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.