Concert reviews

Autoduplicity at WasteLAnd

Rachel Beetz and Jennifer Bewerse, also known as Autoduplicity, curated the wasteLAnd concert at Art Share L.A. on Friday, December 1, 2017. The duo presented six pieces by women composers, ranging from an electronic work by Pauline Oliveros to a premiere by Celeste Oram.

Bye Bye Butterfly by Pauline Oliveros was first. The lights faded to total darkness and the high whine of an electronic oscillator came from speakers hanging from the ceiling. The sound was reminiscent of an old heterodyne radio tuning in a far-away station. The pitches varied a bit, creating a somewhat alien feel. The oscillator was soon joined by a chorus of faint voices, and this served to add a human element to the mix of sounds. The piece proceeded with the voices overlapping the electronic tones so that it was hard to tell where one left off and the other began. The context shifted back and forth between alien and human, while the sounds themselves mixed together, blurring the distinction. Bye Bye Butterfly is classic Oliveros, inviting the listener to experience familiar emotions through unexpected combinations of sounds.

DiGiT #2, by Mayke Nas followed. Ms. Beetz and Ms. Bewerse both seated themselves at a piano and the piece began in dramatic fashion with a great forearm crash to the keyboard. The massive sound rang into the hall, slowly dissipating into silence. After a few seconds, a second powerful crash hit in a somewhat higher register. This continued, alternating between the ominously low and the anxiously high portions of the keyboard. The length of the intervening silences decreased as the crashes shortened, and this built up a definite feeling of tension. At about the midway point, the two performers began clapping hands just before they struck the keyboard. This happened briefly at first, but as the piece progressed the clapping sequences became longer and more intricate. By the finish, the clapping predominated, creating a playful feel that dispelled the previously menacing atmosphere. DiGiT #2 artfully illustrates how even the most sinister musical foreshadowing can be overcome by a simple expression of optimism.

2.5 Nightmares, for Jessie, by Natacha Diels, was next. Ms. Bewerse, with her cello, occupied a low riser in the center of the stage. Ms. Beetz and Dustin Donahue took their places on either side, sitting at tables with a ukulele, a sand paper block and other assorted percussion. The cello began by playing short, scratchy strokes while the wood blocks were drawn across the sandpaper. Silence followed, and a mallet striking a pie tin combined with bowed ukuleles to create a sequence of wonderfully strange sounds. The players also choreographed their movements and vocalized as the piece proceeded. Weaving together found sounds, cello, ukulele and choreography, 2.5 Nightmares, for Jessie nicely expresses that precise blend of the formal and the surreal that populates our dreams.

a…i…u…e…o…, a video piece by Michiko Saiki, followed. The opening scene simply showed a beautiful young woman alone in a room with red chairs lining an interior corner formed by two white walls. The soundtrack started with some vocal sounds which evolved into singing, often with lovely harmonies. The images portrayed a strong sense of loneliness mixed with a search for identity. There was also an element of the surreal to this – at one point the young woman was shown with several sets of arms, and again with something like sprouts of clover growing out of her skin. The technical effort was of a very high order, and none of the effects seemed contrived or forced. The powerful images and appealing vocals of a…i…u…e…o… made a strong impression on the audience.

The thin air between skins, by Annie Hui-Hsin Hsieh, was next. Ms. Beetz and Ms. Bewerse seated themselves back-to-back on the stage. A low trill from the flute began the piece and the cello entered with soft tones, creating an air of quiet mystery. Skittering flute sounds mixed with the cello to create a remote feel, as if hearing a breeze sweeping through a lonely forest. The flute occasionally became more agitated, but The thin air between skins remained consistently understated and sensitively played. A short, overblown blast from the flute ended this peaceful and reserved work.

The premiere of Machut: sanz cuer / Amis, dolens / Dame, par vous (Ballade #17), by Celeste Oram concluded the concert. Autoduplicity, clad completely in black, returned to the stage. The piece began with strong passages from the cello and a stately counterpoint in the alto flute. The feeling was very formal, a bit like early baroque music. The rich tones in the flute and cello made for an elegant combination, especially in the lower registers. Part way through, Ms. Beetz rose from her chair and walked behind a black screen at the rear of the stage. As she did so, an image of her – now dressed in a white top – appeared on the screen. The players traded off, walking back and forth from their music stands, an image of them appearing at the moment they walked behind the screen. At times there were scratchy or breathy sounds heard from the screen, at other times musical sounds, and sometimes silence.

The illusion of seamless, live action was very convincing and all the more remarkable as the images on the screen were prerecorded videos. The music was smoothly continuous and the comings and goings on the stage seemed to connect the players to another dimension. The complex choreography of movement by the players and the split-second timing of the images was remarkable. This flawless premiere of Machut: sanz cuer / Amis, dolens / Dame, par vous is even more impressive given the potential for a technical catastrophe. The skill of Autoduplicity and the ingenuity of the music and video combined for an engaging and entertaining performance.

The next wasteLAnd concert will be on February 10, 2018 at Art ShareLA and will feature new works by Ulrich Krieger and Sarah Belle Reid.

Calder Quartet premieres Cerrone, turns out Can and Will

On Thursday night the Calder Quartet brought life to a formidable program of chamber works–new and old–at Walt Disney Concert Hall. Although the performance might have benefited from some amplified sound reinforcement, the energy and precision of the quartet kept audience eyes and ears focused intensely on the intimate assembly of musicians onstage. A well-designed balance of lively minimalism and lush romanticism set the stage for Schubert’s iconic (and massive) Quartet No. 14, Death and the Maiden. The program, however, offered more than stylistic contrast: The three pieces differed markedly in their approach to using musical time to engage the audience.

The classical language of the Schubert breaks the work into digestible chunks, its musical ideas and developments laid out in clear, periodic sections. Like much music of the 19th century, the challenge to the performer(s) lies in conveying passion without obscuring the clarity of form—a delicate balance deeply embedded into the performance practice of string quartets. The rhetorical value of this style takes advantage of human cognition and memory to build and articulate increasingly larger narratives, but as such its effectiveness becomes increasingly intertwined with the listener’s memory and frame of reference. So it was especially mindful to contrast Schubert’s thoughtful, rational bites with the Schoenberg (which lived fully in the heart) and the Cerrone (which was firmly planted in the body).

For Verklärte Nacht, the quartet enlisted the help of violist Richard Yongjae O’Neill and cellist Nicholas Canellakis to round out the sextet. The ensemble succeeded brilliantly at drawing out the suspended, tortured lines to create a sense of timelessness—one more akin to Wagnerian romanticism than the expressionist modernism many associate with Schoenberg. Indeed, the balance and nature of six strings catered to a sense of atmosphere difficult to achieve with quartet alone, and the piece moved easily from complex contrapuntal textures to detailed, swelling blocks of sound. I say this performance lived in the heart because the musicians patiently explored passing themes without spoiling the frustrated trajectory of the work. As a result, a few moments—most of all the gorgeous final twinklings of the piece—provide reflective cadences both sweet and complicated; cadences that reflect the resignation and messiness of emotion rather than the tidy wrappings of rationality.

In stark contrast to both was the night’s opening performance, the world premiere of Christopher Cerrone’s Can’t and Won’t. Evolving from faint tappings to raucous hockets, the piece married suspense-building devices of minimalism with savvy quartet writing. In particular, repetition and patterns allow Cerrone to redirect his audience’s attention to other aspects of the music; musical time unfolds not only through bold metric modulations, but also though subtle evolutions of harmony. Just as crucial, though, is its invitation to admire the dramatic athleticism of performing this music as the Calder Quartet summoned delicate, alternating harmonics with precision, and attacked furious bowings with vigor. Sonically, this physicality manifested in the wood and bow noise inherent to instruments, adding a rawness to the energetic build that prepares the final “tender” movement: The wild, frenetic energy is suddenly withdrawn to make room for soft, staggered re-entrances of the upper strings, swelling and climbing quietly into the stratosphere.

Programming for string quartet in a large space like Walt Disney Concert Hall requires consideration of the inevitable compromises to both the intimacy and the intensity of the performance. Even cornerstone works like the Schubert rely on their framing to succeed, and so opening the night with the charged and pulsing Can’t and Won’t was a smart exposition of the excitement possible in Calder Quartet’s tight virtuosic playing. Further, the added resources and musical breadth of Verklärte Nacht offered a subtle but effective dynamic; as a result each piece on the program felt like the centerpiece in its own way. Perhaps it is fitting for a hall that feels simultaneously modern and classic that each work on a program spanning nearly two hundred year felt essential, but it is also an indication of the immense talent and flexibility of the Calder Quartet.

The LA Phil’s Second Noon to Midnight transformed Disney Hall

On November 18th Walt Disney Concert Hall transformed into a showcase of the community, talent and swagger of Los Angeles new music. The second annual Noon to Midnight event was as much an exhibition as a festival: An overlapping schedule of pop-up performances populated the building’s many nestled spaces, encouraging attendees to wander and casually sample the day’s various offerings. The music-making spilled over Gehry’s grand titanium shipwreck onto the sidewalk and plaza, but the main stage served as a central hub for major performances, punctuating the day with moments of communion between curious ears scattering outwards toward the bustling amphitheater, beer garden, and cozy nooks and crannies of the hall.

In truth, this collar-loosening was the first successful performance of the day. Among younger audiences, the glitzy, glass-enclosed posters of Dudamel might seem out of touch with the Phil’s superimposed tagline “our city, our sound” as his immaculate white bow tie and baton are a far cry from the flimsy band posters that litter telephone poles around Echo Park. But something about licking food truck drippings off of your fingers while listening to electric guitars compete with traffic noise really tempers the imposing austerity of the concert hall. And so, from the very onset, Noon to Midnight transformed the space from a venue for witnessing art into a home-base for engaging with it.

And engaging it was. Yuval Sharon and Annie Gosfield’s new performance piece, War of the Worlds was a fitting centerpiece for the event, occupying both the hall and remote sites in a sprawling, tech-savvy production that cleverly balanced national and local relevance (see Nick Norton’s review here). Wild Up performed two separate sets. The first was a showcase of the collaborative works born of the LA Phil’s National Composers Intensive, featuring new pieces by six young composers. As one might expect, the music reflected an excited exploration of the ensemble’s open-mindedness, navigated by some promising compositional voices. The second set utilized the ensemble’s larger forces to premiere several new works that best demonstrated the ensemble’s agile, performative charm—sometimes dance-y, sometimes delicate, sometimes asking “how did I end up waist deep in this swamp” and “are trombone multiphonics the only way out.” But whether shimmering or sloshing, Christopher Rountree and wild Up were always committed, always convincing, and always a hell of a lot of fun to watch.

The smaller ensembles offered a more intimate experience, including a noisy, forward-looking set by gnarwhallaby, installation performances by HOCKET and Southland Ensemble, jazzy moments with the LA Signal Lab, and a tight, driving performance by Jacaranda. Outdoor spaces hosted less traditional instrumentations like RAGE THORMBONES and Los Angeles Electric 8. The performance that perhaps best encapsulated Noon to Midnight as a whole was Grisey’s Le Noir de l’Etoile: red fish blue fish, spread among the serene beer garden atop Disney Hall, animated the crisp evening air and city views with a radically virtuosic performance in which audience members strolled between and around the performers to create a consuming, fluid and completely individual experience of the colossal work. Here the performance and experience of the music were inseparably entangled, defined by the audience’s direct engagement with the production. The same could be said of Chris Kallmyer‘s Soft Structures, almost a festival in itself.

In total, the day included more than twenty separate programs, and it would be impossible to speak to each set individually. But parsing the experience into discrete parts would betray the atmosphere the LA Phil took such care to create in the first place; Noon to Midnight is a monument of local music that generates all the electricity and none of the pomp of the traditional concert. The music, performers, spaces, drinks and food all embodied an LA personality that manifested in every detail. Having spent most of my life in Silicon Valley, what strikes me most since moving to Los Angeles is the physicality of the city: people don’t just philosophize about things, they make them. There is a reverence for the man-made and the hand-made: What the east side lacks in blooming nature it replaces with colorful graffiti, what towering buildings of Hollywood obscure from your view they replace with blinding LEDs and enormous marquis. In a field of new music that can all too easily slip into intellectualism, this combining of upstart and established groups alike was a heartening account of the range of artists getting their hands seriously dirty making art. It is clear that music here is being made not only in pristine halls, but also in aged, mixed-use buildings with shoddy plumbing. And so, rather than hanging the the local art on a white wall, standing back and rubbing its beard to pontificate, Noon to Midnight was instead an invitation to come together, wash hands, and admire the buildup of dirt in the sink. A glorious, silver sink in the middle of downtown.

Yuval Sharon demolishes the fourth wall with War of the Worlds

Hila Plitmann at Walt Disney Concert Hall. Photo by Craig T. Mathew/Mathew Imaging

Hila Plitmann at Walt Disney Concert Hall. Photo by Craig T. Mathew/Mathew Imaging
Photo by Craig T. Mathew/Mathew Imaging

When the LA Phil and The Industry announced that they would be partnering to present a new spin on Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds involving the disused air raid sirens left all over Los Angeles since the cold war, my immediate reaction was, “well of course they are.” The original Welles radio dramatization was broadcast as a news report interrupting a concert; with Yuval’s penchant for staging stories with multiple perspectives interacting and occurring at multiple locations simultaneously, directing a drama that was literally intended to be broadcast back and forth between different locations makes almost too much sense. I imagined perhaps even not telling the audience inside of Disney Hall that the concert they were attending would be interrupted by an alien invasion, instead billing it solely as the premiere of Annie Gosfield’s new orchestral suite inspired by Holst’s The Planets.

While that particular fantasy didn’t quite happen, War of the Worlds did manage to blast through my rather high expectations. It is in many ways the most fully realized version of Yuval’s unique brand of opera theatre, a project perhaps more deeply connected to Los Angeles than even Hopscotch. Rather than take the essential Wells/Welles story/broadcast and stage it, the new libretto (by Sharon himself) engages with contemporary LA life, politics, and a lot of sci fi fandom. Its layers of metacommentary on cultural life in 2017 are a joy to unpeel.

Let’s begin with the premise. Audiences were seated both inside the concert hall and at three “siren sites” around LA. The opera began with Sigourney Weaver as a guest celebrity host for an LA Phil concert, which was broadcast to the three sites. For the first performance I was at site one, where a pair of scientists were listening to the broadcast on the radio while doing some experiments, and for the second I was in the hall. Before we go any farther, let’s think about the setup. The Industry’s other productions, as ambitious and wild and creative and postmodern as they are, often run into a fourth wall problem. In Hopscotch, for instance, yes, you were in a car with the singers and actors, but it still felt as if they were performing for a large audience, or for a camera, as if it didn’t matter that you were there.

That’s not exactly a knock on Hopscotch or its performers, but it was definitely odd to be sitting two feet from someone singing their heart out but not actually interacting with you. The fourth wall is a tricky thing, though – break it too obviously and it can completely ruin the narrative, like the remote scene in Michael Haneke’s Funny Games. Such breaks have to serve the story rather than spice it up. In the cases of Hopscotch, Invisible Cities, and Crescent City, I think Yuval was right in his avoidance of dealing with the fourth wall in the drama, much as the staging might make it seem like the obvious device to manipulate.

That the actual plot of War of the Worlds included a concert broadcast being interrupted, however, finally gave Yuval the legitimate justification to start playing with that fourth wall. It’s normal to have a bunch of celebrities show up and hang out at LA Phil concerts — hell, it’s almost a marketing device — so having Sigourney Weaver show up and participate brought the opera’s narrative into our normal experience as LA Phil concertgoers. It seemed to say “this is actually happening to you,” rather than “watch and listen to this thing we are performing,” and it was convincing.

The choice to cast Weaver as the all-knowing person in a science fiction situation itself is a trope we’re also familiar with. It’s almost a requirement for a self-aware sci fi film these days to give her a cameo or have her show up at the end to explain to the characters what is actually happening. This casting decision further brings War of the Worlds into our world, and isn’t lost on Yuval’s libretto, with the scientists (read: lovable nerds) at site one geeking out over getting to talk to Ellen Ripley. Sitting at site one and listening to an LA Phil broadcast is what both the audience and the scientists are doing, so it makes perfect sense that they would interact. And interact we did, with Professor Pierson and his assistant (perfectly portrayed by actors Hugo Armstrong and Clayton Farris, respectively) bantering with the audience before the concert, and Professor Pierson developing a celebrity crush on Weaver.

When the music and story get rolling, though, the metanarrative helps the opera to get real, and real important. Jorge Luis Borges once pondered,

Why does it disturb us that…the thousand and one nights be [included] in the book of the Thousand and One Nights? Why does it disturb us that Don Quixote be a reader of the Quixote and Hamlet a spectator of Hamlet? I believe I have found the reason: these inversions suggest that if the characters of a fictional work can be readers or spectators, we, its readers or spectators, can be fictitious.

I believe that with War of the Worlds, the inverse is true. As the sirens around Los Angeles wake up from their machine slumber to coordinate the martian attack, mayor Eric Garcetti himself walks onstage to tell the audience that – paraphrasing – “these things have been hiding in plain sight for 70 years, and that we’ll fight them to defend our way of life in Los Angeles.” In case it wasn’t clear that this is an opera about America and LA in 2017, when the Mexican shop owner portrayed by hometown opera hero Suzana Guzmán gets asked about the aliens, she immediately launches into a panicked defense of her legal immigrant status. It’s not that we, the audience, can be fictitious, but that the fiction can be fact.

Suzanna Guzmán as the shop owner Mrs. Martinez in <em>War of the Worlds</em>

Suzanna Guzmán as the shop owner Mrs. Martinez in War of the Worlds

Sometimes with Industry productions it can feel like the music, while important, takes a backseat to the setting. While the narrative structure and libretto are integral to War of the Worlds, in this case it is clearer than ever that they are in support of Annie Gosfield’s score and the performers. Yuval has said that gathering a community for artistic purposes can be a form of sociopolitical action, and the mere premise of this opera is that we’re getting together to listen to a piece of music. That literally happens here, as being at a concert, with a tongue-in-cheek name check to Frank Gehry’s silver building, ends up saving the listeners from the invasion.

Christopher Rountree’s muscular but agile conducting style was a perfect match for Gosfield’s synth-laden orchestral score with occasional dips into popular idioms. Furthering our theme of music-as-community here, one got the feeling that not only did most of the people in the hall actually know Rountree from around town, but that he was having a blast being exactly who he is, even getting to act a little with the sound guy, “Dave,” in a nod to 2001: A Space Odyssey. At least one other critic wrote that he was hoping for an orchestral suite of movements from the opera; I’ll second that request. And coloratura soprano Hila Plitmann’s portrayal of La Sirena, or the wordless, musique concrète instrumentale of the alarm sirens – broadcast through the actual alarm sirens – was utterly stunning.

Making art together in a diverse community is our hometown’s calling card. The Industry’s past productions have done that splendidly for their audience. With War of the Worlds, the LA Phil and The Industry do it with their audience. To live in LA is to be a part of this story and project.By embracing that, War of the Worlds becomes not only engrossing and entertaining as hell, but a vital piece of opera theatre.

Disclosure: the author of this review is friends with some of the subjects, and sometimes works for The Industry. Rather than pretending this is some piece of unbiased writing in the name of journalistic integrity, I think being actively involved allows for deeper insights while writing. Make of that what you will.

Toward Meaning: Werder and Frey with the Southland Ensemble

Last Sunday evening, a 20-odd crew quietly gathered at Automata in Chinatown for Southland Ensemble’s first concert of the season, a presentation of works by Manfred Werder and Jürg Frey. What works about Southland is their commitment to making space for a delicate strain of experimental music that requires care to present well. As the audience settled into their folding chairs and the lights dimmed in the compact gallery, a peculiar hush spread through the room.

The program’s three pieces were judiciously selected explorations of an attenuated sound world – more or less: unison cued harmonies, each lasting between half a breath and a full breath, floating into one another, and into silence. This kind of program is especially exciting because the audience can settle into a certain kind of careful listening, appreciating the nuances between each piece, and between each composer.

When materials are this bare, fluctuation is content. This is music about gesture, and the multiplicities of meaning that the tiniest variations in gesture can encode. The physicality of the music approaches dance, or theater. Maybe some would describe popular or folk dance as the height of physicality. But here, so many more revealing movements of the body are transcribed. Hidden personal rituals, telling missteps.

The first piece by Frey was 60 Pieces of Sound for bassoon, alto saxophone and flute. The 60 musical events begin simply: unison cued dyads with impeccable intonation, sans vibrato, lasting roughly half a breath, expanding into triads or clusters. If that sounds like a performance direction for a structured improvisation, it’s because the production here is so transparent that just being an audience member feels like being part of the creative process. All music depends on its audience for completion, but this music especially seems to require the audience as container. It’s nice to be needed.

The harmonies expand and contract, gently leaning and pulling. Silences are not uncomfortable, attention can ebb and flow. Gagaku comes to mind – a heightened atmosphere in which declamations have meaning, can take root.

In this context, harmonic grammar carries real weight. This music is not abstracted from canonic music, it’s stripped. The house is not rendered in multiple perspectives, it’s just the furniture has been taken out. History is still richly in evidence, if one cares to find it, speaking through temperament and timbre, harmonic expectation. Much care is given to pleasure –  silences are perfectly satisfying, not intimidating. Switches to minor harmonies seem more powerful, emotional shifts more salient.  The alto sax tone was especially exquisite and well-controlled for such a bare context. Intonation between all was precise, reverberating just right in the intimate acoustics of Automata. It’s hard to say what kind of spiritual food this is exactly, but it’s certainly toothsome.

stück, by Manfred Werder, brings similar concerns to an ensemble of flute, violin, bassoon, viola, cello, and alto sax. In uniformly blue lighting, Southland’s focused performers were like specters, communicating from another plane. Again, limited materials are at play here – half to full-breath length drones. The difference here is that the larger ensemble creates a new meaning. No longer are we exploring the intimate thoughts of a single person; this music is inherently social. There’s a ‘we.’ Register-wise, the pitches explored are much higher and lower, and although the basic form is similar to 60 Pieces, this feels like a completely different personality. More emphasis on intellect, a little less generosity, a little sharper, not inherently more dissonant, but voiced more harshly. There is less pleasure. The contrasts between high, piercing tones and sul pont whispers are especially interesting – the strings are functioning as a section here, and the play on tradition is satisfying. Haunting, piercing intonation. As the piece develops, the contrasts feel more dialectic. Here we don’t have a described nar­rative, we are grappling with opposites, in real time. The overall feeling is so solid. The heritage of experimental music has produced a vocabulary not comprised of idiomatic phrases, bu­t a way of approaching temporality, the perception of time.

All this music deals with meaning – intensifying or distilling it. It’s not typical to describe experimentalism as concerned with psychological meaning. In fact, performance instructions on the Werder are “für sich, klar und sachlich. einfach.” (to itself, clear and objective. simple.) But what is objectively being described? It seems: experience.

And for an even richer kind of experience, the star of the show was Frey’s String Quartet No.3.  Although again we were presented with simple successions of harmonies, the tones here were instantly meatier, uniquely-voiced dissonances, all sans vibrato, by the superbly balanced Koan Quartet. The group is aptly named; their commitment feels squarely placed in the mysteries of the work rather than showiness.

The piece is theatrical, self-referential — a character, a monologue, setting the scene in the city, telling us about an experience before we dive into the epic. Then, traditionally, there’s a secondary theme. Rather than just hinting at the idea of a narrative, the whole story is here, impossibly: a character, a conflict, even a love interest, a journey. Schubert comes to mind. Suspended chords bleed into one another, extended tonality unexpectedly tilts into rapturous shimmering textures. The story stops at points at glassy pools of sul pont. The explorations here examine all textural possibilities without being glib. These points of interest are selected, chosen with care, composed! “Themes” return. Perhaps most interestingly, the work grapples with the history of the string quartet itself. There’s a Beethovenian sense of fate. Silences are used here to mark sections and narrative transitions, rather than as expressive means in their own right, as in the first piece. It’s uncanny how the meaning of silence can be shaped so strongly by a composers’ intent. The piece doesn’t play with extremes of register, as in the Werder. Instead, the contrasts are between harmonic progression and unexpected leaps into extended techniques. It’s genuinely surprising when the quartet turns from phrases to textures, and a third of the way through, into a whispering wintry sul pont landscape with solo tones emerging as voices. The piece as a whole is striking in its sincerity and seriousness of purpose.

The project in these pieces is, if not absolutely clear in intent, then perfectly clear in execution. What works about such harmonic play is that, more than melody or rhythm, harmonic grammar is deeply intertwined with cultural conditioning of Western music history. Hopes and expectations formed by acculturation battle reality, mirroring so much of experience.

Frey’s String Quartet No. 3 was extraordinary, and one felt that it should have been appreciated by more than 20-or-so lucky souls. The ending fades with long breath-like tones, receding into the ether. This is Romantic music, but in a way we can really hear, today. There are concerns about identity, hope, belonging, clothed in garments we understand. These composers take their task seriously and that is perhaps the most moving thing of all.

Jack Curtis Dubowsky Ensemble and The Phantom Carriage

It was the night before Halloween, and the stage was set – the anticipation of a ghoulish silent horror film from the 1920s, a vintage theater full of charm, audience members in costume, even the pianist was dressed as the Grim Reaper. It was my first time at the Art Theater in Long Beach, a place I’ve been wanting to visit for some time. (I absolutely loved the venue. Anyone in Long Beach, go there now.)

In fact, it was a night of firsts for me, since it was also my first time seeing a silent film with live music. I was immediately struck by the pacing of the film – I found myself all-too-aware that I’ve become numb to absurdly fast-paced media. As such, it was refreshing to be able to sit back and enjoy the slower action of The Phantom Carriage. The pacing was in no way a reflection of the depth of the film, which seemed to be well ahead of its time. In fact, the unfolding of events allowed for layers of subtlety that a faster-paced film could not have achieved. Special effects abounded (ghosts walking through doors, etc.), flashbacks on flashbacks, plot twists…this film had it all, and a classic tale of morality to boot.

Needless to say, I didn’t just come to see this classic film – I also came to see the reimagined score by the Jack Curtis Dubowsky Ensemble. The composer, Dubowsky, was also the conductor of the ensemble, which was comprised of Charles Sharp on bass clarinet/flute, Henry Webster on viola, Slam Nobles on percussion, Jeff Schwartz on double bass, and R. Scott Dibble on keyboard and electronics. The score was full of musical imagery, from cymbal swells to represent waves, flouncy flute lines as women laughing and bass clarinet riffs for men laughing. There was also a fair amount of mickey-mousing, such as the tick tock of a horse walking, ensemble members talking with hands over their mouths to represent the muffled chatter of the crowd in the picture, to drum hits as literal smacks and falls of the characters onscreen.

The music itself was mostly tonal, with a handful of themes that played through most of the film. These themes sounded traditional, often patriotic, meant to reflect the time period and the innocence of many of the characters on screen. Along with the conventional harmony implied with these melodies, there was an undertone of a more abstract, experimental score that could emerge at any moment, which perhaps was meant to represent an underlying evil. At the times when this part of the score did emerge, it was usually when something supernatural was happening onscreen. My favorite moments were these moments of abstraction – it was here that I felt the underlying character of the film was more present.

Instruments also became representations of character’s actions. For example, as a character onscreen shrugged off the command of someone, a bass clarinet line approached the scene with similar attitude. For the most part, I got the impression that the bass clarinet took on an emotive role, rather than portraying specific action. By contrast, the percussion largely seemed to reflect specific actions on screen, which is helpful when the film itself has no sound embedded within itself. Electronics played a subtle role throughout the score – mainly, they acted as a quiet force in the background, waiting to emerge.

Overall, the whole experience was a lot of fun. (And slightly spooky.)

An Evening of Song Cycles in Glendale

Mezzo-soprano Megan Ihnen and pianist Nadia Shpachenko performed original works by George Gianopoulos, Yuri Ishchenko, and Christian Carey, as well as a solo vocal piece by John Cage, at a new music recital titled The Truth in Simple Things at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Glendale on Saturday. The weekend audience made its way into the cavernous sanctuary of St. Mark’s and settled comfortably into the long wooden pews.

Based on the poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay, Three Songs of Shattering for Mezzo-Soprano and Piano, Op. 18 (2009/2013) by George N. Gianopoulos opened the program. The first movement, No. 1: The First Rose…, began with a haunting piano phrase and a strong vocal entrance by Ms. Ihnen that filled the large sanctuary space. There is a somber feeling in this music, aided by a trace of the blues in the piano accompaniment. Ms. Ihnen’s rich mezzo voice was powerful enough to be heard everywhere in the audience without a microphone or amplification – but the spaciously resonant hall tended to swallow up the words of the text. Even so, the smoothly strong vocal lines, offset by Ms. Shpachenko’s active piano passages, produced a finely balanced combination.

The brighter, jazzy feel of No. 2: Let the Little Birds Sing… included some lovely vocals in a high register that went soaring lightly over the piano line. Expressive and playful, this movement prompted a spontaneous round of applause as it concluded. No. 3: All the Dogwood Blossoms… began with powerfully dramatic chords in the piano and tightly drawn vocal phrasing that dialed up the tension. Forceful singing, blending nicely with an intricate piano accompaniment, went weaving in and out of the texture, adding some drama. A powerful crescendo from both performers filled up the hall and then pulled back slightly, enhancing the strong finish. The audience greeted Three Songs of Shattering with sustained applause.

A second Gianopoulos song cycle, this one based on the poetry of Sara Teasdale, followed.  I. Dawn, the first movement of City Vignettes for Mezzo-Soprano and Guitar (or Piano) Op. 29 (2013), began with a solemn vocal line and a bustling piano accompaniment, similar in character to the first Gianopoulos piece. Strong, declarative lyrics followed, with further flourishes in the piano as if the rising sun were still over the horizon, a power more sensed than felt. A more relaxed II. Dusk featured an overarching vocal melody that soared smoothly upward, filling the big sanctuary space with sound. Ms. Ihnen’s power and range were on full display here and quite effective. III. Rain at Night gave a more cautious and tentative feel, especially in the piano, while nicely shaped vocal phrasings added to a sense of uncertainty. This movement captures the generally mixed feelings Southern Californians  have about rain at night – especially on the freeways. City Vignettes for Mezzo-Soprano and Guitar (or Piano) further validates Gianopoulos’ pragmatic style of assigning technical embellishments to the piano, freeing Ms. Ihnen’s robust voice to rise impressively upwards, filling the space above the audience.

Piano Sonata No. 6 (2005), by Yuri Ishchenko began with a Fantasia.  Its strong opening and quietly mysterious melody made for a gloomy feeling.  A bit of agitation animated the texture, leading up to a series of resounding chords. This pattern of quiet tension followed by increasingly anxious passages continued, especially in the lower registers where deep rumblings added a sense of menace.   A marvelous Ukranian bleakness poured grimly out of the keyboard under Ms. Shpachenko’s steady hands. The dynamics and tempo increased just as the texture thickened, the notes rushing out into the audience like a dark, flowing torrent. A very rapid run upward and a solemnly quiet chord at the finish carried Fantasia to its conclusion.

The second movement, Imperativo, arrived with a bright, almost waltz-like tempo invoking a feeling that is both decisive and purposeful. The active phrasing, while often complex, never felt timid or nervous. The precise and nuanced playing impressed, especially in the quieter stretches, and a hint of Prokofiev lyricism emerged in the melodies. A new line in the lower register rose up in a complex wave, making its way through the middle piano keys and accelerated to an almost fugue-like intricacy. This is engaging music, aided by the expressive passages and a profusion of notes that roared outward at the conclusion. The final movement, Epilogo, proved much more subdued, with tentative notes and a vague feeling of uncertainty. Although brief and fittingly restrained, this movement contrasted perfectly with the preceding fireworks.  As the last notes died away, much cheering and applause arose for this most energetic performance

Aria by John Cage followed, a solo piece for voice. Ms. Ihnen explained that the score is fashioned from graphical notation with symbols, shapes and colors employed to indicate the vocal line. Aria began quietly, with a combination of musical notes and vocalese. Various languages comprised the text, the words mixing with sharp, spiky sounds and smoothly soaring musical notes.  Hand clapping and breathy sounds scattered among the musical tones added to the variety. The dynamics and tempo frequently changed, often without notice, but skillful execution by Ms. Ihnen made for a graceful flow. The constant need to fit the various sound fragments into some sort of context proved challenging, and the sequences came as from a dream. Aria follows the philosophy of other Cage pieces – music is present everything we hear, as part of a continuous spectrum of sound experience.

Kenyon Songs, by Christian Carey followed, three pieces based on the poetry of Jane Kenyon and completed between 2007 and 2009. Song opened with soft chords and a simple melody in the piano. A settled, nostalgic feeling came through and the quiet lyrics spoke of the familiar and the mundane: “An oriole sings from the hedge, and in the hotel kitchen the chef sweetens cream for the pastries…” Subdued and straightforward phrasing in the vocals sustained a pleasant wistfulness.  A bit of tension crept in as the lyrics turned to some threatening weather: “Far off lightening and thunder agree to join us for a few days down in the valley…” The vocals became stronger, but never evoked even a hint of menace in this charmingly peaceful portrait. Next was Otherwise, and the smoothly graceful opening extended the sense of serenity. Homespun lyrics persisted: “I ate cereal, sweet milk, flawless peach, it might have been otherwise” – that last phrase introducing just the slightest uncertainty, echoed in the piano line. More singing of benign, everyday activities followed, each phrase ending with “…it might have been otherwise.” The final line: “But one day I know it will be otherwise.” forcefully drove home the point of the poem. The carefully modulated vocals and accompaniment perfectly matched the intentions in the text. As Otherwise concluded the feeling turned poignant, reflecting the sense of impending loss.

Let Evening Come completed Carey’s song cycle. This brought a warmer feeling combined with a sense of completion – a welcome to the end of the day. The declarative phrasing in the voice added a bit of purpose, echoed from the text “To the bottle in the ditch, to the scoop in the oats. to the air in the lung – let evening come.” Kenyon Songs celebrates those small, prosaic parts of life that so often bring great contentment; the music and the nuanced performances capturing this exactly.

The final piece on the program was Three Songs for [Mezzo] Soprano & Piano, Op. 7 (2007/2010) – another song cycle by Gianopoulos. Based on texts by Dorothy Parker this consisted of three sections: I. Little Words, II. One Perfect Rose and III. Purposely Ungrammatical Love Song. A breezy, Manhattan feel that combines the wit and energy of Ms. Parker’s prose with a  Broadway sensibility permeates all these pieces. The carefully balanced piano and vocal passages occasionally contained some impressive flash from the keyboard. The final section featured a nicely syncopated melody in the vocals joined with a light, swinging feel that animates the accompaniment. Three Songs for [Mezzo] Soprano & Piano perfectly expresses the elegant urban sophistication of New York at its height.

Shannon Knox, Micaela Tobin, Sharon Chohi Kim’s Unseal Unseam is not easily forgotten

Unseal Unseam, the title of an hour-long experimental chamber opera presented on October 6th and 7th  at Highways Performance Space, doesn’t give much away in terms of the rich programmatic soil from which it grew. This palimpsest of a piece by Shannon Knox, Micaela Tobin, and Sharon Chohi Kim developed through multiple iterations of MFA projects which responded to Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle (A kékszakállú herceg vára), which itself is influenced by previous settings of a French literary version of an even older folktale. Unseal Unseam seeks to recast Bartok’s female victim as heroine. Elevating and centering female subjectivity is the project at hand, and this nastiest of fairy tales couldn’t be a riper subject.

Unseal Unseam. Photo by Katie Stenberg.

Unseal Unseam. Photo by Katie Stenberg.

For the uninitiated, the original folktale of Bluebeard boils down to a cautionary tale about the unknowability of abusive husbands and the price of female curiosity. In most versions of the story, a nobleman with an unearthly blue beard selects a new wife from a small village. Whisked to his opulent castle after a shotgun wedding, the new bride is entrusted with a set of keys and a warning that all rooms may be opened save one. Of course the curious wife opens the door to the forbidden room, wherein she finds all Bluebeard’s previous wives dead, dripping blood, in some versions, hanging on hooks. She is subsequently caught by Bluebeard, and either dies similarly, or is saved by some handy brothers ex machina.

The tale can either be read as a literal warning against male violence, or perhaps more subtly as a warning against the horrors revealed in men by unsuspecting women who probe too far, desire too much power, or demand too much from their spouses.

The plot itself is a little thin, so in Bartok’s version, the locked doors number seven, each revealing a new treat: a torture chamber, an armory with terrifying weapons, a treasury with blood-spattered coins, a garden with flowers watered by blood, a pool of tears, an entire kingdom whose clouds are darkened by – you guessed it, blood, and the final chamber entombing Bluebeard’s dead wives. It is unclear how much of this exponentially unbelievable drama is literal and how much is psychological torment, but either way, the terrifying portrait of a serial killer is not soon forgotten.

It is this melange of folk and classical creepiness with which Unseal Unseam wrestles. Before Unseal Unseam is fully started, as the audience chats and catches up, one performer quietly conjures electronic whines with pedals on the floor, nearly inaudible to the meandering crowd, invisible to society. Another performer sits stiffly at a white piano as the lights dim and a scene begins on the concrete floor. Three wives enter in voluminous black skirts, connected by red cords bound over their faces as Judith, in beige, crochets a net with her hands. The group slowly unfurl their cords, their choreographed liberation punctuated by slams of the piano lid, plonks of prepared piano strings, and hocketed, dissonant phrases of “locked… what was locked?” and “Where did this happen? Outside or within?” These snippets of plot hints are as concrete as the libretto’s narrative gets, but the haunting, spare music and visual drama unfolding are so enrapturing that not knowing what’s going on doesn’t much matter. The attention to visual impact, from costumes to props, choreography to lighting, is intoxicatingly stunning, especially given a limited budget.

Unseal Unseam. Photo by Katie Stenberg.

Unseal Unseam. Photo by Katie Stenberg.

Similar scenes unfold in different areas throughout the space, from a domestic scene with broken plates used as percussion, to a particularly arresting scene of the women singing through hands over their mouths – both their own and sculpted plaster male hands which flare into trombone-like bells. The audience moved reverently throughout these transitions, naturally matching the ceremonial pace of all involved.

Each of these scene changes is meant to represent one of the seven rooms from Bartok’s original opera, and in some cases, this is clear, as in the pool of tears represented by three amplified cylinders full of water into which are dipped vibrating chimes, and the final tomb, a spectacle of the women singing “open the doors and you will find us” while smoke is somehow magically kept within the bounds of an invisible cube. But, it seems nearly impossible to determine where each door stops and start, and when we are in each chamber. Bartok’s original is present in the overall sense of suspended terror, but everything feels fractured – the throughline of Judith’s own subjectivity has broken even the physical structure of his castle.

Chohi Kim and Tobin’s music itself is built from a balanced palette of hypnotic, cyclical vocal ostinati, lyrical aria duets, earthy classically-structured cello lines, atmospheric electronic manipulation of acoustic phenomena (bowed and rubbed metal, amplified water, rubbing a steel wool-like substance over a microphone) and aggressive metallic percussion (throwing metal objects into a resonant tin). The music is very clearly workshopped, organically developed to flow between performers. It breathes. When the singers do let their full bel canto powers unfurl a few feet from audience members after such restraint, the effect is either hair-raising or paralyzingly beautiful, or perhaps both.

To do service to Bartok, in the original, Judith is hardly a two-dimensional opera character. Neither larger nor smaller than life, Bartok’s Judith is nervy, exhibiting both love and strength and moving Bluebeard with her agency: “I will dry these dripping walls. With my lips, I will dry them. I will warm the cold stone. With my body, I will warm it… together we will overcome these walls… I will have no doors closed to me.”

But of course, by the end, she pays with her life for these transgressions and assumptions of power. In Bartok’s version, Judith may temporarily exercise the power to open doors, but Bluebeard himself is still the defining palace in which her dramas unfold and ultimately end.

In Unseal Unseam, Bluebeard himself is all but erased. Judith is the setting and the actors, the past and the present. In some ways, she seems even more victimized. She is reacting in relation to Bluebeard’s castle, but his personage seems melted into the furniture, a memory she is trying to expunge. At one point, two Judiths appear and she sings to herself disconnectedly about her body, as if trying to gain power over her own objectification. As composers Micaela Tobin and Chohi Kim explained, “…we wanted to re-focus the story on Bluebeard’s wife Judith, and make it about how she was unlocking–unsealing, the doors to her own story… In our version, Judith eventually unlocks the door that reveals her true self, and finds the empowerment and self-love she needs to walk through the final door out of her psychological purgatory.

Was the project effective? Nearly all the audience members seemed moved afterward, and it’s hard to imagine that the dazzling impact of the visual effects could have been lost on anyone. Judith didn’t seem as completely freed from her bondage as the composers might have hoped, but there are things more authentic than an effectively happy ending. Quietly undergirding the entire project was the testimony of actual domestic violence survivors. Composers Micaela Tobin and Sharon Chohi Kim note, “Shannon, Sharon, and I decided that the design and structure … needed to be informed by the truths of actual survivors of domestic violence… every prop, color, and texture you witnessed in this production came from the anonymous answers to our questions.”  The project may not have completely succeeded in transmuting pain into power, but such a success is almost never achieved. More viscerally present, and perhaps more important, were chilling intimacies of abuse which were recognizable, disturbing at a level we almost never choose to experience, and like Bartok’s, not easily forgotten.

 

Hocket and Friends in Pasadena

On Saturday, September 30, 2017 People Inside Electronics presented HOCKET along with special guests Vicki Ray, Aron Kallay and Derek Tywoniuk at the historic Throop Church in Pasadena. The varied program included a world premiere by Samuel Wells, a minimalist landmark work by Steve Reich from 1970, and an unusual piece for three toy pianos. The auditorium was filled to capacity for the first People Inside Electronics concert of the fall season.

The first part of the concert was given over to the world premiere of The Lacuna (2017), by Samuel Wells. HOCKET – Sarah Gibson and Thomas Kotcheff – were seated at the piano while the composer manned a computer behind the audience. Soft, dreamy electronics filled the stage to open the piece. A strong chord marked the entrance of the piano, followed by a series of sparse notes adding to the solitary, remote feeling coming from the electronics. The four hands of HOCKET soon began producing a great profusion of notes from the piano, accompanied by the sound of lapping water. As the piano went silent for a moment, a more tentative and uncertain feeling prevailed as if we were standing on some distant shore. A series of softly repeating arpeggios then began in the piano – reprocessed by the computer and echoed through the speakers – and this was very effective in creating a quiet, settled feeling. At length the piano became more rapidly active and a sort of conversation ensued with the electronic reprocessing of the acoustic sounds.

At one point a dance-like groove broke out, growing in volume and generating a pleasantly warm feeling, much welcomed after the prior remoteness. The cycle of emotions continued, sometimes animated and with counterpoint, sometimes hopeful and at other times dramatic and anxious. The piano and electronic processing were amazingly well-coordinated, each complimenting the other to generate a wide range of expressive sensations. The electronics became a natural partner to the excellent playing by Hocket, even in the fastest and most intricate stretches. The Lacuna is a cutting edge work that does much to validate the capability of electronic reprocessing when joined in real time with skilled piano playing.

qsqsqsqsqqqqqqqqq (2009) by Tristan Perich followed the intermission and three toy pianos equipped with three-channel 1-bit tones were occupied by Vicki Ray, Kotcheff and Gibson. They opened with an unexpectedly bright and vivid sound, full of rapid passages and precise counterpoint that filled the space with a pleasingly playful energy. The 1-bit electronics augmented the normally modest dynamics of the toy pianos, adding a whimsical arcade game sensibility. There was some minimalist DNA in all of this, but the phrasing was more compact and the harmonic changes more engagingly frequent. Intricate layers of notes poured forth from the players, with sudden stops and grand pauses sprinkled throughout. All of this was skillfully performed, a feat made more remarkable by the cramped postures necessitated by sitting at the small instruments. qsqsqsqsqqqqqqqqq is a surprisingly attractive and inventive piece for unlikely musical forces, delivered with precision and style by HOCKET and Ms. Ray.

Orizzonte (2004) by Missy Mazzoli for solo piano and electronics was next, performed by Gibson. A clear, slowly pulsing tone issued from the speakers to begin, followed by a series of single piano notes that were close in pitch to that of the electronics. Open chords were soon heard in the piano producing a somber feel and as the piece proceeded the phrases by Ms. Gibson turned more complex and darkly dramatic. The playing here was satisfyingly expressive as the texture gradually became more dense and colored by variations in the dynamics. The piano wove intricate passages in and around the electronic tone which remained more or less constant in pitch and timbre. The simple electronics proved to be surprisingly effective as the foundation for the strongly plaintive mood. Orizzonte artfully combines skilled playing with a straightforward electronic accompaniment in a way that augments each to the benefit of the whole.

Musique de Tables (1987) by Thierry De Mey contained three solid tablets equipped with contact mics on a narrow table. Ray, Gibson and Kotcheff were seated so that their hands, fists and fingers could easily contact the surface of the tablet. The auditorium was completely darkened and the players wore LED head lamps so that the motion of their hands was highlighted as they performed. All of the possibilities of hands and fingers on a flat surface were adroitly explored in this piece, often with striking results. There was, of course, drumming with all three players in unison or separately weaving complex passages and this was often reminiscent of a marching band drum line. There was the tapping of fingers and pounding with fists. There was rubbing of palms and scratching on the surface of the tablets as well as hands clapping, all making for an effective contrast with the more dominant percussive sounds. In the darkness it often felt as if we were witnessing some primal ceremony in a remote village. Musique de Tables is a wonderfully imaginative piece made all the more impressive by the simplicity of the materials, the staging and the ingenious lighting.

The final work on the program was Four Organs (1970) by Steve Reich. Vicki Ray and Aron Kallay joined HOCKET at keyboards on a table in the center of the audience. Derek Tywoniuk began the piece with a steady and continuous eighth-note pulse from two maracas. Four Organs is early Reich, and it was one of his first pieces to be performed for a large audience at a concert by the Boston Symphony in 1971. In his book Writings on Music, Reich wrote that Four Organs was “…composed exclusively of the gradual augmentation of individual tones within a single chord. From the beginning to the end there are no changes of pitch or timbre; all changes are rhythmic and simply consist of gradually increasing durations.” The process-driven feel of this piece is immediately apparent from the beginning and it slowly unfolds with an unrelenting rigor. As the pitches lengthened, the chord took on a sort of grandeur as the tones were allowed to ring out. The playing by all was both accurate and disciplined as Four Organs uncoiled along its deliberate course – a nice reminder of the early days of minimalism.

People Inside Electronics continues to explore the many possibilities of acoustic and electronic collaboration in ways that consistently create good music. Their concert will be Sunday, October 15, 2017 at the Throop Church and will feature cellist Ashley Bathgate.

Lyris Quartet, Moira Smiley at Music & Conversations

On Saturday, June 10, 2017 the Jack Rutberg Fine Arts Gallery on fashionable North La Brea Avenue in Los Angeles hosted a Music & Conversations concert featuring the Lyris Quartet and vocalist Moira Smiley. An overflow crowd packed the venue, sampling Casa Torelli fine wines and previewing works of the upcoming “Artists of Mexico” exhibition. Contemporary music by Moira Smiley and Jane Brockman was on the concert program as well as String Quartet No. 15 by Franz Schubert.

Selections from the Mikrokosmos, by Béla Bartók – as arranged by Moira Smiley – began the concert, with Mikrokosmos #148 – 1st Dance in Bulgarian Rhythm up first. This opened with a strong repeating cello line accompanied by clapping. The violin took up the repeating figure and Ms. Smiley entered with an active vocalese that had a bit of an edge to it, much like scat singing. The hard consonants and clipped delivery was reminiscent of an Eastern European language and proved to be very expressive. At times Ms. Smiley’s voice soared eloquently over the tutti strings, weaving in and out of the busy texture. This is a nicely rhythmic piece with a good vocal presence. Mikrokosmos #75 – Summer Has Come followed and for this Ms. Smiley supplied the lyrics in English. This began with slow, sustained tones in the upper strings followed by counterpoint in the cello. The vocal melody entered with “Summer has come” and was smoothly sung as the strings portrayed a pastoral, organic feel matching the sense of the lyrics. A nice contrast to the opening piece.

Mikrokosmos #74 – ‘The Hat’ was next and opened with a series of pizzicato figures in the upper strings that gave this a fast start, matched by lively vocals. Ms. Smiley had a small accordion and this added to the exotic feel. A violin duo – ‘Bagpipes’ – commenced and this filled the performance space with rapid fiddling that sounded more like twice as many players. The insistent vocals added to the energy as a second violin duo – ‘Mamaros’ – emerged without pause. Mikrokosmos #75 proved to be a rousing portrait of what might have been a Saturday night in any rural Hungarian village square.

Silverlake followed, an original work by Moira Smiley adapted from a text by Charles Wesley that, according to her website, describes “ the wakefulness that comes in the early AM – as the mind wrestles with the questions of fate & divinity.” A repeating pizzicato figure in the cello opens Silverlake, with slower tones in the upper strings. Ms. Smiley’s soprano voice entered above with a beautiful legato melody.

Moira Smiley with the Lyris Quartet

Moira Smiley with the Lyris Quartet

This was completely unlike the previous pieces with their vocalese and sharp edges. The singing here was clear and pleasingly fluid, recalling Judy Collins. Towards the finish a bit of anxiety crept in, but the strings took up smooth tutti passages that created some lovely harmonies with the voice. With the strings and voice perfectly complimenting each other, Silverlake is an exquisitely charming work.

Time Cycles, by Jane Brockman was next, a song cycle in three parts for string quartet and voice with lyrics by Lois Becker. Hurricane Housekeeping was first, and this began with a rapidly repeating tutti figure in the strings, soon taken up by the voice, producing a palpable tempus fugit feel. Quick pizzicato passages added to the sense of breathlessness as Ms. Smiley sang “Time is on the wing…” Later, cyclic rhythms in the strings brought briefly to mind certain sections of Different Trains by Steve Reich. “We are swept along…” fittingly, was heard just before the finish. To anyone who has tried to prepare for company, Hurricane Housekeeping is the perfect musical metaphor.

The Mayfly Rag followed, and this was a more playful and somewhat less harried piece. “Carpe Diem” was heard in the vocals at the start and the brisk pizzicato in the strings gave Mayfly Rag a buoyant, yet purposeful feel. The mayfly, of course, has a very short lifespan and you might expect that this would make for a darkly fatalistic outlook. This music, however, is appealingly upbeat and confident, happily trying to cram all the experiences of life into a single joyous moment. The tag line at the ending was also brightly amusing: “A mayfly lives for just a day… Don’t snooze!”

The Turning of the Seasons completed the three-movement cycle and this, of course, took in a much longer view than The Mayfly Rag. The Turning of the Seasons has a more serious and introspective tone, especially for autumn. An echo of Vivaldi could be heard in the winter section with its flurry of sharp  passages. The balance of strings and voice was excellent and the precise playing of the Lyris quartet throughout made for a well-crafted performance. At the finish Ms. Smiley’s expressive voice again soared over the texture, dramatically proclaiming “The cycle does not end…” Time Cycles is an engaging and stimulating look at the way we experience time from three different perspectives. The applause that followed was sincere and enthusiastic.

The balance of the evening was given over to the sprawling String Quartet No. 15 in G Major by Franz Schubert. The Lyris Quartet was on familiar historical footing here, with the phrasing, balance and dynamics all carefully calibrated. The acoustics of the Rutberg Gallery came through once again – even the delicate pianissimo passages were clearly heard in the back row. The 1st movement, Allegro molto moderato, unfolded with all its variety of forcefulness and subtlety intact. The active sections filled the space with sound, as if two string quartets were present. The smooth Andante un poco moto ambled along at just the right tempo, revealing some lovely harmonies and the occasional bit of drama. The lively Scherzo: Allegro vivace was precisely played and the dynamic contrasts all strictly observed. The catchy melody in the recapitulation was particularly well done. The final Allegro assai, although taken at a brisk tempo, was light and nimble and the syncopated sections artfully negotiated. Intense at times, but always under control, the 40+ minutes of non-stop Schubert in the warm gallery was quite a workout for the Lyris Quartet, whose efforts were repaid with a standing ovation.

The success of Music and Conversations concerts comes from just the right mix of an interesting venue, a sociable atmosphere, and good music. Credit for this must go to Jane Brockman and Jack Rutberg who have worked hard to prepare these concert events. The attendance is invariably standing-room only, and the thoughtful programming is always accessible and enlightening, combining exciting new music with familiar classics.