Category Archives: classical

Minmalism and Post-minimalism at Boston Conservatory’s New Music Festival

Whoops. I meant to post about Boston Conservatory’s New Music Festival in advance, but the first concert was tonight. You can find details here about the rest of the concerts, and I’ve included a copy of the schedule below. A range of selections including some classic stuff, so should be fun for newbies and long-time fans of the genre alike.

THE BOSTON CONSERVATORY
new music festival 2009
minimalism / post-minimalism

concert 1
thursday, november 12 seully hall 8:00pm
ACME
AMERICAN CONTEMPORARY MUSIC ENSEMBLE
michael nyman string quartet no.2
michael torke chalk
nico muhly stride
ingram marshall entrada

concert 2
friday, november 13 seully hall 8:00pm
terry riley in c
steve reich new york counterpoint
evan ziporyn hive
steve reich eight lines

concert 3
saturday, november 14 seully hall 8:00pm
marcus balter torus
john adams gnarly buttons
steve reich tehillim

concert 4
sunday, november 15 seully hall 6:00pm
john adams hallelujah junction

concert 5
sunday, november 15 seully hall 8:00pm
john luther adams qilyuan
ramon humet mantra II
joseph celli snare drum for camus
steve reich music for mallet instruments, voices, and organ
louis andriessen workers’ union

Opera Boston’s Tancredi

Even though it was rainy and cold and a weekday I made it out to the last performance of Opera Boston’s production of Rossini’s melodrama Tancredi last Tuesday. The opera, his first serious opera and written at the ripe old age of 19, isn’t one of his greatest works: the plot is extremely far-fetched even by opera standards and the music oftentimes has an oratorio-like stiffness. The main draw for me and I’m sure many others was the Polish contralto Ewa Podles in the title “pants” role as an exiled soldier. Tancredi has become a signature role for Podles for good reason: her immediately distinctive, rich voice enables her to give the character a convincingly masculine portrayal, yet her voice is pliable enough to tackle Rossini’s coloratura with ease. I was familiar with her recording of the opera on Naxos (with the great Sumi Jo, who I’m a big fan of but who alas doesn’t perform in the US much), so I was looking forward to her live performance.

From her first appearance Podles commands the stage. She has a stage presence that no one else in the cast quite matched, and showed off not only her extensive vocal range (which, annoyingly, prompted the two men in front of me to wink and nudge at each other every time she hit a high or a low note) but her acting as well: her opening aria “Oh, patria” had a touching tenderness and her death scene was also surprisingly moving. At times her performance was more subtle than the orchestra’s (conducted by Gil Rose), although in general both were in full Rossini mode where little subtlety is required and instead in Tancredi we get a full dose of pageantry to substitute.

As you’d expect the various news rags around town disagreed about the performances of the singers. I agree with Jeremy Eichler’s opinion in The Globe that “Amanda Forsythe was a lovely, agile, and affecting Amenaide, even if her featherweight soprano naturally made for a lopsided pairing with Podles’s vast contralto.” Although Forsythe wasn’t able to keep the interactions between the two leads completely balanced, for the most part she did an admirable job and her prison scene was also affecting.

Although he sang well, I agree with Heidi Waleson at The Wall Street Journal and the reviewer for the MIT Tech that the tenor Yeghishe Manucharyan as Argirio, Amenaide’s father, had a nasal, pinched sound that was off-putting. Everyone seemed to agree that the baritone DongWon Kim, in the thankless role of Tancredi’s rival, was fantastic, and no one seemed to care for the production much, which was directed by Kristine McIntyre and featured a mostly bare set. I agree with Mark Kroll at the The Boston Musical Intelligencer, that the direction was too static and there was too much “park and bark” staging. Despite the dull production, two fine leads and two strong supporting singers made this one well worth seeing.

Another season, and more conflicting concert dates!: BMOP and BMV’s season openers

The new season has crept up on me. I just realized that BMOP’s “Voices of America” festival, which includes Florestan’s BarberFest, is next weekend, at Tufts’ Distler Performance Hall (just a short walk from Davis Square ). For more info on the festival check out this preview at Boston.com and for a complete schedule see BMOP’s website.

I’m a big fan of Barber’s songs, and Florestan has tracked down “more than a dozen” of his unpublished songs, including what appear to be nursery song settings from when the composer was 10-13 years old. Many of the unpublished works seems to be scheduled for the second of their three concerts. Lest anyone fear this is purely an academic exercise, no, they are not performing Barber’s songs in chronological order. And also, although the majority of the unpublished songs are juvenilia, one just has to listen to his other early works that have been recorded, such as “With rue my heart is laden” (opus 2, from 1927 when the composer was only 17), to immediately realize that Barber was an assured composer at an extremely early age.

One of the connective threads between the two groups’ concert series (aside from the obvious fact that each BMOP concert is preceded by a Florestan recital) is that two of Barber’s greatest vocal works, Dover Beach and the much-beloved Knoxville, Summer of 1915 will be performed at BMOP’s third concert. Now the only problem is deciding which of the three pairs of concerts to attend. Too bad they didn’t offer weekend passes!

In reference to the title of this post, the first conflict of the season is unfortunately BMV’s first concert of the season, also this Friday. Alas, such is life.The concert includes the Boston premiere of John Harbison’s song cycle The Seven Ages.

Cantata Singers at Jordan Hall: Britten and Vores, plus The Boston Musical Intelligencer

In lieu of a review of the Cantata Singers concert from this past Friday I thought I’d just put up a quick post linking to The Boston Globe’s rather perfunctory review and a more in-depth review on a site I just came across called The Boston Musical Intelligencer.

The latter is well worth exploring. Along with in-depth reviews, they also have an exhaustive calendar of upcoming events and news items and features including a 50-page scan of a work called “History of Music In Boston” written by a John Sullivan Dwight in 1881. According to Wikipedia, Dwight was “America’s first influential classical music critic” and founded Dwight’s Journal of Music which “became the most influential musical publication of 19th century America”. Conceived by Lee Eiseman, program chair of Harvard Musical Association, The Boston Musical Intelligencer has taken Dwight’s journal as its inspiration, and it looks like it’s been up since around last August. With the ongoing slashing of local arts coverage by local publications, particularly classical music, it’s encouraging that enthusiasts are helping fill the void.

Upcoming for May

I’ve been trying to manage my outings a bit better. Not sure if I’m succeeding or not, but here’s what I’ve got on my calendar for May:

  • Friday, May 8 at 7:30 p.m. at Jordan Hall: Cantata Singers’ final concert concluding their Benjamin Britten season. Featuring songs written by 4th grade classes at a local elementary school and the same songs worked into Andy Vores’ “Natural Selection”. The full program is as follows:

      Britten: The Company of Heaven
      4th Grade Classes, Neighborhood House Charter School: 2 songs
      Andy Vores: Natural Selection (premiere)
      Benjamin Britten: Psalm 150
      J.S. Bach: Cantata BWV 50, “Nun ist das Heil und die Kraft”
  • Was going to catch Junior Boys and Max Tundra at The Middle East Downstairs, but it’s this Friday and so it conflicts with the Cantata Singers concert. Drat. And now it looks like Certainly, Sir is opening for them. Ah well.
  • May 11-17: Boston Ballet’s Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. Their description says: “This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Ballets Russes, established in 1909 by the Russian impresario Serge Diaghilev. Boston Ballet celebrates with classic works by Balanchine, Nijinsky and Fokine. Resident Choreographer Jorma Elo will premiere a new work, his sixth for Boston Ballet, to Igor Stravinsky’s ‘Le Sacre du Printemps'”. I’ll probably try to get 1/2-off tix through Goldstar.
  • May 27-June 1: Guerilla Opera premieres Boston composer Marti Epstein’s Rumpelstiltskin.
  • Sibelius, Rachmaninoff, and Ives at the BSO

    It’s funny how chance piles things on. For reasons unknown my list of things to check out for March has been top heavy, so suddenly I find myself backlogged once again. But hopefully I’ll catch up soon. And speaking of chance, after having ignored the BSO for years I somehow ended up at two concerts in two weeks. I reviewed the first concert already, and the second concert, featuring Sibelius’s Night Ride and Sunrise, Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, and Ives’ Symphony No. 4 and conducted by Alan Gilbert, soon-to-be head of the New York Philharmonic, was enjoyable although a similarly mixed bag.

    First off, the Sibelius. Eichler only gave it a passing mention, in his review for The Globe, and in his review for The Phoenix Schwartz says, “Gilbert didn’t suggest much mystery, and the journey seemed longer than it should have.” I like Sibelius in general, and the strings maintained a tight focus for the surprisingly minimalistic writing of the “Night Ride” segment that I found suitably hypnotic. The “Sunrise” section went on a bit, though, although not through any glaring fault of the performance or interpretation.

    The Rachmaninoff was much rockier, however. The orchestra was clearly out of sync at the very beginning, and the entire first section lacked any of the crispness or capriciousness the work calls for. Gilbert’s conducting felt lethargic and was quite a disservice to British pianist Stephen Hough‘s wonderfully nimble performance, although things smoothed out eventually. The rest of the orchestra’s performance in the piece as it wended its way through its various moods (among them, militaristic, diabolical, Arabian) was more controlled, although there were two excruciatingly sloppy trumpet entrances in a row. I can join in with Eichler and Schwartz’s praise for Hough, though, whose playing was elegant but also had character, despite the piece’s relative lack of depth. And like Schwartz I also appreciated Hough’s “playing [of] the composer’s most famous — and most gorgeous — piano theme with unschmaltzy restraint and delicacy and also passion and wit.”

    The Ives was clearly the most ambitious work on the programme, so perhaps it’s not surprising that it was the work the orchestra seemed the most prepared for. The work calls for a jumble of extras, including chorus, theremin, organ, piano, and small ensemble offstage (in this case, in the first balcony), and Gilbert was ably aided by assistant conductor Andrew Grams. I enjoy Ives in general as well (perhaps because he makes me feel like a chest-thumping patriot), although his works have a tendency to do the same sort of thing. But Gilbert made the most of all the crunchy “traffic jam” cacophonies, while also bringing out the more lyric moments such as in the third movement. The balance of the massive forces was not always lucid, even given the fact it was Ives, but all in all it was certainly an admirable performance of a rare work.

    Oh, and as chance would have it, the night I went happened to have another post-concert reception, the second of the Symphony+ series of events I’ve attended. Unlike last time, the soloist, Hough, made a prompter appearance, although the conductor hadn’t appeared by the time I left (granted, I didn’t stick around for that long). I still don’t personally quite see the point of forcing the performers to mingle, although from a marketing perspective it’s certainly an obvious ploy. Regardless, the attendees seemed to be enjoying Hough’s company, although I feel for the man myself. Hopefully Bostonians gave him less to roll his eyes about than the average audience. 😉 The nibbles were a bit more focused as well, and there definitely seemed to be a better turn out.

    If you’re looking for more info on Hough, his official site looks pretty comprehensive. Apparently he’s also been maintaining a blog at The Telegraph’s website, and incidentally included a post about the popular local classical musicians’ haunt Brasserie Jo. (Although I’ve been leery of the place ever since I had a ridiculously watery crêpe there.)

    Although this is ostensibly a Boston arts blog, now seems an opportune time to post a few peripherally related links. In terms of classical musicians’ blogs, I’ve had Hilary Hahn’s blog bookmarked for a while now. It doesn’t update all that regularly, but her YouTube channel is more active and an admirable endeavor; a good source of workday time wastage, but you didn’t hear that from me. 😉

    The second, and rather more relevant, link is just to highlight Hyperion Records’ Romantic Piano, Violin, and more recently Cello Concerto series. It’s always nice to see lesser-known works being spotlighted instead of the same old, same old, and Hough appears on several volumes, including the Saint-Saëns Complete Works for Piano & Orchestra. The CDs are only available as imports, however. Incidentally (although perhaps not coincidentally), Hough’s newest recital disc was released this month. Amazon’s tracklisting in incomplete, but you can find more details about the disc on Hyperion’s site.

    Well, it remains to be seen what my next BSO concert will be. As I mentioned previously, the $20 tix for people under 40 program is continuing through the rest of the current season (and from my survey of the audience at this past concert it seems to be succeeding in drawing a younger demographic). So hopefully I’ll be taking advantage of it at least a couple of times while it lasts.

    Ravel, Liszt, and Dvořák at the BSO

    For classical music I have a strong preference for chamber and contemporary music, so it’s not surprising that I don’t make it out to the BSO that often. But their $20 tix for people under 40 program, which is continuing through the rest of the current season, has definitely rekindled my interest.

    Ended up at the concert featuring guest conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin in his BSO debut (he apparently just began his first season at the Rotterdam Philharmonic). The program consisted of Ravel’s Valses nobles et sentimentales, Liszt’s Piano Concerto #2, and Dvořák’s Symphony #6. I’m not a fan of overly athletic conductors, so I found Nézet-Séguin’s style generally distracting, although Eichler didn’t, in his review for The Globe. I agreed with his review in general, although in the Dvořák, Eichler thought Nézet-Séguin “daringly pushed the tempo to the limits”, whereas I felt in those cases the tempo reached speeds that edged a bit too close to the boundary between an exciting performance and a train wreck just waiting to happen. I can certainly see how others would enjoy the by-the-seat-of-your-pants breathlessness, though, and his performance was very well received. But I did agree that Thibaudet successfully threw off any Gallic reserve in tackling the Liszt, giving a performance that, while not overly muscular, still felt sinewy and athletic. The orchestra, as always, sounded great, and it was nice to hear Dvořák’s Symphony #6, which according to Marc Mandel, Director of Program Publications, in his pre-concert talk was last performed by the BSO ten years ago.

    It’s not often that anyone mentions the thankless job of doing the pre-concert talk, but my companion wanted to hear it and Mandel did a nice job of presenting the history of each piece in context, although without many specifcs about the construction of the music itself, no doubt due to his target audience. His love of the Dvořák #6 was clearly evident, and his talk was certainly successful in setting the stage.

    Afterwards the BSO held a signing with Thibaudet, and actually also had a post-concert reception, part of their new Symphony+ series of events. According to their website, Symphony+ is “a series of pre- and Post-Concert events that enhance the overall concert experience. Symphony+ connects food, literature, and the performing and visual arts to the BSO concerts at Symphony Hall and adds an exciting new element to the concerts.” I’m all in favor of such efforts by arts organizations, and although the reception was well organized, it didn’t seem to have much point. The conductor and pianist were supposed to be present, but they weren’t, presumably because the latter was still signing CDs. I, and I’m sure many others, only waited around for a bit and left because it didn’t seem like anything was going to happen anytime soon. I like the idea of post-concert mingling, although I’m not sure how natural it is to include the performers anyway, but regardless you’d think that the people organizing these things would come up with a better plan to foster interaction between strangers than just “a pass for a free drink, coffee and tea, snacks, tables and chairs”. But maybe that wasn’t the intention at all; in any case, maybe they’ll come up with some better ideas in the future, and at the very least the reception provided a nice coda to an enjoyable evening. Hopefully I’ll be able to make it to at least another concert before the end of the season.

    Brave New Works at The Boston Conservatory’s New Music Festival

    [The preview for this review can be found here.]

    Good lord. It’s already the last week of February, and I’ve definitely gotten behind. I ended up not making it to even half of the things I’d planned on in February due to a lot of other stuff going on, but one of the concerts I did make it to was Brave New Works at The Boston Conservatory’s New Music Festival a couple of weeks ago. The program opened with Sunji Hong’s “Shades of Raindrops” which had nice textures and evocative sounds but lacked structure and as a consequence seemed a bit aimless. The same was true of “Wax Lyrical” by Chris Gendall which opened the second half of the concert, although his musical language sounded much more dated in comparison, with its Bartok pizzes and string glissandi.

    Forrest Pierce’s “The Black Sword of Sappho”, scored for harp and soprano, was also piecemeal, although much more convincingly so as the texts were from the fragments of the ancient Greeks poet’s writings from “a handful of broken pottery” according to the program note. The performance directions even indicate (rather preciously) that the order of the short movements should be determined by writing their names on “a vessel” and smashing it on stage. The vocal writing, which Pierce says is for “hypersoprano”, features wide leaps, and BNW’s soprano Jennifer Goltz hit all the notes, although she didn’t always make them feel musical due to punching them too hard in general. However her monochromatic attacks may well have been due to her obvious hoarseness due to illness. She fared better in the melismatic passages, though, bringing a confident warmth and smoothness to her tone and beautifully bringing out every note (leading me to hope we get to hear her take on some of the coloratura standards before too long). Although diatonic, the work features fresh harp writing at every moment, and harpist Amy Ley brought excellent support to the partnership.

    Mason Bates often uses electronics in his compositions, but his work “String Band”, for piano trio (including prepared piano), was a crowd-pleasing reworking of “twangy” old-timey Americana. The work doesn’t offer anything too deep or surprising and doesn’t quite transcend its source material, but it’s certainly a fun, well-paced romp, and it received a compelling performance by the group.

    The final work of the evening was “Objects and Intervals”, a premier for the entire ensemble by Andy Vores. Like the rest of the evening the works’ two movements are also fragmented in many ways, although here the sections feel more purposeful. Vores’ works always have an element of surprise, and this work is idiosyncratically constructed in that after a humorous quodlibet of famous classical melodies from various eras the texture becomes very thin and focuses on the upper strings as they create a gauzy haze of quarter tones around a very tonal center. These are “interrupted” by wordless melismatic sections for the soprano which are surprisingly moving in the way they evoke almost primal cries of emotion. Although the program note indicates the sections are variations (or “compressions”) of the opening source material, the connections are often so buried and tenuous that the work doesn’t feel completely coherent. But as with all new works repeated listenings will certainly illuminate, and kudos to Brave New Works for bringing such a vibrant program to Boston in such polished performances.

    Upcoming for February

    Because of the Boston Conservatory’s annual New Music Festival, this first week of February has ended up being jam-packed. So much so that due to conflicts there are some things I want to see but won’t be able to. Here’s what I’ve got lined up, and the ones I’m sadly going to have to miss out on:

  • Friday, February 6: Passion Pit, Paper Route, Cale Parks Downstairs at The Middle East (18+, $12). I’d heard Passion Pit’s track “Sleepyhead” and then liked their other tracks on their MySpace page. The way I’ve been describing them is, “Like MGMT, but much less annoying and more interesting.” Won’t be able to make this one, though, due to the conflict below.
  • Friday, February 6: Brave New Works: The Boston Conservatory’s New Music Festival, as usual, has a load of worthwhile concerts. This one features a new work by Andy Vores entitled “Objects and Intervals”. It’s immediately preceded by a “prelude concert” by the Ludovico Ensemble of Kurtag’s Kafka Fragments for violin and soprano. Their soprano, Aliana de la Guardia, has yet to disappoint, and after the publicity of the Sellars/Upshaw performance at Lincoln Center this past fall I’m guessing I won’t be the only one interested in this thorny work.
  • Saturday, February 7 (2 p.m., All Saints Parish, Brookline): Benjamin Britten Noye’s Fludde: David Hoose, Music Director; Lynn Torgove, Stage Director; Members of Cantata Singers and PALS Children’s Chorus; Alysoun Kegel, Artistic Director; Young instrumentalists from Boston area arts organizations. Part of Cantata Singers‘ Britten season. Should be fun.
  • Saturday, February 7 (8 p.m., First Church in Cambridge): Sarasa Ensemble, Music of Handel, Purcell, and Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater with Dominique Labelle, soprano and Michael Chance, countertenor: Part of the Boston Early Music Festival.
  • Sunday, February 8: Momenta Quartet: Also part of the Boston Conservatory’s New Music Festival. Featuring Glass’s Quartet #5 and a premiere by faculty member Dalit Warshaw for theremin and string quartet with the composer playing theremin. This evening also includes a prelude concert by the Ludovico Ensemble, Morton Feldman’s Crippled Symmetry.
  • Sunday, February 15 (3 p.m.): Chameleon Arts Ensemble “a tale that’s told in ancient song”. Especially looking forward to violinist Joanna Kurkowicz‘s performance of Ravel’s fiery crowd-pleaser Tzigane. You can get 1/2-price tickets from goldstar.com and if you register using this link I get a small commission. Whoo!
  • Sunday, February 15: The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, Pants Yell! and The Depreciation Guild Upstairs at The Middle East (18+, $9). Another show M wanted to go to, but I quickly got into The Pains of Being Pure at Heart’s shoegaze-y brand of pop as well as The Depreciation Guild’s dreamy electronics. If you like M83, you’ll probably like The Depreciation Guild, and in fact at the moment I actually prefer the latter.
  • Phew! Looks like it’s going to be a marthon two weeks. Hopefully I’ll have enough stamina to get through it all. Stay tuned …

    Cantata Singers’ “All Britten”

    [The preview for this review can be found here.]

    A bit late for the review, but I did end up attending the Cantata Singers’ “All Britten” concert a couple of weeks ago. To recap, the program was as follows:

    Friday, January 16, 8:00 pm – Jordan Hall
    Lachrymae: Roger Tapping, viola
    Five Flower Songs
    Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings: Michael Slattery, tenor; Michael Thompson, horn
    Phaedra: Janna Baty, mezzo-soprano
    Rejoice in the Lamb, orch. Imogen Holst: First Boston performance of chorus-orchestral version

    The reviews in The Boston Globe and the Phoenix were both highly complimentary. As for me, I fully enjoyed “Lachrymae”, the opener. I found the orchestra to be a bit subdued (although their performance could be interpreted as “subtle” I suppose), but the violist, Tapping, was an expressive and agile performer. “Phaedra” was also beautifully and intensely performed. The soloist was soprano Janna Baty, and her performance was fully (and appropriately) dramatic and operatic. The works for chorus were also highlights: the “Five Flower Songs” were nicely presented, and the chorus especially revelled in the rollicking “Ballad of Green Broom”. Likewise they brought out all the humor of “Rejoice in the Lamb” and, if not quite convincing me it was more than a curio, enabled me to enjoy it nonetheless.

    The biggest disappointment was the concert’s centerpiece, the Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings, which is too bad since the work seems to be done far more rarely than it should. I found the young tenor Michael Slattery’s performance to be mannered, on-the-surface playacting that lacked any real depth. His sotto voce, breathy melodramatics grew wearying, despite ample and strong support from the orchestra. A significant dip in an otherwise enjoyable evening, but regardless it was an attractive program overall and I’m looking forward to enjoying more of the Cantata Singers Britten season. More reviews to come, as the performance of Noye’s Fludde on February 7 is fast approaching.