This past Saturday afternoon found me hiding from the heat under a tree at the base of a small hill listening to cellist Jennifer Bewerse playing composer Brandon J. Rolle’s Call and Echo, inspired by the call of the Hermit Thrush. While Rolle’s piece didn’t incorporate the bird’s call directly, it imitated and built upon its structure of distinct phrases and interruptions, with alternating textures of arpeggios, high harmonics with quiet singing, and slowly developing more lyrical material in the cello’s low end. And this was only one composer/performer duo’s take on one bird from the flock of ten that Synchromy presented in their program Urban Birds.
The concert was spread throughout the Audubon Center at Debs Park, just south of the 110 in Montecito Heights, a hidden gem of trails just northeast of downtown LA. Performers perched along said trails, repeating their pieces at intervals so as not to overlap with their immediate neighbors, but to create a sensation of distant sounds to search out—not unlike the bird call hunting theme of the entire event. Guests were handed not programs, but “musical birding field guides,” and children who managed to find all ten birdsong-inspired performers were rewarded with stickers reminiscent of a junior ranger program at a national park.
Behind the aforementioned tree — shade was at a premium — trails wrapped up the hill to the left and right. On the first plateau, one came to a clearing with bassist Scott Worthington performing Jen Wang’s Monster, with sliding harmonics imitating the call of the Mourning Dove. Alongside him stood composer/performer Christopher Adler with a khaen, a southeast Asian mouth organ for which Vera Ivanova had written Mockingbird Hopscotch, a piece that grew from the uncertainty of a nervous bird learning a new song into a filled out tapestry of synth-like repetitions.
Across a bridge at the other side of the clearing stood an oboist Robert Walker, leaning hard into Diana Wade’s Pyschopomp. Inspired not by the song of the Common Raven, but of the raven’s status as a guide to the underworld, the piece’s fast and high ostinati alternating with aggressive multiphonic material made for a piece that should become a staple of the solo oboe repertoire. Behind the oboe, coming from somewhere below, one could pick out virtuosic runs on the high end of a flute (Dante De Silva’s Heat Thrasher performed by Rachel Beetz), and occasional growls through the underbrush above from Brian Walsh’s bass clarinet performing Pamela Madsen’s Owl’s Breath.
Suddenly the whole event clicked. Intentionally or otherwise, trying to take in the diverse approaches to birdsong inspiration in the height and space of the venue brought to mind the legendary clashing marching bands Charles Ives listened to in his youth, the vertical symphonies of Henry Brant, or, to state the obvious—an uncomposed version of Messiaen’s own Exotic Birds. I found myself looking for places between performers to hear interesting and perhaps unintended combinations of sounds and melodic lines, an outdoor polyphony of monophonic instruments.
The spread throughout the park was a welcome way to dip toes back into real concerts after months of isolation—it certainly felt better than diving back into a crowd, and bridged the individual experiences we’ve become used to with a communal live one with sensitivity. What more there is to say should be heard, and to this end, Synchromy has developed a website with videos of all of the pieces, spread around a map of the park (just click on the birds) at synchromy.org/urban-birds.
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 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.
In an era marked by emphasis on thematic programming, sometimes it seems the theme counts more than the music, or that the music serves the theme. When all goes well, however, a theme can lend insight and bring pieces together synergistically, where they are better together than apart.
The latter is what happens on Nadia Shpachenko‘s new CD, Quotations and Homages. Noticing that some of her favorite composers had written pieces based on existing music, she conceived of a program to celebrate the practice of composing with quotation. The next step was to select the right repertoire, and to commission the rest.
“I approached composers I know and like and commissioned the music to fit this programming concept,” explained Shpachenko on the program’s genesis.
The result was a body of works that simultaneously looks backward and forward—a program that honors existing traditions while venturing forth into new terrains of composition.
Opening the recording with an uplifting brilliance–by turns motoric and ecstatic–Tom Flaherty’s Rainbow Tangle draws on the seventh movement of Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, which “immediately came to mind” when Shpachenko commissioned the work. Flaherty transforms the gentle waves of Messiaen’s piano writing into a mosaic of rapid-fire repeated notes, interspersed with rapturous chordal outpourings. Electronics heighten the piano part and add unexpected dimension, much as that of the original quartet’s instrumentation.
The program takes a turn for the dark and stormy in Missy Mazzoli’s Bolts of Loving Thunder, an offshoot of the Rhapsody in G minor by Brahms. Recounting her own “enthused but sloppy” renditions of the work as a developing pianist, Mazzoli draws on many of the same gestures Brahms used in the Rhapsody: chordal crashes, energetic surges of arpeggiation, and flurries of tremolando activity. A unique statement emerges, at once Mazzoli’s, yet clearly welling up from the work’s guiding source material–a kind of séance of Brahms through music.
Next up, Peter Yates’s Epitaphs and Youngsters, proves how dynamic and flexible Shpachenko’s homage concept turns out to be. The work contrasts in mood and means with the preceding music, and that to follow. Generally introspective, the work draws on varying musical styles to convey the essence of figures important to Yates, in this case, John Muir, W. C. Fields, Glenn Gould, and Robert Louis Stevenson. Shpachenko intones text quotes in a lyrical sprechstimme with feeling and understanding. The artwork of Shpachenko’s own sons also served as inspiration, hence the “youngsters” in the work’s title.
In another commission by Shpachenko, Vera Ivanova’s Six Fugitive Memories reflects on a range of piano repertoire in a collage of six short movements. Ivanova cleverly reinterprets essential fragments by Debussy and Satie (whose music coalesces like two colliding galaxies in “Debutie”), Prokofieff, György Kurtág, Morton Feldman, and Galina Ustvolskaya at her most formidable.
In a reverse palette-cleanser of sorts, Nick Norton’s startlingly compact work, Piano Piece for Mr. Carter’s 100th Birthday, iterates every note on the piano exactly once. The highly virtuosic work of nine seconds in length effectively divides the album down the middle, sending the second half off in an energetic burst of raw pianistic power.
Taking the album down a surreal turn, Adam Borecki’s Accidental Mozart injects a healthy dose of humor with his terse variation set after Mozart’s Sonata Facile, K. 545. Each variation is inspired by an alcoholic beverage (never mind that most who play the Mozart are underage), including Dirty Martini, Cheap Boxed Wine, and Absinthe. Borecki conveys the spirit of each drink in vivid musical depictions, proving that homage need not be serious. Shpachenko has performed the work with a slideshow of clever pop-art slides to accompany each variation. The slideshow adds significantly to the work, but even as audio alone the work belongs on the disc and including it was the right decision. Shpachenko’s sensitive rubato and probing creativity fill the gap of missing visual cues.
The genius of this album is in its effortless flow. Each work follows naturally from one to the next. Though unified by the common theme of homage, each piece is wholly individual and unrelated to the others, enabling continuous listener attention.
Daniel Felsenfeld contributed in an area heretofore untouched on the album: rock, with all its drive and defiance. The seventies band Velvet Underground served as impetus for his Down to You is Up, where Felsenfeld channels the spirit of his younger years driving the streets of Los Angeles while listening to the subversive band. The work, and Shpachenko’s committed rendering, satisfy in the visceral sense expected of rock at its best.
Shpachenko is joined by top pianists in their own right (Genevieve Feiwen Lee, Vicki Ray, Aron Kallay, Sarah Gibson, and Thomas Kotcheff) for the final two numbers on the disk.
James Matheson’s Bagatelle commemorates Beethoven, composer of many bagatelles, though here it is the Eroica symphony that provides the quotation vocabulary. Perhaps also an homage to Sonata form, the piece “pulls apart, recontextualizes, stacks, and layers” the quoted music, and does so on a distinctly Beethovenian scale: 6 pianists on 3 pianos.
The album concludes impactfully and intuitively in a work by Tom Flaherty, his Igor to Please. Commemorating Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, the work stems from the famous “Augurs of Spring” chord, but only hints at it. A work as inherently diverse as the album itself, it is scored for six pianists on two pianos, two toy pianos, and electronics.
Though derived from the Rite, Flaherty’s Igor bears little resemblance to the music of Stravinksy. Instead, it conjures the macabre world of pagan Russia and its barbaric springtime rituals in a way that resonates with contemporary ears. Utilizing differing musical languages and very different musical forces, the two composers attained similar achievements: to edify, dazzle, perhaps trouble, and certainly please.
Quotations and Homages undoubtedly comes at great effort on Shpachenko’s part. The concept is creative, the program well constructed, and Shpachenko’s pianism is of the highest caliber. The recording is sure to remain a mainstay of the contemporary discography for posterity.
Quotations and Homages is available on Reference Recordings at referencerecordings.com/recording/quotations-homages and from all major online music retailers.
LA scene regulars likely know pianist Nadia Shpachenko, whose tireless concert and recording schedule is a model to live up to. Nadia has premiered more than 60 works by Elliott Carter, George Crumb, Daniel Felsenfeld, Tom Flaherty, Annie Gosfield, Vera Ivanova, Leon Kirchner, Amy Beth Kirsten, Hannah Lash, James Matheson, Missy Mazzoli, Harold Meltzer, Adam Schoenberg, Lewis Spratlan, Gernot Wolfgang, Iannis Xenakis, Peter Yates, Jack Van Zandt, and others. This Saturday, March 10, she teams up with People Inside Electronics for a show at Throop Church in Pasadena featuring both premieres and works from her upcoming album, Quotations and Homages. Nadia had a minute to answer some questions, so we asked some:
PIE’s concerts tend to focus on the interaction between human performers and electronics. Do you have a background in this type of performance, or is this new ground for you?
I have been performing pieces with electronics for many years now, this is an area of great interest for me! I love to explore how composers use their imagination to complement the acoustic instruments with all kinds of additional timbres and sound sources. I think the very first piece with electronics that I commissioned was Airdancing by Tom Flaherty. Airdancing was written for my first album of brand new works titled Woman at the New Piano. This piece was written for me and Genevieve Feiwen Lee on piano and toy piano, and has since become quite a favorite with performers and audiences! I have performed works with live electronics and with fixed media. The works on Saturday’s PIE concert will include diverse approaches to electroacoustic writing, from Annie Gosfield’s bold and wild Phantom Shakedown featuring malfunctioning short-wave radios, grinding cement mixers, and detuned and prepared piano samples, to Isaac Schankler’s poignant and heartbreakingly beautiful Future Feelings, featuring gentle piano passages reinterpreted through ambient synths and filtered noise, to Alex Temple’s captivating incorporation of pre-recorded interviews with her friends, colleagues, former students and family members sharing very personal and at times extremely painful experiences. Also, my husband Barry Werger is a recording engineer and a roboticist. When we met in Boston more than 20 years ago, he was working on his PhD at Brandeis University and part of his artistic output was touring the world with his robotic theatre troupe. The plays often featured my performances and robot actors, so the interaction between human performers and AI was an interest for me even then, although in a form quite different from what I will presenting this Saturday.
I see some old friends and some new ones on this program. What do you look for when you’re programming a concert?
This program features many composers who I worked with closely on multiple projects, and also some composers whose works I haven’t played before. When I commission pieces, I usually perform them dozens of times (often as many as 40 times for each commissioned piece), especially when the pieces are recorded and I then tour the programs to promote the works and the albums. Since I often create thematically inspired programs, it can be challenging for me to program single compositions not already part of my larger projects. My upcoming PIE concert presented me with a great opportunity to both showcase the works I commissioned most recently, and also to select works by composers with whom I did not collaborate before, all united by the common inspiration of the electronics component in the music. Tom, Annie, Vera, and Jack all wrote pieces for me that I premiered in the past. I was eager to work with Isaac Schankler for a long time now, and finally I got a new piece from him that I will be premiering on Saturday, inspired by Isaac’s baby boy, noise music, Romantic/teen angst, the melancholy of Chopin, and the composer’s worries and hopes for alternate future possibilities. This concert will be my first collaboration with Alex Temple and Julia Wolfe.
Vera’s piece is the only one that lists multimedia. What can we expect from it?
Vera’s piece exists in several versions and at the PIE concert it will be performed with all possible components – projections of the text of the poems over images, and the fixed audio part, which interjects the piano part. The fixed audio part makes use of original recordings of the poems (The Echo, In the Fog, Wind, and The Lake Isle of Innisfree) read by the poets themselves (Anna Akhmatova, Herman Hesse, Boris Pasternak, and William Butler Yeats). Overall the multimedia is created to bring back the presence of these poets and to connect the text of the poems directly to the music. And there will be one more piece with multimedia. Jack Van Zandt wrote his Sí in Bhrú for my upcoming Poetry of Places album, which will be released on Reference Recordings in Spring 2019. My Poetry of Places album will feature newly-written works by Amy Beth Kirsten, Hannah Lash, James Matheson, Harold Meltzer, Andrew Norman, Lewis Spratlan, Nina C. Young, and Jack Van Zandt, all inspired by unique buildings. Jack’s piece was inspired by the oldest building in the world, built in Ireland during the Neolithic period, about 5000 years ago. This building, Sí in Bhrú (or Newgrange in English), is fascinating on so many levels. Like the passageway and the interior chamber of Sí an Bhrú itself, the electronic elements of the work (created in dozens of layers from several sources) resonate at a frequency of 110 hertz in support of the piano part that does the same. I will perform this work with an accompanying video that features images of this unique stone age monument.
Looks like you have a consortium commission on the concert, which seems like a great way for performers to bring new works into the world. Could you talk a little about how that process works, for our readers who may not be familiar with it?
The consortium commissioning is somewhat common in orchestral, wind band and choral worlds, but is relatively new for solo music. It was realized through the Global Premiere Commissioning Consortium, an organization which accepts applications from composer/performer teams and a group of commissioning consortium members who split the composer’s and the project leader’s fee. This approach makes it affordable for the selected teams to commission new music. A relatively small commissioning fee allows the consortium members to secure the premiere performance rights on their respective territory for a fixed amount of time and help the composer to get his/her work performed globally. It is a great project which is focused on promoting the composer and his/her performers. We currently have 25 members who will premiere Vera’s new piece in 10 countries and 16 USA states.
Tom Flaherty’s piece is on your upcoming CD, Quotations & Homages. Want to talk a little about the album?
My upcoming album Quotations and Homages will be released on Reference Recordings in early April (next month). This album features newly-written works inspired by a variety of earlier composers and pieces, from Mozart to Brahms to Stravinsky to Messiaen to Carter to Ustvolskaya to The Velvet Underground. It’s a program that’s both serious and lighthearted. Older works are brought to new light through piano/s, toy pianos and electronics by living American composers Tom Flaherty, Missy Mazzoli, Peter Yates, Vera Ivanova, Nick Norton (you!), Adam Borecki, Daniel Felsenfeld, and James Matheson. At my PIE concert on March 10 I will be performing the two works with electronics from my album. The first piece, written for me by Tom Flaherty, is titled Rainbow Tangle. It captures the otherworldly ecstasy of the seventh movement of Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, using live electronic delays, transpositions, and reverberation to expand the sonic palette. I will close my PIE concert with Tom’s Igor to Please, a piece constructed using only the notes of Stravinsky’s “Augurs” chord from the Rite of Spring (an unusual spacing of an Ab harmonic minor scale). This piece exists in multiple versions for solo piano, solo toy piano, duo piano, and the original version for two pianos four-hands and two toy pianos, each with pre-recorded electronics. My album features the original version of this piece for 6 pianists, recorded with my amazing colleagues Ray-Kallay Duo, HOCKET, and Genevieve Feiwen Lee. On Saturday I will be performing the solo piano and electronics version of Igor.
What’s next on your schedule after this one that readers can look forward to?
After this week, which is keeping me busy with 2 days of recording sessions and six concerts (four of them at ArtNight Pasadena on Friday, previewing my PIE program, I will be going to Canada to promote the upcoming album release. Local performances next month will include collaborations with the Los Angeles Percussion Quartet, bassoonist Judith Farmer, and clarinetist Edgar Lopéz (performing Gernot Wolfgang’s Trio WINDOWS, which we will be recording in May). My concert schedule is updated at nadiashpachenko.com/event and interested readers can subscribe to my newsletter to be invited to future performances at nadiashpachenko.com/contact.
Tickets for this weekend’s show are available at peopleinsideelectronics.com/nadia-shpachenko.
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.