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

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