Concert Series, Merkin Hall

April 25, 2009 - NYC

Originally published at The Sound Mind Review

With a wide diversity of styles, these were the composers as performing pianists of their work: Timothy Andres, Aaron Berkowitz, Istvan B’Racz, Douglas Fisk, Trevor Gureckis, Yuan-Chen Li, Andrew Norman, Adam Roberts, Bert Van Herck, and Ryan Vigil.

Because much can by "seen" in some of these pieces, not necessarily "telling a story" (but perhaps "implying" one in the mind’s eye of this listener), there were several pieces, nevertheless, that were written as sheer sound, suggesting no story but perhaps conveying just energy, pulsation, and drive.

There were ten piano compositions played, but I begin with the one that had a "story" – one of compositional imitation using the "style" of the great classical masters, with the "spin" on "modern." The composer, Timothy Andres, after I told him what I heard, said that this work purposefully does that: A "compendium" of styles, is what he told me. The piece is called an odd name: "How Can I Live in Your World," (2007) from a cartoon of penguins in a museum, looking at a painting of naked women. Currently studying at Yale, his music "juxtaposes his classical music background with minimalism," and in May a chamber orchestra work of his for the Los Angeles Philharmonic will be conducted by John Adams. The piece has remnant suggestions of Chopin, Mozart, Debussy, and (for me) Saint-Saens. And it’s an ambitious piece, beginning with a theme and variations, and then going off toward a kaleidoscope of masterful techniques. It is a skillfully interwoven mixture of classical music and dissonant tonality, and concludes with an enormous "bang." I was quite impressed, and even suggested that this should be scored for orchestra! He modestly said that he’d leave that for someone else, and turned and nodded to his friend, and our next composer and his piece, "Make Believe," by Andrew Norman.

As an Artist Diploma candidate at Yale School of Music, he has received many awards, among them the 2006 Rome Prize, 2005 ASCAP Nissim Prize, has held residences at the MacDowell Colony and the Copland House, and is going to study at the American Academy in Berlin this year. His piece opens in the highest range of the piano, agitated, with arpeggios, and left me with an impression of ice patterns on an outside winter’s window. The mood moves to the middle of the piano, with beautiful arpeggios similar to surfacing bubbles from a water tank, weaving in and out of tonalities and dynamics. Within all of this activity, two hints of exotic "Turkish" type melodies are heard. The piece ends as softly as it began, in the upper register of the keyboard.

Douglas Fisk, the third composer in this concert, is currently working towards his DMA at Yale. His music is widely performed, and teaches musicianship in the Yale Department of Music and is the curator of this composers’ series. "Variations for Piano" (2006) emerges from a "series of chords separated by single notes at the extreme registers of the piano." It can be stated, albeit somewhat simply, that each theme is a fragment of a variation, and each variation evolves into a theme – a new musical texture is explored.

The "Untitled" work (2004) by Ryan Vigil was written at a time he was "living without a phone, Internet connection, or television…and may be [somewhat] related to the relative lack of distraction by my living conditions at the time." The piece opens with the lowest keys on the piano, broken chords, and because the sostenuto pedal is never raised, the resulting "blur" becomes like a blanket, covering everything with an undifferentiated sound. The music is played softly throughout. And as it began with the lowest keys, it moves in arpeggios to conclude with the highest keys, finally ending with the highest note on the piano.

The next were two short pieces by Bert Van Herck, "Ikurna" (1998), and "…Just a Note…" (2008). Mr. Van Herck has been studying composition at Harvard since 2005, and as a pianist received a master degree from the Lemmens Institute in Leuven, Belgium. Although the delicate opening sounds reminded me of falling rain, the piece is "built very consistently with one cell of intervals." "Ikurna" was a prizewinning composition, and became "the obligatory piece in the Cantabile Piano Competition of 1998."

His second piece, "…Just a Note…" opens with highly rhythmical pulses climbing to the higher register of the piano, with ornate arpeggios ending the piece there. It was written on a request from the Dutch-Flemish Society in honor of one of the founding members of that group, Michiel Schuijer. The composition was "conceived as an elaboration of one chord, within which a passage appears around the name of the honorary member."

The sixth composer, Aaron Berkowitz, wrote "Tony said he saw birds flying" in 2003, after a friend, whose name was Tony, heard the piece and was strongly moved to say "Aaron, this makes me see birds flying!" The piece grew out of improvisations and images "sought to convey in sound, expansion, contraction, emergence, and dissolution." The opening is "fluttering" trills (obviously how Tony came to the title), and then into bursts of chords, expanded with more and more octaves, and into, further, explosive groups of dissonant chords. It concludes in an interesting way: the fingers are rapidly moving, but they’re not touching the keyboard, and the piece ends in silence.

Trevor Gureckis received his master’s degree at Yale School of Music, and was afforded a unique opportunity to have his music performed at the United Nations, and the Minnesota Orchestra’s Composer’s Institute. He continues to work with Philip Glass on film music at his New York studio. "Unsound Grounds" (2007)", tells a musical narrative: "the piece begins with an extremely soft chorale that slowly unfolds, is interrupted by an opposing idea, only to softly reassert itself." There are Ravel-like impressions, and strong elements of jazz. The same chord is constantly played, growing in volume until it leaps into a frenzy, and dissolves into a flourish of sound to the highest notes on the piano, and "like a distant memory, the chorale returns."

"Shards, Lines, Gongs," (2008) by Adam Roberts was a conflict to write: the pianist was at odds with "my composer self, who wants to consciously choose materials and not necessarily rely on old habits." He completed his undergraduate studies at Eastman School of Music, is pursuing a PhD in composition at Harvard, and spent the 07-08 academic year in Vienna on a Sheldon Fellowship from Harvard University. The piece opens with tonal clusters of minor seconds, then thirds, fourths, and fifths giving a strong impression of dripping water. Descending arpeggios, mixed with tonal droplets, he sees the piece as "a sculptural poem," rather than a piano piece, and concludes with the lowest notes on the piano."

The last piece was the most unusual: "Cats’ Romp," (2007) by Yuan-Chen Li. Not only do we have spoken words (in Mandarin) by the player, but we feature a piano (played by the composer), and the Chinese zheng, a long and ancient zither-type instrument played by Shih-Hua Yeh. The composer received the Druckman Scholarship from Yale, and has gotten her BA and MA from Taipei University of the Arts, and is internationally performed with many prizes and awards. "Judy" Yeh specializes in many Chinese instruments and began lessons at a very early age. She was awarded a master’s degree in ethnomusicology from Sheffield University in England.

Her piece opens with agitated sounds from both instruments, with the zheng being rubbed, hit, and strummed with a harp-like glissando. All the strings are constantly used (tuned to five octaves) and interplays with the piano. At times she taps the side of the zheng and recites words in Mandarin, with the net effect of a cat rubbing against the strings, or using its playful paws to tap the strings, or simply by walking across them. Program notes indicate "repetitions of patterns to allow room for both performers to shape the sonic experience." Frequently, the "familiar sound" of this zither evokes real "Oriental" flavor, but it ends just as unusual as it began. Everything is reduced to softness on the zheng, with the pianist simply closing the piano lid. The "dramatic" needn’t always be over-the top!

So, music is very much alive and well, dear readers, and with what seems to be emerging from these talented young composers is a great challenge and opportunity for us to begin to listen to music written "outside the box" of tonality, form, and conventionality.

And, after all, isn’t that what makes listening to music a real adventurous and personal experience?

Written by William A. Verdone

Thank you, Dan...

Thank you, Dan, for your encouragement and comments.  "Draft title of Post":  Williamsburg, Brooklyn.  And it was something like ths: It was a fine dinner, and laughter, and good food, good beer, and great camaraderie.

Renaming the blog

Bill Verdone asked me to write a guest post for him. I've convinced him that the New Composers Network is too narrow a scope for his blogging endeavors. In fact the more entertaining stories he can tell focus not on music, but on himself. Why do I say that? Frankly, the guy's a little unusual - in a good way. He just told me casually that the other night his posse of brilliant international 20-something friends invited him to join them for an outing in Williamsburg. C'mon, really - how often does that happen. Apparently for Bill, quite a lot.

And about the title of this post? Bill might just rename this blog, and I'm sure he'd appreciate any suggestions from his fans. - Dan