This year, I’m even more relieved than last year that I’m not a professional critic assigned to assemble a “top ten” music list for 2013. Instead, here is a year-end offering of highlights from my personal musical journey throughout the year.
I also want to recognize the composer and musicians who participated in This Life in Music profiles during 2013: Maxwell J McKee, Sabrina Tabby, Dávid Adam Nagy, Lucy Dhegrae, and Amy Garapic, as well as composer Dylan Mattingly, for his guest post on his new work, The Bakkhai (a report on the premiere of The Bakkhai is included in this post). It was a pleasure and privilege to present each of them on Prufrock’s Dilemma. Thanks to all!
Recordings: This is a list, in alphabetical order, of a Prufrock’s Dozen of recorded music I’ve played repeatedly, with enjoyment, during the year.
- Adams, John: Violin Concerto (Chloë Hanslip, violin, see endnote)
- Bach, Johann Sebastian: Goldberg Variations (Jeremy Denk, piano)
- Beethoven, Ludwig van: Piano Sonatas Vol. 1 (Jonathan Biss, piano)
- Britten, Benjamin: Serenade for Tenor, Horn & Strings (Robert Tear, tenor; Dale Clevenger, horn)
- Gubaidulina, Sofia: Offertorium (Gidon Kremer, violin)
- Janáček, Leoš: A Recollection (András Schiff, piano)
- Prokofiev, Serge: Piano Sonatas 6, 7, 8 (two versions: Sviatoslav Richter, Denis Kozhukhin)
- Schnittke, Alfred: Viola Concerto (Yuri Bashmet, viola)
- Schumann, Robert; Wolf, Hugo: Liederkreis and Ausgewahlte Lieder (Anne Schwanewilms)
- Shostakovich, Dmitri: First Symphony
- Shostakovich, Dmitri: Sixth Symphony (The Fourth Symphony is omitted here only because it was on last year’s list, and I’m not including later symphonies on which I haven’t written posts.)
- Tchaikovsky, Pyotr: The Sleeping Beauty (Neeme Järvi/James Ehnes/Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra)
- Turnage, Mark-Anthony: Speranza (Håkan Hardenberger, trumpet) & From the Wreckage
Very Special Mention: Sarah Cahill is a wonderful pianist and an engaging and thoughtful advocate of new music. Cahill has a new CD out featuring the first set of works Cahill commissioned in the wake of the Iraq war. The CD’s title, A Sweeter Music, is taken from the words of Martin Luther King, Jr.: “We must see that peace represents a sweeter music, a cosmic melody, that is far superior to the discords of war.” A review of the CD may be found here, and I’m pleased to report that one of my very favorite pieces on the CD, Terry Riley’s “Be Kind to One Another,” has been selected as one of NPR Music’s 100 Favorite Songs of 2013.
Cahill’s Sunday radio program, “Revolutions Per Minute,” “speaks to the musical revolutions of Beethoven, Stravinsky, and John Cage, among others, and evokes the 33 rpms many of us treasure, whether we’re sentimentalists or audiophiles.” Just as in her previous program, Cahill features the music of “then and now,” juxtaposing the likes of Hildegard von Bingen with Meredith Monk or Josquin des Pres with Frederic Rzewski. The program, which also includes interviews with composers and musicians and previews of Bay Area concerts, is available live-stream on KALW Radio here.
Live Concerts (in chronological order)
I’ve realized, over time, that, for me, an important element of a great concert experience is engagement from everyone participating, not only the performers, but audience members, too. At large concert halls in New York City, while I’ve heard some extraordinary music, marvelously performed and conducted, it has too often been marred by audience members who didn’t seem to want to be there, flipping through their programs, whispering to their seatmates, zipping and unzipping their pocketbooks, and offering a chorus of nervous coughing that rose in a crescendo between every movement.
This doesn’t happen in concerts where audience members are fully present and engaged. The excitement and focused attention are palpable, and it makes all the difference. This goes for every single Contemporaneous concert I’ve attended. For the same reason, Lembit Beecher’s Esto-Ugric Project concert, featuring the fine Aizuri Quartet, was a complete delight. Magic can happen in the big halls, too. As one example, in the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra/Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir concert I mention below, the rapport conductor Neeme Järvi fostered among performers and audience members made for a wonderful, celebratory night.
Here is my “short list” of great concert experiences this year:
British Music Since World War II (Juilliard Orchestra; Mark Wigglesworth, conductor; Trevor Nuckols, French horn soloist)
MICHAEL TIPPETT Ritual Dances from The Midsummer Marriage (1947/1952)
OLIVER KNUSSEN Horn Concerto (1994)
MARK-ANTHONY TURNAGE Ceres (2005)
BENJAMIN BRITTEN Sinfonia da Requiem, Op. 20 (1940)
The Juilliard Orchestra, under Wigglesworth’s sterling hand, turned in an inspired performance. Bruce Hodges captured the magic in his review.
It’s hard to single out any one Contemporaneous concert, as each is a jubilant occasion in its own right. Don’t Even introduced me to three, count ‘em three, composers, all of whom I’ve had on my “watch” list ever since: Sean Friar, Andrew Norman, and Jeremy Podgursky. There Is Another Sky featured sketches from George Tsontakis’s work-in-formation Melville Pilot, John Halle’s twist-up of Chubby Checker’s The Twist, and two terrific world premieres, one each from co-artistic directors David Bloom (Beacon) and Dylan Mattingly (There Is Another Sky). Breathe featured a world premiere by Albert Behar (The Beauty in Breathing), a dazzling performance of Mattingly’s Atlas (of Somewhere on the Way to Howland Island), and my long hoped for first chance to hear a piece by Samuel Carl Adams, in this case the elegant twenty-four strings. Sam Reising’s review of the Breathe concert may be found on I Care If You Listen here. (The last Contemporaneous concert I attended in 2013, Dylan Mattingly’s The Bakkhai, is noted separately below.)
I have no basis for comparison, but can report that I found this production of Parsifal thrilling. The music was ravishingly played and sung. While there is room for difference of opinion on the production, the general view among those of us comparing notes was that it was thoughtfully done, going for elegance and understatement rather than Broadway razzle-dazzle. For me, the use of choreography throughout was particularly striking (though I would rather the singers had not been compelled to walk in red-dyed water throughout Act II).
On December 14, 2013, BBC Radio 3’s Building A Library (CD Review) program will air David Nice’s review of recordings of Richard Wagner’s Parsifal. To prepare the program, David listened to and assessed two dozen Parsifal recordings. I’m eager to hear the results and thought you might be, too. The link to the broadcast is here, and I believe will remain available to listen online for 7 days.
John Adams’s The Gospel According to the Other Mary
The opportunity to hear Gustavo Dudamel and the LA Philharmonic perform the New York premiere of Adams’s The Gospel According to the Other Mary live was among the highest of many high points during this concert year. I wrote about it here. From the post: In The Gospel According to the Other Mary, Adams does more than embrace the beautiful and make it new, though that alone would have been enough. He has grasped the nettle of musical traditions that once threatened his ability to find his authentic voice, and he has prevailed. In The Gospel According to the Other Mary, he not only absorbs their lessons, but transforms them to create a work of transcendent power.
It wasn’t perfect, but it was my first Ring. From what I wrote at the time: Götterdämmerung! It’s impossible to think of it on its own, for by this time, The Ring has become a total immersion experience, and everything has built to this point. Can there possibly be anything else like it in all of music? It’s hard to imagine what it would be. As a newcomer, I’m carried off by the music, the building up of the leitmotifs, the brilliant entwining of music and story. While we wished Lepage had realized that the production should serve the music and its performance, and not the other way round, in the end, it didn’t matter, either to those of us who were going for the first time or the two veterans. We burst out onto the plaza at Lincoln Center exhilarated, singing what we could (not well, but enthusiastically) of bits from the final scenes.
I loved these in a way it’s not possible to love anything else.
Dávid Adam Nagy Senior Recital. Not only did bassoonist Dávid Adam Nagy and friends put in a wonderful performance at Nagy’s Senior Recital, but the program that Nagy conceived and organized was inventive, nicely paced, and showed us once again the full glory of the bassoon.
Maxwell J McKee Senior Recital. For Mother’s Day, pianist and composer Maxwell J McKee gave his mother, and all of us there, a gift of music to remember. McKee on piano, the ensemble, and David Bloom conducting, performed not only skillfully, but with all their hearts and all their hopes. It doesn’t get better than that.
Amy Garapic Fellowship Recital. Percussionist Amy Garapic’s Fellowship Recital was the culmination of a residency at Bard that added several jewels to Garapic’s already lustrous crown. Garapic’s program was insightfully chosen to exhibit not only her percussionist prowess but also the tremendous variety of 20th and 21st century music for percussion.
John Adams conducts John Adams (City Noir) in Washington, DC
Another great concert experience this year was visiting the Kennedy Center and sitting behind the stage as John Adams conducted the National Symphony Orchestra in his own City Noir. From there, I had a bird’s eye view of the percussion, brass, and woodwinds, including the phenomenal Timothy McAllister on sax. (Adams has since written a Saxophone Concerto for McAllister, premiered in Sydney, Australia, and slated to come out on a CD by the St. Louis Symphony in 2014.) This was also the first time I heard the wonderful pianist Jeremy Denk live, performing the Ravel Piano Concerto in G. I wrote about the concert here.
Lembit Beecher’s Esto-Ugric Project Concert
This concert was a welcoming, joyful musical experience in every way. I wrote about it, and you can hear Beecher’s String Quartet, These Memories May Be True, here. The concert, held at the New York Estonian House, was part of Lembit Beecher’s Esto-Ugric Project, a concert and commissioning project based on music inspired by Estonian and Hungarian folk songs. Beecher welcomed us to the evening with charm and wit, and his introduction set the tone for the night. Though the concert took place several weeks ago, its impact lingers on. I feel privileged to have been able to take part in the community of music created among the composers, performers, and listeners who were there.
Shostakovich Fourth and Fifteenth Symphonies (London Symphony Orchestra; Bernard Haitink, conductor)
Seeing and hearing Haitink conduct and the LSO perform Shostakovich’s Fourth and Fifteenth Symphonies was revelatory. Haitink and the LSO clearly care about and understand these symphonies deeply, and it showed. Some audience members found the Fourth Symphony (performed in the first of two concerts), particularly disconcerting, if measured by the cough-o-meter readings throughout. Thankfully, it seemed those who might have been disconcerted by the Fifteenth Symphony left the second concert early. We who remained were enthralled. At the end, that sublime morendo, Haitink did not immediately drop his hand. The audience heeded him, and there was silence, precious silence, before the applause. Zachary Woolfe’s review in the New York Times may be found here.
New York Philharmonic (Esa-Pekka Salonen, conductor; Leila Josefowicz, violin)
Leila Josefowicz not only makes remarkable music, but her physicality is stunning. She doesn’t merely play, but enacts the music with every fiber of her being. Salonen’s Violin Concerto is a superb piece and pure magic in Josefowicz’s hands. Salonen as a conductor drew out the full expressiveness and range of every piece on the program. George Grella’s excellent review of the concert may be found here.
White Light Festival (Estonian National Symphony Orchestra and Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir; Neeme Järvi, conductor)
VELJO TORMIS: Overture No. 2
ARVO PÄRT: In principio (New York premiere); Da pacem Domine
MOZART: Ave verum corpus
SIBELIUS: Symphony No. 5
There could not have been a better way to spend a Sunday afternoon than this. The program was gorgeous, the performance splendid, and the audience SO happy to be there. Järvi is not only a great conductor, but clearly a delightful person, too. George Grella captured the concert beautifully here.
Program of Early Shostakovich Works (Juilliard Orchestra; Vladimir Jurowski, conductor)
SHOSTAKOVICH The New Babylon (1929)
SHOSTAKOVICH Hypothetically Murdered Orchestral Suite, Op. 31a (1926)
SHOSTAKOVICH Symphony No. 1 in F Minor, Op. 10 (1924-25)
Jurowski and the Juilliard Orchestra turned in a spectacular performance of Shostakovich’s brilliant First Symphony and two rarities: selections from his film score for New Babylon and the orchestral suite from Hypothetically Murdered, a “light-music’ entertainment. David Nice wrote last year of Vladimir Jurowski, “quite apart from the immaculate preparation and the most elegant conducting style in the business, Jurowski programmes with an imagination matched by none of London’s other principal conductors.” Bruce Hodges tweeted that the Juilliard Orchestra, under Jurowski’s superb direction, “played ferociously.” I agree. Shostakovich was in the room that night, vibrantly and mischievously and exuberantly alive.
Dylan Mattingly’s The Bakkhai (Contemporaneous; David Bloom, conductor)
Classics scholars study ancient Greek tragedy for years and years, but, except for the rhythms of the text, its music is lost. All scholars have to go by is the text—not insubstantial, but still a fragment of what had been a larger whole that once included music and dance. Dylan Mattingly charged himself, in undertaking his composition The Bakkhai, to understand ancient Greek texts in the original, their historical and cultural context, what ancient Greek music might have sounded like, and what contributed to that sound. As one example, Helene Foley (a Professor of Classics at Barnard College who has put on many performances of ancient Greek tragedies) noted how well Mattingly’s music corresponded not only to the rhythms, but also to the pitch accents, of the original Greek text.
The resulting work, of course, could have been confined to a finely wrought academic exercise. How, for one, would Mattingly conjure up the terrifying chorus in which the bakkhai murdered Pentheus by ripping him apart? How does a kind and decent person get his imagination around that? Mattingly approached the issue by stripping the chorus of any pitch: drums beat with increasing savagery, their rhythms seeming to collide, and from the chorus text issued in sinister whispers, absent of song. With each chorus, Mattingly, in an act of transcendent imagination, gave us not a mechanical reconstruction (which alone would have been a feat), but a musical summoning of that ancient world into the present, a wholly contemporary work that built an enthralling, evocative—and sometimes terrifying—musical bridge from the present to that ancient past.
The challenges not only Mattingly, but also the performers of Contemporaneous, faced to arrive at the moment of performance were incalculable. Western ears are attuned to the sounds of the twelve equal-tempered notes of the piano, and conventional training of singers and performers follows suit. The singers, in particular, had to “unlearn” standard Western pitches enough not only to hear the different, broader range of pitches of just intonation, but also to be able to sing them, including in harmonies that sometimes existed entirely between two consecutive notes in a standard Western scale. To achieve a performance with which they might be satisfied, Contemporaneous conducted more than twenty-four hours of rehearsal for this 30-minute piece, including coaching from a Bard professor in the tones of just intonation. Not only that, but the singers were required to master the text in ancient Greek. (They succeeded: Professor Foley praised their pronunciation of the text.) The remainder of the musicians had plenty on their plates, too, including mastering The Bakkhai’s tricky rhythms.
On Tuesday, December 10, 2013, the members of Contemporaneous turned in a superb performance of Mattingly’s spellbinding work. Euripides would have been proud.
Photographs of Contemporaneous’s world premiere performance of Dylan Mattingly’s The Bakkhai, including the program and roster of performers, are included in the slideshow below.
Postscript: I will be offline more than on for the remainder of the year. I look forward to catching up with you in the New Year, if not before.
For a playlist on Spotify, click here. (This is a sampling of the works listed; the recording shown in the post was not available on Spotify in every case. Alternative recordings of the works have been selected, where possible.)
Sarah Cahill on The Music of Frederic Rzewski
Benjamin Britten, Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings
Jeremy Denk on the Goldberg Variations (Aria)
Alfred Schnittke, Viola Concerto
Endnote: Hanslip is excellent, though my first choice would have been the recording with Leila Josefowicz as violinist, had a new CD been available at a plausible price.
Credits: The quotation from Martin Luther King, Jr. is from his 1964 Nobel lecture. The quotation from David Nice may be found here.