Daily Bytes | Music

Composers: Wanted Dead or Alive

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NOVA Chamber Music Series & Utah Symphony  | Andrew Norman Premieres | Concert review by Gregory Walz

In three days, two of Utah’s premiere classical music organizations collaborated in Salt Lake City in a way that will continue on four additional weekends for the 2015-2016 concert season. Both entities premiered compositions by a living composer – one being a world premiere, and the other two Utah premieres. The now-venerable but lively NOVA Chamber Music Series gave the Utah premieres of the young American composer Andrew Norman’s string quartet An Index of Peculiar Strokes and Gran Turismo (for violin octet), and the Utah Symphony gave the world premiere of Switch, his percussion concerto – the official title page of the published score says “for Solo Percussion and Orchestra.” Such unity of artistic vision is entirely admirable, and hopefully will continue in succeeding seasons. All three concerts were triumphs and all three premiere compositions created sound worlds that are arresting in their tactile immediacy. Those seeking a deluge of melodies may need to look elsewhere, but lyricism in textures, colors, and at times even rhythms is present in all three scores, sometimes in abundance. The three Andrew Norman compositions are for the adventurous musical spirit that desires compelling sonic tapestries.

 

The NOVA Chamber Music Series has in recent years engaged decisively and on multiple fronts with the works of living composers. Almost every recent concert (six per season on the Subscription Series, two per season with the now almost two-year old Gallery Series) has featured one or more compositions by a living composer. The compositions of dead composers are still in many ways the ideal complements to compositions by living composers. Such pairings move beyond any clash of contrasting styles and ethos to one of eras and musical outlooks. The living and the dead composer are both wanted and needed. The Utah Symphony and even Utah Opera have attempted this overall approach too in recent seasons, but not as consistently and to the same degree. It is often a difficult, daunting, and expensive prospect. The most recent concert experience was Sunday afternoon, November 1 at Libby Gardner Concert Hall at the University of Utah. The most recent Utah Symphony experiences were the two concerts given on November 6 and 7 in Abravanel Hall. All three premieres were received enthusiastically by many in the audiences, but Gran Turismo and Switch were the clear winners.

 

Andrew Norman’s (b. 1979) compositions Gran Turismo (for violin octet) and string quartet An Index of Peculiar Strokes enlivened what could have been a sedate NOVA concert. They each followed works by the great German composer Johannes Brahms (1833-1897). An Index followed five waltzes from opus 39, and Gran Turismo followed the Scherzo from the F.A.E. violin sonata. Gran Turismo originally received its world premiere in 2004, and An Index of Peculiar Strokes in 2011.

 

An Index of Peculiar Strokes was performed with aplomb by the Fry String Quartet (in long-term residence at Utah State University in Logan, Utah). An Index is a short piece (about 9-10 minutes), with seven brief movements: Release, Rebound, Scrape, Up, Skim, Down, and Skip. The movements explore different ways that bows can move across the strings. For example, “Release” uses quick and smooth repeated and slightly varied upbows with short pauses in between, “Up” only uses one upbow by each string player, “Down” one long downbow by each musician, and “Skip” extremely rapid and leaping fingerings. “Skim,” with its deeply intricate sense of tone colors, and “Skip,” with its liquid tones, were the highlights for this listener. Both An Index and Gran Turismo are visceral, in that their sounds emphasize textures far beyond any sense of even a hint of fragmented melodies, although tone colors still manifest themselves in a more or less readily discernible way. In the case of Gran Turismo, incessant and varied rhythms are part of the concentration on textures, which expand and contract. Eight violinists from the Utah Symphony provided a school in the séance of oscillating and invigorating textures. Kathryn Eberle, who played in the premiere in 2004, led the group of violinists with precision and feeling.

 

Johannes Brahms composed over twenty masterpieces of chamber music. Andrew Norman has composed about half that number of chamber music works. His string trio A Companion Guide to Rome (about 25 minutes duration) was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2012, and received its United States premiere via NOVA on November 13, 2011. I heard that performance, and believe this string trio to be an exceptional composition, although it is noticeably more lyrical than the two works heard on November 1. In the end, the pairing of two of Norman’s chamber music works with several smaller scale compositions by Brahms was an excellent choice. Both composers exhibit a mastery of form, and in its own way Norman’s compositional style is as precise and efficient as Brahms’ — and at times as psychologically elusive. Yet Norman’s interest in musical architecture, and architecture more generally, is an additional reason why these two works of his parry well with the works of Brahms, whose compositions are known for their adherence to this focal point. Norman is a fastidious craftsman, and so was Brahms. Of course, only time will unveil what place the two modern compositions will find in the chamber music repertoire.

 

The five piano four-hands (duet) compositions by Brahms that began the afternoon concert, five surreptitiously gallant waltzes from opus 39 (from a total of sixteen short ones composed in 1865), were dashed off with a probing wit, but also with at least some weight in tonal density and shafts of beaming lyrical radiance. Kimi Kawashima and Jason Hardink (husband and wife) were intuitively unified and reflective in their rhythms and little inflections of melodic line. Mr. Hardink is Principal Keyboard of the Utah Symphony, and Kimi Kawashima is a superb pianist in her own right, on the faculty at Westminster College in Salt Lake City, and Executive Director of the NOVA Chamber Music Series.

 

Brahms’ contribution to the F. A. E. violin sonata, the aggressively lilting and longing Scherzo third movement, was played by Claude Halter with fine gradations of tonal warmth and insouciant colors. Halter is the Principal Second Violin of the Utah Symphony. Pianist Jason Hardink added just the right amount of rhythmic underpinning to make the performance complete. The sonata has four movements. In a twist, the sonata was composed in 1853 by three composers, first played in that year, but not published complete until 1935. The German composers Robert Schumann and Brahms composed three of the movements, Schumann the second and last. Schumann’s student Albert Dietrich composed the initial movement. The work was a tribute to the great Hungarian violinist Joseph Joachim. Joachim’s personal motto was Frei aber einsam (“free but lonely”), a German Romantic phrase. Joachim premiered the work.

 

After intermission, Brahms’ youthful String Sextet No. 1 in B-flat major, Op. 18 received a performance of stylish point and line. The whole sounded far more compelling than each moment — still gracefully delivered — and a surprising darkness crept into the interpretation. The work has four movements (marked Allegro ma non troppoAndante ma moderatoScherzo: Allegro molto, and Rondo: Poco Allegretto e grazioso), and lasts about thirty minutes. It was composed for two violins, two violas, and two cellos. For this performance, Utah Symphony principal violist Brant Bayless and Associate Principal cellist Matthew Johnson joined the Fry String Quartet.  The first movement had a sauntering clarity to its colors with an agile melodic pulse, the second a declamatory sense of lyricism, the third a vehement warmth of articulation, the fourth a hunt for a sense of unified warmth in the lyricism.

 

But the Everest of the second weekend to climb for all involved was Andrew Norman’s Switch. Lasting about 20 minutes, it received its world premiere in Abravanel Hall, with the Scotsman Colin Currie playing all manner of percussive instruments, including, in striking fashion, tin cans, temple blocks, bongos, congas, wood blocks, vibraphone, and most compelling of all, at the very end, seven tuned gongs. Currie actually made his United States orchestral debut with the Utah Symphony in Abravanel Hall a number of years ago, and has previously appeared with the Utah Symphony in 2014, 2011, 2008, 2005, and 1999. He was of course in his element after all these visits and performances. A live recording of Switch, edited from the two performances (and an audience-less “patch” session from late Saturday evening), will be released just before the Utah Symphony’s return to Carnegie Hall in 2016. The two other Utah Symphony commissions given their world premieres this year will also be on the album.

 

All three Norman compositions were received graciously by their audiences, but Switch should enter the standard percussion concerto repertoire, if there really is even such a thing at the present time. Over the last fifteen to twenty years, numerous percussion concertos have been composed by a range of prominent European and American composers. The genre is perhaps on the verge of inundation, with the number of soloists able and even willing to perform these concertos perhaps numbering less than the fingers on one hand — Evelyn Glennie, Colin Currie, and Martin Grubinger. One could begin to question the longevity of these concertos after their world premieres. Few have been recorded for commercial release, but then again one could argue that most new orchestral compositions seldom have a chance — or are given one — to even enter the standard repertoire. The most prominent percussion concertos of recent years include those by the Americans Christopher Rouse (1997), Jennifer Higdon (2005), Steven Mackey (2005), Elliott Carter (2010-2011), the Scot James Macmillan (two, one in 1992, the other 2014), and the Finns Kalevi Aho (finished 2010, premiered 2012) and Einojuhani Rautavaara (2008).

 

Switch is eminently listenable and approachable. It is in one movement, with, according to the composer, many “stories” and different “channels” that are changed by the slapsticks played by three orchestral percussionists. It is an exhilarating, inventive concerto — a piercing, gleaming, cosmically radiating edifice to percussive and orchestral sound. It is perhaps the most visceral of the three Norman compositions performed in Salt Lake City the past two weeks. It begins and ends with some of the quietest orchestral dynamics – made by the flutes and clarinets, then horns (I believe) with no pitch and just an air sound — and then quickly and at times suddenly moves into and out of busier, even lacerating, tactile, alternating lucidly stark and dense textures and colors, with increasing intensity in the string and brass lines moving in and out of the sonic maelstrom.

 

When the soloist plays certain percussion instruments, the orchestra, or sections of it, play or stop playing, freeze in place, enter different sonic realms, play louder or softer, or higher or lower pitches. The soloist moves on a journey from stage left to stage right, with a loop back — or as Andrew Norman says, the orchestra attempts to rewind the progress of the soloist. At times the soloist engages in a rush of interplay — an unexpected highlight — with three other arrays of percussion, placed at stage right, stage center (back), and stage left. These station’s percussion instruments were played dynamically by three members of the Utah Symphony’s percussion section: Michael Pape, Keith Carrick, and Eric Hopkins. Colin Currie, the percussion soloist, only emerged from the audience door closest to stage left after the first minute or so of the concerto, and when it ended he slowly and quietly walked to the closest door on stage right. In what is a challenging work for all concerned, Utah Symphony Music Director Thierry Fischer guided all with a sure and exacting control. Colin Currie played smoothly, suavely, and with microscopic precision, and all sections of the orchestra performed as passionately and precisely as ever. This was — I hesitate to say it — an absolute triumph for new music.

 

Switch does not reveal its secrets in one listen, and after hearing it twice Friday morning (during the Symphony’s Finishing Touches series), once Friday evening, and once Saturday evening, I am inclined to view it as something of a sonic obsidian stone, which can be perceived as a cleansing sonic bath from multiple moods and perspectives. Not once did I tire of hearing it. It is indeed an indelibly fascinating piece, and is really the only suitable centerpiece for the Utah Symphony’s return to Carnegie Hall on April 29, 2016 after an absence of just over forty years. Carnegie Hall is still a vibrant concert venue, and the Utah Symphony deserves to play a superb composition there by a living American composer. Switch can successfully endure comparison with, and complement, the three other compositions that will be performed alongside it: Franz Joseph Haydn’s Symphony No. 96 “Miracle,” Richard Strauss’ orchestral Suite from his opera Der Rosenkavalier, and Béla Bartók’s Suite from his lurid ballet The Miraculous Mandarin. The audience will thus move from the Classical era, to a twilight of late Romanticism, to one of the initial flowerings of twentieth century modernity, to the contemporary soundscape.

 

After the brisk and immersive sonic aura of Switch, the second half of the concert attempted to conjure the Austrian composer Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 (composed in 1901 and 1902, premiered in 1904 in Cologne, Germany). This symphony is in three parts and five successive movements. Part I has two movements. The first movement is marked Trauermarsch (Funeral March). In gemessenem Schritt. Streng. Wie ein Kondukt and the second Stürmisch bewegt, mit größter Vehemenz (Moving Stormily, with the greatest vehemence). These movements last about thirteen and fifteen minutes respectively. Part II has one movement — the third — marked Scherzo: Kräftig, nicht zu schnell (Strong, not too fast), and it lasts about eighteen to nineteen minutes. Part Three is in two movements. The fourth movement is marked Adagietto. Sehr langsam, and the last movement is Rondo. Finale. Allegro — Allegro giocoso. Frisch (Fresh). The fourth movement lasts about twelve minutes, and the last about fifteen.

 

The Fifth Symphony, along with Mahler’s Symphony No. 7 (also in five movements), is perhaps the most difficult of his nine canonical symphonies to play with the utmost conviction — the array of emotions sought after and conveyed in the first three moments alone is like a vast rift or chasm — despair, anxiety, hope, possible triumph — it’s all there, sometimes at the same time or right next to each other. The array is certainly present in his first four symphonies, just not in such a tortured, almost ever present climactic series of battles.

 

The performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 on Friday November 6 most assuredly engaged the aural senses, but came across to this listener as less cohesive and coherent than Switch. I suppose Mahler 5 should be discursive in a way, since performances usually last about 70-75 minutes. Perhaps my sense of the performance’s qualities was affected by my third tier seat close to one of the corners furthest from the stage. Transitions of mood and dynamics were somewhat too smooth. Instrumental lines seemed a little too fragmented and sluggish. There was a lack of the rugged intensity of line necessary at times to make Mahler sound like more of his time — connected to nature and intimations of death. So I felt Friday’sperformance was a good one, but some distance from exceptional. The audience certainly enjoyed it though, and voiced their approval accordingly.

 

Saturday’s performance was simply resplendent. The smoothness — of the lyrical lines especially — was still there when most needed (the Adagietto), but the transitions were played with compelling doses of character and a sense of their own little worlds, as in the third movement Scherzo, the architectural node of the composition. The longest movement, this received its diligent but idiomatic due. The whiplash of tone colors and dynamics felt thoroughly haunted and desperate, with passionately conveyed escapades of lyricism — a whimsical, almost carefree interpretation. The famous Adagietto was taken at a broad tempo and was never maudlin or cloying, but perfectly suited the galvanizing sense of expansion and release that engulfed the entire interpretation. The first movement was shapely, the second’s pace craftily sustained, the final movement’s textures a sleekly expansive series of weaving waves. Music director Thierry Fischer and all the orchestral musicians executed this mission of the two-season Mahler symphony cycle with enticing aplomb. Saturdays ovation was markedly more intense that that forSaturday’s Mahler 5.

 

So, Salt Lake City witnessed two weekends of splendid sonic wonders. Be on the lookout for young American composer Nico Muhly’s compositions on November 29 (NOVA) and December 4-5 (Utah Symphony), with a world premiere on December 4. Hopefully the thrills of these past two weekends will be experienced again. Will Muhly’s Control (Five Landscapes for Orchestra) withstand the pairing with Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 “Choral?” Will the forty-four year old German composer Matthias Pintscher’s Idyll, with its Utah premiere on March 4-5, 2016, find itself in any way the equal of French composer Claude Debussy’s orchestral masterpiece La mer, with Pintscher conducting? Here’s to hoping that both modern compositions will survive the scrutiny, at least for some audience members

 

The living composer, whose premieres are at times received ardently by at least a small section of an audience, should never be dismissed outright for sonic worlds he or she creates. Who among us would go so far as to say that we would have immediately welcomed Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 at its world premiere? Some critics and audience members were far from unleashing crusades of praise. We like to think that we would have been one of the initial admirers, but perhaps we are better left to ponder whether we would have been one of the critics.

Gregory Walz is a native of Bitburg, Germany and received a B.A. in History from the University of Utah. He has worked at the Utah Division of State History since 2004, in the joint Research Center with the Utah Division of State Archives in the historic Rio Grande depot. He enjoys music in almost all of its forms and genres.

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