New York Law School

Art Leonard Observations

Posts Tagged ‘Alarm Will Sound’

Cultural Diary: April 27-May 6 – Ups and Downs…

Posted on: May 7th, 2014 by Art Leonard No Comments

On April 27, I attended a performance by the extraordinary new music band, Alarm Will Sound, directed by Alan Pierson at Carnegie Hall’s Zankel Hall as part of the series “collected stories” curated by composer David Lang. Lang’s series extended over a week of concerts, with this one come towards the end. The idea of this program was to bring together some diverse examples of music intended to illustrate a story of some sort, in some cases impressionistically and in one very directly in the form of a mini-opera. I start from the premise that the program was assembled by Mr. Lang, not by the members of Alarm Will Sound, a discerning group who put together their thematic concerts with great care and select music that they really believe in. I’m not sure how much they believed in some of the music they performed in this concert, although as always they played with a high degree of involvement and polish. But I was not as convinced as I usually am at an Alarm Will Sound concert at the value of everything I heard. Surely, Donnacha Dennehy’s moving “Gra agus Bas,” which I’ve heard before, is a powerful channeling of Irish folk tropes projected through the unusual vocalism of Iarla O Lionaird, a man of such indeterminate vocal range that he is identified in the program as “Voice” rather than assigned a “normal” range such as alto, tenor, baritone or bass. But I found Kate Moore’s “The Art of Levitation” to be an undistinguished mélange of shifting chords that failed to engage my attention. Kaki King’s “Other Education,” a three-movement work for electric guitar and chamber ensemble, seemed at times to be channeling the mid-20th century Americana stylings of Aaron Copland and Virgil Thompson, pretty but not entirely convincing as an extended piece. That said, King herself proved very assured virtuoso in her guitar solos. Finally, the second half was devoted to Richard Ayres’ nonsense opera, “No . 42 In the Alps”, with a particular story being projected above the performers through silent-film-style titles, and Jennifer Zetlan providing an exuberant rendition of a far-ranging vocal part, imitating animal sounds at times, wandering far beyond her designated range of “soprano.” They should make a DVD of this program, since the Ayres piece is enhanced by the visual elements and might seem threadbare without them.

The following night I had accepted the invitation of a friend to attend a recital by pianist Alden Gatt presented by an organization called Project142 at Unity Church, 213 58th Street in Manhattan. I had never heard of Gatt prior to my friend’s invitation, but there turns out to be plenty of information on his website. He played a very ambitious program: Prokofiev’s “The Young Juliet” from his suite of ten pieces from the ballet Romeo & Juliet arranged by the composer for piano solo; Robert Schumann’s Symphonic Etudes, Op. 13; five of the 24 Preludes, Op. 34, by Dmitri Shostakovich, and Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit, generally considered to be one of the toughest tests for a virtuoso pianist in live recital. As an encore, he played Earl Wild’s Etude based on Gershwin’s song Embraceable You. I was impressed by Gatt’s technical polish and musical insight, particularly in the second half of the program (Shostakovich & Ravel). His Schumann was a bit precarious in a few spots, especially in the finale, where his finger memory seemed to falter slightly a few times, although he quickly recovered without losing any equanimity. A little woodshedding in order for the Schumann… The Ravel was mightily impressive, by contrast, comparing favorably in my recollection with other performances I’ve heard as well as some excellent recordings, including those of Martha Argerich and Vladimir Ashkenazy, generally considered the gold standard in this work. I hope Gatt has a chance to record these. I picked up his debut recital CD during the intermission and was impressed again when listening at home. I think his interpretive abilities have deepened since he made that recording a few years ago. In particularly, I suspect he would play the Bach Italian Concerto with more nuance and subtlety today, to judge by his work on April 28. I hope I encounter his playing again soon. Project142 is a concert series that began as occasional soirees in the apartment of a retired minister. Attendance expanded through word of mouth and now they are held in various larger venues. Unity Church is actually a relatively small hall, seating comfortably about 40 people in a good acoustical space for a piano recital. The concerts are not scheduled out very far in advance, and they cover an eclectic range of music. Those interested in exploring can check the website,, to see what is coming up. Ticket prices are moderate and sometimes free, since the performers are provided the venue once approved by the host and are responsible for generating their own audience, as there is no budget for advertising. If the general standard of performance is reflected by Mr. Gatt, then this is a series worth following.

On May 5 I attended the NYC premiere of Christopher Rouse’s Requiem at Carnegie Hall, the opening night of this year’s (final) installment of Carnegie’s “Spring for Music” series, which has brought a diverse group of orchestras from the U.S. and Canada to Carnegie Hall to play programs notable for their unusual repertory choices. It is scandalous that Carnegie couldn’t find sponsorship to continue this series beyond this year. The combination of low ticket prices ($25 for any seat) and unusual programming has drawn a younger audience than usually patronizes classical concerts in this city, and the success of this series in drawing an audience goes to prove that high ticket prices are part of the reason why classical concert audiences at are major halls have such a very high average age. At any rate, this opening concert, presenting Alan Gilbert conducting the Westminster Symphonic Choir, the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, baritone soloist Jacques Imbrailo, and the New York Philharmonic, was a major event indeed, the stage full to overflowing and the youth choir parked up in the first tier boxes. With the composer in attendance for what was only the second presentation of a piece first performed in 2007, one had a sense of being present at an important occasion, for Christopher Rouse has emerged as an important composer through numerous important commissions and premieres, not least with the NYP during his period as composer-in-residence. This ambitious piece weaves together poems in English and Italian, hymns in English and German, and the Latin requiem mass (as modified by Hector Berlioz for his own Requiem, one of the inspirations for this piece), and a large orchestra, including an extended percussion section that, in typical Rousian manner, is given its head to make lots of glorious noise. I found the piece a bit uneven and sometimes overextended, but the glorious final minutes made up for any faults. Mr. Imbrailo was terrific in his solos, although I would hope the composer would consider some selective rescoring to address balance problems, especially in the first half of No. 15 in the score, where the soloist was virtually buried under heavy orchestration. In fact, I think it would be worth Mr. Rouse’s time to review Carnegie’s house recording of this performance and think carefully about ways to improve this score, not just in orchestration but also in reducing some of the repetitive parts. What is already a very effective piece could be made more effective, and I bet about 10 minutes could be trimmed from the 90 minute score with profit. Indeed, if I were him I would also eliminate the intermission break. A piece like this — such as the Britten War Requiem or the Berlioz Requiem — works better without an intermission. It may be difficult to do that at 90 minutes, but it is more plausible to do it at 80.

On the other hand, a work that is shorter than an hour can be a real challenge to sit through, as I found to be the case with Thomas Lawrence Toscano’s “The Interview” co-presented by OperaOGGINY and St. Bart’s Episcopal Peace Fellowship at St. Bartholomew’s Church in Manhattan. This is a “cause” piece, in which an Army Public Affairs Officer sits down with two women who have lost children during the struggles of the Middle East to try to “understand their intentions” in forming an organization of Jewish and Muslim mothers to agitate for peace. The intensely dramatic events described in the program as prologue give way to an entirely static conception, an opera consisting of three people sitting at a table talking and singing. The music struck me as competent without being anything special, and did not particularly enhance the text when it was sung. Perhaps an orchestral accompaniment, by introducing some sound color, would make it more interesting, as I found a sameness of rhythm and tempo led to boredom. The three singers, Perri Sussman, Lyssandra Stephenson and Ben Spierman, seemed very devoted to the project but were not able to enliven the material much under the composer’s leadership abetted by pianist Alessandro Simone. During a Q&A with the audience afterwards, the composer revealed that this was just the first of a series of 5 one-act operas, each devoted to some particular cause. Cause-based art has a noble tradition, but it is important that the cause not outweigh the artistry with which it is presented. Nobody can contest the horror of children slain in the context of the continuing struggle between Palestinians and Israelis in Jerusalem, the cause here is admirable, but I don’t think the music and the verses (some of which struck me as awesomely simplistic) really advance it.

“Alarm Will Sound” Initiates Met Museum Residency with “The Permanent Collection” Concert

Posted on: October 14th, 2013 by Art Leonard No Comments

On October 11 I attended the first concert of the contemporary-music group “Alarm Will Sound” in its residency at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.  The Met has a splendid small auditorium which is perfectly sized for a “sinfonietta” group like “Alarm Will Sound,” which is smaller than a chamber orchestra but larger than a chamber music ensemble.

AWS Music Director Alan Pierson explained in the program note that the group will be using its four-concert series to explore various site-specific programs, including an event at the Museum’s Temple of Dendur.  But for this first concert, the only one that is being presented in the traditional auditorium space, they decided to explore the concept of The Permanent Collection.  In a museum such as the Met, the permanent collection consists of the artwork that the Museum owns outright, a portion of which is on continuous display.  This is supplemented by items on long-term loan from their owners, or the short-term loans that are the basis for special shows and exhibitions.  Pierson said that the group decided to “stand back and wonder what might go into the ensemble’s permanent collection.”  For a symphony orchestra, the concept of the “standard repertory” would fulfill this function – the symphonies of Beethoven, Brahms, Mahler, etc. – but for a flexibly-sized ensemble like AWS, most of the repertory specifically created for such a group is relatively recent.  The rest of the concert series will focus on recent music, but for this concert they decided to retrospective:  over the four composers on the program, only one is now living, and the living composer’s piece is two decades old.  So this concert could be seen as a mini-survey of the history of repertory for a “sinfonietta” size group.

They began with Richard Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll, which Pierson identified as possible the first piece written for a sinfonietta-type group.  Wagner wrote it as a birthday present for his wife coinciding with the birth of his first child, named Siegfried, and arranged it for an ensemble of five string players and a handful of wind soloists who would gather on the stairs of his house to serenade his wife awake with music that began gently in the strings.  The piece is made up largely of thematic material from the composer’s operatic cycle, The Ring of the Nibelungen, and it might even be seen as the 19th century equivalent of a movie trailer, giving audiences some highlights of what they would hear if they decided to attend these operas.  This piece, dating from 1870, is far outside AWS’s normal repertory and style of music, and it took them some time to “play into” the piece and achieve a level of comfort with the style.  I thought the opening bars for strings alone felt a bit unsettled, but soon they were in a groove.  I still prefer to hear this with a larger body of strings, as those luscious harmonies of the introduction sounded a bit threadbare as played by a string quintet, and the winds tended to outbalance the small group of string players.

Following was a piece conceived for a modern sinfonietta, Thomas Ades’ “Living Toys.”  I have the recording that EMI issued for the composer’s debut as a recorded composer, back in the 1990s, and it is a splendid workout for the ensemble.  Hearing it live for the first time was a rewarding experience as well.  One can understand why Ades quickly became a leading composer among the younger generation in the U.K., as he has a rich musical imagination and knows how to use the instruments effectively in solos and combinations.  The performance was assured and lively.

The program indicated that next would be two of the Ragtime Dances from a set of several such pieces by Charles Ives, but Pierson announced that instead they would use the two dances as prologue and epilogue to the other piece on the program Gyorgy Ligeti’s Chamber Concerto (1969-70).  The Ives pieces, from the period around the beginning of the 20th century, are his typical mash-up of popular music of the period, patriotic tunes, hymns, and dissonant racket, and it is all good fun.  (I doubt Ives intended these pieces to be taken as anything other than pure entertainment.)  The musicians seemed quite happy whacking away at these, and they brought smiles throughout the audience.

Finally, the Ligeti, a “major statement” in the permanent collection of sinfonietta repertory.  There is an interesting unifying factor in the program here, for filmmaker Stanley Kubrick selected music by Ligeti for the soundtrack of his movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Ades has put a reference to that movie — “H.A.L.’s Death” – at the center of his “Living Toys.”  But the Ligeti piece also served well as the substantive heart of the second half of the program, and once again this was music that is solidly in the comfort zone of the AWS players, resulting in a splendid performance.  But I did think that the second of the Ives ragtime pieces made a better ending to the concert – serving almost in the nature of an encore!

The next concert in this series will be on Saturday, November 16, when they will present music by Steve Reich, including compositions written for AWS, which has collaborated with the composer on important projects in the past, and, during their student days, made their first commercial recording entirely of music by Reich.  Details are available on the Museum’s website.