At 70, Tanglewood Contemporary Music Festival Goes Historical

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As summer music festivals go, the Tanglewood Contemporary Music Festival is doubly unique (so to speak). Not only is it a festival within a festival, housed within the larger framework of the BSO-dominated Tanglewood season and the other chamber and orchestral programs of the Tanglewood Music Center, but it is the only summer festival to be devoted to music of the present. To this one may add another distinguishing feature, its association with a summer school of music for the elite among orchestral and chamber musicians and conductors. (It shares this attribute with Marlboro and to an extent Kneisel Hall and the Heifetz Center, but dwarfs these in scope). And this year, the TCMF, in celebration of its 70th season, is embarking on something that for it, is novel: the programming, curated by the all-star trio of composers Gunther Schuller, John Harbison, and Oliver Knussen, will be almost entirely devoted to an historical retrospective of music composed by the program directors, faculty and Fellows of the TMC over its entire lifetime so far, ranging from founding program director Aaron Copland and other 1940s-era faculty stars like Samuel Barber, Paul Hindemith and Leonard Bernstein, to 21st-century Fellows like Scotland’s Helen Grime. [continued]

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Three More Summer Festivals

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Tanglewood and the Newport Music Festival are well known; Mohawk Trails Concerts is new to us. Tanglewood, founded in 1940, and Newport, founded in 1968, offer many concerts, not only in the evenings, but throughout the day, with a variety of times, programs, and venues.  Mohawk Trails Concerts, located in Charlemont, MA, offers a far smaller series but very high-quality, unusual programming. All three venues lend themselves to a one-day trip — albeit some of them for those hardy enough to drive back to the Hub “after hours.” [continued]

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Boston Musica Viva at Rockport: Looking on the Bright Side of Life

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On June 18 at the Rockport Chamber Music Festival, Boston Musica Viva Music Director Richard Pittman with mezzo-soprano soloist Pamela Dellal presented a program by American composers drawn largely from works BMV commissioned.

Gandolfi’s Grooved Surfaces filled the air with rolling, hopping, clattering patter, utterly charming. Unexpected highlight of the evening was John Cage’s Credo, a touching affirmation of American anarchic multifariousness against the Nietzschean nihilism and monolithic ideologies in World War II. Arrangements by Pittman of five songs by Charles Ives unpacked some of his dense piano textures and, with the clear acoustic of Shalin Liu Performance Center, clarified lines that might otherwise get lost. Pamela Dellal was Rocket J. Squirrel spunky, with excellent diction and affecting tenderness. Four Vignettes by Gunther Schuller were diverting splashes of instrumental color and texture. The nominal finale was Steven Stucky’s Boston Fancies, which we would be happy to hear again. BMV actually concluded an unconscionably long program with the theme of Old King Cole. We confess we were not merry old souls when it began and became no more so when it ended.         [Click title for full review.] [continued]

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Goldmine of Saxes, Bonus of Horns Adorn Alea III Program at Tsai

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The April 28 concert by Alea III at BU’s Tsai Performance Center was a showcase for formidable playing by soloists Tsuyoshi Honjo on saxophones, Eric Ruske, French horn, and the members of the Radnofsky Ensemble and the Boston University Horn Studio. It afforded, as well, a chance to hear a highly varied repertoire of works for these groupings, some aided by electronics and/or percussion, mixing lighter fare with some surprisingly meaty content.

Honjo demonstrated remarkable control and technical prowess, beautifully shaping the dynamic swells, glissandi and other tone-bending required by Georgia Spiropoulos’s Saksti. Another lighthearted work, Perpetuum Mobile, a by the then-22-year-old Gunther Schuller, was intended as an homage to Poulenc and Françaix.

Sofia Gubaidulina’s Duo Sonata for Two Baritone Saxophones, far and away the most substantive work on the program, builds inexorably to a searing climax of great emotional and moral force, alternating melodic fragments with sonorous hymn-like homophony. la grenouille by Eric Hewitt for saxes, horns and percussion makes some lovely sounds, evoking classic Ligeti without the angst.

Mr. Ruske, who directs BU’s Horn Seminar, conveyed the formidably virtuosic writing for solo horn in Music for 9 by Alea’s music director Theodore Antoniou with an almost casual air, magnificent tone, and subtle phrasing. Mr. Hewitt, conducting, held all together perfectly.

Another duet for saxophone (Mr. Honjo) and electronics (this and the Spiropoulos ably engineered by Gabriel Solomon) ensued, this from Pierre Boulez, the Boston première of his Dialogue de l’ombre double. Consummately crafted as well was Mr. Honjo’s performance, a virtuoso turn at all levels.

Saxissimo by the American expat Drake Mabry was another knees-up for the Radnofsky Ensemble. Deep it wasn’t, but fun it was.             [Click title for full review.] [continued]

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Haydn-Schoenberg Connection Realized, Third Time Around

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I attended all three of Russell Sherman’s three-concert series at Emmanuel Church, the last on Sunday afternoon, April 25. Having already disagreed with some of his interpretive choices, I hoped that I would “get it” this time, because stylistic eccentricities notwithstanding, he is undoubtedly an artist for whom it is worth laying aside one’s own aesthetic boundaries. But something transformative happened during the Schoenberg Suite für Klavier, Op. 25. Sherman was bringing out the motives much in the same way he does with Haydn, and I heard the fluidity I associate with Haydn transferred so beautifully to Schoenberg’s music.

There were still moments where his approach to phrasing felt too explanatory and halting; however, I enjoyed how he took Haydn’s phrases out of Classical rhetoric in the Sonata in E minor and gave them more than a touch of modernity.

In the C Major sonata, Sherman honored all jocular motivic gestures Haydn tucked in without breaking the momentum and highlighted the grace and humor that Haydn does so very well.

Sherman again took a more conservative approach (for him) with Haydn’s Sonata in E-flat Major, much as he did with the C Major. He made much of the harmonic transition, exposing Schoenberg in Haydn’s music, much in the same way he had pulled Haydn into Schoenberg’s Suite, though there was too much insistence on the repeated note motive in the final movement. The instrument at Emmanuel has a very bright sound at times and can occasionally spar with the acoustic.

Sherman’s playing suggests that modernity and tradition are only fleeting and relative concepts when we allow the music to breathe and live anew in performance.         [Click title for full review.] [continued]

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The “New” in NEC: The Buzz from New Faculty, New Programs, New Events

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On April 7, New England Conservatory Philharmonia Orchestra is putting on a concert for what is believed to be the first time in Symphony Hall. Conducted by Chair of Orchestral Conducting Hugh Wolff, the concert features NEC’s Artist Diploma candidate cellist Narek Hakhnazarian in Schumann’s Cello Concerto, Barber’s Adagio for Strings, and Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 10. In light of the upcoming historic concert, BMInt conducted interviews with Wolff and then New England Conservatory President Tony Woodcock.

Interview with President Tony Woodcock:

BMInt: We have done two interviews with Gunther Schuller. He had interesting things to say about the institution, 20 to 40 years ago. Link here.

Woodcock: Gunther arrived at a period of existential crisis and left it a much better place.

Were there were any surprises when you came?

 There are always surprises. I think the greatest surprise was an organization unfettered by any type of creative restrictions, where you could have an idea …

 A pleasant surprise? [continued]

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Ambrosial Perfection, Simmering Fury from Borromeo

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The Borromeo String Quartet, faculty quartet-in-residence at the New England Conservatory, shared the Jordan Hall stage Sunday evening, March 7, with three 2010 student Guest Artist Award recipients. The concert also was the Borromeos’ third of an eight-part series featuring the complete string quartet cycle of local contemporary composer Gunther Schuller.

String players Kristopher Tong, violin, Mai Motobuchi, viola, and Yeesun Kim, cello played Mozart’s Oboe Quartet in F Major, K. 370 delicately and expressively, providing a perfectly balanced accompaniment. The overall effect was one of gentle precision. Schuller’s powerful String Quartet No. 3 (1986) was a jarring and riveting musical antithesis of the Mozart, an emphatic yang to Wolfgang’s yin; we had definitely entered film noir territory. Passion and gravitas were dripping all over the stage, tensions built and erupted. This music was dark, sinister, low-pH, and high-energy, and the Borromeo members played with a simmering fury.

From the shimmering tones and soothing triple meter of first movement to the busy, urgent phrases of the final Poco Allegro, Johannes Brahms’s Sextet in G Major, Op. was performed with ambrosial perfection. It featured three Borromeo members juxtaposed with their Guest Artist Award winner/special guest counterparts (Nicholas Kitchen and winner Audrey Wright, violins; Mai Motobuchi and guest Dimitri Murrath, violas; Yeesun Kim and winner Holgen Gjoni, cellos); the round, full-bodied tones of guest cellist Holgen Gjoni were especially notable. In the inordinately rich and vibrant musical scene of Boston, the Borromeo String Quartet is a true stand-out. Is            [Click title for full review.] [continued]

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Berlin Philharmonic Wind Quintet Demonstrate Complete Mastery

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There are not nearly so many woodwind quintets touring the world as there are string quartets, but one of the most highly regarded, a quintet made up of players from the Berlin Philharmonic made its Boston debut under the auspices of the Celebrity Series at Jordan Hall on February 5. The wind quintet is a very different animal from the most familiar of chamber music ensembles, the string quartet.  The latter consists of instruments that bear a close family resemblance in playing technique and sonority; the sound of a string quartet is generally homogenous for this reason, unless the players take great pains to differentiate themselves for expressive effect.  The wind quintet is almost the exact opposite.       [Click title for full review] [continued]

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Richard Stoltzman and Borromeo String Quartet Premiere Imbrie, Honor Schuller

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The Borromeo Quartet collaborated with famed clarinetist Richard Stoltzman in an exceptional concert on December 11 at Harvard Musical Association.

Gunther Schuller, in his String Quartet #4, a piece of elegiac lyricism, carries a single held note past the end of a phrase, particularly in the finale; one could regard this gesture as a synecdoche for the operative structure of the whole piece. The remarkable sostenuto in the cello part was beautifully conveyed by Yeesun Kim.

Andrew Imbrie, in his final illness during composition of the Clarinet Quintet on a commission from the HMA, finished writing all the notes but not elements like dynamics, articulation and phrasing. Hi Kyung Kim and her clarinetist husband John Sackett worked with Stoltzman and the Borromeo to put the work in final shape. Although valedictory in the literal sense, this work sounds anything but the work of a dying man: it is light, lively, engaging, and snappy.

Even on “off” occasions, the performers can, and did, deliver a solid reading of Mozart’s beloved Clarinet Quintet K.581. [Click title for full review.] [continued]

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NESE and Cortese: From Tour de Force to Didactic

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Spontaneous applause throughout the hall accompanied voiced exclamations immediately following only the first movement of Tchaikovsky’s Souvenir de Florence, with conductor Federico Cortese, at New England String Ensemble‘s concert in Jordan Hall on December 6. This was musicianship and musicality at the highest level — live!

For Toru Takemitsu’s Nostalgia, guest violin soloist Haldan Martinson’s controlled range of timbres and vibrato, as well as his bell-like clarity of sound (often reminding me of the Cardinal’s birdcalls), played poetically into the Takemitsu lament. Martinson and NESE countered each other beautifully with restraint and expressiveness.

A few upbeat notes in the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto in d minor, also with Martinson, came with a bit of biting bow, but these became curiosities rather than timbral variances enriching the soundscape. Elsewhere, clean cut violinism prevailed, although some fast violin passage work felt uncomfortable against accompanying strings.

Gunther Schuller describes his short Adagio for strings: Ode to the minor 2nd and major 7th as purposely didactic. It was. [Click title for full review.] [continued]

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Borromeo Champions “Old” and New Masters

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It’s hard to believe that the Borromeo String Quartet is now 20 years old, although the current roster, with founders Nicholas Kitchen, first violin, and Yeesun Kim, cello, joined by second violin Kristopher Tong and violist Mai Motobuchi, has been in place long enough to ensure the continuity of the Borromeo’s group personality. Their Jordan Hall performance on Monday, November 30, continued their longstanding commitment to stretching the repertoire to include “old” masters of the 20th century and freshly minted works. This evening brought to its large and highly appreciative audience one relative newcomer to watch and two Old Masters, of whom one, Gunther Schuller, was on hand to accept the plaudits that were his due.

Lamentation and Satire by Mohammed Fairouz, an Egyptian-born 24-year-old composer who was also in the audience, has been recorded for Schuller’s own GM label. The segue from keening to kidding is quite subtle, involving, it would seem, more a matter of introducing compositional and sonic techniques of earlier periods—rigorous counterpoint, Bartókian glissandi, a touch of Shostakovich here and there—than overt jocularity.

Schuller’s Fourth String Quartet is a seemingly elegiac work, with two outer slow movements framing an electrically charged central sort-of-scherzo, from which the Borromeo unleashed crackling energy.

Bartók’s Fourth Quartet, from 1928, remains one of the freshest-sounding works ever created for this medium; still crazy after all these years. The Borromeo dug right in and unleashed the passion and energy that any perfect performance requires, to show off the quicksilver muted first scherzo, the reed-organ accompaniment to Kim’s gorgeous solos in the central slow movement, and the mock-zither pizzicato of the second scherzo. The opening movement was taken slightly more slowly than other versions I’ve heard, but the savage intensity of the finale was all there and then some. [Click title for full review.] [continued]

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Daring Programming, Promising Young Soloists Reward at Pro Arte Concert

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To go to a concert (in this case, Pro Arte at Sanders Theater, this afternoon, November 29) and hear two local youngsters who play as well or better than some touring pros, is quite a testament. Not to mention the imaginative, beautifully conceived program put together by conductor Gunther Schuller.

Pianist Daniel Kim played the first movement (Allegro con brio) of Beethoven’s Piano Concert No. 3 in C minor with lyricism that was plainly unbelievable from a 12-year-old. Cellist Jonas Ellsworth, playing the Allegretto from Shostakovich’s Cello Concert No. 1 in E Flat Major, shows unusually profound musicality.

The second half of the program consisted of two pieces for string orchestra, Dvorak’s beautifully calm, lonely, gentle, Notturno in B Major, and Honneger’s Symphony No. 2 in D. Both served as perfect examples of two of Mr. Schuller’s theses: the proper range of dynamics, and the beauty of so-called dissonance. [Click title for full review.] [continued]

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Upcoming Schuller Performances Provoke His Ruminations on 12-Tone Music

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Noting that two concerts featuring works by Gunther Schuller are being performed at Jordan Hall in the next ten days, first by the Borromeo String Quartet on November 30, then by New England String Ensemble on December 6, BMInt staff interviewed a hale and hearty Schuller on November 24, the day after his 84th birthday. The stereo was playing Sibelius’ 1st Symphony when they arrived. Mr. Schuller was immediately didactic: “Do you know who’s conducting? Look. Who are the two greatest conductors today?” (It turned out to be Osmo Antero Vänskä.) “Most interpretations are so slow and draggy. This guy makes it like an operatic drama, the way Sibelius wrote it.” With pieces of his birthday cake, brought by BMInt staff, the interview began. Listen to an excerpt here.

How did the Borromeo Quartet come to be playing your fourth quartet in a few days, then recording all four quartets soon after?

Ah, I have almost nothing to do with that. First of all, they did play my third quartet three or four years ago, and I think they played it something like 20 times, including what I consider the best performance of the third quartet that ever happened — in Jordan Hall. They played it beautifully. The Borromeo is one of the two or three best quartets in the United States— just marvelous. Nicholas [Kitchen, first violinist of the Borromeo] and a young composer who was at the Conservatory, his name is Mohammed Fairouz — he’s very talented he’s only 24 years old, and he’s written already an immense amount of music and happens to be a fan of mine — he and Nicholas are good friends, and he once mentioned my upcoming birthdays — this is only eighty-four — but the next one will really be the big one. So they came up with this scheme of doing all four of my quartets, and not just once, but several times. So that’s how it started.

Fairouz has a piece on the November 30 Borromeo program, too?

 

Yes, they are playing his Lamentations and Satire, along with both Bartok’s and my fourth string quartets.

Your quartets are not exactly new music; over what period were they written?

The fourth is only, well now, it’s actually six years old! It was written for the Julliard Quartet.

When was the first written?

The first was written in 1957.

 

Stylistically, do they change very much?

 

No. No! I don’t change stylistically. My music is  virtually the same stylistically, linguistically, as it was when I was 19 years old.  It’s of course, I’d like to think, more mature, better organized, and so on, and of course it’s more complex. It’s become more complex over the years. But stylistically? No. No. The thing, is I am so proud of these four quartets partly because each one of ’em is totally different in character. But not in style.

By style, do you mean tonal language?

I mean, yeah, well no. My language is always atonal, 12-tone, most of the time. So I just mean that; that’s what we mean by style. C major or tonal music is a style, right? But Beethoven wrote 32 different string quartets. None of ’em sound alike, and that’s my model. In everything. Mozart and those guys.

When you write in this very complex modern language that we have — I prefer to call it a language, rather than a style — and when you work with certain techniques like 12-tone,  there is certainly the danger that successive pieces could sound alike, just because you’re dealing with so  many sort-of rules of behavior. Although you work with rules in classical music, too —  Boy! were they strict. My goodness, they were more strict than what we have  — but anyway, there’s always this danger that you will repeat yourself, you know.

The first quartet, as I said, was written in 1957. The next was 1965.  I wrote the second quartet in seven days on a transatlantic trip on the Europa — oh, no! The New Amsterdam. The third quartet was dedicated to Louis Krasner, who was retiring from his teaching at the Conservatory and other things, and then the last quartet was for the Julliard. They are all, they are in my language, this is what I am proud of, and yet they are distinct animals. Different breeds. [continued]

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Claire Huangci Plays Pickman Hall

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The young and promising Claire Huangci – a pianist possessing, according to one pundit, “the fastest fingers in the world” -played on February 28 at the Longy School of Music, Cambridge.

Bach’s Toccata in C minor BWV 911 found unusual nurturing at the hands of this newcomer. More pianism than usually heard came through the remarkable choices and placements of her crescendos and diminuendos. Pedaling, staccato playing, and absolutely clear touch brought about a dazzling Bach.

Both higher speeds and greater power materialized in Claire Huangci’s performance of Beethoven’s Appassionata Sonata. Much of the darkness of this piece became tinged with light. In the first movement, the hopeful pianist redirected minor triads, with their brooding tendencies, toward hopeful, assuring expression. The last movement signaled this youth’s exceptionally deep engagement not only with the instrument but with the soul of one of music’s most venerated composers of all times.

Ms. Huangci’s vision of Chopin’s third sonata followed somewhat along that of the Bach and Beethoven.

In Tchaikovsky’s beloved ballet and orchestral gem, The Nutcracker, Ms. Huangci really did make us believe that we were hearing trumpets in the March, the celesta in the Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairy-this “imitation” the most unbelievable-and harps in Pas de Deux. [Click title for full review.] [continued]

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