Archive for May 2014

So Long Lives This: Aaron Grad and Augustine Mercante at the Mansion at Strathmore, May 15, 2014

May 17, 2014

Composer Aaron Grad doesn’t feel constrained by conventional models; he fashions his means of expression to suit his end. For example: His cycle of Old-Fashioned Love Songs, written for his wife and commissioned by Strathmore, where it received its DMV premiere on Thursday night.

In the cycle, Alexandria-born Grad sets to music poems by…him, written largely in metrical rhyming verse. He also includes songs by composers as diverse as Henry Purcell and Cyndi Lauper, recontextualizing the tunes to his own ends as necessary. The only instrument Grad calls for is an electric theorbo, which he built and plays, although he said in a post-concert Q&A that he isn’t quite adept at playing it yet. All these songs were sung by Augustine Mercante, a music-school chum of Grad’s, who used his fine countertenor voice in any musical style Grad asked him to.

Aaron Grad. Photo from his website.

Aaron Grad. Photo from his website.

Sounds like a lot of ideas for one opus, but Grad has enough skill to make these disparate elements and novelties coalesce. The electric theorbo has an intimidating array of strings and outputs, but its general sounds are familiar enough: haunting strummed chords, percussive twangs, gently plucked melodies that hung sweetly in the air. (I was momentarily surprised when Grad used a sampler to layer on textures, but then, instruments can do that now.) It’s an old-fashioned instrument refashioned for modern purposes, and Grad made it sound good. It sounded particularly good tracing the close arpeggiated harmonies in Johann Hieronymus Kapsberger’s “Toccata No. 2,” which is the first music in Grad’s cycle and dates all the way from 1604.

The cycle actually opens with a spoken recitation of Grad’s “Preamble,” with the preamble set to music after Kapsberger has his moment. Grad’s poems are pretty sturdily constructed, with some witty turns, particularly in “Music Theory” — “Dissonance for its own sake/Is such a load of hooey!/We don’t needlessly complicate/Our composition, do we?” He is not entirely immune to the lure of a fine cliche, but like any good postmodernist he owns up to them: “A foolish quest this is, to bare my heart/Through tired, worn-out conventions.”

But he doesn’t just acknowledge the dead language; he gives it some new life. Part of this success comes from seeing in the songs by others a through-line across the centuries, particularly with the same vocalist and instrument enlisted to bring them to life. Part comes from how Grad cannily comments on the songs of other authorship; Stephen Foster’s “Kissing in the Dark” gets intro’ed by Grad’s “Risk Management,” a monologue of a nervous lover, in which the theorbo bristles with tension but also propels the music forward into the sweet oasis of the Foster. A reprise confirms that the risk has been successfully managed.

The whole thing wouldn’t work without Mercante. Grad tailored the cycle specifically to his voice, and so Mercante sounded extraordinary, a gorgeous voice that shifted from sparkling William Boyce to swinging George Gershwin without breaking a sweat. The sheer purity and high-ness of his male voice gave a timeless, universal feel Grad’s words as well, suiting a cycle that deals in big thoughts about love rather than specific thoughts about a person.

The closing two songs of the cycle both showed some of Grad’s best moves and scaled the steepest emotional heights. Normally, Norah Jones’ “Come Away With Me” reads as a lovers’ retreat, but Grad prefaced it with “The Poetics of Loss,” which begins, “If we cannot speak of death, Let us simply say: away.” Grad’s arrangement of the accompaniment, spare and clean, reinforced the new interpretation; once the song was done, the music slowly but surely rolled back into the Kapsberger with which the cycle began. All sorts of ideas and juxtapositions informed these moments, but Grad’s singular vision and skilled realization made them matter.

Other People’s Perspectives: Joan Reinthaler. More about the song cycle here.

Scaling the Timpanist’s Heights: Jauvon Gilliam in the NSO’s New Moves Festival

May 8, 2014

Jauvon  Gilliam is the National Symphony Orchestra’s principal timpani. Michael Lodico at Ionarts calls him “superb,” and his boss Christoph Eschenbach describes his technique as “supreme.” I agree, although I’m biased, because I’m also his cousin. And since I now tend to be more of a rooter and less of a critic when I go to NSO shows, I haven’t been writing much about them lately. For Jauvon’s upcoming solo timpani concerto, though, I had to take advantage of my connection and find out more. The results are below.

Each of the three programs in the National Symphony Orchestra’s “New Moves” festival, running from yesterday to May 17, features a new dance set to the strains of a vibrant American work. But when Jauvon Gilliam, the NSO’s principal timpani, picks up his sticks to perform James Oliverio’s Timpani Concerto No. 1, he’ll be performing a dance of his own, albeit one hidden from public view by the eight timpani that’ll be surrounding him.

Image

Jauvon will not be surrounded by quite this many timpani, but it’ll be a lot. Photo by Scott Suchman.

Not everyone who attends orchestral concerts knows that the timpani is not a fixed-pitch instrument; drummers tune them through the use of a foot pedal. So to play the right notes, you have to have both your hands and your feet in the right spot. With the typical orchestral complement of four timpani, this is challenging enough; as Gilliam says, “it’s like a choreographed dance. You can overshoot it, you can undershoot it, it’s just like if you do a pirouette.” To really master the instrument, “you almost have to have four different brains or have your brain in four different compartments.”

Twice as many timpani involves more than twice as much difficulty: “Where my feet go on the floor, where my feet go on this drum, which one goes on which one — I have to write all of it down so I can practice it, because the idea is to play it perfect the first time. So I’m actually practicing those type of choreographed moves just as much as I practice the notes.”

The result is physically taxing — Gilliam says he works up a sweat just in practice — but he’s determined to hide his efforts from the crowd. In composing the concerto, Gilliam says, “James uses the visual aspect of playing the outer drums and shifting your body weight, and the challenge is to make it look graceful. To make it look easy. Which is really hard, because my body doesn’t bend that way.”

Gilliam knows the composer’s intentions because he worked with Oliverio to prepare the piece. It’s well known among students of the timpani, and in fact Gilliam’s teacher Paul Yanich premiered the work 24 years to the day before Gilliam will play it with the NSO. So when the NSO reached out to Gilliam to ask about performing an American concerto for the “New Moves” festival, the timpanist got in touch with the composer, who gave him valuable ideas about the concerto but understood that Gilliam would put his own stamp on the piece as well. “He’s a cool cat,” Gilliam says.

Playing eight timpani not only makes for a challenge but also allows Gilliam to explore the melodic potential of the instrument. “With four drums, you could only play two notes of melody, two notes of harmony, or one note of harmony, three notes of melody. It’s not very many,” he says. “With eight timpani, it allows me to have five notes of melody and basically a two-note ostinato in my right hand, in some of the more challenging parts.” And indeed, the timpanist is the melodic protagonist in this concerto, leading dialogues with orchestral instruments and even a cadenza towards the end.

It’s an unusual role for an instrument that normally sits in the back and makes everything sound fuller and more forceful, but Gilliam doesn’t mind the change. “My job is to support people. I really enjoy that, that’s what I love about my job,” he says, but performing a solo is a “different way of doing things, and it allows me to expand my talent. It allows me to be a better musician.”

The concerto is also, he says, “the hardest thing I’ve ever played” — a challenge worthy of the title “The Olympian,” and a summit only scalable for a man who’s sure on his feet.

If you also want to have the experience of hearing Jauvon talk about this concerto, you can listen here. And he even wrote a blog entry about the concerto, which I recommend.

I also recommend the other concerts in the New Moves series. One has Sue Heineman, the NSO’s principal bassoon, playing a concerto, and you know I like her playing based on this, this, and this. And the other is Leila Josefowicz playing John Adams’ violin concerto, which I liked a ton when she did it with the Balmer Symphony. Looks like a strong week ahead for the NSO.

Spring Into Dance: University of Maryland Symphony Orchestra at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, May 4, 2014

May 6, 2014

The University of Maryland Symphony Orchestra performed a fully choreographed version of Aaron Copland’s “Appalachian Spring” on Sunday afternoon at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center. They didn’t accompany the dancing; they were the dancers, throwing themselves into choreography by famed dance-maker Liz Lerman. This follows up on a UMSO/Lerman triumph of two years previous, a similar effort to the strains of Claude Debussy’s “Prelude a l’après-midi d’une faune,” which you can kind of get the idea of from this video. I watched the video from the previous concert but didn’t attend, and so I didn’t realize how much the movement would transform the music as well as the visual experience of a concert. The word’s overused, but this truly was an unforgettable experience.

And it was an experience framed in memory: Martha Wittman came onto the dark stage and sat down: an older woman paging slowly through a book with a smile on her face. Wittman, who not only danced but also collaborated on the choreography, seemed to be awakening the opening measures with her reminiscences; she eventually found a younger foil in U-Md. conducting student Enrico Lopez-Yanez, whose energy inspired Wittman to match as the music sped merrily along. The framing actions (no program was supplied) served to make the stage into a festive reminiscence, with the musicians garbed in rustic attire appropriate to an Appalachian get-together.

Some of the musicians danced with more ease than others, which is to be expected, but they all threw themselves into their moves and played more than creditably while doing so. Indeed, every so often Lerman, along with choreographic collaborator Vincent Thomas, pressed the students to the edge of reasonable possibility, and the UMSO accepted all the challenges: A double-bassist scrambling across the stage carrying his instrument above his head, a bassoonist standing on a fellow musician’s back and delivering a fine solo, a flautist throwing himself into vigorous dancing one minute and playing with perfect breath in the next. That’s commitment, folks.

This is from rehearsal, but it totally happened live. Photo by Kirsten Poulsen-House.

This is from rehearsal, but it totally happened live. Photo by Kirsten Poulsen-House.

Still, the revelation for me came not in the dancing itself, but what it did to the music when the musicians formed and dissolved their various constellations on the Dekelboum Concert Hall’s stage. Instrumental combos that would never sit next to each other (trumpets and violins side-by-side? Sure!) made familiar sounds newly piquant. Textures thinned out, opened up, and at times felt kaleidoscopic, as when string players walked in circles, and you could hear individual notes from the unison playing fade in and out ever so slightly. Woodwinds scattered across the stage to call to each other, underlining Copland’s playful writing and giving it a visual dimension. Especially vigorous rhythms actually got stomped out by the musicians who were playing them, as they advanced from the rear risers. Music that’s always evoked a country celebration in my mind seemed to actually belong to one. And I got goosebumps when a bunch of the musicians strode purposefully to the very front of the stage to blast the climactic statement of “Simple Gifts,” both from the earnest straightforwardness and the sheer volume of sound.

James Ross, the artistic director of the UMSO, masterminded all this effort but was nowhere to be found on stage until the applause started. Being conductorless, too, seemed to liberate and excite the musicians; they had so many responsibilities that they had to be really present, all the time. After that final “Simple Gifts” statement, the music recedes into that twilight memory space again, and Wittman’s character returned to her book; the final touching moment for me was watching a percussion player and harpist nodding to each other as they played the sweet final notes under sustained strings.

It was inevitably a bit of a letdown to hear two pieces after intermission in the standard orchestral configuration, with Ross at the front and everyone sitting down, not that I expect any orchestra to be able to put together a fully choreographed program. (Yes, that’s a dare!)

Robert Russell Bennett’s “Porgy and Bess: A Symphonic Picture” clothed George Gershwin’s immortal tunes in sometimes overfine symphonic garb, overemphasizing the blue notes that were natural to Gershwin. The students romped through it anyway, but I filed the arrangement in the category of “fun but I never need to hear it again.” On the other hand, Henri Dutilleux’s Metaboles, five small-scale works for large-scale orchestra, gleamed with clarity and quivered with tension, orchestral colors bursting from every measure – a showpiece well-shown. And yet, in years to come, it’s the dance I’ll remember.

Other People’s Perspectives: Anne Midgette. More photos available here, in case you’re wondering what it looked like. 

Update: Video now available!