Ensembl Mitdvest: Muczynski, Bach, Birtwistle, and Dvorak at Kastelskirken, Copenhagen

At Kastelskirken in the Kastellet fort in Copenhagen today (19.11.2017) a wind quintet drawn from the Danish Ensembl MidtVest played Robert Muczynski's woodwind quintet, opus 45; J. S. Bach's Partita in A minor for solo flute and basso continuo (bass clarinet); Harrison Birtwistle's Five Distances for Woodwind Quintet, and an arragenment by David Jolley of Antonin Dvorak's String Quartet # 10 in E minor, opus 51. With its white rectangular interior and tall mullioned windows with clear panes affording views of the 17th century buildings, with their steep tiled roofs, around the spacious raked-gravel courtyard inside the fort, and the Danish state flag with swallowtail streaming in the wind, as well as strollers and the occasional patrolling pair of soldiers on the grassy outer rampart, Kastelskirken was an atmospheric location for a concert on a blustery late-fall afternoon. The quintet is Charlotte Norholt, flute; Blanca Gleisner, oboe; Tommaso Longquich, clarinet; Niel Page, horn, and Yavor Petkov, bassoon.

I did not previously know American composer Robert Muczynski (1929-2010), and am delighted to have been introduced to him. The wind quintet is a super piece, in a melodic, more or less tonal style, with plenty of brio and humor at times, especially in the opening Allegro risoluto, but also beauty and seriousness, especially in the second movement (Andante). His style is personal rather than derivative, but to give a rough idea what to expect, one might cite some commonalities with impressionism, flecked with a little bluesiness in places (to my ear); Poulenc and other composers of that era; Rorem, William Schuman, and others of that ilk, even while I had a clear sense that he was aware of post-tonal developments and able to incorporate aspects of them where it made musical sense. A great pleasure to hear and I will seek out a recording and other chances to hear it again. An interview with Muczynski by classical DJ Bruce McDuffie is very much worth reading.

I thoroughly enjoyed the Bach also. Flutist Norholt used quite a bit more rubato than I'm used to in Bach, especially in the very familiar first movement of this piece, but it was not an impediment to enjoyment.

It's always good to finish off the first part of a program with a substantial, crowd-pleasing potboiler to send folks into intermission with, and the MidtVest did just that with Harrison Birtwistle's Five Distances. The English composer, born in 1934, is generally considered a pretty austere, uncompromising atonal composer, and this was no largo sweetota, but the piece has structure, recognizable recurring elements, variety and beauty. The MidtVests' performance seemed perhaps more expressive and intense, than the Boulez/Ensemble Intercontemporain performance I linked above, though it's hard to compare a live performance to a recording. The audience (which I estimate numbered around 70-90) seemed to have no trouble connecting with it, and it received a rousing round of applause.

After the break, an excellent performance of a familiar and well-loved Dvorak string quartet, arranged for wind quintet. At first I though it was missing something in the phrasing that could perhaps only be provided by the original strings, but fairly quickly settled in to enjoying a committed and successful performance.

An excellent concert all round, with the superb and, to me, unfamiliar (to me) Muczynksi and Birtwistle pieces real standouts. Kudos to the MidtVest for top-notch playing and for succeeding with an adventurous program.

Ethan Iverson plays Hall Overton's Polarities #1

Via Ethan Iverson's blog Do the Math, a panel discussion at The Jazz Loft Project, of jazz and classical composer, arranger and pianist Hall Overton. Iverson kicks it off with a superb performance of Overton's classical piece "Polarities #1" (begins around 2'00 in the video).  A performance that should not be missed. Some more of my thoughts follow the video.

The Jazz Loft Project presents "Hall Overton: Out of the Shadows" from Center for Documentary Studies on Vimeo.

This is a wonderful piece of music and a superb performance of it. To my ear there are hints of jazz, especially at the beginning. The first two measures definitely sound like they could be the opening of a jazz ballad with relatively "advanced" harmonies, and the descending figure in the bass in the third measure sounds very Monkish.  [Update: this figure reminded me of a specific phrase in a Monk composition, which I suspected was "Nutty".  Sure enough, it's the first part of the falloff that Monk sometimes adds to the end of one of the first phrases in "Nutty".  Not only that, but the opening of Polarities seems related to the phrase to which Monk adds this falling line.  Though very different harmonically, there's some similarity in melodic profile and rhythm.]  A few other spots have that "advanced jazz ballad" feel.  While Overton was on the faculty at Juillard and apparently also taught at Yale and the New School, most of us jazz fans know Overton primarily as the arranger for the Town Hall big band concert featuring Monk, so a Monk reference is hardly a farfetched supposition.  The piece is roughly atonal or at least in very unstable tonality, but not twelve-tone, and very expressively balances atonal features with what seem to me passages with stronger harmonic implications.  The musical language often seems to me poised between Debussy and Schoenberg.  The sequence of chords around 3'19 to 3'33 in the video remind me of Debussy in his more declamatory frame of mind, while some of the passages preceding and following it remind me of his lyrical side.  I was quite surprised to be strongly reminded, around 3'39-4'00,  especially in the chord alternation at 3'44, 3'50 and 3'56 and melodic line connecting these bits, of Cecil Taylor's fantastic 1973 solo piano performance "Indent".  To my mind, Indent is some of the most important and enjoyable music to come out of the twentieth century, and if you don't know Taylor or have listened to other pieces and not "gotten" him, I'd say Indent or the early-60's band-as-jazz-orchestra side "Into the Hot" (the other side of the Impulse LP is Gil Evans' "Out of the Cool"), are the places to start.  Accessible but building in intensity and complexity.  I recall reading that Taylor intensely studied twentieth-century classical scores early in his career, so I guess it's not impossible that there was some direct influence of Overton's classical work on Taylor's composition or vice versa, especially since Overton was active in jazz circles in New York at just this time (mid to late 50s), but accidental convergence is just as likely.  (Though Indent is from 1973, the "vice versa" possibility is because Taylor might have developed some of these ideas very early even though they may not have been appearing in his performances at the time, which in the late 50s were still often based on jazz standards.)  Iverson recently linked the transcipt of a 1964 panel discussion between Overton, Taylor, and others that grows somewhat contentious, making this perceived momentary connection between their musics even more startling to me.

Iverson also points out that this piece appears, played by Robert Help, on a collection from the 1960s, "New Music for the Piano", available from New World Records, and he suspects this is the only appearance of Overton's classical music on CD.  Based on this performance of Polarities, that is a real shame and I hope it is rectified soon.  Also based on this performance, Iverson would be a fantastic pianist to do it.  He's not just playing the notes here, he has gotten inside the music and it's gotten inside him: each phrase is expressed as if he composed the music himself.  He gets a fantastic, bright and ringing but not harsh tone out of this piano, and can give it nuances to bring out or contrast different lines. The clarity and control are astonishing too.  Really beautiful music-making from both Overton and Iverson.  I hope we can hear more of this combination sometime.

Free concert in NYC: The Bad Plus play the Rite of Spring

For readers, if any, in New York City today, definitely check out jazz trio The Bad Plus playing their arrangement, "On Sacred Ground", of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring.  It's free and outdoors at Lincoln Center at 8:30 PM.  The Brandt Brandauer Frick ensemble, with which I am not familar, opens at 7:30.

If you're wondering to expect, at WBGO's The Checkout you can stream a recording of the whole thing, as well as their radio show on the piece.  TBP pianist Ethan Iverson discusses piano arrangements, transcriptions, and reworkings of the Rite here.

More on upcoming doings by TBP and some of its members here.

I am in New Mexico, so unfortunately won't be able to attend.  I will be going to Rossini's Maometto II at the Santa Fe Opera. Report to follow.