Each year I realize yet again how impossible it is to choose among the highlights, let alone write about them with any intelligence. This year is likely to be the last time I make the attempt. Every musical experience is illuminating, above all live performances, but also, particularly with ongoing advances in camerawork and technology, watching and listening online. I’m grateful, too, for the opportunity to be part of communities who love classical music of all stripes and who are generous in sharing their own responses and knowledge. I’ve learned a great deal from so many, and I only hope I’ve been able to give something of value back.
As a valedictory lap, I offer musical experiences that held particular significance for me this year.
Contemporaneous, which I count myself extraordinarily lucky to have discovered shortly after its founding (and in close enough geographic proximity to follow “live”), marked its fifth anniversary this year. I attended the opening celebratory concert and wrote at the time:
The event, the first in a three-concert series, was superbly organized and celebratory in every sense. Speaking as someone who has followed this ensemble from almost the beginning of its life at Bard, this event had a very special meaning that’s almost impossible for me to convey in words. I remember, for example, two fellows at a concert I attended recalling how, in the early days, David Bloom and Dylan Mattingly had gone through the dorms at Bard, knocking on doors to invite classmates to attend. I also remember watching David Bloom emerge as the ensemble’s full-time conductor. The group created this ensemble on their own to play the music they cared about most and wanted us to hear. A large ensemble like this is devilishly hard to maintain—yet here it is, five years on, and going strong.
Curt Barnes’s insightful report on the concert is here.
Another aspect of this musical year I particularly savored was the opportunity to follow the paths current and former musicians and composers associated with Contemporaneous have pursued. Contemporaneous has not only introduced me to the work of a myriad of interesting 21st C composers and musicians, but has also proved to be a tree with many branches, in some cases (to stretch this metaphor irretrievably) leading to whole forests of “new music” trees.
Lucy Dhegrae’s Resonant Bodies Festival is one supremely powerful example of what I mean. For the first time since its inception three years ago, I was lucky enough to attend two concerts in this much-lauded festival. Lucy’s considerable musical talent, generosity of spirit, and formidable organizational and community-building acumen are a wonder to witness. This year, the first concert of the Festival was nothing short of historic, with three storied sopranos—Tony Arnold, Dawn Upshaw, and Lucy Shelton—sharing the stage. I wrote at the time:
Any one of the formidably talented divas—Tony Arnold, Lucy Shelton, and Dawn Upshaw—could easily have carried the entire night. Each a vivid proof of Lucy Dhegrae’s words that “no two sopranos are alike,” together they offered us a dazzling kaleidoscope of musical worlds. Their performances embodied oh, so gloriously, what Dhegrae, the Festival’s director and founder, so brilliantly envisioned three years ago: an engaged and engaging community of singers, musicians, and composers whose joy in music-making and generosity of spirit is palpable in every note.
How often does a single program include pieces by eighteen composers, most of which were written in the 21st century, including 6 world premieres and 2 NY premieres? (The granddaddy for the night was Anton Webern, whom Tony Arnold described as “one of the most important progenitors of what I like to call our ‘new-music ecosystem.’”)
How often does a program display such an extraordinary diversity of musical imagination and expression, inspired by and building on texts from Goethe to John Cage’s mesostics, from Shakespeare to Wendell Berry, from Baudelaire to e.e. cummings?
How often does a program CLOSE on a world premiere (Eric Nathan’s delightful “Canon for Three”)?
And how often, at the close of the concert, does every living composer in attendance (so many I lost count) join the singers and musicians to thundering applause and a standing ovation from a full and ecstatic house?
In addition to my first chance to hear music by Eric Nathan live, an especially significant moment for me was the chance to hear live, for a second time, Shawn Jaeger’s The Cold Pane, elegant, affecting settings of five Wendell Berry poems. This time, Dawn Upshaw, for whom the work was written, sang, accompanied by members of Contemporaneous. The first time, the soprano was Lucy Dhegrae. I count these two performances among my most precious musical memories.
Thanks, also, to Kyle Gann for a wonderful afternoon and evening that included his talk and a demonstration of Conlon Nancarrow’s pieces for player piano at the Whitney Museum of American Art, followed by dinner and vibrant conversation with, in Kyle’s inimitable words, “Liturgy guitarist Bernard Gann, his singer-girlfriend Heidi Farrell, my wife Nancy Cook, musicologist and Cage scholar Sara Haefeli, and one of those Pulitzer-Prize-type composers, John Luther Adams.” I was touched and honored that Kyle thought to include me in this sparkling company.
My ongoing thanks to musical correspondents and friends David Nice, Barney Sherman at IPR, and Brian Long, Curt Barnes, Bert Carter, Elizabeth Burgess Drivas, and others at GCAS—with special thanks to Brian and Curt for their willingness to provide terrific guest posts here—and, last not least, to all those who’ve been willing to come to Prufrock’s Dilemma from time to time and enter into whatever wacky thing I’ve got going on.
Postscript 1: Since writing this post, I’ve heard in live performance a third new work by Lembit Beecher, a composer I’ve been following for some time. Cantori New York, an a cappella ensemble, presented Beecher’s The New Amorous World as part of a program of works by three contemporary composers. As I reported at GCAS and elsewhere at the time:
Beecher was present and offered an introduction to his work so charming and funny that it set my already strong expectations for this piece yet higher. Textually, it seemed to me he had the biggest challenge of the night. While the other works used texts that seemed readily to lend themselves to musical settings, Beecher, inspired by his father’s (Jonathan Beecher’s) 600 page biography of Fourier, set philosophical prose, like this:
“The calculus of Harmony is a mathematical theory of the sixteen social orders, only three are found on our globe: savagery, barbarism and civilization. Soon they will come to an end, and all the nations of the earth will enter Simple Harmony. We will see the establishment of perpetual peace, universal unity and the liberty of women.”
Despite this extraordinary challenge (and while I acknowledge that I’m not an entirely objective listener in this case—I’ve been impressed by Beecher’s music and have been following his work for a while), Beecher successfully met and exceeded every challenge he set himself and offered, for me, the most compelling listen of the night. He has further convinced me of what I’d already witnessed on other occasions: he is a highly accomplished musical story-teller with a deep understanding of how to write for the voice, evidenced here by both the broad range of musical textures he drew from the ensemble—in every case evocative of the character of the text—and by Cantori’s performance of this piece, which seemed to me the strongest of the night. In an elegant touch, the piece incorporated two French horns and harp, which played two interludes and occasionally punctuated and echoed the sung text.
Happy holidays to all. I look forward to reconnecting in the New Year, if not before. Meanwhile, below is a listening list providing a small sample of music from Contemporaneous, the Resonant Bodies Festival . . . and beyond.
Listening List: Contemporaneous and Beyond
Contemporaneous Self-Portrait (5th Year Anniversary Concert)
Resonant Bodies Festival
Tony Arnold sings In the Forest of Clocks, from The Yellow Moon of Andalusia (2014), by George Crumb
. . . And Beyond
Bellehouse performs Breakaway Town, by Jess T. Clinton
Bellehouse’s debut album is available here.
Tigue’s debut album is available here.
Tigue performs Robert Honstein’s An Index of Possibility.
Contemporaneous members David Nagy – bassoon, Evan Honse – trumpet, Daniel Linden – trombone, and Patrick Swoboda – double bass perform in the ensemble Exceptet, which was “founded around the unique instrumentation of Igor Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du Soldat.” Listen to Exceptet perform Protosaurus, by Brian Petuch, here.
And that’s only the beginning. The roster of core Contemporaneous musicians (some of whom, including Dylan Mattingly and Vicente Alexim, are also composers) may be found here. Follow the path of any one of them, and I think you’ll be amazed where it leads.
Postscript 2: Since writing the first postscript to this post, David Nice presented on BBC Radio 3’s CD Review program a commentary, with musical examples, of the offerings on two boxed sets (DG and Sony) of Stravinsky works (86 CDs in all). He’s come up with a dazzling compendium of Stravinsky works and performances to savor. For anyone who has any interest in Stravinsky at all, this is a must listen. It’s available for about a month and may be found at this link, starting at about 1:48:55. Here (with the caveat that I hope I’ve spotted the correct performances on YouTube) are two excerpts from the recordings David highlighted:
Marche Royale, from L’Histoire du Soldat (Markevitch Ensemble/Maurice André on trumpet)
I go, I go to him, from The Rake’s Progress (Gardiner/LSO/Deborah York (soprano)
Credits: The quotations may be found at the sources linked in the text. The image at the head of the post may be found on the Contemporaneous website.