ALBUM REVIEW: Thrive on Routine by American Contemporary Music Ensemble (ACME)

by Maggie Molloy

Photo credit: Ryuhei Shindo

We all have our morning routines. Some of us like to go for a brisk morning walk, read the newspaper, flip through the daily comics, or have a leisurely cup of coffee. Some of us like to hit the snooze button six or seven times, roll out of bed, rub the sleep from our eyes, and scramble to work. American modernist Charles Ives liked to wake up at 4 or 5 in the morning, garden in his potato patch, and play through some of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. (How’s that for a little early morning exercise?)

Ives’ idiosyncratic early morning regimen was the inspiration behind composer-pianist Timo Andres’s Thrive on Routine, the title track of a new album by the American Contemporary Music Ensemble (ACME). A flexible music collective comprised of over 20 musicians (Andres among them), ACME is an ensemble known for championing masterworks of the 20th and 21st centuries. Their newest album is no exception: Andres finds himself in good company amongst works by John Luther Adams and fellow ACME members Caroline Shaw and Caleb Burhans.

Andres’ “Thrive on Routine” was, in fact, first commissioned and premiered by the ACME string quartet in 2009. Structured in four short, continuous movements, the piece offers abstract imitations of Ives’ Bach-and-potatoes routine, evoking a rustic alarm jingle, the pastoral drone of the potato patch, and a folk-infused passacaglia. The earthy, textured landscapes come to life under the fingers of violinists Yuki Numata Resnick and Ben Russell, violist Caleb Burhans, and cellist Clarice Jensen.

That same group gives voice to Caleb Burhans’ composition “Jahrzeit,” a requiem for his late father. In Judaism, the jahrzeit is a time of remembering the dead by reciting the Kaddish, lighting a 24-hour candle, and remembering the person who has died. In Burhans’ piece, the strings flicker and glow like a quiet flame, the colors blending and separating in a warm and pensive haze.

The work is followed by two similarly introspective compositions by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Caroline Shaw. The first is her solo cello suite “in manus tuas,” inspired by a 16th-century motet by Thomas Tallis and performed by ACME Artistic Director Clarice Jensen. Shaw’s composition makes the cello sing, its strings echoing like sacred choral music against a serenely silent cathedral.

Shaw’s second work, the achingly gorgeous “Gustave le Gray” for solo piano, features Timo Andres as the performer. Inspired by Chopin’s Op. 17 A Minor Mazurka, Shaw maintains the poignant, long-breathed melodies but forgoes the trademark Chopin ornamentations. The resulting music plays like an improvisation on Chopin, transforming phrases of the original mazurka as it blossoms ever outward into new chromatic melodies and characters.

The album closes with John Luther Adams’ breathtakingly beautiful “In a Treeless Place, Only Snow,” featuring the ACME string quartet along with Andres on piano, Peter Dugan on celesta, and Chris Thompson and Chihiro Shibayama on vibraphones. Atmospheric melodies, delicately detailed textures, and enchanting celesta embellishments bring this immersive sonic landscape to life, evoking the extraordinary vastness of the natural world and the overwhelming sense of awe that comes with simply being in its presence.

Because whether it’s a potato patch or a snowy mountainside, there’s beautiful music to be found all around us—sometimes we just need to step out of our routine.

 

ALBUM REVIEW: Words Fail from Yevgeny Kutik

by Maggie Molloy

The 19th century Danish author Hans Christian Andersen famously said, “Where words fail, music speaks.” In today’s world, those words ring truer than ever.

yevgenykutik1_bycoreyhayes

 

In the 21st century, we find ourselves constantly bombarded by words. Social media, street signs, mail, messages, magazines, billboards, books, promotional handouts—words are everywhere. And yet, often we find ourselves talking in circles.

Violinist Yevgeny Kutik seeks to break that cycle. His new album Words Fail features a collection of wordless works, past and present, which speak to the indescribable power of music. Featuring Romantic works by Mendelssohn, Mahler, and Tchaikovsky, modern works by Prokofiev and Messiaen, plus brand new works by Michael Gandolfi, Timo Andres, and Lera Auerbach, the album explores the role of music across history as an orator of the deepest and most profound human emotions. With piano accompaniment provided by John Novacek, Kutik’s violin sings and dreams across two centuries of classical music.

The album begins with three selections from Mendelssohn’s “Songs Without Words,” arranged for violin and piano by Friedrich Hermann. Kutik’s violin adds a voicelike timbre to this keyboard classic, singing gracefully through Mendelssohn’s long-breathed melodies above a gentle piano accompaniment.

Later on, Kutik lends his bow to Tchaikovsky’s wistful “Song Without Words” in a violin and piano arrangement by the legendary German violinist Fritz Kreisler. One of Kutik’s mother’s most cherished scores, the three-minute work speaks volumes about his family upbringing and early immigration to the United States from Russia.

The “Adagietto” from Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 showcases Kutik’s rich, dark tone in a rare violin and piano arrangement by Robert Wittinger. One of Mahler’s most famous pieces, the quietly rhapsodic work is said to have been written as a love note to his wife Alma. Instead of sending a letter, he sent her the “Adagietto” in manuscript script form—no words attached.

The two 20th century works on the album are a bit more daring in nature. Kutik travels through a distinct cast of musical characters of Prokofiev’s “Five Melodies,” originally composed as a set of vocalises, but his violin truly soars for Messiaen’s “Theme and Variations,” a kaleidoscope of colors composed as a wedding gift to his first wife, Claire Delbos.

The album also features three brand new works by living composers, and among them is the title track. Commissioned specifically for this album, Michael Gandolfi’s somber, single-movement “Arioso Doloroso/Estatico” takes its inspiration from Bach’s famous solo violin partitas. Composed for unaccompanied violin, the work begins in a restricted vocal range, with vocal-quality contours, but quickly expands into an instrumental virtuosity—a song only a violin could sing.

The title track, Timo Andres’s “Words Fail,” was also commissioned specifically for this album. Performed here with Andres himself as the pianist, the piece capitalizes on the vividly expressive qualities of the violin, singing through a series of aching downward laments which gradually expand in register, complexity, and volume, intensified by overlapping canons in the piano. But halfway through, the violin changes its tune: a quiet, hopeful melody rises high above the piano, gradually climbing higher and higher until it is just a gentle whisper of harmonics.

The album closes with Lera Auerbach’s “T’Filah (Prayer)” for unaccompanied violin. Written as a reaction to the tragedy of the Holocaust, the piece explores the profound mystery of prayer and spirituality—those moments of greatest reflection, meditation, desperation, or despair when we feel the most at a loss for words. The melodic monologue unfolds across the full range of human emotion, Kutik’s somber tone and emotive phrasing capturing the profound intimacy of prayer.

Because when it comes to matters of love, loss, devotion, and devastation, these words don’t mean much—the music says much more.

kutik_wordsfail

ALBUM REVIEW: Eighth Blackbird’s Hand Eye

by Maggie Molloy

Six composers. Six instrumentalists. Six works of art. Six brand new musical compositions. One evening-length adventure into the exquisite power of art and music.

Eighth Blackbird - Hand Eye

Hand Eye is a collection inspired by a collection. Recorded by the four-time Grammy Award-winning sextet Eighth Blackbird, the album is comprised of six new pieces, each composed by a member of the Sleeping Giant musical collective—and each based on a work of visual art featured in the Maxine and Stuart Frankel Foundation for Art.

In fact, listening through the album is a lot like walking through a museum: each piece its own extraordinary work of art, each with its own distinct colors, creative spark, and inspiration. Perhaps one work’s use of texture catches your eye—or another work’s subject matter, size, shape, or color palette.

Likewise, for Hand Eye some of the composers chose to recreate their chosen artwork aurally, while others responded more broadly to the work’s subject matter, character, themes, or artistic process. And to help bring to life this incredible variance of color, content, and artistic media, each piece on the album highlights the unique talents and timbre of a single instrument from the ensemble.

 

The album begins with a work by Timo Andres titled “Checkered Shade.” Based on the patterned pen-and-ink abstractions of artist Astrid Bowlby, the piece is a labyrinth of tangled strings and circling woodwinds. Gradually the persistent rhythms and aggressive bowings zoom outward until the lines begin to blur, and the black and white turn to softer, slower, and ever-varied shades of grey.

“9.8.08 (Varigated Spirals)” © Astrid Bowlby

“9.8.08 (Varigated Spirals)” by Astrid Bowlby

Andrew Norman’s “Mine, Mime, Meme” explores a different type of musical maze. It was inspired by rAndom International’s installation piece Audience, a modern-day fun house of sorts in which a field of mirrors rotate to follow the movements of any viewer who walks in their midst. In Norman’s musical interpretation, the cellist becomes the equivalent of that viewer. The other five instruments mimic the cello’s musical gestures, innocently enough at first—but as the music progresses, the followers get better and better at predicting the cellist’s next move, eventually consuming him altogether.

“Audience” by rAndom International

“Audience” by rAndom International

Man and machine is the main theme of the next piece, Robert Honstein’s “Conduit.” The piece takes its cue from an interactive sculpture by digital artists Zigelbaum and Coelho titled Six-Forty by Four-Eighty, in which the human body merges with computational process. Honstein recreates this synthesis sonically through bold waves of sounds and electric bursts of color that transport you straight into the computer itself.

“Six-Forty by Four-Eighty” by Zigelbaum + Coelho

“Six-Forty by Four-Eighty” by Zigelbaum + Coelho

Another interactive light sculpture provides the basis for the next piece on the album: Christopher Cerrone’s “South Catalina.” Inspired by rAndom International’s Swarm, an art installation which responds to sounds with a blast of delicately asynchronous lights, Cerrone’s composition features gentle illuminations of sound which twinkle like wind chimes in response to the piano’s heavy steps.

“Swarm Light” by rAndom International

“Swarm Light” by rAndom International

Ted Hearne’s contribution to the album, “By-By Huey,” takes as its basis Robert Arneson’s chilling painting of the same name. It’s a portrait of Tyrone “Double R” Robinson, a member of the Black Guerilla Family who murdered Huey P. Newton, co-founder of the Black Panther Party, in 1989. Like Arneson’s painting, Hearne’s piece is meant to memorialize the self-destructive: jazzy piano motives snarl and growl restlessly forward as the rest of the instruments are forced to follow or be left behind.

By-by Huey © Estate of Robert Arneson/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

“By-By Huey”  by Robert Arneson

A frenzied interlude transitions into the final piece of the album, Jacob Cooper’s “Cast.” Drawing inspiration from Leonardo Drew’s paper casts of everyday objects, Cooper’s composition creates “sonic casts” of individual instrumental gestures—gradually removing the melodic gestures themselves to leave only the empty casts that surrounded them.

“Number 94” by Leonardo Drew

“Number 94” by Leonardo Drew

True, paper casts are a pretty far way from the pen-and-ink abstractions that began the album (though perhaps even farther from the interactive light installations at the center of it), and yet the album feels wholly unified by the precision, momentum, and bold musicality of Eighth Blackbird. Stylistically, each piece stands confidently on its own—but together as an album, the pieces illuminate the endless possibilities when art and music collide.

And as you exit the gallery in stillness and silence, you begin to listen to art in quite a different way than you ever have before.

NEW CONCERT AUDIO: Cellist Ashley Bathgate & Sleeping Giant’s “Bach Unwound” presented by Metropolis Ensemble

by Maggie Stapleton

BachUnwound_v3

The music of J.S. Bach is often described as timeless, and throughout the twentieth century, composers such as Benjamin Britten, George Crumb, and Iannis Xenakis built upon the form established by Bach, expanding the instrument’s technical and sonic capabilities while paying homage to his legacy.

Cellist Ashley Bathgate created a project that gives his music context and relevance in the twenty-first century in collaboration with the Brooklyn-based composer collective Sleeping Giant – Timo Andres, Chris Cerrone, Jacob Cooper, Ted Hearne, Robert Honstein, and Andrew Norman. Each composer wrote one movement of the new suite, basing it loosely on a corresponding movement of their choice from the original Bach suites, but free to use the music as an inspiration for expressing and expanding his personal compositional voice. The new work (given the eponymous title “ASH”) incorporates extended performance techniques, live electronics, and external media resulting in a radical deconstruction and re-imagination of the original music.

We’re pleased to present the world premiere recording of “ASH” inspired by (and interspersed with excerpts from) the Unaccompanied Cello Suites of J.S. Bach, recorded on January 12, 2016 at (le) Poisson Rouge as part of Metropolis Ensemble’s Resident Artist Series. Q&A with Ashley follows.

Maggie Stapleton: What inspired you to embark upon this project?

Ashley Bathgate: This project began with my desire to rediscover Bach’s Cello Suites. The last time I worked on them was during my days as a student. This was long before I became so heavily immersed in new music. I’ve grown in so many ways since then ,and it just felt like the right time to come back to this repertoire. I wanted to also find a way to link my love of contemporary music to this “re-discovery” process. There is plenty of new music for solo cello out there but not a lot that incorporates amplification/electronics and not a lot on the same scale as Bach’s Six Suites. I wanted something epic, and I wanted it to find some tether to a body of work that has been so loved and respected over the years, these compositional masterpieces that allowed the cello to step out as a solo voice beyond its traditional role as a continuo or basso accompaniment. I wanted the past to meet the present in order to show contrast but also to highlight the evolution of music and of this instrument in particular.

MS: Did you have Sleeping Giant in mind as collaborators from the beginning? Have you worked with them (together or individually) before?

AB: Absolutely. The composers of Sleeping Giant and I have a long history together dating back to our time at the Yale University School of Music. They are dear friends. They also happen to be some of the leading composers out there right now. When I thought up this idea, they were the first people who came to mind. I have played a great deal of their music in the past and even commissioned some of them individually. I appreciate how different each of them are in their compositional styles and also how well they work together as this collective to produce lengthier, collaborative compositions. They were the dream team for this project.

MS: Were you involved in the composition process, too? (The “gargantuan email chains and in Google Hangout sessions lasting hours” (NY Times))

AB: (laughs) For better or worse, yes! I think they spared me a lot of back and forth where the actual music writing was concerned, but we were in close contact from start to finish with this project, almost 3 years! Not only skype, email and phone calls but also meeting in person before and after the music had been written. This is the thing I love most about commissioning new music: it’s a privilege to be able to work with living composers (even better when they are your friends) and to be part of their creative process. As a result, the piece feels tailor made for me in many ways and the overall experience is a much richer one, having been a part of its development in that way.

MS:Who came up with the name of the piece, “ASH”? What’s the full story there?

AB: The Sleeping Giants came up with that one. I sign all of my emails “Ash” because I am too lazy to write my entire name out. It’s become a nick name of sorts as a result. But the Giants also felt that this title suggests the image of ashes, as in the ashes of Bach’s music. In various ways they all worked with fragments and transformations of Bach, thus making something new from the “ashes” of Bach’s music and legacy.

MS: We are thrilled to share the audio from this performance with our audience. Do you have other plans to keep the life of this piece going beyond the premiere? More performances? Video productions?

AB: For sure. This is only the beginning. I am touring it a bunch this spring and next season. I’ll be giving the West Coast premiere at Santa Ana Sites on March 12th. I anticipate it will evolve a bit between now and then. There’s a lot of feedback flying around at the moment. The composers have already started making some small changes and I am also tweaking various aspects of the show from the order to the electronic components and how they are executed. It’s exciting actually, now that we have an idea what it all looks and sounds like, to see where we can take it from here. Next step will be a commercial recording and no doubt there will be some music video action on the near horizon!

Sleeping Giant

sleeping_giant_sphere

Sleeping Giant is a collective of six young American composers (clockwise: Timo Andres, Andrew Norman, Jacob Cooper, Christopher Cerrone, Robert Honstein, and Ted Hearne). These “talented guys” (The New Yorker), who are “rapidly gaining notice for their daring innovations, stylistic range and acute attention to instrumental nuance” (WQXR) have composed a diverse body of music that prizes vitality and diversity over a rigid aesthetic. Their works have appeared in concert halls and clubs throughout the US and Europe, from Carnegie Hall and Kennedy Center to Wigmore Hall and the Concertgebouw in performances by the Berlin Philharmonic Foundation, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, the Minnesota Orchestra, the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, New York City Opera, the Jack Quartet, and the New York Youth Symphony.

Current projects include a new evening-length work for eighth blackbird, a two-year Music Alive residency with the Albany Symphony, and a collaborative work for cellist Ashley Bathgate. They have presented sold-out concerts at New York’s (Le) Poisson Rouge, Brooklyn’s Littlefield, and at John Zorn’s The Stone. In 2011, they collaborated on Histories, a Stravinsky-inspired work for Ensemble ACJW and the Deviant Septet commissioned by Carnegie Hall.

Ashley Bathgate

abathgate1
American cellist Ashley Bathgate has been described as an “eloquent new music interpreter”(New York Times) and “a glorious cellist”(The Washington Post) who combines “bittersweet lyricism along with ferocious chops”(New York Magazine). Her “impish ferocity”, “rich tone” and “imaginative phrasing” (New York Times) have made her one of the most sought after performers of her time. The desire to create a dynamic energy exchange with her audience and build upon the ensuing chemistry is a pillar of Bathgate’s philosophy as a performer. Her affinity to dynamism drives Bathgate to venture into previously uncharted areas of ground-breaking sounds and techniques, breaking the mold of a cello’s traditionally perceived voice. Collaborators and fans alike describe her vitality as nothing short of remarkable and magical for all who are involved. Bathgate is a member of the award winning, internationally acclaimed sextet, Bang on a Can All-Stars, and is also a founding member of TwoSense, a duo with pianist Lisa Moore, and Bonjour, a low-strung, percussive quintet with fellow new music mavens Florent Ghys, James Moore, Eleonore Oppenheim and Owen Weaver.

Equally at home in both the concert hall and the rock club, Bathgate focuses on presenting concerts that draw from a wide range of musical genres. Her dedication to performing traditional music is equally matched by her passion to promote new music by today’s composers. That dedication has led her to work with an esteemed list of composers and musicians such as John Adams, Louis Andriessen, Nik Bärtsch, Iva Bittova Martin Bresnick, Don Byron, Jace Clayton, Bryce Dessner (The National), Arnold Dreyblatt, DJ Spooky, Ben Frost, Philip Glass, Michael Gordon, Annie Gosfield, Ann Hamilton, Glenn Kotche (Wilco), David Lang, Lori Lieberman, Meredith Monk, Richard Reed Parry (Arcade Fire), Questlove and The Legendary Roots Crew, Lee Ranaldo (Sonic Youth), Steve Reich, Terry Riley, Trio Mediaeval, Julia Wolfe, Shara Worden (My Brightest Diamond) and Nick Zammuto (The Books).

Bathgate studied at Bard College with Luis Garcia-Renart (B.M.) before continuing her education at Yale University with renowned cellist Aldo Parisot (M.M. & A.D). Originally from Saratoga Springs, NY, Bathgate began her cello studies with the late Rudolf Doblin, principal cellist and assistant music director of the Buffalo Philharmonic in the 1950’s. After his passing, she resumed her tutelage with Ann Alton at Skidmore College. A member of the Empire State Youth Orchestra at the time, Bathgate was also the unprecedented two-time winner of the Lois Lyman Concerto Competition, performing the Saint-Saens and Schumann Cello Concertos with the orchestra at Troy Savings Bank Music Hall. While at Bard College, she was invited to perform both the d’Albert and Barber Cello Concertos with the American Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Leon Botstein and then went on to win Yale University’s Concerto Competition in 2008, performing with the Yale Philharmonia in New Haven’s legendary Woolsey Hall. Bathgate resides in New York City.

ALBUM REVIEW: Unremembered by Sarah Kirkland Snider

by Maggie Molloy

sksnider unremembered

Childhood is a time of youthful innocence, joyous discovery, and wondrous possibility—but along with that unbridled and enchanting sense of imagination can also come dark creatures, mysterious horrors, and haunting memories.

Composer Sarah Kirkland Snider braves these mystical terrors and takes on the full beauty and vast musical scope of childhood imagination in her latest release, “Unremembered.” The album is a 13-part song cycle, and each piece is its own narrative—a tender memory, a ghostly mystery, or a haunting message. Together, the cycle is a rumination on memory, innocence, imagination, and the strange and subtle horrors of growing up.

Composed for seven voices, chamber orchestra, and electronics, the songs were inspired by the poems and illustrations of writer and artist Nathaniel Bellows, a close friend of Snider. The poems depict poignant memories of Bellows’ own childhood upbringing in rural Massachusetts—tales which in turn triggered memories from Snider’s own childhood, giving shape to her musical settings of the text.

The album was released on New Amsterdam Records, a label Snider co-created with Judd Greenstein and William Brittelle in 2008 to promote classically-trained musicians who create outside the confines of the classical music tradition. The album features vocalists Shara Worden (of My Brightest Diamond), Padma Newsome (of Clogs), and singer-songwriter DM Stith gliding above the instrumental talents of musicians from contemporary ensembles like ACME, Alarm Will Sound, ICE, The Knights, and Sō Percussion.

A follow-up to Snider’s critically-acclaimed 2010 song cycle, “Penelope,” the new album lives somewhere in the mystical, mythical world between classical and pop genres. Each song is its own vividly colored vignette, a mesmerizing narrative brought to life through Snider’s rich textural and temperamental palette.

“I think that all of my music is narrative driven—that’s what I’m the most interested in musically—mood and storytelling and atmosphere,” Snider said in an interview with Molly Sheridan of NewMusicBox. “I’m fascinated by complex emotions—the places where affection crosses over and merges with dread, or regret merges with gratitude.”

From the ghostly echoes and somber lyricism of “Prelude” to the surreal dark carnival dance of “The Barn,” each piece tells a different tale of childhood; a memory embellished, ornamented, and altered over the years. In a way, Snider also embellishes memories of the classical genre—musically she recalls the strict rules and structures of the classical tradition, but she does so in a way that is blurred, broken, and beautifully contorted. Her collaboration with Worden helped breathe life into this eclectic collection of musical influences.

“Shara [Worden] had become my closest friend and we’d had so many conversations about classical versus pop music, and all of the frustrations that we had dealing with the lack of infrastructure to support music written in the cracks between those worlds,” Snider said in her interview with NewMusicBox. “She also just so comfortably can inhabit both worlds, which is something that so few singers can do, so I felt like I could really let it rip.”

Worden’s operatic voice drifts above the restless woodwind motives and dreamlike themes of “The Guest,” glides gracefully above the delicately swelling orchestral backdrop on “The Swan,” and echoes just as sweetly above the subtle, soft strings of “The Song.”

The album climaxes with “The Witch,” a ruthless and rhapsodic witch hunt played out across a programmatic musical arc. Worden’s low voice hisses against the aggressive strings and militant drums of the orchestra. She sings the ghostly tale of a witch hunt while the strings and percussion chase after her, brewing with melodrama and theatrical orchestral nuances. The piece ends with twinkling celeste motives as the haunting witch hunt fades back into a distant memory.

“The Slaughterhouse” is similarly grim, though it begins with a sweet reprieve: a gorgeous, achingly tender solo piano melody. The gentle rumination gives way to a somber tale of slaughtered animals, a collection of beasts buried beneath the winter ice—the cold memory and throbbing melodies sending shivers down the listener’s spine.
“The Girl” tells of a tragic small-town suicide—a girl hanged in an entire forest of musical timbres. Snider paints a vivid musical picture of the wind blowing through the trees, birds chirping in the early morning sky, and inquisitive animals peeking out behind woven beds of flowers. “The River” tells another solemn tale, with somber vocals flowing above fragmented melodies and a slowly rumbling bass.

The album comes to a close with “The Past,” a fractured montage of childhood memories echoing musical fragments from earlier songs in the cycle. But this time, the piece sounds hopeful—like a lullaby alive once again with the warmth and sweetness of childhood.

And just like that, the melancholy requiem of “Unremembered” evaporates into a softly twinkling silence, like an enchanting music box tenderly closing—and while the exact details of the memories may fade with time, the album itself is unforgettable.

Programming a Classical Season

by Joshua Roman

Joshua Roman by Hayley Young 7

My mandate from the beginning was clear and concise: Town Music’s programming should reflect my musical interests. A live iPod playlist, if you will. Well, my interests are broad and evolving! What can I say?

Nine seasons in, I’ve seen the development of an audience that comes for an experience. We’re lucky, in this sense, to be tied to an organization like Town Hall Seattle, which fosters community discussion and debate around issues important to Seattle. This spirit of engagement naturally flows over into the music series, and has prompted me to explore musical connections that might not be obvious based on traditional metrics. When an audience member leaves one of the Town Music concerts, I want them to have had an experience that generates curiosity and excitement. Hopefully, they will have been surprised at some point, whether by unknown sounds or their own reaction to something of which they previously had a different expectation.

But how to do this without having a total mishmash of unrelated projects? There are several things which remain consistent from season to season:

Every season includes music by J.S. Bach, whether it’s a concert of Bach or mixed in other programs. I love Bach, and find it an ideal anchor for explorations of many kinds of music. In past seasons, Bach has been played by Baroque specialists like Catharina Meints and paired with other music, like Karen Gomyo’s evening of Bach and Piazzolla. This season, Johnny Gandelsman plays all six Sonatas and Partitas. Yesss…

Every season ends with a commission. A musical series which seeks legitimacy must, in my mind, be a part of the continuing tradition of creativity and innovation which is classical music. This means commissioning and/or performing new works. End of story!

Every season has at least one concert where I perform. My relationship with Town Hall Seattle began with a solo performance, before I was asked to join the team as an Artistic Director. My identity is very much wrapped up in performance, and I learn so much from sharing the stage time and time again in front of an audience that I know, and that knows me.

So how to bring it all together? Several of my past seasons have had an arc, or a particular focus. The season of extra-musical influence comes to mind, where concerts had textual, dance, or other non-musical influence. Or the season where each concert had a different number of players. However, I find that these ideas work best when they develop naturally during the planning process. I like to start with one or two intriguing performers or programs, and then find the connections (obvious or not, at this point) to at least one other idea that’s been on my mind. From there, I might consciously begin to search for other performances that will enhance or contrast the developing theme.

My best example of this process is a season from several years ago, where each concert featured a composer/performer playing their own work and works that had inspired them. I had already decided on a couple of the performers when I realized the commonality: they were also composers. It wasn’t hard to find other people I’d already wanted on the series who also composed. In the end, we had Derek Bermel, So Percussion, the JACK Quartet, Gabriela Lena Frank, and to bring it all back home to Seattle, players from the Seattle Symphony who also compose.

Which leads me to the last piece of the puzzle: maintaining a connection and sensitivity to the community I serve with this series so I can properly inhabit my role as provocateur. Some of that comes from talking regularly with friends and colleagues in Seattle, during my many (many!) trips there or over the phone and email. I also like to find special occasions to highlight local musicians, whether in an all-cello ensemble or the composer/performer concert. One of the more gratifying endeavors was in June, where we managed to pull Seattle Youth Symphony players, alumni, and mentors from the Seattle Symphony and other orchestras together to share the stage in a program of inspiring string ensemble music.

And, my most frequent activity as an Artistic Director: listening. Hours are spent scouring the internet for music and musicians I haven’t heard. Following trails of interesting ideas to see where they originate. Going to concerts when I can (usually at home in NYC) and asking colleagues what’s new and what’s great as I travel around the country.

In the end, I’m on the hook for the programming decisions, and I take this job very seriously. This is a never-ending path of discovery that has taken me far beyond simply programming my own recitals, and it has had a profound impact on how I see my artistic voice developing. Sharing is such an important part of being human, and as an artist I see opportunities to improve that quality in myself, and they are certainly not limited to the concert stage. I love the the feeling of giving someone else a chance to share their voice with an audience and enjoy the dialogue this beautiful interaction spawns.

Take a look at this upcoming Town Music Season and past concerts.

Music I’m listening to:
Ieyoka: “Say Yes Evolved”
Bela Fleck: “Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn”
Xenakis: Complete String Quartets (JACK Quartet)

A Shared Lesson

by Joshua Roman

Roman_15There’s something about stretching the limits, pushing the boundaries, that turns me on. When it’s a shared experience, the reward is greatly magnified. I recently had the honor of working with young musicians in a setting that kept all of us on our toes. In partnership with my series at Town Hall Seattle, the Seattle Youth Symphony called on some of their lovely players and alumni to join me and a few colleagues acting as mentors for a concert of 20th and 21st century string ensemble music.

It’s important to demonstrate to young musicians that ours is a tradition of innovation and creativity. Classical music is a living, breathing thing, not stuck in the past. The same discipline used to bring a Beethoven Symphony to its peak form can be turned to the task of helping birth a new work, and share a new idea. One of the most fruitful ways of passing along a teaching is to lead by example, and I’m ever so grateful to my friends from the Seattle Symphony and other orchestras who played in our ensemble as mentors. Sitting alongside their future colleagues, working together to prepare a very challenging program and present it in a few short days was not an easy task. Through Town Hall Seattle’s partnership with Second Inversion and KING FM, we also gave these aspiring musicians a chance to participate in a video recording session, the results of which are now viewable online.

The program: the world premiere of Running Theme by Timo Andres, which was commissioned by Town Hall. Then, John AdamsShaker Loops; and lastly, Béla Bartók’s Divertimento. The schedule: 6 rehearsals including the recording session and the dress rehearsal, from a Wednesday to a Saturday. A chance for the young musicians to have a glimpse of the condensed and intensive experience professional musicians are often faced with.

The diversity of style within the program was integral to its success in creating a powerful experience for the students. The Divertimento is a fantastically fun work that retains much of Bartok’s folk influence, while delving into more chromatic and idiosyncratic ideas in the slow movement. It’s a difficult work, and there are many solos, another opportunity for our mentors to lead by example. Shaker Loops has long been one of my favorite works, and to me represents minimalism at its most exciting and transportive. To see musicians who had never played this kind of music learn to embrace and inhabit a new way of feeling musical structure and phrasing over a few short days was very cool.

Perhaps the best part was the way they rose to the challenge of putting together Running Theme, an entirely new piece of music for which they could not sit and study previous recordings or hear in concert before taking on the responsibility of presenting it to the world for the first time. Every piece in the canon had a birth, every composer in history has counted on musicians and audiences to give them a shot at leading into the unknown. The evolution of one’s feelings as moments begin to be recognized, form really takes shape, and the conviction borne of seeing both the big picture and feeling the importance of subtlety is a beautiful process, one that for me is so integral to how we then share our hearts with the audience.

What’s the value of this experience? Hopefully, for the protégés, a glimpse of what it takes to be a professional musician. To learn to be prepared at rehearsals, on the ball and focused regardless of the familiarity of the music. To be inspired by the level of the mentors, and of course hear the little tips that come along the way. And to be empowered by the notion that they can be a part of the amazing lineage of classical music and its creation, by working directly with an exciting – and in this case young – composer.

For the mentors, to see the growth and feel the energy of youth, and be challenged to lead by example. Also, to be reminded of the wonder they felt sitting in such a group for the first time when they were that age, and the confidence that develops as something unknown becomes a familiar tool in now capable hands.

For me, the incredible joy of seeing the chemistry between musicians, mentor and protégé. And the honor of leading the team as we work together to the best of our ability to convey something that will transport an audience to a place where the impossible becomes possible, and our inner selves are given a common voice.

MUSIC ON ROTATION:
Fiona Apple – Tidal (album)
Timo Andres – Shy and Mighty (album)
Olivier Messiaen – Fête des Belles Eaux – performed by Ensemble d’Ondes de Montreal (2008)