Monthly Archives: April 2012

Center for (Brand) New Music

Thursday, I had the opportunity to see the University of Iowa Center for New Music perform.  The program included pieces by Jeremy Dale Roberts, John Adams, David Gompper and a world premiere by Zach Zubow.  This concert was a precursor to a tour the group will embark on including performances at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, Lawrence University and the University of Wisconsin, Madison. 

The Center for New Music is a large chamber ensemble that focuses on new compositions and classical works from the 20th century.  This was my first opportunity to see them, I was not only impressed by the group, but I was impressed with what the group does.  First and foremost, they provide a great opportunity for composers on campus to have their music performed live and get feedback from performers, rather than listening to MIDI files on Finale.  They are also ambassadors to the current styles and genres which often times do not enjoy the same amount of performances as our Beethoven’s and Mozart’s. 

The performance started with a solo percussion piece composed by Zach Zubow, a PhD candidate at the University of Iowa.  Hiking the Cascade Trail began with a percussion theme that was repeated throughout the entirety of the work.  As implied by the title, this works represents the Cascade Trail.  The repeated theme represents the trail, while the different instruments show how the environment constantly changes. 

The next performed was Croquis, for string trio by Jeremy Dale Roberts.  The piece begins frantically with all three string instruments seemingly playing as fast and loud as they can.  To say I was confused by the work would be an understatement; however once I read the program notes the remainder of the piece was more enjoyable.  Roberts composed this piece, and many more, to represent a sketch book.  Some sketches are complete works, while others are complete works and others are merely scribbles.  The work did a great job displaying this especially since a couple of the movements were over before they even got the chance to start. 

Next was a world premiere by Zach Zubow, Mirage of the Mountains. I did not even have to read the program notes for this piece to understand how the piece functioned.  It represented a mountain and begins at the base and ascends.  As the mountain ascends, instruments come out of context to represent the many peaks you encounter.  There is more theory that went into the composition which can be read in the program notes here.

After a much needed intermission, we were treated with a piece for string trio and piano composed by our own faculty member, David GompperMusica segreta was composed with the intent to be enjoyed by a limited number of listeners who are well versed in musical theory.  The piece is derived from a hexachord and uses the same seven note set used in Boulez’s explosante-fixe.  Fortunately, I was not completely lost while listening to this piece, 14 weeks of Post-Tonal analysis helped me to appreciate the compositional technique of this work. 

The concert concluded with Chamber Symphony No. 1 by John Adams and is a predecessor to the Schoenberg work, Chamber Symphony Op. 9.  The piece was conceived while Adams was studying the Schoenberg piece and his seven year old son was watching cartoons in the next room.  As a result, we have a piece with cartoonish like features mixed with the disjunct melodies of a 20th century composer.  I admire Adams because he seemingly composed this piece with little, to no care about the complaints that may come from the woodwinds sections!  Throughout the piece I heard the clarinets play runs that make a tuba player, like me, feel guilty for complaining about fast passages!  Despite the difficulty of the work, the group successfully made their way through the runs and put on an enjoyable performance.


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Exchange of Midwestern Collegiate Composers: A performer’s perspective

An ominous thunderstorm wasn’t the only out-of-towner in Iowa City this weekend.

Composers, teachers, and performers from the University of Colorado-Boulder and the University of Missouri-Kansas City were in town for the third annual Exchange of Midwestern Collegiate Composers (EMCC), a two-day event in which student composers had their pieces performed in a series of four concerts at the Riverside Recital Hall.

As a member of the Center for New Music here at the University of Iowa, I have had the opportunity to participate in this event for the past two years. Held in Kansas City last April, EMCC is a great outlet through which student composers can share their compositions with the public and with each other. There were approximately 20 composers from the three schools who had pieces performed.

The event kicked off at 7:30 on Friday evening. The first piece was entitled Extrication and Transcendence for chamber ensemble, written by UMKC graduate student, Brian Padavic. I was involved in this piece and had the distinct honor of opening the entire weekend of events with an un-conducted, unaccompanied four-bar solo. No pressure at all!

The piece was well-written, and unlike a lot of other “new music” I have performed, the composer seemed to understand how to write for the instruments involved. So often, I find that I don’t enjoy playing a lot of newer compositions, not because I don’t like the actual music, but because it seems like the composer doesn’t understand what an instrument is and isn’t capable of doing. It is then on the performer to find ways to make a non-idiomatic passage sound convincing. Padavic’s piece was enjoyable to play, however, and seemed well-received by his peers and audience members.

In the program notes, Padavic says that the title refers to “removing oneself from a difficult situation in order to gain a new perspective.” The theme of turning a negative experience into a positive one of personal growth was represented in the music by the single melodic line at the beginning of the piece that was restated in all the instruments, then fragmented until it finally settled as one vertical harmony sounded simultaneously by all six of the instruments.

Following a soprano and percussion duo by UI composer Zach Zubow, the next piece I played in was a three-movement quartet for flute, clarinet, cello, and piano entitled Fire Dance. Composed by UC-Boulder graduate student Jing Zhou, the melodic and harmonic elements of the piece were heavily inspired by Zhou’s Chinese heritage, including folk melodies and rhythms found in Beijing opera.

Of the three pieces that I performed on Friday night, Zhou’s was far and away the most challenging. Whether it was the composer’s intention or not, Fire Dance had a conductor, something I think was truly necessary for the successful performance of the piece. In addition to an almost unplayable piano part that had to be altered during rehearsal to accommodate the performer’s ability (a superb ability, I might point out), the tempos that she provided were impossibly fast. Several other slight “alterations” were made to the piece in order for us to play it.

I think Zhou’s ambitions far exceeded the normal limitations of our instruments, which is a common occurrence in the performance of many new works. Despite the challenges, however, Fire Dance came together for the performance and we were able to share Zhou’s imaginative writing with her peers.

Sprinkled throughout the concert were string quartets and quintets, but I was backstage making sure my reed was surviving the temperamental Iowa weather.

The third and final piece that I performed on Friday night’s concert was Shooting Snowburst Silhouette Spectacular by UI graduate student Brian Penkrot. The ensemble included soprano, clarinet, cello, piano, and percussion. The text was set to poetry by Thea Brown, an alumnus of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. Each poem in the series was named after a type of Christmas lighting, and Penkrot said that he was drawn to both the “direct and abstract” nature of her writing. Penkrot emulated her complex writing style in the music by juxtaposing contrasting imagery and mood. The soprano’s part was both lyrical and harsh, with several spoken verses, just as the instrumental parts alternated between melodic lines and sound effects (such as key clicks on the clarinet to represent the cracking ice of a frozen creek).

The first night of the Exchange of Midwestern Collegiate Composers proved to be as much of an educational event for the performers as it was for the composers. Performing new works often comes with many challenges, but the insight and exposure gained makes it worth it. Hopefully the fourth annual EMCC conference will offer its participants the same rewarding experience.

…and better weather.


Links to two of the aforementioned composers’ websites can be found below:

Brian Padavic:

Brian Penkrot:


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UI Latin Jazz Ensemble concert – “Hey Rucy, I’m home!!”

Around fifty people who were not blown away by a stiff wind and threatening skies were treated to a spirited concert by the UI Latin Jazz Ensemble this Sunday in Riverside Recital Hall.  Considering the flavor of music was familiar to many, I did not hear a single person shout out “Babaloo” or make a reference to Don Draper, though he and Ricky Ricardo would have felt quite at home in the former St. Thomas Moore church.  This concert was the culmination of a weekend-long jazz celebration in Iowa City, with the Johnson County Landmark starting off at the Englert on Friday.

Latin Jazz uses a straight rhythm rather than the ‘swung eighths’ that are usually found in straight-ahead jazz.  The rhythm is based on the clave, which stems from the bell patterns in African music.  The two most known forms are the son clave and the rumba clave.  This clave beat can either be in a duple or a triple meter, and allows a lot of variation; one piece, a Rumba-funk piece with Cuban roots named Pere, was in 5/4!


A Latin ensemble thrives on its percussion section, and this ensemble is no different: along with two trumpets (occasionally a flugelhorn), saxophone, flute, guitar, bass and piano, the UI group added  congas, bongos, guiro, chekere (a dried gourd with a mesh of beads), a normal trap set, a stand-up double snare with cymbal, maracas, tambourines (different sizes and possibly a tunable pandeiro)and cowbell.  There were instances in the concert where I thought The Bruce Dickinson would have been in heaven, but the instrument never overpowered the rest of the group (an inside joke for all you SNL fans). 

The concert started with director James Dreier and two other players on different sizes of bata, a double-sided drum shaped like an hourglass (one side is larger) in a Bata Toque for Eleggua, with some wonderful polyrhythmic patterns going on.  It was very similar to a Reich phase shift; with one change in beat from either of the three players, the pattern would change dramatically.  It is interesting to note that bata drums are associated with the Santería religion, and that toques are played during religious ceremonies, so a Latin Jazz concert in a former Catholic church started with a religious prelude!

The ensemble covered many of the forms of Latin Jazz – rumba guaugancó, cha cha chá, jazz samba, bolero, rumba funk, mambo (with a New Orleans lagniappe), as well as a choro (pronounced, ‘shoro’), a popular urban music in Brazil around the time ragtime was starting in the United States.  It was a wonderful composition, and serendipitous to me after some research – the choro was the music that was used to accompany the maxixe, a sensuous dance that we will be using in the UI version of Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette in just under two weeks! 

The players were very tight (special props to Brooke Hendricks playing sax, flute, and supplying some hot vocals on the Mardi Gras Mambo), and special guest Rich Medd laid down some wicked solos on the trombone.  If this is an example of Latin Jazz in Iowa City, I think opening up a mojito stand is in order…

–          Steven Jepson

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From Beethoven to Perrine: A Night of Symphonic Works for Wind Band and Chamber Winds

This past Wednesday, April 11, 2012, the final concert of The University of Iowa’s Symphony Band, the school’s top wind band, was held at the Iowa Memorial Union Ballroom. Conducted by Dr. Richard Mark Heidel, as well as graduate conductors Marc Decker and Ernest Jennings, the evening’s concert featured a diverse selection of works, from a Beethoven octet to a world premiere of a symphonic work by a Ph.D student in composition at The University of Iowa.

After opening the concert with Ralph Vaughan Williams’ second work for band, Toccata Marziale (1924), the audience knew they were in for a spectacular night of great music. The work demonstrated Vaughan Williams’ supreme ability in writing for wind band, developing thematic material and expressing vibrant colors and energy. Known for its advanced compositional features, Vaughan Williams scholar Steve Schwartz “this revolutionary piece for band treats [the] ensemble as a vehicle for expressing musical modernism so advanced that it sounds like American works written fifteen to twenty years later.”

Following the Vaughan Williams was the world premiere of Aaron Perrine’s Beneath a Canvas of Green (2012). Perrine, a Doctoral student at The University of Iowa, composed this piece in partial fulfillment for his degree. Doing a complete 180-degree turn from Toccata Marziale, the Symphony Band was able to show off its ability to perform all genres of music. Beneath a Canvas of Green required intense concentration and musicality from different soloists and sections of the band. Not only demanding from the musicians in the band, it is also quite a “workout” for conductor Dr. Heidel, who in one of the rehearsals called Perrine’s piece a “two-handkerchief piece.” Check out an excerpt of Beneath a Canvas of Green on Perrine’s website here.

Continuing with the programs variety of genres, the symphony band, once again, did another turn around to a completely new style of music with Beethoven’s Rondino in E-flat for Woodwind Octet (1793). As members of the band left the stage, the octet remained and was conducted by graduate student Ernest Jennings. The Beethoven was a nice and refreshing work to be heard among all the 20th century band literature.

Graduate conductor Marc Decker then took the podium for the next piece. He conducted William Schuman’s Chester (1957). With the full band back on stage, they performed this overture that is based off of William Billings Chester, a popular tune sung during the American Revolution.

 Flutist Nicole Esposito, flute professor at the University of Iowa, then took stage to perform Precious Metal: A concerto for Flute and Winds (2012) by D.J. Sparr. With Dr. Heidel back in control of a reduced band, this work showed off the virtuosic abilities of the flute backed by a solid wind ensemble. The three movements of the concerto (I. Silver Stretto; II. Platinum; III. Gold Rush) are based on the metals which a flute is made. These descriptive titles of movements influenced the structure and materials of the concerto.

Closing out this epic concert of an assortment of fantastic compositions was an epic piece of music for wind band. The Symphony Band finished with Paul Hindemith’s Symphonic Metamorphosis on Themes of Carl Maria von Weber (1960). This four-movement work based on works by Weber is loosely organized in the traditional model of a symphony. A number of soloists were featured throughout movements of the work and with the full ensemble playing in the exciting fourth movement march of the Hindemith, the Spring 2012 Symphony Band concert series came to an end.


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A “Pan”-tacular Percussion Performance

The Percussion Spectacular held this past Sunday led by Dr. Dan Moore, was nothing short of that, spectacular.  As I drove to the Riverside Recital Hall, it occurred to me that I had no idea what to expect from a Percussion Spectacular, as I had not done any research into the concert before getting into the car.  I like to live dangerously.

The Recital Hall was sprinkled with a diverse audience of children, grandparents, and students all supporting their favorite percussion ensemble performer.  As the lights dimmed, we were introduced to Steel Band #3 under the direction of Jenny Armstrong.  The group is comprised mostly of non-percussion majors and is a class that Armstrong describes as fun, relaxing, and “a class that doesn’t make your brain explode.”  This band played three tunes, the first of which was called, “Saxophone #2”.  I know what you’re thinking, saxophones in a steel band?  The horns actually provided an interesting timbral characterist that was quite nice.  Second, they played an arrangement of Fleetwood Mac’s “Could You Ever Love Me?” featuring Dr. Moore on the marimba with two exciting solo sections.  Leaving smiles on the audience’s faces, they ended their portion of the concert with a medley of the Muppet Show Movie that featured a rogue percussionist during the “Mahna-mahna” portion of the piece.

Next, Steel Band #2 burst onto the stage with a lively, fast-paced, and exciting calypso by Superblue.  The piece had a few solo sections that featured the performers, with arms flying to keep up with the quick tempo.  Steel Band #2 consists of percussion majors and is directed by graduate student, Aaron Ziegler.  The audience was treated to a student arrangement of a selection from the Lion King, followed by one of my favorite pieces – “Mambo #8”.  The piece was fast, in a Latin groove, minor, and loud – all things I enjoy.  Mr. Ziegler treated the audience to some amazing conga action, his hands rapidly grazing the instrument with style and finesse as he and his ensemble grooved on stage.  The audience was in awe, some were fascinated, some were scared, and others, like me, were just jiving along with them.

The concert was moving along swiftly as the PanAmerican Steel Band took the stage.  While they set up, Dr. Moore gave a brief history on the steel pan.  Developed after WWII, the steel pan is one of the only acoustic instruments invented in the 20th century.  Preferring to call it “pan” over “drum”, as “drum” has a negative connotation; the residents of Trinidad and Tobago developed a love for the instrument and began a popular competition called Panorama that encouraged friendly competition between neighborhood steel bands.  The competition takes place during Carneval, with many competitors and a cash prize to the victor – not to mention a year of bragging rights.

Starting off their portion of the concert with a burst of excitement, PanAmerican Steel Band’s “Queen of the Bands” by Mighty Sparrow had the audience grooving in their seats.  Coming down to a quieter mood, their second piece was a soft calypso that featured laid back soloists in “Caroline” by Roaring Lion.  Throughout their set, Dr. Moore told the audience a little tidbit about each piece and its history, mentioning their third selection as another from Mighty Sparrow, who is a Calypsonian Rockstar; the piece was about choosing between two women – Mighty Sparrow chose both.  The fourth piece was an arrangement by Aaron Ziegler and David Solomon of an American steelpanner’s jazzy piece ‘Kalinda’.  The band switched it up for their penultimate piece and played a classical work by Eric Satie, “Gymnopedie #2”It was bizarre to hear a classical piece, such as this, played in a steel pan band arrangement, because it was so quiet, calming, and sounded almost harp-like – a very different sound than I had been hearing previously during the concert. And their finale blew me away.  A modern piece by Montano Machel titled, “Jumbie” was very fast, upbeat, and exciting.  The whole ensemble was grooving and dancing while the audience listened with big, wide smiles.  When it was all over, Dr. Moore said, “Oh, we can’t end a concert like that – you all have to stand up!”  As they reprised the last few bars, the audience members looked at each other, a little puzzled, but I knew what he meant – when music like that gets into your body and soul, you just have to dance…

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