Reviews of 2008 American Composers Alliance Festival
The 2008 ACA Festival, once again held in New York, ran from Wednesday, June 4th through Saturday, June 7th. For the second year in a row it was held at the Peter Norton Symphony Space. Featured were outstanding artists Harold Rosenbaum and his New York Virtuoso Singers, violinist Maria Sampen, clarinetist Naomi Drucker, pianist Christopher Oldfather, sopranos Nicole Pantos and Patricia Sonego and many others. Some of the composers featured included John Eaton, Elliott Schwartz, Margaret Fairlie-Kennedy, Beth Wiemann, Elizabeth Bell, Marc Blitzstein and John Melby. (Our critique of Program #2 has already appeared on our website.)
in The New Music Connoisseur, v. 16 #2, p. 10
Program 1, Wed. evening, June 4th, New York Virtuoso Singers, Harold Rosenbaum, cond., Christopher Oldfather, piano in Mark Zuckerman: Two Browning Poems; Brian Fennelly: Soon Shall the Winter's Foil; Robert Ceely: Five Contemplative Pieces; Gregory Hall: April; Jody Rockmaker: Yiddish Choruses; Louis Karchin: To the Stars; John Eaton: Duo; Edward Jacobs: When Time; Elliott Schwartz: 2 Watterson Poems; Steven Gerber: Sessions of Sweet Silent Thought
The talented octet of singers led by Harold Rosenbaum essayed a most challenging program, mostly acquitting themselves nobly. Many of the works had personal touches provided by the composers: Zuckerman's Browning settings were "heavily influenced" by Lili Boulanger, dedicated to his wife, and sung at their wedding. Fennelly's Whitman setting is the first of several in the making. Ceeley's a cappella settings of Pope, Blake, Wordsworth, Emily Brontë and Walter Savage Lander sport angular dissonances, resolving with seemingly deliberate banality on added-sixth major chords. Hall's eleventh chords blend in an almost too pretty quasi-Fred Waring style. Rockmaker's four a cappella embellishments of Yiddish folksongs are inventive, but hampered by poor, inconsistent transliterations, with which the performers did the best they could. Karchin's Orphic hymn, based on a 3rd century Greek anonymous text graphically translated by Apostolas N. Athanassakis, was more sucessful, especially in its concluding open fifths. Eaton's quasi-operatic psalm setting came across as a duel between soprano Cynthia Richards Wallace and the rest of the chorus, accompanied by inside-the-piano techniques including banchees; its point, contrasting "the suffering, questing" solo with "the smug, complacent chorus - a typical congregation," was well made, with no redundancy whatsoever. Jacobs' a cappella setting of a brief poem by the late Nicholas J. Glennon (1957-2007) ends with a wailed high C in the soprano-not handleable by too many choruses. Schwartz's Watterson settings (two? I counted three...) were well-served by the addition of handbells, temple blocks, drums, and whistling wind. The program concluded with Gerber's a cappella settings of Shakespeare Sonnets #30, 129, 71, 9 (five? I counted four...) alternating canonic with homophonic and some contrapuntal and chromatic writing.
Program 2, Thur. evening, June 5th. "New Piano Ensemble Music." Performed by sopranos Jeannie Im and Nicole Pantos, flutist Justin Berrie, clarinetists Sam Sadigurski, Asuka Yamamoto and Naomi Drucker, violinists Maria Sampen, Chern Hwei Fung and Annie Weiss, violist Tawnya Popoff, cellist Jane Cords-O'Hara and Zsaz Rutkowski, bassist Laurence Goldman, percussionist Adam Forman, and pianists Marijo Newman, Ms. Shrude, Kathy Tagg, Mr. Schwartz and Christopher Bruckman. Steven Kemper: Run from Fear ^ Marilyn Shrude: Memories de luogi ^ Nathan Bowen: Cassia ^ André Brégégère: Vol de nuit ^ Elliott Schwartz: Suite for Viola & piano ^ Fred Cohen: Four Episodes ^ Anthony Lanman: Il dolce stile nuovo ^ Gregory Hall: The Waking ^ Joyce Hope Suskind: Meditations on War and Peace.
Although the piano may have been intended as playing the essential role on this program, at least according to the title, it was the timbral diversity that stood out. The one work dispensing with the keyboard, however, Brégégère's Night Flight (credited to George Perle's influence), came off as just a bit understated, despite the subtle counterpoint interpreted well by the quartet of flute, clarinet, violin and cello. Two other brief works under six minutes, Mr. Kemper's and Mr. Bowen's, seem to have more energy and harmonic interest, the latter especially - a flavorful four-minute composition with interesting complexities. Mr. Kemper's piece, inspired by wordplay, offers contrasting segments between terror and dark humor, parallelling a witty spoonerism (Run from Fear/Fun from Rear).
But the longer more ambitious selections held sway. Prof. Shrude's Memories of Places (made up of "Tangled Paths/Water ... still and undisturbed/Born of Moutains") are highly descriptive, with many extended techniques for the violin, accompanied by piano, notably passages with a lot of tremolo and uptempo rhythms, not to mention some lovely moments of peace and rest, all as a reminiscence upon time spent in Bellagio, Italy.
The longest work ended the concert impressively and, at the risk of resonating a bit of sexism in reverse, meant that the two women composers stole the show. Truly Ms. Suskind's "Meditations" - note the implicative proximity to "Memories" - is a remarkably inspired vocal setting of profoundly felt poems by Morgan Alexander, Gerard Manley Hopkins and William Butler Yeats. Especially notable is the use of a major key in Hopkins' "War," and the unexpectedly march-like rhythm in Yeats' famously resounding "The Second Coming," ending with the much quoted words, "And what rough beast, its hour come round at last/ Slouches toward Bethlehem to be born." Paradoxically, this music moves into the realm of great art by being uplifting rather than depressing or alarming.
We found Fred Cohen's Four Episodes ("Flash/Breath/Arioso/Pure") to be well conceived for the clarinet and piano. Mr. Lanman's work has dramatic impact as it reaches its climax. Looking at Mr. Schwartz's early suite retrospectively, we see it as a bit unfinished in some of its segments; perhaps the composer was holding back those powers that were eventually to emerge. Gregory Hall's Waking also seems to want to say more, although the Theodore Roethke poem of just six stanzas is milked for all it is worth, displaying a writer for voice who knows how to put the right note(s) to every word, something not always evident amongst other composers of song.
May we say this event celebrated the idea of June busting out all over, as it was rich and unbridled in musical interpretation. All the players were on their game, but especially noteworthy was the playing of four women, in addition to the fine performances of violist Tawnya Popoff (in the Schwartz) and soprano Jeannie Im (in the Hall). Maria Sampen, Marilyn Shrude's daughter, is a violinist to ponder. Not only was her technique spot-on and exciting, but she projected an unbridled joy in her playing through body language that was close to terpsichorean. Asuko Yamamoto's clarinet had a purity about it that was utterly innocent, while Naomi Drucker's tone in Memories was simply commandingly beautiful. Along with Nicole Pantos' gorgeous singing (emphasizing legato line over diction), Ms. Drucker made the finale memorable. (BLC)
Program 3, The iO String Quartet, Friday evening, June 6th. Richard Brooks: String Quartet #3 (2007) ^ Scott Winship: Habitual Patterns (2003) ^ Jan Gilbert: Of Heloise ^ Lewis Nielson: How You Go (2007) ^ Robert Ceely: Two Pieces for String Quartet (2007) ^ Francis Kayali: Trio (2001/02) John Eaton: String Quartet #2 (1987).
[The following comments are based on an online stream made by the ACA.] Billed as a chamber music program, this concert had two very striking string quartets bookending the remaining selections in a way that might have been unfair to the five other efforts. For one thing, no music critic can put the work of John Eaton anywhere but on a high plain, so strikingly daring and uncompromising is his chamber music. The substantial Second Quartet, which ended the program, is full of turmoil and surreal humor as well as passages that seem to be groping for meaning. His shifting meters require playing of the highest order. We listened to the stream of the concert several times and found our interpretations of his ideas changing with each listen. For sure, we will be listening again and again to this 20+ year old work.
The opening eight-minute-long, single-movement Brooks work has harmonic interest and reveals a slight undercurrent of tension in parts which seems to counter the generally warm tone of the piece. It is made up of his usually accessible melodies. Somewhat notable is the appealing way he balances arco with pizzicato passages to add color to his ideas.
Yet another work for string quartet, Mr. Ceely's, comprises two independent "pieces" with vivid and imaginative details. The first piece has laconic themes and a seemingly amorphous structure, while the independent second piece has more continuity but is cast in a mostly largissimo tempo played at a nearly inaudible level. Having just reached the age of 79, Mr. Ceely is more familiar to New England audiences, but he is a composer we do need to get to know better.
Three other works featured winds and percussion. We enjoyed the playfulness and intended spontaneity of Mr. Winship's Habitual Patterns, as well as the goofy complexities of Mr. Nielsen's How You Go, for sax and marimba.
The problem we find with Mr. Kayali's Trio, at least in this audio, is the seeming imbalance among the instruments. The piano and clarinet are heard fully while the violin seems to be somewhere in the background, a problem perhaps resulting from bad miking. Only near the end is there some charming interplay between clarinet and violin not heard elsewhere. He is a young composer with lots of credentials already and is surely on the path to a fine career.
Ms. Gilbert's work for soprano and string quartet is based on an ambitious collection of 54 poems that was scheduled for release last fall, entitled Love: A Suspect Form, Heloise and Abelard. Gilbert's setting is the first part of a much larger work, a chamber opera, with collaborative partners Nancy Ogle and Ms. Infante.
What we heard were four songs with a prologue and epilogue. Ms. Ogle sang the rich text with sensitivity and sensuality, and the quartet accompanied her fully - perhaps a bit too fully at times - so that the musical lines merged and lush colors overshadowed textual details. Nevertheless, this is an aesthetic enterprise that makes the opera appear as something that will be our list of things to follow up on.
Overall, the performance here by the iO (Christina McGann, Erik Carlson, violins; Elizabeth Weisser, viola; Christopher Gross, cello) was quite commendable and especially impressive in the Eaton. The second unit of strings, winds and piano that made up the Winship and Nielson pieces was competent, while the percussive playing of John Langford and Alex Lipowski (marimba) was very much on top of the game. (BLC)
Program 4, Sat. afternoon, June 7th. Presented by New York Women Composers & the Second Instrumental Unit, Marc Dana Williams, conductor. With baritone Peter Clark and pianists Christopher Oldfather and Michael Fennelly. Margarita Zelenaia: Homage, Suite for Violin and Clarinet (2004) ^ Lisa Hogan: Piece for Trumpet, Piano & String Quartet (2005) ^ Eleanor Aversa: Something Gleamed Like Electrum (2007) ^ Margaret Fairlie-Kennedy: Summer Solstice (2007) ^ Elizabeth Bell: Night Music (1990) Beth Wiemann: Erie, on the Periphery (2005) ^ Mark Blitzstein: Cain (1930).
On this scorcher of a day in New York, which was responsible for subway rerouting, badly communicated, as well as general discomfort, the ACA climaxed its festival with close to six hours of music programmed into separate late afternoon and evening events. Arriving tardily (after shuttling uptown via three separate subway lines) this reviewer found himself in the middle of Ms. Zelenaia's suite for violin and clarinet, one of three youthful compositions on this first concert. Thus, it would be unfair to judge Homage in its entirety, except to note that the last of the three movements kept coming to false endings. Lisa Hogan's Piece for six players did have a nice cabaret-like European old-world character, but one asks why write a piece just four minutes long (with reprise yet) for a relatively complex force requiring a conductor without attempting some development of these pretty themes.
The most pleasing "student" entry was Ms. Aversa's genuinely spirited and spiritual music (with a biblical title drawn from Ezekiel) for flute, clarinet, violin, cello and piano, which at its end sounded angelic in its serenity.
Ms. Fairlie-Kennedy's Summer Solstice could not have been a timelier selection, unless it were played on June 22nd. This 18-minute long work for flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano and percussion harks back to ancient pagan times, and so one will be tempted to make comparisons with Stravinsky, Prokofiev and Revueltas. But we're in the 21st century now and women are holding their own against the men, even when producing very physical music. In what seemed to shape up as a series of dances, roughly in the manner of Le Sacre du Printemps, there were a lot of strong, provocative rhythms created, and the percussionist was kept busy on drums and other kitchenware. But there were also some hauntingly sensual flute solos, including a sort of ritualistic invocation that came very late in the game. The sudden ending did not take away from the impressive overall effect.
Beth Wiemann, one of our more consistently progressive voices in today's new music scene, offered more moody, evocative music: was a duo for clarinet and piano involving at least one stretch of shifting meters and another lengthy passage featuring a strong staccato line. Typically conforming to current trends with musical structure and contours that are far from predictable, and with a penchant for interesting titles, Wiemann just seems to do it all with more relish and personality than most.
Night Music by Elizabeth Bell for solo piano is in two contrasting uninterrupted movements. The titles given to the movements are descriptive enough for their emotional content, but there is still much going on below their surfaces. For example, in movement one, marked molto doloroso, there are moments of meditation that are not at all grieving, but hopeful. In the second movement, marked "angrily," the music is really not patently furioso. There is a fitful propulsion in the crooked, zig-zagging meters, a sort of "running away from...," perhaps the sense of guilt Bell refers to in her liner notes. She is careful to credit Henry James Sr. with inspiring the moods of the piece, but the list of artists who have dealt with the terrors of the night is a very long one. Give this sincere lady the credit she deserves: she has never been known for seeking out easy, comfortable passageways to follow.
And so this all-women's compositional demonstration reinforces the conclusions we drew earlier from the ACA's second program in this festival, when we saw clearly that women had outshone men in both creativity and interpretation.
The final work on this afternoon's program came as a curiosity and seemed anomalous. Marc Blitzstein's Cain, described as a tragic ballet, has never been performed in it entirety, and this effort today could be viewed as an experiment, which, in the end, did not come off too well. Mr. Clark, playing Jehovah, is a strongly assertive baritone, but he was almost hung out there to dry, quite alone, waiting for cues from pianist Fennelly, who performed the entire score without pause. (There was some grumbling afterward about missed notes, which he conceded, though we thought he handled this impossible assignment bravely.) The ACA aministration missed the boat on this and needed to sit down and work this idea out with Leonard Lehrman, the foremost living expert on the music of Marc Blitzstein.
Elsewhere, performances for this event were quite good, especially Chris Oldfather's playing of Ms. Bell's piano piece. Benjamin Fingland's clarinet and Marilyn Nonken's piano meshed well tgether in the Wiemann piece, and Marc Dana Williams' conducting kept the players reasonably on top of the scores of Hogan, Aversa and Fairlie-Kennedy. (BLC)
Program 5, Saturday evening, June 7th. Presented by New York Women Composers. Raoul Pleskow: Piece for Eight Instruments (2007) ^ Joel Gressel: An Orderly Transition (2007) ^ Burton Beerman: Dialogue (2008) ^ Richard Cameron-Wolfe: A Measure of Love and Silence (2006) ^ Hubert S. Howe, Jr.: Symphony #3 (2007/08; 2 movements) ^ Robert Carl: A Clean Sweep (2005) ^ Harold Seletsky: Sonata for Clarinet & Piano, Op. 3 (1980) ^ John Melby: In Darkness (2007). Performed by sopranos Linda Larson, Jane Schoonmaker-Rodgers, Jacquelyn Familant, and Patricia Sonego; baritone Keith Spencer; pianists Kevin Bylsma and Kim Paterson; clarinetist Robin Seletsky; others.
In hindsight, this program ran far, far too long. Part of the problem may have been the sheer heaviness of much of the music, well thought out though some of it was. Perhaps under more favorable circumstances the sense that the festival turned out well enough, considering the heat, the takeover by a new team and those unexpected little nuisances, would have more properly been seen as a relief to all. But when the clock showed 10:30 PM, John Melby's final In Darkness became a literal description of the mood at that time. It is to the great credit of soprano Patricia Sonego that, having to wait so long for her turn to shine, she managed to deliver a stunning performance, despite some unfortunate bumbling at the beginning of the work by the electronics controller, causing her to raise her voice level beyond what she and Mr. Melby had surely intended. Thus Amy Lowell's opening lines, "The wind is singing through the trees to-night/ A deep-voiced song of rushing cadences/ And crashing intervals," came over like a New England nor'easter. But when things settled down, Lowell's lines resounded with stunning impact. "Are we or Fate the victors? Time which shows/ All inner meanings will reveal, but we/ Shall never know the upshot." What jolting words for any artist or critic! Mr. Melby's computer-synthesized sounds underline the words at the end of the piece with eerie perfection, producing tingling goose-pimples. But, alas, the available audio stream reminded us of the sparse and polite applause afteward; we were pretty tired by then.
There were three other works on the program built on poetic words that were not always uplifting. Joel Gressel, who also uses electronics in his An Ordinary Transtion, preferring live computer algorithms over prerecorded tape or presets, set his 15-minute piece to words by Rachel Hadas from her poem "Amniocentesis." He contends there was a strong personal feeling that drew him to Ms. Hadas' words. In fact, at the time, wife Eleanor was pregnant with their first daughter and his mother was to die before the birth. The poem describes a mood of uncertainty confirmed in its final lines:
Amnio growls to soothe the savage breast of a new creature thrust cold and wild into such a strangely naked world. What music will you make for her, I ask.
The performance ran well over 15 minutes, and projected a very desolate mood. Did Mr. Gressel want that? It's a matter of subjectivity, but we did not hear a single moment of relief in his musical line. The perfectly fine singing of Linda Larson could not prevent that feeling.
Burton Beerman's Dialogue was also motivated by personal reflection. Playwright Raymond Brent Beerman, Burton's father, wrote the poem as a message of hope to his son for a brighter life. But the words, "Help me," followed by other cries for help are repeated over and over, and they do weigh down on the intent of the poem and overemphasize the sorrow of the father. No one could fault the performances of Jane Schoonmaker Rodgers, soprano, and Kevin Blysma, who had a complex piano part to negotiate.
The most enthusiastic response to the vocal works greeted Mr. Cameron-Wolfe's A Measure of Love and Silence, based on a translation of a poem by Tatyana Apraksina, the Russian writer-poet-painter. If the translation is honest, there are elements in this poem that suggest Yevtushenko, who has certainly attracted composers. This composer made the most of the dramatic ideas by calling on the soprano (Jacquelyn Familant) and baritone (Keith Spencer) to mix sung words with some narration and resort to instrumental climaxes to stress the strongest lines. It was a strong performance.
The four instrumental works on the program spanned a wide range of forces, from chamber orchestra in a serial work to one in a computer-designed work to a soloist with computer-made accompaniment to a standard duo. Mr. Pleskow's very brief Piece for Eight Instruments features a trumpet in a sort of mini-concertina. The style is most definitely derived from the Second Viennese School, Pleskow himself being Vienna-born and a student of Stefan Wolpe. Interestingly, Harold Seletsky, who first studied with a pupil of Alban Berg and then went on to write music for film and TV while maintaining his Yiddish roots with Klezmer, showed none of that in his Clarinet Sonata, which was the longest work on the program. It is made up of the standard three movements and is a sort of (thus far) typical 21st century work - dissonant here, mellow there, full of ideas yet hard to grasp on first listen. The clarinetist was Seletsky's daughter Robin, who with Kim Paterson at the keyboard, played it with crisp professionalism.
Hubert Howe's Symphony #3, which we have heard in its computer version, calls for a large chamber orchestra and probably runs close to 25 minutes; the composer was therefore wise to limit the selection here to the second and third movements. His theory that there are innumerable possibilities in the application of trichords, tetrachords and pentachords to the diminished seventh chord may be of some interest to harmony theorists, but what we heard were simply slowly evolving textures and densities building up out of swells and fades in the four winds and four brasses against the piano and strings. Each of the movements comes to a climax followed by a long morendo, but to the untrained ear there are only minor differences between the movements. Perhaps the idea makes for good accompaniment to meditation, but as concert music it proves boring.
Robert Carl's A Clean Sweep starts out very much like Howe's work - that is, the early tones aren't going anywhere in particular and we think we are being subject to musical zen (which in a way we are). But the persistent shakuhachi (played by Elizabeth Brown and the composer) against a computerized sound field comes to a visceral climax as one begins to get a sense of vibrating textures in the microtonal design that emerges. Carl seems to always have a way with unpromising material, getting the most theatricality out of it. He has no doubt brought back from Japan, where he studied the past year or so, something mysterious that touches a chord within us.
But the design of this program, which according to accepted custom, ought to have been a grand finale, was a great mistake. No new music program should ever run close to three hours unless it is an important new opera or other single event. By that we do not in any way suggest that Mr. Gressel or Dr. Howe or Harold Seletsky should shorten their entries on this program or that the entries themselves were the problem. Under other circumstances we would possibly like to hear them all again. We are confident that the sincere Gina Genova and the ACA administration will do its homework and present a better balanced festival next June under better conditions. (BLC)
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