Arts Review

New Music for a New Normal

For classical musicians and their audiences, the early days of the COVID-19 were characterized by streamed “farewell concerts” preceding the complete closure of concert spaces and the painful furloughing of orchestral musicians. Next, there came the wave of DIY livestreams on Facebook and YouTube by individual musicians or small chamber ensembles quarantining together. By summer 2020, however, presenters and ensembles were beginning to professionalize their online offerings as the rhythms of covid life became the “new normal.” By the fall of 2020, many series, institutions, and ensembles were able to offer some sort of 2020-21 season in attempts to retain audiences and to help musicians make any sort of income during a time of grim unemployment in this field.

Universities have been one of the most reliable kinds of presenters to retain their concert series, which have generally been made available free to anyone with internet access. On November 17, I tuned in for the video premiere of cellist Mariel Roberts playing an all solo concert on Miller Theatre’s new digital initiative, Live from Columbia. The performance was filmed live in the Lantern (a performance space at the top of the Lenfest Center for the Arts) at Columbia University’s Manhattanville Campus. Roberts’ concert was short in length—just about half an hour—but those thirty minutes number among the most intense I’ve experienced as a listener. I’m talking heart palpitations kind of intense. My feelings, in fact, were similar to watching an orca feeding frenzy on Planet Earth: terrible splendor. My hair was actually standing up on end. Were I still a young cellist in conservatory aspiring to a solo career, I would have cried of despair after watching this video. The kind of virtuosity this performer is capable of defies the kinesthetics of cello playing as I know them.

In her opening number, Spinner, written by Columbia composition faculty member George Lewis for Roberts in 2016, and in her own composition, Cara I (2019), Roberts navigated the bounds of her instrument with deadly accuracy and fearsome speed and agility through cello-writing that would scare the pants off most seasoned professionals. Both Spinner and Cara I feature wicked fast repetitive glissandi (or sliding) that, under Roberts’ fingers, sound like a superhuman whammy bar. Ponticello tremolo (rapid reiterations of the same pitch played over the bridge) changes on a dime to fishing clear tones out of the air in the stratosphere of the cello’s range. According to Lewis’ liner notes on Spinner, included on Roberts’ recent album, Cartography, “Spinner” refers to one of the Fates of Greek myth, Clotho, who spins the thread of human life for the other Fates to draw out and cut.[1] As he writes, “In Plato’s account, the Fates become integral to the transmigration of souls after death, while in life, leaving the responsibility of choice to humans themselves. Thus, this work did not have a title at its birth but developed one in the course of my meditation on the materiality and poetics of her instrument, and the very perilous situation in which our world finds itself at the time of the work’s composition.” Not to prolong needlessly the ancient Greek imagery, but the most fitting word for Roberts’ interpretation of Spinner seems to me to be “oracular.” Without at all wishing to diminish the decades of work it has taken her to develop such virtuosity, I observe that she plays with the calmness of inspired frenzy that is the hallmark of rare and extraordinary talent/genius/inspiration. Hence, perhaps, the similarity in feeling to watching Planet Earth. “A human can do that?”

The excellent videography of the concert contributed significantly to this overall effect. Listening to the concert again (a perk of the video format), this time only with the audio, the hair-raising, primal response is not present: visually witnessing the choreography of the performance seems to me essential to the piece itself. The close-up, multiple angle and high resolution shots of the performance gave a view not even accessible to an audience member sitting in the front row. The video medium allows the compass of the instrument to turn into a world in itself. The deft leaps of the hands become swan dives off cliffs. The sweep of the bow, a gale-force wind. Roberts has filmed Spinner before. Searching on YouTube, I found a video from 2017 by Michael McQuilkin. I prefer this 2020 version. In the more recent video, the performer is masked, and the filming is done against a mainly blank, white wall. Because of this, the viewer’s entire focus is put on the player’s arms, hand, and instrument, and the performer acquires a kind of objective aura, most of her face covered by the mask.

I was less taken by Roberts’ “Allemande” from J. S. Bach’s Sixth Suite for unaccompanied cello, following as she did the inane and outdated convention of performing a piece written for a five-stringed instrument on a four-string cello. (Writer clears her throat and ascends a bully pulpit.) I am not a purist for “historical correctness.” I don’t think that early music ought only to be performed on “early” instruments. I’ve heard renditions of the Sixth Suite on marimba that I have loved. But I do think that if one moves a piece written for one instrument to another, the differences of the “new” instrument ought to be taken into account and adjusted for, so that the essence of the piece is retained. This is what Bach himself did when he (often) moved a composition to a different instrument. The lute version of the Fifth Cello Suite, penned by Bach, is different from the cello version: the lute version is G minor rather than C minor and, with the lute being a chordal instrument, contains more chords and more counterpoint. When played on a five-string cello or viola, the music for the Sixth Suite contains a high melody line, played on the high “E” string and chords under this line playable in the same hand position on the other strings. When moved without alteration to a four-string cello, many of the chords need to be broken and are impossible to play together with the melody in the same hand position. The result—no matter how talented the performer—is musically clunky, needlessly difficult, and rhythmically bewildering. Even under Roberts’ virtuosic hands, it sounds a-musical and absurd to me. Even a superhuman cellist cannot play two notes on the same string at the same time. What, then, are cellists to do if they want to play the Sixth Suite? 1) Five-stringed instruments are not so hard to find, especially in metropolitan centers. Why not borrow one? 2) If borrowing a five-stringed instrument is not an option, why not adjust the piece to fit a four-stringed cello, as Bach himself had done to fit his Fifth Suite to lute? Would it in fact fit better in G major? Could some chords be omitted to retain the integrity of the melodic line? Would different chord inversions make for better fluidity of line? (Writer descends from bully pulpit.)
One of the advantages of presenters and ensembles taking to online formats is that their audiences can now listen from anywhere in the world. I have wanted to attend a Kettle Corn New Music concert for the past several years, but for reasons of geography and schedule, this desire has awaited realization. Kettle Corn New Music was founded in 2012 by a group of composers who had met in college and had shared music with one another in their dorm rooms, passing around—you guessed it—kettle corn. Now nationally respected composers, the group still wished to retain the fun and informality of sharing music during their college years while presenting high quality live musical performances. Kettle Corn New Music (KCNM) was born. In non-pandemic times, KCNM often presents concerts in the DiMenna Center on 37th Street and at venues throughout the City. On December 1 and 8, I was finally able to attend some KCNM events, albeit in virtual form: KCNM hosted the Merz Trio for a two-part virtual concert. The piano trio (Brigid Coleridge, violin; Julia Yang, cello; and Lee Dionne, piano) performed two short programs of mainly new music, with some older movements interspersed.

Powerhouse chamber ensembles formed from recently graduated conservatory students are a dime a dozen these days. The Merz Trio, though, seems special to me. As a baseline, all three players’ musical sensibilities, styles, and tones are exceedingly well matched, and the group has obviously invested years in developing a group sound. They have fresh ideas for programming (though the poetry recitations in this concert I personally could have done without) and taste for curating a simultaneously diverse and coherent program. But it was the following particularities of the group that struck me: Their “new music” performances were treated performatively with the same interpretative seriousness as their “old music” performances; they bring both distinctiveness and subtlety of interpretation, which is a rare combination, and they show developed and distinctive taste—likewise rare.

Despite the protestations of all ensembles that they imbue the same care into new music that they do pieces of the canon, it’s still a somewhat infrequent pleasure to hear new music performed with the same degree of finesse and close interpretative study as, say, the Beethoven piano trios. The Merz Trio does. There was the same careful layering of timbre, minute sculpting of the phrases, perfection of intonation and ensemble, and sincerity and elegance of performance in Cheryl Frances-Hoad’s My Fleeting Angel (2005), Wolfgang Rihm’s Fremde Szenen III (1984), Charlotte Bray’s Those Secret Eyes (2014), and Chris Rogerson’s River Songs (2014) as their two canonic selections by Schumann and Haydn. This was preeminently on display in the Merz Trio’s perfor­mance of Cheryl Frances-Hoad’s My Fleeting Angel, a short trio in three movements based on the short story by Sylvia Plath, “The Wishing Box.” I appreciated, however, the choice of the trio not to reveal the Frances-Hoad’s literary program until after the performance; there was for me so much rich musical material to take in and appreciate without also being prompted to attend to extramusical considerations. Just nine minutes in length, My Fleeting Angel is a gem testifying to the expert craftsmanship, deep literacy, and keenness of invention of its composer. Every motive, texture, and timbre must have been painstakingly considered and crafted, so tightly coherent was the piece in form. Another listener put it well: one Michael Friedmann (who I infer is Prof. Michael Friedmann of Yale University), wrote in the live chat, “Hoad’s piece is so effective. Same material for all sections, but truly reinterpreted rather than didactically rehashed.” Yet the piece always felt organic and lyrical, never turgidly contrived. And like reading the poems of a well-read poet who lightly and delightfully alludes to her literary influences, I could tell Frances-Hoad had been “reading” Shostakovich, Ravel, Brahms—never merely copying, but borrowing techniques used in novel applications.

I appreciated that the Merz Trio adopts some early twentieth-century programming practices that had fallen out of general use for the past decades: The arrangement of Robert Schumann’s song “Widmung,” by Merz pianist Lee Dionne is reminiscent of the once common encore and salon practice of song transcriptions (think Fritz Kreisler). More and more musicians these days are again taking up this practice of arrangement, but the quality of arrangements varies drastically. Dionne’s “Widmung” arrangement was intelligently and creatively done and was a real success. I appreciated how it makes no apologies for its old-fashionedness: the arrangement is lush and hyper-romantic, and simply glorious. I was delighted to learn on the trio’s website that the group has created a handful of such arrangements, the scores to which may be purchased online. In the second program on December 8, the trio interpolated just one movement of a Haydn piano trio (the Allegretto from No. 44 in E major) between the new works by Charlotte Bray and Chris Rogerson. Extracting just one movement from a larger work is more characteristic of earlier programming practices; the trio’s brilliant use of the practice for stylistic contrast and to bridge two different sound worlds adds my vote for its readoption: Charlotte Bray’s Those Secret Eyes conjured an ominous, dissonant sound world inspired by the female characters of Macbeth; Chris Rogerson’s fresh writing in River Songs, by contrast, seems to place some of the melodic folk writing of Bartók and Copeland with the textures and harmonies of Ravel.

December 12, I checked out a new music concert, Boston-based A Far Cry’s “Amazonita,” which focused on music connected to the cultural traditions of countries that touch the Amazon River and surround the Amazon rainforest. This concert was likewise pre-recorded, then given a virtual premiere. When purchasing tickets, audience members could choose whether to buy a pass with 24-hour access, 30-day access, or an Infinity Pass (one year of unlimited streaming and the option to download). I was glad to have opted for the 30-day access because of the length of the concert. Clocking in at more than one hundred minutes, the concert viewed straight through demanded a kind of uninterrupted time that I personally don’t have during these everyone-works-at-home covid days. Relatedly, I know that I am not the only one with complaints of Zoom and screen fatigue: one hundred minutes of looking at a screen after staring at a screen for work all day was a bit too much to ask. However, with the 30-day pass, I could make my way through the concert at my leisure. On this note, I do think that the “episode” approach taken by Columbia’s Live from Columbia and KCNM works better in the current circumstances. It was fun and a great marketing move by KCNM to spread out the Merz Trio over two weeks. The first concert was so brilliant that I wanted to attend the next (which I hadn’t originally planned to do), and it created a community feel to see some of the same names appear in the live chat two weeks in a row. Even with the 30-day pass, the long form of A Far Cry’s concert format was a bit taxing.

The program, cleverly curated by Alex Fortes, “revels in the awe and beauty of the Earth and ancestral societies, and contemplates how modernity interacts with them.” The first work, Milagros (“miracles”) by Peruvian-American composer Gabriela Lena Frank, was inspired by the natural and human sights and sounds encountered in the composer’s travels to her mother’s native country of Peru. Jacqueline Nova’s (1935⁠–1975) Creación de la Tierra, an electro-acoustic piece completed in 1972, includes recordings of chanted creation stories of indigenous U’wa peoples of Colombia alongside electronically-generated and natural sounds. A work for mandolin and string quartet, Obrigado by Brazilian-American composer Clarice Assad, closed the program: In her research for this composition, Assad listened to over one hundred chants of the Afro-Brazilian religion, Umbanda. The eleven movements narrate the rituals of a Brazilian Umbanda ceremony to various orixás, or deities acting as intermediaries between people and the supernatural. The concert also included the miniatures Bachianinhas Nos. 1 and 2 by Brazilian guitarist Paulinho Nogueira, arranged brilliantly for two violins and viola by Alex Fortes. In this program, and in the KCNM concerts, I appreciated that the majority of the pieces were by women composers, and yet this was not a fact that needed special attention drawn to it. The pieces selected were good and happened to be by women. These programs give me hope for a new normal of more equal artistic representation.

Given the extra-musical nature of the “Amazonita” program, I felt there were some missed opportunities to take advantage of the virtual, video format of the concert. Instead of rather long and rambling recorded Zoom sessions between the composer and members of A Far Cry that introduced each piece and which did not supply much information beyond what was given in the written program notes available online, why not show photos, video, or audio clips of the source material behind each of the composer’s works? It would have been much more interesting to see a clip of an actual Umbanda ceremony, for example, in connection to Assad’s piece, or to have seen photos from Frank’s journeys in connection with Milagros than to view someone else’s Zoom session. I had a similar reaction to the “program-note” approach to introductions taken by the Merz Trio in their concert videos. The idea of breaking up a video concert with opportunities for discussion with the members of the ensemble, or to highlight some idea or composer has legs to it, but why fall back on the tired practice of scantily- and dubiously-researched “music history” as the default for such discussions? During this covid lockdown, many closed businesses have taken the time to renovate, upgrade, and expand their physical locations. I wonder if the classical music world could also take this time to rethink and innovate on concert para-materials and modalities of audience engagement. Consider, for instance, the following: One aspect of these virtual covid concerts I have really enjoyed has been the live chat feature. During a “normal” concert of classical music (even new music), the norm is for the audience to be silent during the performance. Classical music is art music, and one needs to hear the notes to appreciate it as art (or so the rationale goes). In these virtual concerts, we can all be silent and share our reactions at the same time. This can make for more responsive audience engagement and has been a forum in which I have occasionally been struck by an interesting idea articulated by a fellow auditor. Is there a way to retain something that captures this kind of engagement once in-person concerts are happening again?

A Far Cry delivered a characteristically strong and extroverted performance, recorded in Pickman Hall at the Longy School of Music. I had expected to be disappointed in not being able to see players’ faces, but as it turned out in this performance, and in the other concerts I’ve streamed, I actually relished the opportunity to watch performances in new ways and not have to worry about being distracted from the music by the plethora of facial gestures with which some musicians accompany the music. Rather than noticing facial expressions, I noticed the incredible expression of the hands, the choreography of arms, and the leaning of bodies toward one another. At the start of “Amazonita,” Milagros was given a gutsy performance by violinists Alex Fortes and Liesl Schoenberger Doty, violist Sarah Darling, and cellist Kee Kim. Composed in eight movements each bearing the title “milagrito,” each milagrito (“little miracle”) was musically evocative of something that struck Frank in her travels to Peru: a shrine by the road, women singing, dolls in a museum. I admired the technical skill of the composer’s string writing throughout, though I thought the interest of the milagritos was uneven. Two movements that particularly stood out as exceptional were Milagrito: Danza de Tingo María—a whirling and raucous homage to Bartók 4th and 5th quartets that reveled in hocketing pizzicati that bubbled and buzzed around the quartet; and Milagrito: Mujeres Cantando —a lush apotheosis of “women singing.” Here, the music lives up to its title of “miracle,” music acting as a vehicle to transport the ordinary to the sublime. Milagrito: Adios a Churín, by contrast, was disappointingly stale and lacking in musical development.

The other bookend to the concert, Clarice Assad’s Obrigado contrasted nicely in style with Frank’s Milagros: While classicism and modernism are at the forefront of Gabriela Lena Frank’s aesthetic, Assad’s musical surface in much of Obrigado evokes popular genres of music in lush, film score-esque orchestrations. Assad’s explanation of the Umbanda rituals and source material behind her piece were intriguing, but I myself was not able parse what music was in debt to ritual chant, what constituted adaptations or emulations of popular song, and what was Assad’s “own” music. It was the driving rhythm and relentless, almost obsessive momentum of the piece, however, that most clearly indicated to me the ties between the piece and the Umbanda rituals—the vigorous drum­ming being the only aspect of the ceremony with which I have any familiarity. A different collection of musicians formed the ensemble for this work with Omar Chen Guey and Zenas Hsu on violins; Caitlin Lynch on viola; Rafael Popper-Keizer on cello; and Joseph Brent on mandolin. I thought that the recording could have benefited from better balance in favor of the mandolin in the thick movements as well as from a more resonant acoustic, but the performance was effective, especially in creating the infectious rhythmic pull to the finale.

Writing in mid-December, I peer ahead with the rest of the world into a bleak winter of a pandemic that will not relent. I hope that the creativity and innovation of musicians and composers will help sustain them through the financial and spiritual straits in which the pandemic has placed so many, and will provide solace, joy, and delight to their audiences.
[1] New Focus Recordings, available through iTunes and Amazon, $16.99.