Monday, July 16, 2007

Summer Music 2007: AMERICANA

Our theme for summer concerts this year is AMERICANA -- a theme that covers a great deal of musical territory.

In June, we had performances from American organist Joan Lippincott under the aegis of the Georgia American Guild of Organists' 2007 Southeastern Festival, plus woodwind and brass quintets from the Army Ground Forces Band. And this past Saturday, July 14, we had our annual Sacred Harp Shape-note Singing and potluck, plus LA-based composer and pianist Billy Childs and his jazz-chamber ensemble performing works from their Grammy-nominated CD release, Lyric.

Coming up this week: more examples of the richness and diversity of musical Americana. NASHVILLE BLUEGRASS BAND on Friday, July 20, 2007 at 8:15 pm is a first for Spivey Hall. Though we've presented bluegrass musicians in our Young People's Concerts, this is the first full-length bluegrass presentation Spivey Hall's 17-season history. I was immediately drawn to this group when I heard the members singing. The sound was great, and great singing thrives at Spivey Hall, so I was keen to invite them. We're happy to welcome these five gentlemen -- outstanding singers and instrumentalists all -- for what promises to be a great evening of fine music and entertainment. And I'm glad to report that sales are brisk!

Then on Saturday, July 21st, our quest for Americana takes us a recital by pianist CHRISTOPHER TAYLOR , whose career since his success in the Van Cliburn Competition continues to build from strength to strength. I heard him at the Aspen Festival several summers ago, and he made a memorable impression on me.

Those of you who see The New York Times probably noticed a big article in the Sunday 7/15/07 edition featuring Christopher and the special Steinway with two keyboards -- the only such instrument Steinway ever made -- which he is using to perform Bach's Goldberg Variations. Bach specifically indicated a two-manual instrument for performances of this work, and the implications of performing it on a two-manual are both sonic and visual. It's a highly interesting article written by James Barron, who chronicled in great detail the many steps in the creation of a Steinway grand, in his series of NYT articles that have since been published as a book, aptly titled Piano. So if you haven't seen the article on this fascinating instrument and how Christopher has brought it back to the concert stage, check it out:

This will be Christopher's second appearance at Spivey Hall, and on this occasion he'll be performing a solo recital on a traditional Steinway grand (with just one keyboard!) . He's starting his program with two works by living American composers: Derek Bermel's Turning, and then six of the 12 New Etudes for Piano by William Bolcom (who was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for this composition). The second half of the program features the last six of the virtuosic Transcendental Etudes by Franz Liszt. These are truly powerhouse pieces. Admitted, they aren't American, but any performance of these works is an upper-case Event. Plus, can you imagine playing the Goldberg Variations *and* this program in the course of a week?!? (Quite enough repertoire for any pianist to carry, no matter how much stamina he has!) Yes, the Transcendental Etudes require immense virtuosity and present major technical challenges for any pianist, but they also contain music of compelling originality and, in some moments, exquisite poetry. They're also pieces whose success in perforemance depend significantly on the pianist's interpretative skills and artistic taste, Christopher's wife, musicologist Denise Pilmer Taylor, wrote program notes for Christopher's Spivey Hall performance, which I reproduce below to give interested readers and listeners a better idea of what's in store. I eagerly look forward to it all.

Derek Bermel (b. 1967)
Turning (1995)

Derek Bermel, the award-winning composer and clarinetist from New York, wrote Turning during a summer at the Tanglewood Music Center early in his career. He dedicated the piece to the composer Henri Dutilleux, with whom he was working at the time, and pianist Christopher Taylor.

Though its form is structured into six somewhat free sections, one can actually detect a hint of theme and variations. The opening theme is a short tune in the key of B major, comforting in its simplicity; a pentatonic echo follows, inspired by a residency in West Africa that the composer had recently completed. The first variation, "Nightmares and Chickens," aptly describes frantic, schizophrenic clucking. Calm returns at the opening of the second variation, "Kowië at Dawn," describing a small Sissala village in northwest Ghana; soon boisterous African xylophone sounds overtake the tranquility. A brief passage, in which we hear a ghost of the opening theme, leads to the final variation, "Carnaval Noir," an exuberant Latin dance with hints of American ragtime. Finally, the work spirals back to the opening material, transformed.

Spurred by the success of Turning, in 2006 Bermel adapted it into a concerto called Turning Variations. It was premiered with the Indianapolis Symphony the same year, with Christopher Taylor at the piano.

William Bolcom (b. 1938)
12 New Etudes for Piano, Nos. 7-12 (1986)

One of America’s favorite living composers, William Bolcom appeals to audiences because of his innate love and understanding of the American musical landscape. A highly acclaimed piece written in a learned vein, the 12 New Etudes for Piano earned Bolcom the Pulitzer Prize for composition two years after its completion. In these pieces of fierce technical challenges, Bolcom explores novel pianistic sonorities, juxtaposing them with his hallmark jazzy rhythms and witty subtexts.

7. “Premonitions”
The opening work in this evening’s set imparts a rather sinister tone. Using the middle pedal to sustain the piano's three bottommost notes, the pianist creates ghostly harmonics in the notes above.

8. “Rag infernal”
Bolcom is well-known for embracing popular American idioms, his Garden of Eden or Three Ghost Rags being favorites in this category. In a slightly more acerbic vein, “Rag infernal” pays homage to stride technique (a pulsing left hand figuration that alternates between bass notes and middle register chords), at a fiendishly brisk tempo. The pianist’s sense of aim is sorely tested by this etude.

9. “Invention”
Recalling the inventions of J.S. Bach, this etude employs three independent voices. The parallel to Bach ends there, however, as the voices noodle about introspectively, each with its own interesting personality and convincing shape.

10. “Vers le silence” (Towards Silence)
Bolcom employs the piano's sonorities in a very imaginative fashion, using all three pedals to achieve novel effects, with extreme registers, sudden outbursts, and tempo shifts from rapid to very slow. On occasion the composer directs the pianist to hold notes silently with the sostenuto pedal, to enhance the overtones of the upper register notes. Later, an evocative “misty” scene is achieved with una corda and half pedal. At the end a single chant-like motto repeats seven times, each time more quietly than before. In accordance with the title, the final dynamic marking ppppppp (a record number of p's?) indicates the dwindling sonorities.

11. “Hi-jinks”
Confined almost entirely to the piano's top two octaves, the pianist has a challenge to make comprehensible the melodies and shapes in the extreme upper register. Bolcom’s witty side cannot be missed here, provided the pianist gets the timing right.

12. “Hymne à l'amour” (Hymn to Love)
In this grand finale, Bolcom again displays a great flair for creating unusual, striking colors. A mid-treble ostinato recurs throughout, alternating with a chorale-like section. Ultimately, the chorale prevails, bringing matters to a stirring conclusion.

Franz Liszt (1811-1886)
Transcendental Etudes, Nos. 7-12 (1851)

If ever there were a composer in a piano recital program who needs no introduction, it would have to be Franz Liszt, the musical world’s first “celebrity,” with all of that term’s sordid tabloid implications. With an intuitive understanding of virtuosity’s appeal, Liszt imposes great demands on the pianist. The twelve Etudes d’exécution transcendante (generally known to American audiences as the Transcendental Etudes) astound the listener with their originality and scope, not to mention the extraordinary feats of dexterity demanded of any performer daring to tackle them. The traditional notion of the “etude,” with its pedagogical focus on a single technique, is almost entirely absent here; each one contains a variety of pianistic challenges, and the performer must already possess a full arsenal of technical skills before approaching them.

7. “Eroica” (Heroic) – Allegro
A somewhat lengthy introduction leads to a military motive that is restated four times, varied each time, the most triumphant statement being the last. Though the hero remained a favorite subject for the Romantics, Liszt highlights a quirky, ambiguous heroism, with his protagonist struggling to climb to the heights of valor. His triumph is not altogether conclusive, as evidenced by the return in the coda of the hesitant, almost stuttering quality of the opening.

8. “Wilde Jagd” (Wild Hunt) – Presto furioso
Another favorite theme of the Romantics, the hunt most often appears with mysterious, frightening overtones. Schubert’s Lied “Erlkonig” is probably the most famous example, and Liszt’s “Mazeppa” (the fourth Transcendental Etude) also suggests the same idea. In “Wilde Jagd,” Liszt depicts galloping horses with a relentless dotted rhythmic pattern, and he provides a sense of thundering hooves in the bass. The technical challenges include speed, dynamic power, wide leaps, and repeated chords requiring a flexible wrist.

9. “Ricordanza” (Recollection) – Andantino
In Liszt’s era, Italian opera had a particularly strong influence; especially popular was the bel canto style of singing (a lyrical melody line with much embellishment). Liszt renders an elegant pianistic analog in “Ricordanza.” The modern listener may identify this type of writing with Chopin (the Nocturnes, for example). However, it would be misleading to suggest that Liszt wrote “Ricordanza” under Chopin’s influence, since his original version predated his acquaintance with Chopin. Bel canto aside, the work evokes nostalgic sentiment — “a packet of faded love letters” as Busoni famously said — and underscores Liszt’s often overlooked lyricism and tenderness.

10. Allegro agitato molto
Liszt provides neither a title for this etude nor any programmatic clues about its musical message; indeed, it defies easy description. The music is driving, fragmented, and passionate, reaching a desperate climax, so indicated by Liszt. In this devilishly difficult piece, Liszt experiments with ingeniously interlocking chords and a tremendous level of activity in the left hand (broken chords, arpeggiated figures, leaps).

11. “Harmonies du soir” (Evening Harmonies) – Andantino
Vesper bells create an evocative opening and lead to a richly harmonized melody; the music remains poetic and sensuous throughout. In addition to the coloristic and architectural challenges expected of the performer, Liszt explores various techniques for delineating melodic lines, sometimes over rolled chords and other times interrupted by sonorities in different registers.

12. “Chasse neige” (Snow Squall) – Andante con moto
Arguably the most profound etude in the set, “Chasse neige” achieves extraordinary effects through innovative pianistic wizardry. Here the almost constant accompanying tremolos depict swirling snow relentlessly battering the earth. After an initial buildup, swooping chromatic scales sneak into the texture and eventually swallow the music up altogether. These deftly handled figures, requiring absolute control from the performer, complete the portrayal of a physical landscape at the mercy of nature’s awesome power.

– Program notes © 2007 Denise Pilmer Taylor, Ph.D.

The last of our Americana concerts features the outstanding American soprano, TWYLA ROBINSON, who's no stranger to Atlanta and enjoys a thriving international career in opera, concert and recital. Last season, in her most recent performance with the Atlanta Symphony, she performed excerpts from Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier with conductor Donald Runnicles. She's singing and recording Brahms' Ein deutsches Requiem with the ASO later this year. And she'll also be appearing with The Atlanta Opera in 2007/08, performing the role of the Countess in Le nozze di Figaro next spring. I heard her give a recital in Denver a few years ago, and was taken not only by the beauty of her voice and her excellent intonation, but also how vividly she communicated when singing in English. It turns out she is indeed a fan of American song, and has created a special program of American works for us that she'll perform with pianist Ted Taylor on Saturday evening, July 28th. Here's the detailed program -- another illustration of the richness of American music, ranging from "Beautiful Dreamer" to "I'll Be Your Baby Vampire"!

CHARLES IVES (1874-1954)

Two Little Flowers (and dedicated to them)
Two Memories
1. Very Pleasant
2. Rather Sad
To Edith
Forward into Light

SAMUEL BARBER (1910-1981)

Hermit Songs
I. At St. Patrick’s Purgatory
II. Church Bell at Night
III. St. Ita’s Vision
IV. The Heavenly Banquet
V. The Crucifixion
VI. Sea Snatch
VII. Promiscuity
VIII. The Monk and his Cat
IX. The Praises of God
X. The Desire for Hermitage

STEPHEN FOSTER (1826-1854), arr. Edwin Penhorwood (b.1939)

Beautiful Dreamer
No One to Love
I Dream of Jeannie
Ring, Ring the Banjo


Kisses // Lynn Cowan
I Know Where a Garden Grows // George Elmoor
May I Print a Kiss // Carrie Jacobs-Bond
Save Your Kisses Till the Boys Come Home Mellor // Gifford/Godfrey
They Were All Out of Step But Jim // Irving Berlin
Do You Remember? // Carrie Jacobs-Bond

The Rag Time Pipe of Pan // Sigmund Romberg
Early in the Morning Blues Brown // Klages
Nobody Knows // Irving Berlin
He’s a Rag Picker // Irving Berlin
Solo Piano Rag // TBD
I’ll Be Your Baby Vampire // Grace Doro
You’ve Got to See Mamma Rose // Conrad
The Red Rose Rag // Percy Wenrich

HAROLD ARLEN (1905-1986)

It’s Only a Paper Moon
Little Drops of Rain
Right as the Rain
I Love to Sing-a

And if we're lucky, there there might be an encore or two as well...! This is great chance to discover more of Twyla Robinson's personality as an artist, in the intimate environment of Spivey Hall, whose acoustics favor vocalists so generously -- and a very fitting conclusion to our summer of Americana.

This will be our final concert until the 2007/08 Spivey Series opens with rising star Russian pianist Polina Leschenko on Saturday, October 6. I've been accumulating some items to blog about in the interim, on topics that aren't specific to a particular concert or artist. As always, I welcome your comment and discussion, and wish you happy listening.