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Darkness, Indeterminacy, Rebirth

Our guest blogger today is John N. Failey, President of the Ensemble Music Society and co-presenter of the upcoming JACK Quartet performance in the Toby.

The Ensemble Music Society did not set out to have a “theme” for the upcoming concert by JACK Quartet at the IMA, it just happened. We wanted to present the Quartet (1964) by Polish composer Witold Lutosławski because 2013 is the centennial of his birth. György Ligeti’s Quartet No. 2 and Tetras by Iannis Xenakis were both stunning sonic wonderlands of sound and textures that have become contemporary classics and have never been performed in Indianapolis. We liked selecting Xenakis too because he was once as an Associate Professor of Music at Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University from 1967 to 1972.

But a larger underlying theme emerged in the life experiences of these three composers. Darkness as they were all uprooted and tormented by the World Wars and civil upheaval that stripped them of all personal possessions, Indeterminacy as they faced an uncertain future or nearly certain death during these struggles, and later found Rebirth and new beginnings with freedom to express their musical ideas.

Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, presented last weekend in the Toby, was described in Eric Grayson’s blog post as “still a stunning and fresh experience.” Besides the cinematic elements that make this film so impressive, the use of music by classical composers heightens the experience. The two pieces most familiar to traditional music audiences in the film are Johann StraussBeautiful Blue Danube Waltz and Richard StraussAlso sprach Zarathustra. It is somewhat odd that both of these nineteenth century pieces were featured in a movie about the future, however most of the other music in 2001 was by composer György Ligeti. Definitely on the leading edge of contemporary music, Ligeti was better known in avant garde art and music circles. Three works by Ligeti were in the movie. Excerpts from “Requiem” are heard during the monolith scenes and “Lux Aeterna” is another recurring motif. Ligeti’s Atmosphères is heard in its entirety in the film. Kubrick returned to Ligeti again for piano music to the masked orgy in Eyes Wide Shut.


György Ligeti

György Ligeti

Ligeti was born to a Hungarian Jewish family in 1923. During the Austrian occupation of Hungary and the rise of the Nazi movement, Ligeti was sent to a forced labor brigade, his brother to a concentration camp and his parents to Auschwitz. His mother was a nurse and the only other member of his immediate family to survive. When Soviet troops violently suppressed the Hungarian uprising of 1956, Ligeti escaped to the West, hidden in a railway baggage car. Kubrick did not seek Ligeti’s permission to use his music for 2001 in advance. While the juxtaposition of his music with that of Richard Strauss’ did not make him happy, it did result in a top selling film and soundtrack recording.

Witold Lutosławski

Witold Lutosławski

Witold Lutosławski’s father was killed by the Bolsheviks in 1918 when he was five years old. He and his mother moved to Warsaw where, from 1939 to 1945, war was besieging the country. They narrowly escaped the retreating Nazi army that destroyed nearly 85% of Warsaw, but they lost everything. They endured a repressive Stalinist regime that tightly controlled the type of music he could write. The string quartet composed in 1964 came after an easing of government control and uses an aleatoric or random chance technique in each performers part. Each performer within certain structural boundaries has the freedom to express the music of their part as they feel best. If much of life is indeterminate, so is his music.

Iannis Xenakis

Iannis Xenakis

Iannis Xenakis was of Greek heritage and born in what was then Romania. In his student days living in Athens, he was politically active and fought against British troops and other efforts to restore the Greek monarchy during the Greek Civil War. In the midst of the fighting, Xenakis was severely injured, losing sight in one eye and having his face permanently scarred in a shell attack. He then escaped to France in 1947 after he was first sentenced to death by the right wing government of Greece. He practiced architecture in France with Corbusier as an illegal immigrant. He was also a brilliant mathematician.  He studied music composition with Olivier Messiaen. Xenakis wrote a collection of texts on applications of stochastic processes, game theory, and computer programming in music. Tetras is one of the most spectacular works in the entire string quartet repertoire. It is an athletic piece that’s powerful and dense — worlds away from the airy styles often mistakenly associated with string quartet music.

Hear these works performed by contemporary music ensemble JACK Quartet in the Toby on Thursday, February 21. Pre-concert discussion with ISO Music Director Krzysztof Urbański begins at 6:45 PM, Concert at 7:30 PM.

Filed under: Public Programs, The Toby


Music for Snapshot

Our guest blogger today is concert pianist Sylvia Maiuri.

I’ve been playing the piano at the IMA for over 30 years in several different capacities. I recently came across some old programs from several chamber music concerts in the 1980s and a solo recital I played there in 1982. Through the years, I’ve played for several openings, including an exhibition of work by Félix Vallotton (an artist currently featured in the exhibition Snapshot), and in the galleries. For 20 years I was the pianist for the Cameo Trio, which gave many concerts at the IMA and became Piano Trio in Residence there a few years before it was disbanded in 2003. In addition, I played the harpsichord for “Christmas at Lilly” for six years.

When Ellen Lee invited me to play for the exhibition Snapshot, she mentioned the name Misia Natanson. This was a great clue for me to follow when selecting music to play for this exhibition. While Misia – a pianist who hosted an artistic salon in Paris – was a muse to visual artists (she’s featured throughout the exhibition in works by Édouard Vuillard, among others), she served as inspiration for composers, as well. Misia’s piano teacher, Gabriel Fauré, introduced her to Maurice Ravel, who was a student of his at the time. Ravel later dedicated a composition, Le Cygne, to Misia and his work Sonatine is dedicated to Misia’s brother and his wife. Also present was Claude Debussy, whose works Misia loved. Ravel and Debussy were friends of Erik Satie, who later dedicated his ballet, Parade, to Misia. I selected music by these composers to play at the opening event and in the galleries, and it was a treat for me to add to the ambience of this wonderful exhibition.  If you’re interested in learning more about this fascinating woman, a good resource is the publication Misia by Arthur Gold and Robert Fizdale.

For more information on performances inspired by Snapshot, visit the IMA’s events page.

Filed under: Exhibitions, Guest Bloggers, Uncategorized


Reich’s House Style

Our guest blogger today is Timothy Monro, flutist in eighth blackbird, performing Saturday, March 26 in The Toby.

Working with living composers is, hands down, the best part of my job. Young or old, famous or totally unknown, bright-eyed or curmudgeonly, supportive or critical, it is always an eventful artistic road trip.

Composer Steve Reich was a boyhood hero of mine, so when we had the opportunity to work with him on Double Sextet, his Pulitzer Prize-winning 2008 piece that ends our concert at the IMA, I was full of nervous excitement. We’d been warned about his uncompromising vision, mostly via fifth-hand rumors that were some variation of, “He’s really demanding, and will freak out if he isn’t happy with what you’re doing.”

Reich was much more hands on than was typical for composers of his stature. Although he wasn’t ever actually in the room with us until the day of the premiere, we sent him rough recordings from our rehearsals at every step in the process of preparation, from the day of our the first Double Sextet rehearsal. He would offer us comments in detailed, illuminating emails, and we would try to respond to these concerns in further recordings.

Here’s an example, from a January 2008 email:

“Winds, strings and vibes from 409 – 432 are a bit ‘blocky.’ Try to always have the music ‘leaning forward’ vis a vis the beat and not right on top of it, hammering it. Light and always moving ahead (not rushing) wins the day.”

And another:

“When strings and winds come in at 537 its a bit too ‘espressivo’ – just a bit cooler will do it. Held notes have no crescendo – just evenly held. Think baroque.”

Both emails created heated arguments, and we went back and forth several times with Reich until he was happy.

Why does Reich get so involved in this process? Forty years ago, Reich’s house band, the Steve Reich Ensemble, was the only group performing his music. They evolved a distinctive sounding “house style” with its own unique energy. Compositions like Drumming and Music for 18 Musicians were developed without much recourse to the printed page. This intense, collaborative process led to a certain energy and style of playing that have become inseparable from the music, and Reich perhaps feels that it is his responsibility to pass this down to all ensembles that are encountering his work for the first time. This can ensure a sort of “legacy” for performances of his music during the composer’s lifetime, but what about well into the future?

And those rumors of Steve as an unreasonably hard taskmaster? Hugely exaggerated. After this exhaustive, intense process of preparation we were all a little jittery about what the composer might say when he heard us play the piece live. At the end of the Double Sextet dress rehearsal, at which the composer was present, Reich’s only reaction was, “Wow, fantastic. I really have nothing to say.”

Filed under: Public Programs


Art For Ears

Our guest blogger today is John N. Failey, President of Ensemble Music Society.

It was a Sunday afternoon in the home of a long-time IMA patron on one of winter’s bleakest, iciest days that we heard a wonderful performance of Franz Schubert’s great 1827 song cycle Die Winterreise, or A Winter Journey. The cycle comprises 24 songs about the painful feelings of a lover’s rejection, personal loss, loneliness and confronting mortality.

Now that it’s spring, we’re days away from a concert of another sort: Grammy-award winning contemporary music ensemble eighth blackbird will perform at The Toby Saturday, March 26 in a concert co-sponsored by Ensemble Music Society and the IMA. So what’s the connection besides the truism that spring always follows winter?

One striking aspect of that wintry afternoon was the spectacular contemporary art everywhere in the home.  Wherever we glanced were paintings and sculptures by well-known artists. The collection was fabulous. So the guests were listening to a great collection of early 19th century music while enjoying paintings and sculpture from 150-175 years later.

What would you think if the contrasting periods were switched?  Does the art you enjoy at the IMA or have on your walls at home match your “art for ears?”  Are you willing to go to a concert and be as surprised and challenged as you are when you enter the fourth floor galleries at the IMA?

I remember thinking once I was quite sophisticated and knowledgeable about modern music, so I expounded to a friend, “John Adams and Philip Glass—how pointlessly simpleminded.”  Then I went to a conference in LA where we heard excerpts from Adams’ then somewhat new opera Nixon in China. That evening changed my perspective on an entire group of modern composers and deepened my belief that music loses so much when it’s recorded.

When eighth blackbird first came to Indianapolis almost three years ago, I experienced a tinge of anxiety before the concert because this group included extensive percussion and used video projectors with amplification in the program, again extending my personal boundaries of “classical” music, and as well as for many in the audience.  The audience reaction by people of all ages was enthusiastic.  You have to be willing to jump in and try it out.

So look beyond the dozens of recordings of Vivaldi or Pachelbel on iTunes and come to The Toby on March 26.  Be open to change and discover exciting music by Philip Glass, Steve Reich, Missy Mazzoli and others.

Filed under: Public Programs, The Toby


Sweet Sounds from Iceland

Sometimes manna drops from the sky.  As when I get an e-mail from an agent in Chicago seeking concert venues for 23-year-old Icelandic composer Ólafur Arnalds.  This fair fellow composes delicate pieces for chamber ensembles, tinted with a hint of electronica.  I tell the agent: you had me at Iceland.

Angelic sounds from the mystical country that produced Bjork, in the month of January, in The Toby, made by a musician headed for Istanbul and London once his US tour is done?  A poetic no-brainer.  So it stands to reason: you must join us at the IMA for Ólafur Arnalds this Saturday evening.

Here’s a sample from Arnalds’ new record, …And They Have Escaped The Weight Of Darkness:

I find these sounds delicate as a paper-thin sheet of ice on a lake.  Resplendent as white fondant on a winter wedding cake.  Patterned like lace, or bird tracks in the snow.  At the concert, there will be long-haired ladies playing cellos.  And moody sweetness with the lights low.  A little peace; a fairy-tale feel.

Read what one concert-goer had to say about the show in Detroit on Wednesday night.

Oh, I’m supposed to also tell you that you can enter a sweepstakes to win a trip to Iceland, courtesy of Iceland Naturally.

So, tomorrow, our crack IMA public programs team will fire up the lights and sound in The Toby, tune up the Bösendorfer, provide plenty of smoothies and beer (as requested in the rider), tear the tickets, and then let Arnalds’ sonic sheen wash over us all.

Filed under: Public Programs


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