Tag: concert review

From Groupmuse to the BSO: Show-hopping in Boston


If you come to Boston to see only one orchestra, you’ll come for the Boston Symphony. The BSO is as much a part of Boston’s identity as the Red Sox, lobster rolls, and organized crime.

The orchestra operates out of Symphony Hall near downtown, and on nights when the fluorescent “BSO” sign lights up, the people flock to it.

Right now Boston classical fans are very high on new BSO music director Andris Nelsons. Given the right timeline, the right money, and the desire, Nelsons could be on pace for city legend status like Russell or Bird, Ted Williams or Bobby Orr. L.A. has Gustavo Dudamel; Boston now has Andris Nelsons.

The BSO can be pricey, but the orchestra makes exceptions for younger people, and so for only $20 each my friend and I got into a show. We weaved our way through the patrons, ushers, and classical nerds and found our seats. My friend was put on immediate warning by the woman next to him: his leg was too far to the right. Noted. People were swarming. The official capacity of Symphony Hall is 2,625. This show wasn’t a sellout, but it was close.


They played a world premiere organ concerto by Michael Gandolfi and Mahler’s Sixth Symphony. Afterwards the crowd roared. Even after a long stint wedged into cramped chairs (think economy-class plane seats) everyone was ecstatic. That triumph carried over into the lobby and out to the street as brave patrons played Frogger with Massachusetts Avenue traffic.


There will always be a need for this dressed-up symphony experience, but that’s just the beginning of the story in Boston. Outside the walls of Symphony Hall, an impressive and diverse classical scene has shaped up on its own.

The city can only stamp its name on one orchestra, and that deal was done in 1881. But other organizations—orchestras, chamber groups—are doing Boston proud, taking risks and reinventing the audience experience. The product being cooked up in these rogue classical laboratories is flooding the streets. There’s never been a better time to be a classical fan.

*It’s hard to get an accurate count of the orchestras and chamber groups in metro Boston since many fly under the radar. Some habitually shift personnel, others work intermittently.

You can start with mainstays like the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, and the wildly popular Video Game Orchestra. Other groups are in a building-and-expansion phase. The Boston New Music Initiative prizes works by living composers. Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra of Boston is a self-governed freelance collective. A Far Cry is an edgy ensemble with peerless talent and ambitious programming.

When you add in pick-up orchestras, and informal and invite-only arrangements, you begin to get a sense of the city’s appetite for classical music.

It adds up. A 2014 ArtsBoston report estimated the city’s annual arts spending—spread across music, ballet, museums, and theater—was $1.4 billion. Two key factors make that possible.

The first is the willingness of the audience to pony up. Attendees spent $450 million beyond admission price at museums and shows. The second factor as it relates to classical music is the talent pipeline. The area is home to top-flight schools like New England Conservatory, Boston Conservatory, and the Berklee College of Music. The city is flush with talent. Orchestras hire young guns with musical chops for days. Students, in turn, get on-the-job mentoring.

I decided to see firsthand how it all worked. I dropped in on a show where ace percussionists tackled brand-new music; a choral concert where the music was served with a side of social justice; and a house show where the Bach and the PBR flowed like water.

*Tuesday, April 7, 2015. 8:00 p.m.

NEC Percussion Ensemble

Jordan Hall, New England Conservatory

Price: Free

New England Conservatory is housed just a block from Symphony Hall. It’s backed up against the Orange Line train tracks, and sits so close to the adjacent YMCA you might assume they’re housed in the same building.


On this rainy night—we had over nine feet of snow this winter; rain will never again faze us—a hundred people settled into wooden, leather-backed chairs in Jordan Hall to hear the NEC Percussion Ensemble.

We started with a flourish: the first movement from Nebojsa Zivkovic’s Trio per Uno. The piece was unrelenting, the playing inspired.


Next was Steve Reich’s Six Marimbas. The performers were gleeful and reckless. (Were they shooting 5-hour ENERGY backstage? Only the stagehands could say for sure.) Reich’s music can sink even steely performers, but these players barely broke a sweat.

The focal point of the night was composer Larry Wallach’s Winter Music. It was a world premiere, and there was a lot to like:

  • Percussionists wearing telemarketer headsets.
  • A multitude of percussive goodies deployed across the stage.
  • A conductor wearing a suit with a Tracy McGrady thing going on (an undeniable joy—this summer’s hottest look).
  • Two players upstage on accordion and celeste, never looking away from the conductor.

Wallach evokes the long slog of winter with uneasy patter, interspersed with moments of space and calm. In the second movement Wallach had players hoarsely whisper lines into the aforementioned headsets from Wallace Stevens’s famous poem “The Snowman.” (“One must have a mind of winter/ to regard the frost and the boughs/ of the pine-trees crusted with snow.”)


In the third movement Winter Music found its groove with banging unison parts. When the players clanged to a finish there were woops, hollers, and applause. That was just the end of the first half.

By the end of the night we’d heard an impressive program highlighted by a world premiere. The show was driven by young talent with an appetite for tricky music, and an impulse to get it note-perfect.  It was free, and exciting, and there would be more shows like it before the week was out.

*Saturday, April 11, 2015. 8:00 p.m.

Boston Conservatory Women’s Chorus, Boston City Singers

“The Bard Sings”

Seully Hall, Boston Conservatory

Price: Free


Like many cities, Boston has a diversity problem in its classical scene. There are too few people of color in orchestras, especially considering Boston is a majority-minority city. The problem isn’t just racial or ethnic underrepresentation, but social, economic, and geographic divisions, too. So it was a little shocking to see that problem addressed, at least in part, at a show I went to at the Boston Conservatory.


This Boston Conservatory Women’s Chorus emanated pure power, and you would’ve gotten your wig blown back sitting in the first few rows. The concert’s premise was the intersection of Shakespeare’s written word with music written about the Bard himself. So we heard James MacMillan’s Sonnet, Amy Beach’s Three Shakespeare Choruses, as well as Brahms’s Vier Gesänge with harp and double-barrel French horns.

But the swerve came when the BCWC exited mid-set. Co-conductor Daniel Mahoney told the crowd that groups like his needed to get out of their “ivory towers” and work outside the conservatory walls. Mahoney said BCWC had much to learn from up-and-coming outfits. With that he yielded the stage to the Boston City Singers.


The City Singers were young and fearless, and their mission statement—“training and inspiring the musician…to support personal development, celebrate diversity, and foster good will”—reads like a blueprint for Boston’s future arts scene. They did a traditional Maori song, and “Gloria” from György Orbán’s Mass No. 6. They even did show tunes. It was bizarre and glorious.

Boston is a city of tradition. There is a deep vein of historical religiousness that carries through to the present. We’ve still got “blue laws” on the books to ensure Bostonians’ moral compasses point true North.

But there’s an equal measure of revolutionary spirit here. Phony or not, we’re all a little taken with the original rebels, those 18th-century punks that talked a good game about liberty and freedom.

For a minute I saw both sides at once. I’ve never been to a show where the conductor questioned his group’s own mission. It was scripted, of course, but there was thunderous applause for the Boston City Singers, the BCWC, and the change they foretold. Music schools are churning out exceptional performers, but it doesn’t mean much if the music can’t escape those hallowed halls. Tonight it did. And some new ideas snuck back in, too.

*Friday, April 10, 2015. 8:30 p.m.

Groupmuse/Boston Young Composers Ensemble

“Bach, Bates, and Birds”

Price: Free ($10 donation)


This show arguably said the most about where Boston’s classical and new music scene is headed. Music schools are hotbeds for experimentation, but outfits like Groupmuse take this proposition to a whole other place.

Groupmuse is a Boston startup that pairs generous house- and apartment-dwellers with musicians looking to play intimate shows. The premise completely deflates the typical, uber-formal classical music concert.

The musicians get an opportunity to play for beer-drinking, toe-tapping, head-nodding living-room audiences. As a fan—no matter what level—you can link up with no-frills classical music seven nights a week without putting a hurt on your wallet. It feels a bit like speed-dating, but no one wears name tags.

I rolled up on this Groupmuse drinking Arnold Palmers in honor of the Masters, which was in progress.


As I parked at the top of a hill I saw a young-ish man walk by staring hard into his cell phone. Without looking up he took a decisive 90-degree turn and continued on. Navigating by phone. Bingo. Partygoer.

The thing about Groupmuse is that you’re inviting yourself into a stranger’s domestic situation for a house party. You’re in a room with a small cadre of people. There are Solo cups filled with mystery liquids, jury-rigged seats, and people who are painfully kind. It’s jarring the first time around.

There wasn’t much pre-show chatter here, just handshakes and smiles. Someone talked about how Andris Nelsons looks off-balance conducting. He added: “I like him a lot.” The musicians—violin, cello, clarinet, flute, some of them members of the Boston Young Composers Ensemble—took their seats in the living room.

They played movements from Bach’s The Art of the Fugue, and we clapped between each (a Groupmuse directive). Then they took on Mason Bates’s The Life of Birds. You could tell they’d performed it before, handling tricky ensemble passages with ease. Toward the end the bench I sat on got a little uncomfortable, but the music didn’t.


As an encore an audience member grabbed his sax and performed a piece by Ian Dicke called Straphanger. It was angular, multi-metered, metallic, and hard. A different kind of encore, but it worked—like playing Gary Numan songs to achieve peak pre-bedtime chill.

It’s been said Groupmuse is like Airbnb for classical house shows, and I think that’s a good characterization. What the setting lacks in opulence (this being a normal apartment like yours or mine) it makes up for in comfort, atmosphere, and alcohol.

Every attendee I talked to was a musician. (One was an assistant to the great Gunther Schuller.) Maybe Groupmuse hasn’t caught on with less-adventurous folks. But it will. For the price of a donation and some socializing, it’s a seductive classical fix.


Taken as a whole, these shows don’t constitute musical upheaval. They don’t foretell the demise of the BSO or any establishment-type groups that still serve a vital purpose—entertaining high volumes of people.

What they do show us is that Boston is serious about its music and willing to get behind wild new ideas. Not every group is destined for all-time greatness. Some fail. That’s the nature of the beast.

But we’re a city with a mean classical habit, and on any given night you can luck into cool chamber music showcases or solo recitals, most of which are—crucially—inexpensive. The groups come and go, but the audiences hang on, and they’re ready for the next show.


Will Roseliep is a producer for Boston Public Radio, and media director for the Cambridge Philharmonic. He’s the author of The Libertine’s Guide to the Classical Music Revolution. He hosts the Classical Dark Arts podcast, and writes the weekly Classical Dark Arts newsletter.

Boston: Passports and Layovers from Lorelei and Roomful of Teeth

Logan International Airport in Boston.

Logan International Airport in Boston. (Via.)

If the only thing you ever saw of Boston was Logan International Airport, first of all, my deepest sympathies and, second, your idea of the city might very well be populated only by minutemen, the Red Sox, lobsters, and Cheers. Every city with an airport, I think, has an airport version of itself, based on the cultural shorthand of the souvenir stand. Airport versions of cities are not wrong, exactly, just disorientingly oblique to the people who actually live in those cities. But the airport version of Boston isn’t for me; it’s for tourists. It’s for people who have never seen the place before. It’s like a bullet-point outline to be (hopefully) filled in somewhat over the course of a visit. I’m probably too embedded and too oblivious to accurately judge the usefulness of the airport version of Boston. But I could imagine that it would provide as good a toehold as anything. (A couple years ago, I visited Barcelona for the first time. The airport version of Barcelona was Gaudí, Messi, and ham—in retrospect, a reasonably efficient triangulation.)

I sometimes wonder if, several decades from now, people will look back on the current era of new music and characterize it in terms not far removed from tourism. Because if there’s one thing common to the various kinds of music going under the new music banner right now (and a lot of music beyond that), it’s the pursuit and/or assertion of an aura of authenticity. Traditions, styles, vernaculars—so many new pieces I hear these days pledge allegiance to some form of authenticity, some repertoire, some community. A lot of times, such pieces are the result of a deep engagement with the cited style on the part of composer and performer; a lot of times, it’s simply an expression of momentary curiosity. But much of the listener’s intended satisfaction is to come from the feeling that the experience has been both unfamiliar and authentic. In other words: the ideal tourist experience. Which means that the real version and the airport version might, in fact, be equally effective.


On November 2, in the cool, enveloping reverberation of Boston University’s Marsh Chapel, the Lorelei Ensemble, artistic director Beth Willer’s eight-voice all-female choral group, presented a program called “Reconstructed: The New Americana,” venturing in and around an increasingly popular ethnomusicological destination: shape-note singing. The concert sent postcards from the style’s antecedents—colonial hymnody (via its most idiosyncratically great practitioner, William Billings) and folk music—while also placing it in new, modern galleries: four world premieres were interspersed with contemporary additions to the shape-note repertoire.

Early American hymnody and shape-note singing might be two of the most quintessentially American musics there are, in that they live at a nexus of American anxiety—the disconnect between the way the country ought to be and the way that it actually is. Both were aspirational forms, specifically designed to be specifically American, and both were, in turn, often rejected as being too provincial and unpolished. You only really get a sense of this stew of influence and counter-influence in the context of its relatives: the more buttoned-down, reactionary New England hymnody of the later 18th century, African-American gospel, Gilded Age grandeur, maybe even modern Christian rock-pop, a continuous negotiation between exaltation and populism.
All by itself, though, and in Lorelei’s unfailingly, uncannily pure and precise voices, the style found itself at another intersection: the shared Apollonian streak in the early music and modernist strains of classical music. It was certainly something common to the four commissioned works (the commissions supported—full disclosure—by NewMusicUSA). All of them, for all their variety, were dedicated to the not-inconsiderable pleasure of close-packed straight-tone harmonies, soaring echoes, and perfect intervals sung with overtone-sparking exactness. That melange of very old and very new was layered throughout the concert, even in interludes—flutist Ashley Addington and violinist Shaw Pong Liu improvising the familiar strains of “Amazing Grace” into sometimes surprisingly loose translations.

Scott Ordway’s North Woods, interpreting the Maine landscape through the lens of the ancient Roman historian Tacitus’s imaginary descriptions of northern Europe, made use of the most immediate sensation of the choir’s phenomenal purity: clean clarity as cold as ice. But the piece also hinted at the change from wild to civilized, from frontier to familiar destination. With Addington’s piccolo glinting off the music like lens flare, the opening movements were built on a foundation of fast, quasi-aletoric chanting, the ground continually slippery and shifting. By the end, though, the boundaries had been set down: as the first movement’s text circled back (“The nights are dark; the earth casts only a low shadow”), the music coalesced into a kind of domesticated part-song, as if the place itself had finally been fully marked off and mapped.

Joshua Shank’s Saro arranged variants of an old folk song into a quiet allegory of barriers and discrimination. The music, too, took on a notable echo of modern production. Starting out in familiar territory—a poignant solo encased in open intervals and diatonic suspensions—the harmonies gradually blurred into one another, the melody itself detached and slowed down into pure sonority, real-time digital stretching realized in analog form. With Shaw Pong’s violin hovering like a ghostly narrator, the piece felt both contained and unsettled. Mary Montgomery Koppel’s Nokomis’ Fall also used an instrumental anchor—Addington again, this time on bass flute—adding both texture and anchor to her twisty harmonies. Setting a passage from Longfellow’s Song of Hiawatha, Koppel emphasized the twice-told ritual aspect of the story with unabashed text-painting; when Nokomis (Hiawatha’s grandmother) finally is plunged from the moon to the earth like a meteor, Koppel laced the scene with a simple, descending whole-tone scale in the flute, obvious and ingenious at the same time.

The most ambitious of the new works was Joshua Bornfield’s Reconstruction, a five-movement a cappella “mass” replacing the rite with 19th-century hymns from the shape-note lineage. (The movements were spread throughout the concert.) The treatment was equally ambitious: “Crowns (Mercy Seat)” turned into a polytonal, polyrhythmic contest between sopranos and mezzos; “Wrath (Battle Hymn of the Republic/John Brown’s Body)” and “Brother, Sister, Mourner (Amazing Grace)” re-energizing their familiar sources with busy Ivesian collages; “Farewell (Long Time Travelin’)” a tide of continuous, exotic reharmonization; and the finale, “Salvation (Song to the Lamb)” dense with melismatic decoration and closing on an open-ended, clustered “Amen.” It was a challenging score, superbly sung, hinting at hidden complexities even beyond its mercurial surface.

The newer shape-note hymns—all from within the past 20 years—pushed boundaries in a more casual, unassuming manner. Dana Maiben’s “Vermont” mixed a bluegrass-like melody with harmonies echoing the great 20th-century Anglican composers, major 2nds and 9ths in luxurious sequences. Adam Jacob Simon’s “Inman” gently hovered between natural minor and relative major, a swirl confined but unresolved. Moira Smiley’s “Utopia” was the most reminiscent of William Billings, a bricolage of modal collisions. The Billings selections (“Africa” and “Taunton”) were themselves transformed, the translation into upper voices revealing Dowland-like strains among his dizzyingly individual counterpoint. Even the most familiar attractions can seem new, if you happen to visit at just the right time.


Tourism was all over Roomful of Teeth’s November 21 concert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Kresge Hall. The group itself is the musical equivalent of a compulsive traveler, always adding new and farther-afield techniques and traditions to its toolbox. The appearance was the culmination of that ever-more common form of musical furlough, an academic residency. But the bulk of the program—two premieres, both by MIT composers—were works and music about tourism, in both the symbolic and literal sense.

The first half was Elena Ruehr’s one-act, a cappella opera Cassandra in the Temples, to a libretto by Gretchen E. Henderson. It was presented in an oratorio format; Ruehr, introducing the piece, indicated an eagerness to see it staged. Depending on the director, such staging would either be a trial or a delight: the libretto is more provocative than narrative, more about mood than story. Henderson’s poetry is jammed with wordplay and device, full of near-homonyms and compounding linguistic echoes in a way somewhere between Gertrude Stein and Van Dyke Parks. (Much of it hinges on the text’s visual appearance on the page, which unusually elaborate supertitles attempted to convey.) There is a framework, one centered around tourism: a modern visitor approaches the grave of Cassandra, the legendary Greek prophetess, the visit igniting a parallel retelling of Cassandra’s own crucial visit to the temple where snakes licked her ears, providing her with her gift and curse. Apollo makes an appearance, as does Laocoön and Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, but everything passes as shadows behind the scrim of language.

Ruehr’s music is luminous, constantly musicalizing the sounds of speech in creative, even cheeky ways. A chorus of whispers, like brushed cymbals; sea serpents and snakes sized up in voiced sibilants; Cassandra and Clytemnestra, trapped in their fates, the harmonies sloughing downward along the flat side of the circle of fifths. The score makes good use of Roomful of Teeth’s ability to switch styles on the fly, from throat-singing drones to seething dissonance. (My favorite was Cassandra’s rejection of Apollo—in Henderson’s version, a single “no” slithering down the page—set as sunny, strident ’60s pop, a girl knowing all too well whether or not he’ll still love her tomorrow.) I still can’t imagine exactly how it would be staged, but an abstract Cassandra in the Temples was still plenty diverting, in every sense of the word.

The other premiere, Borderland—a collaborative piece by Christine Southworth and Evan Ziporyn—also began with tourism, in its most nightmarish form. The subject is the conflict in the Ukraine, but half of the piece, its first two movements, viewed it from the vantage—first from the air, then from the ground—of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17, shot down over the country on July 17. A Facebook post, in Dutch, by a boarding passenger was combined with a tweet, in Malaysian, from the airline announcing the disaster, into a staccato weave of open- and closed-mouth sounds—shock and stoicism, perhaps. Then intercepted communications (referencing the weapon used to down the place) between the rebels on the ground and their Russian contact became a tangram of short, repeated fragments, busy, circling crosstalk, anchored around the phrase “А куда нам” (Where are we?). The last two movements turned to Ukranian poetry, by Taras Shevchenko, Ivan Franko, and Bekir Çoban-Zade, set with overtones of birdsong, chirping and chattering behind longer, keening lines. The textual sense was that of an eternal nature regarding passing humanity, the point of calamity giving way to a kind of persistent sadness in the land itself.

The musical setting made use of both minimalistic mosaics of motives and vocal extremes: the Shevchenko poem, for instance, alternated between very low and very high, around an accompanying middle ground, and the last movement, too, placed the texts in (perhaps intentionally) vowel-distorting ranges. For both Cassandra and Borderland, the group used sheet music while its director, Brad Wells, conducted, which actually amplified more than alleviated cautious singing. The concert’s closing three works, by contrast, were Roomful of Teeth standards, performed from memory: Judd Greenstein’s Run Away, gorgeous, simple yet shifty pop harmonies filtered for maximum warmth; Wells’s Otherwise, an exercise in pushing vocal sounds to margins both rich and strident; and the “Allemande” from Caroline Shaw’s Partita, goofy and joyous—and still, I think, the single best demonstration of what the group can do, an extensive tour of the surroundings with an indefatigably, generously, genuinely enthusiastic guide.


In The Wicked + The Divine, the ongoing comic book series by writer Kieron Gillan and artist Jamie McKelvie, Cassandra is a journalist, casting questions and camera at the gods-reincarnated-as-pop-stars that are the book’s central mythological conceit. At the outset, the shallowness with which the celebrities inhabit their supposed divine roles fuels Cassandra’s skepticism into flame. “You know what I see?” she snaps. “Kids posturing with a Wikipedia summary’s understanding of myth.”

She’s wrong; they really are gods, with all the attendant powers and arrogance. But she’s also right; they are kids, become gods, with a very incomplete sense of who those gods are or what it all might mean. They are, in essence, existential tourists, trying on the airport version of a divine identity with the hopes that their visit will invest that identity with nuance and depth. And besides: it doesn’t matter. They are still worshipped. Their performances still matter. As the comic’s main, human character responds to one such performance: “I don’t understand a word she’s saying. Nobody does. All we know is that it means everything.” The great advantage musical tourism has over its physical counterpart might be that the terminal can be just as inspiring as the countryside.

Chicago: The Unbearable Intimacy of Wandelweiser

From September 20-22, 2014, Chicago concertgoers had the rare opportunity to experience the music of the Wandelweiser group, the John Cage-influenced artistic collective based in Germany. An exciting example of Chicago arts institutions working together on a project too ambitious to spearhead alone, the Chicago Wandelweiser Festival was a joint endeavor between Nomi Epstein (composer and artistic director of a.pe.ri.od.ic) and Peter Margasak (music writer and organizer of the Frequency Series at Constellation), with support from the Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago and the Swiss Cultural Institute.
In spite of the relative aesthetic unity of the Wandelweiser collective, all three evenings of the festival offered something quite different. On the first evening, a.pe.ri.od.ic performed three works of Jurg Frey, celebrating the release of their new all-Frey disc, More or Less, with the composer in attendance. On the second evening, University of Chicago musicologist Seth Brodsky moderated a panel discussion between Frey, Epstein, composer Eva Maria Houben, and pianist Andrew Lee. After the discussion, Lee offered a solo recital featuring works by a variety of Wandelweiser composers. On the final evening, Houben gave a fascinating recital of her solo organ works in the amazing Rockefeller Chapel at the University of Chicago.

Wandelweiser composers are known for embracing silence, fragility, and spontaneity. In preparing to attend the festival, I knew that it would demand a special kind of coverage. I wanted to create a sense of intimate dialogue about the music — the same kind of dialogue, perhaps, that these composers have with each other about their work.

But in order to have a dialogue, there has to be more than one writer. So I asked my friend and colleague Andrew Tham to join me in attempting to create a new kind of concert review: one that embraced, rather than attempted to deny, our subjectivity; one that could be a bit rough around the edges.  What follows is the story of our experience of the festival.

Exhibit A: Scared to Write About Music
When: September 20, 2014, 8:27 p.m. – Concert #1
Where: A seat in the back row of Constellation / A stoplight at Belmont and Western, Chicago, IL
What: During an exchange of text messages, McSweeney follows up on Tham’s earlier email which mentioned that he’s been “scared to write about music lately.”
tham1 tham2

Exhibit B: Armrest Etiquette 
When: September 20, 2014, 8:41 p.m.
Where: Two seats in the back row of Constellation, Chicago, IL
What: Copies of the authors’ notes as the concert begins. Tham muses about who should get which armrest in a concert seating situation, while McSweeney notices the presence and absence of ego in Frey’s music.
Soundtrack: Jurg Frey, More or Less Normal, performed by a.pe.ri.od.ic

Exhibit C: Felt Like We Were Trapped
When: September 21, 2014, 8:58 p.m.
Where: Two seats in the back row of Constellation, Chicago, IL
What: As the concert continues, things get tense.
Soundtrack: Jurg Frey, 60 Pieces of Sound

Exhibit D: CRUNCH
When: September 27, 2014, 1:35 p.m.
Where: The authors’ laptops in Edgewater/Humboldt Park, respectively
What: During a post-festival gmail chat, Tham reveals having had an accidental Wandelweiser sonic performance experience with a paper cutter.
Screen Shot 2014-10-06 at 12.24.24 PM

Exhibit E: At Least We Tried
When: September 30, 2014, 9:30 a.m.
Where: The authors’ laptops in Edgewater/Humboldt Park, respectively
What: Tham expresses his aspirations for this article.

Tanglewood: Sessions and Lessons on Successful Composition

Stefan Asbury leading the TMCO in Roger Sessions Concerto for Orchestra. Photo by Hilary Scott

Stefan Asbury leading the TMCO in Roger Sessions Concerto for Orchestra. Photo by Hilary Scott

It is essential that the company be a big one
It should be at least big enough
So that nobody knows exactly
What anyone else is doing

—Frank Loesser, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying

Monday of last week I was at Tanglewood’s Ozawa Hall, sitting in front of a chatty old lady. (The first rule of Tanglewood: you will always be sitting in front of a chatty old lady.) This was the final concert of the Festival of Contemporary Music (which I reviewed for the Boston Globe), and the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra and conductor Stefan Asbury kicked off the program with an old-school favorite of mine: Roger Sessions’s Concerto for Orchestra.

It was not a favorite of the lady behind me. This, in and of itself, is not that surprising. It was a great performance, but Sessions is an acquired taste (one that I am happy to have acquired). But it was the way she talked about it that caught my ear. “It’s not successful,” she kept saying, all through the changeover to the next piece. “It’s not a successful piece of music.”

I’ve probably heard (and used) a similar construction dozens of times, but she was so fixed on that terminology that it just started to sound weirder and weirder. It wasn’t successful. It’s an unsuccessful piece.
What does that even mean?


It was pretty clear what it meant in this specific case. She didn’t like it. She just wanted a more objective-sounding way of saying that. For all the criticism of the avant-garde modernist habit of deflecting personal responsibility by reference to some realm of impersonal, the-music-goes-where-it-has-to-go autonomy—here’s a handy example—it’s worth noting that the avant-garde’s discontents do the exact same thing. It’s the style that’s bankrupt; it’s the music that’s unsuccessful. (It’s not me; it’s you.)
So: is this piece successful? From a professional standpoint, Sessions’s Concerto was, in fact, a huge success. It was commissioned and premiered by the Boston Symphony Orchestra. It got great reviews. The BSO recorded it, and the recording got great reviews. It won the Pulitzer Prize. But those are, perhaps, merely career-based externalities, and the buzzwordiness of that phrase is some indication that inherent musical quality is not its inevitable companion. These are the sort of markers that are easiest to dismiss (up to a point: everybody hates the Pulitzer Prize until one of their favorite composers wins the thing).

I think (I hope) I’ve been a little more specific with “successful” and “unsuccessful” when writing or talking about music, measuring it against some given goal: either a composer’s-note mission statement for the piece, or some sort of dramatic necessity, or some trajectory that the music seems to be implying so strongly that to abandon it would be perverse. But a lot of times, I am left in the dark as to those goals. When it comes to, say, a major work by an 85-year-old Roger Sessions, I tend to assume that the composer knew what he was doing, that what we’re hearing is what he intended us to hear. Not being exactly what one wants to hear seems like a pretty thin rationale for judging whether a piece of music succeeds or doesn’t.

The consensus of the group behind me seemed to be that the Concerto wasn’t flashy enough, that it didn’t justify its massive ensemble and its title with sufficient musical fireworks. To be fair, Sessions doesn’t have the generous glitter of that other BSO commission, Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra—if that’s your benchmark, then the piece is going to seem unsuccessful. The question—an old one—is whether or not the listener has some responsibility to try and meet the music on its own terms.
My favorite part of the Sessions Concerto is about a third of the way through (starting at measure 126, if you’re the type to have a score lying around). The winds start to melt away, a couple of the horns fizz up their section with a few measures of stopped notes, and then a Largo section begins with about 45 seconds of nothing but the brass softly winding around each other then suddenly erupting into a brief flame. It’s like musical lava. I could pat myself on the back for enjoying what Sessions is doing at this moment, for getting it, but that’s false, too—the piece isn’t successful just because it’s unwittingly pandering to what I like any more than it’s unsuccessful for not pandering to someone else’s preferences. Still, I think there’s something valuable in getting out of your own way as a listener. I take the Concerto’s Gordon-Willis-photographs-the-Second-Viennese-School sound as something Sessions intended, and find that there’s a lot of beauty in that sound.

While I was out at Tanglewood, I gave a lecture to the Boston University Tanglewood Institute students about their following-weekend orchestra concert, which included Sibelius’s Pohjola’s Daughter and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherezade. While doing research for the talk, I ran across Rimsky-Korsakov’s wonderfully dry reaction (as reported by Stravinsky) to hearing Sibelius’s Second Symphony for the first time: “Well, I suppose that is also possible.” I decided to make it my mantra for the Festival, a little amulet of equanimity—the music might be good, it might be bad, but before anything, it is what it is, independent of what I wish it was. I still didn’t like every piece on the Festival. But I probably enjoyed the possibilities more than I might have otherwise.


Not long ago, I had a dream, part of which involved a fictional piece of music. (Another part involved Monty Python’s Flying Circus being filmed in northern New England, thanks, somehow, to an unsettled border dispute with Canada. Have at it, Jungians.) I don’t remember the (also fictional) composer or title, but I do remember that a recording and score of the piece came packaged with a very Jack Kirby-ish comic book, all far-out, cosmic pop mythology. The music itself was electronic, analog-synthesized nasality and ping, garnished with fashionable atonal and aleatoric features, but on a foundation that had the comfortable structure of a Hollywood soundtrack. The final section of the piece was a setting of a passage from some medieval, Vico-like bit of mysticism, the portentous narration filtered through some early version of a vocoder.

It was, in other words, just about the most late-’60s-America artifact one could possibly imagine. And that’s how it was perceived in the dream world, too. Everyone I was hanging out with in the dream—musicians all—knew the piece; it was one of those grad-school cult pieces, not part of the standard repertoire, but common knowledge among current and former composition students, say. In the dream, a lot of my friends were kind of rolling their eyes at the piece, at its cheesiness, its datedness, its lack of restraint. But that was just why I liked it, the fact that it was so over-saturated with its own zeitgeist.

I woke up and wondered how much American history you could map out this way—with pieces from the classical repertoire that were so much of their own time that they never really escaped it, either aesthetically or, in performance-frequency terms, literally. I didn’t get very far, to be honest. But I did realize one thing: any piece that fit these criteria was, by definition, on some level, unsuccessful.
But, as with that dream-world piece, that tends to have a lot to do with why I like them. The two strongest candidates I came up with—Marc Blitzstein’s Airborne Symphony for the 1940s and Philip Glass’s Songs from Liquid Days for the 1980s—are both pieces that I love. They’re also both pieces that, from one angle, are flawed and dated. But, from another angle, they’re pieces that bring to the fore ideas and aspects of music that more conventionally successful pieces never do.

Songs from Liquid Days is particularly rich in this regard. For those who might have missed it (still reeling, perhaps, from Boy George’s appearance on The A-Team), Songs from Liquid Days was a 1986 album for which Glass set texts by various pop/art-pop artists (Paul Simon, Suzanne Vega, David Byrne, Laurie Anderson) then recruited a bunch of different pop artists (Janice Pendarvis, longtime Rolling Stones backup Bernard Fowler, Linda Ronstadt, The Roches) to sing the results. If that sounds like a mish-mash, well, it is. And my first reaction to something like “Changing Opinion,” the opening track—both when I first heard it and when I recently pulled the album out again—was that all those different contributions, all those agendas, pulled the piece in too many contrary directions.

Which is exactly what I found most compelling about it the second and third times around. Each of the components—the Wagnerian harmonies, the R&B vocals, the nouvelle vague realism/surrealism of the lyrics—is thrown back on itself by the others, until it’s concentrated and pure. The stylistic essences are amplified by the sheer incompatibility. Even its period-piece-ness is profound, tapping into aspects of the era that tend to get sanded away by the retro-culture industry. (“Liquid Days (Part I),” with The Roches warbling in close harmony, nails the antiseptic nostalgia that saturated the ’80s better than any other piece I can think of.)

Is that what the piece set out to do? Nevertheless, it’s what the piece does. Or (to exorcise that autonomous musical realm) it’s what I think it does. And I think it’s pretty successful at it.


sessions concerto title
A lot of people, I suppose, would call Sessions’s Concerto for Orchestra a period piece. I can hear something of that. I hear a particular, post war wing of the new-music establishment. I hear its late-’70s, early-’80s twilight. I hear the pre-World War II Vienna from which Sessions drew so much inspiration. But I also hear the years right around 1990—when I first got to know the piece in college. I listened to a lot of postwar atonal modernism in college. I listened to a lot of everything in college, mainly because I didn’t know a lot of it, and mainly because my musical taste was unformed enough that piling in additional, sometimes contradictory evidentiary material was still easy and fun, like filling a library rather than culling it.

Sessions’s Concerto was commissioned for the BSO’s centennial. He had also been commissioned for the BSO’s 75th anniversary, writing his Third Symphony—a big-canvas culmination of his first explorations of serialist techniques. Cyrus Durgin, then the critic for the Boston Globe, was, it is fair to say, dismayed by Sessions’s Third:

What, then, are we to think? Is this music or not? Time will tell, of course, and all writers about art have been proved wrong at one time or another. But this morning is now, and I will say I do not believe it is music, or if it is, here is music of a curiously masochistic and perverse variety. (“Sessions’ New Third Symphony,” Daily Boston Globe, December 7, 1957)

Give Durgin a little credit—he doesn’t make any pretense of lofty objectivity. This is what he thinks, at this particular time. But deciding whether or not something is a piece of music—that is some prime old-school criticism right there. In a post-tonal, post-serialist, post-Cagean, post-minimalist, post-modern atmosphere, that kind of statement has ceased to be useful, or even meaningful. Child of Tree might not be your cup of tea, but if John Cage, as disciplined a musician as there ever was, hears music in the prick of cactus needles, are you going to tell him he’s wrong? But I think that some people miss that sense of certainty. And I think that’s where a lot of that “successful/unsuccessful” type of critical terminology can start to creep in. I’ll confess: I miss it every once in a while, too.

One’s relationship with music is built up brick by brick, piece by piece, concert by concert, judgment by judgment. I like new music, which probably means that I have a higher tolerance than most for constantly demolishing and renovating that house of taste—which I sometimes think might be more of a sign of immaturity than anything: an 8-year-old’s glee at getting to pick up a sledgehammer and bash in the drywall of my own opinions.

Still, sometimes you just want to sit in your house. I sense this most when I go to a concert when I’m in a bad mood. (This is one consequence of our societal norm of putting concerts in the evening: you can fit in an entire crappy day before the first downbeat.) If I’m there in some professional capacity, that means extra work: talking myself into the possibility of an unexpected epiphany, tasking myself with finding some bit of the music worth praising, obsessively applying Cage’s prescription for boredom (“If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, then eight. Then sixteen.”) to keep from completely retreating into a daydream. My job is to recognize that I’m in a bad mood and filter it out; to suppose that whatever I’m hearing is, also, possible.

And then, often times, the concert filters it out for me, and I find that my bad mood has dissipated. How do I know? I find that I’m suddenly more alert. I’m more expectant. I’m more in the present. In short: I’m ready to be proven wrong. And I can’t wait.

Loudness Isn’t What It Used to Be: Southland Ensemble and Robert Ashley

One of the most memorable events I’ve been to this summer was Southland Ensemble’s June 8 concert featuring the music of Robert Ashley, presented by Dog Star Orchestra as part of their annual new music festival in Los Angeles. The event was hosted by Automata, a small gallery nestled in Chinatown’s Chung King Plaza, and the space was packed to capacity. There was a palpable sense of energy in the room, which felt transformed into another world for the duration of the smartly staged, almost ceremonial performance. The ensemble chose to perform their selection of Ashley’s works continuously without a break, sometimes even simultaneously. Boundaries were blurred—not just between the pieces themselves, but also between music and theater, between audience and performer, between performance and life. This confusion could have been alienating, but in the hands of these committed players, it was instead bewitchingly mysterious. It made me deeply curious about the origins of the concert and the process that led to their programming decisions, so a few days after the performance I posed a few questions to ensemble members Christine Tavolacci, Eric KM Clark, Matt Barbier, and James Klopfleisch.

The concert was bookended by Klopfleisch performing The Entrance, which calls for pennies to be carefully stacked on the keys of an organ, generating long held drones (though whether the sound is the point of the process or a byproduct is ambiguous). The piece appealed to Klopfleisch’s masochistic side—“it requires tremendous focus and is very physically taxing”—but it also had an exceedingly long possible duration, far longer than they expected the concert to last. Having the piece run continuously during the show allowed them to conceive of it as a throughline that bound the concert together. It also recontextualized the space between pieces, as Clark noticed: “I personally love replacements of silence and changes in perception. During The Wolfman, I was standing right beside the organ yet couldn’t hear it at all. As soon as The Wolfman ended, the organ came back into prominence for me. I loved that sensation.” (To me it also suggested an infinity of sound, implying tones both before and after the performance.)

In a sense, this made She Was A Visitor the true beginning of the performance. One of Ashley’s best-known works, this version featured Christine Tavolacci repeatedly intoning the titular phrase with impressive precision and consistency, while the other performers led the audience in mimicking selected sounds and phonemes from the phrase. Tavolacci found this work to be unexpectedly demanding. “In order to successfully and consistently perform the speaking part for a long period of time, I had to exclusively regard the text as a combination of musical sounds,” she explained. “It is one thing to understand a concept, and another to successfully perform it. The moment that you think that you are reciting the words is the moment that the ostinato could potentially fall apart.”


The Wolfman (1964) - James Klopfleisch Photo Credit: Eron Rauch www.eronrauch.com © Southland Ensemble 2014

The Wolfman (1964) – James Klopfleisch. Photo by Eron Rauch

If She Was A Visitor is one of Ashley’s most inviting pieces, The Wolfman is perhaps one of his most forbidding, at least by reputation. The score calls for a vocalist, in the persona of a “sinister nightclub singer,” to be amplified with feedback tuned to the size of the room, creating piercing high-pitched squeals in all but the largest spaces. Here Klopfleisch played the vocalist with appropriate levels of sleaze, while Casey Anderson ran electronics with a unique interpretation of the score. Klopfleisch said that “Casey had the most interesting take on The Wolfman—that even though it is presented as being obscenely loud, loudness is now more relative than it used to be, or rather the technological limitations of the time required the piece to be incredibly loud.” By using software to create digital feedback, Anderson was able to ameliorate the harshest sounds without diluting their power. The result was almost overwhelmingly intense but never painful, and I appreciated being able to hear an incredible amount of detail in the cascading, ever-changing waves of noise.

In Memorian Esteban Gomez (1963) - Casey Anderson (saxophone); Eric KM Clark (harmonium); Christine Tavolacci (flute). Photo Credit: Eron Rauch

In Memorian Esteban Gomez (1963) – Casey Anderson (saxophone); Eric KM Clark (harmonium); Christine Tavolacci (flute). Photo by Eron Rauch

in memoriam… ESTEBAN GOMEZ and Trios (White on White) rounded out the program. Drones were a prominent feature of both, blending effortlessly with the ongoing organ tones from The Entrance. The first Trio, with Tavolacci on flute, Anderson on alto saxophone, and Matt Barbier on trombone, was especially bracing. Barbier was particularly drawn in by this piece. “Our parts are all to be played as loud as possible, so it was challenging to find ways to do that while also making a combination of alto flute, sax, and trombone sound so all three are audible,” he admitted. “It’s a fascinating aspect of Ashley’s music—the small details don’t always seem to mesh with larger ideas at first glance, and part of the process is to find a solution in the details.”

Trios (White on White) (1963) - Matt Barbier (trombone), Casey Anderson (saxophone), Christine Tavolacci (flute). Photo Credit: Eron Rauch

Trios (White on White) (1963) – Matt Barbier (trombone), Casey Anderson (saxophone), Christine Tavolacci (flute). Photo by Eron Rauch

In the second Trio, the overlapping long tones played by Orin Hildestad (violin) and Jonathan Stehney (recorder) were intermittently interrupted with resonant junk percussion played by Klopfleisch. After all this nearly static slow burn, the third Trio was an enjoyably absurdist surprise, with Barbier giving a mini-lecture on the history of his instrument and demonstrating with musical examples. Partway through, a violinist (Eric KM Clark) and violist (Cassia Streb) emerged wearing black tie formal wear and masks to provide off-kilter musical accompaniment. Theatrically, the costuming and staging was inspired, and emblematic of the ensemble’s approach. Throughout the concert, they managed to make creative and enriching additions to Ashley’s ideas, all the while staying true to the spirit of his scores.

Trios (White on White) (1963) - Cassia Streb, Matt Barbier. Photo Credit: Eron Rauch

Trios (White on White) (1963) – Cassia Streb, Matt Barbier. Photo by Eron Rauch

All of the performed works were from Ashley’s early period in the 1960s. Tavolacci observes that while these works remain “highly influential and pivotal pieces in the canon of American experimental music,” they are rarely performed, perhaps because of their reputation for being more conceptual than musical. Southland Ensemble proved that this is anything but the case, that this is vital music that leaps off the page and takes up residence in our imaginations. Something tells me that I will be living with this music for a long time.

Trios (White on White) (1963) - Orin Hildestad and Jonathan Stehney (far left), James Klopfleisch (right). Photo Credit: Eron Rauch

Trios (White on White) (1963) – Orin Hildestad and Jonathan Stehney (far left), James Klopfleisch (right). Photo by Eron Rauch

NY Phil Biennial: Scads, Oodles, and Heaps of Composers

New York Philharmonic Biennial

Photo by Chris Lee

As the NY Phil Biennial continues, with events every day through this Saturday, I’ve begun to realize how many new pieces and how many composers I’ve heard over the last week or so. My rough count comes to 56 people, with only one name appearing on more than one program: that of French composer Bruno Mantovani (whose two delicious yet totally different pieces, Spirit of Alberti and Turbulences, separated by more than fifteen years and adding much to both the “Beyond Recall” and “Circles of Influence: Boulez” programs, was a fascinating contrast in itself). While certain works—the operas Gloria – A Pig Tale and The Raven and other major statements—have made biennial marquis names out of a small number of composers such as HK Gruber, Toshio Hosokawa, Christopher Rouse, Steven Mackey, and Peter Eötvös, the majority of pieces I’ve heard are for modest forces and are of modest length: nearly always less than fifteen minutes long. Of course, if what the planners seek is variety, then such a design makes sense. To paraphrase Alan Gilbert during his conversations with leaders in the visual arts on Monday evening, time space is to music what wall space is to art. Both are precious, but the more Richard Serra one exhibits, the less space there is for everything else. A combination of grand monuments and humble still lifes can fill a gallery—differences of scale are powerful in giving us context for what see and hear, and also how we come (perhaps over several pieces and several visits) to know an artist or composer.

Ruminating on the delicate art of programming these recent days, I’ve been struck by that old simple math: finding the right pieces and putting them in the right order can provide for some seriously satisfying musical experiences. If the scope of the festival might be called broad, then several of the biennial programs have approached the questions of what music to put and where to put it from a place of (sometimes to my ears, very sharp) focus: surveys of the British and French scenes by way of Pierre Boulez and George Benjamin; solo works from young Americans. Europe seemed to figure in more heavily over the weekend, whereas on Tuesday alone, I heard 12 very new pieces from Americans of roughly my generation—all less than 10 years older or younger. (Ed. note: Sean will be 35 next month!) In the case of the two “Circles of Influence” concerts presented by Pablo Heras-Casado and the Orchestra of St. Luke’s in Rose Hall, the pieces had an uncanny way of talking to each other. Boulez’s former students of various generations—Mantovani, Marc-André Dalbavie, and Philippe Manoury—each provided a new prism of commentary and illumination of Boulez’s slightest works, Mémoriale (…explosante-fixe… Orginel) for flute and small ensemble and Une page d’éphéméride for piano. His contemporary and colleague Heinz Holliger’s Ostinato funèbre was a real outlier, a kind of dirge of found and novel sounds, which gave the whole program a different weight altogether. Similarly, Sunday’s program—essentially Brits of two generations—presented a kind of dialogue across the ages. Although not as tightly wrapped as the French version (those sharing the program with Benjamin each could be said to have closer personal history with another British lion, Oliver Knussen, who wasn’t on the program), these composers complemented each other in natural and surprising ways. The pieces of the thirty-somethings, Helen Grime and Ryan Wigglesworth, each balanced, melancholy and impeccably elegant, contrasted with Colin Matthews’s hugely frenetic and impassioned Suns Dance, cool-to-the-touch Night Rides, and Benjamin’s virtuosic, noble Octet and gravely poetic Upon Silence.

Matthias Pintscher conducting members of the New York Philharmonic in Contact! At the Biennial: Beyond Recall at Museum of Modern Art. Photo by Chris Lee

Matthias Pintscher conducting members of the New York Philharmonic in Contact! At the Biennial: Beyond Recall at Museum of Modern Art. Photo by Chris Lee

A cousin of these programs could be the “Beyond Recall” concerts, presented at MoMA as part of the Philharmonic’s CONTACT! series, with Matthias Pintscher conducting Philharmonic musicians in nine pieces, each less than one year old, each in response to a work of public art in the city of Salzburg. Rather than a meditation on recent history, however, this concert served as a snapshot of the present on the Continent. As such, a different atmosphere—that of anticipation, with an almost tingling sense of event—seemed to permeate the lobby of MoMA at 10 p.m. on a school night. Major voices in Europe like Michael Jarrell, Olga Neuwirth, Dai Fujikura, Johannes Staud, Mark Andre, and Mantovani shared the program with emerging voices like Slovenians Nina Senk and Vito Zuraj, while American composer Jay Schwartz, who at age 25 left the US for Germany to study nearly 25 years ago, enjoyed his US concert debut, presented by the New York Philharmonic, in a moment whose significance was not lost on him.

Matthias Pintscher conducting members of the New York Philharmonic in Contact! At the Biennial: Beyond Recall at Museum of Moder Art, 5/29/14. Photo by Chris Lee

Photo by Chris Lee

The program—often dense, often jubilant, and veering fast among all things between—would have been unheard of as a New York Philharmonic presentation when I arrived in New York more than a decade ago, but the growth of CONTACT! has contributed to a new institutional norm: the new music band. The subset of Philharmonic musicians, always changing, who tackle this repertoire, have, I dare say, grown into the job over the years. It’s a very different one than sitting on the Avery Fisher Hall stage with Brahms and Mahler and the weight of history on your shoulders, and in years of seeing CONTACT! after my own premiere on the opening season, I’ve enjoyed the blossoming of these die-hard chamber virtuosos in magnificent performances of major contemporary rep, like Boulez’s …explosante-fixe… a few seasons back. I also dare say that whether or not the biennial (which has put a lot of difficult new music in the hands of Philharmonic musicians this week) is a natural outgrowth of CONTACT!, it has been enhanced immeasurably, both in performance and as an experience, by this and other journeys into the new world of brave new music. This orchestra is ready for this exhibition.

New York Philharmonic's Biennial Contact! Young American Composers at Subculture. Photo by Chris Lee

New York Philharmonic’s Biennial Contact! Young American Composers at Subculture. Photo by Chris Lee

Tuesday’s American fare, a night of solo works at SubCulture on Bleeker Street, co-presented with the 92nd Street Y and the EarShot reading sessions in a closed session by the Philharmonic, seemed yet a different way of shining a light on what’s happening this very minute. Six composers for six soloists (Paola Prestini, Eric Nathan, Oscar Bettison, Ryan Brown, Michael Hersch, and Chris Kapica, respectively, with Sumire Kudo, cello; Joseph Alessi, trombone; Rebecca Young, viola; Eric Huebner, piano; Yulia Ziskel, violin; and Pascual Martínez Forteza, clarinet) provided what was has probably been the loosest night of the biennial—all pieces, save Ryan Brown’s charmingly dappled Four Pieces for Solo Piano, were commissioned premieres, with huge variations in result. From the spare gravity of Michael Hersch’s seven elegies lasting nearly 20 minutes, to Eric Nathan’s clever take using a partially dismantled instrument, to Chris Kapica’s party-on-the-stage Fandanglish, with sweet and sensuous turns for strings from Prestini and Bettison, what was compelling in concert was actually the sense that each new piece would be approaching the problem of the instrumental soliloquy from a new perspective.

New York Philharmonic's Biennial Contact! Young American Composers at Subculture, 6/3/14. Photo by Chris Lee

Photo by Chris Lee

The orchestra readings offered a similar view from six in their late twenties and early thirties—it’s musical variety that we Americans expect, especially from each other. As with many an early orchestra piece, I heard a lot of others composer’s music in the six pieces chosen on Tuesday morning. I’ve spoken before about getting one’s flight hours in with the orchestra, and with so much to be aware of, developing one’s personal orchestral voice is no slick and simple process. These pieces each approached the challenge of these forces with intelligence, and this weekend we hear the pieces selected for performances (by Julia Adolphe, Andrew McManus, and Max Grafe) get the fair Philharmonic treatment, not just those 20 or so minutes of the reading, which can frustratingly pose more questions than answers. I’m curious to revisit them.

The notion of a musical program is so simple: several pieces, often split by a break, before we head off to drinks. The orchestral norm—overture, concerto followed by symphony—has been so satisfying that it’s worked for centuries. But it seems that the element of surprise can bring so much perspective, and can help us to absorb things afresh. Alan Gilbert is well known for his talent in this realm (“…best we’ve had since Bernstein,” as a former member of the orchestra told me this week), and I’ve seen it here—he and Edward Yim, the Philharmonic’s vice president for artistic planning, and the NY Phil partners understand that there are myriads way to present a piece or a composer. Last night, pianist Marino Formenti, in what has been among the most rich of all such endeavors, presented a stunningly shaped program of Liszt (“the first of the moderns,” as he said from the stage) and works since the 1960s, in which there were many unclear moments—which century were we in? Now there was a surprise, as satisfying as they come.

Boston: Caroline Shaw’s Common Cause

"Your Second or Permanent Teeth" (anatomical diagram)

From Harrison Wader Ferguson, D.D.S., A Child’s Book of the Teeth (1922).

In his 1547 treatise Dodecachordon, Heinrich Glarean, having lionized the likes of Obrecht, Ockeghem, and Josquin (especially Josquin), made sure—like you do—to despair that the younger generation was ruining everything. To be sure, even Josquin had his infelicitous moments: “in some places in his songs he did not fully and properly restrain his impetuous talent, although this ordinary fault may be condoned because of his otherwise incomparable gifts.” Those coming after Josquin, however, made this exception the rule, as Glarean complained:

The art now displays such unrestraint that learned men are nearly sick of it. This has many causes, but mostly it is because composers are ashamed to follow in the footsteps of predecessors who observed the relation of modes exactly; we have fallen into another, distorted style of song which is in no way pleasing—it is only new.

It was probably coincidental that, for the May 10 and 11 premiere performances of Caroline Shaw’s Music in Common Time, the vocal group Roomful of Teeth and the string ensemble A Far Cry preceded the piece with Josquin at his most elegantly, explicitly generational: his “Déploration” on the death of his elder colleague Johannes Ockeghem (in an arrangement by Shaw). But, then again, after winning the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for her Partita (the youngest composer to ever receive the honor), Shaw came in for a share of Glarean-like grief courtesy of John Adams, who implicitly held Shaw up as an example of “extremely simplistic, user-friendly, lightweight” music: “People are winning Pulitzer Prizes writing this stuff now.” He went on:

If you read a lot of history, which I do, you see that civilizations produce periods of high culture, and then they can fall into periods of absolute mediocrity that can go on for generation after generation.

So to have the “Déploration” on the program, that road from Ockeghem to Josquin to implied musical perdition, was a nice reminder that, if you read even a little history, you see that these sorts of bumpy transitions are nothing new. Music in Common Time is, among other things, a border stone marking one of those most porous yet most impassible of barriers: a proximate, parapatric stylistic divide.

* * *

A Far Cry, seven seasons old, has, since 2010, been the in residence at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum (where I heard this program on May 11). They are a conductorless gang of energetic fashion. (Their standard-repertoire contribution to the program, Mahler’s string-orchestra arrangement of Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” Quartet (D. 810), was incessantly high-contrast and bracing.) Roomful of Teeth charts a line between musical polish and enthusiasm. Their singing in the Josquin, for instance, channeled the precision of an early music outfit but eschewed the homogeneity: individual voices could still be heard amidst the collective. Both groups are cut from similar cloth: younger-skewing ensembles proficient enough to slip into the churn of the classical-music performance business, and idiosyncratic enough to create the sense that they’re reprogramming the machine. An additional layer of professional and personal connections between the two groups (which Shaw hinted at in a breezy program note) made for a natural collaboration; Shaw’s new piece—somewhat mind-bendingly, her first formal commission—provided the occasion.

Music in Common Time is not quite a concerto, although the eight voices tend to move more as a unified group than the string orchestra, which is frequently divided into distinct factions. An opening stretch—a staggered, rising, arpeggiated triad (D major, picking up where Partita left off)—shifts into the sturdiest of diatonic progressions, then gives way to a vocal break, one of two sections with text: “Over the roads,” the voices sing, in a tongue-twisting interlude of traveling music. (That dialectic, one ensemble gently interrupting the other, happens throughout.) After a bit of folk-tinged, almost Holst-like atmosphere, the opening section returns, only to be undercut by thickets of snap-pizzicato, becoming a conventionally plucked accompaniment, over which the voices embark on a short study in portamento, sliding up and down into pure harmonies.

The center of the piece was engrossing, a negotiation between a perpetually rising sequence of secondary dominants in the strings and faster, descending parallel chords in the voices, occasionally meeting up for chance cadences. It was chased with a brief dose of ringing-partial throat-singing—one of the piece’s few congruences with Partita’s more exuberant kitchen sink of vocal techniques. That led to the final section: first the voices introduced another bit of sentimentally elusive text (“years ago, I forget; years to come, just let them”) set as a sweetly unsteady shape-note sing; then a tranquil standoff of a coda, half the strings staying put while the other half, along with the voices, moved to a different key center.

The overall effect is that of a linked chain, a point-to-point sojourn. Arrivals are based less on contrapuntal resolution and more on the satisfying effect of a particular sonority. (The sound of a widely spaced triad—roots, thirds, and fifths saturating the overtone spectrum—is a recurring component; it also featured in Shaw’s Josquin arrangement, suboctaves from the double basses trundling in to give crucial harmonies a boost of widescreen warmth.)

But what’s most interesting about Music in Common Time is its relationship to style. Current usage of the term “post-minimalist” can be a little squishy, but in a way that goes beyond historical chronology (and to a more immediately apparent extent than Partita), Music in Common Time is truly post-minimalist, at least in the lower-case sense: the structure and gist are not minimalist, but almost all of its building blocks are minimalist signifiers, tropes and gestures that evolved along with minimalist practice. The triad as object; overlapping consonance as a stretched canvas; the chord-to-chord movement of basic progressions turned into scene and act breaks; variation via altered phrase length rather than elaborated melody—all of these figure into Shaw’s rhetoric, but in a way far removed from minimalism’s deliberate, patient process.

The tropes become objects of recognition at least as much as objects of exploration; the garnishes—the Bartók pizzicato, the more exotic vocal excursions, the polytonality—play off of expectations of what we might be accustomed to hearing those other ideas do in a minimalist context. In other words, Shaw is most definitely not observing the relation of modes exactly, at least by the lights of her elders. Which is as it should be. Music always does this, always has done this, always will do this. Music in Common Time is only unusual in the genial straightforwardness with which it repurposes inherited goods.

It reminded me of my favorite piece of curmudgeonly compositional grumbling, coming a century after Heinrich Glarean, when the Baroque era was just getting traction, but was far enough along for Samuel Scheidt to complain about where things were headed:

I am astonished at the foolish music written in these times…. It certainly must be a remarkably elevated art when a pile of consonances are thrown together any which way.

This is both supremely sarcastic and basically true. It is a remarkably elevated art that is so incapable of settling down, constantly inspiring its practitioners to use the output of one set of rules as the input for a completely different set of rules. Musical style is a moving target. It certainly must be.

LA: A Spring 2014 Concertgoer’s Journal, Part 1

If you’re anything like me, you feel a pang of guilt and regret whenever you miss a new music concert. This makes March and April particularly poignant months in Los Angeles, as the concert calendar becomes impossibly saturated. It was my original ambition to write about every show I make it to in March and April, but I quickly realized the foolhardiness of this ambition. I have to content myself with writing about a few highlights, which means that unfortunately I can’t write in depth about some really fantastic events I attended. But with that out of the way, here are a few concerts that made an impression on me in the past few weeks. In true social media fashion, this list is in reverse chronological order:

Maximum Minimalism (Disney Hall, April 8)

LA Phil New Music Group; photo by Craig T. Mathew/Mathew Imaging

LA Phil New Music Group; photo by Craig T. Mathew/Mathew Imaging

Originally this concert was advertised with the uninspired title “Classic Reich and Premieres” and was much smaller in scope. I’m not sure exactly what happened, but at some point it became a far more interesting four-hour marathon concert featuring a giant katamari of new music ensembles, including venerable visiting groups like the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) and the Calder Quartet, as well as the LA Phil’s New Music Group and local collective wild Up. This was wild Up’s first appearance at Disney Hall, and it was exciting to see the new and the established side by side like this.

Throughout, there was the feeling that this concert could have been even bigger, too. Multiple performances occurred in the lobbies during both intermissions, too many for one person to catch, and the concert was also preceded by a sensitive performance of William Duckworth’s Time Curve Preludes by wild Up’s pianist Richard Valitutto.

Claire Chase, flute; photo by Craig T. Mathew/Mathew Imaging

Claire Chase, flute; photo by Craig T. Mathew/Mathew Imaging

Paradoxically, the Reich pieces that were the focus of the original program sometimes felt like the least essential music here. ICE flutist and director Claire Chase kicked off the program with an mesmerizing performance of Vermont Counterpoint that balanced passion and precision, but the Calder Quartet’s performance of Different Trains felt strangely inert in a live setting. ICE’s impeccable rendition of Radio Rewrite fared a little better, but there was only so much they could do with this odd, chimeric beast. Listening to this series of not-quite-arrangements of Radiohead songs, you can’t help but feel that you’d be better off mainlining pure Reich or Radiohead, instead of ingesting a diluted, homeopathic version of both.

By contrast, wild Up’s repertoire choices felt genuinely subversive, as if they were smuggled onto the program under cover of night. Julius Eastman’s Stay On It presented a more inflammatory version of minimalism, with the relentless repetition of an obnoxious eight-note motive alternating with occasional improvisational and/or aleatoric freakouts. (Brian Walsh’s saxophone blaring was both a literal and figurative high note here.) Andrew McIntosh’s Silver and White poetically dealt with subtle gradations of pitch, with microtonal glissandi partially submerged under the oceanic undulations of a quiet, restrained snare drum roll.

The two premieres commissioned by the LA Phil New Music Group and conducted by John Adams were more conventional, confident works by composers in their prime. Mark Grey’s Awake the Machine Electric was a bit like a mashup of Annie Gosfield and Tchaikovsky, with industrial sound effects juxtaposed with Romantic-sounding orchestration and thematic ideas. The resulting combination didn’t always gel, but it was still thrilling. Missy Mazzoli’s Sinfonia (for Orbiting Spheres) created a bewitching sonic landscape with lyrical strings and winds suspended in a shimmering haze created by long chords held by harmonicas. Sure, she’s used this technique before (e.g. in Still Life with Avalanche), but not quite like this.

Nico Muhly, piano; Andrew Tholl, violin; Shara Worden, voice; Gyan Riley, guitar; photo courtesy Mathew Imaging

Nico Muhly, piano; Andrew Tholl, violin; Shara Worden, voice; Gyan Riley, guitar; photo by Craig T. Mathew/Mathew Imaging

David Lang’s death speaks repurposes fragments of text from Franz Schubert’s songs to create a complete personification of Death, sung beguilingly by Shara Worden with accompaniment from pianist Nico Muhly, guitarist Gyan Riley, and violinist Andrew Tholl. The last movement, “I am walking,” is the most effective, with its sighing two-chord motive and haunting male backup vocals. At times during the other movements, I missed Schubert’s unfashionable melodrama, which for me at least, often implied a lecherous menace underlying Death’s comforting platitudes. Lang seems to take these platitudes at face value.

The concert concluded with a rare performance of John Adams’s American Standard, played by a supergroup conglomeration of ICE and wild Up. Two of the three movements of this early work have been withdrawn, which may be what prompted Adams to come on stage before the performance to give a half-serious disclaimer about this piece from his “radical” Haight-Ashbury days. “It’s a bit like a 25-year-old coming up to you and saying, ‘I’m your son’,” he quipped.

John Adams, Tyshawn Sorey, Andrew McIntosh, Andrew Tholl, and Chirstopher Rountree with members of ICE and wild Up; photo by Craig T. Mathew/Mathew Imaging

John Adams, Tyshawn Sorey, Andrew McIntosh, Andrew Tholl, and Chirstopher Rountree with members of ICE and wild Up; photo by Craig T. Mathew/Mathew Imaging

That said, it was probably the most exciting performance of an Adams piece I’ve seen in years, possibly because I didn’t know what to expect. Each movement was newly arranged for the occasion with copious poetic license by a different young composer. Andrew Tholl’s arrangement of “John Philip Sousa” was a refreshingly juvenile Ivesian death march constructed from familiar patriotic melodies. Andrew McIntosh’s arrangement of “Christian Zeal and Activity” and Tyshawn Sorey’s arrangement of “Sentimentals” were more introspective and meandering. Throughout the final movement, Sorey seemed to be offering commentary on the performance from the piano, with occasional Thelonious Monkish asides and interjections. It was both puzzling and captivating.
At any rate, it was promising to see the truly collaborative nature of this final leg of the marathon, and its unpredictable mix of the radical and the traditional. As creative chair of the LA Phil, I hope Adams takes cues from his younger self more often.

WasteLAnd (Art Share, April 4)

Mark Menzies and Ashley Walters; photo by Micki Davis

Mark Menzies and Ashley Walters; photo by Micki Davis

WasteLAnd is a new concert series in LA with a strong experimental bent, and their April concert showcased extremes of texture both brutal and delicate. Nina C. Young’s violin and cello duo Meditation, performed by Mark Menzies and Ashley Walters, presented a kind of dialogue between scratchy, aggressive playing and more contemplative moments of repose. Brian Griffeath-Loeb’s …on par with grass & twigs, for three different flutes, prepared piano, and two percussionists, conveyed a fascinating, palpable sense of fragility, as conducted by Nicholas Deyoe with great attention to detail. Christine Tavolacci (C flute), Michael Matsuno (alto flute), and Rachel Beetz (bass flute) produced breathy, almost strangled-sounding tones, with sparse, judicious accompaniment from Steve Lewis (piano), Ryan Nestor (percussion), and Steve Solook (percussion). Fernanda Aoki Navarro’s Emptying the Body featured cellist Derek Stein savagely attacking his soundboard, generating powerful percussive effects and propulsive rhythmic activity.

Each of these pieces were extraordinarily successful at creating and exploring unique soundworlds, but once the limits of these worlds were established, I found my attention drifting at times. I longed for something more overtly teleological or developmental, but maybe this is just an aesthetic preference or limitation on my part.

Mark Menzies’s two songs from his cycle 11 elegies and a love song occupied an unusual place on the program. “two deaths” especially felt like an anomaly, with baritone Ian Walker singing melodiously over a gentle undulating electric guitar riff (played by Nicholas Deyoe) and occasional violin asides from Menzies. “18” felt like a return to form, with Walker’s voice stubbornly, obsessively reiterating a single high note while Menzies’s and Deyoe’s figures created frantic and furious activity all around it. This was riveting.

The last two pieces on the program finally united their extreme soundworlds with the sense of movement and change I craved. Kurt Isaacson’s the way of all flesh for solo double bass, here premiered by Scott Worthington, featured seesawing ostinati that slowly, satisfyingly built in intensity. Worthington’s control over this gradual process was masterful, and transfixing. Finally, Nicholas Deyoe’s Erstickend for two cellos and percussion, another premiere, spun an intricate web of epic proportions out of a skittering three-note motive. Ashley Walters and Derek Stein infused their cello parts with the requisite ferocity, while percussionist Ryan Nestor’s rhythmic interjections added even more tension. The piece concludes with a violent crescendo and snare drum roll — would it be churlish to point out the orthodox effectiveness of this ending?

JacobTV (What’s Next Ensemble, March 28)

JacobTV with What's Next Ensemble; photo by Tina Tallon

JacobTV with What’s Next Ensemble; photo by Tina Tallon

What’s Next Ensemble is perhaps best known for the Los Angeles Composers Project, an annual concert series championing the work of local Southern California denizens. Their last event, however, was an ambitious departure for them, a concert at Cafe Club Fais Do-Do devoted entirely to the music of Dutch avant-pop icon Jacob Ter Veldhuis, a.k.a. JacobTV. JacobTV’s sardonic pop aesthetic occupies a unique place in the current landscape of new music, getting lots of mileage out of marrying clips of recorded speech with acoustic musical accompaniment/counterpoint. Certainly he’s not the first or only composer to employ speech for its musical qualities — Peter Ablinger and Steve Reich come to mind — but no one, so far, has managed to do it in such a topical and witty way. The unpredictability of his subject matter, for one thing, keeps it fresh. Cheese Cake features the ramblings of tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon introducing a Carnegie Hall concert, for example, while Grab It! cuts up candid interviews with convicts from the 1978 documentary Scared Straight!

The main draw of this concert, though, was definitely The News, his ongoing “reality opera” that is constantly being added to as current events march on. The News also incorporates video (compiled and edited by JacobTV himself, I hear), and there are wonderful moments when all the multimedia elements came together in a seamless, joyful way, as when a cartoonish evangelical preacher waves his arms about on screen in a panoply of Warholian windows while the ensemble funkily amplifies the absurdity of his words. This tends to work best with lighthearted subjects, and moments that aimed for more gravitas sometimes felt awkwardly mawkish, like the saccharine chords that accompanied a speech about peace by Pope Benedict. The exception to this was a segment devoted to an American ex-soldier’s account of an accidental killing in Iraq. Here the music followed the cadence of the ex-soldier’s powerful words precisely, amplifying them instead of commenting on them: in effect, letting them speak for themselves.

The musicians of What’s Next, led by the unflappable baton of Vimbayi Kaziboni, were downright fantastic in realizing JacobTV’s artistic vision, riding through a couple technical issues and an earthquake (both of which I’ve come to expect lately) with professionalism and aplomb. Ben Phelps, one of the ensemble’s directors, also deserves credit for producing the concert in the first place.

Collapse (Timur and the Dime Museum, March 27)

Timur and the Dime Museum; photo by Tina Tallon

Timur and the Dime Museum; photo by Tina Tallon

Like JacobTV’s music, Timur and the Dime Museum’s Collapse also takes on a newsworthy topic — this time, environmental devastation. This album-length work, presented at Disney Hall’s REDCAT, is loosely patterned after a requiem. These factors make it sound like it could be a dour and dreary affair, but Daniel Corral, the Dime Museum’s accordionist and composer-in-residence, takes an inspired, unexpected approach, turning the whole thing into a psychedelic rock opera of sorts, with catchy hooks, doo-wop harmonies, and a pantheon of stylistic references. This spoonful-of-sugar tactic works wonders for the show, which is more likely to generate delight than despair. I almost feel guilty for enjoying it.

Timur Bekbosonuv, a tenor equally accomplished in both pop and operatic idioms, was captivating as the lead vocalist, generating metric tonnes of charisma and stage presence throughout a variety of costume changes, including a half-dress-half-pantsuit number that deserves special mention (designed by Victor Wilde and the Bohemian Society). But most members of the band got some time at the mic too, and Corral’s score made the most of the myriad vocal qualities in the group. A highlight was the sweet ballad “Honeybee, Come Home,” sung with appropriate naivete by bassist Dave Tranchina.

But the score had its darker moments, too. “The House of Moloch” begins with a deliciously gritty riff from guitarist Matthew Setzer, and if you had told me it was a recently unearthed Diamond Dogs-era David Bowie B-side, I might have believed you. The beginning of the Dies Irae, titled “Demon Chora,” also caught my attention with its moody synths and ominous female voiceover, reciting text taken from the International Atomic Energy Agency’s INES scale. And throughout the show, drummer Andrew Lessman provided the endless, vital engine underneath it all, a constant powerful presence outside of the spotlight.

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.

New England’s Prospect: Boston Symphony Chamber Players Celebrate 50 Years

Boston Symphony Chamber Players, Randall Hodgkinson, piano

Boston Symphony Chamber Players, Randall Hodgkinson, piano
Photo by Hilary Scott

Musical institutions have the amnesiac pleasure of getting themselves birthday presents and still being surprised. On February 9, the Boston Symphony Chamber Players unwrapped the bulk of their 50th-anniversary loot: four commissioned pieces, premiered en masse. (Another commission, Sebastian Currier’s Parallel Worlds, will have its premiere in Arizona before coming to Boston in April.) That nearly doubles the group’s commissioned repertoire all at once; up until this year, only seven other pieces (going by the handy list of repertoire included in Sunday’s program) had been written for them. Then again, I suppose 50 is a plausibly sitcom-ish age for suddenly realizing that you’ve always wanted a lot of new toys.

And, then again, the Chamber Players have always been institutionally unusual. They were founded (as I learned from Jeremy Eichler) as a side effect of Tanglewood’s long flirtation with the automobile; Erich Leinsdorf wanted prelude concerts to give patrons an extra hour to deal with traffic and recruited some of the BSO’s principals to fill the bill. (The members are all still principals, with the exception of cellist Jules Eskin, the lone veteran of that 1964 lineup.) Those commissions are technically BSO commissions, funded by the same pool that keeps the orchestra intermittently current. So the birthday party is both a calendrical observation and a confirmation of the Players’ success—five commissions is a strong commitment from the parent company.
The four new pieces on Sunday’s concert were deliberately local—a couple of old familiar Bostonians (Gunther Schuller and Yehudi Wyner), and a couple of newer connections (Kati Agócs, who teaches at the New England Conservatory, and Hannah Lash, who graduated from Harvard). Agócs’s contribution, Devotion, for horn, harp, and string quintet, hovered in an area somewhere between chamber and orchestral music—one could imagine the strings, at times, blown up to a full symphonic complement. (It did warrant a conductor, outgoing BSO assistant Andris Poga.) The harp (Jessica Zhou) primes the piece with a healthy dose of glitter, a kind of harmonic respiration between diatonic and synthetic scales, under which the strings (Malcolm Lowe, Haldan Martinson, Steven Ansell, Eskin, and Ed Barker) provide a cushion; over it all, the horn (James Sommerville) sweeps and soars, much of it haute-contre high. The middle section was a contrast in almost every way, triggered by Sommerville shifting from the highest part of the horn’s range to the lowest, one snarling pedal tone after another; the viola tiptoes around a melody; the violins and cello stalk soft chords; harp and double-bass keep a hesitant tick-tock. The horn rises back up to the top of its range, an A-section recapitulation, and a wheels-on-the-tarmac unison ending.

Boston Symphony Chamber Players perform Hannah Lash's Three Shades Without Angles

Boston Symphony Chamber Players perform Hannah Lash’s Three Shades Without Angles
Photograph by Hilary Scott

Lash’s Three Shades Without Angles also put Zhou’s harp front and center, flanked by Debussyian flute (Elizabeth Rowe) and viola (Ansell). The harp part started as an exercise in stamina, a moto perpetuo ride the other instruments hopped onto, all mixed meters and crossed accents; the effect was something like the world’s most dreamy and delicate action movie. Then the harp abruptly turned taciturn, offering occasional punctuation for flute and viola recitatives, before laying down arpeggios over which the other two strung a loping, wide-interval melody, hopping from stone to stone across a flowing stream. Like Devotion, Three Shades had that 21st-century sense of moving flats and bright outlines—sharp and deliberate section breaks, a constantly churning counterpoint that, however, keeps stirring through a seemingly single harmonic color (in this case, a higher-overtone, dominant-seventh plus sharp-9 and 11 sort of shimmer). Both pieces had an almost Vermeer-like polish: tightly framed, smoothly varnished vignettes of carefully modulated luminosity.

Where Agócs and Lash used controlled brushwork, Schuller and Wyner opted for more freewheeling lines. Schuller, 88, is a more frail presence than he used to be, but his music—on Sunday, it was Games, a compact divertimento for wind and string quintets—keeps doubling down on musical and intellectual energy. UNESCO has a program where they periodically designate a certain craft or tradition as (and I love this phrase) an Intangible Culture Heritage; if I was in charge of making that list, I would be sorely tempted to include Gunther Schuller’s late-period gonzo stream-of-consciousness style. Every piece of his I’ve heard over the past few years—his Four Vignettes, the Piano Trio No. 3, Dreamscape—is the product of a deep, singular, and probably inimitable reserve of skills and experiences being rummaged through with a compulsively entertaining raconteur’s disdain for restraint or the unities. Games is dense, mutable fun. The opening, a chattering overlap of conflicting tuplets, soon gives way to an entire midway of ideas: a Stravinskian ostinato stuck in its own groove; a burlesque quote of Ravel (the Valses Nobles et Sentimentales, transformed into something gleefully ignoble and unsentimental), whisked away behind some disjointed pointillism; a slashing, slapstick ending swiped from Mozart’s Musical Joke. Along the way, Schuller has a lot of fun with the sheer timbre of dissonance, odd combinations of instruments, and intervals that, on at least a half-dozen occasions, had me half out of my seat, trying to parse what strange alchemy had created such an unexpected sonority. Games was about half the length of any of the other new pieces, but it contained at least twice as much music. (Oboist John Ferrillo, clarinetist William Hudgins, and bassoonist Richard Svoboda joined the crowd; Poga again conducted.)

Boston Symphony Chamber Players perform Gunther Schuller's Games

Boston Symphony Chamber Players perform Gunther Schuller’s Games
Photo by Hilary Scott

Wyner’s piece was nowhere near as manic as Schuller’s bag of tricks, but it, too, ended up covering a significant amount of ground. Into the Evening Air put a traditional ensemble (a wind quintet) into a traditional mood (nocturnal, in both susurrant and serene varieties), but deviated from the path just enough to keep the ear continually attuned. Both the busy, twittering opening and the languid dissonance it turned into nodded toward other staples of the repertoire (Samuel Barber’s Summer Music came to mind more than once), but only from a distance. In an analogous way, Wyner paid heed to customary quintet allegiances—flute and oboe, horn and bassoon, clarinet as a free agent—but then, in a section of passed-around solos, used some deft play with range to expand and shift those alliances: horn and bassoon going up into their higher notes to let low flute join in, oboe going down to its lowest tones to make common cause with the horn and bassoon, the flute and bassoon suddenly stalking about in wide-spaced octaves, the other three instruments slipping into the gap. Into the Evening Air moves from idea to idea with a kind of diaristic nonchalance. The conversation slows almost to a frozen stasis before Wyner turns one last nifty corner: a soft chord that fades into a single clarinet note, which then dovetails into a quietly questioning call from the flute.

Boston Symphony Chamber Players perform Yehudi Wyner's Into the Evening Air

Boston Symphony Chamber Players perform Yehudi Wyner’s Into the Evening Air
Photo by Hilary Scott

The group surrounded their bounty of novelty with a pair of turn-of-the-last-century works that extended the locavore theme—more New England composers—but also encompassed the program’s contrasts: mood and structure, formal and feisty, male and female. Ansell, Ferrillo and pianist Randall Hodgkinson opened the show with a lush and equable mezzotint reading of Charles Loeffler’s Two Rhapsodies. Hodgkinson was back, joined by Rowe, Martinson, Ansell, and Eskin, for the finale, Amy Beach’s brawny op. 67 Piano Quintet, in a performance that made a pretty good nomination for the Quintet’s admission to the Academy of the Underrated. (The Quintet’s Adagio espressivo movement, certainly, is a stretch of late-Romantic mastery that can take its place alongside anything at all.) Give the Boston Symphony Chamber Players their due as hosts and hostesses: the party favors were as good as the presents.