Monthly Archives: November 2012

Spring Awakening

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L’Histoire du soldat

On Sunday, November 11th, I attended a performance of L’Histoire du soldat by Igor Stravinsky by a group of student performers.  I was not familiar at all with the piece so this was my first opportunity to experience it.  Stravinsky composed L’Histoire for a group of instruments, including violin, double bass, clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, trombone and percussionists, narration and movement.  According to Grove Online, Stravinsky originally intended for the work “to be read, played, and danced.”  It was originally scored for twelve musicians, two speaking parts and two danced parts and then condensed into a suite of eight movements with an septet of instruments and narration.

The performance on Sunday was narrated by one speaker and played with the septet of instruments, with only one percussionist playing all of the percussion parts.  The work also had a conductor, which historically some groups choose to do with or without.  In classic Stravinsky style, the piece was riddled with time and tempo changes.  The narrator in this performance performed all parts through voice changes, and had to act as the soldier, the devil and various other characters that in other performances are acted or danced by separate people.  

The words tell of a soldier that is coming home from war and is anxious to see his fiancé, his mother and his hometown of which he misses.  He stops by a river and pulls out fond things from his pack, which includes a violin, and begins to play.  The devil sneaks up on him disguised as an old man and offers to trade the soldier the violin for a book that will give him infinite wealth.  The soldier is tricked by the devil’s words and makes the trade, and the devil offers to show the man how to read the book for three days at his residence.  After the three days, the soldier walks to his hometown and discovers that he has actually been gone for three years, and believe to be a ghost.  His mother doesn’t recognize him and his fiancé has a husband and children.  He confronts the devil in the town, who claims that the book will solve all of his problems after the soldier realizes he just wants happiness instead of wealth.  When the soldier is not comforted, the devil tries to sell him his old fond belongings from his pack back, including the violin.  When the soldier buys it back, he can no longer play it and destroys it.

The soldier walks to a nearby inn, feeling lost, and hears that the princess of the king cannot be wakened from her sleep; whoever wakes her will be married to her.  The soldier goes to the palace and is confronted by the devil, disguised.  He taunts the soldier by playing the violin and claiming that he will wake the princess before the soldier gets a chance.  The narrator tells the soldier that the reason the devil has so much power over him is because he still has the devil’s money.  By tricking the devil through his greed in a card game, the soldier rids himself of the devil’s money and wakes the princess through violin playing, in which she begins dancing.  The devil attempts to interfere, but the soldier defeats him with music and he and the princess drag the devil away.  The devil warns him that if he leaves the castle, he will lose everything and the devil will have control back.  The narrator issues the moral of the story of: “No one can have it all, that is forbidden.  You must learn to choose between.  One happy thing is every happy thing: Two, is as they had never been.”  The soldier passes through the forbidden boundary, and the devil controls him again as the soldier follows him when he tries to return to his hometown.  

The story is told very easily through the narration, as it tells every action that is happening very simply without large words or any textual metaphors.  The virtuosity of the violin part in the work is demanding, as it seemed to contain many of the musical motifs throughout the piece that suggest the action.  The work ends strangely, with the narrator stating that the soldier is following the devil and the solo percussionist playing a rhythm on four drums and crescendoing to silence.  It felt unfinished and awkward, but I believe this is how Stravinsky intended for his audience to feel after such a tragic end to the story told.  A link to a professional performance done by the La Jolla Summer Music Festival performers can be seen here.  This performance is how Stravinsky intended with dancers and narration.  All in all, this was a very well-told and put together piece, easily understood by the audience and very enjoyable.

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David Gompper and Wolfgang David

This past spring, I had the privilege of singing with Kantorei in a concert of David Gompper’s music. His music has many qualities that keep the listener engaged. Thus, I was looking forward to his recital with guest violinist, Wolfgang David.

The recital was held in the Old Capitol’s Senate Chamber, an appropriate setting for an intimate recital. David Gompper and Wolfgang David have played in such venues, to be sure. They have played over one hundred concerts together since they first met in 2000. Laurence Vittes of Gramophone  wrote that “their working relationship is as close and meaningful as Brahms had with Joachim.”

The recital began with Bartók’s Rhapsody No. 1, a great opening piece. The passionate melody in the violin gives the rhapsody its unique, Hungarian feel. Leaping from note to note in what seems like a sporadic pattern, the music is written in such a way that it sounds improvised. Wolfgang David teased the audience a bit in the second movement of the rhapsody, playfully making eye contact with us during a lull in the music. The piano part is complimentary to the violin, but it could be an entire work on its own. Bartók’s characteristic, dance-like themes in the piano accompaniment propel the piece forward and enhance the improvisatory feature in the violin.

Following Bartók’s rhapsody was a work by Jeremy Dale Roberts entitled, Tristia: Six lyric pieces for violin and piano. The first piece, Appassionato– with elan, sets the lamenting tone for the work. The violin carries a haunting melody, and the piano creates a mysterious affect with its quick, rhythmic patterns that scatter to the upper range of the piano. David Gompper further enhanced this feature by holding the pedal and letting the different pitches conglomerate at the ends of phrases. The following movements continued to paint the affects suggested by their titles: Semplice; feroce, Frozen, Presto; still, Acuto, and Andante lugubre – alla barcarolla. Frozen was the most striking of these pieces. The opening cluster chords in the piano are sharp, and they echo through the rests while the violin plucks over the top of the piano. In Frozen, the rests speak as much as the notes do, and this created a feeling a being stuck- of being frozen. The last piece, Andante lugubre, is as its French title suggests: grim. The low bass part in the piano creates a sense of foreboding, while the tremolo in the violin leaves the listener unsettled. All six of these pieces are cleverly crafted, evoking various moods.

The third work of the program was Morton Feldman’s Spring of Chosroes. On his website, Wolfgang David provides a program note by Gregory Marion, Assistant Professor of Music Theory at the University of Saskatchewan:  http://www.wolfgangdavid.com/violinist/notes/feldman.php. The piece is a dialogue between the violin and the piano, depicting the story of Prince Chosroes and a legendary carpet that was woven during his reign. An interesting feature of the piece was the high, soft violin part. It seemed to be without a melody at times, answering to what has happening in the piano.

After a brief intermission, the recital was finished with three Irish fiddle tunes, composed by David Gompper: Finnegan’s Wake, Music in the Glen, and Star of the County Down. Gompper introduced the pieces, lightly commenting that they represent the “middle period” of his composition life. The pieces were written at different times, the first in 1997, the second in 2004, and the last in 2005. Gompper also commented that this recital was the first time these three pieces have been programmed together. Each piece was a foot-stomper with an Irish flare. The rhythmic manipulations and modern harmonies gave the familiar tunes new attitudes. For me, these three pieces were the highlight of the recital. Detailed program notes for these three pieces can also be found on Wolfgang David’s website.

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Down by the Riverside

On Thursday November 8th I had the pleasure of watching and listening to a diverse musical program presented by Johnson County Landmark the wonderful big band from the University of Iowa. The program had three main sections with the first three tunes in the style of hard bop, the next three modal cool jazz, and then the last three tunes were written or arranged by the Brazilian guest artist Roberto Sion. The first hard bop number was Hoe Down by Oliver Nelson which combined country themes played in large unison sections at break neck speeds with hard bop solo sections featuring Ze Emilio on guitar and Michael Jarvey on piano. The next two tunes Bedouin and More Than Sugar followed the same hard bop format and featured other soloists from the group. The bridge section of More Than Sugar by Andrew Bishop featured a departure from the hard bop tradition as the rhythm section morphed into an apocalyptic rumba, from the Afro-Cuban tradition. The next genre the group tackled was the cool modal jazz championed by Miles Davis in the late 1950’s and 1960’s. These three pieces Moon Beams, Blues for Pablo, and Donna Lee used extended orchestrations to create lush beautiful sonorities. This middle part of the program was a nice change of pace from the hard bop tradition of fast tempos and jarring syncopations that began the program. Chronologically this makes sense because the jazz that Gil Evans and Miles Davis began exploring in the 1950’s followed the hard bop tradition of the 1940’s. The Modal music of Gil Evans and Miles Davis can be seen as a reaction to hard bop which was very fast and littered with chords, syncopations, and raucous solo’s. The modal music slowed down the chords, sometimes contemplating one chord the entire piece. This gave the listener less harmonic language to digest and beautifully orchestrated colors throughout the ensemble. At this point in the evening the ensemble welcomed guests, three flutes and two french horns, to the stage to augment the big band. When these tunes where first recorded with Miles Davis he accompanied by a large orchestra and would solo sparsely. The role of Miles Davis was played by and number of people in the ensemble Ryan Smith and Brady Grammenz on saxophone were the first soloists on the tune Moon Beams. The next tune Blues for Pablo was another modal tune that featured Ryan Smith on the saxophone. Both of these tunes were very relaxed, but the pace would soon change. The following tune was Donna Lee which was actually a hard bop tune that Gil Evans the arranger gave a modal treatment to. This tune featured more improvisers and some group improvisation and was not as contemplative as the previous two selection with more rhythmic movement throughout the ensemble. The third and final part of the program then moved the land of Brazil and featured guest artist Roberto Sion on alto saxophone and flute. The fist tune Na Baixa do Sapateiro was a mix of North Eastern Brazilian rhythms and bossa nova. The music was more groove oriented and adopted the Brazilian swing which the ensemble executed with precision. The Brazilian swing can be likened to the American Louisiana down south playing in the cracks feel. The next two tunes O Que Tinha de Ser and De Onde/Eu Nao Existo Sem Voce both featured Robert Sion on saxophone playing arching melodies and very rhythmic solos with Sion imitating a small Brazilian friction drum, the cuica. The rhythmic qualities of Sion’s solos were intense using very many syncopations as is the custom of most Brazilian music. The night was appropriately ended with Down by the Riverside a fast paced jazz tune fitting the hard bop portion of the concert and fitting the name of the concert hall where the event was held.

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Midwest Composers Symposium 2012

Last year I had the pleasure of traveling to Bloomington, Indiana in a cramped van full of people and instruments.  We were going to the Midwest Composers Symposium and I was excited to get out of town for a few days, see one of my best friends,  and hear some great performances. I wasn’t disappointed either; the weekend was filled with all sorts of new sounds, interesting compositions, and a sneak peak into the new music that is happening in the Midwest. This year the Midwest Composers Symposium was held here at Iowa. Not only was a able to hear great performances, I participated. Here’s a break down of my experience of the first concert:

The concert started with a hauntingly beautiful piece by David Biedenbender called Three Rilke Poems. It was performed by Kantorei chamber choir lead by Dr. Stalter. Each poem has German text. Only two movements were performed, Herbst and Losch mir die Augen as or Autumn and Extinguish Thou My Eyes, respectively. Both these movements sounded melancholy. First the women entered in pairs, following each other on what seemed like minor intervals. The piece continued like this for some time, with voices moving in an out and then ending in a whimper. Dynamically, both pieces never got above forte. It was such a special moment at the end of the last piece when each voice faded away.

The next piece on the program was Qurama for chamber ensemble by Turkar Gasimzada. Gasimzada talks about his inspiration for his piece in the program notes: “Qurama is an ancient handicraft of Azerbaijan, a kind of patchwork made of cloth scraps of various sizes and colors…ideas of working with different shapes and colors, adding multiple layers on top of each other or subtracting, separating them, exploring different time concepts and listening experiences are important to the compositional processes of this piece.” In Qurama, Gasimzada definitely uses the ideas of patchwork and layering. Although most of the piece sounds like random entrances and bleeps and bloops, I believe that the composer is trying to present the idea of construction or building a structure using small pieces. When construction is happening whether it is a blanket of patchwork or a building, it happens slowly and a little bit at a time and that is exactly what this piece sounded like to me. He also employs lots of colors and extended techniques for each instrument. As an example, throughout the piece the trumpet kept flutter tonguing. I found this to be of particular interest not only because I play trumpet but because each time it happened it completely changed the tone of the piece.

Cave Paintings by Chris Renk had to be the most interesting piece on the concert. I opened my program to read the liner notes and just as I did, the lights went out. A collective gasp rippled through the audience, babies stopped crying, everything became still. At the front of the stage a screen appeared showing ancient images of cave paintings and I was immediately intrigued. Here is a quote from Renk about his piece, “My goal with “Cave Paintings” is to evoke the beauty, drama and mystery of these ancient images  to imagine the mythology and spirituality of their creators, and to honor the incredible sense of wonder and awe that these paintings continue to inspire in me.” Cave Paintings sounds primitive with repetitive percussion and pizzicato strings. The winds made use of extended techniques i.e. horn stops, the trombone used glissando, and even blowing backwards through the mouthpiece. On the screen the images appeared at random, almost as if someone were in a cave holding up a flashlight to see. An epilogue at the end of the piece was meant to trace the evolution of mankind. I had the opportunity to speak with the composer about the piece and he said it took him about two years to complete it. He also mentioned that mixing images with music is a great way to bring in an audience. I must agree. Cave Paintings was a great experience.

Partick Harlin is a DMA student at the University of Michigan. His piece, Rapture has an interesting story behind it. Harlin says, “A few years back I read a book about super cave exploration, in particular an expedition that descended the Mt. Everest of caves, the deepest point in the deepest cave on earth.” Rapture certainly does sound like an adventure and from the perspective of a performer, it was an exciting piece to perform. Harlin opens up with an overlapping melody in the clarinets and flutes that grind against each other in minor seconds. This melody begins to morph into a broader setting with alternating minor seconds in the flute and trumpet. In fact, the use of minor seconds in this piece is ubiquitous and really holds it together. The second section is ethereal bringing to mind the wonders of Mt. Everest and the exploration of its caves. The last section reminds me of minimalism with ostinato in the lower voices and repeating sixteenth note runs in the upper winds and trumpet.

The first concert of the Midwest Composers Symposium was a great success. Each piece presented new ideas and colors and sounds. This concert showed me that new music is alive and thriving—it is my hope that it can escape the realm of the university setting and be integrated into mainstream.

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