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Archive for the ‘Performances’ Category

The Mother Of Us All, by Myles Miller

Susan B. Anthony, (image credit Biography.com)

Susan B. Anthony, (image credit Biography.com)

The Mother Of Us All, the second and last collaboration between the composer Virgil Thomson and the poet Gertrude Stein, is an underdog of twentieth-century opera. With few performances and fewer recordings, the work lies beneath a mountain of other compositions favored by the public and struggles to find its way into the limelight. However, despite this relative obscurity, Thomson and Stein’s masterpiece deserves far more recognition than it currently receives. An amazing combination of style and substance, the duo channeled the emotions of more than a century of activism and political understanding into a two-act staging.

The opera begins with Susan B. Anthony writing letters advocating her cause, worrying whether or not her fight is even possible to win. Stein and Thomson narrate the scene, and the whole passage sounds as if taken straight from a book. The plot moves forward into a political meeting between famous figures of U.S. history. Daniel Webster, Andrew Johnson, John Adams, Ulysses S. Grant, Anthony Comstock, and Thaddeus Stevens all represent the male establishment, while two humorously named veterans of the Civil War, Jo the Loiterer and Chris the Citizen, mock the politicians’ overly somber demeanors during political discourse. Susan B. Anthony declares herself to the assembly and begins debating with Daniel Webster, who throughout the debate refers to her as “sir”. This specific title in reference to Susan B. is historically important with no explanation as to why located within the libretto. In the media of the nineteenth century, the suffragettes were often described as “unsexed” or “manlike” with newspapers going so far as to refer to the suffragettes as actual men. This kind of slanderous dialogue led to Sojourner Truth, another well-known suffragette, famously baring her breast during a speech in Indiana (Truth being the deliverer of the iconic “Ain’t I A Woman” speech).
Susan B. Anthony next dreams of the allies to her cause and how, in the end, their assistance is meaningless if women themselves do not rise up together to achieve the right to vote. The scene is marked by the VIP’s of politics, again Johnson, Stevens, and Webster, finally taking a serious interest in the idea of women’s suffrage, and Susan B. lecturing Jo the Loiterer and Chris the Citizen on the differences between the rich and poor. In the final scene of the first Act the opera begins to truly take on a political slant, as Susan B. argues that perhaps marriage is necessary only because men are helpless without women to guide them. Proceeding from this dispute, Susan B. and the chorus rise up together and declare that all people of this nation will one day obtain the vote.
The second Act opens with Anthony and the supporting cast addressing the double standard of women being required to take the man’s name in marriage, and Jo the Loiterer’s girlfriend, Indiana Elliot, refuses to marry Jo until he agrees that she will not have to take the name of Loiterer (Stein’s playful libretto here shows its face again, as “Loiterer” is obviously not a real last name). Anthony accepts an invitation to speak to a gathering of politicians at the behest of a crowd of fervent supporters. She returns from the speech with a new air of confidence, having spoken convincingly enough that the reactionary politicians of the government have deliberately written the word “male” into the Constitution out of plain fear of her movement. This new confidence is shadowed by only one doubt; that if Anthony succeeds, women will become as weak and as afraid as the men who are resisting this movement towards equality. In contrast to this doubt, Jo the Loiterer and Indiana Elliot finally agree to be married, each taking the other’s last name and becoming Jo Elliot and Indiana Loiterer. Finally, in a stunning display of choreography and composition, Susan B. Anthony sings her closing aria summarizing a life well-lived and one that was dedicated towards a singular purpose. As the final notes of the aria fade away, Susan B. becomes a statue in front of the Capitol, symbolizing the eternal achievement of the movement that brought women the vote.
Gertrude Stein’s libretto, combined with Virgil Thomson’s unique compositional style, lends this artistic accomplishment a sense of unity nestled between abject dissonances. The lyrics are often direct in their message, yet interspersed between them are series of nonsensical phrases that seem to digress from the main subject. At the same time, Thomson feeds us a musical landscape of minimalism and romanticism that flows between the words, at times almost as if they are completely separate yet whole. In Thomson’s own words, the score is “a memory-book of Victorian play-games and passion…with its gospel hymns and cocky marches, its sentimental ballads, waltzes, darned-fool ditties, and intoned sermons… a souvenir or all those sounds and kinds of tunes that were once the music of rural America.”
Rehearsing this opera presented a challenge. As an orchestra, we were immediately met with an unfamiliar work and had no context of what it should sound like and no idea of how to bring it together. With many disjointed rhythms and eclectic harmonies composed throughout each scene, the first rehearsals sounded similar to an orchestra warming up before a real performance. To tackle a work like this, one where the orchestra did not possess any familiarity with it beforehand, the rehearsals required slightly different tactics than what would be expected of a standard symphony or even a more well-known opera. The early rehearsals consisted of attempts to run through the opera as far as we could, with intermittent pauses in playing that were filled with explanations as to what would be happening on stage during a section had we been actually been performing, and also a brief synopsis of what was happening in the plot. Eventually the orchestra felt more comfortable with each scene and had an idea of what the whole picture was meant to sound like. When the vocalists finally joined us for rehearsals, the opera truly began to take on a polished form. We were now able to hear a cohesive melody above our minimalist, repetitive sections of quarter notes and down-beat chords.
Along with trying to make an unfamiliar opera sound true to form, this was my first time to be principal of a viola section. This meant that I had to also account for and be responsible for an entire group of violists that was as unfamiliar with the work as I was. I spoke with a few of my friends and fellow violists in the UNT viola studio, along with my professor, for some insight as to what would be expected of me as principal and some tips on how to bring the section together. Recommendations ranged from holding sectionals to offering enticements, such as chocolates, when the group performed admirably. While I personally felt that the music was simply not difficult enough to merit full sectional rehearsals apart from the orchestra, and the director, Dr. Stephen Dubberly, bought chocolate and other candies for the whole orchestra at every performance, I was left with the role of being a micromanager. I would give suggestions and directions on how to perform certain passages in the music, such as where to shift and what position to play in, and all the rest of the basic instructions that a principal is tasked with delivering. In the end, the group did not need much more than the occasional fingering suggestion or technique advice, and I ended up being extremely proud with my section’s progress.
Despite the pride I took in my section and the relatively little work that I had to do because of their strengths, being principal of the viola section for this opera was still a privilege that I do not take lightly. Being in an orchestra and playing an instrument requires hard work, but it is work that I love dearly more than anything else in my life. I am appreciative of the people in my life that allowed me the position and provided me with an experience that will stay with me and guide me through any and all future endeavors as a violist. In the words of Susan B. Anthony, “I don’t want to die as long as I can work; the minute I cannot, I want to go.”

What it’s like to share a stand with Dr. Dubois, by Amber Sander


Have you ever tried the practice technique where you put headphones on and play along with a favorite recording? I think this is a really fun way to shake things up in the practice room, and I always notice an improvement in my sound afterward. I’m not completely clear on why this works but it reminds me of the hilarious rubber hand illusion. For two weeks this December I experienced a live version of this sitting next to Dr. Dubois at a gig. We both had microphones on our instruments and were using in-ear monitors so I could hear her really clearly in one ear. This gave me an entirely new perspective on her playing and I felt like I was having one “ah-ha!” moment after another. This experience has had a profound impact on my playing and I would like to share some of my biggest realizations of what really separates out elite players like Dr. Dubois from the pack.

 

  1. Every note she plays is beautiful. If you are thinking “I already know that her sound is incredible,” then you’ve missed the point. Every note she plays is beautiful. It does not matter if it’s one lonely 16th note, a fourth finger (my nemesis), an unfortunate series of 5ths, or a whole note repeated for dozens of measures. Every note she plays will be full of life, depth, and character. The commitment to excellence and the level of focus this requires is astounding. I had never realized how many dead notes I let slip by until I pushed myself to follow her lead. It’s exhausting!

 

  1. Her playing is incredibly consistent and she is very focused, things I struggle with in my own playing. Have you ever had to redo a beautiful recording because you lost focus and made silly mistakes? I sure have and it is really frustrating. A few years ago I realized that this stems from bad habits in my practicing like letting myself get away with zoning out, or thinking about all the other things I need to get done. It is something that I am working to improve, but once again it’s exhausting!

 

  1. The number of different colors she plays with make Matisse and Van Gogh look like slackers. The analytical type-a part of me wishes we could have a musical version of paint by numbers so I could analyze all of the vibrato and bow control combinations she was using. However, even if something like this did exist it wouldn’t produce the same result because it would be so technical that the music would have no soul. I think this personal connection to the music is the real key. After that it’s just a matter of experimenting with your technique until you find the sound you’re looking for.

 

  1. She is a total pro. She is always on time, always prepared, always in a good mood, always paying attention, always kind to those around her, etc. I hope someone has shared with you how important these things are. The music world is very small, and you can’t afford to make a bad impression. You never know who will be in a position to hire you in the future… or spy on you at a gig and write about it. Dr. D really impressed me by remembering the names of people she hasn’t seen in years. She makes a point of meeting people she doesn’t know, and treats the aspiring artists the same as the seasoned vets.

 

  1. She makes mistakes just like the rest of us… thank goodness! These mistakes are far and few between, but what I noticed is that she doesn’t make a big production about it. There is no dramatic face or sigh, and she doesn’t let it taint the music coming up. Mistakes are simply marked and never missed again.

 

So what was it like to share a stand with Dr. Dubois? It was so much fun to spend this time with her, and it was really inspiring. Watching Dr. Dubois out of the corner of my eye was like having a silent lesson every day. I would hear her do something that I liked and then watch her hands to see how she did it. I made two little tweaks to my hand position and vibrato, and am sounding better than ever! Thanks for the tune up Dr. D!

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Introducing the UNT Baroque Orchestra, by Rui Li

Welcome to our blog, and greetings from the University of North Texas Baroque Orchestra. It is my honor to present the UNT Baroque Orchestra and discuss the November 20th, 2015 concert.

It has been a great experience for me to be a member of the UNT Baroque Orchestra. UNT has one of the largest early music programs in North America. Prof. Paul Leenhouts is the conductor of the Baroque Orchestra. This group has appeared at the Boston and Berkeley Early Music Festivals and was invited to perform at the Seventh International Festival “Misiones de Chiquitos” in Bolivia (April – May 2008).

This fall was my first semester in the UNT Baroque Orchestra; it was also my first time playing Baroque period instruments. I feel so lucky to have Cynthia Roberts, baroque violinist, and Allen Whear, baroque cellist, as my private instructors on period instruments. When we first began, I learned the differences between baroque and modern instruments. The difference between modern viola and baroque viola include the nature of the neck, fingerboard, bridge, bass bar, and tailpiece.

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The UNT Baroque Orchestra and Collegium Singers performed on November 20th, 2015 in Murchison Performing Arts Center’s Winspear Performance Hall. This performance was a part of the Czech Christmas Festival. It was also our honor to invite Barbara Maria Willi (a Czech-German harpsichordist) to play with us. She has significantly contributed to the development of historical performance practices in the Czech Republic. She is the program director of Bach’s Organ Autumn in the Czech Republic and member of the Prague Spring Harpsichord Competition Commission.

This evening’s program began with an impressive opening piece by the Baroque Trumpet Ensemble and the Baroque Orchestra played Sonata con arie by Johann Heinrich Schmelzer. (If you are on Safari, Chrome, or Internet Explorer, click on the composers name below to hear the pieces.)

Schmelzer

I felt like the trumpets invited everyone in the audience to listen to our concert! The next piece was performed by the UNT Sackbut Ensemble and written by Antonio Bertali. The soloists Karina Sim and Seowon Lee played baroque violin while Sydney ZumMallen and Su Eun Park played Baroque Cello. In this piece, the violin solo and the cello solo have a beautiful conversation in the middle section.

We performed two U.S. premiere pieces in this concert. The first one was performed by Fantasmi Baroque Ensemble and written by Jan Josef Ignac Brentner.

Brentner

The second one was written by Antonin Reichenauer Baroque violin concerto and the soloist was Hao Miao.

Reichenauer

This performance was dedicated to Cecil Adkins who taught musicology at the College of Music from 1963 to 1988. He was the founder of our Early Music Program, and directed the ensembles in over 400 performances. He also maintained 200 period instruments for student use. We would also like to give a special thanks to Paul Leenhouts, who edited all works. The performance was a huge success and it is thanks to the hard work and dedication of all those involved!

This coming week, February 19, 2016, is the next performance of the UNT Baroque Orchestra and Collegium Singers. Please come hear us in the Murchison Performing Arts Center, Winspear Performance Hall, at 8pm! Or catch the performance on Live Streaming. The concert, entitled “Les Concerts Royaux”, will feature Rebel – Le Cahos, Leclair – Concerto No. 2 in A Major, Six Concertos a tre violini, alto e basso, Opus 10, Marais – Tombeau de Mr. Meliton, Pièces a une et a deux violes, Lully – Chaconne, Amadis, Tragédie en musique Philidor l’aîné – from Pièces de trompettes et timballes, and Charpentier – Te Deum, H. 146, Mélanges autographes, volume 10.


Michael Capone on his Performance at the SCI Conference – Part 2

Conferences such as the SCI (Society of Composers, Inc.) National Conference are a fantastic opportunity for performers just getting their careers started in new music. They can meet a variety of like-minded individuals from all over the world, broadening their horizons to learn from new composers, watch performances of brand new pieces, and hopefully find new opportunities for work in the future. The SCI Conference celebrated its 50th anniversary this year at the University of Florida in Gainesville, and distinguished composer Don Freund was the Composer-In-Residence.

This conference boasts a rich history of prominent composers – just from their first conference, the program of which was provided to us as a souvenir, names such as Milton Babbitt, George Crumb, Charles Wuorinen, and Mario Davidovsky popped right out at me. To be even a small part of such a rich line of participants in these conferences was a huge honor. It also reinforced the idea that “all music was once new” – in 1965, during the first conference, we were still 10 years away from the Shostakovich Viola Sonata, for instance. Pieces by composers who are now firmly entrenched in contemporary “canon” (insomuch as there can be such a thing) were performed at the first Conference – perhaps some of the pieces performed and their composers at the 50th Conference will also become significant in history.

SCI Program page 1SCI Program page 2SCI Program page 3

One aspect of performing at a conference that is different from most performances at school or at a gig, for instance, is the extremely limited amount of rehearsal and warm-up time available in the actual performance space. There were seven total pieces during the concert on which I performed The Broca Divide, by Michael Sterling Smith, and the sound check began only a couple of hours before the performance began. With four of these works using electronics in some form, and my own performance needing to be amplified, the sound engineer running the concert had quite a busy afternoon. I came prepared to simply check the loudest portions of the piece, but with no expectations of running through the whole work in the hall. With warm-up space and practice space at a premium, this would be some of the only time I had that day to warm up at all.

Fortunately, however, the sound check had gone quickly, and one group had not yet shown up, despite their call time being earlier – so I had enough time to hear the space, first checking levels for the microphone, then running the piece once. One interesting aspect of performing Broca is that there is a degree of bow noise and surface noise that makes up a rather significant percentage of the sound transmitted to the audience. Usually we try to hide these noises as part of our preparation for performance. It can therefore be difficult to know just what the right percentage of “noise” versus pitch content is for a given moment. Additionally, what sounds quite loud under my own ear sounds quite muffled and less apparent in the hall; the microphone helps ensure that the sounds of the ricochet harmonics, for instance, are heard throughout the auditorium. Having both the engineer and the composer in the hall while we checked levels ensured that the balance would be appropriate for each movement. (The fourth movement, containing more straightforward pitch and rhythm content, can be lowered in amplification significantly.)

The performance itself was a great experience, too. I found it extremely satisfying to perform in front of a very supportive audience of other composers and contemporary performers. During intermission, I was able to network with some of the audience members who were interested in learning more about the composition. By far the most frequent question that Mike and I fielded involved his notation – how much of this piece is strictly notated, and how much freedom and interpretation is given to the performer? The answer is a mixed bag – some movements, like the second and fourth, are quite restrictive in their notation. Specific pitches, rhythms, and effects are called for, with a relatively reliable expectation of what sound will be produced. The third movement is also fairly reliable in terms of sound production, but much more freedom is given to the performer in terms of what pitches are played and how long each gesture is to last. Approximate durations are given in seconds above each gesture, but a stopwatch is not necessary for the effective performance of this movement.

The first movement is perhaps the most ambiguous in terms of its notation – a series of “32nd notes,” all under a ricochet bowing, without any rests or pauses notated save one towards the end. At first glance, this seems to be a frenetic perpetual motion, but remember – this piece is all about gesture! The speed of the ricochet is determined in part by the initial attack’s dynamic, so already, we know that not all notes will be perfectly even rhythmically. Softer dynamics will tend to be slightly slower, and louder dynamics have more elements of a “thrown” ricochet, with less regard for the specific number of bounces. It is up to the performer to create his or her own phrases and breaths as appropriate in this music.

The Broca Divide page 1

Overall, everyone we talked to seemed very supportive of the work that Mike and I had done. Hearing interested questions and observations from composers and performers across the country helped us realize that the efforts we put into our independent project were not in vain. Having worked closely with him on this new piece, I felt quite comfortable fielding questions independently, and could include an informed perspective on the processes behind it. It was also valuable to talk to other composers because I could better understand how they view our work. The more we can open ourselves to conversations with our composer colleagues, the more we can find opportunities to work and grow together.

Until next time,

Mike


Michael Capone on his Performance at the SCI Conference – Part 1

When I began working last year as a member of the graduate string quartet responsible for assisting the conducting classes and Nova, UNT’s new music ensemble (a separate quartet from the Bancroft Quartet, one of our Center for Chamber Music groups), I did not anticipate that the work I did would lead me to a performance at a national conference. Yet I write this post sitting on a plane to Gainesville, FL, prepared to perform at the 2015 National Conference for the Society of Composers, Inc. (SCI)

One of the responsibilities each year for the Nova graduate quartet is to record works written by composition students who are new to the school. This occurs at the end of each Fall semester, and includes at least two recording sessions of reasonable length.  We recorded two such works last year, one of which was a string quartet written by Michael Sterling Smith, a composer pursuing his DMA at UNT.

This quartet, entitled Hyperflexion, used a two-note ricochet motive as its foundation – an inherently rhythmically unstable technique – and developed it across the ensemble. As notated, we were asked to play distinct pitches in strict canon, precisely in rhythm, using a very high tessitura, with a specific number of bounces, sometimes with (practically inaudible) glissando between two pitches. At first glance, the score was more than a bit intimidating. How could we get four performers to correlate such intricate parts?

After meeting our composer, though, we realized that to be successful, we must go beyond his notation. The notes on the page were simply indications of gesture, with only approximations of the desired pitches and rhythms. Once we understood this from his directions, our job became easier and our interpretation was freer. We could now react to each other’s attacks in an organic, musical way. The music demanded our complete liberation from the score – a notion which was somewhat new to me.

Inspired by this work we had done as a quartet, I approached Michael after our recording session, wanting to work together on another project. As it turned out, he was hoping to begin writing a solo viola work that would incorporate some of the same techniques as in Hyperflexion. We quickly set a date to begin working together. Our work before that date consisted of finding new sounds on the viola that we wanted to explore.

Soon, we were meeting every week, he with new ideas and concepts, I with research and practice behind me to incorporate and make consistent the sounds we had previously discussed. We aimed to create a piece in a similar structure as Garth Knox’s Viola Spaces, a set of eight etudes, each teaching a different extended technique appropriate for contemporary repertoire. This piece, however, would not teach the techniques as etudes, but would be a performance-appropriate piece in four short movements, each focusing on a different gesture(s) or technique(s).

Our final draft of the work, entitled The Broca Divide, included a movement on ricochet bowing with natural harmonics, one on harmonic trills with manipulation of bow position, a piece exploring tremolo in all its speeds and directions, and a final movement on the pitch class D. The C string is tuned up to C# for this movement not only to better facilitate the unison D on the lower three strings, but also to exploit sympathetic resonance on C#. All pitches in the movement fall between C# and Eb. Elements of other movements as well as microtonality are also explored in this final movement.

In July of 2015, Michael submitted this work to the SCI National Conference, held at the University of Florida in Gainesville. Both the score and the studio recording we created were extremely well received, and the piece was accepted to be performed at the conference. This conference is in its 50th year, and it will be an honor to perform there. The first conference, jointly held by Columbia University and New York University, included such prominent featured guests as Charles Wuorinen, Milton Babbitt, and George Crumb, so to even remotely be a small part of this legacy is incredible. I will undoubtedly meet a large number of composers and performers from around the country, and it will surely be an excellent learning experience for me to perform this new solo work for a wider community.

I will write again when I am on the plane back from Gainesville! I am looking forward to sharing the experience of the performance and the conference with you.