Saturday afternoon, Daniel Barenboim gave the second of his BBC Reith lectures. Brian Dickie of Chicago Opera Theater has the initial report, and I'll weigh in after the BBC broadcasts the lecture April 14. For now, I'll say that Dickie's right to be worried about the moderator.
I caught up with a bunch of Chicago composers over the weekend on Friday and Sunday. Winston Choi has been a pianist I've been looking out for ever since I heard a recital of his last winter, January '05, at Northwestern, when he began the program with Berio's Sonata and ended it with Scriabin's "Black Mass" Sonata. Friday night, he was back here with violinist (and wife) Minghuan Xu to play on the New Music DePaul series. It was a catch-all concert of violin and piano works by DePaul faculty members Gregory Hutter, Kurt Westerberg and George Flynn, as well as a piece by longtime Northwestern prof William Karlins.
Hutter and Westerberg all trade in the same sort of language, post-tonal, angular, and moving between agitated sections and more static ones. It could be said that a lot of composers do just that today, and they'd be right, but there wasn't much in either of these works that stamped them as unique. Flynn's also in that camp, more or less, but there's something I can't put my finger on with him. He sounds almost jazzy and swinging in different moments, but then it'll turn into something else entirely, and I don't know what. His music manages to remain elusive.
Choi and Xu, known as Duo Diorama when they're together, gave insanely focused readings of all these works, as well as Karlins' Partners, which opened the program. That work had the curious effect of landing in mysterious and slow-moving clusters, only to erase them with angrily jutting phrases. Those jutting phrases could've been written by anyone within earshot of Darmstadt ca. 1956, but the clusters had a pretty magical sound.
Flynn opened the concert with a moving, cluster-heavy, lullaby for three recently deceased friends: Karlins, composer John Downey and the dean who brought Flynn to DePaul 25 years ago, Fred Miller. Downey's Agort, for woodwind quintet, closed the program. The five-movement work alternated between stuttering movements and more lyrical ones, with the members of the Quintet Attacca giving it the same treatment that Choi and Xu gave to their part of the program. Downey uses a lot of quarter-tones in the work, and all I could think when they were playing them was that you haven't lived till you've heard a bassoon playing quarter-tones.
Sunday afternoon I was racing between two concert in different theaters at the Chicago Cultural Center. In one hall, the Percussion Plus Project was giving the premiere of Augusta Read Thomas' Sun Songs, for mezzo and a battery of percussion played by three players. Paulette V. Herbisch didn't really have the proper tone for this cycle of Emily Dickinson songs, with a wide operatic mezzo instead of the more usual straight, flat sound. But the work does represent a high-water mark in Thomas' text-setting, which hasn't felt this fluid before. Her other Dickinson settings felt forced to me and all the same, regardless of the poem's meaning. But these songs get some fresh sounds and rhythms from her.
The other concert was a tribute to the Chilean poet Gabriela Mistral and featured a bunch of works by composers living here but with roots in South America played by the MAVerick Ensemble. I caught the first movement of Gustavo Leone's Green Quintet, which began as an evocation of the rain forest, complete with a piccolo imitating a songbird and violin harmonics on loan from Daphnis and Chloe, and dance music. (A rumba? I'm sorely ignorant on these matters.) I also heard part of Fareed Haque's Airplanes, which is a pretty striking work with clashing keys meant to reference the drones of two airplanes in close proximity.
But the best part of this afternoon was looking around the dome of the Cultural Center, which is decorated with quotations in German, Italian, Latin and English as well as the names of prominent authors---Shakespeare, Dryden, Jonson, Bacon, Newton, et al. (This used to be the public library.) The crowd was largely drawn from the Hispanic community drawn to hear music written by their countrymen, whose culture was completely separate from that of the creators of this knowledge repository. But they're here now and making their voices heard, and it's resulting in some impressive music. Who couldn't be moved?
Time Out Chicago's esteemed Music editor, and, technically (it's a long and complicated story), my boss Antonia Simigis has started a blog at Aurally Fixated. I've also been spending time reading cellist David Gerstein at OhMyTrill and a singer at The Concert, who is likely Anne-Carolyn Bird, a fact I deduced by sleuthily reading the New York Times. (And you ask how we journalists find out these things.) And if you would rather read this blog in hip-hop, click here.
I'm sorry, sorry, sorry for letting almost ten days go by without a post. Before I explain what's kept me away, go check out Chicago Classical Music, a new blog featuring lots of commentary from some of the administrative types who keep the mid-size institutions here afloat and alive. Don't expect anything especially racy or scoop-worthy, but plenty of earnestness.
By way of transition, Nick Yasillo, who runs the Norton Building series, has a forum post on Isabel Mundry's Nocturno, which the CSO premiered last week. Nick liked it, which says a lot, since it's been said that he allows very little contemporary music on his series. Mundry spaces the ensemble all over the stage, with a small group over in a corner at stage left. Pairs of woodwinds and brass are separated from each other at stage right and in the middle, with a small choir of violins in a row in front. They all talk back and forth in brief little angular gestures, which almost seem to be in a random order. The quiet Nocturno seemed more a collection of these small segments than an actual work, in its 20 minutes, but their quietness keeps you listening to hear what's coming next. Then you're surprised when it's something unexpected. Still, something resembling a clearer structure would've been welcome. Oh, and Radu Lupu and Daniel Barenboim played Mozart, both at that concert and Sunday afternoon.
The Takacs Quartet played in Mandel Hall Friday, with their customary smoothness. Except in the Second Bartok Quartet, which they tore apart.
Now for this week, which features Alfred Brendel with the CSO, a performance by Duo Diorama (violinist Minghuan Xu and ferociously talented pianist Winston Choi) on Friday at DePaul U., a composer-portrait concert by David Smooke on Saturday, and, perhaps, the Percussion Plus Project on Sunday, playing a new work by August Read Thomas for mezzo and percussion.
Senteri Selvaggi - AC/DC (Cantaloupe)
Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra - Concertos for Orchestra (Bartok, Lutoslawski) (Telarc)
Chicago Opera Theater general director Brian Dickiewrites of being in favor of Pierre Boulez's 1960's era proclamation of blowing up opera houses, Guy Fawkes-style. It's actually a thoughtful blog post on the problems of filling these gargantuan houses in this day and age, something that bedevils orchestra administrators, as well. No word on whether Dickie thinks that engaging Boulez and Chereau is a viable seat-filling strategy or not.
Regardless, with COT's season beginning tomorrow, I'm angling for a seat near a door.
In a week where I profiled composer Marc-Andre Dalbavie before the performance of his new Piano Concerto, it's now time for me to weigh in on what I actually think about the piece. First off, it's tight. Dalbavie doesn't waste notes or spin his wheels with superfluous repetitions, but still manages to bring back ideas enough that they can become predictable. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, though, because composers down through history have done this sort of thing all the time to help keep listeners oriented. From Beethoven's Fifth to Wagner's leitmotifs, through to Boulez's echoing of a text's rhyme scheme in the orchestration by bringing back the same group of instruments each time a rhyme reappears, composers have used little tricks to keep an audience from thinking they were spinning out into nothingness.
What Dalbavie does in the concerto is keep bringing descending scales back into view. Sometimes they're buried in the orchestration, other times they are clearly bursting from Leif Ove Andsnes' fingers or the violin section. But that scale does give you something to hang onto. It also keeps the piece nice and compact, clocking in around 25 minutes. (The Trib's review is here, and the New York Times' is here. Chicagoans, be prepared to read a review that treats your orchestra as if it's comprised largely of children who need to be taught to "calm down" and to corral their "worst instincts." I'm not going to descend to insulting another orchestra in a public forum.)
Speaking of musicians who care, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra was here yesterday for Shostakovich 7 led by Mariss Jansons, whose ongoing EMI Shostakovich cycle is threatening to destroy my speakers. Seriously, his Fifth with the Vienna Phil belongs on every shelf. From the outset, this crew played as if they had something to prove. This string section has players, even in the back row, who use the longest bow strokes possible. (Since they're mostly lanky Dutchmen and -women, those are some long strokes, too.) The string sound is as rich as the woodwinds are biting. The brass have that glow, but never glower, and there are some moments of glowering in the Seventh. Still, there's a big, huge horn chord near the end of the last movement, and my concert-going friend and I had to look at each other and make sure we were both feeling the same amazement. Jansons kept building and building the tension in the final chord almost to the point of detonation. Whatever you think of the Seventh, this orchestra is worth hearing. New York, you're in for a treat.
Denise Djokic - Folklore (Endeavour Classics) Isang Yun- Chamber Concerto (Naxos) Daniel Lentz - On the Leopard Altar (Cold Blue)
On the day when the Chicago Symphony announced its 2006-2007 season, you could reasonably expect me to weigh in here with thoughts like, "Who's that conductor? Isn't he the one who led that dreadful Beethoven 2 in Indianapolis a couple years ago?" (A simple search on the Indianapolis Star's website should allow you to figure out who I'm referring to, btw. Update: I'm told that's a little less than accurate. I'm referring to Philippe Jordan, who led an ill-conceived period-practice interpretation of Beethoven's Second Symphony with the ISO.Here and here are the Trib's and Sun-Times' takes, respectively.) But no. I'm going to have a little fun.
First, here's a link to a story from the McGill U. student newspaper with suggestions concerning how orchestras could cut costs. I'm especially fond of suggestion #2, which says that pianists should be willing to leave out notes at the bottom of a page, so the page-turner can be eliminated.
Second, it pains me to link to this video, since it means I still have some latent trumpet-player in me, but I can't resist. This student administers a beating to his recalcitrant instrument, and I couldn't help but laaaaaaaaffffffffffff.