Saturday, May 28, 2022

The aesthetics of losing control

I once had an aesthetics professor in college, an older man with a long white beard, I wish I could recall his name.  He seemed a bit eccentric and I found him intriguing.  I recall little about the course except for two things.  Once during a class discussion, seemingly unrelated to whatever topic we were on, he started talking about drug use saying that whatever length of time one were to have been involved with drugs would require an equal amount of time going back through whatever it was you went through just in order to undo the damage and regain your sensibilities.  No one said anything after that and to this day I really don’t know what to make of it.  I appreciate the cautionary stance but that’s not the subject of this post. 

The second thing I remember was the assignments.  Once a week we were instructed to go out into the city to look at different buildings of his choosing and write down what we saw. That was it, he was very clear that all he wanted was a description in clear, basic terms, nothing at all subjective. This always felt unsatisfying as well as being remarkably difficult. I recall the Unitarian Church as being one of these assignments.  Dedicated in 1818 it is a large white building in the shape of a cube with a dome on top, conspicuously standing out from it’s surroundings on a busy street corner in downtown Baltimore.  It has a very strong vibe that feels impossible not to comment on.  But what was most strange about all this was that I don’t recall there ever being any discussion of these papers in class nor any explanation as to why he assigned them.  We handed them in and that was it, I don’t even think they were graded.  If he had a point to make he sure didn’t share it.  The entire course was kind of an enigma in that way.

I’m reminded of this given the desire to express my experience of having attended nine different chamber music concerts in the last six weeks.  This after having heard no live music at all in the previous two years.  At home I’ve listened to very little music preferring instead to investigate silence, to the extent that is achievable in NYC.  As you might imagine, returning to the concert hall as a listener after all of this time was a bit of a shock.  It is certainly a very familiar experience and yet there were times in which I had the the sensation that it was all completely out of control.  Not that the music was unfocused, quite the opposite. But it’s live, people are in the room together, anything could happen.  This was always true but the feeling has been even more visceral of late.  The musicians are giving themselves up entirely for you, the listener, and for the music itself, the boundaries of which are indefinable at that moment, hence the realization that this is truly not a matter of controlling anything.  What takes place is not a matter of description.

Just thinking out loud…might it be that we often assume or even assert some subtle sense of control in the act of listening?  Or in seeing?  As in, "my" experience?  Maybe that’s what the aesthetics assignment was about, relinquishing that control and the filter it creates on our perception of events.  On a tangent, years ago I had a conversation with a highly opinionated fellow musician who to his credit demonstrated excellent taste and aesthetic discernment in both music and cuisine.  I recall we went to a Chinese restaurant with a mutual friend, he ordered for all three of us and I couldn’t help but notice that the waiter seemed sincerely impressed with how he put the order together.  Anyway, we got into a discussion about a concert we had just heard, I found his criticism to be a bit much and pressed him on certain issues to a point at which he theatrically mocked the whole notion of “just letting the music wash over you”.  Those weren’t the words I had used but that’s exactly where I was coming from, the critical response can come later, and when it does we should know the purpose for which we are using it and not confuse it with the experience of the music itself.  But at that point I let the conversation go and enjoyed the rest of the meal.

In considering an essay on those concerts, I toyed with the idea of attempting the type of reportáge that my aesthetics professor prescribed but I doubt I could pull that off.  I want too much to express the exhilaration of hearing Carol McGonnell’s tour de force rendition of Brian Ferneyhough’s ”La Chute d’Icare” for solo clarinet and ensemble with the Argento New Music Project.  Or being moved to tears at “Sechs Lieder” by Edvard Grieg performed on an operatic recital at Manhattan School of Music.  I would want to convey the mind boggling precision of the Abeo String Quartet performing Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 8 at Juilliard.  I would need to mention how when listening to the Manhattan School of Music Saxophone Orchestra (thirteen saxophones ranging from sopranino to contrabass) I actually forgot I was listening to saxophones, they sounded every bit like an orchestra.  There was the otherworldly sound of music I thought I knew in Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” and there was the universal power of Bach channeled by a full choir and baroque orchestra at Trinity Church.  This may sound like a purely emotional response as compared with the requirements of those early assignments yet emotionalism does not capture the experience either.  At that moment the music is your entire being. 

So I really don’t know what to say about any of it.  It’s healing, I can say that, particularly given all recent events.  And I don’t quite know what to say about recent events either except to say that we do need to be healed.  And I think we can only do that ourselves, for each other, accepting the presence of hope as well as despair, not needing to become dependent upon either.  To feel that lack of control may lead to seeing with a clearer eye and feeling with a fullness of heart in order to just do what we need to do.  There will of course not be enough time, therefore it will require the unconditional timelessness of this moment and all of the compassion that brings. 

We can feel this in music.  Anything can happen.


Argento New Music Project
April 11, 2022
National Opera Center, NYC

Tania León (USA/Cuba) Parajota delaté (1988)
Ludmila Yurina (Ukraine) Shadows and Ghosts (1999) for solo piano
Brian Ferneyhough (UK) La Chute d’Icare (1988) for solo clarinet and ensemble
Alvin Lucier (USA) In Memoriam Jon Higgins (1987) for solo clarinet and Pure Wave Oscillator
Yotam Haber (USA/Israel) Bloodsnow – (World Premiere)

Operatic Recital
April 16, 2022
Mikowsky Recital Hall, Manhattan School of Music
Abigail Dutler, soprano
Nobuko Amemiya, piano

Giuseppe Verdi (1813–1901)
In solitaria stanza
La seduzione

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791)
“Dove sono” from Le nozze di Figaro

Edvard Grieg (1843–1907)
Sechs Lieder, Op. 48
Dereinst, Gedanke mein
Lauf der Welt
Die verschwiegene Nachtigall
Zur Rosenzeit
Ein Traum

Johannes Brahms (1833–1897)
Dein blaues Auge, Op. 59, no. 8
Botschaft, Op. 47, no. 1

Pauline Viardot (1821–1910)
6 Mélodies: IV. Hai Luli, III. J’en mourrai

Mary Howe (1882–1964)
Old English Lullaby
There has Fallen a Splendid Tear

Benjamin Britten (1913–1976)
“How beautiful it is” from The Turn of the Screw

Argento New Music Project
April 20, 2022
Dimenna Center, NYC

Semi-staged songs by Alma Mahler arranged for narrator, voice and piano interspersed with texts from letters written by Gustav Mahler:
Laue Sommernacht
Ich wandle unter Blumen
Ariadne Greif, voice & Piers Playfair, narrator

Patricia Alessandrini - Canto d’Alma (2018/2020)
for soprano, chamber ensemble, and electronics (inspired by Alma Mahler’s fünf Lieder)
Ariadne Greif, soprano

Gustav Mahler - Purgatorio and Scherzo: Nicht zu schnell from Symphony no. 10 (1964)
Completed by Michel Galante (2022) for 15 musicians

Sang Song - Gretel (2021) for ensemble
I. To the Little House - New York premiere
II. Vein of Shame - World premiere
III. Kindertotenmusik - New York premiere
(inspired by Gustav Mahler's Kindertotenlieder)

MSM Lab Chorus
April 23, 2022
Gordon K. and Harriet Greenfield Hall, Manhattan School of Music

Franz Schubert (1797–1828)
Der Tanz

Trad. Spiritual - Steal Away (arr. Patrick Dupré Quigley)
Alexandra Cirile, mezzo-soprano

Trad. Spiritual - Daniel, Daniel, Servant of the Lord (arr. Undine S. Moore)
Brandon Pencheff-Martin, Fernando Watts, soloists

Don MacDonald (b. 1966)
When the Earth Stands Still

Jacob Leibowitz (b. 2000)
Hush (World Premiere)
Hush, Little Baby
Hush-a-bye, Baby

William Byrd (1539/40–1623)
Lullaby, My Sweet Little Baby

Felix Mendelssohn (1809–1847)
Verleih uns Frieden gnädiglich

Trad. South African Song (arr. Michael Barrett)
Ndikhokhele Bawo
Jennifer Robinson, Sara Zerilli, Evan Katsefes, Henry Griffin, soloists
Kabelo Boy Mokhatla, djembe

MSM Saxophone Orchestra
Paul Cohen - conductor
April 24th, 2022 Greenfield Hall, Manhattan School of Music

Kurt Weill - Kleine Dreigroschenmusik (Suite from The Threepenny Opera) (arr. Michael Brinzer)
I. Ouveture
II. Die Moritat von Mackie Messer
III. Anstatt dab - Song
IV. Die Ballade von angenehmen Leben
V. Polly's Lied Va. Tango-Ballade
VI. Kanonen-Song
VII. Dreigrochen-Finale

Eric Whitacre - October (2000) (arr. Michael Brinzer)

Johann Sebastien Bach - Fantasia and Fugue in C Minor, BWV 537 (arr. Tyler Sakow)

William Latham - Concerto Grosso (1962) (arr. Trey Shore)
Guy Dellacave - soprano saxophone Steve Ling - alto saxophone
I. Allegro Giusto
II. Andante
III. Gavotte
IV. Siciliano
V. Allegro non troppo

William Schuman - Be Glad Then America (1975) (arr. Ben Harris)

MSM Saxophones
May 2, 2022
Pforzheimer Hall, Manhattan School of Music

Robert Aldridge - Quartet for Outdoor Festival (1989)
(for soprano saxophone, cello, violin and piano)

Barbara York - Conversations (2008)
(for alto saxophone, tuba and piano)
I Allegretto
II Lento

Esteban Eitler - Congoja (1943)
(for baritone saxophone)

Johann Sebastian Bach (arr Tyler Sakow) - Flute Sonata in E minor BWV 1034
(for soprano saxophone, cello and harpsichord)
I Adagio ma non tanto
IV. Allegro

Johann Sebastian Bach (arr Tyler Sakow) - Fantasia and Fugue in C minor BWV 537
(for soprano, alto, tenor, baritone and bass saxophones)

Calvin Hampton - Fugue (1984)
(for saxophone quartet)

Jean Absil - Suite sur des themes populaires Roumains (1956)
(for saxophone quartet)
I Allegro vivace
II Andante con moto
Ill Scherzo leggiero
IV Andante cantabile
V. Rude et tres rhythme

MSM Opera Theater
May 7, 2022
The Riverside Theater, Riverside Church, NYC

Die Zauberflöte
Music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Libretto by Emanuel Schikaneder
A. Scott Parry, Director

String Quartet Seminar Recital
May 20th, 2022
Pall Hall, The Juilliard School

Cincinnatus String Quartet
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - String Quartet No. 15 in D minor, K. 421/417b

Abeo String Quartet
Ludwig Van Beethoven - String Quartet No. 8 in E minor, Op. 59 No. 2
Felix Mendelssohn - String Quartet No. 2 in A Major, Op. 13

The Choir of Trinity Church Wall Street & Trinity Baroque Orchestra
May 25, 2022
Trinity Church, NYC

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 - 1750)
Singet den Herrn ein nues Lied, BMV 225
Lobet Gott in seinen Reichen, BWV 11 “Ascension Oratorio”
Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 in G major, BMV 1048
Magnificat, BMV 243
Jesu, meine Freude, BWV 227 (Ninth movement, Gute Nacht, o Wesen)

(I’m providing a link to the archived live-stream of this concert.  Of course it is no longer “live” nonetheless it may be a useful reference to the music and the work of these musicians.)