Lucid Culture


Starkland Reissues Ellen Burmeister’s Long Out-of-Print Persichetti Collection

This one’s been out of print for a long time, so it’s nice to finally see a digital release for this collection – the only one composer Vincent Persichetti ever approved for his Tenth and Eleventh Piano Sonatas. Originally released on vinyl in 1985, Starkland has brought it back with impressive attention to dynamics, because that’s how Ellen Burmeister – now Professor Emerita of Music at the University of Wisconsin/Madison – played these pieces. Persichetti, longtime Chairman of the Composition Department at Juilliard, was an American original, staking out a defiantly shapeshifting terrain that embodied elements of serialism, the twelve-tone system and the Romantic era yet belonged to none of them – or all of them, at various points throughout his repertoire. That he would give Burmeister his imprimatur, when his longstanding favorite interpreter was his own wife, speaks volumes.

The best-known piece here is the Tenth Piano Sonata, from 1958, Rachmaninovian glory through a glass jaggedly. It’s essentially variations on a theme, navigating the tricky grey area between atonality and the high Romantic, sometimes gingerly, sometimes assaultively. Burmeister varies her attack deftly, through its serpentine dynamic shifts: nimble cadenzas, graceful legato lines, percussive clusters and the occasional rapidfire cascade. As an approximation of a majestic conclusion looms, Burmeister holds the tempo steady and lets the leaps and bound speaks for themselves.

Persichetti’s Serenade No. 7 has the feel of a series of etudes: the sprightly Walk, the gentle Waltz, a trio of lively scherzos and a masterfully hushed, pianissimo take of the concluding miniature nocturne. Burmeister calls the Eleventh Piano Sonata “bristly… severe intensity balanced by timid questioning,” which is spot-on. It opens with a jarring, seemingly abstract hopscotch of forte chords and then dwindles to the first of several contrastingly spacious, low-register mimimalist interludes. Here Burmeister pulls out the heavy artillery for the harsh pseudo-prelude of the third movement, and when this recurs out of the preceding, playful bustle in the fourth. And again on the surprise ending that leaps with a staccato flourish out of more low bass ambience. It’s not easy imbuing music this rigorous and acidic with genuine warmth, yet that’s what Burmeister achieved here, no small accomplishment.

January 18, 2011 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: Kathleen Supové at First Presbyterian Church, Brooklyn NY 3/26/10

Anyone who assumes that avant garde piano is precious or stuffy needs to see Kathleen Supové. Last night she brought her deadpan wit and her Exploding Piano (that’s how she bills her live show) to the monthly adventurous-music program at Brooklyn Heights’ First Presbyterian Church, which seems to be doing double duty as comfortable neighborhood hang and avant garde central for the budget-conscious (suggested donation was ten bucks). “It’s unusual for the Exploding Piano to be in a church. It’s even more unusual for me to be in a church,” Supové explained. But she likes this place, and it proved to be sonically well-suited to a program characteristically rich with ideas, emotion and just plain good fun.

2010 being Louis Andriessen’s seventieth birthday year, there’s a lot of Andriessen happening around town, so it made sense that this bill would have a couple of his works. She opened by handing out rose petals to the audience and then launching into The Memory of Roses, scored for piano, toy piano – and rose. It began poignantly and minimalistically and went creepy fast, the two keyboards in tandem creating a classically Andriessen bell-like tone and a quite disquieiting ambience. The other, Trepidus, Supové deadpanned, “Is where the performer is physically abused to win the approval of the audience.” Most of it is a seemingly endless series of fast, percussive fortissimo chords employing a lot of adjacent notes to enhance the unease factor. It is extremely taxing to play, requiring the perfect timing of Bach and the vigor of Liszt, and Supové was more than up to the challenge. It finally wound down with a darkly austere, tersely conversational section somewhat evocative of Rachmaninoff’s C Sharp Minor Prelude, an eerily delicious treat (and welcome relief for the performer).

A Shaking of the Pumpkin, by Michael Gatonska (who’d come all the way down from Hartford for the concert) intermingled alternately plaintive and playful snatches of melody amidst furious atonal cascades in the low and midrange along with passages where the performer smacks and plays both the interior and the exterior with mallets, building to a Day in the Life-style crescendo where the piano roared and hummed with overtones for the better part of a minute. And then Supové picked her spot with a single, stark chord and got another thirty seconds of sustained overtones out of the beast. She contrasted this with a couple of Alvin Curran’s Inner Cities pieces, something akin to Satie playing a blues on Pluto (where a year goes by a lot more slowly), and then Jacob Ter Veldhuis ( AKA Jacob TV)’s current youtube hit The Body of Your Dreams. For those who haven’t hear it yet, it’s a mashup of live piano and samples from a tv infomercial for a weight-loss gadget – as it turned out, Supové had managed to find one, which she passed around the audience in its smart little plastic carrying case. The sound engineer ran the cd while Supové resisted the urge to break a smile, matter-of-factly supplying the soundtrack, which seems to be as much a parody of disco, bad pop and music for tv commercials as the piece as a whole mocks crass consumerism.

March 28, 2010 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Kai Schumacher Plays Frederic Rzewski’s The People United Will Never Be Defeated

Unconventional virtuoso playing a suitably unconventional composition. Kai Schumacher was a good choice to record Frederic Rzewski’s iconic 1975 homage to revolutionary ideals, considering the diversity of his background (conservatory, new music and fulltime gig as keyboardist in scorching German rock band Trustgame). The rock comes in handy here because this is a very physically demanding piece, requiring the pianist to play percussion, vocalize and do all kinds of messing around with sustained overtones. It’s proof that didactic music sometimes makes good listening. Essentially, it’s about how revolutions reach critical mass. Parts of it are rigorously mathematical, carefully grouped into growing clusters of notes to symbolize the growing numbers embracing a paradigm shift, but even more of it is unabashedly Romantic – no matter what ideology you give something, ultimately it’s the way it sounds, the way it comes across that determines whether the people sing along.

After the intial theme – famous Chilean composer Sergio Ortega’s revolutionary song, from which this pieces takes its title – ideas sprinkle themselves out from the upper registers, leading to a few staccato, seemingly random plinks – are they lost in space? No. They come back slowly. Twelve-tone rows cascade in jarring sequence, pregnant pauses go on for what seems like ten or fifteen seconds at a clip, and the various interwoven themes – Hans Eisler’s Solidarity Song, and the Italian Red Brigade anthem – move in and out of focus. A waltz and a deviously bouncy atonal fugue sandwich one of those pregnant pauses. Crescendos alternate between triumphant heroic themes and mad dashes of dissonance. Melody tantalizes much like the promise of post-revolutionary normalcy but obstacles keep it from reaching fruition. Schumacher keeps a level head and plays all but the most savage passages with an understatedly smooth attack, employing a vast range of dynamics for emphasis rather than launching into any kind of garish pyrotechnics. By the time the Cadenza comes around he’s been charged up by eight stabbing minutes of staccato noir cabaret and latin folk tune permutations to the point where there is no stopping anymore and the fireworks finally kick in, ablaze in hard-rocking Rachmaninovian fury.

As Schumacher relates in the liner notes, the piece concludes with a somber restatement of the Ortega theme –  a measure of defeat, or of defiance no matter what the odds? Maybe the listener’s interpretation might determine that. To paraphrase Aurelia Shrenker (whose own paradigm-shifting vocal duo project Æ with Eva Salina Primack we just reviewed), wouldn’t it be cool if this song was one that everybody knew?

March 10, 2010 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment