Monday 5 May 2014

Do we compose with the intellect or the heart? John Adams in Madrid

One of the questions posed at a panel discussion in Madrid in February with American composer John Adams as guest speaker was: when you are composing what is the relationship between the cerebral and the emotional aspects?

John Adams answered the question in Spanish and these are the notes I made of his answer:
“Schoenberg is a composer who wrote about how we need both head and heart. In the 60´s and 70´s when I was studying, everything was very cerebral. There were expressions such as Boulez talking of cleaning away the past. Yesterday I was reading Stravinsky´s autobiography and he makes a distinction between youthful works and those from his mature years. My early models were Heinrich Schütz and Renaissance music, which has soul but is also very cerebral.
Then came Minimalism, which includes aspects of modernism but which re-introduced regular pulse and melody. Minimalism was like a new source of inspiration and it attracted audiences back.
Music is an act of communication which is fundamentally about feeling.”

There followed various comments from some of  his fellow panel members along the lines that composers like John Adams and his generation had moved away from the styles of the mid century European composers, and what a relief this was, because composers such as Boulez and Stockhausen used a musical language which was a dead end and which did nothing but alienate the public from contemporary music.

John Adams did not endorse those comments. His views, clearly explained in his autobiography Hallelujah Junction, are that he saw limitations for composers who worked within the strictures of one “method” or another, be it strict serialism or minimalism, but he maintains a respectful attitude towards those composers.

The most moving moment in the evening came when a questioner referred to the different musical languages used by John Adams during his long composing life, and asked how he decided which language he would use as he set out on a new composition.
John Adams answered:
“I do not think that there are different languages in my music. For me it is all joined, one  unity. When I am composing I never think in terms of one style or language or another. When I am composing I try to express what I feel in my heart.”

Music cannot change the world! John Adams in Madrid

Is opera a valid medium for social critique? This was one of the questions posed at a panel discussion in Madrid in February with American composer John Adams as guest speaker. John Adams answered the questions in Spanish and these are the notes I made of his answer:

“This is a difficult question. I do not agree with Bertolt Brecht. Art should not be thought of as a means to social change … here I disagree with Peter Sellars. The instruments for social change are politics, the economy, education. Even so, subjects such as terrorism, the atomic bomb, the collapse of capital, are of interest because they form part of our lives. These subjects become “mitos de nuestros tiempos”, myths  of our time, and opera is the art of myths. I do not consider my works as social acts, but rather as an expression of our inner lives.”

His answer surprised me because I recently read his autobiography, Hallelujah Junction, and the impression I had was that he is committed to social justice and that his admiration for Alice Goodman, his librettist on several of his opera and oratorio works, is largely based on her passion not just to tell a story but to make an impact on society.  

This made me go back to the book when I got home and re-read the chapter Singing Terrorists, on the birth of the opera The death of Klinghoffer. Sure enough, there are several pages of deep thought about the related issues, but in the end, writing about himself and Alice Goodman, he concludes: Neither of us was trying to parse out judgment in equally measured doses, and neither was attempting to make of the drama a political forum.

Houtblazerensemble Codarts & Koninklijk Conservatorium in The Hague; Huba Hollóköi

A couple of Sundays ago I went to the Dr Anton Philipszaal in The Hague for the morning coffee concert. The players were from the local conservatoires,  Royal Conservatoire  in The Hague and  CODARTS  in Rotterdam, conducted by  Huba   Hollóköi.

This superb wind ensemble play to the highest technical standard and they were expertly guided by the conductor to produce the most beautiful balance and range of textures in two pieces which were new to me.
We first heard the Chamber Concerto  by Alban Berg (1885 – 1935). The programme notes explain that this was composed in the last year of his life. The piece has two movements: in the Thema Scherzoso con Variazioni  the piano soloist was Matthijs van Wijhe and in the Adagio the violin soloist was Pieter van Loenen. This music is heart breakingly beautiful and the soloists achieved the necessary restraint to let the music speak for itself. They also managed to follow the conductor´s guidance and keep a really effective sense of ensemble with the wind group. The piano soloist demonstrated a commanding grasp of the technical and expressive requirements of this challenging music.

The violin soloist projected his sound very well and the opening moments of the Adagio were spell binding as the violin entry on low strings is accompanied by pp wind, whose control was admirable. In the tutti sections later it is hard to understand how Berg could have imagined the violin part to carry over  13 wind instruments: maybe it was the acoustics of this hall, but there were times when you were left to guess what the violin part might be. This is not at all a criticism of the soloist, I think there are moments when the composer just thought of the violin as one more ensemble player rather than as a stand alone soloist.

The other piece on the programme was the Sonata no.1 for 16 wind instruments in F, AV 135 “Aus der Werkstatt eines Invaliden” by Richard Strauss (1864 – 1949). This is an incredible show piece of instrumentation by the master of the genre. The choice of instruments lends itself to so many interesting sub groupings, such as the echoes of hunting calls between woodwind and French  horns. Then there is the sheer pitch range available, from the flute and C clarinet to the basset horn and double bassoon. Then the sumptuous writing, say, for horn quartet alone, and the magical tone colours available in the tutti sections. This piece was superbly played and the conductor realized the full possibilities of texture available in the composition and the full potential of this wonderful group of young musicians.

According to the programme, the musicians were as follows:

Flute: Marion Causse, Alice Thompson; Oboe: Guillem Calpe Almela; Juan Pedro Martínez; Kento Nomura; Clarinets: José Sanz Calonge; Javi Fernández Devesa; Thiago Veiga Taveres; Lieke Krantzen; Basset horn: Jurr van Soest; Bassoon: Cynthia Castaños; Enrique Alonso Codrovilla; Anja Brons; Trumpet: Inés Serrano Diogo; Trombone: Francisco Leal Velada Couta; French horns: Oscar Moreno Just; Mikus Runka; Seughun Kim; Marije Korenromp. Conducted by Huba Hollóköi.

Ed Partyka Jazz Orchestra at the Bflat music venue in Berlin

I was in Berlin for a music education workshop in March and asked a local music teacher where I should go to hear good music. My new found friend recommended the b-flat-berlin  in the Rosenthaler Strasse and I found myself packed into a small venue being blown away by an 18 piece orchestra. Yes, orchestra is the right word: partly because this ensemble uses instruments not usually found in the big band, including French Horn, and mainly because that´s what the leader calls it. If it´s good enough for Ed Partyka it´s good enough for me.

This is power music. Only the rhythm section and the singer were amplified, so we were listening to the pure sounds without the interference of a sound system. Even so, the combined power of this ensemble was electrifying. Many players were multi instrumentalists, changing from baritone sax to bass clarinet, or from alto to flutes, including alto and bass flute   and this gave a wonderful range of textures for us to enjoy. There was even a superb duo of baritones: I don´t think I have ever heard that in a live show before.
Ed Partyka is US born and based in Berlin. His arrangements are detailed to perfection and he swings the mood from lyrical to raw in a flash. Several of the tunes on the set list were Mr Partyka´s original compositions and the standards sounded fresh and interesting because he is not afraid to make substantial changes, in harmony, rhythm and tempo, to the material. The singer, Julia Oschewsky, sang some standards and also her own compositions.

The programme lists the players as follows: saxes/reeds: Malte Schiller, Anna-Lena Schnabel, Mark Wyand, Tini Thomsen, Edgar Herzog; trumpets: Tobias Weidinger, Benny Brown, Florian Menzel, Jörg Engels, Martin Auer; French Horn: Linus Barnoulli; Trombones: Klaus Heidenreich, Lukas Wyss, Hannes Oppel, Jan Schreiner; Piano: Hendrick Soll; Bass: Paul Imm; Drums: Reini Schmolzer; vocals: Julia Oschewsky; Conductor/composer/arranger: Ed Partyka.

 I started thinking of Woody Herman energy and then some screaming trumpet playing made me think of Maynard Ferguson. Whatever, the comparisons were always to the advantage of this home team, packed with huge talent, sensitive musicianship and team spirit, and to Mr Partyka.  

Folk dance in Antwerp: don´t shout, we can hear you fine

Here´s a photo from the historic square in Antwerp, Belgium. 

I was there a few weeks ago. There was a lovely display of folk dance in traditional costumes, some of it involving intricate patterns with swords. While the adult dancers were accompanied by a group of several musicians including pipes and accordions, the music for the children´s dances was played by one fiddler and one recorder player.  The surprising thing is that the music was loud enough for all to hear, both dancers and audience, without amplification. 

Far from the bustle of the shops, and safely away from traffic noise we were able to enjoy music and dance as they have been enjoyed for centuries: in the open air and with live performances unspoilt by amplification at excessive volume levels.