Marc-Andre Hamelin Plays Charles Ives’ “Concord Sonata” in Honor of Other Minds’ 30th Anniversary


Hamelin begins his focused Ives journey

The late, great British science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke once asserted that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic (to those who don’t know the technology)”. A similar assertion can be said to be true of music. New music is a large and diverse repertoire that is difficult to navigate without some sort of guide to put those new sounds in context. And Charles Amirkhanian has, via his years as music director of KPFA and his stewardship as Executive and Artistic Director of Other Minds (among the many hats he wears) has provided such guidance for interested listeners to new music since at least 1969.

In an unanticipated gesture of magnanimity there was, at the will call table, not the usual “items for sale”, rather there was a lovely free tote bag and a large selection of OM CDs there for the taking. Suffice it to say, I and many others went home heavier than we had arrived.

Charles Amirkhanian raising a toast at his 75th birthday celebration ( in which Kyle Gann was host and discussant)

He and his hard working team (Blaine Todd, Associate Director; Mark Abramson, Creative Director; Liam Herb, Production Director; Adrienne Cardwell, Archivist; Andrew Weathers, Recordings Director; Jenny Maxwell, Business Manager; and Joseph Bohigian, Program Associate) have provided guides for adventurous listeners that have included interviews with musicians and composers, a record label dedicated to new music, and live lectures and performances of creative new music from all over the world. The annual Other Minds Festival (the 26th was presented earlier this year) has brought in a cornucopia of stellar performers with a knack for finding stars at the outset of their careers. Other Minds at 30 is truly one of the great joys of San Francisco and it’s environs.

This evening was one of the lecture recital variety. Kyle Gann, composer, writer, critic, musicologist, OM alum, and vice president of the Charles Ives Society was brought in to provide the lecture portion of the evening. In addition, this event was held at a major temple of new music in the Bay Area, Mills College (actually Amirkhanian’s alma mater). The beautiful Littlefield Concert Hall itself displays the striking work of California architect, Julia Morgan. Artistic spirits past and present were undoubtedly here this night in the history of this place as well as those artistic spirits present in the audience.

Blaine Todd officiated the preliminaries by introducing tonight’s stars.

The program began with a brief discussion among Mr. Amirkhanian, Professor Gann, and maestro Hamelin. Then Gann took his place at the lectern and Hamelin took a seat at the piano where he had graciously agreed to perform musical excerpts to illustrate Gann’s lecture. Actually Gann has written a definitive and very readable book on the work destined for performance on this night. “Essays After a Sonata” (2017), the title a gentle pun in homage to composer Charles Ives who (in an unprecedented move) wrote a little book titled “Essays Before a Sonata” as a means of introducing his landmark Second Piano Sonata.

Professor Gann providing a context.

In addition to his wonderful book, Gann has had a long interest in the literature of the so called “Transcendentalists” who are the subject (or at least subtext) of this music. He even went as far as to suggest specific literary references implied in the music. The Second Sonata “Concord, Mass., 1840-60, (written 1904 to 1915 with several subsequent revisions) is in four movements titled, “Emerson”, “Hawthorne”, “The Alcotts”, and “Thoreau”. Gann provided a few concise illustrations in a rather brief talk that provided just enough context to assuage the uninitiated (if there were any in the audience, lol). Hamelin coordinated most amicably and then there was a short intermission.

Marc-Andre Hamelin (http://www.marcandrehamelin.com) was born in Montreal and is now based in Boston. His discography consists of over 80 albums. My own introduction to his artistry was his first release in 1988 of William Bolcom’s Pulitzer Prize winning, Twelve New Etudes (1977-1986) and Stefan Wolpe’s “Battle Piece” (1943-47). His web site is worth your time and gives an idea of the sheer scope and acumen of his repertory choices. In fact his most recent releases include more from William Bolcom and a disc of his own compositions. In fact he gives fine performances of music from Mozart and Haydn to the present. Hamelin has performed the Concord Sonata numerous times and has recorded it twice. He performed this gargantuan work entirely from memory.

Maestro Hamelin taking a moment to savor his fine performance and return his focus to the standing ovation that greeted him.

Hamelin gave an extremely focused and convincing performance, an exercise of both intellectual and physical stamina. The audience, due to their reverence for Ives, Hamelin, and the spirits present in the hall, sat in rapt attention with nary a squirm nor a cough (well, maybe one cough) to interrupt the flow of this landmark work of American modernism. Such was Hamelin’s thrall. The piece goes through a wide dynamic range and the soft pianissimo resonances could be heard as clearly as the Beethoven-esque heroic fortes. Hamelin took two curtain calls to a standing ovation of a very appreciative audience. Gann quipped at one point that he uses Hamelin’s Hyperion recording of the Sonata in his classes. It was easy to see why.

A Piece of the Action, or How Other Minds Brought Out My Inner Trekkie


 

20130218-134428.jpg

I have been a fan of Other Minds for many years.  While I lived in Chicago I read the reports on the concert series with great interest and was fascinated with the choices of composers since they tended to mirror my own interests in new music as well as introduce me to tantalizing new artists.  I am not a professional musician but I have a long-standing passion for new music and attended many concerts of new music while I lived in Chicago reading liner notes and music history texts eager for more of the exhilarating experience of great new music as it was happening and wanting to know what was just around the corner.

I recall vividly New Music America 1982 which was held in Chicago and was hosted by Charles Amirkhanian, the executive and artistic director of Other Minds.  He spoke with authority and seemed to know just about every musician whose work I admired and countless whose work I hadn’t yet heard.  He conversed knowledgeably with the likes of John Cage, Robert Ashley, Glenn Branca, Meredith Monk, Tom Johnson, Robert Moran and the list goes on.

10+2 Anthology

10+2 Anthology

Early on I had purchased and listened with delight to the masterful spoken word anthology: 10+2: 12 American Text Sound Pieces [OM-1006-2] containing a couple of Amirkhanian’s compositions  alongside other contemporary masters of that genre in the original vinyl release and listened with great interest to the landmark recordings of Conlon Nancarrow’s Player Piano Studies [OM-1012-15-2] both discs largely the work of Mr. Amirkhanian who managed to get these recordings made in Mexico City on Nancarrow’s own player pianos.  So I have been familiar with him as both composer and producer.  He had been for many years the broadcast broker of contemporary music at KPFA in Berkeley where he served as music director from 1969 to 1992.

Charles Amirkhanian with Rex Lawson

Charles Amirkhanian holding the microphone while Rex Lawson sings along with one of his piano rolls.

When I moved to the bay area in late 2008 one of my first priorities was to attend my first Other Minds concerts.  I saw the OM 14 concerts and was not disappointed.  But my recollection was that it was at OM 15 that I checked the little box on one of the audience surveys saying that I would be willing to volunteer for the organization.  I did not know what to expect but shortly after OM 15 I was contacted by the OM office and asked to provide a résumé.  Well I have worked my entire career as a psychiatric nurse so I added to that résumé that I had what I termed “extensive knowledge” (not to mention a near obsession) of new music.  I got a call back and wound up spending 4 hour shifts approximately weekly over much of the following two years doing various tasks but mostly scanning photos and other materials for use in their web page and archives.

Dohee Lee at OM 18

Dohee Lee at OM 18

My first direct interaction at the office was with Adrienne Cardwell, a pleasant, hard-working young woman who I would later learn was (and remains) the longest  tenured employee other than Mr. Amirkhanian and his co-founder (now President Emeritus) Jim Newman.  Adrienne is in charge of the massive archival goings on and would direct my tasks over the next 2 years.

I worked in the same room as Adam Fong, the associate director at the time (now director of the Center for New Music and a composer/musician in his own right).  I also had the pleasure of working with fund-raisers Emma Moon and later Cynthia Mei who are also highly accomplished musicians and arts advocates.  I had  the pleasure of meeting the Other Minds librarian Steven Upjohn and the hard-working OM radio host Richard Friedman as well as the opportunity to meet interns and even some very interesting scholars and musicians who visited the office while I was there.  In short it was a great volunteer experience which garnered me more than I originally bargained for.

Adam Fong performing at “Something Else” The F...

Adam Fong performing at “Something Else” The Fluxus Semicentenary he produced in September, 2011 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the course of those two years I had many conversations with the OM staff particularly with Adam and later Mr. Amirkhanian about music and programming as I went through scanning, filing and doing whatever tasks were needed at the times I was there.  I recall making some references to some relatively obscure composers which resulted in Charles asking me (somewhat rhetorically), “How do you know that?”.   I just replied that I read a lot but later gave some thought about the nature of my relationship with this fine organization as well as the nature of my interest in new music.

Ruggles_cover_1024x1024

In the ensuing two years I would have some fascinating experiences meeting some of my heroes in new music and dabbling in the inner workings of Other Minds.  My enthusiasm was responded to by the staff at OM by allowing me to work on some of their other projects.  I greatly enjoyed the opportunity to participate and I was thanked most wonderfully once from the stage of one of the OM concerts by Charles Amirkhanian and at least a few more times by having special thanks acknowledged in various concert programs and, most notably for me, in the liner notes of their CD release of the complete music of Carl Ruggles (OM-1020-21-2).  I knew and loved those recordings when they were released on vinyl and was ecstatic to participate in the work on the CD release.  It was great on vinyl and it’s even better on CD.

OK, here is where Star Trek comes in:

75px-Star_Trek_TOS_logo_(1)

After some reflection I came up with what I think is an apt metaphor that fairly accurately describes my experience of my relationship with Other Minds.  Some may recall (you can fact check this if you aren’t old enough to have seen the original broadcast) an episode of the original Star Trek series which was titled, “A Piece of the Action”.  The plot involved Captain Kirk and his crew beaming down to a planet where the inhabitants were living out the equivalent of prohibition era gangsters’ lives.  At one  point this little boy (that would be me in this metaphor) offers some information which would allow Kirk and his crew to get over on the bad guys but only at a price.  The price, he says, is, “a piece of the action”.   The resolution of the plot involves the Enterprise crew successfully resolving the conflict and the little boy being able to experience just a taste of the perceived glamour of the experience of the Enterprise crew (dressed as depression era gangsters to fit in), as Captain Kirk says to him in his best cool gangster voice, “There ya go, kid.  A piece of the action.”

Star_Trek_William_Shatner

I came away from my volunteer experience even more impressed and pleased with this organization and I continue to support them in any way I can.  My thanks to Captain Kirk and his crew for bringing out my inner Trekkie and for availing me of more than just one piece of the action.  You guys run a truly great ship.  Live long and prosper.

I look forward to the upcoming 20th Other Minds concerts.  More on that in blogs to come.