Tallahassee 101

The 2004-2005 season of the Tallahassee Symphony Orchestra concludes tomorrow evening with a program replete with rich 101 goodness. Eric Satie's Parade, Ottorino Respighi's Pini di Roma, and the G Major Piano Concerto of Maurice Ravel constitute the 101 portion of the program, which is filled out with Claude Debussy's Prelude a l'apres-midi d'un faune. Would it have killed them to play La Mer?

The concert also marks the end of David Hoose's tenure as TSO Music Director. Mr. Hoose leaves the Orchestra in good musical shape, as I hope is clear from the reviews of this season's concerts.

Next season will be an audition season, as the Orchestra searches for Mr. Hoose's replacement. Six concerts, six different conductors. What's a critic to do?

Piano Tech

I had the pleasure to attend an open house at the new Piano Technology Lab at the College of Music at Florida State University. The Lab is home to FSU's recently implemented Master of Arts in Piano Technology program. This program is the only one of its kind in the United States. There are trade programs leading to a certificate in Boston and at the University of Western Ontario. Through a partnership agreement, Western Ontario students are able to complete their training in the FSU program. Program director Anne Garee said they have received inquiries from several institutions regarding hiring the program's graduates, of which there are two so far.

Most of the clinical work in the program will be on the College's dozens of practice, classroom, and concert insturments. The first graduating class got to work on a 1927 Mason & Hamlin instrument that was part of a significant donation that helped to get the program off the ground. It will be returned to the donor and used in a Tallahassee performance venue. Ms. Garee said that the instrument represented a unique opportunity for the students because of its high quality. The piano had a warm and rich tone when I heard it played at the open house. Debussy and Feldman (for example) would sound wonderful on this instrument.

The Lab itself was fascinating--parts and tools everywhere and in order. There were various kinds of actions out on workbenches so visitors (and students, of course) could see how the many parts worked together. I asked Ms. Garee what role (if any) electronic technology plays in the process. She said they use computers mostly to generate charts and graphs for use in the diagnosis and measurement of problems with the action. These meaurements represent the biggest step in piano technology in over 100 years. But the real work remains in the hands and in the ear.


Review: Hamelin

Review of Marc-Andre Hamelin's Tallahassee recital, from the Tallahassee Democrat, 25 April 2005. Reprinted with permission.

Pianist Marc-Andre Hamelin is world-renowned for his thoughtful and sometimes unusual programming as much as for his prodigious technique and deeply musical playing.

All of these attributes and many more were in evidence throughout Hamelin's season-ending Artist Series recital Sunday afternoon at Florida State University's Ruby Diamond Auditorium.

The program consisted of music by the Spanish composer Isaac Albeniz. After a virtuosic performance of Navarra (left by the composer in fragment form and completed by the eclectic American composer William Bolcom), Hamelin launched into a performance of the composer's masterpiece, Iberia (composed between 1906 and 1909).

Iberia consists of four books of three character pieces (compositions of medium length that usually maintain one or two moods, tempos, or textures throughout) each. Albeniz structured each book of pieces to make it a complete musical statement. Hamelin's performance order, the first and fourth books followed by an intermission, then books two and three, was designed to convey a larger sense of a whole musical statement, and he was largely successful, hindered only by the consistency in Albeniz' materials and style.

Hamelin's playing was ideally suited to the mercurial changes in these pieces. His technique truly is amazing. He seemed to glide over the difficulties served up in these pieces, which are rightly considered among the most difficult in the literature.

What struck me about the performance, though, was the incredible beauty and sensitivity Hamelin drew from the piano in the soft and lyrical passages in the piece. This sensitivity to nuance undoubtedly led Hamelin to underline the many unusual syntactical, melodic, and harmonic features of Iberia, but not so much that the larger picture was lost.

The pianist was brought back to the stage for an encore of Claude Debussy's Reflets dans l'eau (Reflections in the water), which Hamelin described as a "change of pace." Indeed, the languid splashes of color in the French master's piece were a contrast to the energetic drive of most of Iberia, but they were as well suited to Hamelin's playing.


Confectionary Potentate

With all of the discussion of the new pope and his views on everything under the sun, including music, I just thought I'd put in a good word for my favorite ruler:

The Emperor of Ice-Cream

Wallace Stevens

Call the roller of big cigars,
The muscular one, and bid him whip
In kitchen cups concupiscent curds.
Let the wenches dawdle in such dress
As they are used to wear, and let the boys
Bring flowers in last month's newspapers.
Let be be finale of seem.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.

Take from the dresser of deal,
Lacking the three glass knobs, that sheet
On which she embroidered fantails once
And spread it so as to cover her face.
If her horny feet protrude, they come
To show how cold she is, and dumb.
Let the lamp affix its beam.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.


Style and Performance

I wanted to write a post on style and performance, and then I remembered the following review from the November/December 2000 American Record Guide. In re-reading it, I can see the beginnings of some of the ideas I explored in the unpublished piece on criticism I wrote for ARG as well as the genesis of the 101 project. Here it is, with some changes.

DAVIDOVSKY: Selections
New York New Music Ensemble; Speculum Musicae; Susan Narucki, s; Peggy Pearson, ob; Bayla Keyes, v; Mary Ruth Ray, va; Rhonda Rider, vc; David Starobin, gt
Bridge 9097 (Koch) 67 minutes

If musical modernism (I mean “modernism” with a capital “M”, but I’m not going to capitalize it) was a failure, as many would have us believe, who is to blame? Is it composers for writing music “people” can’t understand (though many people can and do understand it, whatever that means, if anything), or for getting too far “out in front” of audiences, performers, and (especially?) critics, or for merely not being Beethoven or Tchaikovsky?

Before assigning blame if blame must be assigned, the “failure” of modernism should be defined, rather than merely asserted. Many writers and others point to the small audience for modernist music as a sign of its artistic failure: If it was any good, people would want to hear it, so the familiar argument goes. This kind of market theory of artistic value puts our music on a slippery slope, as classical music as a whole is not terribly popular with a large, general public. And besides that, I remain unconvinced that audiences for modernist music are necessarily small when compared with other art music audiences.

Proponents of modernism often claimed that once their music was heard enough, the public would follow, even to the point of Webern’s famous declaration that one day his music would be “sung in the streets”. This has not come to pass, as readers of ARG well know. There are now regular performances of the central composers and works of the modernist movement, so it would seem that if mere exposure to the music was to convert the public, it would have been converted by now.

What if those who claimed that composers were too far ahead of performers were right, but that as the gap between composers’ conceptions and performers’ ability to realize them shrank, the public would begin to find connections with the music?

Happily, there is anecdotal evidence that this phenomenon may be taking hold. Recent concerts featuring the music of Elliott Carter have drawn large crowds and the attention of the world press, and England’s Proms series continue to include major modernist pieces and play to big crowds.

The new disc of chamber music by Argentina-born Mario Davidovsky represents another aspect of this nascent trend. Here we have difficult, uncompromising music played with care, understanding, and most importantly, expression.

Modernism, it is clear at this late date, was not as absorbed with “obliterating” the past as it often seemed, or even as many of its practitioners declared. The kinds of performances on this disc show that there is a clear connection with the past in this music. The performers, including members of Speculum Musicae and the New York New Music Ensemble, as well as soloists and members of other ensembles, shape his sometimes lyrical, sometimes angular phrases as though they were as easy and direct as phrases by Mozart, Wagner, or Chopin.

Each piece on the program has its moments, at least. Flashbacks (1995) is a colorful and evocative work scored for Pierrot* ensemble plus percussion. Lyrical lines stand beside dramatic, angular gestures in this piece, as they do in Festino (1994), for guitar, viola , cello, and percussion. The 1983 song cycle Romancero (if the poet is credited in the notes, I missed it) too combines long lines with sharply-etched instrumental gestures. The Quartetto 2 (1996) for oboe and string trio is reminiscent of the Carter Oboe Concerto in the playfulness and serious lightness of the oboe line against a sterner accompaniment. Peggy Pearson captures the spirit wonderfully.

Davidovsky is probably best known for the Synchronisms series in which instrumentalists, usually soloists, though some of the pieces have ensembles, play with and against pre-recorded electronic tapes. David Starobin, one of the foremost interpreters of contemporary guitar music, gives a powerful performance of Synchronisms No. 10 (1992). Part of the tension and drama in this piece lies in the fact that the guitar has a full four and a half minutes of virtuoso music before the tape ever enters. As in all of the pieces in the series, the implacability of the tape set against the expressively flexibility of the instrumental music provides contrast and drama.

Much of Davidovsky’s music has the surface volatility associated with modernism, to be sure. This volatility comes to the fore through much of the course of the String Trio (1982). Longer lines and delicate harmonics mediate the volatility, making the piece an expressive study in contrast.

What this disc embodies, then, is a new approach to the performance of modernist music. In the past, the “strangeness” or “otherness” of the music was emphasized in performance, to the detriment of the traditional musical values given equal status here. The dialogue between the past and the present was/is an integral part of the modernist movement.

These performers make a strong case for Davidovsky’s music, as does Bridge, with its excellent sound. That is all any composer can ask for, and the least they should be able to expect.

*Arnold Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire (1912) is scored for flute, clarinet, violin, cello, and piano, in addition to voice. This combination became semi-standard (often including percussion) in the 20th century, because of the wide range of timbres available with a small number of players.


Sax, but no violins

I've added saxophonist Brian Sacawa's new 'blog to the 'blogroll. Give him a read. Or a reed.



A number of composers around the 'blogosphere are responding to Lawrence Dillon's question: What pieces from the 70s, 80s, 90s and 00s have changed the way composers think about composing?

I don't know what pieces may or may not have changed the way composers composed, but I do have some idea for myself of the pieces that changed how I heard/studied/experienced/composed/performed music. The pieces came to mind based on when I heard/performed/studied them, rather than when they were written. Here then are lists from the '60s and '70s (as Rodney Lister suggests, it is somewhat harder to think of these kinds of pieces from the '80s and '90s).


Ligeti: Atmospheres, Lux Aeterna


Stockhausen: Hymnen, Stimmung
Feldman: False Relationships and the Extended Ending, The viola in my life, Rothko Chapel
Ligeti: Volumina
Carter: Concerto for Orchestra, String Quartet 3
Lutoslawski: Livre pour orchestre, String Quartet
Cage: 4'33"
Satie: Pages mystique
Ives: Symphony 4
Beethoven: Quartet in B-flat, Op. 130
Webern: Sechs Stucke, Op.6
Berg: Wozzeck
Riley: In C
Reich: Clapping Music, Drumming, Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices, and Organ
Berio: Sinfonia, Sequenza V

O Brother

I wrote my Six Landscapes for solo clarinet after Wallace Stevens as a belated NNth birthday present for my brother, Les Hicken, Director of Bands at Furman University. Les premiered the pieces last week at a faculty chamber music concert. He did a wonderful job, giving a sensitive and expressive performance of pieces that were “kicking [his] butt” earlier in the week.

This kind of music isn’t really his thing: He’s a late romantic early modernist kind of musician. But the pieces were inspired in part by a very good performance he gave of the Stravinsky Three Pieces back in the mid 70s. What stayed with me from that performance was his control of dynamics and ability to shade timbre.

We view quite a few musical issues differently, though our taste overlaps a lot. Whenever we are able to get together we have wonderful listening/discussion sessions. At any rate, I wanted to take this opportunity to say how proud I am to be his younger brother.