Friday, April 24, 2015

June in Buffalo Performance Institute Participants Announced!

The Center is excited to announce the young performers who will be featured at this summer's June in Buffalo Performance Institute.  After receiving a very large number of applications representing students of exceptional skill and musicality, the following performers will be joining us for the second JiB Performance Institute, bringing to life many new and exciting works of cutting-edge music:

Ross Aftel and Nicholas Emmanuel rehearse at the
2013 June in Buffalo Performance Institute
Wayla Chambo (University of North Texas)

Pei-Lun Tsai (University of Missouri,
Kansas City)
Michael Tumiel (Eastman School of Music)

Samuel Wells (Indiana University,
Jacobs School of Music)

Joe Desotelle (The Juilliard School)
Max Fahland (George Mason University)
Hangyu Bai (University at Buffalo)
T.J. Borden performs at the
2013 Performance Institute
Nicholas Emmanuel (University at Buffalo)
Ben Havey (SUNY Purchase)
Adam Scherkin (Royal College of Music, London, Ontario)
Bryndis Schilling (UMass Amherst)
Anna Whistler (UMass Amherst)
Mayuko Yamashita (New York University)

Mia Detweiler (University of North Texas)

Sarah Bish (UMass, Amherst)
T.J. Borden (University of California, San Diego)

Join us in June to hear these performers premiere new works by emerging composers and play other adventurous works from the vast repertoire of contemporary music!

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

June in Buffalo Participant Composers Announced!

The Center is excited to announce the emerging composers whose work will be featured at this summer's June in Buffalo festival.  After receiving a very large number of applications representing students from eleven countries, twenty-one US states, and more than three dozen universities, the following composers will be joining us for our annual festival of new and adventurous music:

Participant composers at JiB 2013
Iddo Aharony, University of Chicago
Can Bilir, Cornell University
Shuyue Cao, Mannes College
Tyler Capp, University of Missouri, KC
Matthew Chamberlain, University at Buffalo
Niki Charlafti, New England Conservatory
Weijun Chen, University at Buffalo
James Chu, Peabody Conservatory
Steven Crane, University of Minnesota
Lisa Eleazarian, Illinois State University
Louis Goldford, Indiana University
Elliot Grabill, New York University
Paul Hembree, Univ. of California, San Diego
Travis Huff, East Carolina University
Student composers in a masterclass with Steven Stucky
Ryan Jesperson, University of Missouri, KC
Texu Kim, Indiana University
Ying-Ting Lin, University at Buffalo
Zane Merritt, University at Buffalo
Fernanda Navarro, UC San Diego
David Nguyen, UI Urbana-Champaign
Timothy Page, University of Chicago
Ori Talmon, Univ. of California, San Diego
Liliya Ugay, Yale University
Stephen Yip, Rice University
Hangrui Zhang, University of Cincinnati
Tiange Zhou, Yale University

Join us in June to hear new works by each of these young musicians!

Friday, April 10, 2015

Slee Sinfonietta: American Mavericks

This week marked the beginning of a city-wide festival called Ives:  An American Maverick, which celebrates the music of the country's earliest experimental composer.  Beginning with a masterclass at UB led by vocalist William Sharp, the festival will feature two Ives portrait concerts by the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, choral arrangements of Ives's songs presented by the Harmonia Chamber Singers, and presentations at the Burchfield Penney and Erie Public Library.

The festival will conclude next Tuesday (4/14) with a performance in Lippes Concert Hall by the Slee Sinfonietta, the Center for 21st Century Music's resident chamber orchestra.  Conducted by the extraordinarily skilled Brad Lubman, the Sinfonietta's program will feature two key works by Ives, "A Set of Pieces" for chamber orchestra, and the widely-regarded Three Places in New England, Ives's first orchestral set.  Capping of a week of programs focusing on Ives and his work, the Sinfonietta's program also begins to move beyond the work of Ives, to the next generation of composers who were so influenced by him, including works by Lou Harrison, Carl Ruggles, and Conlon Nancarrow.

Lou Harrison
Harrison was a prolific composer who became known for his experiments with just intonation and non-Western instruments (especially Gamelan instruments, and some new instruments designed and built to his own specifications).  Harrison had a close and productive relationship with Ives, editing and preparing several of his pieces for performance.  Writing to Ives in 1936 to request some scores for study and performance, Harrison received a whole crate of the composer's music, which he lived with and studied closely for the following decade.  In 1946, Harrison conducted the premiere of Ives's Third Symphony, a work he had edited from the original manuscript.  The performance won Ives the 1947 Pulitzer Prize, whose prize money he insisted on splitting with Harrison (accompanied by a note with a characteristic Ivesian bite:  "Prizes are for mediocrity, now please take half of it.").  The Sinfonietta will feature Harrison's memorial piece to the elder composer, 1963's At the Tomb of Charles Ives for trombone, two psalteries, two dulcimers, three harps, tam-tam, and strings.  The work (premiered and recorded by Lukas Foss) features string instruments retuned to Harrison's Free Style intonation system, a complex experimental gamut based on pure intervals.

Portrait of Carl Ruggles by Thomas Hart Benton
One of Harrison's great unfinished projects was a book about the music of another composer featured on Tuesday's program, Carl Ruggles.  (Harrison only completed a short essay on the composer, which was published in a 1946 issue of View).  Ruggles composed a stark body of just a few dissonantly contrapuntal works in the Ultramodernist style.  The composer shares a number of characteristics with Ives:  both were regarded initially only by a small circle of fellow experimenters, both were constantly revising their works—a quality the prolific Harrison described as "never wanting anything finished"—and both were highly influenced by the American transcendental poets of the nineteenth century.  This is a feature most evident in the work the Sinfonietta will present next week, Ruggles' Vox clamans in deserto for soprano and chamber orchestra, which sets texts by Robert Browning and Walt Whitman, and which will be sung by Julia Bentley.

The last composer featured on the Sinfonietta's program is Conlon Nancarrow.  While never a close associate of Ives like Harrison and Ruggles, Nancarrow continues the very Ivesian tradition of experimental composition in isolation.  An American composer who spent most of his life in Mexico City to avoid anti-communist activity in the U.S. (he fought with the Republican Abraham Lincoln Brigade during the Spanish Civil War), Nancarrow composed an extensive series of works that experimented with highly complex rhythmic canons and isorhythms.  Composing in exile, the majority of his works were written for player piano, one of the few instruments that could perfectly execute his jazz-inspired rhythmic complexity.  Like Ives, Nancarrow's work was only recognized towards the end of his life, when younger composers like Peter Garland and Charles Amirkhanian began publishing scores and recordings of his work.  This late fame led him to receive a MacArthur Foundation "genius grant" and a number of commissions for non-mechanized instruments, including his Piece No. 2 for small orchestra (1986), which the Sinfonietta will perform next week.

The Slee Sinfonietta reads a work by Dan Bassin,
who has also conducted the ensemble
This concert is just the beginning of what is a busy and exciting spring for the Sinfonietta.  The day after next week's Mavericks concert, the ensemble will conduct a reading/recording session of a new work by UB Ph.D. candidate Chun Ting Pang called Living Dust.  (A skilled composer, Pang himself has had an eventful year, which you can read more about here). This continues a long tradition of the Sinfonietta reading dissertation works by accomplished graduate composers.

The Sinfonietta will wrap up its concert season with two performances at June in Buffalo.  The festival will see chamber works by student composers played by members of the ensemble, followed by a performance of David Felder's Les Quatre Temps Cardinaux by a large ensemble combining the Slee Sinfonietta with New York's SIGNAL Ensemble, in what is sure to be an exciting concert.  As the Center's resident chamber orcehstra, the Sinfonietta has performed at every June in Buffalo since 2000.  At their first JiB concert, the Sinfonietta performed works by Bernard Rands, Roger Reynolds, and Augusta Read Thomas (all of whom will return to the JiB faculty this year) including a world premiere work by each of these composers, commissioned especially for the festival.  The concert featured three different conductors, with Harvey Sollberger, Brad Lubman, and Magnus MÃ¥rtensson each leading the ensemble on a different piece.  

The Sinfonietta was conceived, formed, founded, and programmed by Artistic Director David Felder from 1996 to the present.  It was one of the Center's first programs to be funded by Robert and Carol Morris, and the ensemble has been supported by the Morrises since its inception in the late 1990s.  Since then, it has played a key role both in June in Buffalo and at the Center throughout the years.  We're thrilled that this year's festival continues the tradition of adventurous new music being presented by the Center's house ensemble!

Slee Sinfonietta
Ives and Beyond

Brad Lubman, conductor
Julia Bentley, mezzo-soprano
Works by Ives, Harrison, Ruggles, and Nancarrow

Tuesday, April 14, 2015
Lippes Concert Hall in Slee Hall

—Ethan Hayden

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Augusta Read Thomas: The Whole is Other

The German psychologist Kurt Koffka famously summarized Gestalt theory with the phrase, "the whole is other than the sum of its parts."  Koffka emphasized that in Gestalt psychology, the whole has an existence which is unique, independent of its component elements.  While we can recognize the various parts of, say, the sound of a bell (quick attack, long sustain, inharmonic timbre), our experience of the whole bell sound is entirely separate from our awareness of its individual features.  The whole is other than the sum of its parts.

Augusta Read Thomas at Jib 2010
This concept is key to Augusta Read Thomas's music, because throughout her oeuvre, the composer is attempting—and succeeding—at something impossibly contradictory:  a music which is at once intricately crafted with meticulous precision, but which sounds spontaneous and improvisational.  Thomas's music is incredibly detailed, constructed from a keen awareness of instrumental technique, tonal and timbral nuance, and a harmonic sophistication matched by only a small handful of contemporaries.  These are the "parts" of her music, manifested through explicit notation and attention to detail.  "One of the things that interests me a great deal is for the music to be very nuanced.  So the notations are extremely specific, and I think that lends itself to a clear and crisp execution of the piece," Thomas says in an interview with New Music Box.  "Yet on the other hand, I want the pieces to sound really spontaneous—'There it goes!  The orchestra’s playing, and the train has left the station!' [It] almost sounds as if they’re improvising."  Herein lies the contradictory "whole" of Thomas's music—the effect of unplanned animation, whimsical energy, vibrant organicism.  While a listener may be aware of the careful, deliberate construction of Thomas's music, the experience is one of flowing caprice, a music of sudden shifts that are both unexpected and inevitable.  The whole is other than the sum of its parts.

Few composers have managed to successfully achieve this tightrope-walk of carefully-composed spontaneity.  Debussy comes to mind, and Thomas's music certainly maintains a Debussian finesse, heard in the intricate diaphanousness of 2010's Jubilee for orchestra or the refined lyricism of 2005's violin concerto, Carillon Sky.  But her music also often features a ferocious dynamism, as colors and shapes collide with one another with a forcefulness that calls to mind Varèse's sinewy harmonic intersections (see for example, her early orchestral piece, Words of the Sea).  Throughout her work, however, remains this ("Koffka-esque"?) distinction between whole and part that the composer herself is well aware of:  "If I could try to describe the way I think of music, I would draw a big circle.  Then inside of it, I would put a lot of words, such as counterpoint, harmony, rhythm, harmonic rhythm, pitch, flow, flux, density, tessitura, balance, and so on and so forth. For me, it’s a big huge gestalt.  […]  They’re all connected with this beautiful web, and so while I could talk about rhythm independently, or I could talk about harmony independently, for me, they instantly plug back into that gestalt."

Augusta Read Thomas is one of the hardest working composers active today.  Just this year, she has already had four pieces premiered (including Selene, premiered last month by friends of the Center JACK Quartet and Third Coast Percussion, and the orchestral ballet EOS: Goddess of the Dawn premiered by the Utah Symphony in February) with two more upcoming this month (including the Parker Quartet's premiere of Helix Spirals next week at Harvard).  She spends eight to ten hours a day composing—an activity she typically does on her feet, standing at large draft tables, as she describes in the video below.  Her prolific work schedule has resulted in an impressively expansive catalog of works, and has made Thomas one of the most frequently-performed living composers.  She has been recognized by both the American Academy of Arts and Letters (inducted in 2009) and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (inducted in 2012), and, most recently, she won the Lancaster Symphony Orchestra's Composer Award for 2015-16, the oldest award of its kind in the nation (previous winners have included William Schuman, Walter Piston, and Morton Gould).  It would be entirely forgivable if such an active composer had no time or interest in teaching, but Thomas is very passionate about teaching, an activity she sees as a "natural extension of [her] creative process."  She currently teaches at the University of Chicago, where she is one of seven University Professors, and regularly teaches at the Tanglewood Music Center during the summer.  Next year, she will be spearheading the Ear Taxi Festival, which celebrates Chicago's strong new music scene.

We are thrilled that Augusta Read Thomas will be joining us during this anniversary year at June in Buffalo.  The composer has been an invaluable member of the JiB faculty over the years, regularly presenting new and exciting works, and providing sharp insights and guidance to young composers.  Perhaps the most affecting aspect of Thomas's relationship with the festival is that she was once herself one of those emerging composers who came through the festival as a student, before returning years later as a member of the faculty.  "I first came to June in Buffalo in 1988, while I was a student of Jacob Druckman at Yale.  I had a great time.  It was enriching in terms of learning the music of others, hearing beautiful concerts, and having lots of time for informal discussions about music.  I loved it!  I went back at least once more as a student in the early 1990s."

Thomas has high praise for the festival, pointing out how beneficial it's been to so many emerging composers over the years:  "I think the festival has boosted the careers of lots of students—and there have been many over the years (30 years times 25-30 students each year).  It's really been something that's helped a lot of composers, even if it's just one recording or one connection made—a composer can meet someone they'll know as a colleague for the rest of their career.  There are all kinds of things like that which are difficult to put a finger on, but which are part of the culture of the festival."

Augusta Read Thomas rehearses Aureole with
the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra at JiB 2013
June in Buffalo has seen some great performances of Thomas's works over the years.  In 2002, she came to the festival as a special guest, where her Rumi Settings were performed by Movses Pogossian and Jonathan Golove.  Stephen Gosling of the New York New Music Ensemble has given two stunning performances of her Six Piano Etudes (one in 2006, and the other in 2010).  A particularly memorable performance was in 2010, when her violin concerto Carillon Sky was performed by Yuki Numata Resnick, with Brad Lubman conducting the Slee Sinfonietta.  "I remember just being riveted.  I thought it was spectacular and shimmeringly brilliant!" Thomas recalls. The Buffalo Philharmonic's festival-concluding concerts have twice featured Thomas's work, including a 2010 performance of Terpischore's Dream, and a 2013 performance of the luminous Aureole, both conducted by JoAnn Falletta.  "Being a composer that's written a lot of orchestral music, it's nice to have an orchestral piece done at a festival," says Thomas.  "June in Buffalo is able to feature the music of composers that are writing for orchestra (and electronics and chamber music as well).  The performances that have been given of both faculty and student works have always been at the highest level.  I commend that to the festival and those organizing it.  And David Felder has done a wonderful job as director, so three cheers for David from me!"

This year, we can look forward to two pieces which will be played on the June 5th Performance Institute concert:  1999's Passion Prayers for solo 'cello and six instruments, and 2007's Scat for chamber ensemble, both conducted by Daniel Bassin.  We're thrilled that Augusta Read Thomas will once again bring her work, insight, passion, and musicality to the festival, demonstrating both the parts and the whole of her craft to emerging composers and audiences alike.

—Ethan Hayden