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New Music Collective Concert on April 18, 2014, at Spectrum (NYC Lower East Side)

Posted on: April 20th, 2014 by Art Leonard No Comments

I was invited to attend the concert presented under the auspices of New Music Collective at Spectrum on April 18 by Glen Roven, composer-conductor-record producer extraordinaire. We became acquainted when Glen was commissioned to contribute a song to the 5 Boroughs Music Festival’s Songbook and I attended one of the presentations of that project. His GPR Records is making an important contribution to preserving and advancing American art song as performed by exciting young performers. So when he invited me to attend this concert to hear the premiere of his new song cycle, The Vineyard Songs, Op. 33, by soprano Laura Strickling and Michael Brofman, I resolved to go despite my unfamiliarity with the venue.

Spectrum is a second-story floor-through apartment in an ancient narrow building on Ludlow Street, just a few blocks from where my great-grandfather Jacob Cohen had his tailor shop when he arrived in the New World around 1920. So I get an eerie feeling walking around in this neighborhood, knowing that an ancestor who died long before I was born once walked those streets and, given the age of the buildings in the neighborhood, saw many of the same sights I was seeing as I scurried eastward on DeLancey Street to get there in time for the concert.

I was familiar with only three composer names on the program: Glen Roven, of course, Steven Gerber, and Lowell Lieberman. I’d say that of the three Lieberman is the one who has broken through into the more general consciousness of music lovers to the greatest extent, but his inclusion on this program actually seemed a bit out of place, since he was represented by three of the “Four Etudes on Songs of Robert Franz,” charmingly rendered by pianist Miori Sugiyama, which sounded like relatively faithful piano transcriptions of 19th century lieder, not early 21st century creations!

First things first: Glen’s song cycle is gorgeous. He has set verses by Judith B. Herman, Justen Ahern and Angela M. Franklin, evoking the experience of spending time on the island of Martha’s Vineyard. I’ve never been to the Vineyard, so I can’t attest to the accuracy of the feelings summoned up by this melding of verse and music, but I know a fine song cycle when I hear one, and this is a fine song cycle, expertly performed for this world premiere. My enthusiasm for American art song dates to my college years, when I fell deeply for Charles Ives’s songs. Ives really invented the naturalistic setting of idiomatic American verse, liberating us from the constraints of England’s folksong and Germanic-Mendelssohnian precedents, and I heard the same sort of freedom in Glen’s songs. Actually, most of the cycle is concerned with Judith Herman’s songs, six out of the eight numbers, and the two by Ahern and Franklin are the shortest songs, so I would consider this largely a Herman/Roven cycle, and the two combine wonderfully to enhance each other in a unified artistic expression. After the concert, I asked Glen whether these will be recorded, since I want to get to know them better, and he assured me that they would be forthcoming. After all, he pointed out, he owns a record label. . . Happy composer who owns a record label.

Turning to the other works on offer, mostly world premieres:

Herschel Garfein offered two songs from his ongoing project to make an opera out of Tom Stoppard’s play, Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, sung by mezzo-soprano Krista River collaborating with pianist Brofman. I was less impressed by these than by Roven’s songs. I dimly recall attending a production of the Stoppard play when I was an undergraduate at Cornell. (Christopher Reeve, then a Cornell undergrad, appeared in the production I attended. Who knew that skinny kid would become Superman?) I remember a somewhat manic riff on Shakespeare’s Hamlet, seen from the perspective of these two minor, comic relief characters. I didn’t get a strong sense of character from Garfein’s settings, however. Perhaps the problem was first-hearing, but I didn’t have that problem with most of the other works on the program. The music did not really enhance the text, or at least I didn’t feel that these texts particularly called out for musical setting – although it was difficult to tell because the venue turned down the lights making it impossible to follow the texts in the program and the singer’s enunciation was not sufficently clear to make them easily decipherable as sung. (This was not a problem with Roven’s song cycle, since the lights were kept up.)

Adam Tendler accompanied himself on the piano as he recited Frankie Krainz’s text for Gerald Busby’s melodrama titled “This Is How I Do It.” One doesn’t expect pornography at a serious music concert, and perhaps the text was not included in the program for this reason — but what Busby has provided is a musical accompaniment to a masturbatory scene. And, since the text wasn’t in the program, the audience was properly caught by surprise as the story unfolded and, at the last, an orgasm was described in music just as the text reached that critical point. Well, it was involving…. And the piano accompaniment did work well with the text.

Then we had Michael Rose’s set of variations for woodwind quintet inspired by a J.S. Bach chorale. The members of the WorldWinds Quintet seemed to have the matter well in hand, but on first hearing I could not find much to like in Rose’s quintet. It had a rather fragmentary quality and, as is frequently the case with modern “variations” set, the connection between the variations and the chorale on which they were said to be based, were not obvious to the ear. Perhaps it would grow on me with repeated hearing, but I found this piece tiresome.

Not so, however, the bassoon monologue by Steven Gerber, played most expressively by Jack Chan. This came through as a heartfelt song, inspired by the infamous bassoon solo that introduces Igor Stravinsky’s revolutionary ballot score, Le Sacre du Printemps. I was spellbound by it.

Finishing out the first half of the program was “Marvin Gardens” by Ben Morss, a composer-pianist who performed his own piece. Morss explained that this was an experiment, combining in the same piece the classical piano tradition of the early 19th century remembered from his student days and the more pop-oriented music that he frequently performs in his professional life. This was fun to listen to, but I found it difficult to take seriously, despite the composer’s evident sincerity. It was not a melding of styles, but rather a back-and-forth, passages sounding like Chopin or Schumann alternating with passages sounding like 20th century Broadway, pop and cocktail piano music. Morss, despite his disclaimer before the performance, sounded fully up to the technical challenges he set for himself.

The penultimate work on the program (before the Lieberman Etudes) was a set of three exerpts from a Suite for Electric Guitar, played by composer Thomas Millioto. Millioto seems to have channeled J.S. Bach’s Suites for Unaccompanied Cello through his creative process, having written in a style heavily based on that baroque master, but using the characteristic sounds of the electric guitar to make the pieces have a contemporary flavor. So, do we need baroque-style music for electric guitar? Somebody who wants to play the electric guitar in a serious concert setting certainly needs material to play, and I suppose this serves the purpose. Heard on their own, the pieces were interesting and richly evocative of the period on which they were based. And Bach, who himself freely transposed works between different media, would undoubtedly have experimented with the electric guitar were such an instrument available in his time. (I’m not sure how seriously I meant that last line, but on the other hand Bach did experiment with instrumental novelties, such as the recently-invented fortepiano…)

Altogether, some hits and some misses, but that is what one expects from a concert of new music. After all, in any given period of musical history only a handful of composers rise to the top and produce works that will have real staying power beyond their lifetimes, and one can’t be certain from a contemporary perspective about which works by living composers will attain such a life. If I were placing bets from this concert, I would bet on Roven and Gerber most heavily, but all of these composers have enjoyed a certain level of success, and there is no real predicting the musical future. It’s important to support contemporary music concerts and to encourage the composers because the production of music is an extraordinary creative feat and the art needs constant refreshment. I’m glad Glen invited me to this concert.

The Singers and the Songs – NY Festival of Song: Kevin Puts & Friends – Meglioranza/Uchida New Winterreise Recording

Posted on: February 7th, 2013 by Art Leonard No Comments

Herewith some observations about two encounters with art song in recent days: a wonderful concert of new songs presented by the New York Festival of Song at the Jerome Robbins Theater at the Baryshnikov Arts Center, and a new recording of Franz Schubert’s song cycle, Winterreise, by baritone Tom Meglioranza and pianist Reiko Uchida.

The New York Festival of Song, which presents an extensive series of song recitals at Merkin Concert Hall (north of Lincoln Center), has launched a new series called NYFOS Next, putting the spotlight on contemporary composers who are emerging on the classical concert scene.  The premise is to engage a composer to “curate” a concert by selecting the songwriters and, in some cases, commissioning them to produce new songs for the occasion, and then to introduce each number from the stage.  Their initial program, presented on Tuesday, February 5, employed Kevin Puts as the composer-curator, at the intimate Jerome Robbins Theater in the Baryshnikov Center.  Mr. Puts was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in Music for 2012 for his opera, “Silent Night,” which received its first performances at the Minnesota Opera, and has some forthcoming performances scheduled, most imminently in Philadelphia this coming weekend.  In addition to ending the program with three arias from “Silent Night” with piano accompaniment, Mr. Puts wrote a new song to open the program.  Other composers represented on the recital included Christopher Theofanidis, Ricky Ian Gordon, Christopher Cerrone, Tarik O’Regan, Andrew Haile Austin, David Lang, Harold Meltzer, and Derek Bermel.  Many of the composers were present and made comments about their compositions, and Mr. Gordon accompanied his song as well.  Mr. Puts, who is also an accomplished pianist, accompanied in his compositions. Michael Barrett, Associate Artistic Director of New York Festival of Song, accompanied the other songs, and violinist Charles Yang participated in two of the songs (singing in the ensemble for one of the).

At the outset, Mr. Puts confessed that he only recently became involved in song with the commission to write his opera, and he required considerable assistance from Mr. Barrett in identifying appropriate composers to participate in this program.  Many of the songs that were presented were written in response to a commission from Opera America to celebrate the opening of their new National Opera Center, just a few blocks away from the Baryshnikov Center, and they are available on a compact disc recording released by Opera America. 

Three singers (plus, as noted above, briefly Mr. Yang), participated in the program: soprano Stacey Tappan, Mezzo-Soprano Krista River, and baritone Jesse Blumberg.  Readers of this blog will know that I am a big fan of Mr. Blumberg, and may assume that was my main reason for attending the concert.  But I’m also a big fan of Mr. Puts, and his association with the program was another big draw for me.  I was present at the New York Philharmonic premiere of a piece he wrote for them several years ago, and I was so impressed that I began searching for recordings of his music.  It took a while, but eventually I was able to assemble a fairly extensive collection of his work, almost all of it instrumental music.  My favorite Kevin Puts composition is his Violin Concerto, which was written for Ft. Worth Symphony concertmaster Michael Shih when Mr. Puts was composer-in-residence for that orchestra, and is available on a recording made at the world premiere performance and released by the FWSO on its own label.  (Mr. Puts’ Third Symphony, also a very attractive piece, is on the same release, together with music by Gabriela Frank.)  It’s definitely worth seeking out (there’s a link on Mr. Puts’ website, or go directly the Ft. Worth Symphony’s website), and this concerto should be taken up by other violinists, as it deserves to be a repertory piece.  For sheer beauty it can’t be beaten.

Anyway, back to the songs:  This was quite a varied lot, but all the songs had in common a generally tonal language, a strong sensitivity to the meaning of text, and, on this occasion, excellent performances.  Although it was announced at the beginning that Mr. Blumberg was experiencing a touch of “under the weather” (which resulted in dropping one of the scheduled songs), he sounded fine to me, full of voice and fully engaged in all of his numbers.  Ms. Tappan and Ms. River were pleasant discoveries for me, and I will seek out Ms. Tappan’s new recording of songs by Ricky Ian Gordon (whose song “Bless This Our Lovely Home,” one of the Opera America commissions, was presented with Mr. Gordon at the keyboard, as noted above).  I can second Mr. Puts’ comment, introducing this song, that Gordon is definitely one of our most gifted contemporary song writers, and this song — which can be found on the Opera America CD — is a prime example of his art.

The song that I enjoyed the most was Derek Bermel’s “Lucky Number,” which was scored for the ensemble of all three singers, Mr. Yang (violin and voice), and piano, with a text by Wendy Walters.  This was among the most “listener-friendly-at-first-hearing” pieces on the program, having a strong whiff of Broadway about it.  By the way, I just saw a laudatory review in Gramophone of a new recording of Bermel’s music by Alan Pierson and Alarm Will Sound on the Canteloupe label, so — Bermel fanciers alert!  I’ve placed my order…

Finally, at the conclusion of the concert, the three arias from “Silent Night” were sung by Jesse Blumberg and Stacey Tappan.  Spectacular!  Somebody in New York has to put on this opera!  Soon!!

Turning to my other observation: 

I’ve been a fan of the combination of Tom Meglioranza and Reiko Uchida since I heard their recital at Weill Recital Hall (Carnegie Hall) many years ago.  I’d been invited to attend by Jorge Martin, the composer whose commissioned work was being performed.  I fell in love with Meglioranza’s singing and attended more concerts, communicating my enthusiasm to him.  I was very enthusiastic about his first self-produced recital disc with Uchida, a collection of Schubert songs selected and arranged to make up a thematic cycle.  And I was delighted when the snail-mail brought a welcome surprise late last week: a new Meglioranza disc, this time of Schubert’s great Winterreise song-cycle, again with Uchida. 

I’ve listened to it several times, put it on my ipod for portable listening, and become totally absorbed.  (It’s now the second Winterreise on my ipod, sharing the honors with Ian Bostridge and Leif Ove Andsnes, so they are in good company.)  Meglioranza’s art deepens, the collaboration with Uchida goes from strength to strength, and there is nothing less than first-class about this self-produced recording (which is available from   Too many lieder recordings these days are released without texts and translations.  This one comes with a song-by-song summary on the cardboard album and a booklet with original texts and Meglioranza’s English translations, as well as photographs and biographies of the performers.  The studio recording has a bit less resonance than the prior Schubert disc (which was made in the auditorium at the American Academy of Arts and Letters in Upper Manhattan), which affects slightly one’s perception of the voice.  It sounds a bit lighter and less full on the bottom than in the prior recording, but all the virtues I know from past exposure to Meglioranza’s work are there, not least the deep engagement with the text, the fine intonation and rhythmic sense, the wide range of dynamics, and the close collaboration with Uchida, whose sensitive accompaniments play a major role in the success of this recording.  (I’m no expert in German dialect, but no less an expert than the late, great Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau is quoted in the booklet reacting to Meglioranza’s prior Schubert disc with praise for his German; DFD suggests he must be of German descent to be an American who sings German so well!)  

Anybody who hasn’t discovered this combination of performers should rush to get the recording.  If you’re a Schubert fan who already has ‘too many Winterreises’ in your collection, get the earlier recital, which includes plenty of less-frequently-performed songs that are nonetheless all winners!  But how can any collection of Schubert lieder have ‘too many Winterreises’??