This week, Zipper Concert Hall at the Colburn School hosted the latest installment of the Piano Spheres series, a concert by pianist Mark Robson entitled “The Debussy Project.” Specifically, the program placed Debussy’s Douze Etudes against a set of compositions by living composers—each responding in their own way to a particular etude from Debussy’s set.
Robson’s command of the Debussy was stunning: watching his performance, one could get lost in the theater of fingers built into the work. But beneath the virtuosic flurries was a technical mastery that highlighted Debussy’s emphasis on texture, and amplified the orchestral spirit of his piano writing. The simplicity of concept that underpins each etude might have risked sounding like a progression of, well, studies, but in Robson’s hands they provided a window into how various musical materials were treated by Debussy to create a musical language rich with contrast, layers, and detail.
The twelve accompanying composer reactions constituted the second half of the recital, and the range of styles and approaches indicated the degree to which Debussy’s language continues to serve as musical inspiration, continues to provide a bridge between past and future. Some focused on his style: Kotcheff’s work evoked virtuosic and dramatic contrasts, and Ivanova’s explored the commenting, often brash, musical interruptions. Bansal and Kohn both tapped into Debussy’s proclivity for sheathing his musical ideas with layers of sparkling textures—a foregrounding of detail taken to the extreme by Gates, whose piece unfolded flurries and sheets of sound until a final, tender conclusion.
Others focused on exploding those details out of time completely, exploring harmony and texture carefully and without Debussy’s liberated, roaming abandon. Rothman and Gibson used low piano harmonics to create a patient, meditative atmosphere anchored by the resonance of the piano. Norton’s response utilized two pianos (Vicki Ray joined Robson on stage for this) for spacious, overlapping textures that in their freedom managed to capture something of Debussy’s penchant for fleeting sentimentality, that return later as tinted, softly-distorted memories. Also in this vein was Robson’s own reaction, a magic act of sorts, summoning rich timbres and sonorities that moved seamlessly between the piano and electronics.
It might have been interesting to have seen the works paired directly with their inspirational counterpart, but hearing the progression of Debussy’s original twelve etudes in direct sequence, in my opinion, better prepared the audience by giving a framework to identify and appreciate the various types of inspiration and influence employed by the commissioned works. It is rare that a solo piano recital of this length can maintain my interest throughout, but the quality of Robson’s performance and the strength of the music was certainly worthy of the audience’s attention. And from what I could hear in muffled murmurs around the hall between pieces, Piano Spheres has succeeded in building an audience that is willing to give that attention, and which is appreciative of the talent presented.
On Saturday, July 21, 2018 Piano Spheres held a new music salon at the West Hollywood home of James Schultz. The theme of the afternoon was “What to Listen for in New Music.” Pianist Aron Kallay and Heidi Lesemann, executive director of Piano Spheres, were on hand to meet and greet. There was a literally full house as friends and patrons wedged themselves into a small drawing room filled with folding chairs and a grand piano. Mark Robson was the featured artist, and he came equipped with ten short pieces of piano music dating from the early 1900s to a new work to be premiered in the coming concert season.
The program began with Robson playing through some pieces without identifying them, and then asking the audience for their reactions, the name of the composer and the date the music written. When asked how many people regularly attended new music concerts, quite a few hands went up – the followers of Piano Spheres being generally knowledgeable – and these listening exercises immediately proved popular.
The listeners described the first piece played by Robson as “dense” and “animated” as well as “contrasty”. Guesses for the date varied widely, from early 20th century to late 1950s. When the piece was revealed to be Schoenberg’s Op. 11, no. 3, composed in 1909, there were some surprised looks among the crowd. The next piece was diagnosed as having repeating phrases with a limited harmonic structure and was so quickly identified as a work by Philip Glass, his Metamorphosis One from 1988. Some Messiaen followed, one of his many bird pieces, and this was a bit more difficult for the audience to identify, even as it was acknowledged to have a very distinctive character.
Robson’s choices and eloquent comments proved not only enlightening, but pointed to some helpful guidelines for listening to new music, such as how to be open to new experiences, to observe your feelings when hearing a piece, and having some bearings as to where a piece fits into the last 100 years or so of musical history. A discussion on concert program notes followed. Are they useful? What should they contain? Should you read them before or after hearing a piece? More varieties of contemporary piano music followed, from the lesser known Soviet composer Galina Ulstvolskaya’s Sonata no. 4 (1957) to Into Thin Air (2014) by James Soe Nyun, of the present decade. Robson also offered a preview of a new work by Karl Kohn that will be premiered during the coming Piano Spheres concert season.
The coming concert season marks the 25th anniversary of the founding of Piano Spheres. Six performances are scheduled. They are:
September 11, 2018: Mark Robson – The Debussy Project. The Debussy Etudes with responses by contemporary composers
November 27, 2018: Gloria Cheng – Garlands for Steven Stucky. A tribute to the late contemporary composer
February 26, 2019: Vicki Ray – Feldman/Butoh. Feldman’s For John Cage with violinist Tom Chiu of the Flux Quartet and Butoh dancers
April 2, 2019: Susan Svrček – Schoenberg Reimagined with Nic Gerpe
May 28 2019: Jeffrey Kahane – Kahane Plays Kahane… and more. Special guest appearance by the former director of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra
June 15, 2019: Michael Lang – Piano Spheres first foray into the piano as a jazz instrument.
The salon was a convivial event, enjoyed by all who attended. Informative yet intimate, this was a great way to preview the upcoming Piano Spheres season.
On June 19, pianist Nic Gerpe will be performing an explorative program centered around the idea of “tocar” – meaning, “to touch, to play.” He goes beyond the basic definition of the word to explore other connotations, meanings, and ultimately how the different pieces on the program touch and interact with each other. I had the chance to interview Nic about the program, working with violinist Pasha Tseitlin (Panic Duo), and his relationship with new music. Here’s what he said:
As you’ve described in your program note, “Tocar” will be a program of works that touch one another, in both obvious and ephemeral ways. With this idea in mind, what are some of the ways the works relate to each other? Which works on the program take a more literal versus indirect approach?
I have wanted to pair Alexander Miller’s Actions and Resonances with Vera Ivanova’s Black Echo for quite awhile. The connection between the two pieces’ titles made them a great fit, in my mind, and I thought that from a purely scientific/acoustical/sound-world perspective Oscillations would be a great compliment to actions, resonances and echoes. Incidentally, I found that “Tocar” can also be translated as “to ring” or “to sound” – words which fit these three pieces very well.
As I started thinking of what other works to program alongside these three, I started finding many more bonds between the pieces. For instance, Corigliano’s Fantasia On An Ostinato is based on a famous piece of Beethoven (7th Symphony, 2nd Movement), Ivanova’s Black Echo takes as its inspiration a lute ayre of John Dowland, and (without giving too many hidden gems away!) Schankler’s Oscillations contains all kinds of references to past music. All of these three pieces are touched in some very direct way by the hand of history, and share that link.
Most of the solo works on the first half of the program also prominently feature repeated-note figurations, but used in many different ways and contexts. The “touch” aspect of “tocar” is also evident in the virtuosic aspect of the works – for instance, Schankler describes the “furious toccatas” in his piece, and of course “toccata” comes from the Italian word “toccare”, which means the same as the Spanish word “tocar”. In Higdon’s String Poetic, the composer utilizes extensive virtuosic writing. As well, the pianist is required to mute several strings inside the piano with the fingertips, creating a totally different type of touch than what we normally associate with piano playing.
I also associate the way that Higdon utilizes these muted piano notes with Saariaho’s description of her piece Tocar – ” One of my first ideas for “Tocar”, about the encounter of two instruments as different as the violin and piano, was the question: how could they touch each other? … In spite of such different mechanisms, both instruments also have some common points, purely musical, noticeably they share some of the same register… I imagine a magnetism becoming stronger and stronger – the piano part becomes more mobile – which draws the violin texture towards the piano writing culminating in an encounter in unison.” Although Higdon and Saariaho’s pieces are incredibly different, the way that Higdon places the muted piano notes against the pizzicato of the violin makes the timbres of the instruments match almost exactly – there are several very striking moments in String Poetic where these two very different instruments actually sound the same.
Kaija Saariaho’s and Jennifer Higdon’s pieces feature both violin and piano, for which you’ll be joined by Pasha Tseitlin, the other half and co-founder of Panic Duo. How has your work in Panic Duo influenced your playing as a soloist, and vice versa?
I have been incredibly lucky to have worked with Pasha since 2009, and we’ve shared many adventures over the years. One of the biggest ways that working with such a great violinist has influenced my solo playing is in the sense of line and phrasing – since the piano is essentially a percussion instrument, we have to work harder to make the incredibly long, linear phrases that string players can (as well as singers and wind players). The way that a violinist takes time over a phrase, particularly on larger intervals and in the higher registers, definitely has influenced my own concept in shaping a melodic line. Also, the violin’s timbre changes noticeably depending on its register, and what kind of bowing or bow placement the player is using – sul ponticello and flautando playing, for example. A fantastic player like Pasha can really exaggerate these coloristic differences on the instrument. The piano has a much more monochromatic sound than the violin does, but I find that it helps my playing to try and emulate the range of sound and color that the violin is capable of.
What do you typically look for when selecting new works to perform?
I have a “wish list” of pieces that I want to play that only ever seems to get longer! Sometimes I’ll build a program around a single piece and its concept/subject matter, particularly because I love the idea of finding connections between music and people. I also love trying completely new things to expand my horizons – one of my favorite concerts recently was Panic Duo performing on the People Inside Electronics series, because we played an entire program of electroacoustic music for violin and piano, which was something we had never done before. We were very lucky to collaborate with a cast of incredible composers on that concert, and it was definitely a unique experience for us. One of my favorite things about being in LA is that I have the opportunity to work with so many amazingly talented composers, who represent such an eclectic and diverse array of styles and aesthetics.
As a pianist, what originally drew you to new music?
When I was young, my parents raised me on a very eclectic mix of music, very little of which was classical. I grew up listening to jazz, fusion, oldies, and rock. My first piano teacher taught me classical music, but he was also a jazz player. I thought when I was younger that I wanted to play music like Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock. When I was about 13 years old, my dad gave me a couple albums of Emerson, Lake and Palmer to listen to, and I was completely hooked. Keith Emerson is still one of my favorite musicians. I loved their original compositions, but also their transcriptions and adaptations of Classical composers – I recognized Bach in their output, but they also introduced me to the likes of Copland, Bartok, Janacek, and Ginastera. As soon as I started seriously listening to the output of these composers, I knew that I wanted to pursue contemporary music. And listening to these composers led me to Messiaen, Crumb, Szymanowski, Corigliano, and down the rabbit hole I went!
For more information about Nic’s upcoming concert, or to get tickets, visit Piano Spheres.
May 29, Piano Spheres will be featuring Belgian virtuoso pianist Steven Vanhauwaert in a solo recital, “All-Italia.” As the name suggests, the program will exclusively feature works by Italian composers, ranging from Busoni‘s epic Fantasia Contrappuntistica to later Italian works by Scelsi and Bussotti. I had the chance to ask Steven about the program, his inspirations, how he selects new works, and more. Here’s what he said:
The Piano Spheres program features works exclusively by Italian composers. What was the motivation behind an all-Italian program?
I am inspired by Italian music and its fascinating history, and I’ve always wanted to program the Fantasia Contrappuntistica by Ferruccio Busoni; an epic ode to Bach’s Art of the Fugue. It features four massive fugues interspersed with Busoni’s own unique harmonic language and it is bigger than life in all aspects! Around the beginning of the 1900’s, there was a search for a unique national voice in many European countries. In Italy, this was personified in people like Casella, Malipiero, Busoni, Respighi, and many others. They looked for inspiration to their own past (like Gregorian chant, harpsichord music) and to a new future (with people like Russolo and their Futurist movement). I wanted to situate the Busoni Fantasia along with a more individual work of his, the Indian Diary, in their historical context (with the early futurist Pratella) and features some of the later Italian works as well (Scelsi, Bussotti).
You’re known for discovering less familiar works in the classical repertoire, and for collaborating with today’s leading composers. How do you normally go about selecting new works to perform?
I have a strong appetite for new repertoire. I collect scores whenever possible, and I sightread through music very frequently to get a feel for a particular composer’s total output and style. I have a bucket list of pieces I want to program that is so long I will likely never be able to play all of them! For this particular recital I was toying around with the idea of doing music by Busoni, Casella, Respighi, Francesconi, Malipiero, Scelsi, Bussotti, Berio, Nono, Dallapiccola, and many others. I usually try to narrow down the program closer to the concert, but I will often make some substitutions a week before the concert if I feel it benefits the flow or audience experience of the concert. Sometimes I wish I could tell the audience – after we all had a post-concert drink – to go back inside the hall so I can share some more pieces that I couldn’t include in that evening’s program.
I enjoy all three of those formats. Playing with other musicians often brings in the magic of playful communication through music. When I’m playing by myself I enjoy striving for the feeling of being a prism through which the composer’s intentions flow. When it all works out well it’s a very rewarding experience.
What would you say is your biggest inspiration in music, and how does this influence your playing technique and style?
My biggest inspiration in music is the giddy effect that music has on me when I listen to it myself. As for influence, I find myself more influenced and inspired by other instruments, opera, and orchestral music. It helps me get out of the rather closed ‘piano world’ and focus more on the imagination and purely musical ideas.
For more information about the upcoming concert or to get tickets, check out Piano Spheres.
Karl Kohn is highly respected as a composer and pianist, not just in Los Angeles but also throughout the world. He’s also had a long career both as a teacher and on the board of directors of Monday Evening Concerts. In light of the upcoming Piano Spheres concert (this coming Tuesday, November 7), where Mark Robson will be playing a solo piano work by Kohn (Seven Brevities), I had the opportunity to ask him some questions about composing, his long performance career as a pianist, Monday Evening Concerts, and more. Here’s what he had to say:
Having served for two decades on the board of directors for Monday Evening Concerts, could you tell us about your experience there? Do any particular memories stand out?
The connection with MEC was very important for my wife Margaret and me. Under Lawrence Morton’s directorship the concerts were an opportunity to hear and to perform old repertoire as well as many new works, both by contemporary American and by European composers. Our collaborations and friendship with Pierre Boulez was special and delightful, but the list of other wonderful and meaningful composers and musicians with whom we worked is very lengthy.
Has your childhood growing up in Vienna informed the type of music you like to play/write? How so?
I was brought up in the Viennese Classics but also played some Debussy and Ravel. It was not until the years at Harvard that I played my first piece of twentieth-century music, Hindemith’s Third Piano Sonata. My freshman advisor at Harvard, Edward Ballantine, sent me packages of music while I served in the Army on Tinian in the Marianas, shipments that included works by Scriabin, Stravinsky, and the last two volumes of Bartok’s Mikrokosmos. I was a lucky guy.
You’ve composed for a wide range of instrumentations/genres of concert music. Do you have a favorite instrumentation/genre that you like to write for? Least favorite?
I have no favorites, either in the instrumentations/genres, and no favorites, really, among the works that I have composed – I like “all my children!”
Having written extensively for orchestra, what are your thoughts about composing for this medium? Has your opinion changed over time?
I loved writing for orchestra, and also for symphonic band. But for a Los Angeles-area composer (and especially a reasonably shy one situated way out in Claremont) writing for orchestra is not rich in opportunities. Nevertheless I have written several large orchestral works and all have had performances. In recent years, however, I have written and continue to write mostly for smallish chamber combinations of instruments.
How has your performance career as a pianist informed your career as a composer, and vice versa?
I imagine that my career as a pianist has had a very powerful impact on my compositional career, and I have written very much music for the piano, both solo and duo, and also for chamber groups that include the piano.
Your wife Margaret also has a long career as a pianist, and the two of you have performed together as a duo across the world. How do you inspire/encourage each other? What has your career of performing together been like?
Margaret and I started performing together while we were undergraduates at Harvard, almost seventy years ago – wow! For me certainly it has been a great joy to rehearse and play together with her these many years – indeed a blessed life.
Along with composing, you’ve also had a long career as a teacher. What are your thoughts about teaching? Do you find that it changes the way you look at music?
I taught at Pomona College for 44 years and have been retired from teaching since 1994. I like to think that it was a mutually beneficial experience both for my students and me.
You’re known for having a unique voice as a composer, which links an innovative musical style with a deep understanding of European classical tradition. How did your voice as a composer evolve? Where do you find the main sources of your inspiration?
As for my voice as a composer: I was brought up at Harvard in the milieu of American neo-classicism, admiring the music of my teachers Irving Fine, Walter Piston, Randall Thompson, and also Aaron Copland at Tanglewood. The Monday Evening Concerts and three sabbatical years in Europe gave me an opportunity to stay abreast of current developments from mostly in Europe while at the same time retaining my feet on the ground with teaching – albeit wonderful but more or less initially “unwashed” – undergraduates at Pomona College. I consider that my “style” since the late 1960’s has been referential to the broad historic past of Western, i.e. European and American, art music.
What advice do you have for emerging composers?
Get to know as much music of the past and present as possible, but be aware that this is getting to be ever more difficult in our current musical world. There is no any longer just one musical heritage but rather, in the words of David Noon, a former student: we live now in “a condominium of Babel!”
Check out Piano Spheres for more information on the upcoming concert, Tuesday November 7.
Pianist Aron Kallay offered a well-rounded program of innovative, politically charged music, including three world premieres, to open the Piano Spheres 2016-17 season. This, the 23rd season, is dedicated to Piano Spheres founder, Leonard Stein–born 100 years ago December–whose memory will inform each concert even more than usual.
“I did not know Leonard Stein personally,” stated Kallay in a preconcert talk, “but his impact on new music is clear, and makes its way into this program.”
Stein conceived of Piano Spheres, with a mission statement to champion “broader spheres of piano repertoire.” He performed an annual recital in the series, alternating with the four other pianists he selected.
Following his demise in 2004, Stein was never replaced. His spot in the series was left open for a guest artist, of which Kallay was this season’s choice.
Kallay programmed an exciting assortment of new works with an eye to Stein’s preferred repertoire, as well as the upcoming Presidential election and its implications for social justice. True to himself, Kallay–a director of People Inside Electronics and Microfest–performed several pieces involving electronics, though Stein generally played acoustic piano alone.
The REDCAT stage, decorated with political signs, came to life with the first notes of Monroe Golden‘s microtonal composition for retuned and remapped digital piano, I’m Worried Now, after the perennial blues standard “Worried Man Blues,” on a text about penal servitude.
Golden’s piece, a microtonal reinterpretation of twelve-bar blues, set the tone for the Kallay’s program, entitled “I’m worried now…but I won’t be worried long.” Most of the works explored troubling topics in recent history, and pointed to the uncertainty surrounding the upcoming election, although ended on an optimistic note.
Microtonal music, with its expanded pitch vocabulary, enjoys heightened capacity for emotional expression. Monroe Golden relied on the technique of extended just intonation, retuning the digital keyboard to the pitches of the overtone series out to the 96th partial, to express the atrocities of penal servitude in the 20th century South most directly.
“‘Worried Man Blues’ is a piece I’ve known all my life,” stated Golden in a post concert interview. “The practice discussed in the text primarily affected the poor….I wanted to use microtonality to express the pain the compelled prisoners must have felt.”
Beyond the arresting, microtonal twang, which reinforced the blues song’s original message, viewers were treated to a surreal cognitive dissonance as far right keys sounded low in pitch and far left keys sounded high, defying expectations of any keyboardists present.
In a nod to Leonard Stein, Kallay offered a crystal clear rendition of Dallapiccola’s Quaderno Musicale di Annalibera (“Musical Sketchbook for Annalibera”), a suite of eleven miniature movements for piano solo dedicated to the composer’s daughter (the work’s namesake), on the occasion of her 8th birthday.
Beyond the scope of most children’s abilities, the work is more about childhood, in its whimsical playfulness, than for children per se.
“This is one of my favorite pieces for piano solo of the twentieth century, and I know Leonard Stein admired it and performed it,” stated Kallay.
A major twelve tone composition, Quaderno, would be known to Stein, who was Schoenberg’s assistant and graded assignments by Schoenberg’s pupils at UCLA. The brand of twelve-tonality utilized by Dallapiccola was closer to Berg’s than Schoenberg’s however, integrating tonal references, such as thirds and sevenths, for a gentle lyricism throughout.
The work also earned a place on the program due to Dallapiccola’s staunch support of the anti-fascist movement in mid-twentieth century Europe, which Kallay deemed apt in view of the imminent shift in Executive leadership and the risks entailed.
“I hope you like wrestling…,” signaled Kallay wryly, as a screen lit up and attendees sat up, evidently striving to process what was in store.
Kallay co-funded the next work, a world premiere Piano Spheres commission by composer Ian Dicke—wrestling aficionado, political activist, and accomplished music technologist—a volatile combination, ideally suited to Piano Spheres and the REDCAT stage.
Dicke’s Counterpundit features a montage of classic wrestle-mania footage (names like Hulk Hogan and Sgt. Slaughter), looped into additive phrases, somewhat like a Stravinsky ballet. Dicke created a computer application combining live electronic processing of piano input with the video media. Kallay, opening the work as a soloist, eventually shifted roles into chamber musician, integrating piano music with the oddly hypnotic footage and layers of electronic sound in this Gesamtkunstwerk.
Heavily camp-laden Counterpundit compares the buffoonery of wrestle-maniacs to the political media pundits that influence perception in critical times such as these.
“I would have written something about this even if Aron hadn’t asked me to, as I consider myself a politically engaged composer.”
Traditional musical language, from Satie to Prokofieff (the latter quoted at one point), works with Dicke’s own harmonic concept as a convincing partner to the footage. The rhythmic play between instrumental forces attained to virtuoso levels, Kallay wizardly synchronizing with the media at several turns.
If Kallay is any example, it is clear that today’s pianist must go beyond piano playing. Kallay creates themed concerts, discovers existing repertoire to support a thesis, finds composers to commission, and constructs a verbal narrative to contextualize the program for attendees.
In the course of such research, he discovered Karen Walwyn, pianist and composer from Washington D.C., who provided the next work—another world premiere—“June 17th,” a movement from her suite Mother Emanuel: Charleston 2015, after the shooting in Charleston on that day.
“As much as I love this piece, I struggled with whether to program it because of its extraordinary gravity,” noted Kallay, “but thought it was important and should be heard.”
The work opens with a simple statement of classic hymn “Amazing Grace,” which breaks off abruptly, interrupted by terse, tense figuration. The hymn is reharmonized in surprising ways, fleshed with angry virtuoso writing until breaking off once more in a sharp, unanswered conclusion.
“Impromptu is a cry expressing the tortures of the soul that plague contemporary human beings,” writes Daoust, and indeed the musique concrète effects of the recorded media—sirens, traffic, and other elements of the urban soundscape—infuse the piece with a sense of angst, supporting the theme of social upheaval.
The Impromptu is a genre associate with the Romantic era, when friends would gather to generate their own music, largely by improvising. Daoust offered a modern, fully worked out Impromptu, every nuance preformulated and accounted for, but still expressing humanity’s key questions.
“I think people are as tortured by existential questions as they were during the Romantic period,” notes Daoust.
Preserving a link to the Romantic Impromptu tradition, Daoust quotes the haunting B section melody of Chopin’s Fantasy-Impromptu, (used also by Crumb in his piano work Makrokosmos).
Lee, playing the Steinway model D, brought a melting lyricism to the singing melodies, while angular lines emerged from out of the recording and duo ensemble.
In a strongly topical inclusion to the program, Laura Karpman’s Shrill, a work of “disposable music,” as Kallay introduced it, is overtly centered on the 2016 presidential election. Whether the work will endure as a humorous and surprisingly musical snapshot of current events, or fade away as quickly as the losing candidate, only time will tell.
Shrill, commissioned by Kallay and Piano Spheres, is Karpman’s answer to a critique of Hillary Clinton. Detractors call her voice shrill, “but it is Donald Trump who is truly shrill,” so notes Karpman.
The work is scored for “solo piano and Trump,” which reads like a typo at first glance. Cast in the perennial melodrama genre—spoken word accompanied by music—the verbal content is complimented by music reinforcements, yet unfolds with clarity.
Soundbites of Trump’s especially polarizing statements are presented in catchy rhythms, looped for effect, both musical and political. Kallay served once again as accompanist to the media, interspersing Trump’s charged remarks with a sardonic, biting musical language reminiscent of Satie’s funniest moments. Stereophonic effects abound, imparting a sophistication that lifts the work well beyond its prosaic central topic.
Fortuitously, Trump’s voice and locution is highly musical, so it turns out. Who knew he sang melodies such as descending broken minor triads, and perfect fifths while on the campaign trail. He may have missed a calling as vocalist.
Kallay concluded by stating, “I am actually not sure I won’t be worried long….”
The future remains uncertain, but the Jewish hymn “Shalom Chaverim,” arranged into a set of eight variations for piano solo by American composer Adolphus Hailstork, rounded out the program on a friendly, hopeful note.
Hailstork’s reinterpretation of the traditional Jewish theme, sung by children on holidays throughout the Jewish calendar, utilized modern harmonies, including quartalism and expanded tonality, and warm textures that express the original text implicitly:
Till we meet again
Over the years I’ve spent running New Classic LA, I’ve heard time and time again the narrative that the torch of new music in Los Angeles is being passed down from our venerable old institutions like Monday Evening Concerts and the LA Phil’s Green Unbrella series to newer, more agile ensembles and series like wild Up and WasteLAnd. Old wisdom had it that the best way for a composer to get played in LA was to move to New York. I hope, with the massive triumph and all-inclusive nature of the LA Phil’s Noon to Midnight event on Saturday, these narratives can finally be put to rest. The torch isn’t being passed down, it’s being shared, and everyone is invited.
First, let’s talk scale. Disney Hall’s spaces were opened up to many of LA’s ensembles and series, and the 12 hour marathon, in which it was impossible to catch everything, featured the Los Angeles Percussion Quartet, Piano Spheres, wild Up, gnarwhallaby, WasteLAnd, the St. Lawrence String Quartet, Monday Evening Concerts, the USC Percussion Ensemble, The Industry, Jacaranda, Chris Kallmyer, Lucky Dragons, the LA Phil Bass Quintet, the LA Phil New Music Group, as well as a slew of food trucks and a small tasting area for a few beers from SolArc, a brewery that began life catering wild Up parties.
Programming was the spirit of inclusiveness itself, though with a somewhat surprising slant toward sounds and big works from the European, harder, avant-garde. Piano Spheres presented Messiaen’s complete, three-hour, Catalogue d’oiseaux in the garden’s Keck Amphitheatre, calling on pianists Vicky Ray, Susan Svrcek, Thomas Kotcheff, Aron Kallay, Steven Vanjauwaert, Nic Gerpe, Danny Holt, Mark Robson, Joanne Pearce Martin, Sarah Gibson, Richard Valitutto, and Nadia Shpachenko. The playing was top notch, as expected with a roster like that, and the sounds floating in from the garden and street actually served the piece well, putting Messiaen’s birds in a context where you might actually find a few of them.
Other euro-avant picks for the day included the USC Percussion Ensemble’s performance of Antheil’s Ballet Mécanique with a restoration of the original Léger film, and gnarwhallaby’s even-more-aggressive-than-usual delivery of Gorecki’s Muzyczja IV, a brief, crushing, aleatoric sort of trombone concerto that was the original impetus for the group’s formation. With the LA Phil’s penchant for Gorecki’s later, more accessible, work, hearing this punch in the face in Disney Hall was a serious treat, and a highlight of the day.
But let’s get to the new stuff. Wild Up has built a National Composers Intensive in partnership with the LA Phil, in which young composers get to write for the chamber orchestra on a fast deadline, with mentorship from established personalities in the field. Wild Up picked four works for their 1 pm show, from Tina Tallon, Thomas Kotcheff, Katherine Balch, and Ali Can Puskulcu. All showed off unique voices and impressive command of orchestration. Thomas Kotcheff’s gone/gone/gone beyond/gone beyond beyond was the highlight, a riotous, overtly physical, totally insane, “total excess in all things all the time” piece that only a band like wild Up could pull off. It was convincing, self indulgant, and I loved it. I was also unaware before hearing it that guitarist Chris Kallmyer could shred that hard.
Tina Tallon’s Sear, which delved into her life with tinnitus after rupturing an ear drum a couple years ago, was a wrenching and effective listen, and my favorite piece of hers yet. Bowed styrofoam and a power drill could have been gimmicky, as could the whole idea of basing a piece on high drones and sounds disappearing – but Tina handled them with aplomb. It’s a dangerous artistic line she chose to walk with Sear, and she nailed it.
Turning back to the heavier avant-garde, WasteLAnd’s set in BP Hall had the premiere of Nicholas Deyoe’s Finally, the cylindrical voids tapping along, with text by Allison Carter sung by soprano Stephanie Aston. This seemed to show a slightly simpler and more direct side of Deyoe’s writing, as his vocal music sometimes does – but I say seemed to because the bleed of crowd noise into BP Hall became a real problem for the chamber music sets as the day went on. I am sure Ashley Walters’ performance of Liza Lim’s Invisiblity was utterly stunning, and Erik Ulman’s Tout Orgueil… seemed delicate and thought provoking – but we’ll have to go to WasteLAnd’s repeat of the performance this Friday at Art Share to be sure.
Not at all affected by the crowd noise was the LA Percussion Quartet’s performance in the same space later in the day. Daniel Bjarnason and Ellen Reid presented pieces in line with their dominant aesthetics. This is by no means a bad thing – Bjarnason’s Qui Tollis had a few ideas about varying ostinati and loops from his piano concerto Processions and was similarly thrilling, and Reid’s Fear / Release was covered in decorative flourishes reminiscent of her rooftop scene from Hopscotch, a highlight of that massive opera. Jeffrey Holmes’ Ur, on the other hand, was a break through premiere. With the ensemble surrounding the audience, each musician surrounded by similar set ups of gongs, toms, bass drums, flower pots, and cymbals, we listeners were bathed in swirling cascades of sound, as players echoed each others gestures a few beats apart. I’m not sure that the piece would work as well without the spatialization – but with it, it was magic. Thankfully LAPQ tends to record in surround sound, so the effect won’t be lost when they get around to Ur.
Surprisingly, the evening Green Umbrella concert, with its more traditional format, felt significantly less interesting than the rest of the day. The music was perfectly good – Kate Soper’s The Ultimate Poem Is Abstract was wonderful, as was the composer/singer’s assured and entertaining delivery of the text, and Ingram Marshall’s Flow was lovely as expected – but sitting in the hall, being quiet between movements somehow felt like a comedown from the high of running around from show to show, seeing friends from across the new music spectrum enjoying all sorts of different things.
Wild Up’s 10 pm set changed that. Conductor/composer Christopher Rountree’s Word. Language. Honey., a violin concerto commissioned for Jennifer Koh who tore into it with abandon, was unequivocally the best thing Rountree has written yet. Days later, as I type this, I still get chills thinking about the unison bass drum hits decaying into the distance, and the frantic shredding of strings at the opening giving way to more lyrical passages throughout, and the clever use of text (the piece began with misdirection, as the band started playing while Rountree was seemingly introducing the program), his words coming back in recorded form later. I’ve always liked his music, but Word. Language. Honey. takes his composing from “assured, effective, solid, I like it” to stunning, unique, and powerful. It’s a piece not to be missed.
This review could easily continue for another thousand words. Andrew McIntosh’s Yelling Into The Wind was clever and effective, a sort of play on the whole concept of the virtuoso concerto, as pianist Richard Valitutto traded simple lines with individual soloists from the rest of the ensemble. The Industry’s installation, Nimbus, with music from Rand Steiger, clouds floating above the elevators, musicians and singers walking around (also reminiscent of the last scene of Hopscotch) was whimsical and fun and gave life to an unusually dead space in Disney Hall. Jacaranda’s performance of Steve Reich’s Eight Lines was solid – Donald Crockett’s conducting is impossibly clear, useful for minimalism – and the crickets in the literal spotlight of Chris Kallmyer’s Crickets sang their little cricket hearts out.
The support from a major institution like the LA Phil of all these smaller, grassroots organizations is a huge boon to the LA scene. The phil knows that they wouldn’t have an audience for new music without the work of all these other presenters, and despite the right-leaning shade of the phrase “a rising tide lifts all ships,” every new music group in town will benefit from days like these, whether they were on the program or not.
A day after the event, I saw an instagram post from Kallmyer, a photo of his crickets being released into the wild. They sang together in his little box. Maybe now they’ll go spread all over LA and keep singing, inspired by what they did when they were together. As for the zillion musicians and ensembles and composers that the LA Phil invited into their home on Saturday, I know they will. LA Phil, thanks for having us.
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.
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:
As the now LA-based composer Thomas Adès performs alongside Gloria Cheng tonight in a piano duo program at Zipper Hall (details here), I thought this would be a good time to introduce our readers to some of his music. Asyla, completed in 1997, is a good place to start. In addition to being the work that launched him to prominence, its combination of romanticism, quarter-tone piano, and house music seems like a nice fit for what’s going on here in LA. And it’s influenced countless composers, as the New York Times explains here in an article titled “They’re always borrowing his stuff.”