Entries tagged with “20th Century Classical”.

Ives Ensemble

Ives Ensemble

On Thursday March 5th 2009 I took the day off from work and drove north to Canada to see the Ives Ensemble.  They’d been brought into Canada by  Contiuum Contemporary Music for their SHIFT Festival of Canadian and Dutch music.  Having a largish group flown in from the Netherlands for a festival seems a bit extravagant so working with various Canadian arts organizations they scheduled a few more dates across Canada.  Vancouver New Music was one of these organizations and they managed to bring them to Vancouver as part of their Sonic Tonic series for the final date of their tour.

VNM almost always has an “artist chat” an hour before their concerts and tonight was no exception.  I managed to make it to the ScotiaBank Dance Centre just a few minutes after 7pm and about 5 minutes before the chat began. The entire ensemble was in a semi-circle of chairs in the front of a dance studio complete with an entire mirrored wall. VNM director Giorgio Magnanensi, who is now sporting a great and wild beard, began by asking them the details of their tour.  Most of the questions were fielded by John Snijders, the founder of the ensemble, but at various times several of the members would chime in.  They spoke of the SHIFT Festival and how it commissioned new works from Canadian and Dutch composers and about the concerts and workshops they did in Toronto.  This sounded like a very interesting cultural exchange and I think a very positive type of event for new music, especially in the commissioning and performing of new works.  The Canadian composer they chose for the commission was Allison Cameron and Giorgio told us an anecdote about him getting flack from the CBC for programming her music in a festival back when she was a lot less well known. There was also a series of questions from the audience about female composers and their level of representation.   On the question of female representation John gave what I think is the most sensible answer: it all comes down to the quality of the composition, there is no issue w/r/t the sex of the composer. This led to several questions about compositions written especially for them and John told us that they rarely get unsolicited compositions mainly because they are very picky on what they choose to play. He then brought up that when playing festivals the programmers really want “World Premiers” and that this leads to an issue where a piece is often only played that one time, as after that performance they need the next world premier.  He said that for them they have found that many pieces benefit from repeat performance:

“Returning to a piece you find that it has become a part of you – comfortable.”

One of the other members then chimed in to say that playing a piece many times is “Honest to the piece” and that it matures and you discover more. This sparked a question from the audience about which pieces tonight were particularly “well played” pieces and they answered that the Viola in my Life was but not the other Feldman, the Xenakis was a newer piece for them and obviously the the Cameron was being a commission. But the rest of them they had played many times, greater then ten times each.  All in all a very interesting chat, very interesting to hear about the various experiences that working in an ensemble like this engenders.

About a half an hour after the chat ended the concert began just a little but after 7pm.  I had scored a seat front row center and the acoustics at this distance was pretty incredible, I could hear all the nuences of the instruments loud and clear.  The first set began with Straight Lines in Broken Times composed by Christopher Fox.  This piece is I believe what they call “post-minimalism”, in that it is made up of fragments of many different styles and was scored for piano, clarinet and violin.  While segments of it were made up of almost Glass-like short repeated phrases others evoked classicism and still others evoked various folk traditions with one bit having a distinctly Klezmer-ish sound. The most interesting part of this piece was a section where the clarinet dropped out, then a couple of minutes later the violin leaving just solo piano for a few measures before they came back in.  Not really my kind of thing, but it aptly demonstrated the skill and touch of the ensemble.  They left the stage and then these three, plus a cellist came back out to play the first of four Postcards by Allison Cameron.  This composition, Four Postcards, was designed to be played in as part of a program and each of them was stylistically diverse and only a couple of minutes long. I came to wonder if they were actually written for this specific program as they seemed stylistic informed by the other pieces.  Like the Fox the first Postcard was rapid little fragments from the quartet, each of them working little independent rhythmic structures.  There was very short violin solo in which it played longer tones in contrast to the rest of the piece. I wasn’t very taken by this piece either and I was becoming a bit depressed. Fortunately the Feldman piece that followed restored my spirits, though at around 8 minutes left me wanting.  Four Instruments (1975) is scored for the same quartet as Feldmans final piece, Piano, Violin, Viola and Cello and has much of the same feel as that piece. It was amazing to watch the ensemble settle down, almost visible changing gears as shifted into Feldman mode.  The vibrato was gone, the bow strokes flat and affectless, piano notes suspended. Really fantastic and when it ended so soon I felt a sense of loss. How I wish this set had been just a performance of Piano, Violin, Viola and Cello.  This was followed by the second Postcard, which was very similar to the first, made of short little energetic fragments from the same line up of instruments. This time though there was a short piano solo as opposed to the violin, but like that it was less frenetic then the rest of the piece.  The final piece of this set was Gerald Barry’s  Piano Quartet nr. 1 scored for piano, violin, viola and ‘cello. This piece was incredibly frenetic, the only piece that had to have a page turner for the violist (primarily, also turned a page or two for the ‘cellist) and also the longest of this set.  Frankly I didn’t enjoy it at all, it just seemed like an exercise in excess.  Fast repeated, short sounds broken up by various, equally fast solo sections.  There were a number of folk reference; an almost ragtime piano and the piece concluded with a very direct nod to Irish reels and jigs (though the ensemble didn’t really nail the trad ornamentation).  The musicians didn’t seem to be enjoying themselves much as they played the piece, but this is one of the pieces they often play.

There was followed by intermission, in which I had a cup of red wine and took a look at the CDs the ensemble had brought with them. Alas they didn’t have any of the hat[Now]ART CDs that are OOP, all the ones they had were readily available and were quite expensive.  Shortly thereafter I was back in my seat for the second half of the concert which opened with the third Postcard. This was my favorite of the Postcards and the one were I began to suspect that these were tied to this specific program (or perhaps for the Ives Ensembles typical repertoire).  It was for the same instruments with bass clarinet replacing the standard clarinet. It began with long mournful ‘cello lines that was then joined with longer tones from the bass clarinet.  This piece had a much more Feldman-esque feel then the frantic insect-like nature of her earlier postcards.  It wasn’t all long slow lines though, the piano added a nice bit of spiky counterpoint to these as did the ‘cellist at one point by plucking his strings.  The Viola in My Life 2 followed and was by far the highlight of the evening. Once again the ensemble shifted into slow gear and once again displayed their incredible touch for this music.  The violist was of course front and center, standing up for this piece, and was joined by the violin, clarinet, flute, percussionist and the pianist on celesta. It was fascinating to watch this piece, which I’m quite familiar with, unfold, the percussionist gentle shaking stuff in his hands at first then later gentle tapping a snare with his hands and occasionally bring out a few notes on the vibraphone.  The celesta was rarely used, almost like another percussion instrument, adding a single ringing chord every so often to sublime effect.  The viola of course was front and center with its mournful melodic phrase brought in again and again in various permutations.  Really wonderful, again I longed for a whole evening of Feldman from this ensemble.  This piece brought the greatest audience reaction including a spontaneous “Bravo!” from one of the members.  The violist got an extra, well deserved, round of applause.  The group returned for the final Postcard with the same lineup as the last but this time there were two additional performers carrying books and candles. They lit their candles and sat on the floor on either side of the musicians.  After initial longer tones (the solo as it were) from the bass clarinet the group played short little fragments, but they were soft and sedate sort of in-between the styles of the first and third. These little segments were clearly to be played and repeated as long as the readers kept reading. They blew out their candles, first the reader on the right and then a minute or two later the reader on the left, as they finished whatever prescribed bit of reading they had to do and then the piece ended. This was my second favorite of the Postcards a really nice sounding piece with a clever bit of indeterminacy. The final piece was Plektó composed by Iannis Xenakis for flute, clarinet, piano, percussion, violin and ‘cello.  I’ve heard a decent amount of Xenakis’s chamber works but this piece was new to me. Like a lot of his pieces it was pretty aggressive and bombastic. The percussion was a big floor tom, a huge bass drum and little tom-toms and these were heavily worked. The piano was also literally pounded and at one point there was a near call and response between the piano and drums. The other instruments created this swirling miasma of long tones often creating dissonance and almost beating tones between them.  The piece was right on the edge I felt, a lot of the drum work was almost cheesy but the dissonances and the contrasts between the various elements kept my attention. It was definitely an exciting specticle to see live.  This concluded the set and they ensemble left to much applause.

Eventually waving away the appluse, John Snijders introduced the encore, Langzame Verjaardag (slow birthday) which was a piece written by Louis Andriessen for the groups 20th Anniversery.  This piece featured all of the ensemble but Snijders who stood off to one side. He descibred the piece as a “canon in unison where each member can enter at will”.  This piece was really nice, slow long tones, unfolding and overlapping and eventually fading away as each member finished their part. Eventually it was just the flautist who played three or four phrases before he to was done. A really nice ending to a great evening of music.

Ives Ensemble

5 March 2009| 8pm
Scotiabank Dance Centre, 677 Davie Street
Tickets $20/$15
Artist Chat 7pm

Press Release:

Founded in 1986 by the Dutch pianist John Snijders, the internationally acclaimed Ives Ensemble consists of a steady pool of seven to fourteen musicians. The ensemble is well known for its performances of non-conducted 20th century chamber music, and in this rare Vancouver appearance will perform a program of works by Morton Feldman, Iannis Xenakis, Gerald Barry, Christopher Fox and Canadian composer Allison Cameron.

This is one of my most anticipated concerts of the year, I never really thought I’d get a chance to see the Ives Ensemble live.  Their performances of Feldman and Cage that have been released primarily on the HatART label have been my favorite versions of many of the pieces. Especially with Feldman their touch and interpretation has been impeccable.  The program for night (found here on their website) has them performing Feldman’s Four Instruments and The Viola in my Life 2 along with Xenakis’ Plektó and three pieces from composers whose work I’m not familiar with.  Of course I’d have loved an all Feldman programme, but any chance to see his music performed live, especially by such a fantastic ensemble is not to be missed. Feldman is rarely performed in the Pacific NW, but there has been more played in the last year then in the 10 before it.  Last year I was able to see Dale Speicher perform The King of Denmark as part of a percussion recitial, a “Morton Feldman Marathon” at the Seattle Art Museum and Stephan Drury performing Palais de Mari along with an Rzewski piece. I can’t say how pleased I am to see the trend continue.  Xenakis is rarely performed here as well so that is also a welcome addition to their programme.

As for the three composers I’m not familiar with, well one always hopes for a new discovery.  Gerald Barry, reading his Wikipedia entry, is from Ireland was a student of Stockhausen and Kagel and is praised for the “thematic development in his music”. Hard to glean much from that, perhaps the heavy thematic componants indicated he’s part of the neo-classicists, his relatively mainstream acceptance he seems to have could be further evidence of that. Christopher Fox who is perhaps more well known for his writing on music; I’ve read a few things of his but can’t recall hearing any of his music, seems equally hard to pin down.  In his case its more that he dabbles in many areas so it depends on the piece played.  Finally Canadian Allison Cameron, who also appears to work in a variety of formats and has been played quite a bit.  On this site I was able to listen to some samples and while they were all too short to make much of an impression were intriguing.  It should be interesting to hear works live from three composers new to me and I certainly am looking forward to the whole evening.

Since this concert was on a Thursday, a three hour drive from here I decided to take a couple of days off from work and spend some time in Vancouver.  Vancouver is probably my favorite city on the West Coast and I love to spend time there  As I usually do I’m going to visit the Vancouver Art Gallery which has two exhibitions that look intriguing: How Soon is Now and Enacting Abstraction. The Vancouver Art Gallery is pretty unique in that it typically devotes each of its three floors to a single exhibition and there isn’t permanent galleries devoted to their collection. The exhibitions they put on are often made up from their collection along with borrowed works to allow you to really get a broader perspective on the topic. They do seem to do exhibitions such as Enacting Abstraction that are topically vague and allow them to leverage their collection. I’m always curious about current activities in art, so How Soon is Now with its focus on British Columbia artists is definitely intriguing.

Along with these planned activities I’ll probably wander around some of Vancouver’s funky neighborhoods checking out the interesting bookstores, record shops and art galleries.  If any readers know of any activities going on Friday or Saturday night that are must see let me know.


Today is the 100th anniversary of  the birth of Olivier Messiaen. Three days ago at Saint James Cathedral in Seattle WA I witnessed a performance  of his La Nativité du Seigneur .  Saint James Cathedral, n conjunction with Saint Marks Cathedral, staged a complete cycle of Messianen’s Organ work and last night, mere days before the composers birthday, was the final night. La Nativité du Seigneur was not Messiaen’s final composition for organ, but considering the subject matter and the time of year, perhaps appropriate to place it this time of year.  

Organ at St. James
The Rosales Organ at Saint James        

Saint James has two main organs(1) one at each end of the primary hall, each beautifully set into the space provided at each end of the cathedral. Tonight’s concert took place upon the Rosales Organ whose 48 pipes are set between magnificent stained glass in the east apse. Though it incorporates the pipes of the original 1926 organ this is a modern instrument with a console that can store stops electronically and change them a the touch of a button. It also allows control of the 1906 Hutchings-Votey organ in the west gallery, which was certainly used in this performance. The sound in the cathedral was very good; excellent depth and reverberation but not as echoy or as sharp as smaller halls can be, nor dry and clean as a too large a space. In essence you can tell the the cathedral was designed with an organ in mind and it as a sounding chamber for the organ it is quite successful.     


Messiaen was a church organist himself and the organ that he performed on throughout his life was constructed in 1869 but extensively remodeled, adding additional stops and new technology multiple times.  By the end of his career the organ was not too far from what this organ was – it had pneumatic bellows, modern windchests and electronic keys and stop action. Like this organ Messiaen had insisted that the key facets of the original organ remain thus giving it the sound of the original yet the benefit of current technology for the performer(2).

The consoleThe Cathedral Organst at St. James, Joseph Adam(3) was the organist for tonight’s recital and I have to say he played the piece impeccably. He certainly is an accomplished organist having received numerous prizes and accolades from the organ establishment and having been the Cathedral organist for 15 years. He often performs abroad and locally and apparently regularly on the Watjen Concert Organ Seattle Symphony’s Benaroya Hall. Having failed to experience the Watjen so far I’m going to keep my eyes open for his next appearance there. I only have one recording of this piece, but it is by Messiaen himself and hence is in my mind definitive. Adam’s reading was a little slower I think, but perhaps it was simply the pauses he added in between the nine movements, which I’m sure Messiaen would also incorporate in performance, but could be edited out of a recording.  Also with the limitations of recording in 1956 he may have altered aspects of the piece to fit, but there is no mention of this in the liner notes so, just speculation. But this is my benchmark and how I judged this performance.

La Nativité du Seigneur apparently is the most frequently performed of Messiaen’s organ works which is interesting in that it is both highly modern (for 1935 when it was composed) utilizing numerous techniques of 20th Century composition, but also following in the romantic tradition of trying to paint pictures with music, to directly illustrate the story of the birth of christ.  It is explained in the program thus:

La Nativité du Seigneur was the first of Messiaen’s great organ cycles to combine the various compositional techniques the composer had been developing — almost all are present, including the use of modes of limited transposition, Hindu rhythms, the inspiration of plain-chant and birdsong, added rhythmic values, and the representation of the suspension of time; the only principal means of expression missing are monody and serial techniques. In addition, the cycle is Messiaen at his most picturesque, utilizing musical means to illustrate not only theology, but the momentous events and scenes of the birth of Christ” – Joesph Adams (3)

The piece is in nine parts and there is quite a bit of difference between the parts. At times I felt I could map some of the sections to the traditional story of the nativity but other parts seemed highly abstract with traces of dissonance and parts that seemed darker then you’d expect (not that there aren’t dark parts surrounding the birth christ mythos). Once one considers that for some of the nine meditations he is illustrating theological ideas musically this is a lot more clear. The excellent program notes go through each of these and explain what Messiaens goal in each was.  I hadn’t read this pior to the concert but they have certainly helped with my later understanding. This piece would have these odd little melodies which would be repeated and subtly undercut but pedal work or contrasted against on a different manual. There were  movements with closely arrayed tones that’d clash and beat against each other in a way that would make your inner ear vibrate.  Certain parts were very pastoral, trying to paint the traditional imagery of the nativity in your mind, others were huge cataclysmic wrath of God level, dark brooding abstractions.  One great section used high and mid-range pipes from the other organ in the far end of the cathedral in the most amazing “surround sound” experience.  The nine movements kept it interesting, always shifting and constantly changing. Over the course of a bit more then an hour each meditation is able to develop and explore its idea but never becomes stale or overwrought.

A closer view of some of the pipes 

I try to catch a couple of organ concerts every year, (always the annual All-Bach at Saint Marks) and this would be the first concert of 20th Century music I’ve heard. The church organ hasn’t really been of much interest to modern composers, many of whom have little interest in the church. A life long catholic and church organist himself Messiaen was an exception to this but he also was exceptional in that he avoided the dogmatism of many modern composers.  He constantly utilized and invented new techniques but always integrating them into his style. He never gave himself over entirely to a single system ala the serialists, but would mix serialism in with the transposition of modes, or transcribed birdsong or what have you.  This gives his music quite a different flavor and while I don’t like all of his compositions there is plenty in his ouevre of interest. So while his music doesn’t have the exploratory or experimental nature of my favorite 20th Century works, Messiaen is a unique figure and one whose music I find well worth exploring. The organ works, even with the heavy religious components, are probably my favorite of his and I was impressed to see the two churches putting on this complete transversal of these pieces.  Alas this was the only one that I was able to attend, but I hope that the series was popular (this one sure was) enough for the church to play his compositions more regularly.

1) Saint James Cathedral Organ webpages (St. James Cathedral, 2008)
2) Messian Å’uvres pour Orgue liner notes (EMI, 1957/1992)
3) La Nativité du Seigneur concert program (St. James Cathedral, 2008)