Monday, December 9, 2019

Some Thoughts on the 2020 Grammys

Grammy Award 2002.jpg

The nominees for the 62nd Grammy Awards came out a few weeks ago. I was excited. Like, really excited. But of course, as you guys have probably gathered by now, I'm easily excitable.

I sent the link to all of my top contacts. Responses included:

"Oh sick, I'll take a look tomorrow when I'm not high off my ass!"

"Go away, I have a [math words that I don't understand] problem set due in two hours."

"It's 3am, go to sleep dammit!"

Can you guess which one was my mother?

Naturally, I had thoughts -- it's almost a reflex at this point. So, I figured that as long as I have this repository for my unsolicited opinions, I may as well throw these on the pile. So here are a few of my thoughts on the 2020 classical Grammy nominees.

Image result for andrew norman sustain

A Big Year for New Music

The Grammys have a category for the best new classical composition of the year -- they've awarded it yearly since 1985 -- so there's always been some representation for new music. But overwhelmingly, contemporary classical music is starting to take over the other categories:
  • The LA Phil (woot!) is up for an award for their performance of Andrew Norman's new composition Sustain (also up for best new composition) alongside recordings of Bruckner, Copland, and Stravinsky.
  • One of the Best Opera Recording nominees is the world premiere recording of George Benjamin's Lessons in Love & Violence with the original Royal Opera House cast, and they have a good chance of winning, too.
  • Four of the five nominees for Best Choral Performance are albums containing world premiere recordings -- and, in my eyes, the fifth album (Duruflé's complete choral works with the Houston Chamber Choir) simply is not going to win.
  • Best Chamber Music/Small Ensemble Performance is also peppered with world premieres -- a little more on that down below.
  • Best Classical Instrumental Solo -- you guessed it -- has three premiere recordings.
The times, they are a-changing. Good thing the Recording Academy recognizes this, too -- fair to say the more conservative members are slowly phasing out and being replaced with credible young voices.

Image result for shaw orange

Caroline Shaw. Yes, Again.

The Grammys have proven erratic in the past, but there is one decision upon which I will happily bet money. I think that the Attacca Quartet's May 2019 Caroline Shaw album, entitled Orange, is going to win Best Chamber Music/Small Ensemble performance. Never have I seen a classical album that has gone so mainstream as soon as it hit the shelves. I have yet to see a bad review of the album -- it's definitely on my top 10 list for albums of the year, and probably up there on my albums of the decade too.

This is not to detract from the other four nominees, three of which are also world premiere recordings. But I think the buzz that surrounded Orange's release is a good indicator that it's headed straight for Grammy territory -- the Academy loves buzz.

Image result for joyce didonato songplay
For all the things I don't love about this album, I have to admit
that top-hat-and-ruffles is DEFINITELY Joyce's look

Songplay

I know I'm usually loath to give a negative review. I mean, I'm young. I can't afford to make lifelong enemies. But sometimes, something comes my way that just annoys me so much that I have to say something.

Hey, I'm an anti-establishment 20 year old, so if I'm going to rail on someone it better be someone good. So I'm going to tell you what I really thought of Joyce DiDonato's most recent album, Songplay.

On the off-chance Joyce is reading this (although I'm not going to @ her on Twitter for obvious reasons) I just want to say that I absolutely adore her. Her 2018 live-from-Wigmore recital with the Brentano Quartet was one of the many soundtracks of my past summer of blogging. I will stand by her work forever.

Except for this album.

The thing is, there are so many people right now who are experimenting at the intersection of jazz and early music, and they are succeeding very well. Baroque ensemble L'Arpeggiata has released jazz fusion takes on Monteverdi, Purcell, and Handel, all to great acclaim. Harpsichordist Jean Rondeau will often play the Bach Goldberg Variations at 8pm followed by an improvised jazz piano set at 10:30.

Putting a swing beat behind the 24 Italian Art Songs and Arias doesn't cut it. At least not today.

I'm a quite surprised and a little bit taken aback that this was nominated. It feels like it was perhaps put on the list out of obligation. But think of all the other phenomenal vocal albums from the past year that didn't make the cut. Christian Gerhaher's latest Schumann albums. Iestyn Davies's album of new works for voice and viol consort. For fuck's sake, Lise Davidsen's debut album, which propelled her to the international stage and got her not one, but two features in the New York Times leading up to her Met Premiere.

Yeah, Songplay is kind of a waste of Grammy spot, if you ask me.

My Predictions

If I'm going to talk the talk, I figure I should make some predictions for winners in each category.

First, I'm going to say that I rarely agree with the Grammy committee's decisions. They are often reluctant to choose albums from smaller labels -- it all feels a little bit biased from the get-go. That being said, I'll be choosing based on my perception of both the performances at hand and the Grammy committee's selection process. So here goes nothing:

Best Orchestral Performance: Manfred Honeck and Pittsburgh have a great Grammy track record, so it wouldn't surprise me if they're Bruckner 9 won. That being said, the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra's nominated album got fabulous press, so that could happen too. Of course, I'm rooting for Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla's Weinberg symphonies album, both because it's fabulous album and because the award has never gone to a female-conducted ensemble and it's about f*cking time. Oh, and LA Phil <3.

Best Opera Performance: God, I swear if Lohengrin wins I'm going to kill someone. Especially considering that Christian Thielemann is an expert in Wagner's music partially because he practices his values...ugh. I think the aforementioned George Benjamin recording has a good chance -- Barbara Hannigan is tremendous and beat Joyce against all odds for Best Solo Vocal a couple years ago, so the Grammy committee obviously likes her. But the Academy are suckers for a good Wozzeck...

Best Choral Performance: I would be astonished if the award didn't go to The Crossing for the third year in a row. The Philadelphia-based new music-focused choir is pushing the boundaries of what is and is not singable, and they deserve every ounce of every award they get. Oh, and they're nominated in the category not once, but twice.

Best Chamber Music/Small Ensemble: see above.

Best Classical Instrumental Solo: Yuja Wang's The Berlin Recital, I think. She's simply beastly. Nothing more to say except that Nicola Benedetti has a chance for her premiere of Wynton Marsalis's new violin concerto (as much as I'm mad at Wynton Marsalis for his views on jazz fusion and free jazz, but that's another story for another day). Would love to see a win for Tessa Lark (I saw her this summer after my big project was over, she was amazing), but I don't think the Academy is going to spring for such a small record label.

Best Classical Solo Vocal Album: I think Matthias Goerne's Schumann album has it in the bag -- it's a ridiculously strong album among many others that are not as remarkable (@Songplay). Would love to see a win for L'Arpeggiata, but I honestly didn't think that their album from last year was as remarkable as some of the others they've done in the past.

Best Classical Compendium: I seriously have no idea. I'm rooting for Harold Meltzer because he's a family friend of sorts (we were reading chamber music together at Bennington and then we discovered that my mother was his first date...small world), but I also don't love Paul Appleby, who was the featured singer on the Meltzer compendium. The Saariaho album has a good chance, I think.

Best Contemporary Classical Composition: I know I said I'd bet money on Caroline Shaw for best chamber album, but I'm not as sure for the composition category, mainly due to Julia Wolfe's Fire In My Mouth, which made a huge splash when it premiered at the NY Phil last winter. I was lucky enough to see it, and it was indeed tremendous. That's where I'm placing my bets.

God, I have a mouth on me. But hey, I'm a 20-something aspiring critic, it's basically my job to have strong and immovable opinions, no?

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Review: Les Arts Florissants at The Met Cloisters


WHO: Les Arts Florissants; Paul Agnew, director
WHAT: GESUALDO Tribulationem et dolorem; Responses for Maundy Thursday; Miserere mei Deus (Psalm 50)
WHERE: Fuentidueña Chapel at The Met Cloisters
WHEN: October 20, 2019 at 1:00pm (yes, I know I'm late)

I think I'm starting to get the hang of these concerts at The Cloisters. I usually don't get lost on my way from the subway station anymore. I know where all of the good views across the Hudson are (#doitforthegram -- except I'm not on Instagram because I'm a #grandma). And when I walked into the Fuentidueña Chapel for the second time in 24 hours, the 12th-century statue of Jesus hanging from the cross started chatting me up as if we were old friends.

Divine intervention? Sleep deprivation? The world may never know.

I missed Les Arts Florissants when they did a huge French baroque opera spectacle at the Brooklyn Academy of Music last year. Unfortunately, I have to prioritize school first (much as I wish I didn't) -- I occasionally drop down into NYC for a concert here or there, but I often pay the price of a sleepless week to follow.

I saw the listing for this concert. I checked my calendar. October break. It was destiny. Or maybe just luck. But either way, I had to go. I grabbed a ticket.

So, for those of you who don't know Les Arts Florissants, let me tell you a bit about the ensemble. They have an orchestra and a choir, both of which are fantastic. They got their start in France in the late '70s; American expat harpsichordist William Christie was the director, and still is today (although British tenor Paul Agnew is starting to take over more and more responsibility -- Christie is getting up there in years). And their recordings are all immaculate. Unlike many similar ensembles, whose recordings have shown a steep quality incline in the last couple decades, Les Arts's 1980's recordings are just as clean as those of the last few years.

Considering that fact, I left the concert with a somewhat cynical opinion: "They were amazing -- who knew?"

Bottom line: Gesualdo is difficult. Very difficult. His harmonic language borders on non-functional, almost to contemporary levels. As my father so wisely told 13-year-old me: "You like Bartók? You should try Gesualdo." But I know Les Arts well enough to know that they wouldn't put up a mediocre performance.

Of particular note were the singers at the lower ends of the ensemble. Bass Edward Grint had this plaintive musk to his voice, one that provided a stable resting place for the other five vocalists. Paul Agnew was great as usual (ah, what I would give to be a tenor...), though most of his focus went to shaping the music with tiny, unobtrusive hand gestures. Mélodie Ruvio gave a particularly thrilling performance, a phrase that I don't think I've ever used to describe a choral alto part before. And, when the whole group came together for the chants between verses of scripture...chills.

I don't think there's anything more to say. Les Arts Florissants can do no wrong. If they come around to your neighborhood, DO NOT miss them at any cost. And that's an order.

Monday, November 25, 2019

Review: Miller Theatre presents Vox Luminis at Church of St. Mary the Virgin

Image result for vox luminis
My hot take: all concert dress that is not
concert-black-with-pop-of-color should be outlawed.

WHO: Vox Luminis; Lionel Meunier, artistic director
WHAT: ANONYMOUS (XII CENTURY) Lamentation de la Vierge au Croix; LOTTI Crucifixus
a 8; MONTEVERDI Lamento della ninfa; Adoramus te Christe; DELLA CIAIA Lamentatio Virginis in despositione Filii de cruce; D. SCARLATTI Stabat Mater for ten voices and basso continuo
WHERE: Church of St. Mary the Virgin
WHEN: October 19, 2019 at 8pm

When I saw this concert, I had been waiting to see Vox Luminis live for a good long while. I was all slated to go see them last year in southern Connecticut, but a friend called me in at the last second to sub in his run of 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. I wasn't angry at the time -- I love that show, and I figured I'd get to see Vox Luminis again relatively soon. They tour the US every year, and always end up in NYC at least once.

Well I ran into that friend on the street a couple weeks ago. And told him very matter-of-factly that I'm now angry that he tore me away from that concert. Retroactively. Because, I've decided, any moment that I don't spend listening to Vox Luminis is necessarily inferior to any moment that I do spend listening to Vox Luminis. And any moment I spend listening to Vox Luminis live is better than any moment I spend doing anything else.

Yeah. This concert made me feel feelings. This concert made me cry tears. This concert might be the best I've reviewed on this site thus far.

Vox Luminis changes size based on the performance. They numbered fifteen in this concert -- eleven rotating singers (SSSSAATTTBB) plus a four-person continuo team. They brought along their own organist and viola da gamba player, they hired a lutenist (one of my professors, as it happens -- hi Grant!) and a harpist from the NYC freelance pool.

The concert started with a 12th century French lamentation, sung facing the altar by Vox Luminis's wondrous first soprano, Zsuzsi Tóth. She's kind of my idol -- the soprano I'd want to be in another life. Her voice is too light to float; it just kind of transcends. She has this perfect straight tone that makes her both an ensemble singer and a soloist. Everything that passes through her vocal chords turns to pure syrupy goodness. I even tolerate the low-def YouTube video of her singing the final lament from Carissimi's Jephthe. Because she's that good. I keep hoping she'll release a solo album of her own, though she hasn't yet; I'd give my left arm to hear her team up with a lutenist to record some Josquin or Dowland.

I've been told we resemble each other -- what do we think, peanut gallery?

Their Lotti Crucifixus was great as always, preceded and followed by profound improvisations by organist Anthony Romaniuk, but the thing that brought tears to my eyes was Lamento della ninfa, Claudio Monteverdi's classic tale of lost love. The narrators, a consort of two tenors and bass, stood behind the continuo team; they set the scene with a short introduction. The continuo then started the Lamento's hallmark tetrachord -- A, G, F, E, repeated ad nauseum. Usually, the soprano (la ninfa) gets at most four bars before she makes her entrance. But this time, seven, eight, nine repetitions, and no sign of the soprano.

But...why were the hairs on my neck standing on end? Why did I have chills up my spine? What was that clicking noise coming from next to me?

Clack. Clack. Clack. The slow steps of Estonian soprano Marta Paklar echoed throughout the sanctuary. The continuo must have done close to twenty cycles before she finally got up to the stage -- just further proof that four chords can get you very, very far in the music world. Anyway, Paklar turned around, her face as if she had just finished crying and was about to start again. And then she started singing. And I welled up with tears because her singing was like the most beautiful sobs you've ever heard.

To cap the concert off, Vox Luminis pulled out their signature piece: Domenico Scarlatti's Stabat Mater for ten voices and basso continuo. This was the piece that inspired Lionel Meunier to bring the ensemble together for the first time fifteen years ago. I first heard it on their premiere album from 2007, and their live version did not disappoint. They're have such a forceful composite sound, and yet each vocalists remains a soloist -- how?

I'm hooked. Vox Luminis is my crack. As soon as I left the concert, I put on one of their albums for the walk home. The next day, another. I'm just counting down the days until their next USA tour -- ten months to go I think?

Oh, and by the way, Lionel Meunier says Yale has been holding out against bring Vox Luminis to campus -- I'm about to @ every Yale music handle on Twitter and see if I can change that. Plus, Lionel said he'd buy me a drink if I convinced Yale to have them for a concert -- help a guy out.

Fun fact: Lionel Meunier also plays recorder. Really well.
On the first eight tracks of this album.

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Review: Heinavanker at The Cloisters

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I bet their shoulders are really warm.

WHO: Heinavanker; Margo Kõlar, artistic director
WHAT: "From runic songs to Pärt"
WHERE: Fuentidueña Chapel at The Met Cloisters
WHEN: October 20, 2019, 8:00pm

"From runic songs to Pärt," could mean just about anything. I mean, I sort of assumed that the nucleus of their program would be....runic songs....and Pärt. But safe to say that this was the only concert from my October break where I didn't really know what I was getting myself into.

Well, the first thing I noticed, and the first thing I should say: god, I wish my choir robes were that cool.

Heinavanker's program did, indeed, include runic songs and Pärt, along with some 14th-century polyphony. A couple of anonymous French mass movements went off well, as did a Te Deum by artistic director Margo Kõlar, who sang while conducting minimally. The Pärt was also quite good.

But for now, I'm going to dismiss those pieces, because I remember almost nothing of them. Even right after I left, my mind was full of one thing and one thing only: Estonian runic song.

And here's the crazy thing -- Estonian runic song is so, so, so repetitive. Much of it is the same couple lines of music that just keep coming back to different text; occasionally the music changes a bit, but the changes are really very little, barely discernible. But thirty seconds in and you're entranced.

Heinavanker incorporated some simple choreography into their set, mostly stepping behind one another in some sort of hypnotized, down-beat conga line. As soon as they brought out their first runic song, the Kõlar arrangement that leads their 2013 album (which I've listened to at least four times since the performance [and may or may not be listening to now]), it as if this wash of calm descended over the audience. Something about the cyclic repetition combined with the kind of music that is just so....comfortable. No one's voice was stretched, no one's ear was challenged. It was just nice, good music.

I seriously cannot recommend this enough. Seriously.

And they were so in the zone. The verses and verses of text were second-nature to the ensemble, who performed mostly from memory. The voices blended effortlessly in the boomy-but-not-overly-so chapel; the plain chords were perfectly in tune.

I want to make one thing clear -- Heinavanker's program contained some of the simplest music I've ever reviewed. But they showed that simple does not necessarily equal unimpressive. They performed these simple runic pieces with the same focus and accuracy that they might have used for something fifteen times its difficulty.

This was another of those times that I came out of a concert and said: "I would sit through that again in a heartbeat." I was speechless. It's one thing to go into a concert knowing full well it's going to be fantastic; but the feeling of euphoria that follows uncertainty is even better.

Please, Heinavanker. Come back to the US. Pretty please, with Estonian runes on top.

P.S. This is one of their basses. Turns out he's an Estonian pop star. Who woulda thunk it?

Sunday, November 10, 2019

Review: International Contemporary Ensemble performs George Lewis's "Soundlines"

Peep: Shick and Lewis trying to explain the meaning of music
in half an hour, in terms that a middle schooler could understand

WHO: International Contemporary Ensemble; Vimbayi Kaziboni, conductor; Steven Schick, percussion and orator
WHAT: GEORGE LEWIS Soundlines; P. Multitudinis
WHERE: Skirball Center for the Performing Arts @ NYU
WHEN: October 18, 2019 at 7:30pm

One of my friends told me I should drop everything to see this concert. By the time he finished telling me why, my tickets were already bought. I'm easily swayed.

The first amazing thing about this concert was the sheer density of objects and individuals onstage. In addition to the large Skirball stage, a large vertical platform stood front and center -- the kind of platform off of which I flung (and broke) a bow in my freshman year of high school while playing in the orchestra for Pippin. (That was my second broken bow that year. I broke the first by literally sitting on it during an orchestra rehearsal. I was a clumsy child.)

Spilling out of the pitch-black underbelly of said raised platform was a smattering of unusual percussion instruments -- drums, various shakers and rainsticks and whatnot. The conductor sat in the partially-lowered orchestra pit, visible to both those on the platform and on the stage. Basically, I'm trying to say that the setup was weird.

Within the first few measures of Soundlines, two LED panels lit up the dark underside of the platform, revealing the rest of the percussion setup surrounding a blank-faced Steven Schick.

Schick proceeded to tell the tale of an artistic mission upon which he embarked a few years ago: a daring seven-hundred-mile walk from San Diego to San Francisco. George Lewis designates his musical setting of Schick's memoir as a melodrama, but Schick's performance was anything but hyperdramatic. His face remained largely neutral through the piece, one of the more impressive feats of solo performance I've seen in the last year.

Lewis used the vast percussion set to emphasize Schick's oration syllable-for-syllable -- that was where the melodrama of this piece came from. The instrumental accents did not always match the syllable stress of the speech. That was part of the fun. Schick took it all in stride. His body was one, and the hands that operated the mallets were one with the mouth that narrated.

The rest of the ensemble snuck onstage at the end of the piece, and they seamlessly transitioned into P. Multitudinis, more a soundscape than a piece with distinct melody and harmony. The musicians were divided into distinct instrumental groups -- a wind quintet atop the platform, a string quartet stage right, a pianist stage left, a couple of hodgepodge ensembles in the side balconies. Each group had some discrete number of musical modules to play; it wasn't clear exactly how they decided when to switch, but from what I could tell motion was predicated on finger-numbers and Macarena-like hand signals. Conductor Vimbayi Kaziboni kept things moving by slinking around between groups, checking in as a waiter does on a table of guests. Amusing, and who am I to argue with results?

And the best thing about it all was the speech that George Lewis gave afterwards. He was very, very happy. And for me, that enhances the experience so very much. Satisfied composer + satisfied audience = satisfied critic.

Saturday, October 19, 2019

Review: The Juilliard Orchestra plays Thorvaldsdottir, Prokofiev, and Bartók



WHO: The Juilliard Orchestra; Jeffrey Milarsky, conductor; Jaewon Wee, violin
WHAT: ANNA THORVALDSDOTTIR Metacosmos; PROKOFIEV Violin Concerto No. 2; BARTÓK Concerto for Orchestra
WHERE: Alice Tully Hall
WHEN: October 17, 2019 at 7:30pm

God, why is the music world so small?

I think I jinxed it by mentioning that I didn't see anyone I knew at the Dover Quartet the other day. But every concert since then, I've randomly run into at least one person I know.

As soon as I'm through Alice Tully security check, I run into a music camp friend. Then another. Then I sit down, and I find out that no fewer than five close music camp friends are in the Juilliard Orchestra for this concert.

Image result for it's a small world gif
Anyway, my last two reviews have been really, really long, so I'm going to try to keep this one relatively short. I saw the Juilliard Orchestra last year with phenom conductor Barbara Hannigan (who was giving a recital across town at the Park Avenue Armory -- sold out to the rafters, naturally), and they sounded tremendous. The centerpiece of that program was also Bartók (his suite from The Miraculous Mandarin), so I figured, why not?

From my sample size of two (2) concerts, I've come to a conclusion about the Juilliard Orchestra: they'll never be bad. It's an orchestra comprised of the best young musicians around. The intention, the musicality, that will always be there.

But sometimes, Juilliard students have busy weeks. That's what this concert sounded like: an orchestra of phenomenal musicians, each of whom had fifteen million other things on their minds this week.

Consequently, the Thorvaldsdottir was probably the best-played thing on the program, and my favorite. Metacosmos sort of smears time in a way, blurring the lines between beats such that precision is not so important as transparent, visceral emotion. That's kind of a given for most of the musicians at Juilliard -- another day at the office.

But the orchestra began to fall apart behind Jaewon Wee's Prokofiev. Some of the orchestra knew the parts, but there was a critical mass of musicians who failed to look at the conductor's beat, resulting in a slow, but steady phasing effect between strings, winds, and brass. Luckily, Wee put up a well-polished performance that all but covered the missteps of the orchestra. I didn't necessarily feel like I was in the palm of her hand, but hey, we can probably blame that on the orchestra.

The Bartók was vigorous, if a little sloppy. The couples in the giuoco delle coppie ("game of the couples" were coordinated and well-rehearsed; the trumpets and trombones deserve a special mention for the chorale at the midpoint of that movement. The principals were all so very well-prepared, every solo sending my jaw straight to the floor. But once again, that phasing effect was persistent and ever-present. Maybe that burden falls on the conductor -- Milarsky's conducting seemed serviceable, though not particularly clear.

So, in conclusion, the Juilliard Orchestra is always worth seeing, even when they're not at their finest. When they bring in big name conductors, the quality is usually better (a friend was telling me about a few weeks ago, when Karina Canellakis conducted Ein Heldenleben -- best concert he'd ever been to). But when it's a staff conductor, just be warned: a bunch of great musicians do not an orchestra make.

For the love of god, Juilliard Orchestra, treat yourselves to a glass of wine, some Real Housewives, and a nap before your next concert. You all deserve it.

Review: Hannah Lash's "Desire" at Columbia

Woman and "Man" (PC: longtime Kinhaven photographer Rob Davidson)

WHO: Kirsten Sollek, contralto; Daniel Moody, countertenor; Christopher Dylan Herbert, baritone; JACK Quartet; Rachel Dickstein, director; Daniela Candillari, music director
WHAT: HANNAH LASH Desire (world premiere)
WHERE: Miller Theatre @ Columbia
WHEN: October 16, 2019 at 8:00pm

I've been on the board of Yale's undergrad opera company for a couple years now, and I really truly love it. But when programming season comes around, we often hit trouble. There are only so many operas that are a) small enough that they can fit into one of the tiny theaters set aside for student use and b) fit our personnel (see: The Great Tenor Drought of 2017).

So we often end up with operas in one of three categories:
  • court-commissioned Baroque operas that we can pull off with a combined cast and orchestra of 10 people
  • edgy 20th-century chamber operas, often psychological thrillers or horror operas
  • scaled-down productions of classic operas
And I love all that we do. But the thing is...sometimes, it feels like composers always assume that every opera company in existence has infinite money and resources. And increasingly, that is not the case. There's a space in the market for new operas which are compact, minimal, and relevant.

JACK x JACKson Pollock (PC: Rob Davidson)

Luckily, Columbia has identified that void in the repertoire, and is filling it steadily, year by year, with their Chamber Opera Commissioning Initiative. Established in 2017, Desire is their second project; their first show, Missy Mazzoli's Proving Up, met great critical success when it premiered last year. But Columbia has had a long history with chamber opera, premiering works of Britten and Virgil Thomson in the 1940's; more recently, they staged U.S. premieres of works by Olga Neuwirth and Iannis Xenakis.

Unlike much of the modern opera I've seen last year (sorry to @ you again, Chunky, but it was bound to happen sooner or later), Desire didn't feel like it had an overwhelming number of moving parts. The plot was straightforward, if cryptic; the movement onstage was slow and deliberate; it felt weirdly comfortable in the best of all possible ways. This opera seemed to strive towards profundity rather than outright experimentalism, a goal which it met with flying colors.

All of the motion that was taken out of the staging was siphoned into the complex string-quartet score. There was never a moment when Hannah Lash left the room unfilled, whether by scuttling exchanges, insane leaping figures (yes, I saw that time when the cellist had to leap a full foot and a half up his fingerboard), or lilting nods to the passion-waltzes of high romantic opera.

In isolation, the pacing of the libretto (written by the composer) remained largely the same throughout -- the sentence length, structure, and syntax barely varied throughout. But Lash's plain words were brought to life by the virtuosic vocal lines; the composer altered the rhythmic elements of the music to impart a broad emotional palette into the text. In a way, it was reverse text painting: the music seemed to determine the meaning of the text, rather than vice versa.

The three-person cast was headed by contralto Kirsten Sollek as a woman who existed in two worlds: a dark gray bedroom and a shimmering mystery-garden. Though contraltos are rarely main characters, here it seemed right, her rich, chesty mid-range nestling squarely between the shrill countertenor of the garden inhabitant (designated in the program as a man, but his costume suggesting, in the wise words of my date, "more of an origami Transformer") and the concerned baritone of the woman's husband.

The final showdown (PC: Rob Davidson)

Daniel Moody's voice was exactly what I wanted out of a new-music countertenor, bright and full of forward-propelling vibrato. Christopher Dylan Herbert (see my review of him from this summer) filled his sweet voice with a surging sense of bewilderment and discomfort. And the seemingly-superhuman JACK Quartet....I simply don't think there are words. The amount of collective brainpower, acuity, and passion they bring to these treacherous new scores never fails to amaze. And yet, through the complex ebbs and flows of the music, they always maintain the most incredible sense of calm, as if they are incapable of making a mistake.

This production was genius. I can only hope it comes back around during my lifetime. Any regional new music ensemble would (or at least should) jump at the chance to stage this show -- I know I'd make the trek to see it again.

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Review: Dover Quartet and Emanuel Ax at Zankel Hall (and a few updates)

Carnegie didn't have a photographer for the concert, so I'm reusing photos from Dover's
Caramoor concert this summer. Sue me. (Actually, please please don't.) [PC: Gabe Palacio]

WHO: Dover Quartet; Emanuel Ax, piano
WHAT: BRITTEN String Quartet No. 1; BRAHMS String Quartet No. 3; SCHUMANN Piano Quintet
WHERE: Zankel Hall @ Carnegie
WHEN: October 15, 2019 at 7:30pm

First update: I'm on Twitter now! Follow me at https://twitter.com/EmeryKerekes to keep up with all of CMG's adventures!

Second update: I made it to October break in (more or less) one piece. And you know what that means: another concert binge.

I know I've been making noise about a ten-concerts-in-five-days October blitz. But a couple weeks ago, after one too many nights staying up until 3am doing schoolwork, I looked at the list of ten concerts I had planned and only one thought popped into my head:

"This feels like a bad idea."

So I'm only going to seven (maybe eight) concerts this break. And I'm going to blog about all of them, but it's not going to be a formal concert blitz. I'm just going to blog for fun. You know, like a normal blogger -- quality over quantity (what the hell was I on when I thought up of #1Summer50Concerts?). The reviews will come out over the next few weeks.

I love finding ways to put off schoolwork. So, a few weeks ago, when I should have been writing papers, I reached out on a whim to the Carnegie press office, asking if they had any extra tickets for this particular concert. They were so nice, but the gist of what they said was: "Get in line."

Yesterday morning, literally the day of the concert, I got the coveted email: there's an extra ticket, it's yours if you want it, just let me know. I squealed. My breakfast date (Sarah, I know you're reading this) rolled her eyes and didn't talk to me for the rest of the meal.

I dropped my alternate concert plans (we all have those, don't we?) and booked it to Carnegie as soon as my train got in (twenty minutes late, by the way). I sat down and looked around; for the first time in who knows how long, I didn't recognize a single other person in the audience.

I see good concerts all the time. I see great concerts less often, but still regularly. But only once in a while do I see a concert and think, "Wow, that was stupid good."

Well, the Dovers are stupid good.

 PC: Carlin Ma

Okay, confession time. You may recall that I reviewed the Dover Quartet this summer for Opera News, but I couldn't really tell you guys what I thought because I didn't want to give the magazine old news. Well, that review is now in print, so I can say whatever I want. So full disclosure: I've known that the Dover Quartet was fantastic for, like, four months now. But now I can finally say it loud and proud: I'm a diehard Dover fan.

Of course, I'm glad I got to see this whole program. But I'm especially glad that I got to hear the Dovers' take on Britten. Outlandish but not wholly unfollowable, Britten's first quartet proved the perfect canvas for Dover to release their inner cheekiness. The quartet managed to invoke that dry British sense of humor in a way that was full, unfettered, and most importantly, entertaining. The tender violin duets of the first movement were so theatrically interrupted by bawdy prestos that there may as well have been a laugh track. Cellist Camden Shaw's eyebrows tracked the satire through the off-kilter scherzo. The slow movement highlighted violist Milena Pájaro-van de Stadt's flawless playing (to quote the older European gentleman sitting next to me: "Viola playing doesn't get much better than that!"). And the blazing three-minute finale brought everything to a close with adequate pomp and circumstance.

Oh yeah, the Brahms was also great. But like...the Britten.

This is how Barber originally wrote the Adagio for Strings before revising it
twice (once for string orchestra, once for choir). I think it's best for quartet.

And then there was the Schumann. It takes one hell of a quartet to be a match for Emanuel Ax, and I've seen instances where Ax plays with a chamber group that is most certainly not up to his level. But this was perfect. Dover is very new-school, Ax is very old-school, and the collaboration let each explore aspects of the other's playing. The quartet was a little bit warmer and rounder; Ax kept his crisp touch, but was lighter on the pedal than usual. The result was a harmonious tone that could only be described not as the Dover Quartet, not as Emanuel Ax, but as "the Dover Quartet with Emanuel Ax."

The performance was so fantastic that I barely noticed the faint, but ever-present sound of the NQRW trains roaring past the underground Zankel Hall. Whose bright idea was that, again?

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Quick Post: Kaleidoscope

Is this selfie terrible? Yes. Does it have (most) of Dashon Burton it it? Also yes.
Also, first person to comment "Nice glasses," gets a kick in the shins.
(left to right: baroque cellist Alice Robbins; Dashon Burton; soprano Michele Kennedy; a fraction of my face)

This is going to be really quick because I'm putting off a problem set that I haven't started (eek!) which is due tomorrow (double eek!).

Remember prisoner of the state (concert 11 of 50 from this summer)? Remember how I mentioned that my job got me into a rehearsal meant for "classical music influencers"? Well, I didn't mention that it was a rehearsal where the covers were singing instead of the main cast. And Eric Owens's cover was Yale grad and Roomful of Teeth member Dashon Burton.

Frankly, I thought he was as good as Owens, if not better. I got to tell him that tonight. And now he thinks I'm an influencer because I was at that rehearsal. So what the hell, let's keep up the façade.

Anyway, tonight the nascent Kaleidoscope vocal octet (nonet, actually, because one of their members was missing) had their second performance ever. I've mentioned a few of the singers here before, most notably Enrico Lagasca, the bass over whom I fawned in concert #13's Cavalieri. Plus Grammy-winning tenor Karim Sulayman, fantastic countertenor Reginald Mobley, early soprano (and my voice teacher because I'm the luckiest person EVER) Sherezade Panthaki, the list goes on, all-star after all-star. Their mission is to celebrate diversity in the classical music world.

Kaleidoscope did a workshop-concert, so they only sang for about 20 minutes. Bach, Caroline Shaw (*sigh*), and a premiere by absent member Jonathan Woody.

But from those 20 minutes, I can safely say they're going to be big. Like, really big. Music with a mission is more powerful, more important, more relatable. And Kaleidoscope isn't just people who can sing. It's people who can articulate a noble cause through music.

They don't have any recordings -- this is only their second concert, after all -- but keep an eye (and an ear) out. This won't be the last you hear of Kaleidoscope.

Monday, September 16, 2019

[Finale Pt. 3] The Outtakes: Blooper Reel | #1Summer50Concerts

Pro: this train only makes two stops between New Haven and Grand Central
Con: they gave us one of the shitty old trains without comfy seats and electrical outlets

As I head down to NYC for a self-care day that includes a matinee at the Met and an evening concert at the NY Phil (neither of which I'm going to write about, because SELF-CARE), I figure now is as opportune a time as any to tell you about a few times when fate got in the way of my concert schedule. Sometimes, shit happens.
  • I got rained out of the Met Live in the Parks concert I was planning on attending. The headliners were tenor Ben Bliss, baritone Nathan Gunn, and soprano Ying Fang, who I had the fortune to interview not a week before. She's just lovely. So is her voice. Sigh.
  • I mentioned this briefly in a prior post, but the first Chamber Music Society concert I tried to go to was completely, 100% sold out. Like, not a seat left. So we rushed to two Broadway theaters and tried to get rush tickets. No luck. We ended up at Upright Citizens' Brigade seeing comedy, which was sort of my default free-evening thing to do.
  • After my first Caramoor concert (with Vivica Genaux), I wrote a whole post on Metro-North -- I think it was for the second night of ChamberQueer. I got home and pressed the post button, and the entire thing disappeared. That might have been the low point of my whole summer.
  • Concert #1 was slated to be the NY Phil's free Memorial Day concert. But by the time my friend got there to get us tickets, the line almost snaked around an entire city block. I love music. But not that much.
  • I was having a good day. Had lunch with friends, sat in a Columbia coffee shop for an hour and a half trying to write my first Opera News review (I got two sentences in that time, neither of which I liked at all), and then had a reading with one of my Bennington quartets. I was slated to go to the Martina Arroyo Foundation's Fledermaus with a friend that night. I caught the D train downtown from Harlem-125th St because the 1 train wasn't running that weekend. Around 81st St, we stopped. Power outage, apparently. I stood there looking like an annoyed New Yorker, because what else was I supposed to do. After about 15 minutes, it became eminently clear we weren't going anywhere anytime soon. So I did something hardcore. I sat down on the floor of the D train and I started writing that Opera News review. By the time we got rescued an hour and a half later, it was pretty much done. Silver linings! Of course, my poor friend was waiting for me at the Fledermaus performance, but I had no service to tell her that I was stuck. Sigh.
  • There was a mystery concert #51, but you have to ask me about that in person.
Thanks for sticking with me throughout this project, and stay tuned for Classical Music Geek's Concert Blitz, October 15-20 -- I'll be attending 10 concerts in those five days!

Saturday, September 14, 2019

[Finale Pt. 2] The Credit Reel: The Emery Awards | #1Summer50Concerts

An approximate rendering of what an Emery award might look like -- because who doesn't
want to have my badly-photoshopped face sitting on their mantelpiece for the rest of time?

EDIT: Things got so busy that I'm just getting around to this post now. I guess it makes sense to keep with the trend of always being three weeks behind this summer?

I saw too many amazing, abnormal, and downright wacky things this summer not to do an awards post. So here goes nothing:

BEST OUTFIT (CONCERT BLACK): Conrad Tao; Davóne Tines
Pianist Conrad Tao wore a black t-shirt with black capri chinos to his performance of Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time at Bargemusic. Baritone Davóne Tines beat the Caramoor heat by rocking a black suit with no shirt underneath.

BEST OUTFIT (NON-CONCERT BLACK): Aisslinn Nosky
At ChamberQUEER, violinist Aisslinn Nosky stood out from the fashionable performer core with a black velour tailcoat alongside shamrock-green velcro sneakers.

MOST EFFECTIVE INTERMISSION COSTUME CHANGE: Vivica Genaux
Mezzo-soprano Vivica Genaux started her concert at Caramoor in a colorful dress with a four-foot train; after intermission, she returned to the stage in the brightest white pantsuit I've ever seen.

MOST OBSCURE INSTRUMENT: the douçaine
Piffaro's concert at the MET Cloisters was studded with weird baroque instruments, but the douçaine was the only one I hadn't heard of. Turns out it's like the bassoon's less useful French cousin.

CONCERT MOST SIMILAR TO AN ACID TRIP (NOT THAT I WOULD KNOW):
Chunky in Heat literally had a talking tree who introduced himself by describing two flies having sex. I don't think that happens in real life (but correct me if I'm wrong). Barrie Kosky's Magic Flute was only marginally closer to how life actually works; the whole performance just felt like one big leg-filled hallucination.

MOST AGGRESSIVE HEAD-BOBBING: Vijay Iyer Sextet
My neck was sore afterwards.

FEWEST FUCKS GIVEN: Pierre Hantaï
I saw him outside smoking a cigarette 15 minutes before the concert. And then at intermission, when the entire audience crowded around to record him tuning the DiMenna Center's harpsichord, he just kind of rolled his eyes and continued with his business.

BIGGEST EYEROLL: George Li
After a beautiful Liszt/Schumann encore that would have made the perfect end to the concert, the audience forced George Li onstage to play La campanella, the most overused virtuoso piece alive. The audience murmured in delight. Li most certainly did not.

BEST FAMOUS PERSON ENCOUNTER: Vilde Frang
Because she was the only one I talked to. Because I'm a wimp.

Reid Anderson's improvised bit-du-jour was about the Chia Pet that inspired Orrin Evans to write his song "Commitment." He also may or may not have been high at the time. I mean, who can blame him -- it was the second set of the night!

BEST PERFORMANCE OF A PIECE I HAD NEVER HEARD BEFORE AND DON'T CARE TO HEAR AGAIN: Teatro Nuovo playing Donizetti's Symphony in e minor
Yes, excavate obscure pieces. But for the love of god, only excavate the good ones!

MOST MEMORABLE CONCERT THAT I HAVE SINCE FORGOTTEN: NY Phil playing Corigliano's First Symphony
It was a lovely performance. But it was, like, concert #3. After the novelty had worn off. I still remember it fondly, but it was just overwritten by all the other great stuff I saw this summer.

PERFORMANCE THAT EVERYONE 65+ LOVED AND EVERYONE 65- HATED: Stonewall
There were a lot of old gays in the audience who were 200% convinced they had just seen the third coming of Christ. The younger crowd scoffed, wishing they had gone to see Der Rosenkavalier instead for their fill of soprano-soprano relationships.

BEST MOTIVATIONAL SPEECH: Vijay Iyer
"The fight...is....far. from. over. Which coincidentally is the name of our newest album!" TL;DR Fuck Donald Trump, but without saying those actual words.

BIGGEST DRAMA QUEEN: Brian Giebler
I understand the red-black double-sided sequin jacket. But you did NOT need to have a breakdown on the conductor's podium. 10/10 excellent entertainment.

BIGGEST COINCIDENCE: Cavalieri at St. Thomas
The bass section leader of the St. Thomas choir (he also played the small role of Consiglio)? Yeah, he teaches at Yale now. And I'm in his seminar. Emotions and Sacred Music in the Early Modern World. We're just niche like that.

ASSHOLE OF THE SUMMER: The Guy Who Yelled Bravo Too Early
I said it once, and I'll say it again. FUCK. YOU.

MOST FEELINGS: Kinhaven
You can catch me live-streaming for their annual fundraiser on Monday. I hate fundraising. But I love Kinhaven more than I hate fundraising.

BEST AUDIENCE PARTICIPATION: Lacunae
Apparently, discussing your feelings with the other seven (7) people in the audience is in vogue now. Who knew?

Wadada doesn't exactly deal in children's music, but his grandkids -- three or four of them aged between 2 and 12 -- were all sitting right in the front row. Part of his between-the-pieces intermission was talking to them exactly as a grandpa should -- "how was the drive? how was your day at school?"

BEST ONSTAGE NAP: Camille Bertault
Her band thought they had seen every crazy trick in her book. And then, for the final verse of one of her pieces, she feigned drunkenness and slowly laid down onstage. I don't think I've ever seen a drummer look more confused in my entire life.

A world in which David Lang's compositions are not angsty is a world in which I don't want to live.

BIGGEST SUMMER REGRET: Not Talking to Caroline Shaw
Yeah, I'm still not over it. Supposedly she got ahold of that blogpost. And then I got back to school and next thing I know I'm conducting one of her pieces with the Yale Glee Club. I don't believe in god, but someone is taunting me.

The look on Davóne Tines's face at the "ha NOPE!" moment of Dover Beach was alone worth the train ride. At the end of the concert, I would have happily sat through the whole thing again.

BEST CONCERT I SAW THIS SUMMER: Quartet for the End of Time at Bargemusic
Holy shit. That's all I could say. That's all I can say.
(Runner-up: ChamberQUEER Opening Concert)

MY FAVORITE CONCERT I SAW THIS SUMMER: ChamberQUEER Opening Concert
I have never left a concert with my heart more full than when I left ChamberQUEER. The NYC summer music scene's best-kept secret, and the thing I will miss most if I end up anywhere but NYC next summer. I'm smiling just thinking about it.
(Runner-up: Quartet for the End of Time at Bargemusic)

Friday, August 30, 2019

[Finale Pt. 1] The Serious Post: Reflections | #1Summer50Concerts

It feels like just yesterday...

Fifty concerts. FIFTY CONCERTS.

Quite frankly, I don't know where those 50 reviews came from. It's almost like writing an all-nighter paper: the words are all there, and I definitely wrote each and every one of them. But the whole process is kind of a haze.

But alas, 'tis done. 50 concerts. One summer. It happened. I learned a lot.

I learned that hopping on the subway and going to 50 concerts is not that hard. I also learned that writing 50 reviews is significantly harder and more time-consuming,

I learned that my writing leans far too heavily on em dashes, semicolons, and parenthetical asides, but I've been told that's just a phase.

But most of all, I learned that I love going to concerts. Everyone who questioned this project (and there were a lot of people who did so) was right: 50 concerts is really too many. I spent an inordinate amount of time this summer seeing, writing about, and talking about concerts. But thinking back on it, what would I have been doing instead? Sitting on my ass and watching Netflix? Rest assured, I did plenty of that too -- the last season of Orange is the New Black wasn't going to watch itself.

The concert experience, I now realize, can be so many things. Go to a concert alone and it's a night off. Go with one friend and it's date night. Go with a group and it's a party. Concert in a neighborhood you don't know? Field trip. Concert three blocks from your house? Home-court advantage. One hour long? Time for dinner after. Four hours long? Better bring snacks.

It's not like I was trying to run 50 miles or taste 50 cups of coffee. The only common vein running through my 50 concerts was, well, music. Variety is key. I would have torn my hair out if I was working towards, say, 50 Beethoven performances in one summer.

So guys, I know this project was mostly self-serving (I have a portfolio for job applications now!), but there is a moral to the story. Go hear live music. Yes, I pay $10 a month for Spotify, too. But there's nothing quite like seeing a real, live human make real, live music in person. They are literally there to please you, and you are there to be pleased.

And more than just going to concerts, dig deeper than the surface. I ended up at so many tiny little concerts that I only found out about thanks to Facebook's alarmingly sophisticated suggestions algorithm. Don't just siphon money into your local symphony orchestras and opera companies. Find out what the community is doing. Go see a concert where you're on your own and don't think you know anyone; chances are the people running it will greet you with a smile, pour you a glass of wine, and make small talk with you until you're one of the family.

It's been a great summer, guys. Thanks for following along, and stay tuned for more ridiculous concert projects -- ten concerts in five days during my October break, maybe?

Sunday, August 25, 2019

[50] Mostly Mozart presents Takács Quartet at Alice Tully Hall | #1Summer50Concerts

Me, finishing something I started for the first time, like, ever

WHO: Takács Quartet; Jeremy Denk, piano
WHAT: MOZART String Quartet No. 21 in D major, K. 575 "Prussian"; BEETHOVEN String Quartet No. 16 in F major, Op. 135; DOHNÁNYI Piano Quintet No. 1 in C minor, Op. 1
WHERE: Alice Tully Hall
WHEN: August 5, 2019 at 7:30pm

I'm going to spare you the gritty details, but let me just say this -- I was a little bit emotional at this final concert. And it wasn't just because of the heart-rending slow movements from the Beethoven and the Dohnányi.

As the lights dimmed, and the robo-voice over the loudspeaker told the audience to silence their cell phones, I couldn't help but notice that the sad cavern in my stomach trumped the endorphin rush of triumph.

So much for sparing you the gritty details.

I posted about concert #50 on my Snapchat and got plenty of congratulations, but as I pointed out to all of my loyal followers, it's not over until it's over. Review #50 hasn't hit the web yet. Well, here it is.

I started this project with the most niche concert I could find. Well, it appears I've sold out -- here's a review of, like, one of the most famous quartets in the world.

I went into this concert with a more or less neutral idea of Takács. I listened to one of their Beethoven quartet recordings a while ago. I may have listened to a couple movements of the Bartók cycle at some point. But that's about it.

Takács is not a quartet where you have to call into question whether they play musically, or how well they play well as a quartet. They're obviously very good. The only thing I can do is to ask myself whether they approach the program the way I would. And the answer to that is...kind of?

Takács's approach to Mozart is distinctly different from mine. I love to relish in Mozart's simplicity, striking a balance between imparting my own musical ideas and letting the bright levity of the score speak for itself. Takács erred definitively on the side of the former, and to my ear it seemed a little bit overworked. It didn't help, of course, that their interpretation seemed overly romantic -- their wide, fast vibrato was always audible, which is *probably* not how Mozart would have wanted it. Oh, and it felt like cellist András Fejér was celebrating the upcoming Bartók anniversary a few months early with his short, hatchet-y accompanying strokes. Again, these are all personal objections. Objectively, they played very very well.

Their Beethoven was a little more to my liking -- their approach wasn't so different from that for the Mozart, but it felt a bit more appropriate for the parodistic aspects of Op. 135. Plus, as I said before, that slow movement was to die for (or, in my case, to cry for). And their romantic approach to the Dohnányi was perfectly idiomatic, strengthened by Jeremy Denk's insistently emotional, yet transparent playing.

My mind wasn't blown, but I still left pleased. Takács is eminently reliable. And besides which, I wasn't *really* thinking about the music. I was crying on the inside as the lovely critic sitting next to me (whose name I didn't catch -- he had to run for a train) was waxing poetic about Pekka Kuusisto's abomination of a Four Seasons mashup with Scandinavian folk music.

And now I'm crying on the outside. Stay tuned for the summer wrap-up posts, hopefully coming before my classes start on Wednesday!

Thursday, August 22, 2019

[49] Faculty Concert at Chamber Music Conference of the East, Bennington, VT | #1Summer50Concerts #ConcertGetaway

Image result for bennington chamber music conference

WHO: Faculty of Chamber Music Conference of the East
WHAT: SCOTT WHEELER Piano Trio No. 2 "Camera Dances"; HINDEMITH Kleine Kammermusik, Op. 24 No. 2; BRAHMS Piano Quintet, Op. 34
WHERE: Greenwall Auditorium, Bennington College, Bennington, VT
WHEN: August 3, 2019 at 8:00pm

An abridged list of things I did during my week at Bennington:
  • Play the Beethoven "Ghost" trio
  • Play Shostakovich's 7th string quartet
  • Play a Beethoven quartet (Op. 18 No. 6, for those who are counting)
  • Play a Mendelssohn quartet (Op. 12)
  • Explain to my friends approximately 47 times that yes, I go to a music camp that requires me to learn four full pieces in one week, and yes, this is my idea of fun
  • Get called a masochist approximately 47 times
  • Have a conversation with the Bennington College music librarian that ended with, "I'm so glad that score of Schoenberg's Book of the Hanging Gardens (which was on sale for $2 at the annual music sale) is going to a good home." Why yes, I'll feed it and water it and turn it towards the sunlight, just like I do with the rest of my....scores?
  • Read Shostakovich's second piano trio (read: really really hard) with one of those pianists who is like "oh yeah, I'm just sightreading" and then proceeds to nail 90% of the notes at full tempo. She may be reading this. She knows who she is.
  • Eat lots of dining hall food, reminding me that yes, I am happy to have a kitchen this upcoming year
  • Pitch the #1Summer50Concerts project approximately 47 times
  • Explain approximately 47 times that yes, I went to 50 concerts and yes, I enjoyed myself
  • Get called a masochist approximately 47 times
  • Blog while sitting on a bench that overlooks miles and miles of open field (with a little path weed-whacked into it so people can go on walks through the waist-high grass) while listening to Alexandre Tharaud's recordings of the last three Beethoven piano sonatas (would recommend)
  • Explore said open field, for shits and giggles
  • Come across a mystical forest path that looked something like this:
  • Enter the forest path
  • Come out the other side to this view:
  • Scare a mama deer a little further down the path
  • Stargaze
  • Obsess over shoes and Bruno Helstroffer (the world's sexiest lute player) with a group of snarky childless 40-somethings
  • Sweat. A lot. The music building wasn't air conditioned.
An unabridged list of things I did not do during my week at Bennington:
  • Sleep

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

[48] Faculty Concert at Chamber Music Conference of the East, Bennington, VT | #1Summer50Concerts #ConcertGetaway

Image result for bennington college


WHO: Faculty of Chamber Music Conference of the East
WHAT: MENDELSSOHN String Quartet No. 6, Op. 80; MOZART String Quintet No. 3, K. 515
WHERE: Greenwall Auditorium, Bennington College, Bennington, VT
WHEN: July 31, 2019 at 8:00pm

Ultimately, I decided not to write a college essay on Kinhaven, my most formative music camp experience, for much the same reason I didn't wax poetic in my last post -- I didn't/don't think I can put words to paper that express how much that location means to me.

I also love Bennington, a weeklong summer chamber music camp for grownups in southern Vermont. But it's less emotional for me, mostly because I can keep going back summer after summer until I keel over. So I wrote a college essay about it -- nothing long, just one of the 300-word essays.

And as I was thinking about what to write for this post, I thought to myself: who better to tell you what Bennington means to me than 17-year-old me trying to pander to admissions officers? If I convinced them, then certainly I can convince you(?).

Here it is: my Bennington essay, unedited from the time I hit the "submit" button.

"It’s my first day at Bennington Chamber Music Conference in Vermont, where I’m the only teenager among several hundred amateur musicians. I take my cello out of my case and sit down. I start to leaf through the piece in front of me, the famously difficult Mendelssohn Octet. My stomach churns. I chat nervously with the other players for a while as we wait on our first violinist. We hear a knock on the door: it’s Shem Guibbory, a violinist from New York’s Metropolitan Opera Orchestra.

"Oh, brother.

"My week at Bennington was a baptism by fire. I expected a relatively low-key experience; I had just come from six weeks at another intense music camp, and I assumed I’d have some time to relax.

"I was wrong. A friend explained the schedule: in addition to two professional coachings per day on pre-practiced pieces, there were four free periods per day to sight-read. The typical day started at 9am and didn’t end until midnight. And playing with seasoned professionals was the norm, not the exception.

"That first day, I sight-read 6 full pieces, in addition to the ones on which I was being coached. By bedtime I was catatonic. But I was learning. Reading Allen Shawn’s Dreamscape cemented my love for modern music. Shostakovich’s piano quintet reminded me that as the cellist, I was responsible for driving the music forward.

"Most of all, Bennington showed me how I want to live. The enthusiastic amateur musicians around me had demanding jobs (doctors, professors, and environmental scientists, just to name a few) but all had carved a week out of their busy schedules to play chamber music in the mountains. It was here that I realized that I want music to be a part of my life forever, but I don’t want to play for a living. I want my career to challenge me intellectually and support me and my family, and I want to spend my vacations making music with friends in the mountains."

FIN

I don't know why, but when I read that in my head, it's in a pre-pubescent 12-year-old Emery voice. Does that mean that in 20 years, when I look back on these posts, I'll read it like that, too?

I should take a moment to mention that the Mendelssohn on this concert was truly astounding. Bennington's faculty have just as much fun as the participants -- because Bennington is all adults, the coaches can be more relaxed and open with the students than they could be at a high school festival. But don't be fooled -- each faculty member is alarmingly accomplished.

The Mendelssohn quartet was headed by Diana Cohen, concertmaster of the Calgary Philharmonic. Personally, I think she should quit that job and become a full-time chamber musician, she played that well -- the amount of fiery soul she managed to impart in those 25 minutes is completely beyond words. Second violinist Alex Fortes (who, it turns out, was sitting not ten feet from me at ChamberQUEER earlier this summer) mirrored her affect perfectly, providing a support network for her to soar. Violist Korinne Fujiwara (of the Carpe Diem quartet -- also a fantastic coach) and cellist Maxine Neuman (a longtime festival mainstay and Bennington College faculty member) rounded out the jaw-dropping ensemble.

That's about all I have to say for now. More on Bennington in the next post!

Monday, August 19, 2019

[47] Final Faculty Concert at Kinhaven Music School, Weston, VT | #1Summer50Concerts #ConcertGetaway


Top: My first day of Kinhaven, 2010
Bottom: Home at last, 2019 (the one to my left used to be the scrawny 11-year-old described below)

WHO: Faculty of Kinhaven Music School
WHAT: SHOSTAKOVICH String Quartet No. 3; TURINA Piano Quartet in A minor; MILHAUD La création du monde
WHERE: Concert Hall, Kinhaven Music School, Weston, VT
WHEN: July 27, 2019 at 7:30pm

Disclaimer: this is not a review.

After seven summers, I left Kinhaven Music School for the last time in August 2017. But Kinhaven certainly hasn’t left me. In fact, it seems that Kinhaven follows me wherever I go.

I could write a few paragraphs of cliché about what Kinhaven means to me, but I'd rather not. Feel free to buy me a drink sometime and I'll tell you how Kinhaven changed my life and why it's a unique, formative environment that I believe makes every teenage musician who's lucky enough to spend the summer there a better human.

But for the time being, let me just share a few warm-and-fuzzy Kinhaven anecdotes with you, in no particular order.

  • In 2016, I applied for the librarian position with the National Youth Orchestra of the United States. They were a day late releasing the results. After 24 hours of nerves, I finally got the email saying I hadn't gotten it. I cried tears of joy, because that meant I could go back to Kinhaven.
  • The madrigals and Bach chorales we learn at the beginning of each summer are etched into my brain forever. You thought the St. Matthew Passion's recurring chorale was heart-wrenching? You ain't felt nothing, honey.
  • If you pick a piece at random from the canon, chances are it reminds me of Kinhaven in one way or another. Not exaggerating -- seven years of marathon concerts will do that to you.
  • I want my final assignment from Kinhaven played at my funeral. For the record, if I die tomorrow: that's the third movement of the third Brahms piano quartet.
  • The hardest I've ever cried was after I finished playing that movement on my last night at Kinhaven. It was ugly. The snot stains never really came out of my concert-white shirt.
  • I'm still in touch with BOTH of my Kinhaven cello teachers.
  • At an amateur chamber music conference a few years ago, I was talking to a woman who was probably about 70. I mentioned Kinhaven and her eyes lit up: "I went to Kinhaven in 1970, before (late long-standing married directors of Kinhaven) were even dating!" Instant friendship.
  • For me, the highlight of Yale Glee Club's tour to the UK was getting to see one of my best Kinhaven friends, who now goes to University of St. Andrew's, for approximately five minutes.
  • My final year at Kinhaven, I organized a sunrise Rachmaninoff All-Night Vigil listening party on the large hill that serves as the center of Kinhaven's campus ("The Sitting Hill"). People actually showed up. The tradition lives on even though I've aged out.
  • In 2011, I walked into my cabin on the first day of Kinhaven and found a scrawny, awkward 11-year-old trumpet player sitting on the bunk across from mine. He's been one of my best friends ever since, through six summers together at Kinhaven.
  • Vermont air has a special smell. Trust me.
  • At the Yale Glee Club banquet, we go around in a circle toasting each other until we finish a *large* goblet of some unidentified fruity drink. One of my Kinhaven friends, who happened to end up in the Glee Club with me, made his first toast to me, "because you were there when it all started." He sang for the first time next to me at Kinhaven. Have I mentioned I'm really terrible at holding back tears?
  • I learned my first Kinhaven folk dance on my first day of the 2010 session. Nine years later and all the steps are still second-nature.
  • I still have Kinhaven dreams at least five times a month. My mother, who went to Kinhaven in the early '80s, does too.
  • Whether you know it or not, this summer project has been peppered with Kinhaven people, from Caroline Shaw, to the umpteen people I randomly ran into, to all of the unnamed "friends" with whom I went to concerts.
"There is no such beauty as where you belong."
-- Stephen Paulus, The Road Home

PC: My former counselor Marty Jacobs