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)
Tamzin Elliott: Gloria Nightwatch and The Ghost (2015; Lucy Dhegrae, vocalist)
Vicente Alexim: Impulses (2015)
Resonant Bodies Festival
Tony Arnold sings Lotófagos (2006), by Beat Furrer (b. 1954)
Tony Arnold sings In the Forest of Clocks, from The Yellow Moon of Andalusia (2014), by George Crumb
From night 3, Kate Soper, Erin Lesser, and other members of the Wet Ink Ensemble in an excerpt from Soper’s Only the Words Themselves Mean What They Say (text by Lydia Davis)
For more about these concert, Bruce Hodges’s perspicacious reviews may be found here and here.
. . . And Beyond
Bellehouse (Contemporaneous violist Sarah Elizabeth Haines with Jess Taylor Clinton / vocals, guitar, Mackenzie Shivers / vocals, bodhrán, keys, Ryan Gross / banjo, vocals, Yuka Tadano / bass)
Bellehouse performs Breakaway Town, by Jess T. Clinton
Bellehouse’s debut album is available here.
Tigue (Contemporaneous percussionists Amy Garapic and Matt Evans, with percussionist Carson Moody)
Tigue’s debut album is available here.
Tigue performs Robert Honstein’s An Index of Possibility.
Contemporaneous also appears on Yotam Haber’s debut album Torus.
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.
Bonus Track: Scene III from Lembit Beecher’s chamber opera, I Have No Stories to Tell You
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.
I really love browsing through all of this, Sue. I know I haven’t been as vocal lately but I always enjoy your journey through music. Thanks for sharing it with all of us.
T.: It’s always nice to her from you! Even when I don’t, I do, because I have those lovely cards you made on my bookshelf. Have a happy holiday season and a wonderful new year!
Ah, I have more cards to give to you actually! Just wary at the moment that they might get lost in the mail, with the season and all. I might opt to send them next year instead. Hope that’s okay. Have a wonderful holidays, too, my dear friend!
T.: you are wise about the mails, and I can’t think of anything better as a start to the New Year! Happy holidays to you!
An interesting post, that There’s lots there too I want to listen to – I’ll be popping back! Reading it, it strikes me that my musical year has been the music I’ve ‘played at playing’ myself. (It strikes me as I write that perhaps I’ve been enjoying music through the piano the way people did before the days of radio and recording). I ought to get out to concerts more and allow myself the luxury of listening to someone else. For me it’s been Debussy (his 1st Arabesque and bits of his Petite Suite for piano four hands),Takemitsu, John Adams (China Gates), Alan Rawsthorne. A strange combination, I know.Then there’s the guitar – John Dowland, there. Most of my listening,such as it was, was the random voyage of discovery that is late night Radio 3
sackerson: I’m sorry I don’t play an instrument anymore (I played piano, though not to any degree of proficiency). I love your playlist for piano (though I don’t know Rawsthorne–must look him up). I don’t know any piano music by Takemitsu, but I would think it would be particularly nice, and nice to play. Late night Radio 3 is indeed a great “random voyage of discovery,” which we often explore in our house, as well. Happy holidays to you, and to a great new year!
And the same to you! Re Rawsthorne (I should mention I wasn’t even trying to play this!) https://youtu.be/EF45zmTwsC8
You’ve had a rich and varied year. Even though much of what you celebrate here isn’t music I naturally gravitate toward, I’ve enjoyed sampling it, and finding an occasional gem. Beyond that, there has been much of interest about composers, and reminders of music that I have liked in the past, but have neglected.
Of course, the highlight of your blog year for me was your series of collages, and the quirky, mysterious poems of John Ashbery. I’m looking forward to whatever you bring us in the New Year.
(I would have put an exclamation mark at the end of that sentence, but one of my New Year’s resolutions is to stop, already, with the ! — not to mention the !!! and the …)
shoreacres: !!!!! (Just had to do that.) I certainly enjoyed the collage-making. I’ve been trying to continue on, but now from the “blank page,” rather than in response to an Ashbery (or other) poem, and that is really hard. But fun, too, though I have a way to go in mastering use of adhesive, let alone the artistic side. But then, it’s the journey, isn’t it? And speaking of journeys, I’m constantly amazed at the talent and creativity of each of the musicians and composers I celebrate here and can’t wait to see what the coming year will bring. Have a happy holiday, and here’s to great new explorations in the New Year. (I almost put in a ! . . . but stopped just in time.)
Was postponing comment until I’d had a chance to listen to/watch the riches you’d posted here. That will have to wait for a bit, though I promise. But – I’ve probably said it before – those fine young Contemporaneous musicians are as blessed to have you as their champion as you are to have them. Hope we see them across the pond some time soon.
David: I hope you do, too. I know you’d enjoy getting to know them as individuals, also, as I’ve been lucky enough to do in many cases. Do have a wonderful holiday season, and may there be lots of great things ahead for you and yours in the New Year. (Speaking of which, I see you’ll have a big Stravinsky piece in the January issue of BBC Music Magazine–I am really looking forward to that.)
Among people I know, Susan, you’re the doyenne (Dean of Attendance, we can entitle you) when it comes to live performances of classical music. A happy and productive 2016 to you.
Steve: Dean of Attendance is quite the title. From my perch up here in the Hudson Valley, I feel I miss about 90% of what I’d like to attend, in actual fact. (I probably average about 2 live concerts a month, if that.) Have a terrific holiday season, and best wishes for the New Year.
What a delight to discover this website while I was looking for Tomas Transtromer’s poems about music! It seems to me to offer the very best that blogging can, and when I have finished this comment I will go back and read some more of your posts in detail. I was drawn back to Transtromer recently, because I recalled an account of his learning to play the piano left-handed after he suffered a stroke. I have broken my left wrist and am experimenting with playing one-handed piano, starting with a Brahms Intermezzo I was learning when I had my accident. It’s a most interesting experience.
Dorothy: And what a delight for me that you discovered it! Good for you on the one-handed piano, though I am also sending good thoughts for a speedy recovery. Enjoy Transtromer, and best wishes for the holidays!
Hi Susan – what a brilliant post … and with lovely comments adding to the pieces you’ve mentioned. I will definitely be back to listen – my musical abilities are almost incognito … but your abilities are here for me to tap into … and then Radio 3 – which I must change to listen to more often …
Have a very peaceful and happy Christmas and seasonal times – then into the New Year with lots of happy thoughts for 2016 … cheers Hilary
Hilary: So pleased you enjoyed the post. I love your term “incognito” in this context. What I would suggest, if you want to try something out, is to first go to Bellehouse’s “Breakaway Town.” Here’s how Bellehouse describes itself:
“Bellehouse draws influence from Old Time and folk revival while pulling from a broad host of other genres – including Celtic trad, classic rock, soul and Motown, Balkan choir and beyond. The resulting synergy walks the line between down-home roots music and intellectual acoustic folk-rock.
“At its barest, the weaving of two voices, guitar and viola gives Bellehouse its core and brings listeners into the band’s world. In its full compliment, the choir-like triumvirate of voices draws the audience to the proverbial fireside. Double bass, guitar, banjo and viola lay foot-stomping fuel for the fire as guides through an intricate, yet earthy world of pulsing unplugged rhythms. They may lure with a stripped down ballad then turn on a dime for more raw acoustic harmony, the whole attendance closely in tow.”
If you enjoy that, try next Tamzin Elliot’s Gloria Nightwatch and the Ghost. I do hope you discover something to enjoy, and happy holidays to you, too!
Dear Susan, I may never have heard of any of your choices without you, I am truly grateful that you brought music to me which would otherwise not have been available.
Every sentence, every word even, of your ‘musical’ posts allows me an insight into your great admiration for and appreciation of these young musicians. They too are fortunate to have you to help spread the word and make them known to your circle of blogging friends.
Very best wishes for a happy holiday to you and J. See you in the new year.
Friko: So good to hear from you, and thanks so much for the kind words. To you, Beloved, and Millie, we extend the warmest of holiday greetings and best wishes for the New Year.
Thank you for your good wishes. Of course Christmas is very different here in Australia. I will miss swimming in the sea as much as I will miss playing the piano properly over the next few weeks.
Hi Susan – thank you for bringing such fantastic new music to my ears!
Sigrun: Nothing delights me more than to share music with another who enjoys it. Thank you so much for stopping by, listening, and not only that, but sharing the wonderful Honstein piece on your own blog!
Wonderful review of the past year. Thank you.