Experimentations in Extremes

Festival Daniou Artists-in-Residence 2017

Jennifer Liu violin

Khari Joyner cello

Robert Fleitz piano

Sammy Lesnick clarinet

Ariadne Greif soprano

The Festival Daniou exchanges Brittany’s countryside chapels for a surrealist New York City loft, with a rent estimate of $3,857 per month. Majestic jellyfish float on white-washed walls, a motorcycle revs in the alleyway below, and Wolfie, a fluffy Finnish Lapphund, prances on the wooden floor with leisurely dignity – his paws echo: “pit pat, pit pat.”

Simon Frisch, the festival co-director and son of Columbia music professor Walter Frisch, explains that the organization confronts the “idea of what is worth sharing” through “unusual repertoire.” Unorthodoxy lives in the program: paganism and eroticism oppose profound spirituality.

Fjóla Evans’s Reið – HagallBjarkan (2012-2013) launches the night. Ladies dressed in rustic garb spin on screen. Electronics rumble; they create an earthy texture appropriate for the film. Joyner, a former Columbia/Juilliard exchange student, executes perpetual pizzicatos. Evans, a cellist herself, percussivizes the instrument. The articulation drills holes into the terrestrial manifestation. An exposed vibrato in the cello’s stratosphere juxtaposes exhalations in the soprano-like electronics.

Tense waves evoke the sea. Intensity mounts, change is imminent. Joyner leaps, accentuates the higher partial. His resonance resounds. A lilting flute stumbles by. The country tune transforms, becomes border-line schizophrenic.

Sparkling electronics dominate the 3rd movement. A zombified bear disrupts the circular dance. Glistening vibrancy deifies the folk.

Ashkan Behzadi’s az Hoosh mi.. (2013) sets erotic Farsi poetry for soprano and violin. Sentences dangle incomplete, words fall off precipitously. Sexually-charged inhales mimic orgasmic gasps. Whispers stream from the soprano to her imagined lover. Primal desires crash against the violin’s harsh, realistic staccatos.

For this performance, Kaija Matīss, depicts a narrative program through film. A red light illumes and dims in time with the performers’ undulations. Close-ups of a female body surface. She pulls her lower lip slowly, displaying teeth and flesh. Dizziness boils.

The figure remains unstable, her full body never revealed. She disrobes, one layer at a time. When she slides her hands upward to remove her bra, the video suddenly cuts. The harsh break portrays the music’s intense halts. Lovers reach for language that always just eludes them.

Matīss envisions Behzadi’s music; they did not collaborate. When queried, Behzadi, a current DMA candidate at Columbia, approves of Matīss’s realization. He notes: “The piece is not mine anymore.” Post-publication, he loses ownership, thereby unveiling the work for artistic interpretation.

The music explores instrumental relations. Greif gulps, accelerated breaths leap from Liu’s bow. Euphoric bursts explode between performers. Swirling energy expands in space. Momentum tumbles toward desolate ravines. Individual differentiation dissolves – a disembodied sound world rises.

Behzadi explains how he sculpts the human voice. Soprano lines investigate the mouth as mechanism, the site of sound production. Unconventional sounds, such as sharp inhalations, result from his approach. Greif tells me that this performance practice tires the voice after repeated execution, but she does not show a trace of fatigue.

To conclude, a modern masterpiece: Olivier Messiaen’s Quatuor pour la fin du temps (1941). The quartet pendulates between creation and apocalypse: the beginning and end of time. Festival Daniou’s summer season centered on this work; the artist-in-residence ensemble performed it in the penultimate and final concerts. Tonight, they culminate their summer endeavors.

As introduction, Greif orates Messiaen’s textual commentary for each movement of the piece. Her declamation guides the listening experience, and creates distinct sectional divides.

“Harmonious silence of heaven…” Lesnick deliberates, then surreptitiously commences. Solemn ethereality whirls, glissandi ripple in the cello, imitation chatters.

Messiaen’s work features extended solos for three-quarters of the ensemble (sorry pianists). Abyss of the Birds is the clarinetist’s chance to dazzle. Lesnick again takes a long time to begin; the delay builds in anticipation. Mysterious gloom meanders in the throat register, well supported, yet with suitable wavers. Lesnick draws crescendos from absolute silence, gradually increasing in intensity until a full force pings throughout the loft. These dark emergences are especially nerve wracking on the instrument’s resistant notes. The A above the staff is one of those hazardous sticklers, but Lesnick executes with impressive control – his dynamic contrasts feel severe and visceral: he has achieved technical mastery.

The cello demands attention in Praise to the Eternity of Jesus. Joyner executes an electrified, albeit languid line. Time as concept recedes – faint, foreign, and distant. Joyner searches with despair, the pianist – Fleitz – consoles. Clean legato connections imbue the melody with pristine clarity. Heavenly vibrato deepens the sorrow. Why such misery for the opening of Genesis? Does this depict a conflict in Messiaen’s mission? But wait, the atmosphere transforms; it teeters toward beauty. Fleitz crescendos, enriches the harmony. Joyner joins; they express sanguine sublimity together. “Let there be light”: the promise and joy of creation.

Quatuor pour la fin du temps parts with a eulogy. It targets Jesus the man, “the being made divine towards Paradise.” The violin recalls the cello feature; long lines feel withdrawn and forlorn, audience attention centers on pitch succession. The piano accompaniment knocks with insistence. Light refracts; the sinews twist outward, ceaselessly. Imagery evokes the quartet’s title; the music conveys the extermination of time. Lesnick and Joyner close their eyes and listen. Is this a shared religious experience? Messiaen would give his blessing.


Focused on New Music

Tonight Julia Den Boer gave a concert consisting of pieces by modern composers, three of whom have Columbia affiliation: Matthew Ricketts (DMA in Composition 2017), Ashkan Behzadi (pursuing a DMA in Composition), and Zosha Di Castri (Francis Goelet Assistant Professor of Composition). The performance was part of the Columbia Sounds concert series.


I appreciated Den Boer’s introductions. Before each piece she explained her own connection to the work, the composer’s thoughts, and what we were going to hear. Her educational talks allowed us to draw connections to what she played.


Melodia (2016) sprung forth from a conversation between Den Boer and Ricketts about the current usage of the piano in contemporary music. Nowadays composers often choose to explore the percussive nature of the piano. However, Ricketts decided to flip the script and instead focus on the melodic nature of the instrument.


The piece began with monophony, high in the right hand. It wandered and implored. Lines melted into each other, like smooth Swiss chocolate. Chordal textures sounded watery, like Debussy’s Jardins sous la Pluie. Volcanic bellows gurgled below. The drizzling rain poured down on this fire.


Because they overlapped, the melodies were not traditional in the singable sense. Just as you got used to one melodic idea, another entered, blurring the memory of the previous.


The one work without any Columbia ties on tonight’s program was Crimson, written by Rebecca Saunders in 2003-2005.


Den Boer explained that Crimson represented the ending sunset monologue of James Joyce’s Ulysses.* Saunders recreated the violent, enthusiastic empathy that the reader experiences via tone clusters. These are produced by striking several keys at the same time, usually with the fist, palm, or elbow. In succession, the clusters fashioned a musical line — a melody on fire.


Crimson explored the physicality of the piano. While executing a crazed, primal dance on the uppermost keys, Den Boer had to slap the side of the instrument with accented fervor. The juxtaposition created a timbral contrast. The incisive, manic dancing reminded me of Stravinsky’s Rite.


Den Boer said that she recently heard Saunders music described as “explosive meditation.” I thought the portrayal fit particularly well in the middle of the work. The combination of energetic, yet serene textures sounded like wind chimes tolling over a snow-covered yard.


Den Boer recounted that Behzadi conceived of his Three Nocturnes (2008, 2009, 2014) as “glimpses and memories of other nocturnes.” Den Boer thought Ligeti has a strong influence. Behzadi leaned more toward Debussy. After hearing the nocturnes, I’d say that they’re both right. The first sounded like it was influenced by Debussy, especially in its contrast of ranges. The second had a Ligeti flare. The texture was sparse and pointed, ripe with tension.


The last nocturne featured a repeated tone. Clusters sparkled above and below, changing the repeated note’s quality; it became a friend who you no longer recognized. I find the previous “explosive meditation” description apt. Through repetition and re-presentation, the piece became a meditation session.


To conclude the program, Den Boer performed Di Castri’s DUX (2017). Before the piece began, I felt as if the atmosphere in the room had changed. Ambient chattering quickly extinguished and audience members sat with more attention. I had the impression that the concert built up toward this moment.


DUX was commissioned by the Yvar Mikhashoff trust. Den Boer premiered it at the Banff Center for the Arts in 2016.


Den Boer explained that DUX investigates how a composer can reconcile different, contradicting cells. The cells accelerated, toppled over each other, and suddenly vanished. These units embodied different characters, some stubborn, others sympathetic.


The cells created what we all love as concertgoers: familiarity in sections of change. Like sonata form, which presents similar material in different guises, the re-presentation of these cells constructed an engaged narrative.


Di Castri explored timbral differences. Before the performance, Den Boer inserted a small muffling device in the upper range of the piano. When struck, it had the same sound quality as a slapstick. Di Castri set this wooden timbre against a misty murmur in the middle range. She melded cells together to create amalgamated textures.


Since each cell had a distinctive character, it had to be performed with precision. Den Boer executed with confidence. She maintained each unit’s personality even while performing two at the same time. She displayed intense focus throughout, a physical sign of her passion and commitment for modern music. It’s exactly her diligence that this music earnestly deserves.


* The ending passage: O and the sea the sea crimson sometimes like fire and the glorious sunsets and the figtrees in the Alameda gardens yes and all the queer little streets and pink and blue and yellow houses and the rosegardens and the jessamine and geraniums and cactuses and Gibraltar as a girl where I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down Jo me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.

** Photo credit for featured image to Susan Boynton.


Mozart in the Land of the Diovannis

Die Entführung aus dem Serail

Singspiel in three acts (1782)

Music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Libretto by Christoph Friedrich Bretzner

In German with English and Italian subtitles

Cast and Production Team


For the past five days I have been traveling throughout northern Italy with my good friend Francesco (Fra to me). On Thursday, we went to La Scala to see Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail.


The orchestra’s oboist was absolutely fantastic. His tone was the sweetest, purest sound that I have ever heard. He coupled that with an excellent sense of rhythm and articulate, bouncy staccato. La Scala needs to make sure to keep this guy around for many, many years. (Or, stamp “JFK” on his forehead and ship him to the Met. That would be wonderful, too.)


Zubin Mehta led a crisp, tidy overture. I especially liked the quality of the string section. It suited the character of the opera.


My favorite moment occurred right after the overture. Here, Mozart seamlessly connected the second theme of the opening with the first number by way of a simple tonality change — a minor chord altered to major by raising the third. In this split second, it sounded like the heavens opened up.*


La Scala’s lighting decisions were odd. The part of the stage jutting out into the audience was almost entirely dark. Since singers oftentimes performed on this platform, I really did not understand why the production did not choose to illuminate them. They definitely have the technology available to do so.

I was impressed by the two leads. Lenneke Ruiten as Konstanze made the coloratura runs sound quite easy. And Mauro Peter as Belmonte infused his performance with an appropriately-distraught longing.


Cornelius Obonya as Selim had a thick Viennese accent (his “r”’s were emphatically rolled.) I wonder what kind of German opera companies strive for (probably Standard). Since Obonya is a native speaker, they probably just left his speech alone.


Taking brief glances at the subtitle screens, I noticed that the singers were sometimes off-script. Their improv was especially apparent during the spoken sections. My guess: since four members of the cast were native speakers, they said what felt more comfortable to them. “Ganz in der Nähe” for example was substituted for “In der Nähe.” Probable cause: the first is heard more often than the latter.


I really liked La Scala’s acoustics. I wonder what gives it its quality, velvety sound. (Perhaps the type of wood used to build the hall?)


La Scala — like the Paris Opera and the Vienna Philharmonic — is sponsored by Rolex. Three musical organizations, three times Rolex! Given the flashy, golden halls in which these groups perform, their sponsor makes complete sense.


Tonight’s production smelled dusty. It looked like the backdrop for a 1980s video game. In the background, a rickety, dilapidated boat intermittently sailed by, a sad, pitiable sight.  


However, I did enjoy the production’s fourth wall breaks. In one scene, Osmin spoke to the conductor in Italian, telling him to start up the orchestra. Italian was also used in the wine scene for comedic effect. (Many thanks to Fra for his translations after the show.)


An important theme in this opera is orientalism. Notwithstanding the occasional cymbal crash and triangle chattering, the music did not sound overtly so. Analyzing the opera using Edward Said’s work, however, would be an exciting endeavor.


Another interesting research topic would be an analysis of contemporary female-male relationships. The work seems to exude the simple “male-rescues-female” trope, but, upon further investigation, women exercise more power than one might originally think.




A few days later, while careening through the Italian Alps in a baby-blue Fiat Panda, Fra and I listened to Mehta conducting a studio production of the same opera from 1974. We played and re-played that CD several times, as we climbed, swerved, and switch-backed through the mountainside. Yet, all the while, Mozart remained fresh, eternally timeless.


Die Entführung continues to enchant.


* Quick check-in on gender disparity: 1. One female clarinetist. Rest of winds male (Palais Garnier’s wind section had exactly the same ratio. Strange.). 2. No brass. No percussion. 3. About even in the strings. 4. None of the principal seats were held by women. None. Something is wrong here.


IMG_1411.JPGFra and me during Act II’s intermission


Cello Reveries at Reid Hall

Well, sometimes a little Facebook procrastination actually does pay off. Last night, while putting off some Schubert reading, I scrolled aimlessly through my News Feed, looking for…something. Suddenly, the words “Paris,” “Reid Hall,” “Concert,” jumped out at me. Professor Boynton — the music department’s strong advocate — had written a post about a performance at Reid Hall.


A Midsummer Night’s Concert would be a good way to describe tonight’s atmosphere. Sun rays beamed through the windows, clouds twirled through the blue expanse, and students milled about — chatting, laughing. In short, not a care in the world.


Appropriate for this aura was the first piece on the program: Bach’s famous Suite No. 1 in G Major.


It is à propos that Bach literally means “stream” in German. Whenever I hear the cello suites, I automatically picture myself plopped down next to a brook. The pebbles whirl along as the water zigs and zags through a Bavarian wood. Peaceful, in a word.


From Bach we made a rather large jump of about 350 years to Peteris Vasks’ Pianissimo, a movement from his Book for Solo Cello. I really enjoyed listening to this piece. It featured a drone, over which the cellist spun out hauntingly modal tunes. Before I go any further, I must commend Hee-Young Lim for her phenomenal work tonight. Lim, the principal cellist of the Rotterdam Philharmonic — no small feat by any means — performed with resolved nuance. Her Bach was warm and her Vask suitably icy.


Lim’s abilities extended beyond the instrumental realm. For Pianissimo, she had to sing while playing the cello. In essence, she created three-lined music all by herself. Harmonizing vocally while playing an instrument is challenging, yet Lim made it sound très facile.


To conclude, Reid Hall featured one of Columbia’s own: Peter Susser.


Susser’s work, Cello Suite, paid clear homage to the first piece on the program. While Bach exhibited continual smoothness, Susser — a cellist himself — integrated intriguing spikes and spices into a recognizably Bachian texture. In The Curb, the fifth dance from his suite, Lim stumbled along a Parisian sidewalk, like a little kid with a lollipop in one hand and a Nintendo DS in the other.


Tonight’s offering presented completely different musical styles. Yet, from one work to the other, I recognized continuities in compositional approaches. Because of these connections, the program achieved unity. This is exactly what well-thought-out, effective programming looks like. Thank you for a cohesive night of cello reveries.



Tracking Tailleferre

Those of you who have spoken with me over the past year or so know that the 20th-century French composer Germaine Tailleferre has become a research obsession of mine. Last fall, I wrote a paper on the pernicious effects of American and French critics on her early reception. I posited that these writers influenced music history textbooks’ assessments of her music.

Since I am currently in Paris — where Tailleferre spent most of her career — I have the wonderful opportunity to visit anywhere related to her life. Today, a tiny alleyway in the 19th arrondissement bearing her name.

Approaching the sign, I was initially disheartened by the young communists of France sticker covering her. I jumped a few times to try to snatch it down, but no luck. Somewhat fittingly, Tailleferre was a member of the Communist Party. However, her participation was brief and nominal.

I was amazed by the high quality of street art on the block. See below this impressive “Odyssey of the 21st Century.” (I wonder what Tailleferre would have thought of these displays.)


After the quick walk through the street  — it is really short, probably only 100 meters or so — I entered the Cité de la Musique. This complex houses the Conservatoire de Paris, the Musée de la musique, and the Philharmonie de Paris. Appropriately, there’s a large music store across from the conservatory. Sidestepping some visitors, I sneaked inside. Surveying the shop, I found myself vis-à-vis with shelves upon shelves of scores. I felt at home.

Since the theme of the day was Tailleferre, I began to search for her. Most of the time, there was a disappointing gulf between “Stravinsky” and “Tchaikovsky.” However, I did have some success. In the melody section, I found vocal reductions for some of her opéras bouffes. Later on, I discovered the orchestra parts in the adjacent room. These finds are most likely impossible in America.


Later this month, I am going to walk through the artistic districts in which Tailleferre lived and worked. Tailleferre also has one relative who lives in Paris, her granddaughter Elvie de Rudder, who I am endeavoring to get in contact with.

Fête de la musique

Paris is sweltering with music. Strolling — not quite flâneur-ing — I hear trumpets blaring, guitars humming, and singers crooning. It’s a hotbed of music, which passersby seem to really enjoy.


These outdoor performances are a part of Paris’s rendition of Fête de la musique, an international day of music-making. For my part, I chose the coolness of The Great Indoors, more specifically, the Musée d’Orsay. Here, the Orchestre d’harmonie de la Garde républicaine performed several arrangements and one concertino for trombone.


Despite the plethora of arrangements, the program writers didn’t give any credit to their creators. First time listeners could have been under the mistaken impression that Ravel’s Bolero and de Falla’s Three Cornered Hat were written for wind band. Most of these transcriptions were sadly swallowed up by the cavernous hall, a former railroad station. A lot of the choices felt corny too, especially the staccatoed saxophones standing in for pizzicatoed violins.


I was really looking forward to the new piece on the program, Tbon and Jacques, concertino pour trombone et orchestre à vents (2017). Ferrer Ferran wrote this expressly for tonight’s soloist, Jacques Mauger. Unfortunately, I was disappointed by it. There was a great deal of “boom, chick, chick” which I thought went — mercifully — out of fashion many years ago. Mauger performed admirably considering the location difficulty.


The audience really liked Bolero, though. It was admittedly the only arrangement that still sounded OK in the space. It fluttered about, stretching through the station’s airy ceilings. It was an imaginative moment, a good conclusion for the program.


As I write this at 11:17 PM Paris time, the bands continue to play, the crowds continue to throng. I may not get much sleep tonight, but I am glad to see — and more importantly, hear — a city’s support for music.



A Whole Lot of Moche at the Palais Garnier

La Cenerentola

Dramma giocoso in two acts (1817)

Music by Gioacchino Rossini

Libretto by Jacopo Ferretti (After Charles Perrault’s Cendrillon)

In Italian with English and French surtitles

Cast and Production Team


Rossini obviously wanted his audience to enjoy this drama giocoso (playful drama), to laugh at — and with — his characters. A prime example is Don Magnifico (look at that name!). Through musical choices, Rossini made him a bumbling fool. In one scene, he imbibed “enough wine for three,” twirling around the stage like a buffoon.


While Rossini created humor musically, the librettist — Jacopo Ferretti — shaped jestful interactions through textual means. Much of the dialogue was light banter, oftentimes with slapstick humor. The side exchanges between the prince and his valet were especially funny.


Singers performing in Italian baffle me with how many syllables they can string together in one breath. The language added an extra taste of jovialness to the mostly cheery opera. That being said, the performers’ words were sometimes made unintelligible by the orchestra. I thought the stepfather — Maurizio Muraro — faced the worst of this. (Rossini’s opera changes the standard tale to include a stepfather instead of a stepmother and a godfather instead of a godmother. Pourquoi, I ask.)


Juan José de León excited — but didn’t overwhelm — as the prince. Then again, he was only working with what Rossini gave him. I was often painfully aware of Rossini’s attempts to excite via “those high C’s.” To me these purposeful crescendos to the “applause territory” sound forced.


Teresa Iervolino as Cenerentola and Roberto Tagliavini as her fairy godfather stood out. Iervolino sang poignantly when alone. Versatile, she blended well with the prince in their love duets.


I really liked Tagliavini’s sound. It was both deeply rich and present. The audience adored him too: he received the loudest applause out of anyone in the production. (Side note: with his full beard and long, streaky hair, he looks like a Wagnerian bass.)


From my seat at the side of the hall, I was able to get a clear view of the pit. I thought that the conductor — Ottavio Dantone — lived in the music, with every gesture and cue that he made. His entrances were clear and his decisions well-thought-out. There were some coordination problems, but, in all fairness, Rossini wrote many melismatic, cadenza-like passages that make lining up the singer with the orchestra difficult.


In regards to the orchestra’s performance, I was disenchanted. Tonguing is a skill that woodwinds and brass — especially the reed instruments — practice hours to perfect. At times, however, their articulation was not clean. The music lost its Rossinian sparkle.  


One really interesting part of the orchestra was their keyboard instrument. It sounded and looked like a fortepiano. It accompanied the secco recitatives, a style which gradually grew out of fashion over the course of the century.


Above all, tonight’s production disappointed. It was a lazy, one-size-fits-all design. The nondescript castle wall could have worked for any number of operas (Tosca, Rigoletto, Romeo et Juliette, Lucia di Lammermoor, Otello, etc.). As to color choices, the walls inside the palace were a sickly red (did someone die here??). Scaffolds were left clumsily on the stage without any purpose. Evidently, the website’s cover photo deceives (it looks MUCH better online). It seems then that this is one of those “have the singers face forward and do their thing” productions.


I would really like to see what this opera would look like in the heads of an opera company like Theater an der Wien. They, surely, would craft something interesting.


After the performance, I briefly chatted with a fellow concertgoer at the busstop (I use “briefly” because my French is really elementary at this point.). While I wouldn’t go so far as to call the entire performance “moche” (ugly/unsightly) as he did, I’d readily admit that I was underwhelmed. Rossini’s opera has the potential to be exciting, but, in tonight’s guise, it simply couldn’t be. I look forward to stumbling into this work again, hopefully with a new vision.