Lucid Culture


Practical Strategies For Introducing Audiences to New Composers of Serious Music

The panel discussion this past evening at Lincoln Center was less a skull session about how to fix the crisis of diminishing audiences at concerts of serious music and more about how two of the most colorful individuals in the business are tackling it. The New York Philharmonic‘s Isaac Thompson, who moderated, wisely picked the orchestra’s first-ever Creative Partner, Nadia Sirota, along with her International Contemporary Ensemble bassoonist pal Rebekah Heller, then let the two of them chew the scenery. The result was refreshingly optimistic, all the more so for being grounded in the grim reality of experience and history.

Both approach the situation from a programming rather than audience perspective – one that goes completely against the grain of conventional corporate strategy. These days we’re told to mine data to the nth degree, then bombard those attached to that data with lures and incentives to buy more and more of what the numbers say they already like. In so doing, you take absolutely no chances.

But as Heller put it, “Sometimes the riskiest thing you can do is also the safest.” She was referring to Ashley Fure’s Filament, which the Philharmonic chose to open their season this year. Heller played that piece from a position in the audience. Unorthodox spatial configurations of musicians are old hat in the avant garde, and there’s plenty of mainstream precedent – Fiddler on the Roof, anyone? – yet have been quite the exception in this particular milieu. Was this a one-off? Far from it, Heller vigorously asserted.

“I didn’t get called by the New York Philharmonic because I’m an amazing bassoonist,” she demurred. “I got the call because I’m part of this community with Ashley. This is a generation of community-building, with and for each other, and giving back to the field,” she explained. What Heller could have said but didn’t is that she’s actually a very dynamic bassoonist, a disciple of  Pauline Oliveros with a flair for the unusual. Her Dark and Stormy project with Adrian Morejon might be the only group in history to have played the entire extant repertoire for bassoon duo.

Sirota enthusiastically affirmed Heller’s communitarian philosophy. “New York is this incredible farm team of nineteen and twenty-year-old musicians just dying to play new music. It wasn’t always that way,” she reminded soberly. “In twenty or thirty years I hope that audiences for this will have octupled,” she enthused.

The Juilliard-trained violist and founder of indie classical chamber ensemble yMusic speaks from experience. You can see the wheels turning at the Phiilharmonic: it’s impossible to think of a more likable ambassador for new composers. With her rapidfire wit and livewire enthusiasm, she earned the position after three years running arguably the best new music podcast out there, Meet the Composer. Her agenda: to bring that passion – along with a considerable following – to a new series of Sunday afternoon concerts in the comfortable amphitheatre sonics of the Allen Room at Jazz at Lincoln Center. There’s also the late-night Kaplan Penthouse Nightcap series of intimate performances featuring composers whose work is on the bill in the hall downstairs – and where you can actually meet them.

She’s also booked her first Young People’s Concert for March 2 of next year, pairing Beethoven with Andrew Norman. She took her cue for the afternoon’s video game theme from a comment by Norman comparing motivic development in Beethoven with the challenges of increasingly complex gaming levels.

Heller is one of several ICE musicians do double duty as administrator and programmer. The group’s ICE Lab program, a workshop for emerging composers, springboarded her connection to Fure. And the long-running, free OpeniCE series – the latest of which are happening this week through Nov 8 at the New York Library for the Performing Arts – continues to offer exciting, eclectic programming accessible to everyone.

The elephant not in the room was the Philharmonic’s new Music Director, Jaap van Zweden. “He is so game!” Heller asserted. “He made his name on these big Germanic pieces but that’ s not the only thing he likes or is good at,” pointing to his advocacy for new composers with the Dallas Symphony. “So with this orchestra, he gets to be this amazing explorer with them.” It will be interesting to see how far the can take that: Alan Gilbert’s adventurous and often absolutely delightful Contact! series, dedicated to emerging composers, got off to a smashingly good start but stalled out as the venues got smaller and smaller while ticket prices went up.

In the Q&A afterward, one audience member asked why the Philharmonic doesn’t open every performance with a new work. Neither SIrota nor Heller acknowledged that they used to do that all the time. Half the audience would leave at the intermission, dejected, while the other half would show up then for the big Germanic piece. Instead, the two women simply acknowledged that new music belongs on the program wherever it makes sense to put it: in the middle of the bill wouldn’t be a bad idea. As musicians, Sirota and Heller know that better than anyone. We’ve come a long way since the days when, as Heller explained it, the twelve-tone camp and the neoromantics were duking it out over which was preferable: ”Music that was intelligent but emotionally lacking, or emotional but stupid.”

The Philharmonic’s next performances are Nov 7-8 at 7:30 PM and Nov 9 at 8 PM with Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony plus two works by Schubert: the Fifth Symphony and a “joyous, charming mini-cantata,” featuring Principal Clarinet Anthony McGill and soprano Miah Persson. You can get in for $34. 


November 5, 2018 Posted by | avant garde music, Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Dark and Stormy Night at the Tank

In their debut performance Thursday night at the Tank, Dark and Stormy revealed not only the amazing amount of nuance, but also the raw power that two badass bassoonists can deliver. It’s not clear which one is Dark and which is Stormy, Adrian Morejon or Rebekah Heller – or if they’re only Dark and Stormy when they’re together – but it definitely was an exciting night, affirmed by the roar of the audience at the end of the show, clearly hoping for an encore. “As far as the repertoire for two bassoons, this is pretty much it,” laughed Heller.

It was a feast of low tonalities. They opened with a playfully brief Stravinsky fragment, unpublished during his lifetime. Then they brought the intensity up with Louis Andriessen’s eerily dreamy Lacrimosa for Two Bassoons, beginning with meticulously shifting microtones, building to stately, shifting textures based on a series of memorably minimalist little walks down the scale. Heller shadowed Morejon for awhile, while he got to toss off a couple of unexpected flourishes, building to a crescendo that signaled a return of the minute pitch modulations of the earlier part of the piece.

The next work was Francisco Mignone’s Sonata Para 2 Fagotes. Through its three movements, Heller and Morejon paired off on its baroque-tinged introduction as it built momentum with some perfectly synched glissandos and then a droll conclusion. The second movement was surprisingly dark and austere, melody versus long, suspensefully sustained notes; the third was peppy and pretty comedic in places, a showcase for the duo’s goodnatured, energetic attack (both played standing up, swaying in time, throughout the show). They followed with the premiere of a Nicholas deMaison work possibly titled A Field of 46 Fissures. Beginning cyclical and micotonal, Morejon leading Heller, it grew faster and blippier, took a grave downturn before a smooth-versus-screechy interlude that managed to be both ominous and playful at the same time.

The show closed with a duo sonata by Sofia Gubaidulina, who as Heller explained has probably written more for the bassoon than any other living composer. Once again layering a tune over a low sustained note, working brooding chromatic territory for maximum suspense, Heller eventually took over agitatedly as Morejon maintained his calm until that was no longer possible. From there it was back to mysterioso – and then the two reversed roles. Since this seems to be pretty much everything that exists for bassoon duo, these two need more material. Who’s up to the challenge? Missy Mazzoli, Mohammed Fairouz, Ana Milosavljevic? Time to get busy!

May 2, 2011 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: Sospiro Winds at Music Mondays, NYC 10/19/09

The Sospiro Winds have quietly and methodically insinuated themselves as a particularly adventurous fixture in the New York music scene. It was particularly auspicious to see a good crowd assembled, on a Monday night no less, for the quintet’s program of exciting, obscure woodwind ensemble pieces (memo to other concert promoters: new music is commercially viable, especially if it’s this good!). The group opened with Viennese Romantic composer Alexander von Zemlinsky’s Humoreske, a little post-baroque style introduction (actually an etude, as one of the group explained) that set a convivial tone for the rest of the evening. In stark contrast, the great Hungarian modernist Gyorgy Kurtag‘s Quintetto Per Fiati was a stark and frequently disturbing, cinematic partita in eight sections that ran from an ominously minimalist intro through a series of boisterous and surprise-laden grapples with demons and syncopation. There’s a horror movie out there somewhere that needs this piece. Another partita, by the German post-Romantic Theodor Blumer moved from “fresh and fiery” to an insistently crescendoing conclusion.

The second half of the show was also replete with surprises. Contemporary American composer Derek Bermel’s Wanderings for Woodwind Quintet cleverly cached away a rousing klezmer dance within its first section, Gift of Life, turning plaintively percussive with Two Songs from Nandom, a particularly imaginative arrangement of an organ piece built on echo devices. Hector Villa-Lobos, a favorite of the group, was represented by the characteristically colorful, flamenco-inflected Quintette en forme de Choros. They closed with an Elliott Carter number that, even without a program (serves us right for getting to the venue at the eleventh hour) was obviously him, perversely atonal yet still managing to be cloying. Flutist Kelli Kathman gets top billing in the group, likely due to her Bang on a Can cred (she’s a member of SIGNAL); joining her with a swaying, passionate but precise attack was oboeist James Austin Smith. Clarinetist Romie de Guise-Langlois made her most difficult, sonically expansive passages look easy, as did the group’s newest member, French horn player Alana Vegter while Adrian Morejon gave a clinic in power and precision on bassoon, tackling all sorts of challenging staccato passages with fire and aplomb.

Music Mondays is an ambitious monthly series at the comfortably rustic old church at the northeast corner of 93rd and Broadway, currently home to two congregations, Advent Lutheran Church and Broadway United Church of Christ; watch this space for upcoming events.

October 21, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: The Sospiro Winds at Trinity Church, NYC 2/5/09

Billing themselves as “an exciting new force on the chamber music scene,” the Sospiro Winds worked their way through a demanding program that would make a believer out of pretty much any cynic who might consider such a claim to be a complete oxymoron. The quartet, including oboeist James Austin Smith, Kelli Kathman on flute, Romie de Guise-Langlois on clarinet and Adrian Morejon on bassoon, played with a rigorous virtuosity matched with a boisterous irreverence. This was a totally 20th century bill. “The 20th century was for wind players what the rest of history was for string or piano players,” Smith related – true for western orchestral music, although if you were a Berber, a gypsy or a Jew in a prior era and you played a wind instrument you were BMOC. They opened with a rearrangement of an interestingly baroque-tinged Stravinsky pastorale originally written simply for soprano and piano. Then the fireworks began, with the four movements of Jean Francaix’ Divertissement for Oboe, Clarinet and Bassoon (Kathman sat this one out). Showing considerable verve, the trio onstage moved dexterously from the circular melody that opens the suite, through a bouncy dance featuring the oboe, a stately, matter-of-fact elegy and then an energetically fluttery, almost ragtime-tinged scherzo with a neat trick ending. This and the other Francaix piece on the bill, a rather celebratory wind quartet, worked ambitious, 20th century tonalities within a very classical architectural style with call-and-response and other familiar devices.


The quartet then reassembled for Jacques Ibert’s Two Movements, pairing a playful, cavorting excursion with an even more humorous second part, almost a mockery of Romanticisn. Kathman and Morejon’s take on Villa-Lobos’ Bachianas Braslieras #3 for Flute and Bassoon were an interesting if ultimately predictable blend of pre-baroque devices and bright, colorful tropicalia.  The real showstopper was Eugene Bozza’s Three Pieces of Night Music. The opening nocturne was more of a requiem for the day that just ended, moving ominously along on dark, low arpeggios from the bassoon. The second part, a party scene, evoked Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, de Guise-Langlois remarked, and she was right. The piece closed with a strikingly restless dream sequence, more troubled sleep than any kind of peaceful end to a turbulent day. Watch this space for upcoming New York performances: the group’s next show is April 18 in Greenwood, Virginia (280 Ortman Road, near Charlottesville, 434-361-2660) as part of the Casa Maria Concert Series. In the meantime, since Trinity archives their concerts, you can watch the complete performance here.

February 6, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment