Review: David Guerrier/Steven Beck

The following is reprinted, with permission, from the Tallahassee Democrat (25 February 2005). The portions in brackets did not appear in the original.

The Artist Series continued Sunday with a recital by trumpeter David Guerrier and pianist Steven Beck at Florida A&M University's Lee Hall.

The performance began with a stately reading of Arthur Honnegar's Intrada. Clarity of sound in all registers, ease of technique and a fine grasp of style marked Guerrier's playing in this piece - and throughout the concert. [I can’t say for certain if Intrada was originally written for trumpet or if it was an arrangement, because the "program notes" included no information about any of the music, only exhaustive listing of the credentials of the performers, as if the recital was an interview for a position. I’d rather be given an indication of why a composer wrote a certain piece, what to listen for in the piece, or why the performers were moved to perform it than to read a mind-numbing list of orchestras performed with, etc. ]

Paul Hindemith wrote sonatas for virtually every instrument and the sonatas for winds, in particular, are at the center of the repertoire. The piano is an equal partner in these works, and the Trumpet Sonata is no exception. Beck's performance of the difficult piano part was as effortless, clean and musical as was Guerrier's trumpet playing. Their phrasing and sense of ensemble - an essential element in a performance of this piece - were excellent.

This sense of musical partnership was taken a step further when Beck took the stage alone for a rhythmically charged performance of J.S. Bach's Italian Concerto (BWV 971). The individual contrapuntal lines were clearly articulated, as were the important structural points of the piece.

Guerrier returned for an exciting traversal of Kent Kennan's Sonata for Trumpet and Piano. The influence of Hindemith was clear and seemed, appropriately, to guide the performers' interpretation of the piece. The last movement expands the style with rhythms and melodic gestures that carry a distinctively American feeling, and the performers went where the music took them.

The second half of the concert began with performances by the winners of the Artist Series Trumpet Competition - Jessica Striano, Ashton Kimbrough and Danielle Aiken - accompanied by Beck.

Beck delivered fluid and idiomatic readings of the Berceuse (op. 57) and the first Scherzo (in B minor, op. 20) of Frederic Chopin. The Berceuse gave him his only real opportunity of the afternoon to show his lyrical side, and he responded with musicality. The virtuoso demands of the Scherzo were well in his reach, as well.

The dry, sardonic wit and rhythmic edge of the Gavotte de concert of Heinrich Sutermeister provided the musical highlight of the afternoon. Gurrier and Beck played the piece with a coolness that was wholly appropriate and expressive.

The recital closed with a strong performance of the Concerto in B-flat, by Alexander Arutiunian. It was a work of conventional virtuosity, with occasional lyrical pretensions.

[An unnamed encore was similar in style, and similarly well played.]



I started this post a while back, during the last "simplicity/complexity" blogotempest. I put it on hold because it became clear that the simplicity/complexity axis is really beside the point. More to the point, then, is comprehensibility, which I think is different from that old bugaboo "accessibility". For my purposes here then, "comprehensibility" results when a composer's language is the right one to say whatever it is that is being said in the music. That is, when the means go with the ends, or at the very least when the difference in means and ends results in frisson rather than friction.

Steve Reich, in his 1968 essay "Music as a Gradual Process" declared:

I am interested in perceptible processes. I want to be able to hear the process happening throughout the sounding music.

Mr. Reich's great early works, like Clapping Music, Come Out, and It's Gonna Rain exemplify this desire in telling and expressive ways. The means (slowly phase shifting phrases) and the poetic ends are inseparable.

What results is, I think, a kind of transparency wherein the expressive intent of the composer comes through regardless of the means employed, be they complex and/or simple. One is tempted to think of this as a matter of texture--the thinner the texture, the more transparent the music. There's a relationship there, but counter-examples spring immediately to mind, like Feldman's For Samuel Beckett, Reich's Come Out (especially near the end), and the micro-polyphony of Ligeti's Atmospheres.

Complex works can be transparent, as well. Carter's Fifth Quartet, for instance, Boulez' Repons, and the late Beethoven quartets, to name a few examples.

Just as complexity for its own sake can easily lose its transparency and become mere complication, so too can simplicity become simple-mindedness and the transparency turn into nothingness.



I've added oboist Patricia Mitchell to the blogroll. Appropriately for today, her top post (as of this typing) is about applause. So, give her a big listen. welcome!


Review: Beethoven, Schwantner, Elgar

The following is reprinted from the Tallahassee Democrat (14 February 2005), with permission.

The Tallahassee Symphony Orchestra continued its 2004-2005 Masterworks season with a program of music by Ludwig van Beethoven, Joseph Schwantner, and Edward Elgar Saturday evening (12 February) at Florida State University’s Ruby Diamond Auditorium.

TSO Music Director David Hoose led the Orchestra in a strong performance of Beethoven’s "Pastorale" Symphony (No. 6 in F, Op. 68, 1808) to open the concert. The Sixth is a generally more relaxed piece than most of the composer’s other symphonies, as is indicated by the subtitle. This more "relaxed" nature is reflected in the form—there are five movements instead of the usual four, for example.

The Orchestra’s principal woodwinds (flutist Eve Amsler, oboist Eric Ohlsson, clarinetist Frank Kowalsky, and bassoonist Jeff Keesecker) and principal horn player David Cripps played their many prominent solos with skill and style. The Orchestra’s string sections were in fine form throughout the evening, playing with a warm and at times luxurious sound, and a strong sense of ensemble. Mr. Hoose was in fine form as well, shaping phrases with a light hand that allowed the players room for expression.

The best concertos provide a showcase for a virtuoso performer through a substantive musical argument. The worst ones provide neither. Schwantner’s Concerto for Percussion and Orchestra (1994) falls somewhere in between these two extremes.

Two of the biggest trends in mainstream American composition in the past twenty-five years are minimalism (wherein pieces are made from the repetition of clearly etched musical lines; cf. Philip Glass) and eclecticism (wherein pieces are made by drawing from a variety of musical styles and, in the most successful examples, integrated by the personality of the composer; cf. Leonard Bernstein). Schwantner partakes of both of these approaches and combines them in a way that leaves the listener with nothing to chew on. The patterns that are repeated (ala minimalism) don’t move against each other in the telling way they do in the best examples of the style. His eclecticism is twice removed: that is, he borrows from borrowers, so that any personality disappears.

On the other hand, the writing for the percussion solo is spectacular, and FSU professor John Parks was more than up to the task. He played a large array of pitched and unpitched instruments with flair and virtuosity. Schwantner’s writing for the unpitched instruments (drums, etc.) was far better than for the mallets and Mr. Parks brought out everything there was in the part, and more. In addition to his extraordinary playing he has a commanding stage presence that won over the audience as well as the Orchestra. He deserved the raucous and prolonged ovation he received from the large audience.

The concert closed with a sprightly reading of Elgar’s quirky and jovial Cockaigne (In London Town) Overture (Op. 40, 1901). Mr. Hoose and the Orchestra emphasized the modern urbanity of this short work, with its dense counterpoint and wealth of melodic materials.



Today brings us two fine posts on John Cage's 4'33". Greg Sandow reports on a performance and Robert Gable offers a compendium of quotes on the work. The next issue of The High Hat will include my own article on this piece and its central position in musical life.



I've added composer Judith Lang Zaimont's new blog to the blogroll. By sheer coincidence, I heard the performance of her Growler she refers to in her first post. It was one of the better pieces on the program. I share her concern about the the programming of the FSU Festival, but it's always been that way--safe and regional.

* * * * *

Alex Ross has linked to the text of his keynote speech at the Chamber Music America National Conference. As always, he has a lot of interesting and thought-provoking things to say. This sentence struck me as shedding a particular kind of light on one important difference between concert-notational music and other kinds:

I can’t honestly say that Beethoven’s C-sharp minor Quartet is by any meaningful measure “better” than, say, Duke Ellington’s Come Sunday as sung by Mahalia Jackson.

I'm not saying that the difference here is a quantitative "better-or-worse" kind of difference, but rather a qualitative "nature of the beast" difference.


Simplicity Seniors

Alex Ross responds to my post about the trend amongst younger composers to embrace complexity in ther music. Alex has "issues" about some of my post, but there don't seem to me to be enough for a subscription.

His point that today's audiences have no more need for instant gratification than those in Mozart's day is well-taken, though I think that the plethora of styles available today may tax an audience's patience in a different way. Also, I certainly didn't mean to imply that I consider popular culture "simple-minded", but I do think there is a danger of simple-mindedness when the desire for accessibility trumps all other concerns. There reverse is true as well--complexity can and often does devolve into the merely "complicated" when the desire for complexity overwelms other artistic concerns.

Finally, don't you think Jack Bauer would make a great operatic hero?



I'd like to welcome composer Elodie Lauten to our small but insane corner of the blogorama.



Kyle Gann and Alex Ross both noted this past weekend that younger composers (I'm thinking they mean student age composers) may be turning to complexity in their music. I think it's safe to say that neither Mr. Gann nor Mr. Ross is entirely happy about the nascent trend. It is interesting to me to note that their misgivings seem to revolve around the simplicity/complexity axis than around the more tired and in reality moot tonality/pantonality axis of the style wars.

Mr. Gann:

Maybe I had gotten into musical complexity too early. If I hadn’t discovered the Concord [Sonata of Charles Ives] and Variations IV [John Cage] until college, like most music students, maybe incomprehensibility wouldn’t have lost its freshness so easily. But at 19, minimalism suddenly made all that complexity seem old hat. Having used so many dozens of chromatic tone clusters by my freshman year of college, it had already become painfully apparent that there is a ceiling to meaningful dissonance. I had piled up as many minor 9ths as human hands and lips could play. The idea that I could go back to the major scale as a starting point - and still seem avant-garde and special - came as a relief.
Mr. Ross:

Composers who came of age in the sixties and seventies rebelled against their elders by rejecting dissonant modernism in favor of minimalism, neo-romanticism, and other reaffirmations of simplicity. Now the world has turned upside down. The composers of the sixties and seventies generations have become the establishment; they are, to their own distress, figures of authority. Perhaps it's not surprising that some of the youngsters are headed in a different direction. As Kyle suggests, the raucous underside of the pop world — noise punk, hardcore metal, and so on — is pushing them along. And if middle-aged composers of a tonal persuasion tell them they're on the wrong path, they will surely keep on going.
Critics like Mr. Ross and composer/critics like Mr. Gann have written for some time about what they hear as the "dead-end" of highly complex music. I note for the record that both writers have repeatedly praised works that are undeniably pantonal, so that's not the issue. (Mr. Gann's love for the music of, for example, Morton Feldman, gainsays that notion.) Serious listeners naturally (and rightly) have a desire to have a feeling that they are comprehending what is going on in a piece of music, and there are unquestionably a number of pieces where it is damn hard to ever hear everything that is going on. Is it possible, though, that 1) there are pieces where the musical/poetic strategy is such that trying to hear everything that's going on is counterproductive or really just beside the point, and/or 2) that full comprehension may come with multiple hearings?

We live in a musical culture ("pop" and concert-notational) where audiences expect the music to appeal to them immediately and in a personal way that is new in the postmodern era--they want the music to be part of the "soundtrack" of their lives. That is, the music should derive what meaning it has from life and musical experience of the audience, and for this to happen, simplicity or transparency are key.

Another reason, which Mr. Gann cites in his post, for younger composers (and listeners?) being drawn to complexity, is that in such a user-friendly, soundtrackofmylife musical environment, hearing music with a high degree of complexity and, to use a decidedly non-postmodern idea, authorial presence (from living authors even) is a new and bracing experience for many young people, and it is powerfully attractive. Having to delve into complex works with repeated listening and study to find the meaning can be as new and as liberating an experience as simplicity was for many when it was embodied in the minimalism of the sixties.

Here's an optimistic prediction for the near future of our music--composers now beginning to come of age will find a balance between the simplicity of much of today's music and the complexity of Modernism and create a music that is rich in challenge as well as accessibility.


Everything is Green (II)

Do most of you write in order? That is, when you are making a piece, be it music or words, do you tend to do the detailed compositional work more or less in order? I do, after a good bit of sketching and "planning" of every stage of the piece so I have a very good idea of what's going to happen at the important structural points, at least.

For the opera (the libretto of which is in the fourth draft and counting) I've been working on the vocal lines for the two characters and their relation to each other. And the relationship of the musical shape to the dramatic shape. At any rate, last night I started at measure one of the Prelude, which will be rather brief and include hints of the music of each of the three scenes.

More later.