MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

New from Sarah Kirkland Snider

When I was researching material for my cover story Secular Requiems for the recent issue of Chorus America’s magazine The Voice, I came across so many relevant contemporary compositions that it was painful not having the space to cover more of them.

The American composer Sarah Kirkland Snider‘s Mass for the Endangered offers yet another angle on the concept of a requiem, though it doesn’t use that term. Kirkland collaborated with the poet Nathaniel Bellows, who crafted a libretto juxtaposing parts of the traditional Ordinary Mass with elegiac meditations on our era of extinction and the threat humanity poses to the natural world.

“I wanted to open the gates in my mind between centuries-old European vocal traditions and those of more recent American vernacular persuasion, and write from a place where differing thoughts about line, text, form, and expression could co-exist,” says Kirkland.

Mass for the Endangered was commissioned by Trinity Church Wall Street as part of a project curated by Daniel Felsenfeld. It was premiered there in April 2018 and was recently released as a collaboration between New Amsterdam Records, which Kirkland cofounded, and Nonesuch Records.

The new recording features the English vocal ensemble Gallicantus and instrumentalists, with Gabriel Crouch conducting. Scored for SATB chorus, piano, string quintet, flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, harp, and percussion, Mass for the Endangered is something of a departure for a composer whose aesthetic outlook has been characterized as “post-genre.”

Kirkland explains: “The origin of the Mass is rooted in humanity’s concern for itself, expressed through worship of the divine—which, in the Catholic tradition, is a God in the image of man. Nathaniel and I thought it would be interesting to take the Mass’s musical modes of spiritual contemplation and apply them to concern for non-human life—animals, plants, and the environment. There is an appeal to a higher power—for mercy, forgiveness, and intervention—but that appeal is directed not to God but rather to nature itself. As someone not traditionally religious who draws enormous spiritual and artistic inspiration from the natural world and is deeply concerned about climate change, the text spoke to me on a personal level.”

“[B]ecause of the global crisis we’re facing and the losses we’ve already suffered, the music can’t just be a celebration—it has to also be an elegy, and a plea. I tried to let the music acknowledge some of that, even in its most exuberantly joyous moments.” 

Filed under: choral music, new music

Music of Luca Francesconi at Boulez Saal

Luca Francesconi

Pierre Boulez Saal in Berlin continues to buzz with a remarkably varied program of events — including this chamber concert by the Boulez Ensemble directed by Daniel Barenboim. Along with pieces by Beethoven and Schumann, the program offers a chamber-cameo of the fascinating composer Luca Francesconi.

Across the street over at the Staatsoper, Francesconi’s much-produced opera Quartett — based on Heiner Müller’s deconstruction of Les liaisons dangereuses — is at last getting its Berlin premiere. I well remember the US premiere production at the 2017 Spoleto Festival, which I covered for Musical America and Opera Now. And before the pandemic intervened, Francesconi’s new opera Timon of Athens was scheduled to be premiered at the Bayerische Staatsoper.

I thoroughly enjoyed interviewing Francesconi and writing about his work for the Boulez Saal program book.

The video above is from an interview last year, when Barenboim premiered Daedalus, a work newly commissioned for Boulez Saal.

Filed under: Daniel Barenboim, new music, Pierre Boulez Saal

A Remarkable Solo Debut from Shanna Pranaitis

Here’s a new release of contemporary music I’m very glad to have discovered: Claus-Steffen Mahnkopf Flute Music from the NEOS label, now available in the US and Canada on most of the common platforms (Apple Music, Spotify, Amazon Music, Naxos, Qobuz).

Mahnkopf is usually identified (or, tbh, pigeonholed) with the so-called New Complexity aesthetic — a catch-all label for composers like Brian Ferneyhough, who, as Christopher Fox puts it in Grove Online, have “sought to achieve in their work a complex, multi-layered interplay of evolutionary processes occurring simultaneously within every dimension of the musical material.”

But even without being aware of the intricate processes Mahnkopf deploys and manipulates, his music coaxes you into new, unaccustomed relationships with sound, each breath and articulation registering an unpredictable discovery — especially in these intensely committed performances by Shanna Pranaitis, here in her solo debut album.

Mahnkopf, who was born in 1962 in Mannheim, studied with Ferneyhough and with Klaus Huber (who also taught Ferneyhough), and he is also deeply committed to philosophy and was mentored by Jürgen Habermas. Along with his impressive musical distinctions — including an Ernst von Siemens Composer’s Prize — Mahnkopf wrote his dissertation on Schoenberg and has published writings on aesthetics and critical theory and a book titled Philosophie des Orgasmus.

The Chicago-based flutist Shanna Pranaitis, who studied with Amy Porter at the University of Michigan and Walfrid Kujala at Northwestern University, sees her mission as intensively experimental. In her own words, she “specializes in expanding the sonic possibility for my instruments.”

A founding member of Dal Niente and Collect Project Ensemble, she “integrates new and historically reimagined works with electronics, movement, and multi-disciplinary elements to create seamless, immersive concert experiences in collaboration with colleagues around the globe.”

One of those colleagues is Mahnkopf, with whom Pranaitis has worked closely over the past decade. This resulting portrait album presents Mahnkopf’s complete works for flute. He has also contributed important pieces to the contemporary oboe repertoire, remarking that both the flute and oboe hold “a special place” in his work. “What draws me to [the flute] is not simply the sound, but also its particular virtuosity, agility, and ease in crossing large sonic spaces,” writes Mahnkopf.

The album’s six pieces range from the composer’s student years to more recent achievements, in which his music has acquired what Pranaitis regards as “a more lyrical approach despite the continued complexity.” Three of the works on this album were written for Pranaitis, specifically taking into account her specially altered open-hole piccolo and open-hole Kingma System bass and alto flutes. These and one other track are all world-premiere recordings (tracks 1, 2, 4, and 6); two other tracks (3 and 5) are additionally the first studio-recorded versions.

Mahnkopf’s web of allusions is far-reaching. What especially fascinates me is his desire to integrate unique formal designs involving rhythmic and motivic processes — “absolute music,” so to speak — with inspirations from such sources as medieval mystical philosophy, the fractal geometry of Benoît Mandelbrot, or the prose of David Foster Wallace (Finite Jest, which also calls for soprano, performed here by Frauke Aulbert).

La terreur d’ange nouveau (1997-99), for example, unfolds from “sonic types” classifiable as “harmonic,” “melodic,” and “rhythmic-motivic” (the composer’s labels). At the same time, it’s part of the cycle comprising Angelus Novus, his music theater work based on Walter Benjamin, which premiered in 2000.

Or take coincidentia oppositorum for alto flute — the earliest piece here, from 1986. Its title refers to the dialectical mysticism of Nicholas of Cusa, a German philosopher/theologian from the transition between medieval and Renaissance thought. Mahnkopf explores this concept of “the unity of opposites” using “two diametrically opposed types of material that alternate abruptly, each following its own laws” but that are eventually “brought together to form a unity.” The process calls for an astonishing array of extended-playing techniques — various kinds of lip pizzicato, tongue clicks, articulating consonants into the instrument, to mention a few.

In these performances by Pranaitis, the resulting palette of sonorities is completely spellbinding, as if inviting us to partake of a rediscovered language and the secret knowledge it encodes. This is my impression above all in Kurtág-Cantus II for piccolo (2013), which closes the album. This is one of the pieces Mahnkopf wrote for Pranaitis (listen to the clip at the top).

Mahnkopf asks her to play sempre volante, quasi privo di gravità (“always flying, as if weightless”). It brings to mind — not musically, but existentially — the tight-rope walk of Der wahre Weg (“The True Path”), that incredible turning-point in Kurtág’s own Kafka Fragments.

List of tracks:
[01] atsiminimas for bass flute (2016) 13:58
[02] coincidentia oppositorum for alto flute (1986) 07:21
[03] La terreur d’ange nouveau for flute (1997-1999) 12:03
[04] Finite Jest for flute and soprano (2014) 10:52
[05] succolarity for flute (1989) 06:20
[06] Kurtág-Cantus II for piccolo (2013) 12:31

Filed under: CD review, flute, New Complexity, new music

Interview with Olga Neuwirth

Here’s a new interview with Olga Neuwirth conducted by Boulez Saal’s Philipp Brieler, discussing Pierre Boulez and Neuwirth’s new piece Naufraghi del mondo que hanno ancora un cuore — one of the new works premiered on Saturday’s program. The entire Festival of New Music: Distance/Intimacy is being streamed live and then archived for 30 days. You can find this program here (Neuwirth’s piece begins at 55:00).

Filed under: COVID-19 Era, new music, Olga Neuwirth, Pierre Boulez, Pierre Boulez Saal

A Festival of New Music from Boulez Saal in Berlin

Starting today, Pierre Boulez Saal in Berlin is presenting a four-day Festival of New Music, which will juxtapose online premieres with works by the hall’s namesake.

Curated by Daniel Barenboim and Emmanuel Pahud, the programs — presented in the the Frank Gehry-designed space — are being streamed on the Boulez-Saal Facebook page as well as on its YouTube channel. These programs will then remain available, free on-demand, for 30 days.

Filed under: Daniel Barenboim, new music, Pierre Boulez, Pierre Boulez Saal

Happy Birthday to George Walker

In honor of George Walker’s birthday — he would have turned 98 on Saturday — here’s my profile for the New York Times published last year, ahead of the posthumous premiere of his Sinfonia No. 5.

Deeply entrenched racism drove Walker away from his career as a concert pianist to the solitary existence of a composer. This extraordinary musical personality was shamefully neglected throughout his long life yet continued producing intricate, masterfully wrought scores. Here’s hoping that Walker’s upcoming centennial will be the catalyst needed for a wholesale engagement with his rich oeuvre.

“A Composer’s Final Work Contains ‘Visions’ of an American Master”

Filed under: American music, George Walker, new music

Damien Geter’s African American Requiem

Learn more about composer (and bass-baritone and actor) Damien Geter‘s remarkable new work, An African American Requiem, in my cover story for the current issue of Chorus America’s The Voice, which explores this and other examples of “secular requiems” by contemporary composers (starts on p. 26).

The world premiere by Portland’s Resonance Ensemble, which commissioned the work, was originally scheduled for May but had to be postponed because of the pandemic. Resonance now plans to give the premiere on 22 January 2021.

Filed under: African-American musicians, American music, choral music, new music

Ojai Music Festival: Virtual Edition

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On Thursday through Sunday, 11-14 June, Ojai Festival presents a virtual edition of what was to have been its 74th festival. Artistic Director Chad Smith and Music Director Matthias Pintscher curated a splendid program, with Olga Neuwirth and Steve Reich as special featured guests. This also would have marked the Ojai debut of the Ensemble intercontemporain — of which Pintscher is current director and which was founded by his mentor Pierre Boulez, a longtime presence at Ojai.

This is my own first year of being associated with Ojai, so this cancellation has hit me especially hard. But you’ll have a chance to hear Ara Guzelimian, incoming Artistic Director, in some wonderful conversations with Pintscher, Neuwirth, Reich, and members of the Calder String Quartet.

You can read my program essay here. My program notes for each event are linked on the respective pages.

Filed under: new music, Ojai Festival

Unsuk Chin: Gougalon: Scenes from a Street Theater

We need to hear lots more Unsuk Chin — why isn’t she programmed more in the U.S.?

Filed under: new music

Opera at the 2019 Beijing Music Festival

Another installment in my reporting on the 2019 Beijing Music Festival. There was a strong emphasis on opera this year, which I looked at in this story for the January 2020 edition of Opera Now.

Filed under: music festivals, new music, opera

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