Monthly Archives: December 2013

Christmas Dreams, Inside and Outside

Posted on behalf of Jeongmin Gloria Song

After checking in with security and entering through the long sequence of impenetrable doors, the community choir members and I finally arrived inside of Oakdale Prison. This extraordinary and unusual event was an inspiring experience. Three days ago Dec. 10th, 2013, I attended a choir concert in Oakdale Prison auditorium; It was my first visit to the prison. The director of this unique choir, Dr. Mary Cohen, planned to form a choir with both members from the community and inmates. Dr. Cohen preferred to address the prisoners here as “inside members,” which I will use as well.

My goal was to observe the contemporary programming aspects of the concert, and I hoped to experience some of the materials we covered during class. However, breaking all my expectations, the concert’s program was rather traditional for Christmas season. However, the concept behind the concert was sensational. The story goes like this:

This event happens about three times a year, in spring, summer and Christmas seasons. The summer season concert is typically a smaller-sized choir, focusing on publishing the compositions by the inside members during their songwriting seminar. In this Christmas season, the construction of the program was holiday-focused, with a theme: “love lives on,” I heard a couple of familiar Christmas carols, such as “Silent Night,” which we all sang together. However, most of the lyrics performed by this choir were written by the inside members, carrying their personal messages to the audience by applying their own stories. In my personal point of view, the concept of the whole program was not only for enjoying the music together, but also for confessing their inner feelings and thoughts with the people there. As a result, the inside members are healed by each other’s memories.

There were approximately fifty members in this choir, composed of half inside and half outside members. Dr. Cohen mentioned that almost half of the inside members are inexperienced in music, so she had to begin the process from the most basic level. I could hardly notice this while listening, as everyone did an excellent job with their parts. The program included a short narration at the beginning of every song alternately recited by the inside and outside members. The program was composed of fifteen songs total; some of the titles show the deeper thoughts of the inmates, such as “More Than You See,” and “Healer of Our Every Ill.” The theme of the concert “Love Lives On” also has published as a written song, I will attach the part of lyrics so you can see what kind of messages they try to deliver. “In a world gone wrong, we pray that you’ll stay strong and when the hurt hits home, just know that love lives on…”

I had a chance to talk with many of the outside members. One woman who was in her fourth year of singing in this choir, said she had experienced a great deal through memories of the inside members. At first, they acted very defensively but eventually, they found the way to smile through the process of collaborating and making music with the community members.

With a strong will, people can overcome tremendous obstacles. Many people complain about unfairness of life and they make mistakes once in a lifetime. It was fascinating how many of the inside members’ lyrics incorporated some wishes for a second chance, or to become a better person. Perhaps not everyone gets equal chances in life, but there should always room to improve, and to dream again. The Oakdale Prison Concert represents a great effort to revive the hopes and dreams of the inside members, and has the potential to be a source of great change for both the inside and outside members.

Here is the official site for the Oakdale Prison Choir.

–Jeongmin Gloria Song

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Time Passages

I’ll be honest; I’m a little skeptical of new music. I don’t always “get” what’s going on, which leads to a sense of questioning the reasoning behind the composition. But little did I know that I was going to be pleasantly surprised by the Center for New Music (CNM) concert on Sunday, 8 December.

It was a big concert, according to a number of composition students and performers. I looked through the program and saw only four pieces. “Big concert?” I thought. They then went on to clarify that it was big in relation to the size of ensemble for a CNM concert. The program consisted of Abiogenesis by Brian Penkrot, Rebonds A pour percussion solo by Iannis Xenakis, Time’s Vestiges by guest composer Anthony Cheung, and Vortex Temporum by Gérard Grisey. Of the four pieces, all but the Xenakis are programmed with the idea of the passage of time.

The Grisey started off the concert. Little did I know that it was one of Grisey’s most famous pieces. According to the composer in the program notes, “Vortex Temporum is perhaps only a history of the arpeggio in time and space.”

 Dr. Gompper introduced the piece by explaining how the piece was composed in three sections. The first section was minimalist in nature, with a repeating rhythmic motive in the clarinet and flute. This was passed around between the wind instruments, the stringed instruments, and the detuned piano. As this first section drew to a close, the motive began to dissipate, and slowly faded into a piano solo. The piano interlude created such a harsh and distinct atmosphere, compared to the first section, that at times, it reminded me the old Twilight Zone television show. The section covered the expanse of the instrument, not only in pitch, but also in dynamics. It ended with Casey Rafn, the pianist, slamming his arm down on the keyboard. As the final notes faded into the air, the second section began with a sighing motive played by the alto flute and cello. The third section was a return to the beginning motive, but was accompanied by pizzicato strings this time. The motive was interrupted by chaotic episodes in the strings, creating a disjointed feeling.

The second piece performed was Abiogenesis by Brian Penkrot. Abiogenesis is the theory that inorganic material came together to create living cells, which then became all life. The composition encompasses this idea through and through. Beginning with short bursts of musical motifs, the ideas gradually grew in length and complexity. As the percussion entered, the “central nervous system,” form and patterns began to emerge. But, as life continues to be in flux, the motifs would constantly change between shorter bursts and the longer ideas.

The third piece, Rebonds A pour percussion solo by Xenakis, was probably the one that I enjoyed the most. It began with single hits on the bass drum, toms, and bongos. As the piece continues, it becomes increasingly more involved rhythmically. The pattern set up in the first few seconds, rapidly dissolves into the background. You can check out a performance of the piece here:

The fourth and final piece was by Anthony Cheung, a guest composer from the University of Chicago ( Time’s Vestiges depicted the unending chain of cyclical time. The first section, according to the program was in a static structure and moved into a “ceaseless motion.” The final section depicted erosion. The strings gradually detuned their instruments over the course of the last section. The ensemble gradually being reduced to two players further depicted the idea of erosion.

Afterwards, I spoke with a few other audience members and they all had enjoyed the performance. Although the performers had to be flexible in their programming as the order of the concert was reversed due to inclement weather, the concert was a job well done. I always find it fascinating how 20th and 21st century music utilizes tone colors that previous music never touched. I was impressed by the amount of extended techniques used in the performance. These techniques helped solidify the concepts and ideas that the composers were trying to convey, without them, the pieces would have fallen short. 


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Completing the Cycle

The Chiara Quartet concluded their complete Bartok cycle this past Saturday at Riverside Recital Hall.  From the moment cellist Gregory Beaver began speaking about String Quartet no. 2, I could tell that it was going to be an staggeringly wonderful evening.

When recitals containing contemporary styles of music are presented in a quasi lecture recital format, audience members can become fully engaged in an unfamiliar style of music they may not otherwise have experience with.  The quartet’s ability to interact with the audience and give approachable musical context to an otherwise heavy and dense programme was remarkable.  Prior to the second quartet, a short recording of Arabic folk music indicative of that which Bartok studied on his North African trip was played.  Having a raw and real musical example of the type of folk music Bartok was inspired by truly set the tone for the brooding and tumultuous first and third movements, which the Chiara Quartet achieved flawlessly.  The dark undertone achieved in these movements also carried through the folk-like percussive second movement that was quintessentially Bartok.  The effect that their interpretation and performance had on the audience was most obvious in the pizzicatos concluding the final movement.  Here, the cello and viola kept the audience suspended in a silent and captivating trance of uncertainty.

Bartok’s use of arch form was described in String Quartet no. 4, and gave a clear guideline of what to listen for in this five-movement structure.  Through this work the quartet was truly able to display their seemingly endless range of tone production, varying from raw percussive tone in the first and fifth movements, to cantabile espressivo in the third movement, to the softest and clearest pianissimo in the second movement.

The evening concluded with Bartok’s 6th String Quartet, which was described as being different from the others.  Though, since the others are all vary from one another stylistically and in terms of character, it was eventually decided that it was ‘truly completely different from the others.’  Its distinctiveness in comparison to the earlier quartets was evident through the unique form and quality of each movement within the context of a traditional four-movement structure.  From the gypsy street band in the second movement, to the uninhibited ‘R-Rated’ Burlesque, the Chiara Quartet impeccably evoked the real-life sounds, which Bartok’s music quotes so frequently.

Overall, the ensemble was impeccable, and the passing of melodic lines between instruments was so effective it was difficult to tell where one instrument began and the other began. The Chiara quartet challenged the range of tone quality and effects made possible their instruments.  There were points at which couldn’t help but wondering if they heard a violin or a cimbalomWhat was perhaps most impressive, was the range and variety of soft dynamic colours exploited.  Even the softest pianissimo had clarity and presence that left the audience entranced in the musical experience.

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An Evening with Bartók-The Chiara String Quartet

Upon arriving at Riverside Recital Hall on Friday night, I was glad to see that the freezing air in Iowa City did not stop people from coming to the concert. The Chiara String Quartet performed three quartets by Béla Bartók: No.1, No.3 and No.5.

Before playing String Quartet No.1, the cellist gave a short and passionate speech about Bartók’s music and showed the audience a folk song on his iphone. It was a little out of tune, which might have seemed a little funny to music students. This tune was borrowed and harmonized by Bartók in the first quartet, which was composed between 1908 and 1909. The first movement was written after Bartok fell in love with a violinist, Stefi Geyer, who hurt him deeply by rejecting a violin concerto he composed specifically for her to perform. The painful struggling and wandering mood in the first movement were brought out well. The second and third movements seemed to be more energetic. The Chiara String Quartet presented the mood changes successfully.

String Quartet No.3 was composed in 1927. The quartet has four continuous movements, which can also be seen as one movement in sonata form. Before starting the piece, the cellist said something in Korean, which was hilarious. He then explained that in this situation, we all needed to accept the fact that we could not understand this foreign language. Surprisingly, he said that String Quartet No.3 was something we would not be able to understand, and that what we needed to do was to “sit back and hear the expression”. The performers did a good job in presenting the different characters. I was especially impressed when the cello and viola came out. The subtle rubato in their playing was heart telling.

Before String Quartet No.5, the cellist briefly described the piece for us again. The whole piece was designed in a symmetrical arch structure. The first and fifth movements are fast (Allegro and Allegro vivace), while the second and fourth movements are slow (Adagio molto and Andante). The central third movement is a scherzo, which has the form ABA. The performance was quite enjoyable. The contrasting characters in different movements created a dramatic effect. The dynamic and tempo changes in the second and fourth movements were breathtaking, and the mood of the “night music” was built up well. The opening of the second movement featured a violin solo over sustained chords. This was the most simple but the most expressive moment for me. In general, the second half of the concert was more fun to listen to. One reason was that the piece itself had more contrasting colors. Another reason was that the players seemed to be more warmed up during the second half.

Several music students discussed the physical movements of the performers after the concert. The performers moved their bodies dramatically all the time. Do these extended movements really help to create a bigger or better sound? Personally I doubt it. For instrumentalists, it is important to find the most natural way to play their instruments, because natural movements contribute to natural timbre. However, I also think performers should have the freedom to express themselves on stage and play music in their own way.

Overall, the Chiara String Quartet prepared well for tonight’s concert. The four performers had tacit understanding in timing. The balance could have been better if the violins were a bit louder, but the most important thing was that they really enjoyed Bartók’s music and presented it well to the audience.


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UI Symphony Orchestra and Choirs

The University of Iowa Symphony Orchestra and combined Choirs, conduced by Dr. Timothy Stalter, who is the director of choral activities at the University of Iowa, presented an annual concert on December 4, 2013 at 7:30pm in the Iowa Memorial Union. It was a grand and spectacular event for all everyone in Iowa City to enjoy. It brought audience members to different time periods as well as to enjoy the psalms of the Old Testament. The program included pieces composed by Mozart, Mendelssohn and Stravinsky, which produced a performance that highlighted the development of choral and orchestral psalm settings, from the Classical period to twentieth century.

The first piece to open the concert was Symphony of Psalms (1930; revised 1948), composed by Igor Stravinsky. Stravinsky composed this piece for the fifteenth anniversary of the Boston Symphony in 1930. Originally he considered composing a symphony, however, he did not want it to follow the traditional from. The piece lacks violins, violas and clarinets, yet features two added pianos to create a different sounding type of work that is more serious and somber. This lack of high strings and clarinets reflected the composer’s philosophy that music should be objective, and not overly emotional. The piece started with a solemn opening with dissonance that strengthens the darkness that the harmony creates, and the choir did an excellent job in capturing the contrast between spirituality and intensity. In addition, what impressed me the most was the choir’s very clear and crisp diction. Here is the text for this piece:

After the exciting conclusion of the first piece, the second piece, Vesperase solennes de confessore by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart followed. Both the Orchestra and Choir were able to quickly change gears to play in this completely different style. This piece included six movements and included solo voices (soprano, alto, tenor, and bass). Voice majors at the University of Iowa performed all of the voice solos. Penelope Makeig sang soprano, Lisa Neher sang alto, James Judd sang tenor, and Sean Lynch sang bass. The vocal soloists’ pure timbres stood out from the choir, and the beautiful contrast between solo voices and choir made the piece even more special. Each movement of Vespers Psalms had a distinct character, which even included an archaic fugue in which Mozart manipulated the subject in a variety of ways in the fourth movement. In contrast, the fifth movement featured one of Mozart’s most memorable melodies, a serene solo line that floats over the orchestra and chorus. The melismatic solo soprano with the simple violin accompaniment was very heart warming, and Ms. Makeig did a fantastic job on her performance.

The concert concluded with Felix Mendelssohn’s Der.114. Psalm: “Da Israel aus Agypten zog.” This piece is a compact masterpiece, and I think it was a great piece to end the evening. The choir was very broad, homophonic, and full of majestic features. During the performance of this piece, lights were even changed from dim to bright. I wondered, was this a planned effect to go along with the music? But luckily, I had a short conversation with Dr. Stalter after the concert about the lights and he said, “I have no idea what happened [with the lights], I figured I have to just keep going.” Obviously then, the lights changing were not planned special effects like I had thought, but it still made me wonder… Why not try a different approach to popularize new music and to attract new audiences to these types of concert, maybe we could use the lighting or other theatrical special effects to strengthen the musical effects for new music. Why not give it a try?


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