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.
Delivered with an authority and unhesitating know-how that left no room for doubt, Shpachenko’s virtuoso program of new music for piano—both solo and electronically fleshed—revealed how convincingly present-day composers can match the prestidigital feats of Liszt and Chopin. Simultaneously, universal statements on life and art, expressed in a heartfelt lyricism still resounding almost audibly, emerged to elevate the afternoon event into something profound.
Vacating the ostensibly far-flung protectorate of Pasadena in favor of a more central Downtown Arts District, the Sound and Fury season touched down at Art Share LA, a flexible creative environment serving as gallery, workshop, and performance space. The venue’s edgy, industrially rustic atmosphere and attention-arresting exhibition comingled for the ideal new music terroir. Warm, supportive acoustics brought out the best of a dubious Kimball grand, whose surprisingly sweet, singing tone belied its dilapidated exterior.
At a hearty seventy-five minutes in length, Shpachenko’s thoughtfully ordered offering of uniformly winning pieces, centered on a theme of “quotations and homages,” was an homage to the audience—an inviting, overflowing musical cornucopia, impacting listeners all the more directly in its uninterrupted flow:
“Once I begin a program, I prefer to maintain intensity through to the end, rather than leave the stage midway,” commented Shpachenko in post-recital remarks. As if leading by example, the pianist’s sustained energy bolstered listeners into progressively deeper engagement throughout, up to the concluding work which seemed to arrive ahead of schedule.
Commissioned by Shpachenko herself, the program’s opening piece, Vera Ivanova’s 6 Fugitive Memories, set the tone for what was to follow in its variety, aphoristic wit, and evocative imagery. A festschrift of sorts, six clever pastiches perceptively comment on composers with anniversaries in 2016, year of the work’s premiere. Ivanova sensitively alluded to musical identifiers of each composer in concise reinterpretations of quoted material, leaving listeners hungry for more at every turn.
Calling listeners to attention in a torrent of thunderous tone clusters punctuated by intermittent treble range chirps, the opening sketch draws on the uncompromisingly modernist sixth sonata of Galina Ustvolskaya, a relentless procession of raw, barbaric sonority with only the faintest suggestion of anything resembling melody.
Committed classicist Prokofieff served as impetus for the next number, “Fugitive No. 2,” a response to the picturesque Visions Fugitives. A bubbly, effervescent accompaniment supported sweeping, rhapsodic gestures in the foreground for a contrasting emotional foil against the cool preceding and subsequent movements.
Palettes were cleansed in meditation and clarity, as only Feldman, the next movement’s guiding example, can organize into being. Gentle, bell-like note-moments melted to mark the passing of time, like the falling of delicate icicles.
Shortly, aromas of goulash and sun-scorched paprika came to mind in a movement after Hungarian composer Gyögy Kurtág, “Playing Cimbalom.” Shpachenko adroitly manipulated a fine wooden mallet on the piano’s strings, as if playing the Cimbalom—a Hungarian hammered dulcimer for which Kurtág provided the bulk of the repertoire.
The suite concluded in a surreal collision of two tensely co-existing icons of post-Romantic French music—Debussy and Satie, in “Debutie.” The famous opening chords of Satie’s first Gymnopédie are subtly paired with the initial whole-step cascade of Debussy’s prelude Voiles (“Veils” or “Sails,” or both…Debussy wouldn’t say). The two works find a peaceable if strained cohabitation. Satie’s soothing major sevenths meld with Debussy’s bleak, directionless whole-tone environment for a musical synthesis of Ivanova’s conception, a whole as great but different from its parts’ sum.
In Shpachenko’s dedicated hands, 6 Fugitive Memories proved a fully satisfying, complete listener experience in itself, without need of enhancements or additions. Yet the opening electronics of Tom Flaherty’s Rainbow Tangle, next on the program, signaled new sonic dimensions emerging to compliment and enrich the piano.
Setting out with a clear vision for her program, Shpachenko approached composers with a specific request: write a piece inspired by another composer. “I approach composers I know and like, and commission music to fit my programming concept,” the pianist articulated from the post-concert receiving line.
Her concept struck a chord with Flaherty, composer of two works on the program, who “immediately recalled a passage from Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, and relished the excuse to play with some its elements.” The Quartet’s seventh movement, “Tangle of rainbows for the angel who announces the end of time” provided the thematic vocabulary for Flaherty’s 2015 work. Vibratory repeated chords course up and down the piano’s range, expanding upon the gentle undulations in the piano part of Messiaen’s “Tangle.” Brilliant, original electronic elements as striking as the original Quartet’s instrumentation, heightened the ecstatic topic, while a crisp, interlocking hocket texture lent a drive and acerbic bite, galvanizing Messiaen’s otherworldly atmosphere.
Spun of more contemporary inspiration, Daniel Felsenfeld’s Down to You is Up, harkens back to the composer’s own early years, which were filled with the subversive sounds of The Velvet Underground. Felsenfeld’s three-movement work for piano solo draws on source material from the band’s debut album, “Velvet Underground and Nico.” The opening movement is a free adaptation of key melodic fragments and the piano part from “All Tomorrow’s Parties.”
Belting the work’s energetic opening chords with the self-forgetful abandon of a rock star, Shpachenko set a decidedly rebellious mood, rousing listeners to heated attention. A contrastingly introspective mood shortly followed in “So Cold/So Lonely,” movement two of the cycle. Repurposing Velvet Underground’s song “Pale Blue Eyes” as a musical loom, a collage of delicate chords started life as accompaniment to the original song—then the song was removed, leaving the accompaniment self-standing.
The final movement, “Everything Was Alright,” quoted more strictly, this time from “Beginning to See the Light.” Fiery charge returned to the hall as Underground’s darker elements rose up, channeled through a motoric bass ostinato and a blaze of squeezed, descending arpeggios, terminating resolutely.
Least quotational but equally relevant, the program’s next work, Close Ups (Through Tiny Eyes) by Stephen Cohn derives inspiration from Realist painting: “The art of depicting nature as seen by toads…,” notes Cohn. Augmentation and diminution—contrapuntal devices extant from Palestrina to the present—power the work in an interplay of expansion and contraction, ultimately heightening listener perception.
Meditative sonorities alternated with crashing chords and driving scalar figuration in 15ths. A cute, understated tremolo figure between the hands recurred continually, unifying contrasting elements and restoring listener orientation at regular intervals, finally returning in full forte for a decisive last word.
Forging ahead indefatigably, industrious Shpachenko spryly prepped the upcoming number, donning ear bud and microphone headset and issuing a brief sound-check. A conspicuous white screen instantly grew functional as the first slides of an art show materialized. Epitaphs and Youngsters, by Peter Yates, a cycle of melodramas (in the original meaning of the term: spoken word over music), honors four creative figures of intangible relation, connected by their meaning to the composer. Inspired by Shpachenko’s “absorbing presentations of eternal moments,” each movement is cast in a harmonic language reminiscent of the honoree, complimented by Shpachenko’s resonant sprechstimme on pertinent texts, and images by young artists Yates admires, Shpachenko’s own sons. A movement for naturalist John Muir features rugged quartal harmonies, while intricate contrapuntal lines accompany a quote by Glenn Gould, and an overflowing stream of words by juggler W. C. Fields stretches past a Gershwin-inspired musical tapestry, ending the work openly, in a tender moment of wonder.
Shpachenko resumed her seat at the piano—briefly—turning a sharp musical corner to ground listener sensibilities in the terse, steely brilliance of Nick Norton’s Piano Piece for Mr. Carter’s 100th Birthday. The aphoristic work, a reflection on the sinister sparkle of Elliot Carter’s Caténaires, uses all 88 keys exactly once in rapid-fire succession for a jolt of musical adrenaline to the senses.
The homage offering by Missy Mazzoli, Bolts of Loving Thunder, next on the lineup, is especially personal for pianists. Written for Emmuel Ax’s “Brahms then as now” project of 2014, the piece is an homage to Brahms, based closely on the Rhapsody No. 2 in G minor, op. 79, a repertoire staple of student and seasoned pianists alike. Reminiscing on her own “enthused but sloppy” renditions of the piece as a budding pianist, Mazzoli reinterpreted the Brahms Rhapsody by emphasizing its tempestuous effects in dense, thundering chords, dramatic hand-crossings, and lighting-like ascending arpeggios. Shimmering accompanimental tremolos recall the Rhapsody’s mysterious development section, while the key heartbeat rhythm of the Rhapsody’s second theme palpitates the new Bolts into an intense, vibratory finish.
The rhythmic drive quickly resurfaced in Tom Falherty’s Igor to Please—occupying final position in the program (officially). An eagerly awaited world premiere, Igor to Please immediately sets out to show Stravinsky as the great liberator of pulse, where Schönberg might be called liberator of pitch. Highly charged syncopations and sharp interplay of piano and electronics fill out source material from the famous “Augurs of Spring,” the startling moment in The Rite of Spring, where dancers lunge and stamp to throbbing blows of dissonance. Initially polarizing—indeed inciting a riot at its premier—the work is now canonical. Yet the “Augurs” retains its power to revitalize and stimulate, like an invigorating deep-tissue massage.
Scored for piano and electronics, Igor benefits from a rich palette of sonorities, including harpsichord and toy piano, as well as stereo-sonic effects. The work is slated for performance in an alternate, assuredly impressive instrumentation of two pianos and two toy pianos, with six pianists (among them Shpachenko). Hopefully the unique electronic effects will find expression in the acoustic version, for an equally pleasing rendition.
Billed a “bonus/encore” piece, Adam Borecki’s Accidental Mozart, the final musical number of the afternoon, was a good natured, zany parody of Mozart’s piano Sonata in C major, K. 545. In the ilk of Satie’s sardonic Sonatine Beauroctratique or the poignant Dr. Gradus ad Parnassum by Debussy—parodies of equally obligatory teaching repertoire—Borecki’s “set of very serious various,” breathes new life into the ubiquitous, tradition-encrusted classic. Each variation is modeled after a particular alcoholic potable, whether imported beer, boxed wine, rare whisky, or even stronger spirits. Evidently an expert in libations, Borecki conveyed the essence of each beverage with clear musical gestures, punctuated by humorous pop art slides. Audience members emerged a little closer, having shared a round of drinks.
Shpachenkos’s generous program was preceded by music of Sound and Fury founders, Christian Dubeau and Christine Lee. Lee performed her Crystal Glass, a piece about pure sound depicting the breaking of glass through the sparkling pops and crackles of granular synthesis. A haunting melody is accompanied by, and later accompanies, the tasteful electronic effects.
Dubeau presented the first four of his forthcoming set of twelve preludes for piano and electronics. The opus’s promising initial numbers treated of weighty environmental issues in the San Gabriel mountains, where Dubeau grew up. Recorded material and live processes infused depth and additional meaning to the piano writing, complimenting it naturally.
Musical proceedings concluded, a cordial Shpachenko greeted enthused attendees. Stragglers later coalesced into an ad hoc reception at nearby Wurstküche, where gracious Stephen Cohn toasted to the pianist’s success, thanking her for “giving composers a reason to go on writing.” Shpachenko tasted her first sip of beer, pronouncing it smooth. A Chimay ale, the question arose whether it would figure in Adam Borecki’s next piece.
By now, Piano Spheres has wound down their main 2015–2016 season, but that doesn’t mean that there are no opportunities to hear contemporary piano music in the Los Angeles area, or even that the specific artists from their season are nowhere to be heard this summer. Last night (May 20th), for instance, Nadia Shpachenko and Danny Holt gave a joint recital at Boston Court in Pasadena, playing music inspired by specific buildings and places. Some of the pieces were familiar — either from previous Piano Spheres concerts or earlier eras of the piano repertoire — but others were new, including a three world premières.
On the first half, Nadia Shpachenko took the stage to present a fiercely contemporary set of pieces written around and about works of ancient and modern architecture. The program began with the première of Hannah Lash’s Give Me Your Songs, a ruminative, convoluted work inspired by Lash’s time spent working in Aaron Copland’s old house in upstate New York. The layout of the building is, apparently, quite confusing, and Lash often found herself in the kitchen when the living room had been her goal (or vice versa), and the piece is in some ways an attempt to capture that surprising twisting and turning. The musical materials are simple and songlike, but their development is fractured and folded over on itself in endlessly shifting ways. There are moments where things seem to snap into focus — an earnest chorale, the beginnings of an aria, flutterings that bordered on the launch of a toccata — but the ground always shifted underfoot, and nothing ever remained quite what it seemed.
Shpachenko followed this with a reprise of Lewis Spratlan’s Bangladesh, which she premièred on a Piano Spheres concert last year. (Despite being written in 2015, this was the oldest piece of music on the first half.) Instead of the privacy of a personal home, Bangladesh takes its cue from the National Parliament House in Dhaka, Bangladesh, a building complex designed by American architect Louis Kahn. For those less than familiar with this complex, Dana Berman Duff put together a slideshow of sorts featuring scores of pictures of the building and its environs, including a long sequence of archival shots of the building’s construction. The music is lush and atmospheric, interspersing imposing block chords — echoing the hulking weight of Kahn’s structure — with gaudy pentatonic washes describing water and fog. In many ways, the piece feels like an accompaniment to the slideshow, which is a pity, because the slideshow leaves something to be desired. While the photos do a stunning job of capturing the monumentality of the building as well as the interplay of light and shadow within its halls, they are presented with little context, with the result that Bangladesh (the country) comes across as shrouded, exotic, and mysterious. But Bangladesh needn’t be mysterious. It’s the eighth most populous country in the world, with a long and well documented history. Marveling at architecture doesn’t require and shouldn’t come at the expense of othering non–Western locales.
This was followed by Amy Beth Kirsten’s h.o.p.e., a piece that calls for Shpachenko to do triple duty, playing the regular piano with one hand, a toy piano with the other, and intoning cryptic vocal lines above it all. Inspired by The Big Hope Show at the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, this was the sparsest piece on the evening’s program. There are very few moments in the piece when more than one note is played at the same time, and for much of its duration the regular and toy pianos play exactly the same line, tho the inherent inaccuracy of the toy piano’s intonation added a bewitching halo of sound that kept the sparseness from feeling completely unadorned. My only complaint about this piece is that it was far too short — it felt like the patient beginning of something much longer and grander, and the ending felt like an abrupt truncation of a larger, half–glimpsed structure.
Once the toy piano was safely out of the way, it was then time for the première of In Full Sail by Harold Meltzer, inspired by Frank Gehry’s IAC Building in Manhattan. This was another atmospheric piece, and one that was cleverly programmed to hearken back to both the Lash and the Spratlan. In its fluid textures and organic form, it echoed Bangladesh, but instead of using pentatonic sonorities as grist for the mill, Meltzer draws on a more American idiom, drawing in some of the hard–edged angularity that lurks just below the surface of much of Copland’s populism (an angularity that was also very present in the Lash). This piece was also accompanied by images of the building that inspired it, but here they felt very much like an afterthought, and I found it hard to focus on the structure of the music when the same few images kept repeating in a static loop.
Next, and last on the first half, came the première of Jack Van Zandt’s Sí an Bhrú, the only piece on the program named after the building that inspired it. And, also unlike the other pieces, it’s based not on a contemporary dwelling or monument but on a Neolithic monolith constructed some time around 3200BC. Sí an Bhrú (or “Newgrange” as it’s known in English) sits in Ireland’s Boyne Valley, and its original purpose is not entirely clear — it takes the form of a large mound with a single passageway into its center, a passageway that lines up with the rising sun on the winter solstice, leading many to believe it originally had some religious purpose. But given the yawning gap of years between then and now, it’s difficult to say with certainty, and many plausible competing hypotheses remain. Van Zandt’s work embraces this loss and uncertainty, beginning with a meditation on deep time and progressing thru the construction and decoration of the structure into the dark starlit night of deep winter with music that seems achingly familiar without ever being fully placable, just as we recognize that human minds were behind this monolith without being to understand their full purpose. In addition to piano, the piece is scored with electronics, and these too, play a similar game. There are snatches of concrete sounds — a brook burbling or leaves rustling in the wind; chisels on stone or steps down a long corridor — but they mix and blur both with each other and with markedly synthetic static and pop. This was the only piece where the visuals (images of Sí and Bhrú and the surrounding landscape, plus a few nebulae) and music really felt integrated into a unified whole, each adding to and balancing out the other.
Coming into the second half, Danny Holt elected to shift the focus from specific buildings to geographical regions more generally, and from the very present day to the first decades of the 20th Century. Holt is perhaps best known for his virtuosic recitals where he plays the piano and various percussion instruments simultaneously, but here he eschewed such things and showed that he can dazzle just as well without the use of drumkits. Holt opened with Heitor Villa-Lobos’s fifth Choros, “Alma Brasileira” (1925), a work that was jagged and heartfelt by turns. This was followed by Le Cahier Romand (1923), a suite of sentimental piano miniatures penned by Arthur Honegger during his time in Switzerland. The highlight of the second half was Alexander Mosolov’s seldom–heard Turkmenian Nights (1928), a ferocious volley of Russian Futurism that nevertheless made me want to dance. Holt then closed with Leonard Bernstein’s transcription of Aaron Copland’s El Salón México (1936), revealing the transparency and delicacy underlying the orchestral version, and providing a tidy symmetry to the concert as a whole.
Over and above the explicit thread of “Places” that linked these works, I found myself drawn to a deeper tie between the two halves. We’re living in a time of great stylistic plurality, a time when certain older systems of composing have lost the sway they once enjoyed and new ones haven’t quite arisen to take their place. Shpachenko’s half helped show that — there are definitely styles that she didn’t have room to feature, but no two of the works she played take the same approach to melody, harmony, and form. It’s a tumultuous time, but it’s also an exciting time, and Holt’s half hearkened back to another time of similar tumult, as composers sought new means of expression after the psychic shock of World War One. It was a fitting reminder that masterworks do come out of this bubble and strife, and a subtle affirmation that some things being written now may well be touchstones of the repertoire in another ninety years.
About the piece, Spartlan says:
The last episode of My Architect, Nathaniel Kahn’s film tribute to his father, the great architect Louis Kahn, takes place in Dhaka, Bangladesh, and features a brief interview with an elderly local figure, wherein he extols Kahn’s vision in creating the vast complex of buildings that constitute the National Assembly. He argues that Kahn’s work has given transformative hope and a sense of focus and purpose to his nation, otherwise an endless terrain of rice paddies. This piece is about Kahn’s National Assembly Buildings and their unique power.
There’s more about the piece in the video’s description, and on the composer’s website at lewisspratlan.com.
Tomorrow (Tuesday) night, pianist Nadia Shpachenko has her Piano Spheres Satellite Series debut at REDCAT. Tickets are available at redcat.org/event/piano-spheres-nadia-shpachenko. We reviewed Nadia’s last album here a few months back, and are stoked both for this concert and the fact that she had a minute to answer some questions about the program via email. Here’s Nadia.
So tell me about your Satellite Series show.
Tomorrow I will be performing a recital that features music written for me by six very talented composers with whom I worked closely on the interpretation of the works. It is an incredibly personal program that I can’t wait to share with LA audiences! The second half of the program will present the world premieres of two architecture-inspired works commissioned by Piano Spheres. Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Lewis Spratlan’s Bangladesh conveys the transformative hope of Louis Kahn’s National Assembly Buildings in Dhaka. Annie Gosfield, whom the New Yorker called “The Carl Nielsen of Second Avenue,” wrote The Dybbuk on Second Avenue for this recital. Annie’s piece reflects the changing mix of influences in one theater in the Lower East Side’s “Jewish Rialto” over the years: from Yiddish theater to burlesque, from Chekhov to William Burroughs. These are the first two works of a project I am completing, to commission and record works inspired by architectural settings. In 2016 I will premiere four more new works by Amy Beth Kirsten, Hannah Lash, James Matheson, and Harold Meltzer at the Piano Spheres series at Boston Court, all illuminating particular architectural phenomena. The first half of the program will include works written for my albumWoman at the New Piano by Tom Flaherty, James Matheson, Adam Schoenberg, and Peter Yates. I like to humorously call that program Music for a New B’ak’tun, that is music for a newly transformed world, the new 5,125 year cycle according to the Mayan Calendar, which began in 2013 when all those works were written. I will note that the pieces all touch on the themes of transformation, of resonances across time, of cycles of rebirth. Cretic Variations by James Matheson emphasizes lengthy resonances, how momentary events persist, shape new events, and how our memory of the past is revised by events of the now. Whereas Adam Schoenberg’s Picture Etudes take us through a variety of worlds, from placid to energetic, Peter Yates’ Finger Songs take us on a journey through time, playing on our sentiments with flashes and resonances of musics past. Whereas Tom Flaherty’s Airdancing (for which the wonderful Genevieve Feiwen Lee will join me on toy piano) and Adam’s Picture Etudes introduce novel combinations of sound sources, Peter’s Finger Songs feature novel combinations of musical forms and genres. A number of the pieces feature descent into true musical chaos, and emergence into the new – whether momentous, as in the thunder and dawn of Cretic Variations, or thrilling, as in whoops and swirls of Airdancing. I am very excited to perform this program tomorrow!
Here is a sneak peak into the first half repertoire:
Had you selected the In Full Sail piece to begin with, or does the theme really encompass the whole program?
In Full Sail to me means sailing towards my dreams, taking chances and going for it all the way. In Full Sail is also the title of a piece Harold Meltzer is writing for my architecture-inspired program. In Full Sail won’t be premiered until May 2016, but Harold was the first composer I approached for the project and the first one to come up with a title. And thoughIn Full Sail is a critic’s description in particular of the Frank Gehry building to which Harold is responding, the title seems to describe well the theme of the first concert that will feature works from this project (but will also feature works fromWoman at the New Piano), given its wide meaning.
What’s it like being a Satellite Series artist? I’ve heard there’s a bit of mentoring and support from the long-term Piano Spheres mainstays.
I am honored and excited to join Piano Spheres as a Satellite Artist! Vicki Ray has been a wonderful mentor, giving me great advice about programming and career building and I am looking forward to presenting a composition workshop with Vicki this afternoon at Boston Court, together with composers Lewis Spratlan (who just got into town from Massachusetts) and Adam Schoenberg. Vicki’s sparkly personality and infectious energy definitely have a way of rubbing off on me, and all the other Piano Spheres pianists and staff have been very supportive, making my Piano Spheres experience superb!
We’re lucky in LA to have a lot of fantastic pianists. Who else in town inspires you?
I agree, the Los Angeles new music (and older music) scene is thriving! When I go to concerts of new music, I see enthusiastic people of all ages in the audience. There is great appreciation in LA for all things avant-garde, outside the box, with too many wonderful new music ensembles and solo artists to list. Since my twin boys were born 5 years ago, my concert going experience slowed down a bit for a few years, but last year I was able to attend many incredible, inspiring concerts featuring adventurous, innovative music, much of which was actually written by local composers. Since I can’t list everyone who inspires me in town, I would like to focus on the Piano Spheres pianists, who inspire me beyond words. I was fortunate to be able to attend most Piano Spheres concerts last season (and of course the fantastic season opener with Gloria Cheng and Thomas Adès in September). Each of the principal artists, Gloria Cheng, Vicki Ray, Mark Robson and Susan Svrček, presented cohesive, exciting, beautifully-themed programs that featured their exceptional pianism and great imagination in interpreting new works. I was also very impressed by the inaugural Satellite Series last season and still remember vividly Nic Gerpe’s powerful Crumb performance and Aron Kallay’s unforgettable program, which included a piece for speaking pianist and electronics by Vykintas Baltakas, for which Aron recited a text in Lithuanian! I also frequently collaborate with the adventurous pianist Genevieve Feiwen Lee, with whom I recorded two works for my album (Airdancing by Tom Flaherty and Bounce by Adam Schoenberg), and who will be airdancing with me on Tuesdayat REDCAT. I would just like to mention one more pianist who to this day continues to inspire me, my wonderful teacher John Perry, with whom I completed my graduate studies during the late 1990s through mid 2000s. Perry is turning eighty in February and has not slowed down a bit with his teaching and performances, which are moving, powerful and deeply felt. And he just presented a recital at Carnegie Hall to celebrate his 80th birthday!
What’s next after this show?
I have a very exciting season planned, with numerous premieres and exciting collaborations! I will be focusing on two brand new solo programs this season, which I will touring and recording in the near future. One of the programs, which I will start calling The Poetry of Places once it starts presenting only the architecture-inspired works in one recital, will feature six new compositions written for my project mentioned above (two of which I will be premiering). I will be performing these works more than a dozen times this season in California, New York, and Baltimore. For this project I will also be recording Andrew Norman’s Frank’s House for two pianists and two percussionists. Andrew and I were classmates at USC and I am thrilled to collaborate with him on this project! My other program, which I like to call Quotations and Homages will feature new and very recent musical homages by Matthew Elgart, Daniel Felsenfeld, Tom Flaherty, Vera Ivanova, James Matheson, Missy Mazzoli, Nick Norton (you!) and Peter Yates, five of which I will be premiering at Spectrum in New York on December 13. I am also very excited about my upcoming collaborations with Los Angeles Philharmonic’s violinist Vijay Gupta, with whom I will be performing a few local concerts in January, and with Kathleen Supové, with whom I will be performing concerts in three states in December, January and February, including the premiere of Jack Van Zandt’s Regular Division of the Plane for two pianos and a piece selected from ACFLA’s call for scores.
Anything else to add?
For this concert I had the privilege of choosing a beautiful Steinway & Sons concert grand that will be delivered to REDCAT tomorrow! I became a Steinway Artist last February and this was the first time since becoming a Steinway Artist that I had the opportunity to choose an instrument for a specific performance, an instrument that I felt would be a great match for the program on Tuesday. Adam Borecki beautifully filmed the Steinway Selection process, during which I discussed the differences between the instruments and performed short sections from some of the pieces on each piano. You can watch the clip, which was just finished this morning, here:
A new CD by Nadia Shpachenko, Woman at the New Piano – American Music of 2013, has been released containing 75 minutes of piano music by no less than four separate contemporary composers. Tom Flaherty, Peter Yates, Adam Schoenberg and James Matheson have all contributed new works written to celebrate the fact that the world had managed to survive the Mayan Calendar predictions of doom for December 2012. As Nadia states in the CD booklet: “ I feel this program is a remarkable snapshot of compositional activity in the year 2013, a fascinating exposé of how four brilliant people see and experience this newly transformed world, how they express themselves through music, and how their different ideas are brought together by an enthusiastic performer who believes in their legacy.”
Airdancing by Tom Flaherty is first and for this piece Nadia on piano is joined by Genevieve Feiwen Lee on toy piano and electronics. Airdancing opens with deep mysterious chords in the lower registers of the piano with a playfully light melody on the toy piano floating on top. There is a syncopated hand-off between the two that is most engaging given the different timbres. Now some electronic percussion in the form of a deep bass drum adds an ominous feel and then lighter cymbal-like taps are added to produce a distinctly Asian feel. The deep, rumbling bass drum returns and is joined by low notes in the piano giving a palpable sense of menace. The pace accelerates, building drama and tension. The piece concludes with a swirl of keyboard runs and sudden silence. Tom Flaherty states in the liner notes: “As I worked on this piece, images of falling, floating, and flying often came across my computer monitor.” Airdancing is an appealing combination of the traditional piano sounds and electronic percussion. The lightness in the rhythms and timbre of the electronics are nicely contrasted with the lower, more ominous sections in an interesting mix.
Tom Flaherty also contributed Part Suite-a for Solo Piano, consisting of three dance-like movements: Passacaglialude, Lullabande and Scherzoid. In this suite the mood is a bit darker, starting with a mysterious deep note at the opening of Passacaglialude followed by a simple melody that expands into something more complex and is tinged with a feeling of uncertainty and menace. Although softening slightly as it proceeds, a series of rapid and sharp notes reinforce the uneasiness. At the very last, however, this movement comes to an unexpectedly satisfying close on the final chord.
Lullabande continues in the same mood with a quiet, tentative opening that creates a questioning feel. Single deep notes in the bass add counterpoint and a touch of menace. As the lower notes predominate, this movement takes on a sinister cast. A quiet tension builds in an increasingly complex set of passages until a rapid downward scale ends in silence. A more subdued, reflective section follows but the undercurrents of tension persist at the close.
The final movement of Part Suite-a begins with a series of strong chords and rapid passages the introduce a feeling of anxiety. Very fast moving lines and scales seem to crowd in on the listener. A slower section follows but with a feeling of uncertainty as rising arpeggios and a faster tempo lead to a fast downward run and a moment of silence. The pace picks up, like sanity slipping away, and there is a frantic pace to this requiring good technique – at times it seems like four hands are on the keyboard. Ominous chords in the bass increase the tension with a frantic melody above that builds to a rapid downward run and silence at the finish. Part Suite-a for Solo Piano is a technically challenging piece that is precisely realized here.
Composer Peter Yates contributed Finger Songs for Solo Piano, a series of five short pieces and the first of these, Mood Swing, has a very fast opening – almost a trill – but this soon slows to a pleasant bluesy feel. Different moods come and go: upbeat sections mix with slower or more inward looking passages. The sudden ending takes the listener by surprise but magnifies the realization of how many different moods were heard in just under three and a half minutes.
Gambol, at just 46 seconds is shorter still and packs a faster, brighter sound. Mysterious Dawn is much slower and more enigmatic, making a good contrast to the first two sections. Brave Show is full of lively runs and ornaments and the playing here is crisp and precise. All Better concludes with an upbeat and optimistic feel. Altogether, Finger Songs for Solo Piano is like a candy sampler with all sorts moods, tempos and techniques packed into small, bite-sized packages, Ms.Shpachenko extracting the full flavor of each.
Picture Etudes for Solo Piano by Adam Schoenberg is an amazing collection of four short movements, each musically describing the works of a well known artist. Starting with the short Three Pierrots, based on Albert Bloch’s painting, Die Drei Pierrots Nr. 2. Twittering, light and fluttering, this piece requires quick playing. Some lovely chords at the finish bring to mind the brightly colored feathers of the parrots. Miro’s World is next and this is quietly lithe like a cat in the beginning, and then loud with syncopated percussion and a quick melody. In just 1:32 Schoenberg has captured the whimsey of a Miro painting.
Olive Orchard can only be about Van Gogh with a languid, lazy opening – it is a summer day in the south of France. A lovely melody drifts along, now turning a bit darker. There is a feeling of reverence in this and an appealing complexity in the later parts. A very warm and sympathetic portrait of the artist.
Kandinsky, however, is the exact opposite of Olive Orchard, opening with sharp chords and irregular rhythms. A tense, almost sinister feel to this, magnified by strong bass drum beats. A melody appears, fast and abstract, with dissonance that adds to the tension. More rapid fire notes, sharp chords crashing about and the bass drum again. A long descending run finishes this vivid musical description of the expressionist.
Cretic Variations by James Matheson follows and he writes: “Cretic Variations requires quite a lot of the pianist’s hands and brain—sudden shifts of register, simultaneous lines, seamlessly crossing hands, carefully balancing multiple elements… “ This piece opens with a single, sharp high note that becomes a repeating pattern, then speeds up with counterpoint added. Now the patterns move to the middle registers – flowing like running water – with deep bass notes providing a sense of building tension. Chords appear and these come with irregular rhythms and a faster tempo; there is a sense of sustained tension. A melody moves along as an almost familiar-sounding tune , even as this becomes distorted and underscored by unsettling deep chords. There is the sense of motion and fast pace – as if running from something. A series of crashing chords are heard, interwoven with an engaging melody. Finally all is roar and rumble and all the keys become engaged – followed by silence. Deep solemn notes toll out, as fragments of the melody drift by; there is a sad feeling to this. Slow and deliberate notes follow, like watching a setting sun. The final chord provides a welcome sense of acceptance and peace. Cretic Variations is a remarkable journey, full of mood swings and changes of pace, all expertly played.
Adam Schoenberg also contributed Bounce for Two Pianos, which is the final track on the CD. For this Ms. Shpachenko was accompanied by Genevieve Feiwen Lee. Bounce has a slow, deliberate beginning that quickly becomes a bright melody on one one piano with counterpoint in the other. More solemn at 2:45; hymn-like chords are heard in one piano with rapid passages – like water running in a brook – in the second. More dramatic now halfway along, with a definite introspective feel. But this soon breaks out into optimism again, with lively syncopation and increasingly rapid keyboard runs that exhibit an exuberant dissonance. The piece falls back into a more rational, if still bouncy, rhythmic feel and concludes with a conventionally strong ending. Schoenberg writes in the liner notes: “ For Bounce, my main objective was to write the most playful and loving work that I could come up with while imagining having a child.” Bounce for Two Pianos is precisely played by both pianists who compliment each other perfectly while completely meeting the objective of the composer.
Woman at the New Piano is a generous helping of new piano music by four contemporary composers covering a wide range of feelings, moods and techniques. Ms. Shpachenko and Genevieve Feiwen Lee have skillfully combined to produce a memorable recording.
If you’re in LA and haven’t yet heard about WasteLAnd’s program of Ferneyhough, Lutyens, and Griffeath-Loeb at ArtShare this evening, what are you doing?! Starts at 8, is $10, GO.
Tomorrow evening wild Up joins the Pacific Symphony for the next show in the Santa Ana Sites series. Looks like it’s gonna rock, with what is, as far as I know, the first performance of Johnny Greenwood’s Popcorn Superhet Receiver in the LA area, along with music by Andrew Norman and others. The LA Times has a big thing on it here: http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/arts/culture/la-et-cm-critics-pick-a-new-music-cornucopia-20150226-column.html
I just heard about a show at LACMA on Sunday that sounds really cool, and is free. Pianist Nadia Shpachenko emailed me in excitement about the beginning of her collaboration with composer Harold Meltzer, who has written a piece for actor and piano trio to be premiered at LACMA’s Sundays Live this weekend. There’s a second performance two days later out at Cal Poly Pomona. In addition, Piano Spheres has commissioned a piece from Meltzer for Schpachenko’s Satellite Series concert at REDCAT next season. This is looking to be a fruitful collaboration indeed.
Full details for all of these shows are available, as always, on our calendar page.