Monday, December 20, 2010

Top 10 of 2010

The ten best performances I had the good fortune to attend in 2010, in chronological order.

Symphony in C with cellist Susan Babini, Aaron Jay Kernis’ "Colored Field," April 7, Perelman Theater at the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts.

Counter)induction, George Crumb’s “Eleven Echoes of Autumn,” May 16, American Philosophical Society

The Crossing, Kamran Ince’s “Gloria (everywhere),” September 12, Bang on a Can Marathon at World Cafe Live

So Percussion and Matmos, music by Robert Ashley and others, same date and location as previous entry

Charles Curtis, Carol Robinson, and Bruno Martinez, Eliane Radigue’s "Naldjorlak," September 24, Christ Church

Princeton Symphony Orchestra with violinist Leila Josefowicz, Steve Mackey’s “Beautiful Passing,” October 3, Richardson Auditorium

Symphony in C (again) with pianist Adam Neiman, Rachmaninoff's Second Piano Concerto, October 9, Gordon Theater at Rutgers-Camden

Opera gala with singers from the Academy of Vocal Arts, October 17, Tomasello Winery

Treme Brass Band, October 27, Candlelight Lounge, New Orleans

JACK Quartet, music by Wolfe, Lachenmann and Gregory Spears, November 20, Icebox @ Crane Arts

It's mainly a list of Philly performances, with a few from New Jersey and an odd one not from the mid-Atlantic at all. You'll note there are few performances from early in the year, which I'll chalk up to weekends spent bartending and weeknights spent planning my April wedding. October appears to have been something of a mensis mirabilis; I only wish I could have taken in a concert during my trip to San Francisco. The Giants game was pretty cool, though.

I'd also like to add two honorable mentions, both of which I had the pleasure of performing in: a March performance with Choral Arts Philadelphia, with music by Pärt, Jonathan Harvey and a wild, woolly, unheard-for-20-years piece by the late Joseph Castaldo; and an a cappella rendition of "Seasons of Love" from the musical Rent , sung with old friends at my wedding, not long after my wife and I said "I do."

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The humidity of other planets

This month has been one of my busiest ever, I think. Late June and early July had me bartending at a furious pace during World Cup soccer matches, after which I immediately segued into a titanic, non-arts-related writing assignment.

Amid copious rewrites and explorations of several business-related fields about which I previously knew next to nothing, I found time to crank out several music-related assignments. Though it took away valuable time from a series of impending deadlines, writing about music did me quite a bit of good.

So, from Sunday, a preview of the Philadelphia Orchestra's presentation of Planet Earth Live, an evening-length, multimedia, music/video/nature documentary jawn, with both music and film images adapted from the BBC documentary Planet Earth. I'll be attending this on Thursday with my wife and several members of her family.

Also, a feature on Red KoolAde, a very talented jazz trio with two doctors among its members. The group's saxophonist provided me with a never-before-seen journalistic opportunity: he invited me over to his house for a party where the band was performing. It made for some observations that sitting in on a Sunday night practice session never would have afforded.

Finally, in my first non-Paperboy contribution to Phawker in several months, I put together a preview of this past Saturday's Non-Classical showcase, presented by Gabriel Prokofiev's far-reaching record label. The interview with GP went up on Phawker a scant couple of hours before the event, and I wasn't able to attend anyway, but GP's answers to my questions turned out to be very illuminating. I haven't heard any reports on Saturday's attendance, but I hope my preview encouraged at least a small boost.

Friday, July 02, 2010

Official business

In today's Courier-Post, I had the pleasure of breaking the news that Camden's Symphony in C has appointed a new president. Krishna Thiagarajan -- I asked him several times for the correct pronunciation of his last name -- comes to the Symphony from the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra, where his colleagues praised his leadership as director of education and community outreach and, for the last year, senior director of artistic operations.

Thiagarajan -- I'm told his former students called him "Dr. T" -- impressed me with his thoughtful approach to orchestral programming during unsteady economic times, as well as with his deeply-felt connection to classical repertoire and his willingness to try new things (he mentioned performing George Crumb's music -- possibly the Four Nocturnes (Summer Night II) -- and it was all I could do to refrain from gushing over Crumb and contemporary music in general). Following a season in which the Symphony performed at a high level, made its Carnegie Hall debut, and faced a daunting budget shortage due to delays in state funding, Thiagarajan comes into a situation with more potential than peril, but weaning the Symphony off of unreliable funding sources -- the state council on the arts included -- will be an immediate, pressing challenge.

He'll be on the job effective September 1, though he won't arrive in Camden until the 8th, owing to a long-planned trip to his native Germany. I look forward to many more conversations with him on the Symphony and its future, the classical repertoire, and, if possible, the contributions to the beer-drinking world from his hometown of Dortmund.

Monday, June 28, 2010


The twin passions of my adult life -- new music and beer -- have cropped up in my writing once again. Though it's late in coming to this forum, you can find my preview of Saturday's Garden State Beer Festival here. I was unable to attend; I was busy serving, rather than consuming, beer during the World Cup soccer matches.

In other weekend news, The Crossing, a local chamber choir dedicated to performing modern music, launched its second Month of Moderns festival yesterday, and I previewed the series and its adventurous programming here for the Courier-Post. From my discussions with director Donald Nally and several of the choir's members, the third MoM, as they call it, is already in the works. A greater presence between July and January is also planned, including a slot in Bang on a Can's Marathon, part of the Live Arts/Philly Fringe Festival and scheduled for September 12.

My rubric in highlighting Philadelphia events for a New Jersey audience is whether the attraction merits crossing the bridge, paying the toll, finding parking -- all factors for a suburban audience. This one, without question, does. I've written about the Crossing in the past, both for the Broad Street Review and here, and their performances have been consistently stirring and impressive. I was unable to attend the opener -- again, beer-dispensing duties are the reason -- but expect reports from the July 9 and 17 shows.

Thursday, May 27, 2010


A first: a short piece in Washington City Paper, made possible by a colleague and former editor who landed there after a paper here in Philly went belly-up (only to emerge in a different form, sans arts coverage). I used to pick up WCP on trips into DC from the Shady Grove Metro station, and I may have more bylines there in the future. Yes, I know I don't live in DC. I'll make it work.

A find: a piece in the Courier-Post that both previewed a concert and highlighted a remarkable church music program in Moorestown. The music ministry at First Presbyterian Church is surprisingly prolific -- I compared it to a top-level college athletics program -- and brings in a large number of passionately interested young people. I wasn't able to attend the Chapel Choir's May 23 performance of Mozart's Mass in C, but my experience attending the choir's rehearsal had me convinced that teenagers can connect with Mozart on a deep and meaningful level. It's rarely been my intent to crusade, but the classical-music-is-for-old-people-and-the-elite narrative is one I take pleasure in subverting.

Monday, May 17, 2010


Yesterday, I took in a concert by the NYC-based new-music group counter)induction. They appear several times yearly in Philadelphia, but this was the first time I'd had the opportunity to hear them. Their program, titled "The Child is Father to the Man," examined connections between composers and their pupils. The first half paired Xenakis with his student Dusapin; the second, George Crumb and two of his students at the University of Pennsylvania, Douglas Boyce and Kyle Bartlett.

The overall structure of the concert reminded me of a work by Ken Ueno, whom I met at a Philadelphia Music Project panel in January. "Kaze-no-Oka," his concerto for traditional Japanese instruments opens with two bars of fast, loud music; he says, in his program note, that this quick burst of notes "merely functions to introduce potential energy." In similar fashion, there were a few direct echoes of Xenakis' string trio "Ikhoor" later in the program, but the spirit of the piece -- call it momentum -- pervaded the rest of the afternoon. Each of the pieces that followed the Xenakis reached the fevered pitch that "Ikhoor" maintained for its entire length; the main variations were in how each composer went about reaching that level of intensity and how long they chose to sustain it.

In short, the Xenakis was furiously committed, dizzying, and over far too soon. It was a thorough working-out of the possibilities of register and timbre, with a very compact and economical marshaling of instrumental forces. Full disclosure: I'd never heard Xenakis performed live, and it was a visceral, unforgettable experience. To the Philadelphia music community: more, please.

The Dusapin was much more diffuse and dominated by the sound of piano. The spirit of "Ikhoor" seemed to enter the piece through a few small gestures -- mostly glissandos and trills -- but the deepest sense of concentration came in the form of Steven Beck's almost mantra-like piano playing, including a strummed-sounding passage of simple thirds, bookended by wiry figures from clarinet and cello.

The Crumb, though more concerned with surface effects -- whistling, declaimed bits of poetry -- combined timbral experimentation with an embrace of decay and silences. The furiously concentrated bits, especially from clarinet and flute, trailed off in ways that evoked the distortion that time and distance introduce to reliable memory. The small-scale figures that Beck drew out of the piano, from both inside and outside the piano, built up into a kind of musical echo chamber. The sum of the chirping and chiming bits seemed, to me, to conjure up a feeling of nocturnal darkness: a "silent" night that turns out to be populated with birds, insects and all manner of other noisemakers.

In the Boyce, I was taken with the overlapping patterns in a narrow range of notes from the clarinet and cello, as well as with the sense of the musicians leaning into the dissonance as their roles within the ensemble periodically shifted. It was perhaps the closest to the Xenakis in its density and the sensation of being pulled in multiple directions; the four instruments sounded more like seven or eight and tugged the piece in as many opposing ways.

Kyle Bartlett's world premiere, "Present," closed the concert and left many listeners with the sense that it should have been longer. This was the only piece on the program to feature all six of c)i's players, but, as in the Dusapin, Steven Beck's piano playing set the tone for an energetic, engrossing work. His nerve-jangling runs, broken up by wide leaps in register, were refracted and parceled throughout the ensemble. There were some slashing figures in the strings that recalled the Xenakis -- which, originally, were somewhat reminiscent of Stravinsky -- and jumped out from a roiling texture.

Bartlett's a friend, and we've discussed in the past how her pieces are guided by a dream-like logic: connections between disparate sections often resist being found, while others emerge without probing. The latter struck me at the end of the piece, as a riot of activity is abruptly cut off and the violin enters with an altered version of Beck's busy piano riff. It seemed to me like the first impression of a dream one has after waking, before the whole thing evaporates. You can't hold onto it for long, and the same is true for "Present." Were it longer, it would be somehow less immersive.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010


My apologies for the months of absence. It's been an unusually busy and fruitful period, highlighted by my engagement, in late January, to my long-time girlfriend and our wedding in Maryland on April 10th.

Non-marital highlights include continued coverage of classical music and the arts for the Courier-Post, including numerous concerts by Symphony in C, the Camden, N.J.-based training orchestra I profiled last year for Symphony, as well as the orchestra's Carnegie Hall debut. I've also touched on chamber music, opera, jazz, theater and dance in recent months, and I was even nominated for a New Jersey Press Association award, but was muscled out by a food critic who writes for a Pennsylvania newspaper. So it goes.

Another highlight: a freelance assignment for Chamber Music that is slated for the magazine's July/August issue. It's about social media -- Twitter and Facebook, in particular -- and their impact on the lives and careers of classical and jazz performers. Stay tuned for that.

More TK this summer after a trip down South for a wedding, including previewing a new classical concert series in downtown Camden and another Month of Moderns from the outstanding new-music chamber choir The Crossing. I'll try my best to keep an ear to the ground and, in all ways and at all times, make it new.

Monday, January 04, 2010

Wrapping up '09

The Best Music of 2009 rundown hit Phawker on New Year's Day. It contains my write-ups of albums by Dirty Projectors and John Vanderslice, as well as Vol. 1 of music from the TV show "Glee."

My editor had intended to run everyone's Top 10 recommendations, but they didn't make the cut owing to space and formatting. Here are mine, in no particular order, but with a classical/non-classical divide a little over halfway through.

Dirty Projectors - Bitte Orca

Grizzly Bear - Veckatimest

Music from Glee, Vol. 1

I recommend these three jointly, because layered vocal harmonies were big this year, and a cappella ones in particular. So, in order, the harmonies here are in service of something fractured and strange, something swooning yet buttoned-down, and something over-the-top, spectacular and slightly fey. As I mentioned before, I sang a cappella in college, and I know deep-down how lame it is, but the diversity of its current uses makes me think that it might someday go legit.

Muse - The Resistance

Taking the arena-filling sound of U2 in a paranoid new direction, while tempering the Messianism and trading the bombast of Bono for that of Brahms or Beethoven.

John Vanderslice - Romanian Names

It's Romantic pop, rather than Baroque, but darker, bleaker and more withdrawn in its lyrics than on past albums. The beautiful, finely-honed sonics remain the same, though.

Andrew Bird - Noble Beast

Lush like Vanderslice, though slightly more precious, but gleefully wordy and overstuffed with lyrics chosen for sound rather than meaning. Dig that whistling, too.

Lady Gaga - The Fame Monster

The girl was everywhere this year, for better or worse, and even she's a Warholian put-on, I'd forgive her based on her infectious beat-mongering and all-out weirdness. I hope she hasn't used up her allotted 15 minutes.

Tyondai Braxton - Central Market

Brilliant musician from Battles ditches band for orchestra, but keeps the laptop and his flexible sense of rhythm and timbre. It's recognizably orchestral, but frenetic, exciting and packed with electronic surprises.

Theater of Voices - David Lang's the little match-girl passion

This piece won Lang the Pulitzer, but he didn't write it with mainstream cred in mind. It's a wrenchingly beautiful, utterly secular take on religious music -- less thorny than the pieces that established Lang's reputation, but no less thoughtful or inventive.

The Crossing and Piffaro - Kile Smith's Vespers

A Philly-centric recording and the most capital-C classical of my selections, and it's capital-R religious to boot, but the way Smith repurposes the earthy sounds of Renaissance instruments for modern music is a marvel. Same goes for the impeccable blend of the singers.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Late entry

A little info on the most recent item to land on my Top 10 for 2009, Kyle Bartlett's "The Lost Child." I wasn't familiar with "The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser," the Werner Herzog film that was a point of inspiration for Bartlett's opera; it's now on my Netflix queue, hopefully to arrive soon.

It's an unconventional opera, to say the least, featuring a flute-playing actor (or acting flutist) with electronic enhancements, an actor playing multiple roles who also sings, a percussionist, and a bevy of pre-recorded and altered sounds.

Bartlett set the tale in a futuristic surveillance society and portrayed the Hauser figure, Ana, herself. Ben Pierce played the Shadow Man, who brings Ana to Nuremberg; the Sector Manager; the Big Brother-ish figure of The Authority; and Doctor Nassar, who teaches Ana language and attempts to integrate her into society.

As Ana, Barlett convincingly expressed fear, doubt, anger, confusion, curiosity and rapture. After the show, she claimed to have just been making it up as she went along. She was similarly casual about her flute-playing, which drew heavily on extended techniques, including vocalizations, keyslaps, and pitch-bends.

The electronic elements mimicked firing synapses, disconnected thoughts and, during scenes of Ana's introduction to language, the acquisition of vocabulary. I could even detect stray German amid the fractured phrases and processed natural sounds, though I'm not sure if the phrase "Verstehen sie" is original to the Herzog film.

In short, the opera was compelling both musically and dramatically. The primordial elements - of exploring one's origins, or of acquiring language for the first time - echoed other, non-vocal works on the concert, particularly the violin-and-cello duet "Night Vision." Even simple elements, like changes in wardrobe or shifts in Bartlett's approach to her instrument (from unadorned notes to hissed and spat effects back to notes again), conveyed an unforced sense of significance. I don't have much else on my slate for the rest of the year, so "The Lost Child" will probably be the last concert I see in 2009 - and one of the best.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Top 10

The Crossing, David Shapiro's "It is time," Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill, January 4.

Bang on a Can All-Stars, Michael Gordon's "For Madeline," Perelman Theater, February 28.

Curtis Opera Theatre and the Opera Company of Philadelphia, Alban Berg'sWozzeck, Perelman Theater, March 13.

Symphony in C with harpist Bridget Kibbey, Sebastian Currier's "Broken Minuets," Perelman Theater, April 16.

Greater South Jersey Chorus, Aaron Copland's "At the River," National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, April 18.

The Crossing (again), works by Kile Smith and Joby Talbot, St. Peter's Church, June 10.

John Vanderslice and band, "Exodus Damage," Johnny Brenda's, June 11.

Sonic Liberation Front, "Jetway Confidential No. 3," Institute for Contemporary Art @ UPenn, July 29.

Asphalt Orchestra, works by Mingus, Bjork, Bregovic, et al., 30th Street Station, August 7.

Kyle Bartlett, Benjamin Pierce and Kristopher Rudzinski, "The Lost Child," Settlement Music School, Mary Louise Curtis Branch, December 13.

Honorable mention: Academy of Vocal Arts, "Lucia di Lammermoor," May 5, Helen Ward Corning Theater.

Conflict-of-interest mention: All solo arias and recitatives, as well as the Baroque horn solo, during Choral Arts Society's performance of Bach's B minor Mass, First Baptist Church of Philadelphia, May 9.