Wednesday, June 18, 2008

SICPP, day two

Day two at the New England Conservatory's Summer Institute for Contemporary Performance Practice (SICPP). Aki Takahashi taught the master class this morning, which included three selections from Giacinto Scelsi's Suite No. 10, Toshi Ichiyanagi's Piano Media, and two works by Morton Feldman, Last Pieces and Extensions 3 (which Takahashi played in last night's recital). All four works were impressive, and Takahashi's comments were both directed at the performers and included anecdotes about the composers. Scelsi composed at the piano by awaiting divine inspiration, then turning on the tape recorder and having his assistant transcribe the results. He compared the last piece in the suite, a thundering and violent work, to a sword fight in complete darkness. Ichiyanagi heard a professor use a computer to play Mozart, so he wrote Piano Media in response, in an attempt to simulate very fast and mechanical playing. It's an extremely difficult piece, with the right hand playing a constant motoric rhythm while the left hand plays various cycles of different lengths. Takahashi had three days between the completion of the composition and its first performance! The student who performed Feldman's Last Pieces, where the duration of the notes is unspecified, played completely by memory, such a beautiful performance that Takahashi was left momentarily speechless. But for both Last Pieces and Extensions 3 she talked about Feldman's use of the half pedal to keep the pieces in a cloud of sound, almost comparable to sound masses in pieces like Herma by Iannis Xenakis (whom Feldman very much admired).

I mentioned yesterday that the focus of the program is on collaborative works, and today I got some scores for some of Feldman's works for two pianos. Another student and I will pick a couple of these to play for Saturday's iditarod, probably Piano Four Hands from 1958, one of Feldman's quiet, regular and very calming pieces. A couple of his two piano works are graph pieces, where he used graph paper to indicate a high, medium or low register and how many notes were to appear in each. Universally regarded as requiring more than three days rehearsel.

The evening concert was more chamber music tonight. The opening piece was Brian Ferneyhough's Terrain, a mini-concerto for violin (played by Callithumpian Consort member Gabriela Diaz) and chamber ensemble (the rest of the Consort) and conducted by Steve Drury. Ferneyhough's music is uncompromising, massively difficult for all players, and the ensemble played the piece superbly. Then SICPP faculty member Louis Goldstein played a new work by Andrew Estel, Scrape the Colour, based on a poem by H.D. The piece was impressionistic, full of quiet clusters and soft runs, reminding me almost of Debussy. But any tranquillity was dispelled by a world premiere by composer Nicholas Vines, Terraformation, played by Yukiko Takagi. Like the Ferneyhough, massively difficult and highly virtuosic, the four-movement sonata has a few quiet moments in the third movement (a passacaglia entitled Cyanophyte Primares) but otherwise was very intense, full of dramatic gestures, very difficult to absorb in a single sitting. Takagi looked exhausted and relieved afterwards, justifiably so, given the performance she had just given.

After the intermission, SICPP pianist Steve Olsen joined clarinetist Michael Norsworthy and cellist David Russell for a performance of Helmut Lachenmann's Allegro Sostenuto. The ensemble worked with Lachenmann when he was in residence at Harvard this past spring, and this was the second time this year they have performed the piece. It was quite simply stunning. Full of small, delicate sounds and all kinds of extended techniques from all three players, it is the epitome of the kind of work that should be heard live. Seeing the players interact and hearing the unusual sounds that cannot be duplicated in a recording, the full house got a real treat tonight. There was a discussion on Kyle Gann's blog a while back about new music ensembles wanting midi files for new pieces. Lachenmann would be out in the cold today.  It would be unimaginable to render Allegro Sostenuto as a midi file.  The piece was a perfect ending to another day in what is becoming an increasingly humbling, albeit exhilarating experience.

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