La Scena Musicale

Tuesday, 19 April 2016

Polyphonic Extravagance Wows Audiences at the Gesù

Audience members circulate among the singers. Photo R. K. Basdeo

Musica Orbium, under the direction of Patrick Wedd, treated audiences to some stunning vocal performances at two performances of their concert "Extravagance Polyphonique" at the Église du Gesù last Sunday, April 17. The program, based around the illustrious motets Spem in alium by Tallis and Ecce beatam lucem by Striggio, also contained lesser-known gems, including works that predate the aforementioned motets such as Johannes Ockeghem's Deo gratia à 36 and Josquin des Prez's Qui habitat in adiutorio altissimi for 24 voices, as well as contemporary works including Patrick Wedd's Nines₂, composed for Musica Orbium's tenth anniversary, and Gregg Smith's Sound Canticle on Bay Psalm 23.

Audiences enjoyed a significant degree of immersion, as they were not only physically surrounded by the choristers for certain pieces, but also invited to sing "in the round" themselves as Wedd turned to direct the audience in two- and four-part performances of Frère Jacques to illustrate the effect prior to conducting Knut Nystedt's Immortal Bach, a piece for 12 voices based on the first eight measures of Bach's Komm, süsser Tod and exploring the timbral possibilities contained therein. Audiences were also invited to stroll amongst the choristers at the end of each act, during reprises of Ecce beatam lucem and Spem in alium, in order to better appreciate the complexity of the harmonic textures created.

While it is arguably the most famous piece on the program, the origins of Tallis' Spem in alium are shrouded in mystery and speculation. The most widely-accepted version of events is that Tallis was inspired by Striggio, most probably by Ecce beatam lucem (though possibly, it has been argued, by the 40–60-voice mass Missa sopra Ecco sì beato giorno). Evidence for this is given in a colourful anecdote from a 1611 letter written by law student Thomas Wateridge:

In Queene Elizabeths time there was a songe sent into England of 30 parts (whence the Italians obteyned the name to be called the Apices of the world) which beeinge songe mad[e] a heavenly Harmony. The Duke of ______ bearing a great love to Musicke asked whether none of our English men could sett as good a songe, & Tallice beinge very skillfull was felt to try whether he would undertake the Matter, which he did and mad[e] one of 40 p[ar]ts which was songe in the longe gallery at Arundell house which so farre surpassed the other th[a]t the Duke hearinge of the songe tooke his chayne of gold from of his necke & putt yt about Tallice his necke & gave yt him.

Alessandro Striggio, who was a diplomat as well as a musician, visited London in 1567; it has been suggested that he carried with him the music for one or both of his aforementioned works and that this visit sparked the inspiration for Tallis' Spem in alium, which was composed around 1570. Ecce beatam lucem, however, originally called for instrumentation to accompany the four choirs; a 1568 performance included eight flutes, eight violas, eight trombones, harpsichord and bass lute.

Wateridge's anecdote (and its connection to Striggio) nevertheless has its critics. The letter does not refer to Striggio by name, and if Wateridge does mean Ecce beatam lucem, the "30" must be a misprint. The letter was also written almost 40 years after the events discussed would have occurred. There is evidence to suggest that Spem in alium was in fact composed under the reign of the Catholic Queen Mary, Elizabeth's predecessor. The original Latin text of the motet is drawn from Catholic liturgy -- specifically from the Old Testament Book of Judith, a biblical figure to whom Mary was often compared by court iconographers. Other historians have even suggested a later composition date for Spem in alium, suggesting that it was first performed in 1573 for Queen Elizabeth I's fortieth birthday.

A further connection in the program is the inclusion of the des Prez and Ockeghem pieces. While Josquin des Prez (c. 1450/1455 – 1521) was the first master of the high Renaissance style of polyphonic vocal music featured throughout "Extravagance polyphonique", he greatly admired and may have even studied under Ockeghem (c.1410/1425 - 1497).

The high point of the concert, however, may have been Gregg Smith's Sound Canticle on Bay Psalm 23. Based on the 1698 Bay Psalter, this piece made the most effective use of the singers' positioning around the audience to create a "spatial psalm". Each phrase of the original psalm is performed by four soloists at the front of the hall, and is echoed and transformed by the choir singer by singer, creating a sweeping sound that serves as a phenomenal demonstration of the capabilities of vocal music.

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Monday, 18 April 2016

Lebrecht Weekly - Argerich and Barenboim: Live from Buenos Aires (DG)

5/5 stars

The question is, what took them so long? Martha Argerich and Daniel Barenboim, born a year apart in Buenos Aires to Jewish mothers of Russian extraction, have left it until their mid-seventies to discover common ground. Both prodigious pianists, they sailed for Europe where their paths diverged.

Argerich won the Busoni and Chopin competitions and worked intensively with Italian conductors, notably Abbado, Muti, Sinopoli and Chailly. Barenboim determined from an early age to be an orchestral conductor. He had no need for other pianists. When he put on a concerto he could play it himself (or call in his mentor, Arthur Rubinstein). Argerich was renowned for her terrifying speeds and unflinching accuracy. Barenboim, as a pianist, was prone to human error while pursuing the bigger picture. They might have inhabited separate planets.

Until last summer, when they returned to Buenos Aires to play four-hand piano, playing as if they had played together all their lives. The intuition on this recording defies belief. The pair start out with six little-known Schumann canons, designed for middle-class drawing rooms. All very after-you, but that’s just the warm-up.

Debussy’s En blanc et noir is no piece for amateurs or chicken-livers. A tempo risk taken or declined can run the work totally out of sync. These two pianists achieve total trust from the opening note and take more risks than you’d think possible.

The climax is an account of Bartok’s Sonata for Two Pianos and percussion that, from a deceptively sedate starting point runs positively riot into all manner of cross-rhythms, atonalities, jazz, jumping beans and – did I hear that right? – tango. This is two-piano playing taken to altogether another level. You’re unlikely to hear better four-hand as long as you live.

—Norman Lebrecht

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Sunday, 17 April 2016

U.S. Premiere in Austin (Tx): “Compassion” Shows the Way Towards Peace and Understanding

Singer/songwriter "Lior" (left) and Australian composer Nigel Westlake (right)
Verdi: Nabucco Overture
Schubert: Symphony No. 8 in B minor “Unfinished”
Nigel Westlake/Lior Attar: Compassion (U.S. Premiere)
Lior Attar, singer
Austin Symphony Orchestra/Peter Bay
Long Center
Austin, Texas
Saturday, April 9, 2016
For many decades now, one of the most intractable problems facing world leaders has been the conflict between Israel and its Arab neighbours. Although experienced diplomats have tried their best to bring it about, peace seems beyond their reach. Over the years, a number of artists have tried to bridge the gap in their own ways.Daniel Barenboim, for example, created the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra to bring young Israeli and Arab musicians together and it has been a huge success. Now we have Compassion, a song cycle based on Arabic and Hebrew texts, a work that expresses the need for people of different cultures to reach out to each other with kindheartedness. At a time when demagogues everywhere are doing their best to turn people against each other, Compassion could not be more timely.

Westlake and Lior Collaboration Across Cultures

Nigel Westlake (1958-) is an Australian composer best known for his film scores. His most notable score was for the 1995 film Babe, which received seven Academy Award nominations. After hearing a concert by the singer-songwriter Lior Attar – or simply “Lior” – Westlake was moved to suggest a collaboration: “Following the concert I suggested to Lior that I take a solo vocal recording of his performance and create a symphonic arrangement around it.” This became the process the two followed in writing Compassion.
The message of Compassion is that the world would be a better place if we were all more understanding and welcoming of other cultures. The power of the work comes from the combination of text and music and the unique quality of Lior’s vocalizing. He has a vast range from bass to high falsetto and he creates the most beautiful melismatic patterns to express emotion.
It should be emphasized that while the seven songs in Compassionsound like traditional Middle Eastern melodies, only one – “Avinu Malkeinu” – is authentic. The others were composed by Lior to fit texts he found in his research into ancient Islamic and Judaic literature.

No Mimicking Here of Hollywood Biblical Epic Scores

I must confess that I was skeptical when I heard about the concept of the piece, fearing that we were in for some kind of half-baked New Age piece with little or no musical sophistication. In fact, Compassionis a deeply serious and complex work. Lior’s vocalism is hypnotic and infinitely expressive in itself. One can imagine him holding an audience spellbound all by himself. Westlake’s contribution is no less impressive. Using a very large orchestra including five percussionists, Westlake has created textures that are almost entirely original. In his score for Babe, Westlake made use of material from Saint-Saëns’Organ Symphony, but as far as I could tell, there is no borrowing inCompassion. In these songs, Westlake not only provides a symphonic background for Lior, but finds a multitude of ways in which to celebrate Middle Eastern music without actually quoting from it or offering some sort of pale imitation. No doubt as a major film composer himself, Nigel Westlake is familiar with the long history of scores for Hollywood Biblical epics. Let it be said that there is no trace of such bloated fakery in Compassion, and that is no small achievement.

A Piece Sure to Move Audiences the World Over

Peter Bay and the Austin Symphony (ASO) deserve enormous credit for bringing this fine piece to the United States, and this debut may well be the beginning of a whole series of performances across the country. That said, other orchestras will have to go some to match the high level of the performance by the ASO. Bay and his players teased out the minutest details with great care and tore through the trickiest rhythmic passages with total assurance.
The Austin audience loved this piece. Let’s hope they were responding to the importance of the message, as well as to the beauty of the music and the quality of the performance.
For the record, although the Verdi and Schubert pieces were played very well indeed, the most memorable part of the evening was, without a doubt, Compassion.
Over the course of his career, Paul Evans Robinson has acquired a formidable reputation as broadcaster, author, conductor, and teacher. He has communicated the joy of music to more than a generation of musicians and music lovers in Canada and elsewhere. Paul’s reviews and articles can be found on Classical Voice North AmericaLa Scena Musicale, and Musical Toronto. 

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