Tuesday, June 17, 2008

SICPP, day one

This week I'm in Boston for the annual Summer Institute for Contemporary Piano Performance (aka SICPP, pronounced 'SICk PuPpies') festival at the New England Conservatory — except that its success has gathered a larger contingent of new music performers and composers, and the festival has expanded beyond the boundaries of eighty-eight keys to encompass percussion and voice, and it now entitled the Summer Institute of Contemporary Performance Practice. Led by new music maverick Stephen Drury, the piano faculty also comprises Louis Goldstein and Yukiko Takagi, with special guest Aki Takahashi. Jo Kondo is the composer-in-residence, and there are a number of composer attendees among the forty-some-odd attendees. Most of the instrumentalists have come to perform in small chamber ensembles, which will be performed at a lengthy concert on Saturday afternoon (which Drury calls the SICPP iditarod), an appropriate conclusion for all the sick puppies.

Drury assured the pianists that their instrument still forms the core of SICPP, demonstrated by a daily piano master class. He led today's class, where students played A Chance Happening by Mike Winter, two Techno Etudes by Karen Tanaka (both contemporary Los Angeles composers), Helmut Lachenmann's early work Five Variations on a theme by Schubert, and I played Takemitsu's Rain Tree Sketch II. Although Drury led the classes, Louis Goldstein and most class members contributed to the discussions.

One of the highlights of the festival is the nightly concert programs, which led off tonight with a recital by Aki Takahashi. Reputed to have been Morton Feldman's favorite pianist, the program included several works that were written for her (and which she played from what looked like original manuscripts). She opened with three gentle nocturnes by Erik Satie, lovely pieces that all sounded similar to each other. I was only able to distinguish the pieces when she turned the pages on her score (she played with music for all the pieces on the program). Her second piece was an amazing rendition of an early Feldman work, Extensions 3. Feldman's trademark soft notes wandered around for a while, sometimes briefly settling into obsessive repetitive patterns. There were a couple of loud and fast passages near the end, suddenly bringing the listener's attention back to the music in an immediate and visceral way.

The next pieces were by two of our grand masters, composers with recent associations with SICPP, Christian Wolff (who was present for the concert) and Frederic Rzewski. She played a relatively recent Wolff work, Pianist: Pieces, a suite in five sections. There were no program notes, and I'm not familiar with this set, so it is difficult to say to what degree the works are determined. Many of Wolff's early piano works leave the pitch values undetermined, but from a distance, it looked like a conventional score. The sections contrasted with each other, sometimes emphasizing melodic lines, or more modernist textures. Rzewski's piece was from the Hyper Beatles collection that she recorded in 1990, A Short Fantasy on "Give Peace a Chance". The signature melodic figure appears in various guises throughout, culminating in a straightforward and beautiful harmonization. It seemed like an appropriate statement for the times.

The next two pieces were by Japanese composers, Les Yeux Clos I by Toru Takemitsu and Tango Mnemonic by Jo Kondo. Takemitsu's piece is from his modernist period, complex gestures across the keyboard. Kondo's piece is quiet and elliptical, barely recalling the dance for which it was named. For the program's conclusion, Takahashi was joined by three string players (violin, cello and bass) and conductor Drury for a beautiful and committed performance of Morsima-Amorsima by Iannis Xenakis. The work, composed in the early 1960s, was sparser than many of the more familiar Xenakis compositions, full of string glissandi, notes that started on one instrument and resonated through the others. It was a superb conclusion to a great concert.

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