Monday, June 29, 2009

Can do

On Friday, I had the good fortune to attend a panel featuring the composers of Bang on a Can -- Julia Wolfe, Michael Gordon, and David Lang -- in conversation with Anne Midgette of the Washington Post.

The talk dug fairly deep into the group's origins and its progression from the fringe to something resembling the establishment, especially with Lang winning the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2008.

What excited me most: the upcoming formation of something called the Asphalt Orchestra, a new-music marching band. The idea of it, especially knowing Gordon's affinity for site-specific music and shifting the audience-performer orientation, makes me giddy. My years of propping up a sousaphone with my left shoulder seem somehow vindicated.

One perception-altering observation: I thought that BoaC operated entirely outside of the academic world, that all three made their livings from writing music without holding down positions at universities. "I was unemployable the day before I won the Pulitzer," David Lang remarked on Friday. That changed, though; he now teaches at Yale and Oberlin.

Attendees were treated to a few ear-jangling clips of the trio's compositions: Gordon's "Dystopia," performed by the LA Philharmonic under David Robertson; Lang's "Little Match Girl Passion," written for Paul Hillier and Theatre of Voices and for which he won the Pulitzer; Wolfe's string quartet "Early That Summer" and "Lad" for nine bagpipes. "Dystopia" thrilled me most -- brassy, busy and colored by the Walt Disney Concert Hall pipe organ, but with a deftly multi-layered structure -- but all were highly enjoyable.

I believe it was Julia Wolfe who stated the group was formed "to make the field better, more widely played... [to build] a bigger and more enthusiastic audience." That really resonated with me, because that's what I want to do as a writer and critic. Maybe that's not what a critic's job is or ought to be, but I believe in this music, in new music, and in the music that paved the way for its creation. A 12-hour concert, or a 24-hour one, might be a news-making spectacle, but the individual pieces that comprise it, and the composers behind them, should be known, too.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Philly Orchestra season closer: An earthly delight

In the face of economic woes and minor crises in leadership, the Philadelphia Orchestra has soldiered on to produce an admirable, intermittently dazzling subscription season. Charles Dutoit and the Orchestra brought it to a close with performances of Berlioz's Requiem, a piece whose ambition and tumult seemed a perfect finale to a season that exhibited plenty of both.

With themes of the afterlife and light shining on the souls of the departed, the words "celestial" or "heavenly" are applied to this Requiem and others. I came away with the impression of a more earthly delight, more rooted in human frailty and failings than in the firmament.

Dutoit initially took a big-picture approach, guiding the orchestra lightly through the winding scalar figures that churn through the first several movements. The Philadelphia Singers Chorale, at 160 voices rather than the 400 or so that Berlioz recommended, seemed a little underpowered in the "Introitus" but found its footing in the "Dies irae." That chaotic movement threatened to come totally unglued, with four brass choruses spread throughout the hall's second tier and their sound's dissipation into space distorted entrances and rhythms. I'm not sure if there would have been an ideal spot in the hall to hear all four, but they eventually fell into line and joined with four (though it might have been more) sets of timpani to produce a very satisfying roar.

After the stormy "Dies irae," the moments of hush in the ensuing movements were even more pleasing. The Chorale showed immaculate blend, especially in the unaccompanied "Quarens me," and responded strongly to Dutoit's cues, matching the contour he brought to the strings' playing.

What established this Requiem as earthly, in the best sense, rather than heavenly was the sixth movement, the pleading "Lacrymosa." Stabs from the violins gradually transformed into savage blows from brass and percussion that answered pitiful cries of "Save me" from the singers. Dutoit dropped his usual cool detachment and dug in earnestly, gesturing broadly but without putting a stranglehold on the music. The gritty, fevered element of the music resonated strongly; salvation seemed imperiled.

The rest of the concert strove more actively for a feeling of distant, radiant beams. The chorus was hushed but penetrating in the "Offertorium," and the men of the chorus exhibit fine tuning and blended in the "Hostias." In one instance of a forced hand attempting to impart a heavenly sensation, tenor Paul Groves sang his solo in the "Sanctus" from the highest reaches of Verizon Hall. Rather than sounding celestial, it was alienating. Being able to see facial expressions, body language and the mouth's shaping of vowels is vital to appreciating and attempting to understand any singer's performances, and it was dissatisfying to be denied that connection. Groves' sound, though disembodied, was impressive, with a clear, tremulous tone and a loving, lingering approach to his syllables.

The closing "Agnus Dei," with its revisiting of earlier movements, was alternately impassioned and detached, piling up many of the preceding themes and emotions. This pileup in the form of a prayer leads, of course, to the final "Amen." To reach that final exhalation, that sense of final consolation, I get the sense that both listener and performer have to go through hell, and Berlioz's Requiem, diffuse and difficult by its nature, does give you hell. The composer demanded an over-sized orchestra and chorus and wrote, for those forces, a roughly 90-minute work. The ambition of the piece, to me, embodies the desire to create something titanic immortal through art.

Why, then, try to give so much gloss to this very earthly striving? At times, the orchestra's performance aimed for the rafters instead of the heart. It might have benefited from more of the spirit of the "Lacrymosa," where the pleasures of heaven seem threatened, infusing the surrounding movements. A Requiem isn't all angels and harps and lux perpetua. Give us the sweat, the grit, the feeling we just might not be worthy.

For another take: DPS in the Inquirer.

Commended to your attention

An article by Tim Page, professor at USC's Annenberg School of Journalism and Thornton School of Music, former music critic for the Washington Post, and an author whose writing on any number of subjects I would be delighted to read. As it happens, here he writes on a subject about which I have rather strong feelings: the future of arts journalism and the importance of educating people in practicing it. The personal touches at the beginning are particularly gripping -- having recently looked back at my own early writings, amen to his "Oh dear" -- and the exhortations near the end seem both a plea for well-reasoned writing and a representation of it. As a whole, it's pointed without being overly proscriptive.

I can also say that I, too, dislike "histrionic excess" in performances of Tchaikovsky, and I'm happy that jacket and tie are no longer required wearing for either critics or regular concertgoers.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Fermentation nation

The Garden State Craft Brewers Guild Festival, previewed for the Courier-Post, June 14, 2009.

With my first foray into beer journalism, months of poring over blogs and Joe Sixpack's "Philly Beer Guide", not to mention making contacts in the Philly beer scene, have finally paid off. New Jersey looks to have a pretty robust scene of its own, and I'm excited to check it out. I might provide some coverage of the Festival for my buddies over at Hopheads, including maybe even *gasp* some Twittering.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Rock-crit returns

John Vanderslice and The Tallest Man on Earth at Johnny Brenda's, reviewed for Phawker, June 12, 2009.

JV = one of my all-time favorites. Saw him March 2004 in St. Louis and April 2007 in NYC. Erik Friedlander showed up at the NYC gig and played back-up on a few tunes. No new-music cameos here in Philly, but the set was still brash and boldly experimental. Several songs I thought I knew by heart appeared in vastly different form. The reports from St. Paul were right; this new band can tear it up.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Skin, deeply

"Race: Are We So Different?", a new exhibit at the Franklin, previewed for the Courier-Post, June 7, 2009.

Forthcoming: more non-musical matters, including a preview of the Garden State Craft Brewers Guild Festival. Hoping to land some press tickets to that one, which subsequently might lead to some cross-posting with my friends at Hopheads. Cheers.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009


Some thoughts on Friday's concert by The Crossing:

- thrilling and exhausting gestures in John McCabe's Scenes from America Deserta: wordless glissandos, dense layering, lots of sibilance and chattering syllables. Busy rather than stark. Much more tumultuous than expected for something intended to evoke a desert.

- two calmer pieces to cool things down. Paul Fowler's Potter's Clay, for women's voices, is smooth and chant-like, working and reworking "Om mani padme hum" into a dissonant pile-up, then repeating the initial portion of the English text. Gives the sense of resolve and insight forged in contemplation. Men rejoin the women for Phillip Moore's I saw him standing there and the blend seems off; the men might still be drained from the McCabe. The middle section of the motet has the most interest; a vital, rhythmic dance that recalls the madrigals that many promising singers first take on during high school as an introduction to high-level, unaccompanied singing.

- Kile Smith's Where flames a word, the final world premiere in the Celan Project, and the first to incorporate a prose work by Celan. Gives a sense of immanence and of tremendous, overwhelming size and the struggle to comprehend it. Middle section, the prose setting, has text that reflects a struggle for language, a conflict between "green" and "white" language, and the build-up of clusters suggests language at war, green and white each fighting for their own space.

-Exact quote from conductor Donald Nally, not long into first movement: "Every so often, and because the composer is in the room, we're going to go back and do it again. There's a wonderful moment... that we just screwed up."

-Despite that, the Smith piece was really impressive: a strong sense of lapping waves, of drawing closer to that nagging, inscrutable secret that seems to haunt Celan. One odd thing: ending on the word "delusion" with a sweet, major chord. Are we to come away thinking of peace and harmony as a delusion? Is this resignation in the face of the struggles Celan evokes? Not sure.

-First half: totally killer. How did they get through it? How do they have the energy for the second half? Anyway, here they go again: "Rain and Rush and Rosebush" by Bo Holten (also in attendance!) A flitting, dramatic work, with a very hard-working soprano soloist and trio of narrators/commenters with an immaculately blended sound. The piece has a kind of fairytale-ish back story but it's much deeper and stranger than most fairytales. Kind of cold at points, but with lots of fluid, intertwining lines that maintain momentum.

-Arvo Pärt's I am the true vine: holy moly. The blend, the focus, the consistency, the adherence to text, it's all there. There's a gravity to the words but a lightness in phrasing, static but radiant. In short: it was simple, beautiful, ethereal, and right.

-Concert closed with Voices of Autumn by my one-time college professor Jackson Hill (sadly, not in attendance). Apparently not taxed by the Pärt or all that came before: the same blend and focus are there, and the ornamentations, inspired by Buddhist chant and Japanese court music, are tossed off with poise. As with the Pärt, I'm reminded of a massed organ sound, with stops being pulled to generate minute changes in color and texture.

All this was motivated by the fact that I'll be seeing The Crossing again tonight at the opening concert of the Chorus America conference, which is being held in Philadelphia. The Crossing will be joined by the Princeton Singers, and I believe they will reprise the Smith piece, as well as the David Shapiro piece from earlier this year, and a work by British composer Joby Talbot that I missed out on seeing last month. More reports to come.

Friday, June 05, 2009

Big band vs. small choir

Another week, another new-music scheduling conflict. Tonight, Ars Nova Workshop presents Darcy James Argue's Secret Society, a group I first discovered in mid-2006 through an interview on NewMusicBox, shortly before I started interning there. I'd kept tags on Argue and the band; I even floated the possibility of interviewing him for the magazine I worked for after grad school (it didn't work out, sadly). I knew about tonight's gig weeks in advance (thanks Mark!) and thought I'd be able to make it before heading out of town for a wedding.

Then another much-delayed opportunity arose: seeing the Crossing in concert after missing the first two weeks in their "Month of Moderns." I'd arranged for tickets to previous shows, and I even lined up a copy of the choir's recording of Kile Smith's "Vespers." I couldn't possibly skip out for a third straight time. So tonight, I'll journey up to Chestnut Hill for the first time since January. I'll take notes as if to write a review, though no formal assignment has yet materialized. I'll seek out a friend from high school who sings with the choir, and I might even bump into one of my college professors might even be there -- Jackson Hill's "Voices of Autumn" opens the concert. I'm sorry to miss out on Secret Society (8 pm at International House, $12), but I know the show I'm seeing will be similarly modern and forward-thinking, and even though it's not a band, I trust it will be big.

Monday, June 01, 2009

Sands, sounds

The Bay-Atlantic Symphony at the Jersey Shore, The Courier-Post, May 31, 2009.

Four more concerts remain: two in Cape May, and two in Avalon. The Cape May concerts are on Thursday nights, while will unfortunately keep me from attending, but I'm hoping to make it to one or both of the free programs in Avalon.