February 2011

I caught the first half of an all-John Cage concert last weekend, which was part of this year’s Avant Music Festival.  Appropriately, the night started off with the audience participating in the chance determination of the lighting designs to be used during Cage’s Song Books, via the use of coin-tossing and consultation of the I Ching.

First on the program were two early piano works from 1948, performed by Vicky Chow with delicate restraint and a velvety touch (Dream is the first clip in the video above; a clip of In a Landscape follows at 0:47).   Next on the program was a performance of Song Books by contemporary vocal ensemble Ekmeles, which occurred simultaneously with a performance of Music for Piano 4-19 (played by Vicky), and Indeterminacy, read by Randy Gibson.  While Randy read out various—often humorous—anecdotes and stories written by Cage, Vicky plucked and meditated over the piano, and the three singers from Ekmeles (Christie Finn, Jeffrey Gavett and Megan Schubert) sung short bursts of song and performed other actions, like writing a letter, or drinking a shot of whiskey with a microphone at throat to amplify the gulping sound (clips of the performance begin at 1:28 in the video).

Perhaps just as interesting as the panoply of activity happening onstage were the inadvertent moments when all the performances seemed to sync up: Vicky would pluck a note just as Megan would begin to sing on the same note; Randy would pause mid-sentence and Christie would sing something that seemed to complete his thought.  Each of the singers took on a different persona for the duration of the piece, with Jeff taking on perhaps the most humorous persona, performing the different vocal affects indicated by Cage with bravado, and coming onstage towards the end of the performance with one skate on.  All in all, the performance came off as a surprisingly engaging bit of music theater (so to speak).

You can hear Ekmeles in a performance of Chris Cerrone’s opera Invisible Cities on May 13th and 14th at the Italian Academy at Columbia University.

Having never heard my friend Amelia perform live before, I was excited to hear Trio KAVAK play, as part of the Ear Heart Music series, last Thursday at The Tank.  This was also my first time experiencing the combination of flute, viola, and harp, and I was struck by how smoothly those timbres fit together.  Trio KAVAK played beautifully, executing all manner of extended techniques and tricky stratospheric unison-playing with poise.  The concert opened with Toru Takemitsu’s colorfully diffuse “And then I knew ’twas wind” [you can hear clips from the concert in the video above].  Next came the US premiere of Simon Holt’s reconditely dramatic The other side of silence [1:28 in the video].  Throughout its three movements, the registral extremes of the instruments were explored, and gradually the trio became a duo (viola and harp), and finally a vigorous solo (viola).  During the intermission, three of the night’s composers took the stage for a brief discussion, where Simon explained, “If the listener is with you, you can do almost anything.  You don’t always have to throw information at them.”

Next came “Question,” by Trio KAVAK’s own Victor Lowrie [3:23 in the video], a rhythmic piece in which Victor strummed his viola like a guitar, while Amelia Lukas (flute) and Kathryn Andrews (harp) played ethereal melodic fragments that breezed in and out of the minimalist viola texture.   Last on the program was Andrew McKenna Lee’s “the dark out of nighttime” [4:30 in the video], whose title comes from a Bob Dylan song.  Andrew joined the trio on guitar to create a kaleidoscopic soundscape.

See a full-length video of the first movement of the Simon Holt piece here.

Say hello to the bright young artists from Morningside Opera, who presented their fourth production last weekend at the Ailey Citigroup Theater in Manhattan.  A pasticcio of Handel arias, Atra, ossia, l’amore ricordato (Atra, or, the Remembered Love) was collaboratively put together by the members of MO, resulting in a plot that centers around a love-triangle: Atra and her ex-girlfriend, Amelia, reconnect in the wake of Amelia’s marriage to her new girlfriend, T., while Atra’s husband, Rocco, dryly watches the drama unfold between the three women (watch a short clip of the opera here).

Combining powerful voices with cogent acting, the quartet of singers brought off the  plot seamlessly, backed by a lively orchestra that made effective use of period instruments like the theorbo and violone.  Though the story itself is not a happy one—Atra lures Amelia away from her new wife only to desert her after a one-night stand—the production had its humorous moments, as in the live projection of a Gmail message being written (and rewritten) by Amelia, asking Atra to speak at her wedding.  Ultimately, Atra taps into the heart of relationship trauma, using songs of joyous infatuation and stormy jealousy written by Baroque drama king G.F. Handel, and even giving visual representation of the inner turmoil of the characters with the use of dancers dressed in black.

Last Wednesday night found me out in the cold, off to see Vicky Chow perform </un> prepared piano at The Stone.  When I walked in at around 9:45pm, Vicky and Vivian Fung (one of the composers) were performing surgery on the piano to get it prepared for Vivian’s piece.  The room filled up over the next fifteen minutes, eventually holding an impressive crowd considering the time and temperature.  I notice as I take a look at the program that three of the four pieces that Vicky will perform were written within the last five years (the “older” piece, by Lachenmann, was written in 1980).

After much careful preparation of the piano, Vicky played the first movement of Glimpses by Fung, called “Kotekan” (which means “interlocking parts”), a percussive piece with gamelan overtones—most likely arising from Fung’s involvement with Gamelan Dharma Swara—that had Vicky playing the roles of percussionist and melody-maker.  [Click on the video above to hear clips from the concert; the use of headphones to catch the finer details is advised.]  The application of silly putty to the piano’s strings was used to simulate the dampened sound of falling snow in the atmospheric second movement, and the third movement, “Chant,” featured a highly effective technique that created a broad sound like a lion’s roar (see the video to watch Vicky pulling a highly rosined string through the piano).

Ein Kinderspiel by Helmut Lachenmann was next, and, true to its title, featured all the playful hammering of a child sitting down at the instrument for the first time.  Virtuosic at times despite the simplistic theme of the piece, Vicky played each movement with carefree ease and ferocity.  Watch her right foot to catch Lachenmann’s use of the damper pedal to create washes of sympathetic vibrations inside the body of the piano.

The next piece, Vick(i/y), was written by Andy Akiho for Vicky in 2008, when she first performed it at The Stone and was handed the last page of the score an hour before the performance.  Happy to have the entire score well in advance this time around, Vicky played her piece with obvious appreciation for the passionate nature of the music.  Like the Fung piece, Akiho’s piece had Vicky playing two roles: pianist and percussionist.  The percussive, rhythmic landscape was interspersed with striking piano declamations, and the interaction between the two was reminiscent of mellow electronica.

Ryan Anthony Francis‘ virtuosic 4 Etudes was last on the program, and Vicky’s formidable skill as a keyboardist was put on full display, particularly in the last etude, “Loop,” during which her hands flew over the keyboard with fluid precision and power.  A recording of Francis’ piano music, performed by Vicky, is forthcoming on the Tzadik label.