Brazil in Iowa

I attended the Finale Concert of the Brazilian Music Symposium this weekend on Saturday, October 18th with performances by guest artists and University of Iowa faculty and students. While I did not get the chance to attend the rest of the symposium, I was excited to hear and learn more about the music. The UCC recital hall was packed when I walked in to the concert and I was happy to snag one of the last chairs in the venue. Soon after, the place was reduced to standing room only, and still more and more people flooded into the recital hall.

The concert was bookended with ensemble pieces of guitar and clarinet, which is a common ensemble for choro music. Choro is a musical genre from Brazil that is solely instrumental, upbeat, often virtuosic, and includes improvisation. This genre was featured multiple times in this concert. The first piece was performed by Thomas Garcia on guitar, and the University of Iowa clarinet professor, Maurita Murphy Marx. Following them, Thiago Ancelmo de Souza, a graduate student studying with Dr. Marx at the University of Iowa (who is himself from Brazil), played a choro piece for clarinet and piano. Dr. Réne Lecuono professor of piano at the University of Iowa also played a solo piano piece from this genre. (For a brief overview of choro and some examples of the genre check out this radio story from NPR’s Soundcheck.)

From the standing room only section in the back of the hall, Benjamin Coelho, Professor of Bassoon at the University of Iowa, began his first piece. While playing, he then began walking up the center aisle and came to a stop in front of Maria José S. Barbosa playing the rest of the movement directly to her in appreciation of her work organizing the symposium. Also originally from Brazil, Professor Coelho shared with the audience translations of the movement titles and gave some cultural background with them. At one point he referenced a well-known Brazilian novel whose plot had been used as the basis of a popular soap opera and someone from the audience called out the name of the actress from the show. This moment of shared experience reminded me that the concert was not only about the music from one country, but a representation of ideas and culture shown through not only the music, but the personalities of the musicians, most of whom presented anecdotes about their pieces and how they were important to the culture as well as information about where different styles developed.

For me, the rest of the concert felt more nostalgic; an interpretation supported by the performance of Welson Tremura, associate professor at the University of Florida, who sang and played guitar in various Brazilian styles including tango, samba, and bossa nova. Dr. Tremura would play a tune and then present it in different styles and also switch between lyrics and verses of scat singing. A couple of the songs were known by the audience and he encouraged them to sing along, in Portuguese. It was especially captivating to witness this because I got the impression that half of the audience was familiar with the music and knew the words and the other half was as in the dark as I. As Dr. Tremura invited the audience to sing, a gentle murmur started up sporadically with more and more voices entering from different locations as the song went on.

Rafael dos Santos, professor of piano at Sao Paulo State University followed this with additional choro pieces on the piano. Each note seemed to flow smoothly and effortlessly into the next which emphasized the rhythmic syncopation of the jazz-like music. Then Dr. Tremura and Dr. Marx returned to the stage, with an additional player who accompanied them on the cavaquinho, a Brazilian ukulele. The ensemble was very enjoyable to watch because the performers brought out the dialogue between the parts with body language and shared looks. Along with the mood of the music there was a definite sense of camaraderie amongst the musicians. After the final piece, the performers received a standing ovation which elicited an encore. Dr. Tremura returned to the stage and began “The Girl from Ipanema.” One by one, dos Santos and then the cavaquihno player joined him onstage and the audience sang along, once in Portuguese and then in English giving even those of us who were mostly unfamiliar with the music a chance to sing along.

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Crescendo entertains, makes you think.

What do you get when you combine two Italian theatre artists, a former supervisor for the Big Apple Circus Clown Care Unit, a jazz musician, and an educational sociologist? The answer might surprise you! I attended a performance of Crescendo during its first weekend of production and I walked away with a smile on my face and the wheels spinning in my head.

 

Crescendo is a new play making its debut at The University of Iowa. It is the brainchild of collaborators Paola Coletto, Matteo Destro, John Rapson, and Paul Kalina and made possible through the Iowa Partnership in the Arts. The idea was first planted when Kalina and Coletto travel to Italy to meet with mask makers, particularly Matteo Destro. Through a three-year process, this project grew and other collaborators were brought on board, such as jazz artist, John Rapson, who composed original music for the show.

When I first arrived for the show, the theatre was dimly lit with a bare and exposed stage. Window frames hung as the backdrop. The big band was on the second level of the set and back into a corner. Over the audience’s left hung another balcony for musicians, which became the spot where most of the improvising happened.

With only one exception, most of the characters’ roles could be determined through their interactions. The first character to appear seemed to be a “spirit”–to be honest, this is the one character I can’t figure out. It would appear that her job was to rein in the two clown characters that were oversized and over-excited. These two clowns served the grotesque caricature of a headmaster–tall skinny top hat, obnoxiously tall (he was on stilts) with an oversized trench coat that was pushed out like a hoop skirt. His long black fingernails were at least two feet long! (It should also be noted that none of the characters had names printed in the program.) The five main characters used masks of the Italian theatre tradition. Each mask had a unique persona and emotion with which it had been created; so even if the character was simply staring at you, there was a great deal of personality being displayed by the actor. (Production photos can be seen by clicking this link.)

The majority of the play takes place in a school setting. The five main characters take turns playing both student and teacher roles, with each having their own class. I was a bit lost when they began because the first class was Spanish, but as the play moved forward, it moved into web design and tests. The audience even got involved with the standardized tests. The headmaster tossed papers into the audience and was assisted by his two clowns and their three… words can only describe them as “minions” because they have no face and say no words, only utterances… pass out tests and pencils to audience members and then are graded in public–with no consistency whatsoever. (One might be able to deduce from the script of the play that the collaborators were trying to make a statement about the problems in education.) For me, the most powerful moment of the play, though it is filled with comedy, is a scene where Olive is day dreaming. She’s standing in a classroom and pretending that she’s talking to her class and asking them what they wanted to be when they grew up. The other characters physically step into her dream and each one goes through elaborate portrayals of their future. As they begin to leave and are almost off-stage, they turn back and yes, “But Olive, what do YOU want to be when you grow up?” Silence had never been more powerful in this play than in this moment before she responded, “A teacher.”

One aspect that I found fascinating was the simple use for costuming. Each character had a base costume and when they became the teacher for that scene, it was as simple as adding something to the costume–a sweater, scarf, or tweed blazer complete with elbow patches. As described in the program notes, the musicians and actors take turns driving the action on stage. It was interesting to watch as Ryan Smith and David Hagedorn would improvise to action they saw on the stage, or vice versa; an actor would change when someone in the band played something in response to a scripted moment. Of course, the musician’s can’t have free reign and play whatever they wanted. Rapson created more than 50 little vignettes to be used as a base skeleton and the musicians improvised from there.

Crescendo runs through October 19 and tickets can be purchased through the Hancher box office. With new works there is always the question of if it will ever get performed again. In the right market – academia and New York City – I think this play has the potential to become accepted by the theatre community.

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They are energized. They are expressive. They are the UI Bands!

The University of Iowa Concert and Symphony Bands, conducted by Kevin Kastens, Dr. Richard Mark Heidel, and three DMA students, presented a concert at the Iowa Memorial Union on October 9, 2014 at 7:30pm.  They played an enjoyable program from the 20th and 21st centuries. It had great variety, through lyrical woodwind solos, the brass with beautiful hymns and rambunctious, loud sections, and a vivacious, but also militaristic percussion section.

“Band” is derived from the French word bande, which means “troop.”  The first appearance of bands in the United States was during the Revolutionary War, in the form of military bands.  At first, they were to accompany soldiers during battle, but then they became town bands that would perform on special occasions and holidays.  John Philip Sousa, known as the “march king,” was a bandmaster that held many concerts, promoting bands and their music.  Sousa used several melodies from his operetta, The Free Lance, to produce this march.  This was the only march he published in 1906, as the rest of the year was spent campaigning with Victor Herbert for composers’ royalties on recorded music, which led to many of the copyright law still in effect today.

Other pieces performed by the Concert Band were Ron Nelson’s Mayflower Overture, Robert Jager’s Third Suite, and Clifton Williams’s Caccia and Chorale, which were all composed in the latter half of the 20th century.  Warwick Charlton and the Plymouth Plantation cultural museum collaborated to make a replica of the Mayflower that had brought the pilgrims to Massachusetts in 1620.  The Mayflower II, as it was called, completed her trans-Atlantic voyage in1957, and Nelson, wrote this piece to spark interest in the story.  The piece is comprised of sections called “Departure,” “Storm” and “Alleluia,” and it contains familiar tunes, such as “Simple Gifts.”  The first two movements of the Jager, were “March” and “Waltz.”  Both had frequent meter changes, making them feel off balance.  A waltz implies a dance in three, but this composer must have enjoyed the thought of people tripping with his waltz in 5.  The piece ended with a traditional, triumphant “Rondo.”  The composer of Caccia and Chorale, Williams, had rather lofty goals for his piece, when he said, “The first, Caccia, means hunt or chase, and is intended to reflect the preoccupation of most people in the world with a constant pursuit of materialism.  The Chorale is, by contrast, an urgent and insistent plea for greater humanity, a return to religious or ethical concepts.”

The Symphony Band took command of the stage with Justin Freer’s Rio’s Convergence, written only four years ago, with brilliant brass lines, flourishing woodwinds, and a zealous percussion section.  Sanctuary by Frank Ticheli was written in honor of Harrah Robert Reynolds, Director of Bands at Michigan for 26 years, “as a symbol of [their] enduring friendship.” Reynolds was a horn player, so the piece commences with a horn solo using a set of pitches derived from his first name.  It is a lush, nostalgic, and reverent piece, which contains many soloistic lines.  The next piece they performed was Vittorio Giannini’s Symphony No. 3 for Band.  Just like a symphony written for an orchestra, it contains four movements that demonstrate the luxurious expression and high energy of the ensemble.  The concert closed with a short piece by Percy Grainger called Mock Morris.  It contained rhythmic, dance-like figures that were perfect for a concert ending.

The two ensembles put on a fantastic concert.  The bands had great dynamic contrast and energy, and the soloists could be heard well.  The showed their enthusiasm with great attention and much applause. I would highly recommend a performance by the UI Bands, if you have the chance!

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JACK Performs Works by University of Iowa Composers

On October 6th, the JACK Quartet presented a concert in Riverside Recital Hall comprised entirely of works written by University of Iowa student composers. This evening provided a very unique listening experience for those in attendance. When attending a string quartet concert, one usually expects to hear the works of three or four different composers. On this particular night, the audience heard the sounds of eight different compositional voices. This created a collage of styles that was at times overwhelming, but always enjoyable and engaging.

To begin the program, Jason Palamara’s never bowing down provided a meditation on different questions relating to the nature of the human soul. Following this was Jonah Elrod’s molto agitato, a work that used algorithmic techniques to generate musical content. This work featured striking and abrupt changes of textures and rhythmic feels. Next was Alexandros Spyrou’s Esotera III. This work contained many experimental and extended techniques that stretched the limits of string instrument sounds. The highlight of this piece and one of the highlights of the night was the incredible energy buildup in a cello cadenza performed by Kevin McFarland that utilized tremelo, over pressure, and playing on the opposite side of the bridge. Closing the first half was Barry Sharp’s RAW (String Quartet No. 2). This piece at times reached incredible levels of volume and violence for just four string instruments. After intermission was Joseph Z. Adams’ Space Jumping, attempting to programmatically depict the act of space jumping as well the idea of the soul reaching it’s final resting place after death. Nima Hamidi’s String Quartet No. 2 (XonyaGar) offered a unique combination of Eastern and Iranian folk music sounds with contemporary string quartet writing techniques. After this, the audience experienced the melancholy moods of Jonathan Wilson’s The Laughing Crane’s Lament. Closing out the program was Joshua Marquez’s Pagtindig, a work taking rhythmic, melodic, and harmonic inspiration from Filipino folk music.

 

String quartets have been written for over two hundred years by hundreds of composers. According to the JACK’s website, their group alone has performed works by over 200 different composers. With so much music existing in this genre, it is a testament to the Iowa student composers that this concert of eight new string quartets was completely captivating from beginning to end. The JACK quartet certainly deserves the highest praise possible for this experience. They operate as a nonprofit organization dedicated to the performance, commissioning, and spread of new string quartet music. They are successful with this mission because of their world class skill and attitude. Both of these traits were on display during this performance. The JACK’s humility and willingness to commit themselves completely to whatever work they are playing in a given moment is incredibly inspiring to witness. They give every sound their utmost artistry and their musical intent and direction was clear at every instant even though they had been working with these pieces for only a few days. The JACK’s musical intensity provided an inspiring evening for everyone in attendance.

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Samuel Barber: Medea’s Meditation and Dance of Vengeance

On Wednesday, October 1st, the University of Iowa Symphony Orchestra presented Samuel Barber’s “Medea’s Meditation and Dance of Vengeance,” conducted by Dr. William LaRue Jones. The piece was first premiered in 1946 at the Second Annual Festival for Contemporary Music. In collaboration with choreographer Martha Graham, Barber composed the score for Medea to accompany the ballet Cave of the Heart. This programmatic piece was a vivid depiction of Euripides’ story of Medea and Jason. Medea has been deserted by Jason, and in a jealous rage, murders his new princess with a poisoned crown.

Barber’s compositional style was always marked by vocally expressive lyricism, even when he wrote in other genres. He wrote in almost every genres, including solo instrumental pieces in his and opera. He was strongly influenced by mentors who upheld the forms of the 19th century, which Barber used extensively. In works after 1940, Barber experimented with new modernist techniques, including serialism and atonal sonorities. However, these techniques were always used in a way that did not compromise the melodic line and sense of tonality. In Medea, this is very obvious; although the dissonant textures and driving rhythms sound very modern, a strong sense of melody is also preserved, allowing the music to be accessible and enjoyable for the average listener.  His use of dissonance, increased chromaticism, and syncopated rhythms in Medea also show the influence of Stravinsky (“Samuel Barber,” by Barber Heyman).

I thought the music very closely matched the story which it represented. Instruments present different themes, each of which sound ominous and seem to predict something much darker to come. The piece opens with a xylophone solo. I noticed the prominence of the harp and sparse texture in the opening, which highlights the eerie solo. A mournful violin duet rises from the texture, echoed by the flute and oboe. These themes continue to transform, again punctuated by the xylophone solo. The tempo changes after the lyrical opening to rising brass figures, opening to a much more lush and full orchestral sound. New themes are presented and build, sounding more and more ominous, with more frequent dissonances. The music changes tempo again, tossing themes between instruments, which now move forward with more intensity. This section is accompanied by a relentless ostinato passage in the piano, which slightly transforms in rhythm as it repeats between different instruments. As stated in the program note, “agitated, wildly driving rhythms dominate the close of the work, as Medea moves closer to her ultimate goal.”

I think understanding the story makes the piece more approachable for listeners. Without the program, the piece is very interesting with new and different sonorities, but the addition of the program makes the dissonance and agitated rhythmic textures more meaningful, bringing the story to life. It is easy for the listener to imagine the plot as the piece grows in intensity and fury with each subsequent section, building to the exciting climax.  I thought the performers didn’t back away from any of the challenges the piece presented. The violent string and rhythmic brass figures were very aggressive and musically satisfying.

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An Evening of Louis Karchin

On Sunday, September 28, 2014, I attended the University of Iowa’s Center for New Music’s opening concert at Riverside Recital Hall, which featured solely the music of Louis Karchin.

KarchinLouis

Louis Karchin has taught at New York University for the past 35 years. He is active as a composer and conductor in New York City. His music focuses on the exploration of harmonic worlds. His sonorities produce a distinctive timbre that becomes more apparent in his larger works. The concert Sunday evening consisted of four pieces, which followed a solo-to-ensemble, solo-to-ensemble sequence with an intermission in between. Zach Stanton, Visiting Assistant Professor at the University of Iowa, conducted both of the larger chamber ensemble pieces.

The evening concert opened with his recent composition Four Sketches, written in 2014, for solo violin, which, as Louis Karchin explains in his program notes, was written to draw attention to “the various techniques and styles of twentieth century painters.” In this work Andrew Gentzsch effectively played the role of the painter by eliciting a different technique from each movement. Of the four movements I found the third movement to be the most compelling with its transparent ternary form. The contrast from section to section was accentuated by the composer’s use of register and pizzicato. The melodic idea in the first and third sections contained a succession of high notes followed by pizzicato. In the second section the violin ventured into the low-to-mid register and added an expressive touch of vibrato to the performance. As for the other movements, the first immersed me in its exploration of timbre, leaps, and even meandering in the melody, while the second movement emphasized a half-step motive and dissonant double stops, while the fourth movement brushed me with sul ponticello.

Karchin’s Ancient Scenes, written in 2012 for soprano and six performers, was a composition that brought to mind associations, both historical and musical. The composer noted that this seven-movement work was one of very few that he considered “programmatic”, which was inspired by the works of the late Irish poet Seamus Heaney and the town of Auvillar, France. As I listened to the first movement, I found myself connecting my listening experience to two other musical compositions. The first came at the very beginning with the timpani’s percussive sounds followed by an arpeggiation in the piano. This succession of sounds reminded me of the opening of Joseph Schwantener’s …and the mountains rising nowhere. The following section also included an arpeggio played by the rest of the ensemble. The combined sonority of those instruments (flute, clarinet, violin, and cello) reminded me very strongly of the opening arpeggio of Gerard Grisey’s Vortex Temporum. When the soprano entered later in the work, I felt that my efforts to understand the English text were strongly challenged, for the text was only discernible when the accompaniment contained minimal instrumentation.

The third piece Lyrics II was for solo piano. It was a short work that began with a calm yet deliberate first movement and concluded with a second movement full of wide contrasts in register between the two hands and a characteristic motive articulated in tuplets. While I did not perceive, as he indicated in his program notes, either something “driving” or “propulsive” in the second movement, I felt that the pianist’s performance evoked a feeling of restlessness in the brief moments where I found myself forming connections to the music of Debussy and at moments where the music would wander back to the particular tuplet motive.

The Center for New Music concluded the concert with Karchin’s large chamber work Chamber Symphony, a three-movement work written in 2009. In this composition Karchin demonstrated one of his strengths as a composer: his orchestration. The transparency of his orchestration led me to form comparisons with the orchestration of Giuseppe Verdi. If I had to identify my favorite part of this concert, I would choose the second movement of this work. Unlike the other two movements of the Chamber Symphony, which were generally louder, denser, faster, and had everyone playing together, the second movement was slower, sparser in texture, more tranquil, and calmer. The ending, which ebbed away to nothing, was executed wonderfully. This combination of light texture with light instrumentation was quite rewarding for his larger chamber works, which seemed to rely considerably on everyone playing together. These aspects of this movement shaped my overall thoughts of the evening concert in a more favorable light.

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Sunday with Sondheim

On the afternoon of Sunday, September 28, 2014, the voice studio of Prof. Katherine Eberle presented a revue of Stephen Sondheim songs at the University of Iowa’s Recital Hall, located in the University Capital Center. The modest space was comfortably full of patrons who were entertained by a steady parade of selections from Sondheim’s Broadway songbook. Sondheim

www.sondheim.com (Click this link for a truly comprehensive website of everything Sondheim!)

Generally speaking, this was an unusually early studio recital (after just one month since the start of classes). Many times, recitals are held in the later part of a given semester after months of planning, study and rehearsal. This particular effort was mounted by twelve undergraduate students, one graduate student, their mezzo-soprano mentor (Eberle), and a shared collaborative pianist. The material was brief for each soloist, and thus the interpretive possibilities were similarly limited (expression did not have to be developed over an entire scene, act or story arc). If one is to take-on an early semester recital, it might as well be divided-and-conquered with a number of other musicians, and the repertoire suitably comfortable in terms of its learning and execution (for the recitalists), and in its pleasing familiarity (for the audience).

After an engaging opening ensemble number (“Comedy Tonight” from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum), the vocalists took solo turns with their chosen Sondheim selection. Each piece of the program was supported by the solid and efficient piano accompaniment of DMA piano student, Christine Tithecott. Eberle, who contributed a performance of the title song from from Anyone Can Whistle, also acted as the audience’s tour guide by offering contextual insight between most the numbers. In addition to these program notes, the vocalists did their best to add interpretive insights in the form of modest staging and facial expressions.

The selections that elicited the strongest audience reaction seemed to result from a successful function of pairing a student’s voice type or range with a song that fit them. The best examples of this included Jennifer Boeding’s dark and introspective version of “Send in the Clowns” (A Little Night Music). Boeding’s lower alto range was never overshadowed by the piano, thanks to the mostly arpeggiated accompaniment. Master of Arts student Tessa Hoffman gave an enthusiastic and engaging performance of “The Girls of Summer” from the show of the same title. Hoffman’s mature instrument and understanding of the show’s story engaged the audience from the start of this song. She appropriately bent pitches in this bluesy song of regret, but still appropriately soared with a clear, full voice in the bridge.

In this setting, some of Sondheim’s musical signatures were occasionally hard to hear. Without a complete orchestral realization, the piano reduction lacked the spacial elements and timbral contrasts that typically allow the listener to enjoy Sondheim’s occasional harmonic excursions. For this performance, stretching moments of tenuto or rubato with a bit more temporal freedom might have given the audience just a bit more time to absorb Sondheim’s subtle inflections of dry wit or darker double meanings.

The rousing finale was again shared by the full studio ensemble. “Old Friends” from Merrily We Roll Along was truncated and presented without the middle “squabble” scene. The ladies began on stage, and were joined by the gentlemen and their teacher for an ensemble treatment of the original trio setting. The song asked questions of what old friends can and should expect from each other. This was a selection that seemed to comment on the collaboration the singers experienced while staging the program, and underscored that they were now a cadre, a team, that after “having a laugh a minute, One day comes, And they’re part of your lives.” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pwoDo0VJJvQ

As noted in Prof. Eberle’s opening remarks, “Sondheim’s work remains the standard by which all other American musical theatre productions are measured.” Sondheim’s shows have been mounted, revived, produced on cast albums (multiple iterations), performed on Broadway and on world-wide tours, and they have a place as part of America’s (albeit popular) art song. This recital may signify their emerging importance to vocal literature.

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