Contemporary Music

Springtime and Jazz Provide the Caffeine: an Evening of Modern and Contemporary Music at PS 21, Chatham

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Matt Haimovitz
Matt Haimovitz

Springtime and Jazz Provide the Caffeine: an Evening of Modern and Contemporary Music

PS 21, Chatham: “House Blend” no. 1, July 5, 2021

Performers: Miranda Cuckson, violin; Matt Haimovitz, cello; Geoffrey Burleson, piano; Matthew Gold, percussion.

Music by Lisa Bielawa, Juri Seo, inti figgis-vizueta, David T. Little, Vijay Iyer, Ralph Shapey, Billy Jim Layton, Franco Donatoni, and David Sanford

Matt Haimovitz is a one-man contemporary music impresario, as well as a virtuosic and versatile cellist. Unlike older-school virtuosos, he is thoroughly attuned to current trends in both composition and historical performance practice, as attested to by his Zoom webinar master-classes during this past strange year. The pandemic has not put a damper on his musical activities; if anything, it has had the opposite effect. Monday night’s concert included a demonstration of some of the outcomes of his on-going activism on behalf of new music. 

His performances were part of a double program: a half-hour (plus) prelude concert of solo cello pieces that he has commissioned as part of what he calls “the Primavera Project,” and an hour-long program of diverse ensemble works which included his performances of two works by David Sanborn, one of which is part of that project as well. The second program initiated the caffeine-inspired series of four concerts, “House Blend,” taking place at PS 21 this summer, organized by the new-music piano virtuoso Alan Feinberg. The other ensemble members were violinist Miranda Cuckson (see my review of her solo concert at PS 21 last Fall), pianist Geoffrey Burleson, and percussionist Matthew Gold.

The Primavera Project is Haimovitz’s second large-scale effort on behalf of recent and contemporary music, emphasizing eclecticism and inclusivity. The first was a series of five thematic albums recorded on his own Oxingale label and reissued together five years ago as “Orbit.” The repertory was a survey of significant cello repertory from 1944 on, and included a number of works which I take to have been his own commissions, along with such now-classic works as the Carter and Ligeti cello sonatas and Berio’s Sequenza XIV. That collection reflected Haimovitz’s highly publicized journey into unconventional performing spaces and repertories, including his arrangement of John Lennon’s “Helter Skelter” and of “Anthem,” based on Jimi Hendrix’s arrangement of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” 

Currently in progress, the Primavera Project is a commissioning program for solo cello pieces that aims to produce 81 new works when it is complete. The conceptual framework is provided by two paintings entitled “La Primavera,” Botticelli’s and a contemporary response by Charline von Heyl. The tension between these two representations of springtime was to serve as a point of reflection and inspiration for the composers. Haimovitz initiated the project by reaching out to composers close to him and asking them in turn to reach out to others, widening the network to eventually include the final total of 81.  The prelude concert program reflected some of those in the first group: Lisa Bielawa, Jui Seo, inti figgis-vizueta, David T. Little, and Vijay Iyer. One additional composer appeared on the second program, David Sanborn, who was present in the audience. Many of these works share stylistic features: gestures idiomatic to the cello, such as cross-string arpeggios, leaps from lower to higher registers, rhapsodic phrasing with occasional loss of large-scale momentum, use of alternate wispy-sounding timbres (bowing near the bridge, muting the strings with the left hand, bowing over the finger-board) and both natural and artificial harmonics. All of these challenging techniques were delivered masterfully by Haimovitz, but the identities of some of these works tended to blur.

An example would be Bielawa’s “Missa Primavera,” which is described as a paraphrase of a work by Josquin, although which one is not clear. That there is underlying source material is implied by the strong tonal references centering around D and A, with a secondary area around E. These tones lend themselves to open cello strings and natural harmonics, which are used freely. A conspicuous feature is a central dialogue between plucked chords and bowed melody. Another gesture, arpeggios that start in the lower register and reach upward in varying ways, turned out to be a common feature of a number of the works on this program. Toward the end, the music grows more agitated and at the same time recedes into the distance, eventually evaporating in upper register cross-string bowings that diminish into silence.

The works by Juri Seo (“Two Rhapsodies of Spring”) and inti-figgis (“the motion between three worlds” ) shared many of these characteristics, the latter using graphic notation allowing the performer a wide range of choices. David T. Little’s 

“The Crocus Palimpsest” was more subdued and romantically lyrical, clearly centered on the key of G minor, and using left-hand plucking to provide bass support to the harmonies.

For me, the stand-out work in the set was Vijay Ayer’s “Equal night,” an hommage to the first day of spring. Ayer’s activity in the jazz world manifested in a more propulsive and continuous energy. Its first section shared the rising phrase gestures of the other works, but these built into a propulsive series of strummed chords leading to complex textures and a frenzied climax: this vision of spring rhymed more with Stravinsky’s than with Botticelli’s, and may have been a response to von Heyl’s somewhat brutalist take on the theme. The work included a rhythmically irregular vamp and a section with the energy of of rock and roll. It demanded a fierce virtuosity from the performer, and served as a fitting close to this part of the program.

The second program, this one for four performers, provided more contrasting materials. Again, the standout work was the final one, David Sanford’s jazz-inspired “22 Part 1 for Cello and Piano.” It was preceded by yet another cello solo by Sanford from the Primavera Project entitled “Suola.” Even more than Ayer’s piece, it had a continuous high-voltage energy and again seemed to reflect von Heyl more than Botticelli.

But that is getting ahead of the program order. First there was the third movement (only) of Ralph Shapey’s “Evocation No. 1 for Violin with Percussion and Piano.” The title reflects the secondary roles played by those instruments, which provided framing and response to the very dramatic melodic line spun out by the violin, rendered with wide-ranging drama by Miranda Cuckson. (One felt sympathy for the percussionist who had to transport and set up an elaborate series of drums, cymbals, and gongs for a rather minimal if dramatically effective contribution to this work.) Shapey is someone of whose music we don’t hear enough; his is a major American modernist voice, influenced by serialism with an original dramatic intensity that is immediately appealing. I was sorry not to hear the entire composition; what we did get felt like a fragment of a larger statement, and in fact was about 4 minutes out of a total of 18.

Billy Jim Layton’s compositional career is an enigma. It began in the early ‘50’s and his music was hailed as comparable in originality to Elliott Carter’s, particularly by Wilfred Mellers in his influential 1964 study of American music. As if in response, Layton terminated his compositional work that same year and devoted the rest of his life to developing and administering the excellent graduate music program at Long Island University at Stonybrook. It’s too bad—these early short pieces for violin and piano are gems, each with its own sharply etched character and sound, all animated by a continuous energy and clarity, all totally compelling. The first was inspired by the rhythmic complexities of late medieval music and has the instruments proceeding in contrasting tempi, similar in idea but not actual sound to Carter (who actually developed this concept later than Layton). The second is a kind of abstract blues, while the third consciously portrays a jazz combo. This movement seems to find an antecedent in Stravinsky’s “Ragtime for 11 Instruments” but with a stronger feel of swing, and a dramatic ending in which the piano gets stuck in a groove while the violin dies out with a swoon. The conjoined fourth and fifth pieces move from almost stasis (harking back to the first piece) to frenzy, with three ideas competing and fragmenting each other. While these short works cover a lot of dramatic territory, they are unified by energy, transparency, and an original inventiveness that ought to be more widely recognized. Congratulations to Feinberg, Cuckson, and Burleson for programming them and performing them so well.

Franco Donatoni is a fascinating composer, but these two rather slight pieces for marimba (“Mari I & II”) don’t really scratch the surface of his artistic personality. They are brief and fun to listen to; again, I wonder whether they were worth the performer’s efforts to transport and assemble this large instrument for a few minutes of frankly quirky music. The thought-provoking description of this pair as the diachronic and synchronic dimensions of experience was conceptually more entertaining than the music.

Finally, the culminating work for cello and piano was Sanford’s “22 Part 1” of 1995, a really grand work of jazz-modern fusion that Burleson aptly compared to Beethoven. The work has Beethovenian muscle from both instruments, sometimes built up to an imbroglio of sound that fused their sonorities, and its rhythmic power held one’s attention from beginning to end. As with “Suola” and the works of Layton and Ayer, it demonstrated the value, vitality, and variety that jazz has injected into the music of generations of American composers, and will likely continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

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