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 M√•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