San Jose Chamber Orchestra‘s music director and regular conductor Barbara Day Turner. A quick look at the orchestra’s web site or the repertoire of tonight’s conductor will dazzle and intrigue any fan of new music. This modest ensemble of approximately 20 musicians (give or take) consists of professional musicians who clearly take their work seriously. No spoilers here in saying that they turned in some seriously powerful and polished performances.It was a pleasant spring day in San Jose where, in this modest hall, there was to be a concert of mostly contemporary music with one exception. The concert was billed as “A Touch of Tech” due to its use in some pieces of electronics and, in one case, slide projections. However the overall sense of the experience left this writer with a strong sense of the romantic, hence the title of this review. The concert was to be led by the
This writer was initially asked to review this performance on behalf of the management agents of composer Vivian Fung (1975- ), a Canadian-American composer whose star is rising rapidly. In preparation for the evening’s performance it was wonderful to find some of her work on You Tube. It was a rewarding experience to hear some of her range of compositions. The featured composition of hers for this evening was Humanoid (2017) for cello and electronics. It was third in the programming sequence for the evening.First up though was a composition which initially seemed anachronistic in context. It was Dvorak’s Silent Woods (1833) for cello and orchestra in a transcription for cello and strings by Kerry Lewis. This piece of unabashed high romanticism in fact seemed to contextualize what was to follow. The soloist Coleman Itzkoff gave a wonderful display of his romantic chops in his interpretation of this somewhat lesser known bon bon of Dvorak’s. The audience responded most appreciatively to a lush and lovely performance. Second up was Green (2008-16) by Scottish-American composer Thea Musgrave (1928- ). This work was being played in honor of her 90th year. Mr. Musgrave was reportedly unable attend this evening, not due to infirmity but rather to industry. She is reportedly hard at work adding to her already prolific catalog of works. (This version was a string orchestra version prepared by Martyn Brabbins.) Nonetheless her presence was strongly felt in this recent ecologically themed piece for string orchestra (sans electronics). The tonalities in the work seemed to almost be echoes from the first work. Despite a few string effects, pizzicati, glissandi, there was an overall feeling of romantic gestures here in a discursive development that included a disturbing motif from the double basses and rather romantic and lyrical responses from solo violin and viola embedded in the lush orchestral textures (it is astonishing to hear what a master composer can do with a small string orchestra). The conductor and ensemble displayed an intensity of concentration which resulted in a really spectacular performance which was very much appreciated by the audience. (Curious side note: I later learned that an elderly gentleman who sat in front of me and listened with obvious concentration and appreciation throughout the program was in fact a relative of Ms. Musgrave so, at least by that proxy she was there in yet another capacity.) The stage was then set for the west coast premiere of Vivian Fung’s Humanoid for cello and electronics. Here I had the advantage of being able to speak with the evening’s engineer (and electronic co-conspirator) Tom Johnson. This gentleman advised me of his roles in the three pieces which involved technology. Apparently the Fung piece required the most attention and coordination involving a click track. The Shatin piece basically played the electronics in parallel to the orchestra with the coordination largely left (presumably) to the conductor. And the last piece involved projections whose synchronization were not as minutely critical as the other two pieces. Said gentleman was also the recording engineer for this concert.
For this writer the term “electroacoustic” indicates that one should approach such a work with caution. Indeed the success of the integration of electronics and acoustic instruments varies a great deal. Perhaps the best known of such efforts are the pioneering “Synchronisms” of Mario Davidovsky in which various instruments are paired with an electronic track. And these days one must ask if the electronics interacts with or alters the sound of the acoustic instrument or if it exists in parallel. Electroacoustic music has been and remains a huge compositional challenge and no small challenge for the listener.
In the case of Fung’s piece the electronics exist in parallel but carefully synchronized (the soloist does listen to a click track) to the cello score. No alteration of the cello’s sound is done by anyone other than the cellist. So we are then hearing basically a duo between two musical streams, one live, the other on a digital stream of largely concrete sounds and, at one point, a drum kit. Such technical issues can be tiring but the sound of the music was not. According to the composer the piece is in three parts. The cello and the electronics are both equally present in all. In fact the cello seems to be creating sounds that are analogous to the electronic sounds at times and the cellist is given a lot of large romantic sounding gestures which in many ways were not entirely different emotionally than the gestures of the Dvorak. Fung’s work seems, appropriately here in Silicon Valley, to be challenging the human vs. the machine, an increasingly intriguing dichotomy.
It was clearly a challenging piece for the cellist requiring a plethora of techniques and a great deal of virtuosity. Itzkoff handled his role with stern concentration and demonstrated a strong command of both his instrument and the score. He was rewarded with a standing ovation and two curtain calls for his efforts which he gratefully accepted. The program notes indicated that this was Fung’s first major foray into the use of electronics and one hopes not the last.Following intermission was the premiere performance of the work of another established citizen of American music. It was Judith Shatin‘s Ice Becomes Water (2018) commissioned by Barbara Day Turner and the San Jose Chamber Orchestra and is dedicated to them. Shatin is a sound artist as well as a composer meaning that she has mastered the incorporation of a variety of sounds into her compositional palette. In this case she utilized sound samples gathered by glaciologist Oscar Glowacki.
This piece continued the basically pastoral/ecological themes suggested by the earlier works. Again too there was lyricism though the sound images here were, appropriately, colder and more stark than those in some of the other compositions. In fact this composition seemed to have some affinities to the sound world of Musgrave’s work at times but perhaps a bit harsher. What sustained interest here, in addition to the sonic inventiveness of the string writing, was the seamless integration of the sounds into the overall texture. Here the electronics seemed to augment Penderecki like sound mass effects and gave way to gentler clicking sounds (or were they pizzicati?). It was another very intense but very satisfying musical experience for this writer and, by the sound of the applause, the rest of the audience as well. Happily Shatin was there to enjoy the success of this performance and the appreciation of her artistry.To end the program there was a multimedia work by William Susman (1960- ) The work of this composer is new to this reviewer’s ears but not apparently to the music world at large. A quick perusal of Susman’s web page reveals a prolific composer who maintains a busy schedule of composing and performing (including a performance of his recent opera, Fordlandia at the Forth Worth Opera Frontiers Showcase) coming up in May.
The work was a piece entitled, In a State of Patterns (2018) which received its premiere on this night. The work is a series of six movements which are designed to respond (or maybe create musical analogs) to 6 art works created by Santa Clara University mathematician Frank Farris (1955- ).The movements (performed without pause) are: 1. California, the Golden State, 2. The Sierra Nevada, 3. At Home in San Jose, 4. Sierra Tree Death, 5. Spiral Vortex, and 6. The Stars Come Out to Comfort Us.
The photos and mathematical abstractions were projected stage left and more or less synced to the music. This writer is not well schooled in mathematics but the appearance of the images were reminiscent of those never ending fractal drawings which eternally reproduce themselves. Farris apparently extracts the images and colors from photographs. Now whether the music creates successful analogies is probably more relevant to the level of satisfaction that each of the artists feels with their work but the effect in performance was quite satisfying. One can safely say (I think) that the music and the art work both have sufficient merit to stand successfully on their own but the combination was at least intriguing.
Susman’s music draws on some very pleasant minimalist type structures that nonetheless managed to take on almost Wagnerian grandiosity at times. Again the combination of ecology and a sort of high romanticism combined to create a very successful and enjoyable work. The abrupt ending reminiscent of the ensemble performances of Philip Glass provided a stunning coda waking the audience from the beautiful dreams evoked by the six movements. Again we witnessed a powerful and dedicated premiere performance of a wonderful piece of music which appeared to leave the audience quite satisfied. Susman was there to take a much deserved bow.
This was some brilliant programming and excellent musicianship. What an evening!!!
As someone who grew up attending Polish weddings and hearing more than his share of polka music I was fascinated at the unusual role of the accordion as I began to get interested in new music. People like Pauline Oliveros and Guy Klucevsek completely upended my notions of what this instrument is and what it can do. The accordion came into being in the early 19th century and was primarily associated with folk and popular musics until the early 20th century. It has been used by composers as diverse as Tchaikovsky and Paul Hindemith but the developments since the 1960s have taken this folk instrument into realms not even dreamed of by its creators.
Guy Klucevsek (1947- ) brought the accordion to the burgeoning New York “downtown” new music scene in the 1970s. He began his accordion studies in 1955, holds a B.A. in theory and composition from Indiana University of Pennsylvania and an M.A. (also in theory and composition) from the University of Pittsburgh. He also did post graduate work at the California Institute of the Arts. His composition teachers have included Morton Subotnick, Gerald Shapiro and Robert Bernat. He draws creatively on his instrument’s past even as he blazes new trails expanding its possibilities. The accordion will never be the same.
Klucevsek has worked with most all of the major innovators in new music over the years including Laurie Anderson, Bang on a Can, Brave Combo, Anthony Braxton, Dave Douglas, Bill Frisell, Rahim al Haj, Robin Holcomb, Kepa Junkera, the Kronos Quartet, Natalie Merchant, Present Music, Relâche, Zeitgeist, and John Zorn (who also recorded him on his wonderful Tzadik label). He has released over 20 albums and maintains an active touring schedule. He recently completed a residency (April, 2016) at Sausalito’s Headlands Center for the Arts.
Starkland has released no fewer than three previous albums by this unusual artist (all of which found their way into my personal collection over the years) including a re-release of his Polka from the Fringe recordings from the early 1990s. This landmark set of new music commissions from some 28 composers helped to redefine the polka (as well as the accordion) in much the same way as Michael Sahl’s 1981 Tango and Robert Moran’s 1976 Waltz projects did for those dance genres.
The present recording, Teetering on the Edge of Normalcy (scheduled for release on September 30, 2016), continues this composer/performer’s saga. His familiar humor and his unique experimentalism remain present but there is also a bittersweet aspect in that most of these compositions are homages and many of the dedicatees have passed from this world. Klucevsek himself will turn 70 in February of 2017 and it is fitting that he has chosen to release this compilation honoring his colleagues.
On first hearing, many of Klucevsek’s compositions sound simple and straightforward but the complexities lie just beneath the surface. What sounds like a simple accordion tune is written in complex meters and sometimes maniacal speed. To be sure there are conservative elements melodically and harmonically but these belie the subversive nature of Klucevsek’s work which put this formerly lowly folk instrument in the forefront with the best of the “downtown” scene described by critics such as Tom Johnson and Kyle Gann. You might mistake yourself as hearing a traditional music only to find that you had in fact wandered into the universe next door.
Many favorite collaborators have been recruited for this recording. Most tracks feature the composer with other musicians. Four tracks feature solo accordion, two are for solo piano and the rest are little chamber groupings from duets to small combos with drum kit.
The first three tracks are duets with the fine violinist Todd Reynolds. Klucevsek’s playful titles are more evocative than indicative and suggest a framework with which to appreciate the music. There follows two solo piano tracks ably handled by Alan Bern. Bern (who has collaborated on several albums) and Klucevsek follow on the next track with a duet between them.
Song of Remembrance is one of the more extended pieces on the album featuring the beautiful voice of Kamala Sankaram along with Todd Reynolds and Peggy Kampmeier on piano. No accordion on this evocative song which had this listener wanting to hear more of Sankaram’s beautiful voice.
The brief but affecting post minimalist Shimmer (In Memory of William Duckworth) for solo accordion is then followed by the longer but equally touching Bob Flath Waltzes with the Angels. William Duckworth (1943-2012) is generally seen as the inventor of the post-minimalist ethic (with his 1977-8 Time Curve Preludes) and he was, by all reports, a wonderful teacher, writer and composer. Bob Flath (1928-2014) was philanthropist and supporter of new music who apparently worked closely with Klucevsek.
Tracks 10-12 feature small combos with drum kit. The first two include (in addition to Klucevsek) Michael Lowenstern on mellifluous bass clarinet with Peter Donovan on bass and Barbara Merjan on drums. Lowenstern who almost threatens to play klezmer tunes at times sits out on the last of these tracks. Little Big Top is in memory of film composer Nino Rota and Three Quarter Moon in memory of German theater composer Kurt Weill. These pieces would not be out of place in that bar in Star Wars with their pithy humor that swings. They also evoke a sort of nostalgia for the downtown music scene of the 70s and 80s and the likes of Peter Gordon and even the Lounge Lizards.
The impressionistic Ice Flowers for solo accordion, inspired by ice crystals outside the composer’s window during a particularly harsh winter, is then followed by four more wonderful duets with Todd Reynolds (The Asphalt Orchid is in memory of composer Astor Piazolla) and then the brief, touching For Lars, Again (in memory of Lars Hollmer) to bring this collection to a very satisfying end. Hollmer (1948-2008) was a Swedish accordionist and composer who died of cancer.
As somber as all of this may sound the recording is actually a pretty upbeat experience with some definitely danceable tracks and some beautiful impressionistic ones. Like Klucevsek’s previous albums this is a fairly eclectic mix of ideas imbued as much with humor and clever invention as with sorrow and nostalgia. This is not a retrospective, though that would be another good idea for a release, but it is a nice collection of pieces not previously heard which hold a special significance for the artists involved. Happily I think we can expect even more from this unique artist in the future.
The informative gatefold notes by the great Bay Area pianist/producer/radio host Sarah Cahill also suggest the affinity of this east coast boy for the aesthetic of the west coast where he is gratefully embraced and which is never far from his heart (after all he did study at the California Institute of the Arts and has worked with various Bay Area artists). Booklet notes are by the composer and give some personal clues as to the meaning of some of the works herein. Recordings are by John Kilgore, George Wellington and Bryce Goggin. Mastering is by the wonderful Silas Brown. All of this, of course, overseen by Thomas Steenland, executive producer at Starkland.
Fans of new music, Guy Klucevsek, accordions, great sound…you will want this disc.
A few of months ago received my copy of the newly minted CD by pianist/composer Samuel Vriezen. This is one of those crowd-sourced projects on Indiegogo . The disc consists of a new recording of a sort of minimalist classic and a new works by the pianist, Within Fourths/Within Fifths (2006) which is, essentially his artistic response to this piece. The piece is dedicated to Johnson.
This is only the second recording of the Tom Johnson work committed to disc. That by itself is an achievement. The first was recorded by the composer and released on XI records in 1999. That recording clocks in at about one hour. By contrast Mr. Vriezen’s recording takes only about 30 minutes to play the piece. Johnson, who is also known as the former music critic for the Village Voice is one of the few composers who actually embraces the term “minimalist”, in fact he was there witnessing the very birth of that style during his tenure at the Village Voice (1972-1982).
The Chord Catalog (1985) consists of, in order, all the possible chords in a single octave that are possible with two notes, three notes, four notes, etc. up to 13 notes with the doubling of the octave. That’s a total of 8178 chords. This sounds like a potentially bland academic exercise like many minimalist or process music concepts. No tempo is specified in the score. It is an important piece which may not appeal to all audiences but will likely entertain anyone whose listening interests lie in the realm of minimalism, process music and conceptual art.
According to Kurt Gottschalk in his article for I Care If You Listen Johnson is a fan of Vriezen’s interpretation and, in fact, is one of the many contributors to the project. Vriezen has been performing the piece for about 10 years now in public concerts and he posted a video of a performance of Chord Catalog with commentary by Tom Johnson and himself. There are also scenes of Johnson with Vriezen as he performs a portion of Within Fourths/Within Fifths.
Vriezen’s piece by contrast lasts about 45 minutes and, though using similar methods, produces a different sound world. He correctly describes the piece as lyrical and it is a wonderful piece on its own, more wonderful in context with its predecessor. This disc is an artistic dialogue, a call and response between to kindred spirits of different generations.
Samuel Vriezen is a Dutch pianist, composer and writer born in 1973. His web site lists his compositions and writings and there are downloadable mp3 files and scores. There is also a Vriezen page on Ubuweb which contains mp3 files and pdf files of several of his pieces and includes useful program notes. He also produced Johnson’s CD Symmetries (1980) featuring Vriezen and fellow pianist Dante Oei on Karnatic records.
This is the solo début recording by a composer and pianist with keen instincts and talents that leave this reviewer in excited anticipation of what he will do next. I am also proud to have sponsored this wonderful recording.