39th Season, 2014-2015
Atlanta Chamber Players Salute Boston Composers
by Peter Van Zandt Lane, The Boston Music Intelligencer
The Atlanta Chamber Players graced New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall on Thursday evening, April 7, with a program entitled “American Milestones: A Salute to Boston.” The program featured recent pieces by John Harbison and NEC’s own Michael Gandolfi as well as an earlier work by the American Romantic composer Arthur Foote. The group was well received by an enthusiastic (if modestly sized) audience, delighted to hear our guests from the South perform less-than-familiar compositions by familiar local composers.
John Harbison’s Songs America Loves to Sing, co-commissioned by the ensemble in 2004, sets ten well-known traditional songs (senza singer) for pierrot ensemble —flute, clarinet, violin, cello and piano. The piece is inspired by the (perhaps lost) family ritual of singing traditional songs around the piano. In a similar sentimental way, the piece engages a large amount of the American musical canon. The opening number, a setting of Amazing Grace, embellishes the familiar tune in the flute, played with sensitivity by Christina Smith. Toying with the tonality of the original tune, the song meditates on the overtone series with lifting piano lines and cello harmonics. Much of the cycle operates on the fringe of tonality reminiscent of Charles Ives, shifting within a wide and beautifully nebulous spectrum between consonance and dissonance. Some of the songs, such as Canon: St. Louis Blues dive head first into the gospel/blues idiom, albeit with a good deal of added complexity. The musicians, especially pianist Paula Peace, were able to step successfully out of the typical rigidity of chamber playing to portray convincingly the movements that were a bit more c aricaturish in nature. Clarinetist Laura Ardan’s playing in the cadenza-like Solo: Poor Butterfly was a particularly revealing moment of exceptional writing married with captivating performance. Anniversary Song ends the set with the instrumentalists all playing harmonicas, repeating the melancholy tune with a certain unexpected quirkiness.
The ensemble then treated us to the Boston premiere of Michael Gandolfi’s Canzona Nova: Fractured Fairy Tale, which was commissioned just this season by the Atlanta Chamber Players. The piece (scored for oboe, string trio, and piano) is a fast-paced amalgam of rapidly moving inner-parts and broad lyricism. The piece is saturated with imitation, building off of the sixteenth-century instrumental canzona with surface motion and narrative style; in a brief intro to the performance, Gandolfi described his work as a “pre-sonata piece in a post-sonata world.” While harmonically conservative, Conzona Nova is quite adventurous in its layering of complex rhythms. The piece opens with a visceral energy that remains throughout. Gandolfi cites jazz/rock influences, which were particularly evident as musical themes characterized by expressive, falling triads in the strings were repeated, transposed up a whole-step (a trait more conversant with popular music forms). In one of the most absorbing new pieces I’ve heard lately, the music eventually dissipates into the motoric clockwork of the cello and piano – a truly compelling ending. The musicians, Elizabeth Koch, Justin Bruns, Catherine Lynn, Brad Ritchie, and Paula Peace deserve special note for a meticulous performance. The ensemble skillfully balanced the mechanical precision the piece calls for, while highlighting the piece’s larger gestures and inherent musicality.
Arthur Foote is known for being one of very few late nineteenth-/ early twentieth-century composers to receive his musical training exclusively in America. That said, there seems to be nothing of his style that differentiates it from his European counterparts; he is just as much a product of the European tradition as Brahms or Fuchs. Nonetheless, Piano Quartet in C Major, Opus 23 is an exemplary and sophisticated artifact of late Romanticism. The Scherzo stirred with excited energy, and the Adagio was part to a beguiling interpretation by violinist Justin Bruns. The ensemble gave an inspired performance, and deserves the highest praise for not only championing the music of living composers, but the music of composers whose music they feel is undeservingly disregarded by concert programmers at large.
The program credits support from the National Endowment for the Arts American Masterworks Program, which helps many groups like ACF disseminate their wonderful interpretation of American Composers’ works to audiences around the country. Hopefully we will find that this (and the rest of NEA’s) programs have survived the cuts when the new federal budget is made public.
Peter Van Zandt Lane is a composer and bassoonist who performs regularly in the Boston area. He is currently pursuing a Ph.D in Music Composition and Theory at Brandeis University.
Robert Spano, Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Music Director, shares thoughts on the Rapido! Composition Contest following his judging of the 2010-2011 National Rapido! Finals in Atlanta, Georgia.
Three regional finalists discuss the contest prior to the Atlanta Chamber Players performance of all three compositions in the National Finals. From left to right: Piotr Szewczyk, Southeastern region winner
The Atlanta Chamber Players have fashioned an All-American program based on composers far north of the Mason-Dixon line
by Edward Reichel, Chamber Music
Most Americans who love classical music could easily come up with a lengthy list of favorite composers. But they would be stumped if they had to narrow it down and just name Americans. Aaron Copland and Samuel Barber would readily come to mind, as would no doubt George Gershwin and Leonard Bernstein. But beyond these few, Americans don’t really know a lot about their own music.
That’s where the National Endowment for the Arts’ American Masterpieces: Chamber Music comes in. Begun about three years ago, the initiative has helped bring many works from the late 19th and early 20th centuries out of history books and into the concert hall and has also provided another outlet for a number of today’s composers.
The Atlanta Chamber Players’ 2009 American Masterpieces project fit neatly into what the ensemble has always been dedicated to. “We’ve always been keenly committed to American music,” says Paula Peace, the ensemble’s founder, director and pianist. “It’s great to have this focus.” The ensemble used the funds they were awarded to develop several different programs that they’ve either already played in the Atlanta area or will take on the road with them shortly. The programs have included works by John Harbison, Jennifer Higdon, Ned Rorem and the premiere of a piece by Michael Gandolfi. “We had artistic freedom in choosing what we wanted to play,” Peace says. “They [the NEA] really weren’t looking for world premieres. They were interested in promoting American music.” But they also got a brand-new work in the bargain.
This convergence between the aim of the grant and the central role American music plays in the Atlanta Chamber Players’ repertoire benefited Gandolfi, whose Canzona Nova: A Fractured Fairy Tale was commissioned by the group and premiered in Atlanta late last year. Peace describes the 15-minute-long work as a 21st-century take on 16thcentury technique. “Michael was studying 16th-century canzone and used that as the model for this piece.” Written in one movement, the work is scored for oboe, string trio and piano and employs the lively rhythms and contrapuntal treatment of the material, with overlapping cadences found in Renaissance music. But Gandolfi also adds a distinctly American twist. “There is a kinship with Dixieland, because several tunes are heard together, just like you would find in Dixieland music,” Peace says.
The Atlanta Chamber Players will be taking Canzona Nova with them when they play in Boston’s Jordan Hall and New York’s Weill Recital Hall the first week in April. The program they’ve planned for these two concerts is called American Milestones and also includes John Harbison’s Songs America Loves to Sing, for flute, clarinet, violin, cello and piano, and Arthur Foote’s Piano Quartet in C major, op. 23. “It’s really a great program,” Peace says. “It’s all-American and all-Bostonian.”
She describes Harbison’s work, a 2004 co-commission with the Da Capo Chamber Players, as a “cool piece. He takes 10 American songs and uses them as inspiration.” “Amazing Grace,” “Aura Lee,” “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” and “We Shall Overcome” are a few of the well-known tunes that Harbison has incorporated into the work, and each of the brief movements is either a solo or a canon. Says Peace: “It’s an interesting concept, and it works.”
While Harbison and Gandolfi are well-known composers whose music is played and recorded, that isn’t the case with Foote. As with so many American composers who were active in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Foote is neglected today, although that in no way reflects on the quality or integrity of his works. His music ranks right up there with that of the best composers that Europe produced. At least that’s Peace’s opinion of Foote’s C-major Piano Quartet. “If it were better known, it would be a staple,” she says. “It’s impressively crafted and has symphonic qualities.”
Peace even goes so far as to say that she finds Foote’s Piano Quartet more interesting than Robert Schumann’s: “That’s shocking, I know. The Schumann is a masterpiece, but it’s uneven. It has two really strong and two really medium movements. Foote’s quartet has four very strong movements. It’s a very mature and very well written work.”
Foote, who lived from 1853 to 1937, has the distinction of being the first American composer in history to receive his entire musical training in the United States. He studied with John Knowles Paine at Harvard and was awarded this country’s first master’s degree in music. “He is a real blue-blood American composer,” Peace says. Foote was part of a group of composers who lived in and around Boston and sought to forge a style that went into new directions. Their intention was to create music that was distinctly American and free from European influences. Besides Foote and Paine, this group also included Amy Macy Beach, George Whitefield Chadwick, Edward MacDowell and Horatio Parker. They were known as the Boston Six, or the Second New England School. (The First New England School is a term loosely used for several American composers who lived and worked in the mid-18th century and included William Billings, Daniel Read, Oliver Holden and several others.) While the Boston Six didn’t see themselves as a tightly knit organization, their aesthetics and philosophy influenced later generations of American composers. Aaron Copland, Samuel Barber, William Schuman and even Leonard Bernstein can claim to be their progeny.
Part of the NEA grant that the Atlanta Chamber Players were awarded will go towards “informances” at several colleges in Georgia, where the ensemble will discuss and perform a number of American works. “This is something we love to do,” Peace said, adding that the group is heavily involved in outreach programs. “At our informances we present a formal introduction to the music and then play it.” This spring the ensemble will visit three Atlanta-area campuses: Spelman College, the country’s largest African-American institution of higher education, Kennesaw State University, and Georgia State University.
The 2010–2011 season marks the Atlanta Chamber Players’ 35th anniversary. Right from the start they saw the need to focus a large part of what they did to American composers. Their first concert featured the music of George Crumb, and American music has been at the center of what they’ve been doing ever since. But they’ve never ignored the old warhorses of the repertoire, either. “We’ve been committed to variety,” Peace said. “We play old works and brand-new repertoire.” And she’s optimistic that pieces such as those by Harbison and Gandolfi that they’ll be playing at their upcoming concerts will stand the test of time. “We like to call them 21st-century classics.”
Edward Reichel, who holds a doctorate in composition from the University of California at Santa Barbara, is the former music critic of the Deseret News (Salt Lake City). He is the founder of and chief writer for two online classical music journals, www. ReichelRecommends.com and www.ReichelArtsReview.com.
Atlanta Chamber Players crowns 2011 national “Rapido!” winner
By Pierre Ruhe, artscriticatl.com
Just before 3 o’clock Sunday, the Atlanta Chamber Players’ “Rapido!” national finals were about to start, the culmination of an eight-month, 29-state composition contest (read more here). The audience was filing into the High Museum of Art’s Hill Auditorium. One of the judges, Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Music Director Robert Spano, asked the other judges — composer Michael Gandolfi and Atlanta Opera General Director Dennis Hanthorn — whether he should read through the scores before the concert or hear the music cold, like the rest of the audience.
Contestants had been given two weeks to compose a set of miniatures, four to six minutes in total and scored for a quartet of flute (with piccolo and alto flute optional), clarinet (with bass clarinet optional), cello and piano. In performance, ACP founder Paula Peace, a pianist, joined moonlighting musicians from the ASO. As the judges chattered amongst themselves and the house lights dimmed, the dilemma solved itself: Spano, at least, would rely on gut reactions and ears alone.
Their pre-performance strategy might not have mattered. The winner, John Elmquist of Chicago, was the unanimous pick from the judges and probably the choice of most of the audience. Announcing the winner, Spano quoted Gandolfi: they were looking for “the awake factor,” where some pieces of music can jolt a listener’s attention, demanding we take notice.
Elmquist is a Chicago bass player, pianist, church musician and the founder of HardArt Groop, an ensemble to perform his music. His winning work, “Junk Shot,” is named after the failed initial attempt to plug the Gulf of Mexico oil spill last June, which was in the news when he was composing. It lasts seven minutes, comes in three parts and sounded painterly. The first section, “decessional,” is spare, without thickness or texture, yet illuminated by prismatic chords and a compelling weight, with tick-tock pacing and abstract globs of color. Like many of the works in this “Rapido!” finale, it had no real ending.
The second section, “on my shoe,” was memorable for a dance-club rhythm honked out by the bass clarinet (Alcides Rodriguez), with arabesques above from the flute (Christina Smith) and cello (Brad Ritchie). The piano part seemed mostly to involve supporting chords. Smith’s piccolo buoyed “fleur de plume,” a fragrant and attractive miniature loaded with hard-to-coordinate runs.
Elmquist won the $5,000 prize to beef up “Junk Shot” into a 15-minute work — to be performed next season in Atlanta, Boston and Chicago — plus a two-week residency at the Hambidge Center, an artists’ colony in the North Georgia mountains.
No second or third prizes were awarded, although Patrick Greene, living in Boston — who to my ears came in third — won the Internet-based “audience favorite” award, with a $500 prize. Nothing much happens in Greene’s wispy “AbstractEXTRACTION,” in four movements, although it was often pretty to hear.
Piotr Szewczyk, whose “Images From a Journey” won the Southeastern “Rapido!” semi-finals and had been performed in Atlanta in October, left the same impression Sunday afternoon: well crafted, often turbulent, uneven in communication.
The competition retains its value for discovering new voices and engaging audiences’ imagination for what’s possible, although for “Rapido!” to remain exciting in future years, some of its music will have to make a larger impact. The competition has to be dangerous; it has to be a place where the winners (or scandalously bypassed runners-up) matter, a place where reputations are made. None of the works in this year’s finals felt capable of greater things, although I remain optimistic. The process is smart; attracting higher quality composers to enter, or picking quarter-finalists with more potential, will be one way to advance the competition.
Past “Rapido!” concerts have sometimes held too much music on the program, or music that didn’t complement the newer scores. For this concert, the two introductory pieces served to put us in the mood. Benjamin Britten’s “Phantasy Quartet,” for oboe, violin, viola and cello, was composed when he was 19 as his Opus 2. Intriguingly, it was commissioned for a composition contest, in London in 1933 … but did not win. As the protagonist, ASO oboist Elizabeth Koch (photo below) elevated this compelling juvenilia sound into a radiant masterpiece.
Jennifer Higdon’s “Zaka,” like much else at this concert, attempted to fuse a bond between the ACP and the ASO. It’s clearly Paula Peace’s strategy to make her chamber ensemble into the ASO’s semi-official chamber ensemble. Since the ASO has no in-house chamber music program, her plan seems to be working. Higdon, like Gandolfi, is a member of Spano’s “Atlanta School,” a group of non-Atlantan composers that continues to soak up most of the oxygen in Atlanta’s new-music scene. With beaming pride, Peace pointedly and repeatedly referred to the group as “our Atlanta School of composers.”
“Zaka” was composed in 2003 for Eighth Blackbird, a new-music troupe that, last June, played the world premiere of Higdon’s “On a Wire” with Spano and the ASO in Symphony Hall. “Zaka” is a zippy blast of fun, almost a TV cartoon superhero theme song, with a tranquil middle section that spreads wide and verdant. The full-fury finale was the very model of “the awake factor.”
Rapido! SE regional winner Piotr Szewczyk talks with Paula Peace
Atlanta Chamber Players name regional winner in “Rapido!” composition contest
BY PIERRE RUHE | Oct 18, 2010| www.artscriticatl.com
And the winner is …
Year two of the Atlanta Chamber Players’ “Rapido! A 14-day Composition Contest” delivered as hoped. Hatched by arts philanthropist Ron Antinori and ACP pianist Paula Peace, “Rapido!” is modeled after 48-hour filmmaking contests. In the spring, composers signed up for the competition. On the appointed day, they received the musical parameters: a set of miniatures, four to six minutes in total, scored for a quartet of flute (with piccolo and alto flute optional), clarinet (with bass clarinet optional), cello and piano. Then the composers had two weeks to write their music.
For the inaugural “Rapido!,” the competition was limited to 11 Southern states. This year it expanded to 29 states, with the ACP covering the South, Boston Musica Viva for New England and Chicago’s Fifth House Ensemble for the Midwest. All told, some 200 composers submitted entries. (Shown above, at a rehearsal: flutist Christina Smith, pianist Paula Peace, cellist Brad Ritchie and clarinetist Ted Gurch. Photos by Nick Arroyo.)
Atlanta composer Charles Knox and Atlanta Symphony flutist and composer Robert Cronin joined Peace as judges for the Southern preliminaries. They whittled the entries down to three quarter-finalists, which were performed Sunday afternoon in the High Museum of Art’s Hill Auditorium. A trio of outside judges — Georgia State University composer Nick Demos, Emory University pianist Will Ransom and North Carolina composer Jon Grier (who won “Rapido!” last year) — sat with the audience and chose a Southern champion on the spot.
The winner was Piotr Szewczyk, whose day job is as a violinist in Florida’s Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra, for his “Images From a Journey.” The four movements were remarkably different in their soundworld, although by the end the composer’s sensibility was apparent.
“Through a Prism,” the opening movement, is scurrying and playful on the surface but holds something else, something deeper, perhaps a feeling of nostalgia or regret. “Moonlight Passacaglia,” slow and contemplative, has a lot of air between the notes and an undercurrent of melancholy. The foreboding “Night’s Embrace” makes a strong impact, with nerve-wracking bass clarinet (played by Ted Gurch) and alto flute lines (Christina Smith) and creepy glissandos from the cello (Brad Ritchie). This isn’t clichéd psychodrama music like the stuff heard on HBO, and Szewczyk never resorts to off-the-rack sounds. The final movement, “Gypsy Ballroom,” a little weaker, includes Hungarian imagery, some twirls and screams and moves at a good clip.
Throughout “Images From a Journey,” Szewczyk’s music is very cleanly written, with direct and clear ideas. The instruments never trip over one another or get lost in too much action. Despite hints at deeper emotions, the music never quite goes there. It lasted just six minutes and was wonderfully polished, for the most part, but I felt something lacking, as if the composer had more to give but held back. Nevertheless, it’s a strong offering and a worthy winner.
“Images From a Journey” will join the winning works from Boston (Patrick Greene’s “Abstract Extraction”) and Chicago (John Elmquist’s “Junk Shot”) for the “Rapido!” finals, scheduled for January 16 in Atlanta. The winner of that round will receive the grand prize: a commission to beef up the work, which will be performed in the three cities next season.
To my ears, Szewczyk’s piece was seriously rivaled by Jamie Keesecker’s “One-Minute Recipes — COLLECT ALL SIX!”
A Ph.D student at Duke University, Keesecker’s premise is that a listener’s perception of time is altered by the content of the music: each of his six movements would last 60 seconds, although it might feel longer or shorter, depending on how it was constructed. “Baking Pancakes (Skipping Rocks),” the opening piece, has the lightness and insouciance of Poulenc and the French neo-classicists, charming and jittery. “Pocket-sized Passacaglia,” slow and halting, features a yearning clarinet joined by flute and cello, with the piano asking meaningful questions at the end — and it showed a spark of an original voice. My ears pricked up at this point. The movements called “Help Me With This Thing for a Minute” and “Probably Cirrus” — Keesecker needs help with titles — offered jolts of personality and a darker psychological palette. In “Rapido,” the final section, I got a sense of foreground and background in the music even as the music whipped along.
Although Szewczyk’s music was more polished and “professional,” Keesecker’s seemed on the edge of bigger things. Still, the judges have to vote based on what’s on the page, not on unrealized potential. But I’ll keep an ear out for Keesecker’s music in the future.
The third quarter-finalist, Alan Elkins , was also in “Rapido!” last year and also didn’t win any prizes. His “Strange Journey,” in three movements, was very nice work. I was especially drawn to the “Respite” finale, where the alto flute sings a lonesome song with the piano giving structure with spare chords. The music was lost in its own world, and pulled us into it.
The ACP opened the concert with Arthur Foote’s C Major Piano Quartet, Op. 23, a once popular work premiered in 1891. Pianist Peace and cellist Ritchie were joined by violinist Justin Bruns and violist Catherine Lynn.
“Essentially forgotten,” as Peace described Foote, he was one of the first major-scale American-trained composers. It’s a pity that 19th-century American composers were generally so creatively sheepish. Before Charles Ives in the early 20th century, there was no musical parallel to American poets such as Whitman, novelists like Melville or painters like Eakins, helping create an American vernacular for their art. Expertly crafted, Foote’s Piano Quartet is overheated without much content, or perhaps more light than heat. It is slavishly beholden to Brahms, but without his memorable melodies.
But back to “Rapido!” With the competition seemingly well established and expanding nationally, durable success will come when the music it awards, and the composers it discovers, enter general circulation. How will the competition (and the Antinori Foundation that funds it) take it to the next level? Or will this be an energizing experience and remain its own end point?
Boston’s “Rapido!” performance was reviewed by the Boston Musical Intelligencer.
On your mark, get set, go: Composers compete in Atlanta Chamber Players’ “Rapido!,” Year Two
BY PIERRE RUHE | Aug 18, 2010| www.artscriticatl.com
The “Rapido! A 14-Day Composition Contest” has announced a slate of semifinalists for 2010-11, and what’s clear is that classical music in America is finally getting an overdue dose of the contemporary. From the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra to the Metropolitan Opera, classical groups recognize that an artistically and intellectually vibrant arts culture can’t thrive by recycling a narrow slice of the repertoire. It’s unhealthy for art. It’s also bad for business: what industry can survive if it ignores R&D for more than a half-century?
Thus we’ve written a lot about the Atlanta Chamber Players’ “Rapido!,” which was such a surprising success in its inaugural season. What’s notable is that the ACP, led by pianist Paula Peace, isn’t one of those hip new-music ensembles. I’d describe the ACP as a musically conservative group, in fact, centered on fail-safe standards, of Brahms and Schubert and Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time.” When the ACP has commissioned new work, it’s been by the likes of John Harbison, perhaps the safest and least controversial composer in America. No knock against the 36-year-old ACP; that’s who they are, and they’ve been good at it.
“Rapido!” sets a new path. For the audience, it makes classical music a debatable topic. Everyone has an opinion about the latest movie or pop song, but who takes sides in classical music? The fixed repertoire performed by our major ensembles has made listeners passive consumers. An open contest — with an audience-favorite award — turns that upside down. The contest also probably helps boost the morale of living composers, who remain all but invisible in our society.
But don’t music competitions have a bad rap these days? Instrumental competitions tend to winnow the possibilities. The latest gold medalist from a piano competition sounds a lot like last year’s winner because, in part, the premium is on note-perfect virtuosity and not creative interpretation. I have a hunch that a composer competition will have the opposite effect. If one composer sounds too much like another and lacks a fresh voice, he or she likely won’t make it past the first round of judging.
Now for the “Rapido!” semifinalists. For Year Two, the competition has expanded to three regions: the Southeast, New England and the Midwest.
Peace and the Antinori Foundation, which funds most of the contest, have announced the regional winners, in conjunction with Boston Musica Viva and Chicago’s Fifth House Ensemble. They are:
Southeast: Alan Elkins, Jamie Keesecker and Piotr Szewczyk.
New England: Patrick Greene, Sam Headrick and Eric Sawyer.
Midwest: John Elmquist, Justin Merritt and Ju Ri Seo.
None of these composers has a national following (that I’m aware of), although most of them have prizes and prestigious local or regional performances to their credit. Note that the preliminary judges — Peace and her players (who are moonlighting members of the ASO) — listen and read through the scores “blind,” with all names hidden from sight.
The Southeastern regional semifinals will be performed at 3 p.m. October 17 in the High Museum’s Walter Hill Auditorium. Visit the “Rapido!” website for details.