Tag: chamber music

James Lee III: Don’t Miss a Chance

When we arrive at James Lee III’s home in Baltimore, sounds of the composer at the piano leak through the front door, making it difficult to ring the bell and interrupt the music. He is gracious when he greets us, however, explaining that he’s trying to get his own piano music under his fingers again in advance of an upcoming trip to Brazil as a Fulbright Scholar.
Lee was a piano performance major as an undergraduate at the University of Michigan, but these days practice often slips to the bottom of his to-do list. Since shifting his attention to composition for his graduate work, he is now generally focused on writing his own music and meeting his teaching obligations at Morgan State University, where he is associate professor of composition and theory.

Yet Lee traces his current career to his early experience at the piano. The lessons his father signed him up for at 12 turned into serious interest in high school. During his first years at Michigan, he wrote a lot of things “on the side,” but when Michael Daugherty and Gabriella Lena Frank pushed him towards pursuing a master’s degree in composition at Michigan over heading to the East Coast for more piano study, he realized what a better fit that would be.
Allegro from Piano Sonata No. 2 “The Remnant”

Available on Alkebulan’s Son: The Piano Works of James Lee III (Albany Records)

“I always liked the creative aspect a little bit more than the idea of playing the same program the whole year round,” Lee explains. “As I was thinking about playing the piano—Chopin etudes and Beethoven sonatas—I always wanted to write my own etudes and my own sonatas.”

A selection of works Lee has ultimately composed for the piano have been collected on the recent Albany release Alkebulan’s Son: The Piano Works of James Lee III, performed by Rochelle Sennet. Lee’s catalog, however, also contains a number of pieces for much larger forces, and his music has been premiered by orchestras in Detroit, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. Conductor Leonard Slatkin, who Lee approached with the recommendation of his Michigan teacher William Bolcom, has been a particular champion of his work.

Lee’s writing for orchestra tends to open with percussive announcements and pack in a number of colorful flourishes and dense textures. He also has a notable affection for what he terms the “more soulful” instruments of the woodwind family, such as the oboe and English horn—a propensity he has noted among a number of African-American composers—and for the emotional force of Shostakovich’s writing, which “really gets in there and just goes over the top.”

Audio and score sample from Sukkot Through Orion’s Nebula by James Lee III

Score sample from Sukkot Through Orion’s Nebula by James Lee III

Score sample from Sukkot Through Orion’s Nebula. Premiered by Michael Tilson Thomas and the New World Symphony Orchestra on October 15, 2011. Copyright © 2011 Subito Music Corporation. Used with permission. (click image to enlarge)

Though Lee’s music is sometimes connected to particular topics or storylines, as was the case with his 2011 Baltimore Symphony commission for a work inspired by the life of Harriet Tubman, he doesn’t tend to write in an explicitly programmatic way. After a period of reading and study when a work is meant to be about a specific topic, he’ll sketch out graphs and timelines of possible events. Particularly for large-scale works, he tends to create a kind of self-drawn map to guide him. A Seventh-Day Adventist, Lee is also influenced by his religious faith. For works with a more spiritual grounding, he’ll pray about the piece before he begins composing. Then things tend to take a more technical turn, with more abstract musical ideas taking over.

“I have a big interest in the rhythmic aspects of the music, but I’m also really interested in having these evocative colors in the orchestra like Takemitsu or Adams in My Father Knew Charles Ives,” Lee clarifies. “But I also have a very strong interest in the Biblical books of Daniel and Revelation, and my first piece which was ever programmed publicly, Beyond Rivers of Vision, was something that was inspired by those prophetic books. So where I was interested in the rhythmic aspects, I was also interested in giving a musical commentary on the events spoken about in those texts.”

Night Visions of Kippur – II. A Narrow Pathway Traveled

Score sample from Night Visions of Kippur – II. A Narrow Pathway Traveled by James Lee III. Copyright © 2011 Subito Music Corporation. Used with permission. (click image to enlarge)

Lee is troubled by the lack of diversity associated with concert music—particularly in the orchestral field which he feels still has “a long way to go….I think there should be a little bit more openness and acceptance of really trying to promote good music by all composers, whether they’re women, African American, Latino, or Asian.”

Though he understands that members of under-represented groups who do hold positions in the field don’t want their background to take precedence and distract from their artistic work, he urges decision makers at all levels and areas to be proactive about seeking this work out and advocating for it, while being mindful of personally held stereotypes.
“It seems to me that there are certain roles that [administrators] see certain people fulfilling,” explains Lee. “Like, if I were a jazz pianist, then it would be cool if I’m composing jazz ballads. But if I’m writing Western classical music in a contemporary language, then they might think, ‘Well, I don’t know if he is really who we want.'”

When he runs into such prejudice in his own career, he’s careful not to let it distract from his larger goals despite the frustrations it can bring. “You just have to move on and do your best and get other opportunities,” he stresses. “Usually I don’t miss a chance. If there’s a person at an orchestra or a pianist I want to meet…I don’t waste any time.”

Sounds Heard: Dan Becker—Fade

Dan Becker—Fade
Dan Becker
Fade (Innova 855)
Performed by:
The Common Sense Ensemble
The New Millennium Ensemble

The title of Dan Becker’s album Fade is named after one of its tracks, yet it doesn’t begin to disclose the manic sense of drive present in much of the music. This selection of chamber works composed between 1993 and 2008 suggests that Becker has an “on/off” switch resulting in either intensely energetic music or in work of concentrated repose. There isn’t a lot in-between, but clearly such extremes suit the composer, who according to the liner notes, is consumed by the idea of processes—both musical and otherwise—unfolding around him at all times.

Farthest to the “on” side of the spectrum are his Five ReInventions, which redress the two-part inventions by J. S. Bach in post-minimalist garb and set them for Disklavier á la Conlon Nancarrow at can’t-be-performed-by-normal-humans speeds. Other works that will make you consider skipping your morning coffee are the adrenaline-infused Gridlock, given a focused, enthusiastic performance by the Common Sense Ensemble, the second movement of Keeping Time, performed by The New Millennium Ensemble, and the final work, A Dream of Waking, for NME members Sunghae Anna Lim on violin, and Margaret Kampmeier on piano.

The title track, Fade, falls to the other edge of Becker’s compositional style; it is gentle, delicate music that walks on eggshells, ideal for laying in a hammock on a warm summer day. Similarly, the first movement of Keeping Time is a slowly measured dance through sparkling layers of vibraphone, piano, bass clarinet and strings. The excellent production by Judith Sherman makes all of the evocative works on the album glow, and delivers a satisfying punch in just the right places.

Sounds Heard: George Heathco and Misha Penton—Ravens and Radishes

Ravens and Radishes cover WEB
George Heathco and Misha Penton: Ravens and Radishes
Performed by:
Misha Penton, soprano
George Heathco, electric guitar
Daniel Saenz, cello
Buy: Download from bandcamp or

The product of a collaboration between composer/guitarist George Heathco and soprano/lyricist Misha Penton, Ravens and Radishes is a song cycle for guitar, cello, and voice that takes inspiration from classic fairy tales and, unlike the recent film Maleficent, recasts them in a new and interesting light instead of, say, ruining them.
The slow rising double-stopped fourths of the Daniel Saenz’s cello in Witch in Winter recall a sort of metal guitar dirge and match well with Heatcho’s popping, muted clean-tone guitar, the latter like pizzicato. From the small, mid-range chords in the guitar against the cello and Penton’s voice in the opening of Mirror to the somewhat lighter (in the context of the darker brooding surroundings) uneven groupings of rising guitar scales against pizzicato cello of October Ravine, Heathco carefully balances the instruments throughout.

Ravens and Radishes EP release – photo by David DeHoyos

The recording is stark and spare with very modest post-production, which gives it a live quality, one that enhances the primarily dark musical treatment of the text. It feels like it’s happening right in front of you, and nowhere is this more evident than in Sheep’s Clothing. An “A” played on the “D” string of the cello glides in and out of tune with the open “A” string while Heathco trades punchy attacks on the low “E” of the guitar with delicate open harmonics, a bit of musical slap and tickle through the dark undercurrent. This leads to another section in which the guitar is beating polyrhythmic time with chords as the cello and voice trade barbs back and forth.

L’oiseau de Feu sees a return of the rising fourths from Witch in Winter, and though it’s not a guitar piece strictly speaking, here the six-string influence is undeniable. From the oscillation between two notes (transpose and swing those a bit and Detroit Rock City might show up) that serves as motive, to the three-chord rising figure on upbeats that, if isolated and repurposed, could find itself at home in any number of metal tunes—including this one, which is where I’m guessing the rising line might find its inspiration? I always thought it was totally metal, frankly…—the song is rooted in the guitar world both idiomatically and musically. Heathco takes these materials and plants them in new soil, the syncopated groupings of October Ravine reimagined and now emerging in incessant sixteenth note bursts in the guitar and cello, all while Penton works her magic.

Sounds Heard: Robert Erickson Complete String Quartets

CD cover for Robert Erickson Complete String Quartets

Performed by the Del Sol Quartet:
Kate Stenberg, violin
Rick Shinozaki, violin
Charlton Lee, viola
Kathryn Bates, cello
(New World 80753-2)
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San Francisco-based Del Sol Quartet’s recent New World Records 2-CD release of Robert Erickson’s complete string quartets is truly an ambitious album. Working chronologically and covering a compositional period from 1948-1986, Del Sol illuminates Erickson’s development and maturation as a composer.

Listening to his quartets brings to mind the image of an onion: at first glance, an onion is, well, an onion—basic and non-threatening. But as each layer is peeled away, the onion becomes more pungent and affects the person peeling it with greater, often times uncontrollable intensity. This gradient is sharply noticeable in Erickson’s quartets. Though everyone experiences music and sound differently, for me his debut quartet, completed in 1950, is an unpeeled onion on the kitchen counter. This is not to say the piece, organized in three movements and written using traditional methods of counterpoint and twelve-tone harmony, is not interesting; after all, the best sauces use onion, and Erickson’s first quartet has its moments of brilliance. But the piece is strict, uptight, and highly cerebral.

Over the next six years, Erickson only finished a handful of works, juggling teaching commitments, a stint on KPFA radio, writing a book, and moving around the country. But at the end of this period, he emerged transformed as a composer with his Second String Quartet (1956). Immediately this quartet pushes past the limitations of the first and expresses a greater confidence in the idiom. As Erickson’s student and biographer Charles Shere points out in the set’s accompanying program notes, “Where the conversations of the First Quartet had been contrapuntal, direct, like rational and logical disputations proceeding toward a logical outcome, those of the Second Quartet are fanciful, exploratory, playful, and not so rule-bound.”

For the next three decades, Erickson composed for a wide variety of ensembles as well as for electronics but did not return to the string quartet until Solstice, completed in 1985. A radical departure from the first and even the second quartet, it is comprised of drones and meandering lines reminiscent of an Indian raga or Middle Eastern music, meeting in powerful unisons across all four instruments but only fleetingly before one instrument leaps away to a soaring harmonic or teases with a seductive melody. One such instance is at c. 3’44”, when the instruments compound into a seemingly impenetrable wall of octaves from which an evocative solo voice emerges, pristine. Unrestrained by any traditional form or counterpoint, Erickson communicates his musical ideas every which way—powerfully, playfully, viscerally. Though he had stated that Solstice is not program music, there are reflections of the definition of a solstice (i.e. either the longest or shortest day in the year) in the interplay of short, melodic gestures and seemingly endless drones.
Finally, there is Corfu. Written just a year after Solstice, Erickson’s last composition for string quartet functions as both a seamless continuation of Solstice and as an independent creation. Corfu moans. Its harmonics jump off the fingerboard, constantly pushing the notes higher and higher, all within an extremely stripped-back, naked context. One particularly striking moment is c. 20’36” when, out of nowhere, the violin springs to a staggeringly high note and the cello sounds like a machine grinding to a halt. The harmonies are awfully dissonant and tense until a lower voice releases the tension and the piece fades to a close. Like a white dwarf that remains after the implosion of a star, the piece’s concluding gesture—which not only ends Corfu but Erickson’s entire exploration of the medium—transcends the double bar line, its residual energy lingering long after the music ceases.

Sounds Heard: Akropolis Reed Quintet—Unraveled

Akropolis Reed Quintet - Unraveled
Akropolis Reed Quintet: Unraveled
Performed by:
Tim Glocklin
Kari Dion
Matt Landry
Andrew Koeppe
Ryan Reynolds
Buy: Order from CD Baby or

I don’t get time to listen to music like I used to. The past few years have been so busy for me that sitting still in a room and letting sound be the sole focus (live or recorded) has gone from being a regular occurrence to an occasional indulgence. Maybe indulgence isn’t the right word, but as anyone who does music for a living will tell you, you have to fight for the time to do what you do. The diligent carving out of minutes and hours and the thoughtful use of those resources becomes more and more of a struggle as the responsibilities of life crowd in, but that’s the gig right? Life piles on and you say, “Thank you, Life. May I have another?”
Part of it is the double-edged sword of multi-tasking; I’m always doing more than one thing. When I say “listen to music like I used to,” I’m thinking of the times in high school when a new album would come out. I’d lie down on the floor of my bedroom with the speakers of my stereo positioned on either side of my head (at a reasonable distance and volume; I still hate headphones), close my eyes, and just listen. These days I still get down on the floor, but it’s usually for some serious tea-time with my daughter, and on these very regular occasions my head is surrounded by toys, not speakers.
I bring all this up because I’ve had this album staring me down for a while now, and I finally got a chance to stretch out and have a listen.

Akropolis Reed Quintet – photo by Lauren Landry

The Akropolis Reed Quintet is having a good year. In addition to their gold medal-winning appearance at the 2014 Fischoff Competition, they’ve released their second album, Unraveled. Like their debut, High Speed Reed, Unraveled features works written for the group through their ongoing commissioning project. For those unfamiliar with the reed quintet genre, the instrumentation is much like a wind quintet with the flute and horn swapped for saxophone and bass clarinet. The album is filled from stem to stern with tight writing by young composers, and the spectacular playing engages both intellect and emotion throughout. Bursting out of the gate, Paul Dooley’s sharp and pointy Warp and Weft pushes forward with a constant, relentless intensity. Four-Letter Word by Robert McCarthy seems at first a calm pairing with the Dooley, until it too launches into a dense, rapid texture underpinned by bassoonist Ryan Reynolds’s ostinato. In three movements, the highlight of the piece is the second movement. Largely homophonic with glimpses of a sort of Copland-esque jazz harmonic language, this movement dials down the notes-per-minute for the most part until about 2:45. at which point rapid sequences drive round and round briefly, speeding through for a bit before the longer, plaintive lines return.
True to its name, Roger Zare’s Variations On Reverse Entropy starts off as though the piece is pulling itself apart and does a hell of a job of it until around the three-minute mark, when a very simple ostinato begins to bind the work together. This little machine has been operating all along, but it doesn’t really become obvious until that mark and it does give the impression of a slow-motion reverse explosion. Jason Turbin’s Morse Code features solo lines couched in lush chords which provide a brief intro to the popping and locking that one might expect from a piece with this title. You can imagine the players feverishly counting all the little hockety entrances as they try to piece together the complicated texture which shortly becomes background to oboist Tim Gocklin and saxophonist Matt Landry’s melodies.

All of the music on the disc is quite engaging, and as compelling as it was to hear, I really wanted to see it performed. Jason Turbin’s Morse Code in particular evoked that emotion. Though the hocket framework is aggressive, in reality it’s quite delicate; it’s the kind of thing that can totally fall apart if everyone isn’t a rock star and not fully on their game while performing it. That danger can’t be sustained forever, but it’s part of what makes live performance what it is. Florie Namir’s clever, three-movement Delevarnu wins the award for best title. A slow, languid opening movement with a deft use of crescendo/decrescendo (such as the effect that occurs when two winds play a minor second rising from niente and what the listener hears is the beating between the notes…very cool) followed by a second movement that is at once noir and nostalgic, the effect enhanced by pitch bends and dense chords. Elliot Bark’s Autumn in New York picks up on the nostalgia with clean, simple melodies that offer a lamb-like bookend to Dooley’s opening lion.

I like it here on the floor. The music is pretty cool.

San Antonio: SOLI chamber ensemble—20 years of new music

SOLI chamber ensemble - photo by Jason Murgo

SOLI chamber ensemble. Photo by Jason Murgo

Founded in 1994 as the PRISM quartet,[1] SOLI chamber ensemble has for the past twenty years served as a guiding light for contemporary concert music in and around San Antonio. Winner of the 2013 CMA/ASCAP Adventurous Programming Award, SOLI has commissioned forty new works and premiered each of them for audiences in San Antonio. Though their long-running concert series at Trinity University will continue to be their main base of operations, their recent appointment as resident chamber ensemble at the new Tobin Performing Arts Center (in downtown San Antonio, just a few blocks from the Alamo) puts them in a prominent position to share their music with an even wider audience. In addition, SOLI is also presenting their first CD which features several of the works they have commissioned over the years. This season’s concert series had three distinct programs—Past, Present, and Future—out of which I was able to catch the last. When Caroline Shaw is the senior composer on your program, you know you’re dealing with new music, so I was quite curious to see what SOLI had programmed for the show.
The concert, held in the Ruth Taylor Recital Hall of Trinity University, began with Scott Ordway’s Let there be not darkness, but light. The work was a study in multiple moods which evolved over six or seven minutes. A clangorous opening with chirping single-note sixteenth figures gave way to a slower section with staid and paced piano chords under long lines traded between the strings. The clarinet emerged over this material while hints of the chirping appeared and echoed in the piano. This lead to another section featuring violin, cello, and clarinet exclamations bouncing off of and rising from the piano’s arrhythmic accompaniment, morphing into a sort of ululating texture with everyone (save piano) moving in step before remnants of the opening material closed out the piece.

Guest artist mezzo-soprano Tynan Davis joined the ensemble (sans clarinet this time) for Caroline Shaw’s Cantico delle creature, a work based on text by Francesco d’Assisi and one of the first poems written in the Umbrian dialect of Italian in the 13th century. The work had a calm clarity throughout and seemed in no rush to get from A to B, a quality that felt not static but comfortable and somehow meditative. Often intoning a single pitch, Davis’s performance enhanced these qualities with round pure tones and beautifully shaped lines. It was a work that luxuriated in form more than surface activity, one in which looking for the point of the piece in each line was less successful than letting the whole thing wash over you.

Niccolo Athens’s Piano Trio was a study in tradition, and the three movements were rigorous for both player and listener. The calm, flowing, and wholly tonal opening of the Preludio served well as a bridge from the Shaw, though it upped the ante as it progressed with aggressive tremolo in the strings and deft interplay between strings and piano. The Passacaglia sat large and imposing in the center, occupying the lion’s share of the work, and Athens made good use of its repeating line, often masking it so deftly that, as the movement progressed, I lost track of it. The Scherzo-Finale came along attacca with a strong nod to Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra both in harmonic language and rhythmic vitality, streams of sixteenths interrupted by tutti announcements of the theme. Taking on these well-worn forms can be a daunting challenge for even the most experienced composers, and my first thought when I saw the program was, “Interesting…this title does not scream ‘new music’.” Having said that, it was very well written, exciting, and enjoyable, and reminded me that new music is, of course, many things.
Following the intermission was Yvonne Freckmann’s Switch. Originally programmed as the closer for the first half, a technical glitch forced a shuffling of pieces, one that could really throw a wrench in the works of a carefully curated evening. However, it was a refreshing change from the formality of the first half, and once the technical issues were squared away (by way of an iMac procured from the bowels of the university) the work commenced. Featuring clarinet and live electronics, Switch also used pre-recorded clarinet, occasionally showing up in choirs to add to the drama. Freckmann joined clarinetist Stephanie Key onstage, occasionally cueing the electronics via the iMac as Key moved across the stage reading the spread-out score. The piece was populated by melodies awash in delay and reverb, occasionally pulling away for an excursion into overblown notes and similar extended techniques[2]. Certainly we’re well past the point where electronic pieces are assumed to be de-facto experimental, but too often I hear works in this world that feel wandering and self-indulgent; pieces in which the material and surface dominate. Fortunately, Switch had a satisfying arc and thoughtful attention to form that kept it out of that category.

Davis joined the entire ensemble for the final work of the evening, the world premiere of Matthew Aucoin’s SOLI-commissioned Celan Songs. In seven movements (three of which were instrumental “fragments”), the songs were each of their own world. The first movement had a disjointed march-like rhythm from which a tutti emerged among the instrumentalists while the second put Davis through her paces in terms of range. Much of the work was somewhat dark and a bit angular, its language and sensibility recalling a European pre-war character (speaking perhaps to Paul Celan’s experience as a holocaust survivor) until the fifth movement. Fully of this century, the bubbling arpeggios and long lines wholly contrasted the other movements while somehow connecting with them via Davis’s voice. My first thought was all raised eyebrows and “what’s all this then?”, but Aucoin made it work. Initially slightly disorienting, this most different movement was in many ways the star of the show (or at least this particular piece) and put me on my toes as a listener.

Achieving the high level of performance and commissioning that SOLI has is one thing, but maintaining it for twenty years is quite another. While we live in a world populated by more and more new music groups, it’s worth noting that SOLI got its start around the same time the internet became a thing. It’s difficult (even for those of us who grew up in those dark days) to remember what it was like to operate in a world without the immediate connectivity those tubes afford us, not to mention the fact that without a great deal of precedent, groups like SOLI had to make it up as they went. Even today there is no boilerplate for making your new music group work, but if you’re looking for a model, SOLI has one for you.

    1. Not to be confused with the saxophone quartet! And when did groups start moving from names in all caps to all lower-case? This is a dissertation waiting to happen folks.

  1. I suppose we’re moving away from calling these techniques “extended”?

Chicago: The ancient future-music of Sam Scranton


Photo by Dan Mohr

The premiere of Sam Scranton‘s Detritivore, presented in the tucked-away space of Experimental Sound Studio, felt like a major art event. It is an evening-length ensemble work that is both theatrical and restrained, simultaneously epic and intimate, and was so absorbing that I could not write about it without participating in the reverberations of the piece itself. Scranton’s music is richly layered, allowing dense textures of live spoken text to coexist with folk percussion instruments and found sounds. His compositional voice, drawing on the willingness of minimalism to sit with one sonic idea for a courageously long time, is also utterly his own. It is a rare treat to hear a work that feels both contemporary and timeless, presented by an artist taking wholehearted risks.

Experimental Sound Studio, under the leadership of Lou Mallozzi, has what Mallozzi calls “a long history of presenting work that makes innovative use of text.” Detritivore uses texts that feel both futuristic and ancient, and the work’s humor and humanity make it a true standout. Performed by Scranton along with Andrew Tham, Deidre Huckabay, and Bill Frisch, the piece was originally intended to be performed by a small army of performers. After the premiere performance, Scranton described to me an enormous downtown Chicago food court as a potential space for a repeat performance. Stay tuned, for someday soon you too could read your secrets into a time capsule.


May 9, 2014 A.D. 20:03 hours. I see the trees and houses of Ravenswood Avenue moving quickly in and out of my field of vision. I hear my gasping breath and the pounding of my feet on the sidewalk. I think maybe I shouldn’t have gone to yoga before this concert; shouldn’t have tried to do so much today.

20:07 hours. I see the man at Experimental Sound Studios holding programs. I hear him telling me admission is ten dollars. I tell him I’m on the press list. I think I maybe should’ve bought a ticket anyway, but I also think I’m broke. I think thank God these things never start on time.

20:12 hours. I see the patch of floor where I will stand through the entire hour-long work. There’s nowhere to sit. I hear the conversation of the people next to me; one of them is moving to a new city. He says he sold everything but his patio furniture and his couch. I think it might be hard to stand up through this whole thing.

20:15 hours. I see the stage and the instruments: tall vases, light bulbs, bricks, clay tiles. Plastic cassette players sit beside animal-skin drums. I hear the audience applauding. The performers aren’t coming onstage. I hear the man behind me say, “We’ll just have to clap again louder next time.” I think he’s wrong and that the ensemble is doing this on purpose.

20:16 hours. I see the four performers coming onstage in white v-neck t-shirts and jeans. I see the contact mics and headphone cords attached close to their necks by white tape, like bandages on a wound. I hear the long silence that is the beginning of this piece. I think I love my friends, the performers, all four of them now sitting cross-legged on the floor, about to play music that’s never been heard before. I think I’d like to be up there with them.


The piece had five parts. This is what I imagined during each part.

In the first part of the piece the performers were a lost pilot on a long, long flight. They read hours, minutes, altitude, azimuth. They were a lonely astronaut in outer space, except that they had drums. They were a forest-dwelling man on a strange military assignment. They read the numbers for a long, long time. I worried the pilot wouldn’t make it. I wondered how long his flight would be. I think I heard them count to twenty hours.

In the second part of the piece the performers were praying for the astronaut. They were on the ground, sending prayers and smoke signals to their family member in the sky. Their lips moved and I didn’t know what they were saying. By the end of this part it felt like a burial ritual for the lost pilot.


Composer Sam Scranton
Photo by Dan Mohr

In the third part the performers became themselves again. They all spoke at once, reading stories from their day into tall glass tubes, as if making recordings for a time capsule. I craned my neck to try to get closer to them and hear what they were saying. One performer said, “I think about having a full time job.” Another said, “I think about taking a shower but I don’t really want to.” The composer said, “I think Edie is being very sweet and good today.” I knew that Edie is his daughter. In the silences, it was awkward and intense. I was afraid one of them would say something embarrassing, or something I didn’t want to hear.
In the fourth section, each performer read a different chronology. Deidre read the history of Blockbuster Video. Andrew read the history of Detroit. Sam read the history of the creation of the universe. At the end of the section, Sam was left alone, his history catapulting forward into the future. He said that in the year 1 trillion A.D. the universe would enter a dark period. I thought about how the tragedies of Blockbuster, or the city of Detroit, felt smaller and sadder to me than the end of the world.


Photo by Dan Mohr

In the fifth section, the performers gathered cross-legged in a circle on the floor. They took their time-capsule vases and bowed them. I think they were having a funeral for the universe, which by the end of Sam’s oral history, had pretty much been destroyed. At the end of the piece was a silence longer than I’ve ever heard at a concert.

Houston: River Oaks Chamber Orchestra

Every single problem in the arts can be fixed by working on personal relationships.–Alecia Lawyer

Based in Houston and drawing on some of the finest players in town and from around the nation, River Oaks Chamber Orchestra is gearing up for their tenth season. Since its inception in 2005, ROCO has presented hundreds of concerts to a wide variety of audiences and in many different forms. Founded by oboist Alecia Lawyer, ROCO has commissioned or premiered 34 new works and during their upcoming season they will pass 40, including a co-commission in partnership with New Century Chamber Orchestra and A Far Cry for a piece by Derek Bermel. Lawyer was kind enough to take time out of her busy schedule to fill me in on how ROCO got started and where it’s headed.

Andrew Sigler: How did ROCO come about?

Alecia Lawyer: I had been a part of many start-up orchestras in NYC and in Houston and had had an entrepreneurial trio in NYC while at Juilliard.  While in Houston, when my church was being renovated I knew a chamber orchestra would be perfect there in this lovely Frank Lloyd Wright-style building with seating for around 550.  I wanted to build something for Houston, but also something very authentic and relevant to the classical music world.
I thought of the musicians who were with me at Juilliard and different festivals who actually smiled when they performed and took joy in their craft on stage; who could be vulnerable and open in performance; who could talk to an audience and engage them, not just entertain them; who performed with such fluency that the music became the language, not the entity.  I was lucky to have hired Suzanne Lefevre as personnel manager, who helped form the orchestra, as well.

AS: What are some areas of presentation that set you apart?

AL: We have many simple ways to make the audience feel comfortable without changing our product of fantastic classical music.  The concerts start at 5 p.m. and are over before 7 p.m., so people can do more than one thing in a night.  I put pronunciation guides for composers’ names [in the program] so people don’t feel dumb, and I include timings of pieces to allow people to get a sense of the scope of a piece. (And if they don’t like it, they know how much longer it is!) I married the idea of a kid’s night out with the concerts and now have ROCOrooters, a music education/childcare program during and after our concerts.  We don’t have a regular intermission.  It’s “Take 5” [style] and musicians actually clip on nametags and walk into the audience to greet our audience. ROCO is known as “the most fun you can have with serious music.” Our season consists of four main concerts with all 40 professional musicians (half of whom fly in to play) with repeat performances.  The rest of our 25-30 concert season is made up of chamber music in various venues and with many partners throughout Houston.  We actually perform in ten zip codes here.

AS: Your mission statement is to “shape the future of classical music through energizing, modernizing and personalizing the orchestral experience.” That’s a tall order. How do you accomplish this?

AL: We energize through musician involvement in programming and creative direction, rotating conductors ([the ensemble has] no named conductor), annual conductorless concerts, and world premiere commissions. We modernize through streaming live concerts into patient rooms at MD Anderson Cancer Center and Hallmark Retirement Home.  We are dedicated to bringing this music to immobile communities like the V.A. hospital, where we performed a veteran’s concert this season. We also have a Listening Room where you can hear our past concerts for free and also download them.  We offer ring tones by our individual musicians so you can carry your favorite ROCO musician with you wherever you go.  We have been broadcast nationally over 60 times on Performance Today. We personalize through accessibility where musicians and audience and board have relationships; through our musical collaborations; knowing our audience members by name; keeping the house lights up the whole concert to feel even more connected to our audience; having individuals or groups support each musician’s chair throughout the season (every musician has a sponsor or group of sponsors); commissioning and programming with actual people in mind and involved.
River Oaks Chamber Orchestra
AS: You have a pretty spectacular group of players from all over the place. How were they assembled?

AL: They are not just from Texas!  NYC, Vancouver, Boulder, others I cannot think of. It’s more about people I knew and ROCO’s personnel manager, Suzanne Lefevre, who has a wide group of musicians she knows.  Plus her job is not what you would expect.  She is now named associate artistic director and has always been a partner in building the orchestra.

AS: You have had 34 world premieres (and counting!) in less than ten years. Are any/all of these commissioned works? How do you go about selecting these works/composers?

AL: Yes, all are world premiere commissions.  We have more that are either Houston premieres, or world premieres that were not commissioned by us. Some composers came to us in the beginning, but now that we are known for this I get submissions constantly and love it! I am constantly getting suggestions from the musicians in ROCO, as well, for repertoire and commissioning. Our big news this season is that we are doing a co-commission with New Century Chamber Orchestra and A Far Cry having Derek Bermel compose the piece.  ROCO will get the world premiere on Valentine’s Day next season.

AS: Houston is a large cosmopolitan city with many outstanding musical organizations of all sizes. How does ROCO fit into this?

AL: Many people don’t realize the difference in groups for classical music.  There is a 100-piece symphony orchestra on one end and then chamber groups on the other.  In between you have string orchestras of around 18-20 players and then a full-size chamber orchestra like ROCO of 36-40 performers.  Each of those four categories is its own animal with repertoire specifically for it.  We have other groups in the different categories, but are the only one occupying the full-size chamber orchestra space and truly sticking to that repertoire.  I love the flexibility we have for the main concerts with the full group and then chamber groups throughout the rest of the season.  It is intentionally being built as a Lego model, where small groups like our ROCO Brass Quintet have their own series of concerts under the ROCO brand.

AS: You’ve presented at Yale, SMU, Round Top, Juilliard, UT Austin, and the Texas Music Festival concerning your entrepreneurial approach to community-specific orchestra building. What is your approach?

AL: I call what I do “Wildcatting in the arts” which might need explaining if you are not from Texas! I meet with the performance majors and the arts management students and talk about starting ROCO.  The talks have gone in many different directions from development and board building to programming/commissioning.  However, my favorite thing to do is to talk about ROCO as a case study of reactions to my own past in performance and then have individual appointment times for students to come discuss their own ideas. I believe that orchestras should not be cookie-cutter and actually have a personality like the city in which they are created.

I love the process of connecting people together through the arts.  Each conversation, whether about music, money, or venues, is one of discovery and craft.  Every single problem in the arts can be fixed by working on personal relationships. Gratefulness, joy, and connection are our panaceas.


World Premiere/Commissions by ROCO for the full chamber orchestra
Brad Sayles – Echoes of Invention for narrator and orchestra (2008)
Karim Al-Zand – Visions from Another World After Illustrations by JJ Grandville (2008)
Carter Pann – Mercury Concerto (2009)
Brad Sayles – Buffalo Bayou Suite (2010)
Scott McAllister – Concerto for Double Bass and Chamber Orchestra (2010)
Karim Al-Zand – Handel’s Messiah Pregame Show (2011) In collaboration with Houston Chamber Choir
Paul English – Lumiere Lunaire (2012) (In honor of the 100th anniversary of Pierrot Lunaire and based upon JoAnn Falletta’s poem about Pierrot)
Tony Brandt – Maternity (2012) based upon neuroscientist David Eagleman’s writings about women throughout evolution back to the amoeba.
Reena Esmail – Teen Murti for string orchestra (2013)
Carter Pann – The Extension of My Eye, Le Tombeau d’Henri Carter-Bresson (2014)

World Premieres
Steve Laven – Beyond the Odyssey (2006)
Tony Brandt – Nano Symphony (2010)
Todd Frazier – “Save the World” in Memorium; Richard Smalley (2010)

Houston Premieres
Derek Bermel – Natural Selection (2006)
Michael McLean – Elements for solo violin and strings (2006)
Daniel Kellog – Mozart’s Hymn for String Orchestra in 16 Parts (2008)
Pierre Jalbert – Autumn Rhapsody (2012)
Huang Ro – Folk Songs for orchestra (2013)

Chamber Music World Premiere/Commissions
22 Works for our annual Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) musical and literary ofrenda. Composers write small pieces about life, death, remembrance, or other themes for an oboe, viola, and cello trio from ROCO with a singer.
We also have commissioned and premiered two other chamber works on our chamber music series we are now calling ROCO Unchambered.
Alecia's Pet Peeves

Austin: Fast Fo(u)rward

I’ve complained on more than one occasion about the changing of Austin into a theme park, and I feel comfortable saying that if you’ve only been here during SXSW or the Austin City Limits Festival, than you haven’t really seen the town. It’s not the gentrification alone but the rate of change which makes for a real baby-with-the-bathwater situation in a town that got weird off the radar and for so many years stayed that way. The cache of interesting events and people that really make this town unique is being lost at a breakneck pace, replaced by stylized food trucks and Formula One Racing [1]. I like funky tacos and fast cars as much as the next guy, but at some point the value that is being traded on will be gone, and any number of other towns will be just as attractive assuming that they have buildings that will take a coat of paint.

So how is a festival that exemplifies Austin’s classic quirks so perfectly being run from LA, New York, and Hong Kong [2]? Shouldn’t I boycott these interlopers and demand that they get off my lawn? No, because Fast Forward Austin is run by three Austin ex-pats who know what the town is all about and who keep that in mind when putting this annual circus together.

Loadbang - Photo by Steve Sachse

Loadbang – Photo by Steve Sachse

This fourth installment of the all-day festival returned to The North Door with another fantastic line-up of local and national performers. Loadbang cranked up the show with offerings from Christopher Cerrone and Andy Akiho, the latter’s three movements from six haikus hinting at the percussion deluge to come with each player eventually trading their trumpets and clarinets for pot-top syncopation. The Skyros Quartet paired with the composers of West Fourth New Music Collective to present a number of quartets and trios written by the group. They opened with Matt Frey’s Procession which featured a repeating chord progression played largely in unison that eventually broke apart, each player moving mechanically away from the original material. Ruben Naeff’s Jackass, which was initially written for the JACK Quartet, closed their set. Quick, quirky, and rambunctious, the piece popped right off the stage.

Tatsuya Nakatani - Photo by Steve Sachse

Tatsuya Nakatani – Photo by Steve Sachse

To say that the music and performances of Tatsuya Nakatani are idiosyncratic and mercurial is an understatement. Perhaps FFA co-director Steve Snowden put it best during his introduction when he said, “I can’t really put into words what this guy does.”

I will now attempt this.
Nakatani began by working a large hanging tam-tam with a large bow [3], one that had a particularly arched stick and looked a bit like an archers bow. Intermittent hits with a large beater colored the sound and after several hits he grabbed a second bow and began to work another tam-tam along with the first. This was all well and good, and I figured we were in for a nice set of screeches and overtones.

He eventually moved to a little trap kit with a kick, a handful of toms, and a grab-bag of goodies. Shortly after arriving at the kit, everything went nuts. Singing bowls danced on the head of a tom as he stacked half a dozen cymbals on one another, slamming them on and around the bowls until most were on the concrete floor. One cymbal with a hand-sized hole in the center was bent, and scraped rapidly across the head of the tom, producing a sound like a bowed saw run through a distortion pedal. Nakatani clearly had a few go-to sounds (such as the tam-tam bowing) that he used and manipulated convincingly, but it was when he seemed to be winging it that the real magic happened. The afore-mentioned cymbals and prayer bowls came and went frequently, and while Nakatani was able to keep the energy going (at full speed, even during the relatively quiet opening and closing portions of the set) it occasionally threatened to fall off the rails. Once or twice a cymbal fell too early or a stacking of instruments just didn’t quite gel and these moments were wonderfully visceral and real. This is what, IMHO, live improvised music is about: at least one part communication with the audience and one part danger. Totally fantastic.

Austin Soundwaves - Photo by Steve Sachse

Austin Soundwaves – Photo by Steve Sachse

Austin Soundwaves returned this year and sounded better than ever. I’ve heard the El Sistema-inspired group play multiple times over the past several years now and not only was this performance much stronger in terms of fundamental pitch and rhythm, they’ve also come a long way in terms of their musicality. Their rendition of Cielito Lindo was particularly strong and their works from the canon were very well presented.


Just back from a three-week European tour, line upon line percussion opened with Reich’s Music for Pieces of Wood, presented as a sort of historical preview of (spoiler) Mantra Percussion’s Timber performance. Watching LUL reminds me of my rock band days when we’d get home from a tour flush with road chops, except that these guys play like this all the time. They are all superb players, and while watching Matthew Teodori in particular you get the impression that every single note is the most important thing in the world. It makes you think that whatever endeavor you’re involved in, you probably need to up your game.

Fast Forward Orchestra - Photo by Steve Sachse

Fast Forward Orchestra – Photo by Steve Sachse

FFA has usually had a featured piece or act, something that gets all the nerds [4] hot and bothered. This year had a two-fer in Donnacha Dennehy’s That the Night Come and Michael Gordon’s Timber. The former was played by the Fast Forward Orchestra and conducted by Austin Symphony Orchestra’s Peter Bay. Featuring an emotionally powerful performance by mezzo-soprano Kathryn Findlen, the orchestra was a perfect example of what Austin has to offer in terms of new music. During the course of the day, sound from outside would make its way inside The North Door, but I swear Austin shut up for the whole piece. Mantra’s performance was no less thrilling, taking the audience on Gordon’s hour-long marathon of pulsing, surround-sound endurance. Finally, The Grant Wallace Band wrapped up the festivities with a set of folk and jazz influenced originals that would have been at home in any number of bars in town as well as they were at the festival.

Mantra Percussion - Photo by Steve Sachse

Mantra Percussion – Photo by Steve Sachse

Places change and grow, and the only constant is the complaint about how things used to be. Checking out eight hours of banging new music is one way of getting your mind off that fact.

1. The 24-gate regional airport that serves Austin has a direct flight to/from London now, so those from overseas can see F1 without connecting flights. This has been a dream of Willie Nelson’s for some time now.

2. Last year it was Sweden, Portugal, and New York. It’s my understanding that the next one is going to be run from the moon.

3. Actually, he began by asking the venue to turn off the AC. When it was revealed that the sound he was hearing was the refrigerator which was keeping all the beer cold, he smiled, shrugged, and started the set.

4. If you’re reading this, you’re the nerd.

Boston: Practice Sessions

Conductor Robert Spano and pianist Jonathan Biss perform Bernard Rands' Concerto for Piano and Orchestra with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, April 3, 2014. Photo by Stu Rosner.

Conductor Robert Spano and pianist Jonathan Biss perform Bernard Rands’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, April 3, 2014. Photo by Stu Rosner.

In the ever-futile quest to match up language with the experience of music, “meditative” is a useful shorthand, able to hint at a calm surface, a reflective cast, and an eloquent stillness all at once. (I’ve used it that way, certainly.) It is also, in the strictly literal sense, wrong. Keeril Makan’s Letting Time Circle Through Us really is meditative, in that, intentionally or not, it is true to the experience of meditation. It is a process and a journey, not a fixed state. And the journey isn’t always smooth.

Makan’s piece was performed by the New York-based ensemble Either/Or at MIT’s Killian Hall on April 5. It was the premiere of the full score. (The group introduced a 12-minute excerpt of the piece in Pittsburgh last fall.) Commissioned for the group through Meet The Composer (one of the last such commissions before the Meet The Composer/American Music Center merger), the work utilizes an unusual and somewhat distinct ensemble: cimbalom (David Shively), guitar (Dan Lippel), crotales and glockenspiel (Russell Greenberg), violin (Jennifer Choi), cello (Wendy Law), and piano (Taka Kigawa). It’s a sound world both ringing and atomized.

Letting Time Circle Through Us stretches a 50-minute canvas, broken up in a rondo-like way. The ritornello—almost ceremonially repetitious, marked by a rising major-second motive, a repeated, irregular inhalation—is repeatedly, sometimes suddenly interrupted by ideas that amass weight and shadow. The contrasting sections provide as much obstruction as variety, like formal parallels to the hindrances the Buddha warned about:

[T]here are these five obstructions, hindrances, corruptions of the mind, weakeners of wisdom. What five? Sensual desire is an obstruction, a hindrance, a corruption of the mind, a weakener of wisdom. Ill will is an obstruction … Sloth and torpor are an obstruction … Restlessness and remorse are an obstruction … Doubt is an obstruction … a weakener of wisdom. These are the five obstructions, hindrances, corruptions of the mind, weakeners of wisdom.

The practice of meditation is all about overcoming those hindrances—not by ignoring them, but instead by acknowledging them, examining them, because, to this way of thinking, by combining something bad (a hindrance) with something good (mindfulness), the good wins out.

That’s not to say Letting Time Circle Through Us is a triumphant piece. Its examination of its interruptions is dark and moody. Even the quieter contrasts are continually off balance: a 3/4+7/8 cimbalom pattern (later taken over by the piano) seeds a guitar line that upends the usual major/minor implications of the overtone series; a seemingly limpid piano loop is at hemiola odds with a string melody; a gentle gymnopedie is gradually encrusted with dense harmonies. The ostinati, more often than not, are inexact, almost-but-not-quite interlocking. (Points of arrival are less about dissonance and consonance than about a set of patterns finally settling, even into a clashing texture.) But there is a thread of optimism—that opening major second is constantly recontextualized, from a brooding, minor-scale la-ti to a hopeful, major-scale re-mi at the work’s climax.

And Letting Time Circle Through Us does, perhaps, embody the modest goal of any given meditation, that you end up a little farther along the path than when you started. Throughout the piece, the unusual instrumentation is used to constantly reimagine and translate timbres. The cimbalom’s buzz becomes a combination of guitar and pizzicato cello; piano and crotales trade their fraternal twin attack-and-decay sounds. During that gymnopedie section, Choi kept repeating the same note, but fingered on different strings. At the outset and the close of the piece, Shively and Lippell briefly utilized E-bows, an almost incorporeally delicate sound on cimbalom or acoustic guitar: in the beginning, an inchoate element, but by the end, a brief glimpse of, maybe, the instruments’ deeper natures. The way Letting Time Circle Through Us prompts and sustains that awareness is a considerable musical achievement.


The same weekend (I heard the April 8 concert), the Boston Symphony Orchestra was performing the second of its two world premieres this season, Bernard Rands’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, with pianist Jonathan Biss and conductor Robert Spano. (Marc Neikrug’s Bassoon Concerto was premiered last November; the BSO also gave the American premiere of Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Speranza, which it co-commissioned, in October.) The “Piano and Orchestra” is deliberate; soloist and ensemble are much more complementary than combative. A lot of the piece finds Rands reassigning traditionally “idiomatic” material to its instrumental opposites. The first movement of the concerto (“Fantasia”) opens with the orchestra pealing out bell tones of no little pianistic quality; the piano answers by taking over the orchestra’s usual function of providing sweep and saturation, filling in the spaces with ribbony flourishes of fast notes and crushed-ice chords, a bright, pixelated simulation of orchestral color. The movement’s ending—which ended up being the concerto’s biggest, most aggressive moment—punctuates a steady crescendo of volume and activity with an abrupt thump, as if piano and orchestra finally meet up just where hammer meets strings.

The slow movement uses the “Aubade” from Rands’s Three Pieces for Piano (also written for Biss), working it into a thoroughly Impressionist exploration of orchestral sustain and pianistic decay. Spano and the BSO had primed this movement well by opening the concert with the “Nuages” and “Fêtes” movements of Debussy’s Nocturnes, and Rands seemed to drop the concert back into that soundworld, right down to period details: melodies etched by doubled winds and harps; distant, buzzy muted-brass calls; catharsis via increased orchestral lushness rather than harmonic resolution. The scaffolding, though, carries hints of serialism, everything permuting out from a four-note motive that, in different guises, keeps inaugurating tentative, crystalline explorations on the part of the piano. The climax here, too, does a reversal, short brass stings giving way to the piano’s pedaled resonance. A challenge of touch and balance more than virtuosity, the movement was the beneficiary of a delicately precise performance.

The finale was built around another concept that has turned up before in Rands’s work, the sometimes paradoxical layers of time that can coexist in music. Here, the multiple layers are condensed into a single, near-ubiquitous idea: tremolos, across gradually expanding intervals, a texture that, all by itself, manages to be fast and slow at the same time. Trills were passed back and forth from soloist to orchestra, from high to low, from timbre to timbre, while bits of rhythmic cadence bounced across the stage. There was an almost insouciantly traditional cadenza—ideas from throughout the piece brought back for one last cameo—before the concerto, like Debussy’s party, seemed to drift away into the pre-dawn light.

A lot of the personality of the piece came from Biss’s particular style at the keyboard—crisp, impeccably controlled, fastidious to the point that it transcends stuffiness. But the concerto is already reticent in its grandeur. Rands, who just celebrated his 80th birthday, is still at least an honorary musical Bostonian, having spent over a decade at Boston University and then Harvard back in the ’80s and ’90s. But this piece called to mind a different civic cultural strain, the American Impressionist painters that flourished in and around New England in the early part of the 20th century—Childe Hassam, J. Alden Weir, Frank Benson, Edmund Tarbell—more concerned with capturing subtleties of light and shadow than monumental effect. The struggle and victory of the Romantic concerto were nowhere to be heard. In its place was something that, despite a wildly different vocabulary, was rather like Makan’s moods: a voyage, a passage, a span of time given significance just through the act of noticing.