Category Archives: new music

Happy 75th, Philip Glass

What should just be musical doodles become creations of profound beauty in the hands of Philip Glass. When I first started listening to his piano music, it sounded familiar. It sounded like what I would come up with tinkering at the piano as a kid, accidentally improvising or getting carried away in between practicing “real” pieces. Except, slowly, one realizes it isn’t tinkering at all with Glass, though that essential playfulness, innocence, and simplicity remains.

I hear the criticisms of Glass loud and clear, and, if I let myself go down that path, I am perhaps most sympathetic to the “one-trick pony” argument. But then I listen, and, really, the arguments fall to the wayside, because the impact for me is visceral and real and deep.

Galileo Galilei - James Gill Photography

Galileo Galilei at Madison Opera. Credit: James Gill Photography.

Last week I saw Madison Opera’s production of Galileo Galilei. Glass’s operas are more problematic than his instrumental music; the declamatory, anti-melodic vocal lines take adjusting to. Whether despite this or because of it, the overall effect can be trance-like, which is jarring in a dramatic setting. Moment-to-moment, the story feels less important than in traditional contexts. For me, though, this is usually most welcome. The story becomes an idea to mull, the music the essential element to foster such a state. So it was with Galileo. And as tends to happen, Glass’s work here incited great inventiveness from the designer and director.

Funny, then, that one of my favorite Glass pieces is his opera Orphée, based on the Cocteau film. Plot is essential to the piece, and the score is one of the composer’s most varied: from jazzy evocations of post-war France to Gluck quotes and soaring melodies, it is often distinctly un-Glassian. Yet, no one else could have written it, you know it is his throughout. And that has to be worth something.

The social composer

The Social ComposerAttention composers: your Twitter feed affects how I hear your music. This is, for better or worse, a 21st century truth that every young composer should think about.

That a composer’s personality might impact one’s experience of their music is not a new phenomenon. Mozart and Wagner are two extreme examples of this. It’s hard not to think of Mozart’s supposed playfulness and good humor during a piece like his String Quartet No. 19 in C Major (K. 465) or Le Nozze di Figaro. I’m not sure the Wagner example needs explanation: his megalomania and antisemitism are notoriously difficult to keep separate from his music.

But the “personalities” of composers past have only emerged after decades of scholarly research and cultural myth-making. In their own time, they had reputations, but very few audience members could proclaim to “know” them (I don’t really have any historical authority to make that statement, but I’m assuming it’s a safe one).

Today, Twitter, Facebook, and blogs put us in close contact with composers. These platforms allow them to publicly broadcast anything they want, be it their quirks, interests, opinions, or dinner plans, eliminating virtually all of the guess work and mystery for current audiences and future historians alike.  I don’t personally know any of the composers I follow online, but, creepy or not, it sure feels like I do sometimes.

This becomes all the more apparent when I listen to their music, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. For starters, I listen to more new music now because of who I follow on Twitter. I also feel more connected to the music having a better sense of the person who made it, being able to go “that makes sense” or “huh, I wouldn’t have expected that” (major instance of the latter after downloading Gabriel Kahane’s first album just yesterday).

But is there a sort of self-selection bias here? Am I ordering music based on who seems interesting, cool, or whatever else? What happens when someone doesn’t like the online personality or lifestyle of a composer whose music they might otherwise enjoy? Is it possible to keep the two separate?

This seems like a good time to bring up something that’s been nagging me about Justin Davidson’s March 2011 article, “A New New York School.” Here are some excerpts:

These composers in their thirties worry less about categories, narrative, and originality than about atmosphere, energy, and sound. They are not monkish craftsmen assembling six-minute miniatures, half an agonizing second at a time…This cornucopia of new music seems perpetually promising. It bristles with allusions and brims with ambition—yet it somehow feels stifled by all that freedom.

In concluding the piece, Davidson drives home his point: “Rules can be a crutch or a cage, but they can also act as stimulant…What they badly need is a machine to rage against and a set of bracing creative constraints.”

One thing that’s been really wonderful about Twitter and the like is that it has debunked the myth of the composer as isolated genius, feverishly honing his craft as the rest of the world dallies in triviality. We still hear about the music and the struggles, but also about the basketball games, recent iTunes downloads, politics, babies being changed, bike issues and nights out. There’s also a good deal of humor and self-deprecation. In short, the social composer is distinctly more human than this guy, who stared at me from my piano teacher’s bench in 1st grade, the image of “composer as giant” that still weighs so heavily on our collective consciousness as classical music fans.

My sense is that Judd Greenstein, Nico Muhly & co., are having a little too much fun for Davidson (an estimable critic and writer I deeply admire, whose aural description of the new music coming out of New York right now in the same article is the best I’ve read). Are all of his criticisms evident in the music alone, or are the composers’ extra-musical displays of inclusiveness and bohemian normality also affecting his–our–interpretation?

Davidson is distinctly inactive in social media, so perhaps I’m wrong on this one. Either way, social media has raised endless questions about identity and what it means to be a composer in the 21st century. The composer today can write his or her own story. It is not uncommon to be introduced to a composer’s online persona before being introduced to their music. This is new, and like anything else it has its benefits and pitfalls.

Reflecting on 2010: Classical music (and more) in Madison

It’s the middle of my third year in Madison, Wisconsin, and I remain impressed by the classical music offerings in and around town. Between our local performing organizations and the international artists and ensembles that come to Madison on tour, I never feel like I’m missing all that much, and 2010 was no exception. When buzz about Stephen Hough’s Tchaikovsky albums was building, Stephen Hough came to town, and played Tchaikovsky. When I started to lament the lack of adventurous programming at alternative venues, the Portland Cello Project showed up and rocked out at the High Noon Saloon. And just as The New York Times began to cover the JACK Quartet, UW-Madison booked the stellar ensemble for a residency and performance. Not to mention the big names that make regular stops in the city, like the Emerson Quartet, who I got to hear live for the first time in 2010 at the Wisconsin Union Theater. Classical music is a New York-centric industry, and while I was left drooling over videos of Le Grand Macabre and pining for a local (le) poisson rouge, the capital of America’s Dairyland did pretty well for itself in 2010. Here’s a sampling of my favorite performances of the year, classical and otherwise.

Stephen Hough with the Madison Symphony Orchestra [Feb. 28, 2011]

Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concert No. 1 was the first classical piece I really loved. First, as a mediocre piano student, laboring over an abridged version of the second movement, and then in high school, as an official obsessive, listening to my Bernstein / Philippe Entremont recording on repeat. To me, the piece was always wild, the pianist on the brink of emotional eruption, with fingers spinning out of control in a fit of tortured passion. Hough‘s performance deconstructed the work for me. Because of my expectations, it felt a bit cool at first, but by the end, it translated as a magisterial interpretation. Every note rang clear, and Hough made a strong argument as a sort of anti-Lang Lang, entirely composed and collected on the piano bench. Understated, but never devoid of passion and emotional truth, Hough let this overplayed staple speak for it self, for a change.

Thao and Mirah with The Most of All at the High Noon Saloon [June 29, 2010]

Billed as an indie “superband collaboration,” this show was crazy good, and it’s where my mind wandered to at every classical concert that left me inconsolably antsy. I’m not the coolest kid on the block, so I only heard about Thao and Mirah after reading a preview of their tour in 77 Square. After asking around, I learned that a bunch of my friends were already going, and that I’m just a few years behind, per usual. Eclectic alt-folk-rock sung with ferocity and a knack for keeping the crowd moving added up to a great night.

As You Like It at American Players Theatre [July 24, 2010]

Updated to the Dust Bowl of 1930s America, this production popped, anchored by David Daniel’s comedic tour de force as Touchstone, James Ridge’s aching portrayal of Jaques, and Matt Schwader’s naive and heroic Orlando. I want to give special mention to the original music composed by Josh Schmidt. Mostly set to acoustic guitar in a style reminiscent, somewhat anachronistically, of Don McLean, it was sung beautifully by various cast members, particularly Marcus Truschinski. It still gets stuck in my head. “This life is most jolly…”

Token Creek Chamber Music Festival [Aug. 31, 2010]

Who wouldn’t want to spend an evening in John Harbison’s Wisconsin barn? My first trip to the composer’s charming chamber music festival just outside of Madison was a lecture/recital titled “Variations.” The program featured the pianists Judith Gordon and Ryan McCullough in Schubert’s Variations on an Original Theme in Ab, Roger Sessions’ Piano Sonata No. 1 (1930), and Harbison’s Piano Sonata No. 2 (2001). The intimate venue and relaxed atmosphere is perfect for this sort of program, and McCullough’s performance of the host’s sonata was outstanding.

Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra at the Wisconsin Union Theater [Nov. 21, 2010]

The Union Theater is in dire need of renovation, but its acoustics are still killer. The place is LOUD, which surely affected my experience at this concert: the MSO sound was simply overwhelming in Grieg’s Suite No. 1 from Peer Gynt, Barber’s Violin Concerto (feat. Frank Almond), and Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra, all led by new music director Edo de Waart.

Symphony concerts are a funny beast. For me, the decision to attend is almost entirely repertoire driven, and speaking honestly, my satisfaction is determined by whether the performance thrills more than listening to a recording would. For me, there are no social or emotional benefits to sitting quietly in a stuffy, uncomfortable auditorium in a row of people at least twice but mostly three times my age, where listening is the sole activity. This is opposed to a rock concert, where I can commune with friends, dance, and drink, or an opera or theater performance, where I’m offered visual stimulation and storytelling that supersedes anything recreated on a TV screen. So it always strikes me as a small miracle when I leave a symphony concert utterly floored, which is what happened at this MSO event. Alex Ross described the orchestra’s sound under de Waart as “old world,” and whatever “old world” means, I’m inclined to agree. The strings were decadently lush, and the brass had a tangy flavor that worked particularly well in the Bartok. I played the Concerto for Orchestra with the New York Youth Symphony in 2003, and it remains one of the most satisfying musical experiences in my life to date. The MSO evoked everything I love about the work, and combined with the aural alchemy of the decaying Union Theater, something magical happened. I wonder if anyone else felt it, too.

My job

In addition to heading out to concerts and all that in my free time, my job brings me into close contact with musical greatness on a regular basis. Those performances are obviously disqualified from any “best of” list I write, but I want to mention a few singers that I hope you all get to hear sometime soon: soprano Caroline Worra (The Governess in The Turn of the Screw), bass-baritone Bradley Garvin (The Dutchman in The Flying Dutchman), and soprano Anya Matanovic (Susanna in The Marriage of Figaro).

Onward and upward to 2011! Happy New Year, folks.

The JACK Quartet in Madison

I recently attended performances by the JACK Quartet (Nov. 10, UW-School of Music) and the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra (Nov. 21, Union Theater) that were, in my opinion, brilliantly programed and played. However, in both instances I found myself frustrated by the formalities of the concert’s presentation and the limitations of the respective venues. In the end, I left each concert satisfied, feeling like I had had encounters with greatness: these were technically exquisite performances executed with palpable excitement and passion. Still, I wondered if anyone else felt the same way, the people who weren’t music majors, who hadn’t performed or heard the pieces before, who don’t regularly attend classical concerts. There wasn’t anything exciting about these performances other than the music on stage, and is that enough? This is the sort of thing Greg Sandow writes about all the time and I’ve touched on before, but here’s another crack at it, starting with the JACK Quartet concert.

JACK Quartet (C) Justin Bernhaut

The JACK Quartet is one of new music’s hottest ensembles. Coast to coast, critics are piling up adjectives like “explosive” and “mind-blowing” to describe the group’s adventurous programing and exacting technique. Their show in Madison was marked on my calendar well in advance, even though I could predict my biggest frustration the second I heard about it: new music in Madison is pretty much confined to the free series at the UW-School of Music, in dumpy Mills Hall, and the JACK Quartet, despite being known for taking their music to exciting new spaces, would be no exception. Adding insult to injury, the SOM does not market these events, so attendance is pretty much guaranteed to be lame. This is akin to watching pro surfers in a wave pool at the local Splish Splash on a cloudy day.

And so “Dig Deep” by Julia Wolfe, String Quartet No. 7 by Salvatore Sciarrino, String Quartet by Laura Schwendinger, professor of composition at the School of Music, and String Quartet No. 2, “Reigen Seliger Geister” by Helmut Lachenmann, became an academic exercise, the predictable culmination of a standard contemporary music residency at any American university.

Mind you, the JACK Quartet played the crap out of this stuff, and I liked that they incorporated the work of a Madison composer on the program (Professor Schwendinger is a neglected local treasure). My favorites were the ferocious “Dig Deep” by Wolfe and the Sciarrino, with it’s whale-like underwater calls, haunting in the extreme. There’s a reason these guys have seen more coverage in The New Yorker than the New York Philharmonic in the last year.

But here’s the problem: I’m not the one that needs to be sold. Despite my frustrations, in many cases, the music is enough for me. But what did this performance look and sound like to an outsider? There was no dialogue with the audience about some of the challenging elements of the work presented; no food or beverages were allowed in the auditorium; lighting was more appropriate for a lecture than a performance; and, despite the small crowd, there was no post-concert reception to break down some of the many barriers that had been erected in the previous ninety minutes.

The good and the bad news is that, to my eye, there weren’t many newbies in the audience to be turned off. The SOM should have capitalized on the group they were working with. Here was a free concert smack in the middle of 40,000 students, many of whom like to think they live in Brooklyn. With Madison’s thriving indie/experimental music and cultural scene and with the JACK’s credentials and style, there was an obvious opportunity for some cross genre cultivation here that was simply missed, again.

Things weren’t as clear cut with the Milwaukee Symphony concert, though my feelings were similar. But more on that later, this post got kinda long.

The JACK Quartet is one of new music’s hottest ensembles. Coast to coast, critics are piling up adjectives like “explosive” and “mind-blowing” to describe the group’s adventurous programing and exacting technique. Their show in Madison was marked on my calendar well in advance, even though I could predict my biggest frustration the second I heard about it: new music in Madison is pretty much confined to the free series at the UW-School of Music, in crappy Mills Hall, and the JACK Quartet, despite being known for taking their music to exciting new spaces, would be no exception. Adding insult to injury, the SOM does not market these events, so attendance is pretty much guaranteed to be lame. This is akin to watching pro surfers in a wave pool at the local Splish Splash on a cloudy day. And so “Dig Deep” by Julia Wolfe, String Quartet No. 7 by Salvatore Sciarrino, String Quartet by Laura Schwendinger, professor of composition at the School of Music, and String Quartet No. 2, “Reigen Seliger Geister” by Helmut Lachenmann, became an academic exercise, the predictable culmination of a standard contemporary music residency at any American university.

Mind you, the JACK Quartet played the crap out of this stuff, and I liked that they incorporated the work of a Madison composer (Professor Schwendinger is a neglected local treasure). My favorites were the ferocious “Dig Deep” by Wolfe and the Sciarrino, with it’s whale-like, underwater calls, haunting in the extreme. There’s a reason these guys have seen more coverage in The New Yorker than the New York Philharmonic in the last year. I loved every minute of the music.

But here’s the problem: I’m not the one that needs to be sold. Despite my frustrations, in many cases, the music is enough for me. But what did this performance look and sound like to an outsider? There was no dialogue with the audience about some of the challenging elements of the work presented; no food or beverages were allowed in the auditorium; lighting was more appropriate for a lecture than a performance; and, despite the small crowd, there was no post-concert reception to break down some of the many barriers that had been erected in the previous ninety minutes.

The good and the bad news is that, to my eye, there weren’t many newbies in the audience to be turned off. The SOM should have capitalized on the group they were working with. Here was a free concert smack in the middle of 40,000 students, many of whom like to think they live in Brooklyn. With Madison’s thriving indie/experimental music and cultural scene and with the JACK’s credentials and style, there was an obvious opportunity for some cross genre cultivation here that was simply missed,

Review: The Portland Cello Project at the High Noon Saloon

Portland Cello ProjectIn the course of the last decade or so, classical music ensembles, composers, and performers have slowly made their way into bars and clubs around the country.  Not so much in Madison, Wisconsin, which is why I told Dane101 readers back in March that we’re missing out on a movement that I think suits this city pretty well. The Portland Cello Project‘s Madison debut at the High Noon Saloon on Tuesday night wasn’t exactly the catalyst for revolution I envisioned, but it was a  start.

The Audience

I almost didn’t make it and was nervous the audience would be measly, but when I actually walked in to the High Noon, it was packed, and with an amusing mix of folks: the older symphony crowd, some hippies, teenagers, a few kids with their parents, the usual hipsters, and 20 and 30-something couples canoodling over cabaret tables. My guess is that about 125 people came out for the show, a big jump from the 20 tickets sold during pre-sale.

High NoonIt was clear from the start that the audience didn’t know “what to do.” I arrived towards the end of the first number and you could hear a pin drop. Doug Jenkins, the “organizational wizard” behind the PCP, was impressed: “You’re the quietest bar crowd we’ve every played for,” he said during one of his trips to the microphone. After the start of the second set, it was noisier: intermission conversations lingered and it felt more natural. But then there was shushing. You can take the patron out of the concert hall, but you can’t take the….

There was a lot of interaction from the stage, which I thought was good at first but unnecessary after a while, and Jenkins’s dialogue was sometimes oddly self aware (“We’re playing classical in a club, isn’t that awesome?”). He also had PCP members demonstrate special effects and solos. The audience seemed to appreciate this, but it left me feeling things were headed too much in the novelty-act direction.

The Music

Either way, people were definitely having a good time. I thought the amplification and balance was perfect. The PCP looked good and sounded good. That said, I just wasn’t feeling the repertoire choices. The “legit” classical music selections included the Russian Sailor Dance, the Habanera from Carmen, and De Falla’s Danza del Fuego.  Pop arrangements dominated: the theme from Halo, the theme from Super Mario Brothers, a waltz from The Godfather, and songs by Rhianna, Outkast, and Beyonce. These arrangements–the pop and uber-recognizable classical–felt like throwaways (maybe I’ll give them “Hey-Ya”) and had the air of party tricks. They didn’t do justice to the range and emotional force of 8 cellos.

What worked was the new music on the program composed specifically for the ensemble, like a short, ephemeral work by Lori Goldston and another by a member of the ensemble. Dave Brubek’s “Take 5,” with an awesome, swinging solo, and Duke Ellington’s “Caravan,” with its rich textures, were also highlights.

A lot of people left the High Noon full-fledged PCP fans, gobbling up CDs and T’s at the door, but I don’t think that would’ve changed if the program included more contemporary classical and commissioned new music, and more of their alt/indie pieces, which seem quite beautiful and interesting. I’ve had transcendent experiences listening to the sound of 8 cellos, and that just didn’t happen Tuesday night.

Still, I am psyched that the High Noon went out on a limb and booked the PCP, and that I got an “I <3 Cello” sticker. I hope it paid off on all ends and that we’ll see more classical (for lack of a better term) there in the future.

Token Creek 2010

Summer festival season is almost here. As I’ve been scanning the schedules for APT, BDDS, and the like online, I came across the yet-to-be-updated website for the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival. An e-mail to the festival for a 2010 schedule yielded the following information:


TOKEN CREEK 2010
August 28 – September 5

Program I
BEETHOVEN
Robert Levin, piano

Saturday, August 28th at 8pm
Sunday, August 29th at 4pm

Beethoven’s own arrangement for string quintet of his Piano Concerto No. 4 in G, the “Cockcrow” sonata, Op. 96, and other works.

Program II
VARIATIONS: A Lecture-Recital

Tues Aug 31 at 8pm

John Harbison, commentator
Judith Gordon & Ryan McCullough, piano
Works of Sessions, Harbison, and Schubert

Program III
JAZZ: Anniversary Celebrations
Thurs Sept 2 at 8pm & Fri Sept 3 at 5:00p & 8:30p

Celebrating the centennial anniversaries of Mary Lou Williams and Johnny Mercer.
The Token Creek house band with Tom Artin, trombone, and guest vocalist soon to be announced.

Program IV
MUSIC OF J.S. BACH
Sat Sept 4 at 8pm & Sun Sept 5 at 4pm

Musicians from Emmanuel Music, Boston in a program of Bach cantatas, chorale preludes, and the Concerto for Oboe, Violin and Strings.

For those unfamiliar with Token Creek, the festival’s tagline is “A wooded glade, a quiet barn…exquisite music, glorious performances.” The programming above, plus everything I’ve read and heard, supports this. Oh, and it’s hosted by John and Rose Mary Harbison, which doesn’t hurt. Having missed the festival last year during my first and all too busy summer in Madison, I can’t wait to make my way to the barn this year.

Norah Jones at Overture

Norah Jones was in Madison last night for a show at the Overture Center for the Arts. A funny mix of people made up the sold-out audience in the big hall: the 65+ set with fond memories of the hushed, pop-jazz tunes on “Come Away With Me”, Jones’s breakout album; baby boomers with their teenage children, happily approving of a musician the whole family can agree on; Gen Xers enjoying date night; and a hearty college population, presumably the ones whooping from the upper balcony.

It was an awkward group that made for a fairly traditional concert experience: sitting down, gently bopping, clapping politely. I had told my wife to wear comfortable shoes…for some reason I envisioned we would be standing the whole time, but it never got so rowdy as that (I’ve mostly been listening to Jones’s most recent album, “The Fall,” with heavier guitars and faster beats, which could have influenced my expectations) . This was also my first non-classical concert in Overture Hall (big thumbs up to the souvenir beer cups!), so I didn’t know the protocol .

But while the diversity (age..don’t get me wrong, everyone I saw was white) of the audience may have stifled the atmosphere a bit, it also highlighted the fact that not many artists today resonate for such a wide swath of the population as Norah Jones. And judging by the reaction she received when she switched to the piano from the electric guitar, it’s her older stuff that still resonates most: “Come Away with Me”, “Don’t Know Why”, “Sunrise,” etc. These songs have entered the popular canon and all sounded great, plus Jones brought much more depth and color to the live renditions than her recordings show.

But I hope that those who’ve put her in the 2002 box were won over by the first half of her show. Shifting between electric guitar and keyboard, with a strong band she’s totally melded with, Jones showed a more aggressive energy in the songs she opened with from “The Fall,” released this past November. Some of her earlier stuff is too whispery for me, I like this new direction and hope her fans remain open to it in the future.

All in all a great night, probably a concert I’ll be happy I said I went to in twenty years. As a casual Jones listener, I was impressed. And as someone who works for a resident organization of the beleaguered Overture Center, it was fun to see and hear so many new people excited by the facility. Willie Nelson is playing the hall as I type–more converts, hopefully.

CCE, Nathan Currier Premiere [part 2]

Yesterday I wrote about the Contemporary Chamber Ensemble concert I attended last week in Mills Hall on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus: interesting repertoire, a gratifying world premiere by a leading contemporary composer, and solid performances by young musicians. The musical component of the night, despite some programming quirks, was great. But were I to rate the overall experience (was I comfortable? did I have fun? did I connect with the performers?) I’d have to give the concert significantly lower marks.

To be fair, this was a student ensemble and a university sponsored concert. The audience is usually not the priority in this situation; it’s an educational experience for the students to produce music they may not otherwise encounter. It was also free, and Mills Hall, however musty it may be, is the designated music department performance space. There were no financial stakes, and marketing was likely just a few posters and e-mails.

At the same time, I’m not quite ready to let them off the hook. The Contemporary Chamber Ensemble is the only classical group in Madison committed exclusively to 20th and 21st century repertoire. Reaching as wide an audience as possible should be central to their mission, and ensemble members–mostly graduate students on the brink of professional careers–would do well to have a role in the marketing, they should feel something is at stake (UW already offers a course called “Art As Business As Art”, here’s an opportunity to put that into practice). Further more, might not a more intimate, laid-back venue have better suited the program? And couldn’t Mr. Currier, or some of the musicians, have said a few words to the audience?

Again, these hopes and concerns might not be fair for to place on a university ensemble, but I would love to see the CCE bring their work off-campus at some point in the future, 0r perhaps think more creatively about where on campus they could perform. It’s an impressive group, there should be more people (I counted just 65 last Tuesday) and excitement at their concerts.

CCE, Nathan Currier Premiere [part 1]

Last Tuesday I attended a performance by the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Contemporary Chamber Ensemble. It was my first encounter with the group, which is headed by the composer Laura Schwendinger. All of the works on the program highlighted the voice: Dark Upon the Harp (1962) by Jacob Druckman; “Melos” ophiae (2009) by Filippo Santoro; Cryin’ Time (1994) by Bob Becker; Miranda’s Lament (1999) by Kaija Saariaho; Chansons Madecasses (1926) by Ravel; and Looking Out (1999) by Nathan Currier [left].

Everything here was new to me, which was exciting. The Becker piece, Cryin’ Time, stood out. His sound world was all engulfing, a fluid fusion of North Indian classical music and a Reich inspired minimalist aesthetic. Above this base formed by the marimba, vibraphone and piano rose the soprano of Jennifer Lien, singing the tragic verse of a young mother who drops (or fears she will drop) her baby into a deep river canyon. Becker says he detected a country/western feel in the “matter of fact” lines of the original Sandra Meigs poem, which he emphasized in edits to the text. It was an accessible, moving work, especially in comparison to some of the other fare. The Druckman in particular felt like a caricature of what mid-twentieth century classical music was supposed to sound like. There were some affecting moments, mostly the ones that hearkened to the scores of Herrmann , but overall not much stuck. It felt cold, dry, even though it was beautifully executed (props to the brass quintet especially).

The highlight of the evening was the Nathan Currier premiere. He composed Looking Out to a libretto by Laura-Gray Street in 1999 for the New York Festival of Song, but it was not to be: the piece didn’t quite fit the “rags to riches” theme of the Festival that year, and there were “problems of tessitura in the part for the mezzo, who was to have been the now prominent Stephanie Blythe,” according to the composer. Ten years later, the premiere took place on a Tuesday night in Madison, Wisconsin. Which is a shame only in that the work is very good, and the audience was very small.

Written in three sections [i. Population Explosion, ii. Diorama, iii. Endosymbiosis] for soprano, tenor, clarinet, horn, cello, and piano, Currier says “the work is about the urgent need for a greater understanding of the real meaning of the word ‘symbiosis.’” He cites the work of the microbiologist Lynn Margulis in his program notes and says that Looking Out grapples with the realization that Darwin wasn’t all right, that we are in fact equally evolved from bacterial processes as we are from natural selection. There’s also something about a metaphor for social organization and the fallacy of capitalism. Really, I wish I never read the notes: the piece speaks for itself, especially with Street’s vivid poetry (“A wind with caffeine jitters is picking streetwise through litter” is just one memorable line).

Part Broadway, part Britten, with playful, spiraling piano lines and onomatopoeic accompaniment, the piece captures the simultaneous frenzied and glazed feeling that seems to define modern life. The second movement is something of a mock recitative, quietly depicting a half-hearted lovers’ quarrel. The last movement ends with celestial arpeggios, fitting for the existential science of the narrators.

Writing about a world premiere, I feel inclined to attach meaning to the sounds, but it’s probably better I just say that in the moment, listening to Looking Out, I was simply at ease with the odd and charming score and hyperactive poetry, not wanting it to end.

Dane101: "I’ll take a beer with my Bach"

The kind folks over at Dane101.com have posted a commentary of mine today, check it out! Basically, I think Madison is an ideal place for the (le) poisson rouge concept to thrive. This is my call to action.

News in the classical music world has been dominated by headlines of gloom and doom lately. Recent studies by the NEA and League of American Orchestras show that younger patrons aren’t picking up the slack of an aging core audience. Add to that diminished ticket sales and donations in the wake of a recession, and suddenly the president of the Kennedy Center for the Arts is on a national lecture tour titled “Arts in Crisis.”

The good news is Madison’s classical music mainstays are healthy despite national trends. For a city of its size Madison is home to an unusually strong classical music scene. Between the resident organizations of the Overture Center, the Union Theater Concert Series, and the UW School of Music, it’s easy to fill any given weekend with an assortment of high caliber performances, as a sizeable portion of our local population does.

The bad news is we’re missing out on some of the creative diversity a greater sense of urgency might inspire. Throughout the last decade, classical musicians, ensembles, and presenters in larger cities have been increasingly adventurous in how and where they program concerts in an effort to break down traditional barriers, advocate contemporary music, and reach new audiences. It is time that spirit infected classical musicians and promoters in Madison…

Read more.