Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Why Composers (Should) Go on Concert Sprees

Near the end of May, I attended eight concerts in seven days, traveling all over the Chicago area in my quest. I haven’t experienced had a concertizing stretch like this in quite a while! A concert spree is a good thing for a composer to do every so often, for many reasons: to hear fresh, newly composed pieces as well as established repertoire; to make connections with musicians with whom they might collaborate in the future; to discover which musical elements and sound combinations in a piece work well to a composer’s ear and which don’t; to hear how the musicians finesse and shape their musical passages; and to understand how musicians navigate challenging pieces in which tuning, range, rhythm, or other elements can be problematic. What I gain when attending concerts helps inform my compositional process and future projects; also, I find that garnering a large amount of knowledge in a short amount of time helps me conceive of music in ways I don't normally get from attending an occasional concert every few weeks. What did I learn on my latest spree? Read on…

1. “New Works Sampler” – Opera America Conference
First up, I watched Opera America’s live stream of their New Works Sampler concert that was taking place at their conference in Montreal, Canada. The concert featured scenes from seven operas that were either recently premiered or still in development. Four composers were Canadian – Tim Brady, Neil Weisensel, John Estacio, and John Harris – and three were American – Laura Kaminsky, David T. Little, and Ricky Ian Gordon. Several were on either political themes (revolutions, the last hours of JFK, the immigrant experience in America in the early 1900s) or societal issues (bullying, the life of a transgender teenager). One opera reimagined the Greek tragedy of Medea into modern times, which was a nice twist of an old tale. I was surprised, though, at the number of operas focused on stories of politics and social issues. Sure, this makes sense – people everywhere are grappling with our shared history and humanity. But I am looking for something, well, more fantastical when it comes to opera…a story line that is familiar enough to engage audiences, but with enough differences to break away from the rest of the pack and spark audiences’ imaginations. Regardless, I was very inspired to see that the world of opera is flourishing for composers and opera companies alike. You too can also watch the New Works Sampler, as it is preserved online:

2. “Laying Down the Law” – Patrice Michaels, soprano, Kuang-Hao, piano, and John Bruce Yeh, clarinet
Held at the University of Chicago, Patrice Michaels programmed songs and arias on social justice, homelessness, and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Featured on the concert was the partial debut of Patrice’s own The Long View, a large, nine-movement song cycle she is currently composing that features texts by or about Justice Ginsburg, or having to do with social justice. Laurie Altman’s Laments of the Homeless Woman, Margaret Bonds’ Minstrel Man, and William Grant Still’s Grief were also performed. My own My Dearest Ruth was included as well, in which I set the last letter written by Martin Ginsburg, Justice Ginsburg's husband, to his wife before he passed away. Patrice ended the concert by dressing as Justice Ginsburg to perform an aria from Derrick Wang’s new opera Scalia/Ginsburg. Peppered among these weightier texts were piano preludes by George Gershwin and Nikolai Kapustin that added lighter, jazzy moments to the concert. This concert was not only thought-provoking with its strong social justice message, but it was also for a good cause, as all proceeds benefitted the “You Can Make It” family shelters in local Chicago neighborhoods.

3. “In the Penal Colony” – Fringe Opera Chicago
Chicago’s music programs in colleges and universities are producing quite a bounty of opera singers these days! Several graduates from local universities founded Fringe Opera Chicago in 2014. While their company may be relatively new, this talented group adeptly performed In the Penal Colony by Phillip Glass. The opera questions the premise of capital punishment by means of a prisoner who is to be slowly and excruciatingly executed by a machine that will tattoo his crime on his body over the course of twelve hours (and yes, I found this story captivating!). The most unique feature of this performance is that it was held in a midsize studio at Lill Street Art Center, replete with canvases and art materials scattered about the room. About 60 audience members were divided in half, one on each side of the room, with the singers and actors staged diagonally across the middle and the musicians tucked discretely in a corner. The intensity of the story mixed well with both the close-packed studio and the tension in Glass’s music, making the audience feel as though we were caught in the crosshairs of the unfolding drama ourselves.

4. “Opera for All: Once upon a Windy City” – Field Elementary School
Chicago Opera Theater annually offers the Chicago Public Schools a wonderful education outreach program that results in classes composing and performing 10-15 minute mini-operas. The students start out the school year with a trip to a local museum (this year, it was the Chicago History Museum), from which each class brainstorms a story based on what they’ve learned. Over the course of the year, COT artists help the students to brainstorm their opera’s topic, write dialogue, compose a group song, and learn choreography for a group dance number. The two mini-operas I witnessed involved an altercation between American settlers and the British at Fort Dearborn, and a pair of siblings who time travel back to the Great Chicago Fire (enlisting the help of the Obamas and Michael Jordan) to put it out. In a city where funding for the school system has been under constant duress (as our state government hasn’t passed a budget in a year), COT is helping these children experience the joys of creativity and music-making. Was this a polished performance? No, but that wasn’t the point. The students were excited to share their hard work with the audience and did a respectable job with their shows. More importantly, I hope the enthusiasm these youngsters have gained for the arts stays with them throughout their lives.

5. “Cosmic Convergence” – Chicago Sinfonietta
I have grown accustomed to expecting the unexpected at Chicago Sinfonietta concerts, and this concert was no exception. For the first half of the concert, the Sinfonietta teamed up with Dr. José Francisco Salgado, and astronomer and visual artist. Salgado has spent time over the past ten years creating films of space that are synced to particular pieces of music, a number of which we were treated to in the concert on a gigantic screen erected behind the orchestra. For instance, we watched spectacular footage of the planets Jupiter and Mars while listening to the corresponding movements in Gustav Holst’s The Planets. I especially enjoyed Salgado’s deep space pictures of exploding stars and black holes during two movements of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. At intermission, audience members could learn more about our solar system by perusing science exhibits. Chicago Sinfonietta is quite the master of cross-over concerts – I’ve seen acrobats tumbling up the aisles and across the front of the stage, as well as a concerto for bagpipe and orchestra – but I found this pairing of science and music to be particularly poignant. For many concert-goers, how a composer writes music is a total mystery, a process that appears somewhat magical. I feel similarly about the origin, vastness, and beauty of space. Having the mysteries of the universe and music brought together by Dr. Salgado, maestra Mei-Ann Chen, and the Sinfonietta musicians made for a wonderful concert.

6. NU Saxophone Ensemble - Northwestern University
This was the shortest concert of the week, running about an hour, but I was blown away by the musicality of Mr. Taimur Sullivan’s saxophone studio. Comprised of nine students in various levels of undergraduate and graduate studies, these saxophonists tackled their repertoire with a poise, preciseness, and clarity of tone that I found uncommonly good. Mr. Sullivan programmed an array of intriguing works, from Caryl Florio’s Quartette (written in 1879, and one of the earliest works written specifically for saxophone quartet) to two movements from young composer Joel Love’s Three Images, written just this year (Love’s piece was quite good – he has a great ear for writing for saxophones). I was particularly interested to listen to the balance when all nine saxophones played together. When I think about scoring saxophones, I find them to similar to how I conceive of balancing a string ensemble or a choir – as long as you’re careful when you orchestrate, you can’t do much to imbalance the group overall. The repertoire I heard seemed to support my view.

A quite side note: this concert was held in Northwestern’s new Galvin Recital Hall in Evanston, which proved to be very fortuitous on this particular evening as we were having a spectacular thunderstorm. For those of you who haven’t been to this hall yet, the back of the stage is comprised of floor-to-ceiling windowpanes, so the audience was treated to occasional and exhilarating lightning strikes.

7. “Word on the Street” Exhibition Concert – Nicholas Senn High School
Senn is known to be one of the best arts high schools in the Chicago Public School system, and I could clearly see why. This concert offered a smorgasbord of everything that Senn does: student artwork displayed on panels as we entered the auditorium; performances by the school’s advanced musical groups (choir, orchestra, and wind ensemble were all represented); dramatic readings; dance groups; and musical theater scenes. However, the theater students were, simply put, amazing. Of special note, four drama students comprised the schools “Louder Than a Bomb” team. These students wrote and delivered their own poetry. Having grown up in Chicago where they are besieged with a constant barrage of race issues and street violence (and mixed with recent events involving police violence against blacks), these students made it loud and clear what they fear, as well as what they hope for. Of all the events I attended this week, these four poet-rappers made the biggest impression on me. We need to pay attention to what messages our youth are taking in about the state of our city, and by extension, our country. There is great creative power in our youth; I am glad Senn is giving these students the training to harness this power and an outlet to express themselves.

8. Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, “Resurrection” – Northwestern University Symphony Orchestra, Bienen Contemporary/Early Vocal Ensemble, University Singers, and the Apollo Chorus of Chicago; Victor Yampolsky, conductor
The joining of Northwestern University’s performing forces with the Apollo Chorus capped off my week of music in grand fashion. The student orchestra, led very capably under the baton of maestro Yampolsky, did a fine job in navigating Mahler’s stormy score. I was moved to tears during the fifth movement when the joint choirs finally entered. After an hour filled with fast music and bombastically loud passages, it was stunning hear the choirs sing so utterly softly. The soprano soloist entered very quietly along with the choirs, only to slowly break free and soar above the rest of the group. This was a glorious, transcendent moment, one in which all my thoughts and worries dissipated, and all I could do was be completely enveloped in the beauty of that moment. This is composition and performance at its very best, working harmoniously together. This is the power of music on full display.

So, what did I learn from this week of concertizing? A few things:

• The power of music can be felt in a piece of any size. Granted, it might be easier to feel music’s power when you’re witnessing several hundred singers and musicians bringing a massive Mahler Symphony to life, but I found great power residing in plenty of quiet moments too, and by much smaller performing forces. I found power in an art song about social justice; I found power in an undergraduate saxophone quartet playing uncannily well together; I found power in an opera singer vainly trying to convince us that capital punishment is somehow justified.

• Not all performances have to be done by professionals to move the soul. Joyous elementary students singing about Chicago’s history; impassioned high school student drama students rhythmically chanting out their hopes and fears; even a high school rapper whose song ended with a call for Chicagoans to stand up for their beliefs and for each other…these are honest forms of expression that are as beautiful and powerful as they are thought-provoking.

• Opera is indeed live and well! Opera America and other organizations are doing wonders in funding composers to write and stage their creations, and groups like Fringe Opera Chicago are programming intriguing works in unique spaces.

In all, I had a glorious week that has helped restock my own creative juices, enhanced my knowledge base, and gave me ideas for future projects. Now it is time to ramp down the concertizing and get back to composing!