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.
Synchromy and I are hosting a house party/concert in December. One of the pieces on the program will be Vera Ivanova’s Bachiolage, which I love. Here’s what Vera says about it:
“Bachiolage” was composed in 2014 for and dedicated to Maxim Velichkin. The piece refers to J. S. Bach on several levels: harmonically (it is rather tonal), through the use of Bach’s motif (i.e., the letters of his last name, B-A-C-H, which translate to the notes as B-flat, A, C and B-natural), and through a performance technique, which stylistically belongs to the Baroque era: bariolage. In The Oxford Companion to Music, bariolage (Fr.) defined as “a special effect in string playing, used to produce a contrast in tone-colour. It is achieved by playing the same note alternately on two different strings, one stopped and the other open; the term is also used for a repeated passage played on different strings.”
In my piece “bariolage” is applied to a combination of open strings and harmonics, thus emphasizing even stronger the contrast in tone-colour. The title plays with two words: Bach (the BACH motif) and “bariolage” (technique), merging the two words into one, just like the a fast alteration between open strings and harmonics merge in a contrasting tone-colour texture throughout the composition.
Gabriel Prynn is the cellist in this recording.
Next weekend the second annual HEAR NOW festival kicks off in Venice with two days of concerts featuring some of our little city’s best-known composers and an impressively large lineup of local players. Artistic director Hugh Levick had some time this weekend to fill us in on what’s coming up.
We’re less than a week from the festival. How’s it shaping up?
Frankly, Nick, I think we’re looking at two standing-room-only concerts. There are still tickets left, but they are going fast. With Mark Robson playing Thomas Ades, The Lyris quartet playing Don Davis, Burt Goldstein and Veronika Krausas, Don Crockett’s incredible piano trio Night Scenes performed by Joanne Pearce Martin, Shalini Vijayan & Ira Glansbeek (just to mention a few of the highlights) these are going to be two very hot concerts. 15 composers, 25 musicians – we’re all stoked!
As I understand it, this is only the festival’s second year. Tell me about how things got started.
The concept when it was initially conceived was ‘here now gone tomorrow’. Tim Loo and I had been talking about it for a couple years. Let’s hear what’s here now before it’s gone tomorrow. And we knew there was a lot here. Many composers were writing wonderful music and much of it was rarely being heard.
This brave and adventuresome music is hidden away, and the complex, intriguing, exuberant value that it offers has been more or less excluded from the common space of our culture.
Time is a choreography of ruptures, junctions, bifurcations, explosions, cataclysms, and crises. The fissures in Time break the continuum of History in which we live thus allowing the HERE NOW to be shot through with splinters of messianic hope—or, glimmers of light in the dark, which is what we hope The HEAR NOW Festival will be.
What’s different about the festival this year? Were there any things you’ve changed specifically as a result of the experience of the first year?
Except for Bill Kraft, Gernot Wolfgang and myself, all the composers are different from the ones who presented work last year. Gernot amd Gloria Cheng have joined Bill Kraft and the Lyris Quartet as artistic advisors. Ira Glansbeek, Erica Duke-Fitzpatrick, M.B. Gordy, Heather Clark, Suzan Hanson and Mark Robson did not perform last year. Experience taught us that we didn’t have to print up paper fliers–just postcard size and 12X18 posters, and that it would be better to have the 2 concerts on 2 different days rather than, as last year, one at 2PM and one at 8PM. Thanks to Eric Jacobs we have a website. Rather than a Kawai piano this year we have – thanks to Gloria Cheng – a Steinway. One thing regretfully that has NOT changed is that it looks as if – we are still trying to reverse this – the LA Times will not be reviewing the HEAR NOW Festival.
The lineup of musicians on this is really, really impressive. Have you found local performers eager to join in?
As you say, Nick, the players are simply world-class. Every one of them has enthusiastically embraced HEAR NOW. The festival is creating a community of players and composers who want to make contemporary composition and performance into a significant presence here in Los Angeles. Our city is a center of contemporary classical music – this is a simple reality. More people should know about it and have the opportunity to experience it.
I have to ask, partially because I’m a fan of his, but mainly because I’m curious about the logic here. Every single composer on the program lives or is primarily active in Los Angeles, with the exception of only one! Why Thomas Ades?
Thomas Ades now has a home in Los Angeles. He has a position, perhaps it’s ‘Composer-in-Residence’ (?), with the LA Phil.
Well then, learn something new every day. I know that HEAR NOW has curated at least one event outside of the festival. Where do you see the organization heading in the future?
The event of which you are speaking was a fund-raiser in March of this year. Mark Swed was the headliner and, interviewed by Martin Perlich, he was fascinating. It looks like we will be having another fundraiser in December, this one headlined by Esa-Pekka Salonen, who will be working with the LA Phil at that time. Eventually we would like to get to a situation where we can have the festival two weekends running – one weekend in Venice and the following weekend in a more eastern venue – downtown or Pasadena… We also envisage having,as well as the festival, one or two concerts a year which would feature the music of individual composers. First half Vera Ivanova, for instance; second half, Bill Kraft. Something like that…
That’d be rad. Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Saturday the 25th, one week from today at 8 PM is the first HEAR NOW Festival concert; one week from tomorrow, Sunday the 26th at 5PM is the second HEAR NOW Festival concert. There are still some tickets available. You can purchase tickets at our website, www.hearnowmusicfestival.com.
Thank you, Nick, for asking!!
I talked to a couple of the guys in Synchromy, who have the first concert of their 2011/12 season coming up this Saturday, about doing an interview for the site, and we decided it would be cool to attempt to do it on video. This is the first time either of us (them or I) have been interviewed/done an interview on camera, and the results are below. It was a lot of fun, and their season looks pretty cool. Especially because they’re playing one of my pieces in January….ha, kidding…no not really, you should go to that one.
In any case, the video is below.