The Boston Globe on Shostakovich's Romanzen-Suite

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Jeremy Eichler, classical music critic for The Boston Globe, writes for his column "Third Ear":

Exploring a composer’s music can be a bit like visiting a foreign city.

Most tours will take you to the famous postcard sites, yet of course a different kind of visit or, better still, a rambling stroll is required before a city gives up its more intimate treasures: the secret courtyard tucked away off a bustling street, the neighborhood restaurant blissfully lost in time, that one transfixing view of the sea. It can be these more modest encounters that linger in one’s memory, if only because they disclose the essence of a place in its purest and perhaps most beautiful form.The musical estate of Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) by now requires little introduction. The tour buses have circled, the major monuments — 15 Symphonies, 15 String Quartets — have been duly annotated in our guidebooks. Even the rancorous debates over the composer’s political beliefs are by now, it seems, themselves slowly receding into history.

But among his vast catalog of works, there are still so many smaller gems, and all too invisible. Having spotted a rare upcoming performance (July 7 at Yellow Barn music festival) of one of the composer’s more extraordinary pieces of vocal music, I can’t resist devoting today’s column to the “Seven Romances on Verses by Alexander Blok.”

This song cycle of 1967, scored for soprano, cello, violin, and piano, not only contains some of the most piercingly beautiful music Shostakovich ever wrote, but also speaks with his most deeply personal tone. The texts by Blok, Russia’s most revered Symbolist poet, are transfigured by Shostakovich’s musical voice, sounding here free of accent or strain. One senses in this music that a composer of many masks has momentarily dropped them all. The songs glow with the quiet light of the real.

Their story begins in May of 1966, when, after years of declining health and nervous agitation, Shostakovich suffered a heart attack. His recovery was long and dispiriting, and he feared his creative gifts had been lost. The hospital doctors forbade him from composing, but he read Blok’s poetry. Months later, aided by a few furtive swigs of brandy, the floodgates opened and, in just three days, out poured this group of seven songs.

The composer had his pretexts. The cellist Mstislav Rostropovich had requested a piece of music to perform with his wife, the soprano Galina Vishnevskaya, and Shostakovich later claimed this was the impetus behind the Blok cycle, before, that is, he realized how many instruments were required to draw out the full implications of these remarkable poems. At another point, Shostakovich asked his wife to suggest her favorite Blok poems so that he might set them to music, but the final suite reflects none of her choices.

No, in the end, this was music written for no one but Shostakovich himself. His friend Isaak Glikman called these songs the composer’s “confession” and later wrote that “the Blok cycle reveals the anguish of Shostakovich’s soul with unique clarity and poignancy.” Vishnevskaya, to whom the cycle is dedicated, praised their “agonizing beauty” and wrote that Shostakovich, having survived his brush with death, “seems to survey his journey as if from the vault of the heavens.”

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Images from "Le Noir de l'Etoile"

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

On May 20th, six percussionists (James Beauton, Greg Beyer, Amy Garapic, Doug Perkins, Jeff Stern, and Mari Yoshigawa) and astronomer Tom Geballe arrived in Putney, Vermont for a week devoted to exploring Gérard Grisey's Le Noir de l'Etoile. For six days the ensemble rehearsed in the Greenwood School gynasium and Tom Geballe gave numerous talks for Greenwood students and faculty, members of the local community, and those who attended the performance on May 25th. While the original plan called for a starlit performance on the Greenwood School soccer field, questionable weather called for an indoor experience. Over 200 people, from as close as the houses next door and as far as Dallas, TX, settled onto mats and chairs beneath a giant silk pulsar created by Greenwood faculty member Annie Quest, surrounded on all sides by percussionists and the sound of pulsars.

Only under the auspices of Yellow Barn

Monday, May 28, 2012

Michael Miller writes for The Berkshire Review:

As I expected, the performance of Gérard Grisey’s Le Noir de l’Étoile was unique, but only after being there and experiencing it can I appreciate just how this could only have happened in Putney, Vermont, under the auspices of Yellow Barn. I heard the work for the first and only time until now in February 2011 in Alice Tully Hall, played by one of the world’s great ensembles, Les Percussions de Strasbourg, who commissioned the work and premiered it in Brussels in 1991. There was something special in this New York performance, because the acoustics of the new Alice Tully Hall permitted them for the first time to play the work without amplification. Since the work is written for six percussionists surrounding the audience, most halls require a modicum of amplification to enable everyone in the hall to hear more or less the same thing. The work is immensely complex, and I consumed my dollop of free champagne after the concert wondering if any other group could even attempt to perform the work.

The answer is “yes, and very well,” as James Beauton, Greg Beyer, Amy Garapic, Doug Perkins, Jeff Stern, and Mari Yoshinaga demonstrated most impressively.

The performance at Putney was a great success in itself, but the circumstances added something marvellous to the event. The masterful performance in Alice Tully Hall was a high-profile concert at Lincoln Center. Yellow Barn’s was — at least intended to be — an open-air concert in rural Vermont. Bad weather reports convinced the organizers to move it to the rain venue, the Greenwood School gym. It turned out to be a lovely evening, and it was a disappointment not to sit under the stars for this astral music, but there were advantages. For one thing, the gym, which is less than a quarter the size of Alice Tully Hall, required no amplification for the percussion instruments; for another, the crickets and tree frogs were in full chorus that night and would most definitely have made their contribution.

This performance was somewhat more careful and by no means as loud as the one at Tully. My hearing was perfectly normal at the end of it — not a trace of deafness. I felt the nature of pulsars as time-keepers came through especially well. Pulsars keep their own time, which is entirely alien to ours. In fact the experience becomes something like what a dialogue with a visitor from another world might be like. On the other hand, the wood blocks and other exotic-sounding instruments evoked the rituals of “primitive” peoples — what Grisey himself described as “shamanistic conjuring.” (A student of religions might call this mediation.) In this second encounter with the work, I experienced the music of the pulsars themselves as an epiphany. The percussion music that preceded it might well have been a calling of the phenomena, and the music that followed as a petition or attempt to interact with them.

The space was splendidly decorated with a beautiful colored banner and a ring, and the spinning cymbal, which marks the conclusion of the work, stood at the center of the space and the audience, not at center front stage — a great advantage.

Bravo to Seth Knopp and all concerned for organizing a musical event at which the ears, the intellect, and the spirit were equally rewarded.

Yellow Barn's Big Bang

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Jonathan Potter writes for the Brattleboro Reformer:

Tom Geballe has been an astronomer for 40 years.

Now he’s become a star.

Geballe flew in earlier this week from Hilo, Hawaii, where he works at the Gemini Observatory, to take part in a unique collaboration with a percussion ensemble as part of Yellow Barn’s Artist Residency program. Geballe has been cast as the narrator in a rare performance of Gerard Grisey’s "Le Noir de l’Etoile."

Inspired by the 1967 discovery of pulsars and the strange signals these remnants of supernova explosions were emitting, "Le Noir de l’Etoile," composed in 1989-90 features six percussionists, recordings of those pulsar signals and a narrator who introduces the piece.

Enter Geballe, who met Yellow Barn Artistic Director Seth Knopp three years when Knopp’s group, The Peabody Trio, performed in Hilo for a concert society Geballe heads in his spare time.

The two hit it off, and Knopp was so eager to see the equipment at the observatory, Geballe agreed to take him up at 4 a.m. for a spectacular view of the sunrise over Hilo. Knopp called it "one of the greatest experiences of my life."

When Yellow Barn decided to team with percussionists Eduardo Leandro and Doug Perkins on "Le Noir de l’Etoile" for his residency program, Knopp thought of involving Geballe, both because his sonorous bass voice would be good for the narrator part and because, well, who else was he going to call when he needed an astronomer?

Geballe presented a talk Tuesday night at the Putney Public Library titled "Why is it dark at night?" He is also spending time this week working with students at The Greenwood School, which partners with Yellow Barn on the residency program.

On Tuesday afternoon, Geballe gave a talk on galaxies to all the students there, generating a lively discussion and many thoughtful and engaging questions from the students. One student asked Geballe about the likelihood of life existing somewhere else in the universe.

"My opinion is yes, there must be life elsewhere," Geballe answered. "It’s just a question of chemistry and time."

Which brings us back to "Le Noir de l’Etoile," and the work going elsewhere at the Greenwood School campus, where the gymnasium has been taken over by six percussionists and a whole warehouse full of drums, cymbals, gongs, bells, sticks, mallets, brushes and other noisy devices.

Putting together a piece this big, with each percussionist playing so many instruments with such precision required is, indeed, an exercise in chemistry and time for a group assembled by Perkins and Greg Beyer (filling in for Leandro, who had to withdraw for personal reasons) and four auditioned musicians.

Grisey’s "Le Noir de l’Etoile" is a big undertaking, an hour-long, expressive piece for six percussionists grouped around an audience.

The week-long residence will culminate in a free performance on Friday, outside on the Greenwood School soccer field beginning at 8:16 p.m. (sunset). The audience will sit in the middle of the field (bring blankets or folding chairs) and the percussionists will surround them. The effect should be spectacular.

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Music with pulsar obligato

Monday, May 21, 2012

Michael Miller writes for The Berkshire Review:

This roughly hour-long work for six percussion players encircling the audience was Grisey’s response to his discovery of the sound of pulsars. Neither Grisey, although he taught at Berkeley  for four years, nor the largely European movement to which he belonged for a while, Spectralism, is very well known in the United States. Last year’s American tour by Les Percussions de Strasbourg in which they played Le Noir de l’Étoile (for a review of their Lincoln Center performance, click here) and the New York Philharmonic residency of Grisey’s pupil, Magnus Lindberg, have done something to correct that. Susanna Mälkki recently conducted Grisey’s 1977 work, Modulations, with the San Francisco Symphony, reviewed here by Steven Kruger.

By the time Grisey came to write Le Noir de l’Étoile, on commission from Les Percussions de Strasbourg in 1989-90, he had moved beyond Spectralism, which was a highly rigorous method for composing music from the nature of sound itself and the way it is received by human perception. For him “music is made with sounds, not with notes.”  In 1986, Grisey began to focus on unpredictability and volatility in music, and the organization of his works became less readily apparent, fractured as they were by abrupt changes and outbursts. In this work he turned to the nature of recently discovered entities in space, pulsars, which exist far outside our solar system, following processes alien to the regularity of the cycles we have come to depend on for life on our planet.

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In Vermont, open air drumming

Sunday, May 20, 2012
Jeremy Eichler writes for The Boston Globe:

Is there music in the night sky?

Of course thinkers from Pythagoras to Johannes Kepler have pondered “the music of the spheres,” and composers from Gustav Holst to Mark-Anthony Turnage have on occasion waxed astronomical in their own works.

But none have addressed the question quite as literally as the French spectralist Gerard Grisey, whose hourlong percussion work of 1989-90, “Le Noir de l’Etoile,” would seem to settle the matter once and for all. Conceived for six percussionists, tape, and live electronics, the piece takes as its inspiration and musical DNA the captured sounds of two actual pulsars, rhythmically beating from distant corners of the universe.

And at sunset on May 25, the sounds of those pulsars will be returned to the night sky once more, as a group of percussionists in residence at Yellow Barn will mount a rare outdoor performance of Grisey’s bracing masterwork in an open field part way up a mountain in Putney, Vt. The musicians will perform on six platforms encircling the audience.

“There are a few pieces out there that go beyond drumming,” said Eduardo Leandro, a percussionist who has served on the Yellow Barn faculty and first proposed doing the Grisey outdoors. Leandro regards “Le Noir de l’Etoile” as a landmark 20th-century percussion score on par with iconic works by Varese, Xenakis, and Reich. “These pieces have an artistic and aesthetic core that remind you of the reason why percussion exists.”