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Carlsbad Music Festival 2013 - Saturday - Evening

A long, full evening was on offer at Carlsbad Music Festival Saturday night, with three featured performances at the Carlsbad Village Theatre.

Calder Quartet has been Ensemble in Residence at Carlsbad from its founding ten years ago.They returned again, with friends, Saturday night for a multifaceted and satisfying set full of fun, adventure and danger.

The fun, in particular, was to be had in Steven Mackey's "Physical Property" for string quartet and electric guitar, with the composer playing the latter. Originally written for Kronos Quartet, "Physical Property" poses plentiful technical challenges for its players, but is ultimately about the rush and thrill of taking them on. All five musicians, and particularly Mackey, appeared to be deriving a quantum of goofy joy as they negotiated the course.

(The coda to "Physical Property" has since been reused in "Salad Days," for Mackey's prog-rock project Big Farm; attentive readers will recall that Big Farm bids fair to be my favorite record of 2013.)

Caroline Shaw of Roomful of Teeth, infra, joined the Quartet for two selections from her "By and By," settings of hopeful folk songs with troubled and ambivalent accompaniment. While Shaw sang "Angel Band" and "I'll Fly Away" with pure sweet sincerity, the Quartet fretted and muttered and second-guessed her sunny optimism.

Danger loomed in the form of Bartok's forbidding Quartet No. 3. The Calders are scheduled to essay Bartok's entire String Quartet oeuvre later this year at New York's Metropolitan Museum. The Bartok quartets are among the most daunting in the repertoire. The Third groans, plucks, yearns and glistens through four uninterrupted movements, handled here with richness and fluidity.

The concluding work brought the Calder/Carlsbad bond full circle: a section from Festival founder Matt McBane's "Ghost in the Machine," which he wrote for the Quartet for the second year of the Festival in 2005—as they noted, it was one of the very first pieces written specifically for them. (The Quartet has a generous collection of commissions to its credit now, many of them premiered in Carlsbad, and is in the process of recording a dozen of them under the umbrella title of "Eclectic Currents.") The "ghost" in McBane's piece is live electronic manipulation of the Quartet as it plays, such that ephemeral memories of earlier portions haunt through later ones. It was a fitting punctuation to the first decade of a fruitful relationship.

Claire Chase seems able to channel the hidden breath of the universe through her catalogue of flutes. This is not your butterfly and unicorn flute, but flute with rigor, flute without compromise, flute with nonnegotiable demands.

Chase performed, without breaks or comment, five of the pieces that will appear on her forthcoming album, Density. (The other selection on the album, Philip Glass's "Piece in the Shape of a Square", was on offer at the Friday Village Music Walk.) All but the last piece involved electronic accompaniment, largely in the form of the flutist playing in the company of multiple versions of herself. Eleven of her, for example, were involved in Steve Reich's voluptuously surging "Vermont Counterpoint," during which Chase moved purposefully around the stage swapping through flutes of various registers. Bass flute was at the center of Marcos Balter's "Pessoa" (a West Coast premiere), a lustrous, humid and elegaic piece. The hardest nut on the program to crack was Alvin Lucier's "Almost New York", in some ways more science experiment than concert music, in which a pure tone oscillator screeled and shifted slowly as Chase moved in darkness from flute to flute, producing a single note on each, held until it and the oscillator found commonality. Bursting energy, and the retrn of light, were the hallmarks of Mario Diaz de León's "Luciform" (also a West Coast premiere). At last, all acompaniment and other flutes cast aside, Chase took up a flute of platinum for a piercing flight towad the infinite with Edgard Varèse's 1939 "Density 21.5." Having essentially held its collective breath for 45 minutes, the audience ovated at length.

Claire Chase will close the Festival in a joint performance with percussionist Steven Schick, including a the world premiere of this year's Festival commission.

Incidental: As was pointed out by Matt McBane—who, it must be said, is probably the most self-effacing Music Festival founder in all of Christendom—Claire Chase's home town is Leucadia, which is basically the next little village south on the coast from Carlsbad.

Mic check
Roomful of Teeth, lemme say, has the best group name of any vocal ensemble, ever.

The spunk and cheekiness of that name carried over to RoT's ten-song set, which mixed pieces from the group's splendid debut album—Number 3 on this fool's Best of 2012 list—with new and/or so-far unreleased work. They even inserted a round of "Happy Birthday" for one of their members, insisting the audience join in, on key. Highlights were many, including:

Judd Greenstein's "Montmartre," which piles up syllables, shuffles and rejuggles them, and includes in the middle a North Star-period Philip Glass pastiche that never fails to make this fool grin.

A thus far unreleased addditional section from Sarah Kirkland Snider's "Unremembered," settings of poems by Nathaniel Bellows. "The Guest," which involves the story of a child sleepwalking in the snow, has the same dramatic focus and variety as Snider's Penelope (heard here in 2011), but achieves it entirely with voices. This entire cycle will, I hope, see release some day.

William Brittelle's "Beneath the Minotaur," a particular favorite of mine, was not on the program, but Brittelle's "High Done No Why To" was. It showcases the composer's fondness for twisting pop harmonies in to exotic balloon animal shapes.

Two sections from Caroline Shaw's Partita, winner of this year's Pulitzer Prize for music, were included, the other two having been performed in Magee Park in the afternoon. "Passacaglia", inspired by the powerful colors of a Sol Lewitt work at MassMOCA, was particularly potent in live performance. 

Merrill Garbus's "Quizassa", offered here as the finale, simply exploded off the stage, like fireworks in the funkiest boite in all Bulgaria, a rousing topper to a resounding night. Vox vincit omnia.


Photos and rudimentary processing by the blogger.


Carlsbad Music Festival 2013 - Saturday - Day

Still Life with IPA and Crucifix

Like Gaul, the main body of the Carlsbad Music Festival on Saturday and Sunday is divided in three parts: a series of essentially free performances in Magee Park, two intimate afternoon performances in the chapel at Saint Michael's by-the-Sea, and main stage evening performances in the Carlsbad Village Theatre. While the evening artists might properly be thought of as "headliners," the chapel programs on offer Saturday were top drawer in their own right. 

Percussionist Ian David Rosenbaum presented a three part program featuring two very recent works and a modernist classic.

First came Christopher Cerrone's "Memory Palace" for percussion and electronics, a piece whose hand crafted quality derives in part from requiring the performer to construct some of the intruments: wood must be cut to specified lengths, beer and wine bottles must be acquired and tuned to proper pitch by filling with water, and so on. The piece itself is in four distinct segments, each for a different set of percussion equipment and each named for and drawn from the composer's past. The first segment centers on a restrung thrift shop guitar, the second on the hand cut slats of wood, the third on an array of chiming items including tuned metal pipes, the fourth returns to the wooden slat in larger numbers, and the fifth focuses on blowing over the tops of those beer and wine bottles. A loud kickdrum punctuated the transitions. The electronic elements grounded the piece with an array of low harmonic drones, underpinning the melodic elements emerging from the percussive hodge-podge.

Given the roughness of the equipment, it was a charming surprise when the overall effect of "Memory Palace" proved remarkably contemplative and moving. The composer—in southern California preparing for the premiere of his opera Invisible Cities in L.A.'s Union Station in three weeks—was present to share in the deserved applause.

The classic on the program was John Cage's 1948 piano piece, "In a Landscape," transcribed by Rosenbaum for marimba. "In a Landscape" is Cage for people who don't like Cage, a hushed and lush Satie hommage. The spectral tones of the marimba were a natural match for the straight up loveliness of the piece.

Rosenbam concluded with "Khan Variations" by Argentine composer Alejandro Viñao. Viñao was inspired by a recording of the great Pakistani singer of qawalli music, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, borrowing the core melody from that performance and running it through an array octave jumping styles and variations. Rosenbaum played it with verve and conviction, and physical stretches worthy of Cirque du Soleil, to a rousing conclusion.

Bubbly, Bowls and Cowbell
What's Next? Ensemble occupied the chapel in the later afternoon. A Los Angeles based group of performers and composers, What's Next? brought a program that it premiered last month in L.A., themed to the intermingling of "natural" and "unnatural" sounds and featuring works by two of the ensemble members on either side of a forbidding masterwork of Luciano Berio: "Naturale" (1985) for viola, percussion and recording.

The performance of "Naturale" by violist John Stulz drew an unqualified rave from the Los Angeles Times' Mark Swed, and it was easy to understand why. "Naturale" is a setting of more than a dozen themes drawn from Sicilian folk music—knotty, idiomatic stuff, sung in native Sicilian dialect and drwing heavily on north African modes. The percussionist enters and retreats seemingly at random, as do prerecorded excerpts of actual Sicilian singers. The violist works away non-stop, called upon to draw most every extended sound his instrument can be made to produce and to shift instantly from lyric to cacophony to growl to sigh. Stulz surmounted the uncountable challenges of the piece in riveting, edge of the seat fashion. He did not make it look easy: one doubts that anyone could.

Before the Berio, What's Next? offered "The Galvanized Natural Electric" by the Ensemble's electric guitarist, Alexander Elliott Miller, for guitar, viola and percussion. The two-part piece was inspired by Miller's experiments with digital treatments of his guitar, progressing from hushed tension to a crunching assertive conclusion. For a closing number, the Ensemble added a keyboard player—and Miller took up the harmonica and kazoo—for percussionist Ben Phelps' "Concerto for Viola, Percussion, and Casio Keyboard". Although there is still a good deal of serious viola work secreted about its person, Phelps' "Concerto" is ultimately an intentional hoot. Over four progressively more lengthy movements, it features a theme that seems a tribute to Raymond Scott's "Powerhouse" and a quick detour in to Carmen's "Habanera". It is the most sophisticated cartoon music you ae likely to hear, and a proper delight with which to end.

After an overcast Friday night and Saturday morning, there was nary a cloud on Saturday afternoon. One consequence of the otherwise perfect weather, though, was that the Saint MIchael's Chapel was decidedly close and toasty, and grew more so as the afternoon progressed. All of the performers, and particularly John Stulz, deserve extra commendation for playing with both grace and force under less than optimal conditions.


Photos and rudimentary processing by the blogger.


Carlsbad Music Festival 2013: Village Music Walk

Saint Michaels ceiling beams
After having to miss out last year, this blogger is back on the shore of the slate grey Pacific for the Tenth Annual Carlsbad Music Festival. As I did in 2011, I will be attempting to post here over the arc of the weekend to report what I have seen and, particularly, heard.

Friday evening at CMF means it must be time for the Village Music Walk, five hours of free performances out of doors and in spaces large and (mostly) small throughout the Village of Carlsbad. (The Walk has proven sufficiently popular that it expanded to a second freestanding night this past June, and will do so again next year.)

The early going this year involved heaping helpings of early-period Philip Glass, to which I confess I am partial. First, beneath the gazebo/bandstand in Magee Park, What's Next? Ensemble from Los Angeles dove into a loping grooving reading of "Music in Similar Motion" (1969). I posted a quick video clip of that performance to Instagram. What's Next? also has a featured afternoon slot, indoors, on Saturday's Festival program.

A short stroll down the block led to the lovely wooden chapel at Saint Michael's by-the-Sea Episcopal Church—which has become a much-used venue for Festival performances—where Claire Chase began her set with Glass's "Piece in the Shape of a Square" (1967). I knew of that piece by name—it is in part a play on Satie's "Piece in the Shape of a Pear"—but had never heard it before, and I had long wondered what the title actually meant. Now I know: the piece is written for two flutes, and the score is to be stretched, like the Bayeux Tapestry, in a long sequence across music stands arranged in, yes, roughly a square. The players literally follow the score, moving around the square in opposite directions. Claire Chase may be a MacArthur "Genius," but she is still only one person, so she played one part moving around the tight square/pear-shaped score accompanied by a recording of herself. It was delicious. (The piece is included on Ms. Chase's forthcoming album, Density, as are the pieces she will perform on her Saturday night featured set.)

Organ pipes and lens flare
This blogger's itinerary took him next into the main sanctuary of Saint Michael's for Josephine McGrath, Saint Michael's parish organist, who performed a pair of sets, one at the organ and one at the piano. The organ pieces on offer were a ponderous Liszt "Introitus" (from the composer's no-fun-anymore period), an arrangement of the much-loved Barber Adagio for Strings, and Percy Fletcher's "Festival Tocatta," one of those very British late Imperial organ pieces that is so grand and sefl-satisfied that it threatens to run off and join the circus at any moment. Ms. McGrath's piano performance took place across the way at the Saint Michael's parish hall. In that inelegant venue, she offered an elegant and deftly played 20th Century program of John Adams ("China Gates", which I last heard live when Vicky Chow played it here in 2011), Bartok ("Night Music"), Ligeti (a movement from "Musica Ricercata" with an exhausting thrum in the left hand) and, for the homespun traditionalists, a Rachmaninoff etude.

The phenomenon of soloists playing live against recorded or on-the-fly digital samples of themselves: do they teach this in the graduate music programs now? Everyone, it seems, is doing it, and there is some fine music coming out in the process. That was the approach taken by Calder Quartet cellist, Eric Byers, back in the chapel, with two pieces of his own sandwiching a Tallis-inspired work by Caroline Shaw.

Time next for a breath of the evening air and a bolt across the Village for another solo cello set, this one unaccompanied by digitalia, by Jennifer Bewerse, in the cramped, ukulele bedecked confines of the Giacoletti Music shop. The church and the music shop were at opposite corners of the Music Walk zone, so I missed the first portion of Ms. Bewerse's performance in transit (something by Britten, I think?), but enjoyed the varied riparian textures of "Rio Del Tizon" by Yu-Hui Chang.

A blur sets in at this point, as a bit of a ramble over the course of 45 minutes led to an outdoor live-accompaniment silent film, the end of a psychebluesian Theremin-stoked outdoor performance by Nice World (I regret not catching that whole set, which appeared to have been properly outthere) and the post-post anarchic stylings of no know (sound band) [video clip here].

Finally, for what proved to be the final stop of my evening, it was back inside Giacoletti Music for Low Frequency Ensemble, consisting on this occasion of contrabass, trombone, saxophone and french horn. The program was bracketed by arrangements of sacred pieces by Palestrina and Josquin des Prez, with the filling to the sandwich being Michael Gordon's "The Low Quartet" (for any four low instruments), which the composer aptly describes as sounding "like fat cows grooving." With that, the hour growing late-ish, this blogger mooved and grooved off into the night.

The main festival runs Saturday afternoon through Sunday evening, and bulletins from the aesthetic front will continue to be posted here on an as-can-get-them-written basis.


Photos and rudimentary processing by the blogger.


A Triptych, Double Quick
[Dawn of Midi; Third Coast Percussion;
  ensemble et cetera]

The other night on the Twitter I wrote:

Herewith, a slightly closer look at the three new or somewhat new recordings to which my tweet alluded.

Dawn of Midi on the face of it is a jazz trio—piano (Amino Belyamani), upright bass (Aakaash Israni) and drums (Qasim Naqvi)—but Dysnomia sounds almost nothing like a jazz album. In truth, Dysnomia sounds like Dysnomia and like nothing else, employing minimal forces for maximal surging effect.

Pulse and momentum are the principal tools at work: the players work away at small rhythmic units, the contracting time signatures phasing in and out of step with one another. The bass sets off in one direction, drums in another, and the piano often as not ticks away with one of Belyamani's hands working the keyboard as the other roams the instrument's interior strings muffling them on the fly. The methods can be traced to the urMinimalism of Steve Reich, but the effect is more comparable to the flying spartan cross-beats of contemporary club dance music. 

Dysnomia, effectively a seamless 45 minute composition, is subdivided in to nine segments, each named for a moon (the exception being "Algol," the winking binary star in Perseus). The rigorously rule-based interplay of the musicians emulates the math, mass and gravity-driven force of an irregular orbit, swinging hard to the music of the spheres.

Third Coast Percussion, as the name suggests, is headquartered in Chicago. Formed in 2005, the quartet—currently comprised of Sean Connors, Robert Dillon, Peter Martin, and David Skidmore—self-released its newest recording, Unknown Symmetry in mid-July. It is the very model of a contemporary percussion survey, displaying among other traits the unexpected lushness that can be had by striking objects against other objects.

The collection opens with the compact loping stomp of "Fractalia", by former TCP member Owen Clayton Condon. Arvo Pärt's well known, Bach-evoking (ebachative?) "Fratres" follows, in a meditative gemlike all-percussion arrangement Vombola Krugel that quickly takes up residence in memory. The shimmering nocturne of Christopher Deane's "Vespertine Formations," and Peter Garland's mutteringly withdrawn "Apple Blossm" lead to the collection's climactic offering, David Skidmore's ambitious, multipart "Common Patterns in Uncommon Time," commissioned for the centennial of Taliesin, the Wisconsin home and architectural studio of Frank Lloyd Wright. Over some 40 minutes "Common Patterns..." aims to emulate Wright's architectural practice, large structures playing off of intimate detail hoping to conjoin in a satisfying whole. If nothing else, the moment to moment details maintain a high level of interest, even if the broader themes may seem elusive.

Unknown Symmetry is the very model of a contemporary percussion survey, and particularly welcome for displaying the unexpected lushness that can be had by the subtle striking of objects against other objects.

Even the light itself falls
This blog's discussions of contemporary composers have tended to skew toward Brooklyn, Manhattan and environs, but California, north and south, is also home to an evolving and exciting array of new music, albeit less recorded and more in need of being hunted up than its eastern counterpart. An example new to me is ensemble et cetera, a trio centered in San Diego and consisting of Curt Miller (clarinets), Dustin Donahue (percussion), and Scott Worthington (double bass). Populist Records, the Los Angeles label founded by wild Up members Andrew Macintosh and Andrew Tholl, has just released the group's premiere recording, Worthington's Even the Light Itself Falls

The only thing small about the piece is the number of players required. Running nearly 90 minutes (and hence released only as a digital download) Even the Light... is a mature and ambitious work that the composer connects to capital-N Nature as a "mental space that includes both reflection and a sense of wonder." "More broadly," he writes, "a musical tide approaches and recedes."

Even the Light... combines the length and spaciousness of later Morton Feldman—sound and silence scuplting one another, each in turn acting as figure and ground—with recurring cells of tonal material, particularly in the clarinet. The effect is of a stroll, with purpose, through the shallows of deep time. The listener who is prepared to give it the same time and fullness of attention that the piece requires of its players will be rewarded as by an immersive and cleansing meditation. Recommended for any who have the time and the inclination.

On Sunday afternoon, September 22, ensemble et cetera will be performing Even the Light Itself Falls at the 2013 Carlsbad Music Festival.


All reviews in this post are based upon copies of the recordings purchased by the blogger.


Let Us Sit Upon the Ground
and Tell Some Stories of Tibetan Kings
[King Gesar, Long Beach Opera]

A good story, well told, draws the hearer in. Add speech or song, rhythmic sound, rhythmic movement, the play of light and color, perhaps a prop or two, and story becomes theater and such a story, for the duration of its telling, may become to the audience all there is. A compelling tale supplants the world.

That power to make a distracting world disappear was on display on Saturday evening in a park adjacent to the Queen Mary, where Long Beach Opera premiered its production of the late Peter Lieberson's King Gesar.

In the open air, this king found himself potentially in competition with traffic noise, police helicopters, and megahits of the 70s and 80s (Earth Wind & Fire! Billy Idol!) pumping out to the crowd at a dockside Lobster Festival across the narrow stretch of water separating the park from downtown Long Beach. As the performance began, one last helicopter circled and searched for malefactors—somehow appropriate, actually, to an introductory segment complaining of the mechanized awfulness of contemporary life—but then flew off. At that point, either good fortune or the aforementioned power of the tale took hold and this mortal plane fell away for the ensuing hour.

Technically a monodrama—for a single narrator and an octet of two pianos, cello, flute, horn, clarinet, trombone and percussion—Lieberson also characterized King Gesar as a sort of "campfire opera," envisioning perhaps a small company of travelers holding off the night swapping incidents from the legendary life of the enlightened warrior Gesar of Ling, a towering figure in the epic tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. (Lieberson, himself a follower of Tibetan Buddhism throughout his adult life, apparently also envisioned King Gesar as a Rheingoldische precursor to a Ring-like cycle of operas to be drawn from that tradition, but only completed one more [Ashoka's Dream (1997)] in his lifetime.)

Director/designer Andreas Mitisek has expanded the company by dividing the narrator's part between two performers, male (Roberto Perlas Gomez) and female (Danielle Marcelle Bond), and by the addition of a pair of dancers (Kelly Ray and Javier Gonzalez). There are only small segments of outright singing involved: most of the narration consists of rhythmically accented patter-speech or sprechstimme, much of it taken at a challengingly furious pace matching the high adventure of the saga. Both narrators managed the piece's intricacies with skill, point and impressive clarity, as well as moments of surprising humor. The octet negotiated the challenges of Lieberson's evocative serialist score with similar success, under the direction of Kristof Van Grysperre.

Two central incidents illustrate how much can be conveyed by simple means. First, Gesar becomes king by tricking his wicked uncle into sponsoring a horse race, open to all comers, with the throne as prize. Being a magical being, Gesar puts the idea in his uncle's head while in the guise of a raven, which appears as a stick puppet, voiced in a Yodaesque style by Mr. Gomez. The race itself is illustrated with more puppetry, character masks wielded atop staffs, as all of the performers jockey and jostle for position. Naturally, Gesar prevails, his scrawny nag of a horse being revealed as powerfully magical in its own right.

Later, Gesar fights for all mankind against the evil Tirthikas, with the aid for four godlike emanations of himself. As the narrators breathlessly describe the aspects and actions of each mighty avatar, the dancers' combined shadows depict them on a sheet above. The shadow work was a particular creative highlight of the evening.

The staging as a whole brought Peter Brook to mind, with reference both to his production of The Mahabharata (another epic from another, related tradition) and to his proposition that any empty space can be declared a stage: "A man walks across this empty space whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged." 

Varied and adventurous as the company has been over the years, King Gesar resembles nothing else that Long Beach Opera has done. It surpasses expectations with ease, resulting in a short evening of marvelously satisfying music theater, a testament to the simplifying, clarifying, mesmerizing power of song and story.



King Gesar was commissioned by Hans Werner Henze for the Munich Biennial, where it premiered in 1992 with an ensemble including pianists Peter Serkin and Emmanuel Ax and cellist Yo-Yo Ma. The U.S. premiere came at Tanglewood the following year with the same principals, who also performed on the recorded version issued in 1996. The Southwest Chamber Music Society gave the work its West Coast premiere in 1997, here in Los Angeles at the Museum of Tolerance. My own admittedly not-exhaustive research has not revealed a fully "staged" version of the piece prior to this one.


Saturday's opening performance sold out; tickets may be available for the remaining two performance, September 13 and 14. All performances are at 8:00 because stories should be told at night.

Photos by Keith Ian Polakoff, used by kind permission of Long Beach Opera.

[As ever with Long Beach Opera, the blogger attended this performance as a subscriber, at his own expense.]