Friday, June 4, 2010

Birds of a Feather

by Mark Gresham

Last night's performance by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus unveiled a pair of world premieres by composers Jennifer Higdon and Michael Gandolfi, placing them on the front burner ahead of intermission, and leaving one of the core symphonic repertoire's best-known works as a contrail in their wake.

The program opened with new music sextet eighth blackbird (the name is deliberately in lower case) as the featured solo ensemble for Higdon's On a Wire, a single-movement concerto specifically written for for that ensemble and large orchestra. (As for the title, the composer suggests imagining six blackbirds on a telephone wire.) The premiere follows on the heels of two high-profile successes for Higdon in the concerto field this year: a Grammy Award for Best Classical Contemporary Composition for her Percussion Concerto at the end of January, and the 2010 Pulitzer Prize in Music for her Violin Concerto in April. Higdon had previously written two chamber works for eighth blackbird, so was fully prepared for the task in terms of familiarity with the performers' individual personalities and potentials as the concertino of the new concerto. And she threw in a few uncommon performance practices with modest theatrical possibilities to stir the interactive musical pot a bit.

GETTING INTO IT: Chamber ensemble eighth blackbird perform Pulitzer Prize winner Jennifer Higdon’s On a Wire with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, members of the sextet here bowing the grand piano's wires. Credit: Jeff Roffman.

On a Wire opens with the entire sextet playing both on and inside the Steinway concert grand piano, incorporating extended performance techniques, such as bowing the piano's strings, into Higdon's more traditional technique-rich stylistic landscape. She readily admits her most recent inspiration for the piano bowing technique comes from Colorado College's internationally recognized Bowed Piano Ensemble, ten performers playing one piano in this unusual manner.

But it must be remembered that Higdon is a protege of West Virginia-born avant-garde composer George Crumb, noted for his work as an avid explorer of unusual timbres and extended techniques. Higdon's combination of techniques with the piano in the opening and other cardinal passages of this work—bowing, muting, striking with mallets—produces from the instrument not merely a polyphonic musical result, it's traditional musical role, but a singular poly-timbral entity. This is rooted in not only the innovative work of Crumb, but of John Cage and his pioneering use of the prepared piano—initially his pragmatic solution for obtaining the musical effect of a percussion ensemble where there was no room for one but a piano was already present and available.

And yet Higdon is not an avant-gardist. In addition to study with Crumb, she was also a protege of Ned Rorem, a composer who stuck to his substantial tonal, lyrical creative guns throughout the heyday of the late 20th-century avant-garde, when such compositional proclivities were severely sublimated in the acceptance-controlling academic world. Like Crumb, she is able to take techniques which could so easily be used in grossly cliché manners, and makes music with them. And yet, while Crumb used them as foundation materials of his style, Higdon uses them as a natural expansion of the more prevalentJennifer Higdon child-of-Rorem side of her own style where they draw less attention to themselves as sheer techniques than successfully integrate themselves into the overall work's exuberant, buoyant, and expressive character.

In fact, recent Pulitzer and Grammy aside, in many ways On a Wire is Higdon's most lyrically liquid and lucid, expressively engaged work to date. Yes, its bright energy, rhythmic interplays, and the occasional featured extended techniques formed the larger backdrop in the work's overarching form. But most impressive was the intimacy of interactions among eighth blackbird's concertino when it came to those remarkable moments where passionate, liquidly lyrical lines came to the fore, and likewise the often seamless character of ebb and flow between concertino and the musically substantial contributions of the full orchestra behind them, often trading prominence in tide-like exchange of a more concertante than starkly concerto-ish manner.

If one makes a comparison between this work and City Scape, the Atlanta Symphony's first commission from her (based largely on reflections of living in Atlanta during her first decade of childhood), its clear how far Higdon's compositional voice has continued to mature to a fuller bloom in the intervening eight years.

Michael Gandolfi is a composer deeply invested in the relationships between science and beauty. Not the simplistic hyperboles about basic mathematics and music so often postured, but the range and vastness of human discoveries where microcosmic and macrocosmic wonders lend new enlightenment and perspective to our everyday experiences on what one might call a typical human scale.

His previous musical explorations on this theme, both topical and theoretical, have been well-evidenced in The Garden of Cosmic Speculation, a work composed from 2004 (four movements or “impressions” for the Tanglewood Festival) through 2007 (expanded to eleven movements as his first commission from the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra), with, as he casually suggested in last evening's pre-concert talk, potential for further, ongoing expansion.

One who is as yet unfamiliar with Gandolfi's music might wrongly assume that his interests in deep science and mathematics would imply a rarefied, academic approach to composing, but that is not the case. Although he was schooled in that kind of environment, he ultimately and enthusiastically abandoned that for, as he says, music in which he could engage himself as a listener. That does not mean that his musical structures are not informed by scientific models and mathematical transformations on many levels, but that these are tested by Gandolfi against how the results bear out, for him at least, as direct and memorable musical experiences, no less than such models are aesthetically borne out in visual and architectural arts, as well as nature itself.

In the ASO commission for Q.E.D.: Engaging Richard Feynman, Gandolfi reached a landmark in his own compositional history, as he was asked to tread a universe in which he had not ventured since his days as a university student: Writing a work for a chorus. And not just any chorus, mind you, but the inimitable Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus.

Gandolfi says he was terrified by the idea. But the results were splendid.

The initial inspiration for Gandolfi's piece came from some 1981 videos of Richard Feynman, a superstar physicist who co-won the 1965 Nobel Prize in Physics and was one of the best-known scientists in the world during his lifetime, for his work in quantum mechanics and particularly for his namesake, the Feynman diagram. But he was also esteemed for his ability to put complex ideas into manageable language, and so came to be known as “The Great Explainer.”
Videos of Feynman introduce each of the two movements, respectively entitled On Waking and Song of the Universal.

In each of these, using brief dialectical stories of personal experiences, Feynman challenges certain human assumptions about perception and understanding, the respective subjects being “the beauty of a flower; a bird's true nature,” writes author and photographer Dana Bonstrom, with whom Gandolfi collaborated in collecting texts for the piece.

Bonstrom describes the final assemblage as a kind of “mash-up” or conversation among diverse poets convened to talk among themselves. In the first, On Waking: Gertrude Stein, Emily Dickinson, and Joseph Campbell (the Irish Republican poet, not the popular mythologist of the same name). In Song of the Universal: Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Siegfried Sassoon. And while he suggests that such poetical excision might make make purists cringe, he concludes that the poets themselves might be pleased because, “Their words, after all, have been set to Michael Gandolfi's music.”

Despite having not once explored the choral medium since student days, Gandolfi shows a remarkable, and often fresh capability with writing for the choral instrument. Too often, a primarily instrumental composer will write what choral conductor Gregg Smith calls “keyboard music for voices.” Gandolfi does not fall into that trap. Notably: In the first movement there are certain homophonic passages where planing or near-planing occur, and the choral textures are solid, but not dense; rather brilliant, and luminous in their prismatic shifting of chordal harmonies. In the second, passages of challenging rhythmic figures come to the fore, demanding for deployment an acute capacity for diction—though “diction” is, perhaps, a misleading word or concept, with its implications of delivery of meaning. In music these elements should be explored on a deeper, more fundamentally sonic level, beyond the meaning of words, not unlike how Feynman speaks of greater depth in observing the beauty of flowers.

It was also Gregg Smith who would repeatedly tell how Igor Stravinsky expressed that his own interests in texts were first and foremost for the sounds of the words. And in the sounds of the words, beyond meaning, into the world of their microrhythms, is where acumen for this kind of choral singing is found. Not singing words on notes, but singing what one might call “every sound, every moment.” Despite the difficulty, these passages are written by Gandolfi in such a way that a bold clarity was reached in their rhythmic deployment.

In speaking with a local colleague after the concert, we both agreed that Gandolfi should next tackle composing an unaccompanied choral work of significant length and substance.

One of the other notable points of interest which must be mentioned are the complex, exuberant “bird call” figures in the second movement. As part of his research in preparation for composing the work, Gandolfi collected and studied field recordings of birds. On only one listening one cannot, unless an expert, tell whether these bird-call figures are as ornithologically audiographic as Olivier Messiaen's musical transcriptions of avian song, but the overall impression is musically effective.

Nevertheless, one might ask: What of it? Feynman himself might have posed it, whether speaking of either Gandolfi or Messiaen: Do these musical bird-calls tell us more about birds themselves or about the composers who emulate their song?

ENGAGING THE AUDIENCE: ASO chorus director Norman Mackenzie, conductor Robert Spano and composer Michael Gandolfi take a well-deserved collective bow following the world premiere of QED: Engaging Richard Feynman in Atlanta Symphony Hall. Credit: Jeff Roffman.

Listening to these two world premieres, I am inclined upon reflection to describe them as somewhat “birds of a feather” (hence my title). Not due to any respective references to birds, nor do I take the composers' personal styles to be alike. But especially given that they are anointed as members of Robert Spano's aesthetic “school” of composition, beyond the simplistic marketing explanation of being “listenable” there are far too many audible elements to deny a myriad of similar influences which reach down to common historical roots of many kinds.

First of all, there is a common kind of audible “American-ness” they share which one can feel but perhaps not entirely put a finger on, though one can point to certain elements here and there: deployment of orchestral forces, bright and positive character (versus an overriding angst so popular among some of the last century's academics), harmonic and rhythmic undercurrents from similar classical and popular sources of the past—stylistic elements, both small and large scope, which do not draw from all of the past, but do seem to find great swaths of common ground. Moreover: composers with an ability to be both fun and serious, intimate and outgoing, at the same time.

So if there is indeed any common aesthetic “school” of composition here between not only Higdon and Gandolfi, but among the entire body of composers Spano has gathered around him, then we need to take Feynman's advice and look deeper, listen deeper, and better define and understand what is really implied that makes it worthy of being called a “school” at all beyond the vague statement of “audience appeal” or even the central guiding-light personality of Robert Spano himself.

I want better, deeper answers. If a “school,” then what really is that school teaching? And who are its intended students? Beyond, that is, the goal of more ticket holders occupying the seats. That has been accomplished, the evening's audience being quite respectably full for this first half, even if not standing room only.

Originally, the Higdon and Gandolfi works were to be performed in the opposite order, and were printed so in the program, an insert alerting to the swapping of places. And as it turns out, that was a good decision; imagining it the other way around at intermission, the original order would not have been as effective.

Which brings us to the second half of the program, occupied, as it were, by one of the undeniable fixtures of classical repertoire: Mozart'sSymphony No. 39.”

Extensive historical background is not necessary except to say we're not certain about when his last three symphonies, Nos. 39, 40, and 41, were first performed nor even whether Mozart himself heard them. There is circumstantial evidence to that effect. But the rightful assumption would be that in that era, between their composition and the composer's death, any unnamed symphony by Mozart presented in various concerts would most likely be drawn from his most recent ones. After all, it was indeed the new music which brought out the audiences.

Today, the Symphony No. 39 is all too familiar—both its great strength in surviving the sheer and simple onslaught of history, but also a status which can breed complacency.

As one audience member who left at intermission said, “I've heard it before.” And that is a bit sad, just as sad as avoiding a new piece because it is unfamiliar ground. But it is telling, as a significant swath of the evening's audience was clearly present for the new works on the program. And several colleagues did verbally express their intent to leave at intermission (I had similar thoughts myself, but changed my mind about abandoning a well-listened work, as I wanted to place my thoughts about the first half within the context of the whole, if I became so inspired). Just as the size of the performing forces on stage decreased considerably, the audience, at least on the main level, was reduced by about one third. So, what did they miss?

They missed a good and pleasing performance, but certainly not an electrifying one. I fault the placement on the program, for one, as being in what might call the afterburn of the thoroughly energized first half—a situation in which it would seem a much more difficult task to re-engage. Why was it not first on the program? Was there a thought that audience might show for the Mozart then leave before the new music appeared? In the pre-concert talk, there was brief mention, only in part jokingly, about how new music typically tends to get sandwiched into a concert so that reticent audience members cannot conveniently leave without missing the well-worn favorites they had come to hear. Well, the opposite took place: they filled the hall at the beginning, and left after the new music was over! I believe that had an impact of how the performance of the Symphony No. 39 was perceived; the situation after intermission certainly drained a lot of the energy from the hall's environment. I would think that would pose a more difficult, challenging situation, however artificial, for any conductor and orchestra.

Despite the possibility of patrons with more traditional tastes leaving at intermission, placing Mozart's half-hour symphony at the beginning might have, in terms of musical sequence, set up the other works, better connected it to them, and perhaps resulted in a more remarkable performance of it as well.

The essential problem for all music of the standard repertoire lies here: When performed in Mozart's day, his Symphony No. 39 was fresh, new and exciting; no different in that respect than the premiered Gandolfi and Higdon works. But when you have a long-time relationship (whether human or musical) it is easy to let the familiarity lead toward an approach toward it which is respectable, comfortable, familiar and an unquestionably good and acceptable way, rather than one with a compelling sense of excitement and anticipation as when it is newly born, discovered, or fallen in love. Maturity of love often comes with familiarity, yes, but not necessarily relinquishing the intimacy, the passionate engagement as if rediscovered anew. It is worth the risk.

What that also does is draw the common connections between not only the music of Higdon and Gandolfi, but also between these contemporaries and the Mozart who was once himself a living composer, prior to becoming enshrined as a musical deity. And one might well discover more real, significant, if surprising, connections and affinities between these contemporaries and our old 18th-century friend, indeed, than with some of the musical academia of the late 20th century.

  » Uncaptioned images of Jennifer Higdon and Michael Gandolfi courtesy of ASO.
  » Uncaptioned image of Robert Spano, credit: Andrew Eccles
  » Uncaptioned portrait of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart circa 1780, credit: Johann Nepomuk della Croce

Atlanta Symphony Orchestra
Robert Spano,
eighth blackbird:
Tim Munroe,
flute, piccolo, alto flute
Michael J. Maccaferri,
clarinet, bass clarinet
Matt Albert,
violin, viola
Micholas Photinos,
Matthew Duvall,
Lisa Kaplan,
Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus
Norman Mackenzie,
director of choruses

Jennifer Higdon: On a Wire
 (world premiere)
Michael Gandolfi: Q.E.D.: Engaging Richard Feynman
 (world premiere)
W.A. Mozart: Symphony No. 39 in Eb major, K. 543

June 4 & 6 @ 8:00pm ; June 7 @ 3:00pm
Tickets: $25-$70
Symphony Hall, Woodruff Arts Center
1280 Peachtree Street NE
Atlanta, Georgia 30309 - USA


Anonymous said...

Mark, I really enjoyed this piece from you, bravo. And I was so taken with Gandolfi's new work that I actually went back tonight for a second hearing. The ensemble of both Jennifer & Michael's pieces was considerably tighter tonight, as both works have now been recorded by the ASO last night and this afternoon. So it was especially possible to hear the compositions as they were really intended. I am in agreement that Michael Gandolfi's new work was especially a success and puts him into a new superior league as a composer of profundity and sublime spirituality... plus a good dose of innocence and joy thrown in! Bravo to Michael Gandolfi and all the ASO team!!

Unknown said...

one of the best-written and most informative reviews i ever read