Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Luciano Berio's work is characterized above all by his love of the theatrical, his fascination with the voice, and his constant willingness to engage with music of the past as well as of the present. Drawing on a range of influences that reaches from the poetry of Dante to the politics of Martin Luther King, and from the operas of Monteverdi to the sounds of modern jazz, his output has embraced all the major musical developments of its time, including electronic music, music theatre, and works using quotation and collage - hence one critic's description of him as an "omnivore". (The Rough Guide to Classical Music). See an example of Berio's omnivorous theatrical output in La vera storia (1981), prima parte . . . one of this week's FEATURED NEW MUSIC VIDEOS.

According to John Murphy at Bardolatry, "Harold Bloom called Macbeth Shakespeare’s most “expressionistic” play. It is only appropriate, then, that America’s most Expressionistic filmmaker, Orson Welles, settled on “The Scottish Play” as his first foray into Bard adaptation. Macbeth (1948) was an appropriate choice for the auteur, considering some kind of curse had apparently befallen the once wined-and-dined star of theatre, radio, and film. The film was produced on the relative cheap (about $500,000), filmed at a breakneck pace (about twenty days), and the result is a haggard, stylized tone poem. This is Shakespeare as lurid film noir. The messy quality somehow makes it more compelling, mostly because Welles’ unsurpassed visual imagination compensates for the low-end production values. See Welles' messy yet brilliant vision - with music by Jacques Ibert . . . it's this week's PYTHEAS SIGHTING.

Jacques Hétu's work, said the conductor Jacques Lacombe, "always bears a very personal signature". Singling out "his lyricism, his harmonic language, his sense of structure, the clarity of his orchestration", Lacombe describes Hétu as "a real musician who knew how to write for musicians, without laying traps for them – not that his music doesn't present challenges or difficulties for its performers. But ... he always wrote well for the orchestra and that is doubtless one of the reasons that orchestral musicians take so much pleasure in playing his music and that he is one of the Québecois and Canadian musicians most performed both at home and internationally." Hear a performance of Hétu's final work, the Symphony No. 5, "Liberté" (2009) . . . one of our PYTHEAS EARFULS.

"Gwyneth Walker work is characterized by a tremendous energy and a strong sense of humor. Even in her most calm and serene pieces, there is a constant undercurrent of energy -- a lifeblood that ties the music together. Many personal stylistic traits appear throughout her work including elements that have often been classified as characteristic of "American music" (including the strong rhythmic sense, open sonorities, and influences of rock, jazz, blues, and American folk music). She is strongly in the American tradition of composers such as Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein -- but is a slave to no compositional school or prescribed style. Her music is recognizably her own and thoroughly original" (Carson P. Cooman). Watch a performance of Walker's Don't Step On My Toes (1993) . . . this week's FROM THE PYTHEAS ARCHIVES.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Heralded as “A Composer to Watch” by the New York Times, Kenji Bunch has quickly emerged as one of the most prominent American composers of his generation, appealing to audiences and performers alike with a distinctive, vibrant voice in contemporary American music. As one of only three composers selected nationwide to inaugurate the Meet the Composer Magnum Opus Project, Bunch wrote his Symphony No. 1: Lichtenstein Triptych (2004), which was premiered to critical acclaim by the Bay area symphonies of Santa Rosa, Marin, and Oakland. Watch a performance of Kenji Bunch's Suite for Viola and Piano (1999) performed by violist Barbara Sudweeks and pianist Steve Harlos . . . one of this week's FEATURED NEW MUSIC.

Virgil Thomson was the original multi-faceted elder statesman of American composers, as well as an esteemed music critic. He was particularly famous for his two operas in collaboration with Gertrude Stein, Four Saints in Three Acts (1928) and its sequel, The Mother of Us All (1947), about Susan B. Anthony, which together became a landmark of American musical theater. He was also among the first major American composers to write music for films. Among his most famous scores are the Louisiana Story (1948), for which he won the Pulitzer Prize, and The Plough That Broke the Plains (1936). He also presided over the American musical scene from 1940 to 1954 as the insightful, uninhibited music critic for the New York Herald Tribune. This week at Pytheas we feature Virgil Thomson in two areas. Listen to him discuss his life and music in a fascinating interview with Charles Amirkhanian - our Pytheas COMPOSER PORTRAIT. Then, read about and listen to excerpts from the Albany Records disc Heaven Is Music, featuring choral works by Virgil Thomson - this week's FEATURED RECORDING.

Tilo Medek was born into a family of musicians and grew up in Thuringia, a region of central Germany with a rich musical culture. He studied violin and piano from the age of ten and had an early exposure to contemporary music when he attended the Darmstadt summer school in 1957, participating in classes given by Karlheinz Stockhausen and Luigi Nono among others. Medek’s output encompasses works of almost every genre. His interest in the voice is reflected in a wide range of choral music and song cycles, while his instrumental works stretch from solo and chamber pieces to concertos for almost all of the standard concert instruments as well as more unusual offerings such as timpani and marimba, in addition to over thirty orchestral pieces and three ballets. Watch a performance of Medek's Abfahrt einer Dampflokomotive (Departure of a Steam Locomotive) by the Blow Up Flute Ensemble . . . this week's FROM THE PYTHEAS ARCHIVES.

Explore, Listen and Enjoy!
Vinny Fuerst
Pytheas Center for Contemporary Music

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Michael Nyman's score for the Peter Greenaway film Drowning By Numbers (1988), is, at the film director's specific request, based entirely on themes taken from the slow movement of Mozart's Sinfonia Concertante in E flat Major. Bars 58-61 of Mozart's work are heard in their original form immediately after each of the film's "drownings". Nyman was alerted to the potential of this piece by Greenaway in the late 1970s and had previously used it as material for part of the score for Greenaway's The Falls, The Masterwork Award Winning Fish-Knife and Tristram Shandy. The The Trysting Fields section of Drowning By Numbers contains the most complicated use of Mozart's music: every appoggiatura [a melodically important ornamental note, sounded on the beat, and preceding a main note] from the movement, and no other material from the piece, is used. Watch a performance of The Trysting Fields by The Michael Nyman Band . . . one of this week's FEATURED NEW MUSIC VIDEOS.

One of the most poignant themes of the "Coming of Age" film is First Love . . . usually bittersweet, wrapped in soft-focus nostalgia, and accompanied by string-drenched music. But Elia Kazan's Splendor in the Grass (1961), made at a time when both films and society were undergoing profound changes, is darker. It deals realistically, even shockingly, with the agony of first love, and the forces that drive lovers apart. Bud and Deanie are high school sweethearts in 1920's Kansas, who are finding it increasingly difficult to resist their sexual urges. Deanie's puritanical mother warns her that "nice girls don't" . . . so Deanie doesn't. Bud's nouveau-riche father urges him to find a not-so-nice girl to take care of those urges. The consequences are disastrous. With composer David Amram's modern (and often dissonant) music, and Richard Sylbert's stark, striking production design adding atmosphere, Splendor in the Grass is the antithesis of sentimental. (Margarita Landazuri @ Turner Classic Movies). Watch the opening of Splendor in the Grass with David Amram's film score . . . our current PYTHEAS SIGHTING.

Canadian composer and pianist Heather Schmidt is recognized as one of the most talented, exciting and versatile musicians of her generation, bringing a contemporary freshness to the illustrious composer-performer tradition of the past. She has received international acclaim through performances, broadcasts, commissions and awards both in North America and abroad. Hear a performance of Schmidt Solus (1996), for piano solo, performed by the composer . . . one of this week's PYTHEAS EARFULS.

Béla Bartók is recognized as one of the most important composers of the 20th century. His style grew out of romanticism and nationalism to embrace new currents heard in the music of Debussy. Inspired by Hungarian traditional songs and dances (he collected some 10,000 songs from Hungary, Romania, Central Europe, Turkey, and North Africa), he incorporated folk modes and irregular rhythmic patterns into his highly original scores. The year 1926 brought a sudden rush of works designed for Bartók, himself, to play in concert. These include the Piano Concerto No. 1, the suite Out of Doors and the Piano Sonata. These exploit the piano as a percussion instrument, using its resonances, as well as its xylophonic hardness, in ways never utilized before. Watch a thrilling performance of the first movement of Bartók's Piano Sonata (1926) by pianist Lang Lang . . . this week's FROM THE PYTHEAS ARCHIVES.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

"In George Crumb's Solo Cello Sonata (1955) we have a good example of a work by an American composer living in freer political and stylistic circumstances than some of his European counterparts of the time, but still facing essentially the same problems of his age: the search for an individual response to the musical revolutions of the first half of the 20th century. Written during the time when Crumb was a graduate student in Berlin, the three-movement Sonata also owes a certain amount to Bartók. An opening Fantasia, making expressive use of pizzicato, is followed by a Tema pastorale con variazioni, in which a highly chromatic theme is put through its paces in three variations and a coda. The final movement is a Toccata which, after a short slow introduction, makes much use of dynamic and timbral contrasts" (Keith Potter). Watch a performance by cellist Umberto Clerici . . . one of this week's FEATURED NEW MUSIC VIDEOS.

According to Roger Knox (The WholeNote), "Percussionique (Albany Records), a disc of percussion music by American-born Canadian composer Michael S. Horwood, should attract both new music aficionados and others interested in revitalizing listening experiences. Superbly performed by the Toronto Percussion Ensemble and guests, it is beautifully recorded and presented by Albany Records. The “spine” of this chronologically presented oeuvre is a series of Pieces Percussioniques dating from 1964 to 2008. Spanning numerous and varied contemporary compositional practices, a consistent voice still emerges, refined yet playful. A percussionist himself, Horwood writes idiomatically throughout. Intricate divisions of the beat layered variously between instruments give an effect of luxuriant flourishing, without cluttering the texture. In a noisy world we forget to listen truly: try letting Percussionique’s sound world beguile you!" Check all this out, and more . . . at our current FEATURED RECORDING.

Michael Colgrass' The Schubert Birds was commissioned by the National Arts Orchestra in 1989, and is loosely based on an obscure Waltz by Franz Schubert. According to Marvin Dickau, "I am a staunch lover of contemporary music, particularly by Canadian composers. I found The Schubert Birds to be most interesting; full of mood changes, complex melodies and rhythms, along with lush chords. There is always an overtone of dissonance, sometimes more pronounced, sometimes less. From an almost ethereal start, the composition moves through many simulated bird calls interwoven with atonal melodies in fourths and fifths, all supported by the mellow lower strings. Each section has moments of prominence – wonderful mallet work from percussion, full bodied strings and tightly woven woodwinds and reeds". Hear a performance of The Schubert Birds thanks to Arts Alive and NACmusicbox . . . one of this week's PYTHEAS EARFULS.

Lou Harrison's Canticle No. 3 (1942), written in San Francisco, is one of a series of Canticles for percussion "in the ecstatic manner". Of the work, the composer wrote, "It was written at a time I was most interested in Indian and Mexican music and is composed out of a very few rhythmic and melodic germs, developed in larger sections, by continuity, overlaps, and the usual augmentation and diminution." The revised version was first performed at the University of Illinois in 1952. An All Music Guide review explores the piece vividly . . . “The ocarina, a torpedo-shaped terra cotta flute, has a pure, primeval tone that, combined with percussion, gives this score a hauntingly primitive, ritualistic feel. The five percussionists haul out tam-tam, xylophone, snare drums, bass drums, wood blocks, temple blocks, tom-toms, and maracas, as well as such exotica as teponaztli, sistrums, brake drums (both muted and suspended), metal pipes, elephant bells, cowbells, and water-buffalo bells. Amid all this -- which Harrison exploits for timbral richness, not loudness -- the guitar struggles to make an impact of its own, remaining absent or in the background until taking a slightly more prominent role at the end. The work falls into three large sections. In the first, the ocarina plays a little pentatonic dance, then retreats for what amounts to an extended percussion cadenza arising from the rhythm of the ocarina tune. The ocarina returns for the second part, now playing a very slow melody of short, repeated phrases deeply indebted to Native American music. Percussion instruments give the melody a shimmering halo, but again the ocarina disappears during a fast-tempo, gradually expanding percussion crescendo distantly based on the rhythm and pitches of the opening tune. Just as this section climaxes in a series of widely spaced crashes, the ocarina and guitar take advantage of a moment of silence to bring back the pentatonic tune from the beginning, the quiet percussion accompaniment now more threatening than before. Yet instead of exploding in a final percussive outburst, the music very gradually slows and fades away, leaving nothing but a slowly throbbing bass drum." Watch a performance of Lou Harrison's Canticle No. 3 (1942) by The YouTube Symphony Orchestra with conductor Michael Tilson Thomas . . . it's this week's FROM THE PYTHEAS ARCHIVES.