Monday, November 25, 2013

New Voices, New Music

Last week at Carnegie Hall, four young chamber ensembles had the opportunity to work with emerging composers as part of a six-day workshop called “New Voices, New Music”.  The program is one of several activities that was put in place by David Lang, the holder of this year’s Richard and Barbara Debs Composer’s Chair at Carnegie Hall.  Carnegie Hall offered Lang a range of options for what he could do as the chair, and he wanted to do all of the activities.  

In February, there will be a family concert with the Bang on a Can All-Stars, followed by a chamber-orchestra concert in March by the ACJW Ensemble.  In April there will be a six-concert festival titled “collected stories”.  There will also be several performances of Lang’s own works, the first of which was performed by So Percussion this past weekend.  In the workshop last week, the ensembles and composers worked both with Mr. Lang and with members of the International Contemporary Ensemble.  There were also four aspiring music journalists who attended to work with the LA Times critic Mark Swed. 

A LA-based quartet called gnarwhallaby, which consisted of a clarinet, trombone, cello, and piano, performed “Lullaby 4” by Nicholas Deyoe.   Although there was a sense of structure, the piece had “the spontaneity of free improvisation”.  The New York chamber ensemble Hotel Elefant played an emotional piece by Mary Kouyoumdjian, which displayed her feelings about visiting her ancestral homeland of Armenia.  Mivos Quartet, also from NY, performed Robert Honstein’s “Arctic”.  Eastman BroadBand performed Carlos Iturralde’s “Fata Morgana”, which included a wind trio in the balcony and a string trio on stage.

Lang wanted to make sure that the performers of the various groups were not feeling competitive, so he combined all of the groups to play “Stamping in the Dark” by Daniel Goode, “13 Changes” by Pauline Oliveros, and “Serenata per un satellite” by Bruno Maderna. 

This workshop sounds like it was a huge success.  This type of learning experience is extremely valuable and beneficial for the performers and composers.  It is also a great way of promoting these specific musicians, as well as new music in general.  It seems like David Lang is a perfect person to have in the Composer’s Chair, as he is open to a variety of new musical ideas.  He stated that, “you have to design doorways for as many people to walk through to find this music as you can”.  He is certainly doing this by promoting various styles of new music.  He is promoting music written by well-known composers and unheard of young composers, and he is promoting the performances of famous chamber ensembles and emerging artists.  He is making these concerts available and accessible for everyone through events such as the family concert, and of course Carnegie Hall is a great venue to do this in.   These types of activities and visions are exactly what new music needs. 

Viola Organista Comes to Life

A Polish pianist Slawomir Zubrzycki has reconstructed an instrument from over 500 years ago. Viola organista, invented by Leonardo da Vinci in the Renaissance Era, has apparently never been built before. The model sketches are found in the Codex Atlanticus, a collection of drawings and texts by da Vinci. It took Zubrzycki three years and 5000 hours to build the viola organista.

The instrument looks somewhat like a baby grand piano and combines characteristics of the harpsichord, organ, and viola da gamba. It consists of sixty one steel strings, four spinning wheels wrapped in horse-tail hair, and foot pedals. Unlike piano, it does not have hammers, but the spinning wheels create sound in a similar fashion to violin.

Zubrzycki premiered the viola organista in October at the Academy of Music in Krakow in Poland, playing pieces originally written for the viola da gamba as well as harpsichord. Here is a Youtube link of him playing it:  I respect Zubrzycki for his patience in building the viola organista. If one has the time and energy to do it, I support the projects of recreation of old instruments, or any inventions for that matter. Even if no one was enthusiastic about hearing the viola organista any more as of now, as I personally am not particularly, it adds to the richness of available sound. For composers, it could be interesting to explore its potentialities, and those explorations may inspire others further, or spark new innovations in terms of sound or instruments. 

Interview of Jianzhong Wang

Recently, I am writing Jianzhong Wang for Wikipedia entry. When I am searching the resource, I find one interview particularly catches my attention. The China Daily talked about Jianzhong Wang in September 13th. Wang, an influential Chinese composer and music teacher, gave a lecture on his piano works on Tuesday at the Mannes College of Music in New York. More than 100 of Wang’s students and admirers attended the event which also celebrated the composer’s 80th birthday. The night’s program included “Liu Yang River” (1972), “Three Variations of the Plum Blossom Melody” (1973), “Hundreds of Birds Worshipping the Phoenix” (1973), and “Evening Song on the Fishing Boat” (2006). All of these are famous piano repertory in China.

The former vice-president of the Shanghai Conservatory, Wang is a household name in China thanks to his large body of works for piano composed in 1960s and 1970s, music that bridged traditional Chinese music with Western classical and modern composition styles. His music bridged traditional Chinese music with Western classical and modern composition styles. His piano compositions were valued for what they revealed about the dilemma faced by Wang’s generation of Chinese composers during a time of great social turmoil. The popularity of his works continued after the bans on contemporary music and Western music were lifted in the 1970s. He successfully developed a piano style that captures the sound and spirit of traditional Chinese folk music by integrating ornamental tones, chromaticism, and pentantonic scales.

A misleading title, but a good point to discuss

Today I read an article in the Huffington post by Richard Dare.  The article can be found here.
It's titled "The Awfulness of Classical Music Explained."  This is a misleading title chosen, I'm sure, for it's shock value more than it's accuracy.  The author actual has only nice things to say about the actual music but he is angered by what he experiences as overly dull and stuffy ritual in the concert experience.  He feels that audiences should be free to applaud and holler their appreciation between movements at least, as they did in the first half of the 1800s.
I think he sometimes chooses language that's a bit overly extreme:
"A musical North Korea. Who but a bondservant would desire such a ghastly fate? Quickly now: Rise to your feet and applaud. The Dear Leader is coming on stage to conduct. He will guide us, ever so worshipfully through the necrocracy of composers we are obliged to forever adore."

However, I do agree with him to a point.  I say "to a point" because it can't really be treated the same as, say, a rock concert simply because it's not as loud.  Any audience reactions that happen during the music will obscure it much more than at an amplified concert.  So there are those kinds of practical considerations.  That being said, it would be great if the concert experience didn't feel so much like an event for the rich elite.  But, as one commenter on his article pointed out, it is the rich patrons (who are typically the ones most enthusiastic about all this ritual) who provide the donations that keep the orchestra going.  They get what they pay for.  The solutions that come to mind most quickly for me are about allocation of taxpayer dollars but I know that those solutions don't fly with everyone.  Basically, I'd just like to see more resources allocated towards arts education and exposure in school, as well as funding of the arts so they can thrive without having to cater to whatever the people with the most money want, while still keeping ticket prices affordable.
I can dream.

Audience Front and Center

This week, an article from New Music Box, “Audience Cultivation in American Music,” by Sam Hillmer, discusses elements of the rift in popularity between new classical music, or modern art music, and do-it-yourself underground groups and bands. The author makes the case that the reason that new art music has not appeared to gain younger audiences is that new music as a whole has fractured into many subgenres, each with a small but exclusive following. Although mixing genres in the same concert has been proposed as a solution to the rifts, the cultural and practical differences in performance linked to each genre still serve as a barrier to increased audiences. This is interesting because, unlike other complaints about new music which focus on the aesthetic qualities of the sound, this article asserts that the problem is one of culture rather than taste.

Hillmer details the differences often found in the various types of new music experiences. For example, one might go to a concert and be expected to sit quietly in a darkened theater in order to focus on listening. But if one instead goes to a show, they might expect standing room only, socialization, drinks, and perhaps encouraged or even required audience participation that might determine the show’s overall success. New art music can be played at both of these venues, but the general audience experience is vastly different. Hillmer highlights similar discrepancies in new music with bands versus ensembles, venues versus concert halls, and even financial and marketing practices in institutions versus DIY communities.

Rather than lobby for one method over the other, the author says that both types of communities have their strengths and weaknesses.  The institutionalized groups know how to make money, and the DIY groups know how to encourage audience enthusiasm.  Both could benefit from learning from each other, or better yet, working together. According to the author, new music scenes in other countries are much better at melding the two communities than the divided audiences of the United States.

I think this article is refreshing in its focus on the how and why of performances rather than the supposedly hopeless state of so-called inaccessible modern music. Having been to new music events as both formal concerts and less formal shows curated by bands, I do believe that the experience of the informal band is more attractive to younger audiences. The encouragement of participation is exciting, and followers can become fans of a specific band, supporting it in its future endeavors and serving as an advertisement to others. While there is nothing wrong with the traditional setting that holds the composition high above the performance and audience experience, I also feel that we as a music community can benefit from some new music that feels more welcoming.

Monday, November 18, 2013

A Sunday Afternoon with Carter

This past Sunday at Carnegie Hall, the American Symphony Orchestra performed a very bold program made up entirely of music by modernist composer Elliott Carter.  The music director of the American Symphony Orchestra, Leon Botstein, is known for his adventurous programming.   Although Carter gained a significant amount of popularity in his last few decades, and his music is frequently performed in well-known concert and recital halls, an all-Carter program still has the potential to be very overwhelming.  First of all, for the performers, much of Carter’s music is extraordinarily difficult.  Additionally, even for a knowledgeable audience, this could be a difficult concert to follow.  I am a big fan of Carter’s music, but the specific programming would be a very important factor in how I felt during a concert such as this.

Of course, Botstein had considered all of these things.  The review of the concert in the “NY Times” calls it:  Serving a Challenging Meal by Starting Off Easy.  The program was very thoughtfully constructed so that it was balanced for both the audience and the orchestra (which is made up of freelance musicians, so rehearsal time is limited).  The concert opened with the “Suite from Pocahontas”.  The beginning of this is very powerful, and the entire suite displays a wide range of colors along with “folksy melodies and vivacious rhythms”.  Any audience members familiar with the story of Pocahontas can become involved in the music through the story. 

The next piece was “Sound Fields”, which is very easy to listen to.  The consistent sound is altered with slight color and harmonic changes in the strings.  These two pieces set the stage well for the more complex “Clarinet Concerto”.  According to the review, the clarinetist, Anthony McGill, was very engaging as he “wandered the stage animatedly”.  The second half of the concert was similarly structured, as it started off with the beautiful vocal pieces “Warble for Lilac-Time” and “Voyage”, featuring a soprano and mezzo-soprano respectively.  The concert concluded with the “Concerto for Orchestra”, which displays the most modernistic elements of anything on the program. 

I think that this is a great way to present modernist music.  For the members of the audience already familiar with Carter’s music, they could appreciate hearing the changes his music went through.  For those unfamiliar with Carter’s music, the program was designed in a way that allowed them to begin to understand the music through pieces that are more easily accessible.  Having dedicated musicians on stage, including Botstein and McGill, who have a passion for sharing modern music is also important.  The review states that, “Whatever Mr. Botstein and his orchestra may have lacked in machine-tooled precision, they made up with commitment and heart, as well as a bravado that any orchestra might envy”.  Although Carter’s music is very much about precision, it is the display of heart that will encourage audiences to return to this type of concert.  I hope that other music directors will be brave enough to give concerts such as this, but conscious enough to put a great deal of thought into the specifics of programming.  

Davies' statements

British composer Peter Maxwell Davies made news recently after he stated that it is the government's fault that classical music is seen as elitist. The comment came after he critiqued music education in Britain.

"There are hundreds of thousands of youngsters who now have never even heard of Mozart or Beethoven," he said. "It is shocking and a disgrace that has been allowed to happen."

As pointed out here, Davies' statement is an echo of Nicola Benedetti, a famous Scottish violinist. Benedetti said that all children should be forced to understand classical music, "in order to understand humanity."

According to the article, Davies is rated as the world's greatest living composer (which, I find very arguable) and recently stepped down as Master of the Queen's Music. He plans to fill his time concentrating on "helping to make classical music more accessible to young people.

My first exposure to Davies' music was his monodrama Eight Songs for a Mad King. While I don't know much about his other music, I did enjoy this piece. However, I do not find it accessible to young people, which seems ironic, since this is the group of people he wishes to appeal to most. It seems that when Davies says he wants to make classical music accessible, he truly means classical music, versus contemporary or modern music. I very much appreciate the awareness that Davies has brought to this issue and agree with the majority of his statements. Though, I would like him to include modern music (including his own music) in his list of what to expose young people to.

Superb Danish Quartet

November 12th New York Times talked about the superb Danish quartet who played Peter LIberson’s Piano Quintet (2001) with the pianist Gilles Vonsattel as part of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center’s new music series on November 10th. Danish quartet made their debut in 2002 at the Copenhagen Festival. They have many experience of combining contemporary music (especially Scandinavian composers) with classical music. Since winning the Danish Radio P2 Chamber Music Competition in 2004. Also In 2009 the Danish String Quartet won First Prize in the 11th London International String Quartet Competition, as well as four additional categorical prizes from the same competition. After wining many prizes, the quartet has been in great demand throughout the world. As the superb quintet, they perform throughout UK, Asia, Germany, Porland, Norway and Spain.
Luckily, the Danish Quartet played and gave a chamber music master class in Longy last week after they did their performance in New York, so as students here in Longy, we have a great opportunity to see this superb quartet group. As the Celebrity Series Debut, the Danish Quartet played Ten Preludes by Abrahamsen, Quartet No.2 in A minor by Mendelssohn and Quartet in G minor by Debussy. As professional quartet group, members in Danish Quartet are young and talented. They had been commented by New York Times as : “The musicians, acutely attuned to one another, didn’t appear to be on autopilot for even a millisecond, with every nuance, phrase and gesture beautifully wrought." 
Personally, I think Longy provides us with great chance to see such first-class musicians performing here in Campus. Hope Longy will keep hosting such wonderful concerts.