Monthly Archives: September 2014

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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Dance/Percussion Concert with Sean Thomas Boyt and Andy Thierauf

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Saturday September 20, 2014 at the Riverside Recital Hall, Sean Thomas Boyt and Andy Thierauf, a new dance and percussion duo, made a fabulous contribution to the world of music and dance. They showcased new repertoires mostly composed by Thierauf and choreographed by Boyt. Both were fully capable soloists who showed their abundant skills in a compelling collaboration of contemporary dance, electronics, and percussion music.

How do dance and percussion fit together? After seeing this performance, I could state that the mixture of music and dance are well matched. If/then, the second piece of the program, impressed the audience. It was composed by Will Huff and Andy Thierauf, words written by Katherine Sherman, and choreographed by Sean Thomas Boyt. The instrumentation of this piece consists of acoustic and electronic percussion as well as found objects (real-life objects used in a musical way). The piece began with subtle conversation, “if…then…”

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