Category Archives: concert reviews

“How do they get all that in black and white?”

On February 25th, I attended the recital given by Wolfgang David, violin, and Timothy Gill, cello, at the Old Capitol Senate Chamber.  David and Gill presented a recital of modern music, 20th and 21st century pieces, for solo violin, solo cello, and violin and cello duo.  As I settled into an appropriate seat in the back of the room, I could not help but consider that I was about to watch a recital of new music in such a historical setting and while sitting in an old wooden chair- with no padding, mind you!  While I consider myself musically literate, I find that I have often had difficulty appreciating modern music and, consequently, proclaim my dislike of it often and at a loud volume.  I expected to have my notions of classical music challenged and was not disappointed in that regard.

In each piece that was played, I attempted to look for something I could relate to back to more tonal music so that I could understand the music better.  By and large, I was successful.  The first piece, “Nomina sunt Omina,” for violin and cello duo by Joseph Dangerfield which uses the Catholic naming ceremony of that name as its formal outline.  After learning this, I looked for “chant-like” qualities and found that the main theme was played as a chant, and antiphonal, with the melody trading back and forth between the violin and cello.  Also, the use of harmonics lend the music an austere quality that is often associated with chant.  By searching for these elements in the music, I found common ground with it and could take enjoyment from it.

The second piece, “Toccatina,” a study for violin by Helmut Lachemann challenged everything about violin playing I knew.  Much of the piece is played by using the screw of the violin bow by tapping it on the string.  This effect expands the boundaries of timbre associated with string instruments.  Along with “Toccatina,” Dr. Gompper’s solo violin piece, “Nuance” expands the colors a violin can achieve by using non-traditional bowing techniques or bow placements.  Another technique that I had not given thought to before the recital was to pluck the string behind the bridge.  I have bowed on the other side of the bridge before as dictated by the music, but never plucked there.  In addition, the solo cello piece “Curve with Plateaux,” by Jonathan Harvey, likened the different registers in the cello to body parts.  Written in an arch shape, it began in the lowest register, proceeded to the highest register, and returned to the lowest register again concluding with chords that were reminiscent of death knell.

During intermission, I conversed with a gentleman about the concert thus far and, knowing that I was a musician, he asked, “How do they get all that in black and white?”  In all honesty, I would like to know the same thing.  The ambiguous “that” spoken of by this gentleman included various bowing techniques, bow placements, and other techniques that I have mentioned that were used in the first half of the program.  Given my limited experience with modern music, I did not have a definitive answer for the gentleman.  From what I have seen, specific markings are made in the music and then demonstrated for the performers or explained by the composer until the desired effect is achieved.  More importantly, though, his words reminded me that no matter if the music being performed is by Bach, Beethoven, or Gompper, it is shown in black and white- there is no difference.


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Yesterday was no typical Sunday in the Old Capitol Mall in downtown Iowa City.  One member of the custodial staff remarked, “Wow – people!”

Yes, there WERE people, many of them, men, women and children, and there were also musicians, who started appearing with all their accoutrements (instruments, music stands, black folders, conducting batons, and little Tupperware containers full of water for the oboists) about twenty minutes before the official four o’clock start of John Cage’s Musicircus.  Premiered in 1967, this composition is characteristic of the works of the revolutionary American artist (whose hundredth birthday is being celebrated this year) in that it is not really a composition at all.  No written score exists for the Musicircus.  It is an event: musicians (and other artists) are simply invited to assemble in an open, public space and perform simultaneously for a set period of time.

Throughout his life, John Cage worked to liberate music from the rigid, stuffy confines of the concert hall, and even from people’s preconceived notions of what music IS.  For Cage, all kinds of sound – even unstructured noise – constituted music.  And unstructured noise is exactly what the Musicircus offers its audience – all kinds of music, played in many different styles by many different performers – all at the same time.

The idea sounds wonderful: free music, and as much of it as you like!  The food court of a shopping mall seems an appropriate venue for this kind of sensory smorgasbord.  But remember: we don’t have “earlids” to shut out unwanted sound.  Just imagine if your Taco Bell Cheezy Cordita Crunch Box came with additional – and obligatory! – servings of Korean bulgogi, an assortment of California rolls, pepperoni pizza slices from Sbarro, and a side of Tandoori chicken, all swimming in a pool of caramel macchiato from TSpoons.  Are you experiencing a gut reation?  Well, some of the audience members (and performers) at the Musicircus suffered the same sense of forced over-ingestion and had to clear the premises before the appointed hour was up in order to keep it all down.

The musical menu on this particular Sunday afternoon included many delicacies (the Taco Bell metaphor was not intended as an insult to any performers).  The UI Chamber Orchestra offered selections from J.S. Bach’s third Brandenburg Concerto and Antonin Dvorak’s Serenade for Strings.  The band department – encamped not forty feet away – offered Variants on a Mediaeval Tune by Norman Dello Joio and three Dance Movements by Philip Sparke.   The University Choir (competing valiantly but in vain with the superior decibel levels of the large instrumental groups) sprinkled its performances of Stephen Chatman’s onomatopoeic cycle Due North and Jean Berger’s Devotional Songs  with impromptu Christmas carols, body percussion jam sessions (some mildly alarming), and readings of multiple one-minute stories from another of Cage’s works, Indeterminacy (listen to Cage himself reading these stories at ).  Young students from the Preucil school executed their group renditions of selections from Suzuki Book One and Book Two with admirable earnest – there is hope for the future!  Miscellaneous grad students played bassoon, marimba, and steel drum; several modern dancers emoted and a young man wandered around sticking a melodica (also known as a “blow-organ” – who says you can’t learn anything from Wikipedia?) into peoples’ faces.  The Chamber Singers of Iowa City sang J.S. Bach’s Gloria sei Dir gesungen as well as settings of Cantate Domino by further Baroque composers Heinrich Schuetz and Giuseppe Pitoni –  very classy!  But their best selection was Estonian composer Veljo Tormis’s unpronouncable Parismaalase lauluke, a rhythmically insistent work of anti-Soviet protest based on a Polynesian folk tune.  Hmmm… somehow it just fit.

A distinguished Chinese gentleman I interviewed summed up the event in three words: “Too much noise.”  Two random UI students, however, felt that the Musicircus  served a community purpose: “So many people have never even been to a band or orchestra concert.  This may get them interested in coming to hear some of the groups later.”  I personally enjoyed riding the escalators and listening to the various streams of music phase in and out around me as I moved through all that vibrating space.  And many of the student musicians I spoke with enjoyed the fact that, for once in their university career, they were just playing music for fun – no beta blockers required.  If only for these reasons, the Musicircus represents an intriguing concept, and one worth exploring.


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Four Guys and Three String Quartets – The JACK Quartet at Riverside Recital Hall

I arrived at last Sunday evening’s concert following a three-day fever-induced stint in bed, but boy, did I wake up! The Jack quartet is well known as an up-and-coming ensemble devoted to contemporary music, and it is a reputation they deserve. John Pickford Richards, Ari Streisfeld, Christopher Otto, and Kevin McFarland are all accomplished composer-performers independently, and got together to spell JACK just a few years ago. They have quickly established themselves as heavyweights in the new music scene with residencies at major Universities and summer festivals such as Lucerne and New Music on the Point. You can follow their work and travels on Twitter (I can personally recommend it!) at:

Sunday’s concert at Riverside Recital Hall concluded their week-long residency at the University of Iowa. Throughout the week they collaborated with the UI dance department, composer Payton MacDonald and choreographer Trisha Brown to present a stirring program at Space Place Theater. They also read the works of graduate student composers in the School of Music, giving students a useful forum to hear their own new compositions and the work of their colleagues. At the end of the week was a program all their own consisting of Ives’ Second String Quartet, Jason Eckardt’s “Subject”, and Horatiu Radulescu’s Fifth String Quartet,”before the universe was born”.

The Second Ives’ quartet is a personal favorite of mine. Although I’ve heard recordings, this was my first opportunity to experience the music live. It is a thorny, complex work, aptly described in JACK’s program notes as, “typical Ives rage against what he perceived as the effeminacy of standard string quartet performances.” The three movements are subtitled “Discussions”, “Arguments” and “The Call of the Mountains”, and Ives’ notes in the score that the piece is, “for 4 men–who converse, discuss, argue … then walk up the mountain side to view the firmament!” It is precisely that argument that first possessed me with this quartet. It is guttural and physical in its relationship between layers of quotation, conflict and resolution. The JACK quartet played the work with expertise and confidence. I got the feeling they knew it very well and had a profound intellectual understanding of the music. They work almost effortlessly, an incredible quality of their music-making, but I wonder if seeing them sweat a little would have made the performance more effective.

Eckardt’s “Subject” is a new work commissioned just this year by the Quartet. It is an interesting study in sensory perception and the effect of alternating sound deprivation and overload on the audience. In contrast to the Ives, there was almost no traditionally-informed tonal narrative on which to hang one’s hat. In this piece sound is explored as a weapon. For me, the experience bypassed cerebral activities entirely and hit me with instantaneous reflex. The players were cool and collected throughout, like an impersonal narrator.

In the Radulescu I discovered a composer who’s works I’d like to spend more time with. The piece calls for all four players in scordatura (the tuning of strings to pitches different from the standard stacked fifths) and it is based on spectral transformations of the cellist’s lowest string. The work abounds with extended techniques that expand the timbral palate of the string quartet medium. At no point in it’s 30+ uninterrupted minutes of music did I hear a sound that, if blind-folded, I would have recognized as a string quartet! It was a beautiful journey in sonic environment I’m not likely to forget.

This is not the first year the JACK Quartet has been in residence at the University of Iowa, and I sincerely hope it will not be the last! Their virtuosity is impressive and they perform fresh, engaging works begging relevant questions about the history and future of the string quartet as an expressive medium. You can learn more about the ensemble and hear clips of their work at:

-Meg Karls

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