Beauty, California, Christian Baldini, Conductor, Experimental, Soloist, Symphony Orchestra, Viola

Wendy Richman in Conversation with Christian Baldini

On Friday, October 14, 2022, I will be conducting Harold in Italy, by Hector Berlioz at the Mondavi Center in Davis. Our distinguished soloist with the UC Davis Symphony Orchestra will be Wendy Richman, a highly acclaimed viola player who has been hailed by The New York Times and The Washington Post for her “absorbing,” “fresh and idiomatic” performances with “a brawny vitality,” I had the opportunity to ask Wendy a few questions in preparation for our performance, and below are her responses.

Christian Baldini: Wendy, welcome, I am delighted to have you with us at the Mondavi Center to perform this marvelous music with our orchestra. Tell me, what are some of the features of Harold in Italy that you’d like to share with people in the audience? How do you see Berlioz as a composer? In your view, what makes this music so very special?

Wendy Richman: Thank you so much for having me here and inviting me to share this incredible piece with the students and community! I have always loved Harold in Italy, and it’s been an absolute joy to finally learn and explore it.

In contrast to Paganini’s initial opinion, I love that Harold isn’t a “bona fide” viola concerto. The standard viola concerti are wonderful and should be heard more often, but they’re not all written with the central idea that the viola’s more mellow sound can be in the forefront. It’s not always fun as a soloist to try to project with an acoustically imperfect instrument (more on that later) over a huge orchestra, and I imagine it’s not the most fun for a conductor to constantly implore the orchestra to play pianissimo. Berlioz, though, was one of the greatest orchestrators of all time. He knew what would work best for the viola. Instead of making the violist play in the highest registers that aren’t always our best feature, Berlioz created a viola part that can sing in so many different registers, with huge orchestral tutti sections that allow the ensemble to play fully without constant shushing from the conductor. Harold features all the things I love so much about my instrument: rich, human sound; subtle shadings and major contrasts of character and color; and most of all, its ability to blend and weave into and out of textures in partnership with so many other instruments. That is what viola and violists do best: we are musical chameleons and chamber musicians by nature, so it makes sense that we’d be excited in this piece to play along with English horn, bassoon, the viola section, and even the trombones!

Of all the moments I love in the piece, my favorite movement by far is the second, the “March of the Pilgrims Singing the Evening Prayer.” The “march” aspect is as important as the “prayer”: there is a calm, stately flow to the music, a feeling of timeless inevitability carrying us to the fleeting clarity of the last chord. I imagine that we musicians are quietly sojourning through narrow cobblestone streets, hearing intermittent church bells in the distance (represented by dissonant long notes in the French horns and the harp). My favorite part of my favorite movement is a long middle section with gorgeous, clear orchestration. The woodwinds alternate with the upper strings and cellos to play a hushed chorale, the basses anchor the chorale with a pizzicato (plucked) walking line, and the solo viola outlines the many harmonic changes with arpeggiated chords. These arpeggios are played with a sound that Berlioz only uses in this single section of the entire work. I play sul ponticello, with my bow hair right up against the instrument’s bridge, producing a slightly scratchy, haunting sound with lots of high overtones. I don’t know for sure, but I want to think it’s a linguistic wink from Berlioz: maybe the pilgrims are crossing a long footbridge…since sul ponticello means “on the bridge” in Italian. 

CB: You are a distinguished new music performer, having been a member and performed with the International Contemporary Ensemble, and also the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. Can you tell us how you first became interested in new music? Why is new music important and/or relevant?

WR: When I was a freshman at Oberlin in 1998, I was asked by a friend—a senior who was really into contemporary music—to play with CME (Contemporary Music Ensemble). Unlike a lot of schools that emphasize only the most traditional playing styles and repertoire, Oberlin was and is still known for its advocacy for new music. CME was where the cool kids were, and I felt so cool.

Then I picked up my music. Insert scream emoji here. It was a set of two pieces (Funerailles I and II) by a composer named Brian Ferneyhough, who is known for a style called “New Complexity.” It looks a bit like those joke scores that were meme-ish before memes were a thing. There is a lot of scholarly discussion about the philosophy of this music, about the inherent effort in learning and playing Ferneyhough’s scores. But I didn’t know any of that at the time—I just knew it was about 100 times more difficult than any music I’d ever seen.

The concert was structured so that Funerailles I opened the program and Funerailles II closed it. All I remember is walking onstage with great trepidation, followed by playing a bunch of notes, followed by panic, followed by walking offstage and bursting into tears. Tim Weiss, the incredible CME director, looked at me with wide eyes and an incredulous smile. He gave me a hug. 

“What’s WRONG?!?!”

“I…I…I got SO LOST! I’m so sorry. I ruined it.”

Tim threw his head back and laughed, probably rolling his eyes.

“WENNNdy! NO! I mean…that’s what this music is! ……….We were ALL lost!”

I walked back onstage for the last piece and played with a focus and determination I’m not sure I’ve replicated since. I may or may not have played a lot of correct notes, but I did quickly discover that I loved playing challenging music requiring a different skill set to prepare and perform convincingly. I also loved playing with the seemingly fearless musicians on that concert, many of whom later became my fellow founding members of the International Contemporary Ensemble.

In some ways, it makes a lot of sense for a violist to be interested in playing new music: it was kind of a novelty for the viola to be featured in pieces until the mid-19th century, and it wasn’t until after WWII that composers truly figured out how to write for us. I mentioned previously that the viola is “acoustically imperfect,” which is due to the fact that we hold it like a violin. It would be too heavy and awkward to play if violas were the right size for our pitch range—half the size of a cello, as our strings are an octave higher than a cello’s. When we started holding it like a violin, luthiers “cut down” instrument like Amati and Stradivarius violas and made the necks thinner, eventually making slightly smaller violas the norm. (That’s the short explanation—that the viola should actually be almost twice as big as it is! I don’t really know WHY we hold it like a violin, but I’ll let someone else lead the resistance for that.)

So in the middle of the 20th century, more composers were compelled to write for the viola as a solo instrument, and they experimented with chamber instrumentations that didn’t force the viola to compete with its acoustically superior (read: louder) counterparts, the violin and cello. That’s not to say there isn’t a ton of incredible repertoire for us prior to that time. I love playing string quartets, which were my first musical love. I also play Baroque/historical viola and live for a Monteverdi suspension. And I’m thrilled to play Schumann’s Märchenbilder when I have the chance. We don’t have to stop playing and listening to all the older stuff! I’ll admit that I went through a long phase of that, but I’ve come around to feeling more fulfilled by programs that are simply good music, from a variety of times and places, with a satisfying connecting thread. When composers started thinking more outside the box with the viola, there was simply much more repertoire for us to choose from. 

CB: You recently released your debut solo album on New Focus Recordings, including nine works in which you play, and also sing. Can you tell us about this project? How did it all fall into place? How did you choose the composers that you would include in it?

WR: Thank you for asking about my album. It was a long, intense journey: I started working with the composers around 2010, recorded in 2016, and spent several years editing on and off (and crowdfunding!). It is a scary and vulnerable process, made more so because I was listening to myself sing. I’d had plenty of experience listening to recordings of myself playing, and I had come to terms with generally despising that activity but dealing with it. But I was unprepared for the emotional weight I’d feel with my voice being part of the picture, because it had been a long time since I had been a semi-serious singer. So it took a lot to get myself to listen to each round of edits. I think the hardest part of the whole experience was that it was released just two months before the beginning of the pandemic. It didn’t get as much attention as I had hoped, and I didn’t get to tour with it. I still could, but the world is different from March 2020, and I think in some ways I’m a different musician from March 2020, too. That’s all to say that there’s a lot I would do differently if I could do it again, but ultimately I’m proud of what I created.

I was sort of equally committed to viola and voice when I was in high school. In college, I focused on viola but was very lucky to study voice with Marlene Ralis Rosen during my time at Oberlin. When I moved to Boston to pursue my master’s degree, singing kind of fell by the wayside—I didn’t have a teacher, and I felt like I needed to solely focus on viola. From time to time, I sang something short on a recital, mostly the Brahms op. 91 songs with viola. (I wasn’t performing both parts on those, though!) I also learned a piece by Giacinto Scelsi called Manto, of which the third movement is written for “singing female violist.” The piece is difficult for performer and audience alike; it’s not conventional and is frankly very strange! But I just loved everything about it. I began performing Manto III often, and audiences’ positive responses to it taught me that any piece of music can be “accessible” if the performer believes in it. 

I missed singing, and I started to think I’d been a better violist when I was also singing regularly. The positive response to Manto III got me thinking about whether there were other pieces written for singing violist. When my now-husband and I moved to Ithaca, NY, in 2007, I started taking voice lessons with the wonderful late soprano Judith Kellock. Judy was excited by the idea of my commissioning pieces to play and sing, and the project started to take shape thanks to her encouragement.

At the time, I was very active on Twitter, and through that platform I met and/or reconnected with a lot of composers. I decided that I wanted to work with people whose music I liked, of course, but also people who I really loved personally. That aspect of the project ended up being even more important than I realized early in the process, as becoming close friends with each composer helped our communication and understanding when the album took longer than I’d originally hoped.

CB: What would you say to people who don’t like new music, or who say they don’t understand it, or that they simply prefer their usual music by Bach, or Beethoven or Brahms?

WR: Listening to certain things can be challenging, and sometimes we equate “challenging” with “work.” It’s a bit like reading something like a Haruki Murakami novel, or watching a Jim Jarmusch film, or looking at a sculpture by Louise Bourgeois. The abstract stuff is not always for everyone, and it’s not for every moment of every day. I also don’t want to feel like I’m forcing it upon people. I just ask everyone to approach it with an open mind and open ears, not trying to understand but rather simply experience. Once you get used to the language, the aesthetic, it can be enormously rewarding. Sometimes it doesn’t speak to you, and that’s totally fine! But it does feel more approachable with more time and more contact.

As those references may tell you, I also find it helpful and enriching to explore other avant-garde and experimental art forms, both historical and contemporary, as well as music from other cultures, like Indonesian gamelan ensembles or Tuvan throat singing. That music has been around much longer than some of the Western European musical tradition we think of as “classical.” If we consider the entire history and breadth of music as a spectrum—but one with multiple dimensions—it becomes easier to keep ourselves open to unfamiliar things. All music, all art, was “new” at some point, and Berlioz was certainly ahead of his 19th century contemporaries in many aspects of his composing.

CB: Lastly, what is your advice for young performers? How should one get ready for the profession? I also ask this because we have all faced challenges, failures and sometimes even (or especially) extremely gifted people end up giving up and quitting. What is a healthy mindset to fight this, and to keep going?

WR: It’s completely normal to feel discouraged sometimes, and even to go through long periods of questioning the profession. I wish it weren’t such a normal thing, but musicians and artists are a bit cursed in the overthinking department. Don’t worry if your career doesn’t look exactly like your teacher’s, or your friend’s or the way you thought it would look. No matter how many hours a day you might spend doing something different like working in an office environment or teaching fourth grade, if you’re still doing the thing, you’re still doing the thing. Allow your present self to define yourself, not other people or abstract, years-old goals.

My advice to young performers is to remain flexible. Develop and maintain “chops” for a variety of musical styles and jobs. My goal as a teenager was to play in a string quartet and perform with Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. When I began to focus on contemporary music, I still played as much “conventional” chamber music as I could, but I turned my attention pretty fully to the contemporary rep. I still took orchestra repertoire classes but never imagined I’d take orchestra auditions. I ignored my parents’ advice to take a pedagogy class because I thought I hated teaching.

But along the way, I’ve done every single one of those things. I’ve taken orchestra auditions and won jobs, allowing me to have a steady source of income and travel to New York to play with International Contemporary Ensemble, as well as giving me enough credibility as an orchestra player to sub with some of the country’s best orchestras. When I finished my master’s degree and was faced with the reality of trying to make ends meet, I discovered that I love teaching. Again, this provided a steady source of income, and the love of teaching led me to return to school for my doctorate. The full-circle moment came when I moved to New York in 2017 and started subbing with Orpheus—still a dream come true. And when I moved to Los Angeles in 2020, my varied experiences and skill sets allowed me to reach out to people who might be interested in hiring me. It’s hard work and takes some mental juggling to piece together a career that way, but I love the variety and challenges. Be open to serendipity, and don’t knock something until you’ve tried it again ten years later.

Wendy Richman (courtesy photo)

Wendy Richman has been celebrated internationally for her compelling sound and imaginative interpretations. As a soloist and chamber musician, she has performed at Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center Festival, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Miller Theater, Mostly Mozart Festival, Park Avenue Armory, Phillips Collection, and international festivals in Berlin, Darmstadt, Helsinki, Hong Kong, Karlsruhe, Morelia, and Vienna. Former violist of The Rhythm Method string quartet, Wendy is a founding member of the New York-based International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE).

Hailed by The New York Times and The Washington Post for her “absorbing,” “fresh and idiomatic” performances with “a brawny vitality,” Wendy collaborates closely with a wide range of composers. She presented the U.S. premieres of Kaija Saariaho’s Vent nocturne, Roberto Sierra’s Viola Concerto, and a fully- staged version of Luciano Berio’s Naturale. Upon hearing her interpretation of Berio’s Sequenza VI, The Baltimore Sun commented that she made “something at once dramatic and poetic out of the aggressive tremolo-like motif of the piece.”

Though best known for her interpretations of contemporary music, Wendy enjoys performing a diverse range of repertoire. She regularly performs with NYC’s Orpheus Chamber Orchestra and has collaborated with fortepianist Malcolm Bilson, the Claremont and Prometheus Trios, and members of the Cleveland, Juilliard, and Takács Quartets. She has also been a frequent guest with the viola sections of the Atlanta Symphony, Minnesota Orchestra, and St. Louis Symphony.

From 2017 to 2021, Wendy served on the string faculty of New York University (NYU Steinhardt), where she taught viola, chamber music, and a class on extended string techniques. She has also held teaching positions at the University of Tennessee, University of Alabama, and Cornell University, as well as NYU Summer Strings, Walden School Summer Young Musicians Program, Sewanee Summer Music Festival, and Music in the Mountains Conservatory.

Wendy earned degrees from Oberlin Conservatory (BM), New England Conservatory (MM), and Eastman School of Music (DMA). She studied viola with Carol Rodland, Kim Kashkashian, Peter Slowik, Jeffrey Irvine, and Sara Harmelink, and voice with Marlene Ralis Rosen, Judith Kellock, and Mary Galbraith.

Her debut solo album, vox/viola, was released in 2019 on New Focus Recording’s TUNDRA imprint.

Anibal Troilo, Buenos Aires, Christian Baldini, Tanto

Victor Lavallén en diálogo con Christian Baldini

El próximo 5 de Agosto (de 2022) tendré el placer de dirigir la Orquesta Nacional de Música Argentina “Juan de Dios Filiberto”, en un programa que presenta obras de Victor Lavallén y de María Laura Antonelli. “Lavallén Sinfónico” es una Suite sinfónica con 11 tangos de este gran compositor y bandoneonista que ha tocado con todos los grandes, incluyendo sus 10 años como arreglador y bandoneonista de Osvaldo Pugliese. Diego Schissi ha realizado estos arreglos sinfónicos, y tendremos al Quinteto Lavallén como solistas al frente de la orquesta (Victor Lavallén, Diego Schissi, Juan Pablo Navarro, Guillermo Rubino y Alejandro Bruschini). Nos hemos sentado a conversar con el Maestro Victor Lavallén (quien a sus 86 años muy humildemente me insiste que por favor lo trate de “vos”) para charlar sobre este interesantísimo proyecto y música en general. Debajo están las respuestas.

Comienzo esta entrevista comentándole al Maestro Lavallén que hace pocos días, almorzando con mi amigo Juan Pablo Jofré (luego de habernos presentado juntos con la Orquesta Sinfónica Nacional en Buenos Aires), le comenté del proyecto que haríamos con Victor. Juan Pablo es un gran bandoneonista y compositor argentino que vive en los Estados Unidos hace unos 15 años, y que trabaja por todo el mundo. Cuando le conté del concierto con Victor Lavallén, Juan Pablo me dijo “No te puedo creer! Victor es el más grande. El mejor de todos. Nos pasa el trapo a todos.” Esa humildad de Juan Pablo está totalmente en coincidencia con la gran humildad que tiene el Maestro Lavallén, quien es realmente una parte viviente de nuestra cultura musical como argentinos, y como amantes del tango.

Christian Baldini: Querido Victor, contame por favor acerca de tu experiencia no solamente como uno de los más grandes virtuosos del bandoneón, sino también como arreglador de varias de las grandes orquestas de tango, incluída la de Pugliese!

Victor Lavallén: Si bueno, yo te digo, yo comencé a los 14 años a trabajar profesionalmente. En la década del ’50 había muy pocos músicos. Yo había estudiado en Rosario primero con mi tío, y después en Buenos Aires con Eladio Blanco, que tocaba con D’Arienzo. Al año o algo así me puso en una orquesta. Cuando me pusieron la música delante, yo empecé a llenar todos los silencios. “Pibe venga”, me dijeron. No se tuteaba antes. Yo tenía 14 años pero parecía que tenía 18. Me dicen “Usted se dió cuenta que no dió una, no?”  Y ahí me echaron. Pero una semana después me llamó mi maestro y me dijo que en la orquesta no conseguían a nadie entonces me llamaron a mí. Entré y me quedé dos años. Era muy difícil ehh… Había cosas como con siete bemoles para solo de bandoneón… 

Después de ahí empecé con Miguel Caló. Ahí estaba Julián Plaza, estaba Bajour. Después con Atilio Stampone. Y con Franchini. Todo lo que está grabado lo grabé yo. Y con el flaco Paz. 

Christian Baldini: Cuando yo le cuente a mi viejo todo esto no lo va a poder creer. A mi viejo le gusta muchísimo el tango y conoce mucho de su historia.

Victor Lavallén: Y si… te digo, yo estaba en un momento en cinco orquestas. Me levantaba a las 10am y volvía a las 5am. Estuve con un montón, hasta que después… un día me fui a Radio El Mundo. Y me encontré con Romero, el pianista de Pugliese. Me pidió que pusiera mi nombre. Había tipos muy conocidos, que eran carteles. A la semana me llamaron a mí. Me citan en la radio, Radio Splendid. Me preguntaron: “usted escribe”, y yo dije que sí, aunque en realidad no había hecho casi nada. Y me pidieron que hiciera un arreglo de “Gallo ciego”. Y bueno, dije. Pero yo no estaba en la onda todavía. Y le digo, che, como hago acá? Y le preguntaba a Ruggiero y a Pitani, y a todos les pedía ayuda para hacer el arreglo. Y salió. Zafó. Después me dice Sergio Maciel, por ahí vamos a Rusia, y necesito que me hagas un arreglo del tango “El pañuelito”. Y con ese ya me mandé solo. Y cuando volvimos de Rusia, el éxito era “El pañuelito”.

Y en ese interín, se va De Marco. Y me preguntan a mí, y lo recomendé a Julián Plaza. Ellos no querían carteles. Por eso me habían contratado a mí que no me conocía nadie! Y después empecé a estudiar. Estudié con Rovira, estudié con el Maestro Nistal, ahí por Congreso. Después con Juan Carlos Cirigliano. Pero yo ya sabía para ese entonces. Yo con Pugliese probaba todo. Y a veces me decía “pero pibe, no se piante”, porque yo me rajaba. Estuve 10 años con Pugliese.

Después en el sexteto, con Osvaldo Ruggiero. Estuve con un montón de orquestas.

Después apareció Forever Tango. Juntos con Marconi, estabamos en la televisión y nos fuimos tres veces a Londres. Con Walter Ríos. Había dos orquestas, en Londres y en San Francisco. Y Ríos se fue y me puse a dirigir esa orquesta 18 años. Y después estuve a cargo de la orquesta escuela. (la Emilio Balcarce)

Después grabé lo mío, con Luis Bravo.

CB: Y con la orquesta escuela cuántos años ha estado?

VL: Desde el 2011. Primero estaba Emilio Balcarce. Después vino Marconi. Y después de Marconi me llamaron a mí, y estoy desde el 2011.

CB: Y aparte es una orquesta impresionante a la cual viene gente a formarse en la tradición tanguera de todo el mundo, verdad? Yo conozco a una pianista Coreana (Sumi Lee) que vive en San Francisco y que vino a hacer la orquesta escuela. Ahora conozco a un Puertorriqueño (Ishtar Hernandez) que también está haciendo el programa. Cómo sucede esto?

VL: Suena una barbaridad, son todos buenos músicos, y aparte son todos pibes jóvenes, que vienen de todos lados! Venite a un ensayo! 

CB: Me encantaría, cuando?

VL: Venite el miércoles 3.

CB: Perfecto, muchas gracias! 

VL: Hoy me tuve que levantar a las siete y no dormí nada (para llegar a tiempo al ensayo con la Orquesta Nacional de Música Argentina)

CB: Una pregunta importante: el tango, que significa para vos?

VL: El tango es todo para mí! Yo nací en una familia de tango, en Rosario y mi papá tenía una orquesta de tango. Mis tíos eran todos músicos. El tango para mí es lo máximo.

Pero yo al principio, vivía en Gorriti y Bustamente. Y a una cuadra vivía el gordo Pichuco. Y yo tocaba la trompeta, me gustaba mucho el jazz. Pero a mi mamá le llenaron la cabeza que era peligroso, y no era bueno para los pulmones. Con lo del bandoneón también trataron de convencerla que era malo. Pero después me fuí a Rosario a estudiar con mi tío, y cuando volví, arranqué con Eladio Blanco. Yo tengo 86!

CB: Qué consejos le darías a la gente joven que está arrancando y tratando de iniciarse en una carrera en el tango?

VL: Yo pienso que está bien, que tienen que estudiar como hacen ahora, que antes no se estudiaba tanto. Pero tienen que fijarse en no desvirtuar el género. Entonces hacen todos Piazzolla o más que Piazzolla. Y Piazzolla es melódico aparte. Los que son muy contemporáneos no se entiende nada. Hay que investigar y escuchar mucho. A las orquestas. Las orquestas de antes eran muy modernas. Parece que son las de ahora. Hay que escuchar a Miguel Caló, Franchini, Osvaldo Pugliese. Era muy avanzado. 

CB: Cómo lo describiría a Pugliese?

VL: La idea de Pugliese era muy avanzada. Esa yo también la hubiera querido hacer. Tener una orquesta pero que escribieran todos. Encontrarle una forma. Lo que hizo Pugliese. Por la forma de él, todos fueron a parar ahí. Después había muchos que ponían lo propio. Julián Plaza, Ruggiero, yo, Balcarce, y también Julio Carrasco que era un violinista que no era muy conocido. Pero el tipo sabía un montón. Yo le preguntaba todo a él al principio.Los pibes de ahora me gustan mucho. Les interesa el género. No lo toman como una cosa así nomás. Vas a ver como te va a gustar el ensayo. Me gustaría que vinieras.


CB: Y por supuesto que voy a ir, ahí nos vemos! Maestro, ha sido un placer impresionante. Me siento muy privilegiado de estar colaborando juntos en este hermoso programa que presenta tus tangos con vos mismo como solista.

VL: Que gusto che, encantado, y va a salir muy bien esto!

Victor Lavallén

Victor Lavallén

Nació en Rosario, provincia de Santa Fe. Debieron pasar algo más de cincuenta años para que decidiera dejar de ser «un muchacho de la orquesta», ocupando un lugar en la línea de bandoneones. En varias oportunidades declaró ser persona de bajo perfil, quizás el ideal para ser invitado por algunos directores como refuerzo para las grabaciones o, como ocurre en la actualidad, ser el director de la Orquesta Escuela Emilio Balcarce, o bien director de la Orquesta de la Municipalidad de Lomas de Zamora (ciudad colindante a la ciudad de Buenos Aires).

Qué mejor para los muchachos que tenerlo a él como maestro. Pero este tanguero no comenzó con la mirada puesta en el fueye sino en la trompeta y, sus oídos, en el jazz. Por suerte cerca suyo, rondaba un tío bandoneonista que trabajaba en orquestas rosarinas, Héctor Chera, hermano de su padre Luis (director de orquesta), quien no sólo lo entusiasmó con el instrumento sino que le enseñó y lo fue formando.

Con muy poca experiencia se largó a Buenos Aires con no más de catorce años y, en el Picadilly, aquel local que estaba en el subsuelo de la calle Corrientes casi Paraná, consigue ingresar en una agrupación pequeña llamada Los Serrano, a cargo de un señor Eduardo Serrano que lo despidió al poco tiempo.

Más adelante fue a estudiar, durante largos meses, con Eladio Blanco, músico de Juan D’Arienzo. Ya con mejor respuesta, volvió a la orquesta de Serrano y permaneció a su lado un par de años. Durante aquel tiempo de estudio alternó en la agrupación de Antonio Arcieri —violinista decareano que falleció poco después, el 5 de mayo de 1952—, y en la de Lorenzo Barbero.

Desde 1951 hasta 1954, estuvo con Miguel Caló, que incluyó una recordada gira por tierra brasileña y también grabaciones. Es digna de elogio su participación en varios discos, entre los que podemos citar a “En fa menor” (de Roberto Caló) y “El chamuyo” (de Francisco Canaro).

Sin obedecer un orden cronológico, es importante citar su tránsito por las orquestas de Ángel DomínguezMiguel NijensohnEnrique Francini y Joaquín Do Reyes. Fue primer bandoneón del pianista Juan José Paz cuando acompañó a Elsa Rivas, en su plenitud como cancionista; también ocupó ese lugar con Atilio Stampone e integró la formación que acompañaba a Armando Laborde y Alberto Echagüe, en el breve lapso que estuvieron fuera de la orquesta de D’Arienzo.

Hubo otros trabajos hasta que llegó el momento de su consagración definitiva cuando, en 1958, ingresó a las filas de Osvaldo Pugliese, para integrar la inolvidable línea de bandoneones junto a Osvaldo RuggieroJulián PlazaIsmael Spitalnik y Arturo Penón.

Fueron diez años de músico y arreglador, inmerso totalmente en el estilo y el espíritu del maestro. Alguna vez me comentó que Pugliese insistía a sus músicos que intentaran componer y hacer sus arreglos, a fin que la orquesta no resultara monótona. Era una forma de que, sin perder su particular secuencia rítmica, pudiera escucharse algo nuevo. Y así fue. Cada uno aportó lo suyo, y es posible que esa haya sido la causa por la que don Osvaldo siguiera tan vigente hasta su fallecimiento.

En cuanto a esta modalidad impuesta por Pugliese a sus muchachos respecto a los arreglos, Víctor me contó que generó algunos pequeños disturbios: «Como todos opinaban, ocurrían discusiones fuertes, varios tenían su trabajo hecho y no lo podíamos escuchar porque dos o tres decían que el que corría era el de Emilio Balcarce o el de Penón, por ejemplo, y uno que había hecho el suyo se quedaba con bronca. Ahora si yo con mi orquesta tuviera mucho trabajo me gustaría que los músicos compusieran y arreglaran porque así se irían formando». Y más adelante agregó: «hoy las orquestas se acabaron, de las que llevan años en la lucha están la de Leopoldo Federico y Rodolfo Mederos y alguna otra reciente, pero se trabaja poco, o son contratados para eventos especiales o para el turismo, no hay campo de acción y el baile, que sí funciona, se arregla con discos».

Volviendo al repaso de su trayectoria, llegamos al año 1968. Pugliese estaba enfermo y había otras cuestiones. Alguno de sus muchachos comenzaron a reunirse para tocar como sexteto y, en poco tiempo, sobrevino la retirada definitiva. Así nació el Sexteto Tango.

Ruggiero y Lavallén (bandoneones), Emilio Balcarce y Oscar Herrero (violines), Alcides Rossi (contrabajo), Julián Plaza (piano) —al que llegó después de tantos años portando el bandoneón— y el cantor Jorge Maciel.

Estuvo 19 años consecutivos con el sexteto, hasta que decidió retirarse. A partir de ese momento, participó en dos formaciones: la Orquesta Municipal del Tango entonces dirigida por Carlos García y Raúl Garello y la Orquesta Color Tango junto a Roberto Álvarez (bandoneón), Carlos Piccione y Fernando Rodríguez (violines), Amílcar Tolosa (contrabajo), Roberto Cicaré (piano) y Juan Carlos Zunini (tecladista).

Luego participó en el espectáculo Forever tango, con un grupo de músicos, cantores y bailarines, que recorrió Estados Unidos y Canadá. El director orquestal era Lisandro Adrover, y el cantor, nuestro amigo Alfredo Sáez.

En 2007, y dirigiendo su propia orquesta, graba un disco con el título, Amanecer ciudadano, editado por el sello EPSA que contiene diez temas, combinando tangos clásicos y páginas propias como: “Amanecer ciudadano”, “Meridional”, “A la sombra del fueye”, “Mistongueando” y “De norte a sur”.

En el 2010, hizo su segunda producción discográfica con el titulo Buenosaireando, junto a Alejandro Bruschini (bandoneón), Pablo Estigarribia (piano), Silvio Acosta (contrabajo) y Washington Williman (violín). El compacto tiene 12 temas, en los que se destacan dos composiciones suyas: “Buenosaireando” y “Romance de primavera”.

Beauty, California, Christian Baldini, New York

David Felder in Conversation with Christian Baldini

David Felder is an exceptional and unusual composer in many ways. While most composers treasure traveling around the world collaborating with various groups and orchestras, David Felder avoids traveling at all costs. He will not travel. Despite this he has built very strong ties to and valuable collaborations with some of the most important new music performers in the world over the course of several decades. These include Irvine Arditti, and his Arditti String Quartet, as well as the Buffalo Philharmonic (where Mr. Felder teaches), Nicholas Isherwood, Brad Lubman and his Ensemble Signal, and many more. On May 21, 2022, it will be my honor to conduct the West Coast première of Felder’s work Die Dämmerungen with the UC Davis Symphony Orchestra at the Mondavi Center. I had the chance of asking David some questions, which he responded to via voice memos, and below is the transcription of these informal but extremely illuminating exchanges.

Christian Baldini: Your music is often inspired by external sources, such as literature, painting, or even a tarot deck of cards. For this piece you utilized poetry by William Carlos Williams, Dana Gioia, and also a quote from Psalm 130, and a direct reference to Nietzsche’s Twilight of the Idols. Can you tell us how this fits into your creative process? Are there any particular ideas that come to mind first, and that inspire you to make references to these works through your music?

David Felder: Each one of the texts is set to instill an atmosphere for each one of the movements. In fact the texts were not picked first, but the music was conceived first. As I began working on the music I started searching for texts that would in some way tie the movements together but also create an atmosphere across the music.

I have a personal relationship with one of the poets. That is Dana Gioia. I have worked with his poetry before. We’ve been associated together and I very much enjoy his poetry. In this poem, he refers to Jacob and the Old testament story. Jacob’s ladder. The ladder which angels used to ascend and descend to/from heaven.

There is a sadness and lack of awareness in terms of the opportunity. The heavenly and the mundane. Jacob slept on a stone pillow through the potential experience. It’s spoken about as “Impossible distances”

1st poem / 1st movement: William Carlos Williams

“sparkles from the wheel” / the wheel can be thought of in many ways: a wheel of time

Ophanim: certain angels that surrounded the throne of Yahweh in certain Cabalistic formations

First two movements: Ascent and Descent

2nd movement: a particular location – reflective of the small town (East Aurora) where I personally reside – humanity attempting to bridge the gap between the mundane and the divine: a concern for me in this work

3rd movement: Psalm 130: ominous Old Testament text

Connecting to Jacob and his ladder

looking at a calling out from the abyss, from a very dark place

In 2017: the world began to feel very dark – I attempted to capture the ominous feeling of the world around me – it is a real calling out, a point of imitation / canonic treatment of a melodic line which is rising out from the depths and finds its expression at the very end of the movement

4th movement: a kind of scherzo

I abridge a Nietzsche’s text – “twilight of the fools”

we are living in a world which is governed by fools in every way – this is being proven more every moment that ensues

this piece has a tremendous sardonic edge to it – tremendous energy – feels like a kind of Helter Skelter and rootless energy

we are being shouted at from every particular angle 24/7 if our ears and eyes are open to it – “I shut my eyes and ears as much as possible now”

binary form: second form is highly repetitive, with a pounding energy

a couple of transcriptions of politicians ‘sloganeering’ – it has become endless today – we are inundated with inanity

as a young man I was fascinated and infatuated by the works of Shostakovich – “there is a Shostakovichian energy in this movement”

CB: To me this piece seems very spiritual. Not only do you have these trajectories of descending and going into the depths of the human soul, but you also have these “impossible distances”, as referenced in the beautiful poem by Dana Gioia. You make a reference to “the Goddess of Dawn and a sense of personal rather than collective place in the second piece. Over the course of the first three of the four pieces the music is quite dark, intense, slow evolving, extremely beautiful and expressive. And in your final movement somehow it all seems to click into place, with bursts of energy that most composers could only dream of. You also make references to the “age of shrill” and the “incessantly repetitive propaganda.” How do all these musical materials come into place for you? How do you balance out purely musical material from all these external elements that are clearly influencing you and inspiring you?

DF: This balance of programmatic and musical elements is always a challenge for any composer. Programmatic ideas come in a pre-compositional way – I know what I want to say and I find the technical means to say that.

Simple binary forms make it much easier for the listener to understand the material presented in the piece – These forms rhyme much like the poets have a relationship in this piece – from a technical point of view, music is meant to complement and reinforce itself through self-similarity

each movement begins in a similar way except for the fourth – the other three are more related to one another

rhyme: there is ascent followed by descent – sometimes the registers of the piece simply flip

We exist as members of a society and a culture, and we also exist as individuals – the piece attempts to try to address some of those various relationships

more personal: the town where I live (East Aurora) – a strong sense of place

3rd mov :a look at universal energy of despair

1st mov: universal phenomenon of sunlight and sunset and sunrise

last movement: a very specific cultural phenomenon: when societies are in intense decay, propagandas are at its highest

pulling all of this together is what one’s training as a composer allows one to attempt to do – I try to hold these divergent images together through my experience as a musician and as a composer for over 50 years

CB: Besides your extremely successful and busy career as a composer you have been a remarkable teacher to so many great composers. Your influence and your legacy mentoring and reaching out to the future generations is invaluable. How have you balanced your life as a Distinguished Professor and Birge-Cary Chair in Composition at SUNY Buffalo, and as the Artistic Director of the “June in Buffalo” Festival since 1985, with your life as a composer?

DF: For almost 50 years I’ve been producing concerts. I felt very strongly that it’s very important for young composers to have their music produced at a very high level.

balance: I’ve never only wanted to do just one thing – It became very interesting and important for me to create musical opportunities for audiences, composers

Now, reverse engineering. There’s been a cost. It’s taken enormous energy to put this into place and maintain it. It comes at some expense to the creative work that you do.

I’m coming now to what I consider to be the end of my creative moment. I recently finished a second cycle of Jeu de Tarot. 14 movements.

After that I’m going to take a hiatus. That hiatus will continue until I have a good idea.

David Felder (courtesy photo)

David Felder has long been recognized as a leader in his generation of American composers. His works have been featured at many of the leading international festivals for contemporary music, and earn continuing recognition through performance and commissioning programs. Felder’s work has been broadly characterized by its highly energetic profile, through its frequent employment of technological extension and elaboration of musical materials (including his Crossfire video series, and the video/music collaboration Shamayim), and its lyrical qualities.

Felder has received numerous grants and commissions including many composer’s awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, two New York State Council commissions, a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship, Guggenheim, two Koussevitzky commissions, two Fromm Foundation Fellowships, two awards from the Rockefeller Foundation, Meet the Composer “New Residencies” (1993-1996), composer residency with the Buffalo Philharmonic, two commissions from the Mary Flagler Cary Trust, and many more.

In May 2010, he received the Music Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a career recognition award. Shamayim was awarded a Silver Medal in Music from the Park City Film Festival in Spring, 2011.

Felder serves as Birge-Cary Chair in Composition at SUNY Buffalo, and has been Artistic Director of the “June in Buffalo” Festival since 1985, when he revived it upon his arrival in Buffalo. Since 2006, he has been Director of the Robert and Carol Morris Center for 21st Century Music at the University. From 1992 to 1996 he was Meet the Composer “New Residencies,” Composer-in-Residence to the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra and WBFO-FM. In 1996, he formed the professional chamber orchestra, the Slee Sinfonietta, and has been Artistic Director since that time. In 2008, he was named SUNY Distinguished Professor, the highest rank in the entirety of the SUNY system. In 2015 he was named Co-Director of the University at Buffalo’s Creative Arts Initiative, a plan to bring major international creative artists to the region as guest artists.

Felder recently released a CD on Coviello Contemporary featuring Jeu de Tarot (2016-2017), a chamber concerto recorded by Irvine Arditti and Ensemble Signal, and conducted by Brad Lubman. The disc also features his string quartet Netivot (2016), recorded by the Arditti Quartet, and Another Face (1987), recorded by Irvine Arditti. His recent orchestra piece, Die Dämmerungen, commissioned by the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, will receive its complete world premiere at Kleinhans Music Hall on October 5th and 6th, 2019, under the baton of JoAnn Falletta.

A dedicated teacher and mentor, he has served as Ph.D. dissertation advisor and major professor for over eighty composers at Buffalo, many of whom are actively teaching, composing and performing internationally at leading institutions. Nearly 900 ’emerging’ composers have participated in June in Buffalo, the festival Felder pioneered and dedicated to younger composers upon his arrival in Buffalo in 1985. Felder served as Master Artist in Residence at the Atlantic Center for the Arts in February-March, 2010. His works are published by Theodore Presser, and Project Schott New York, and portrait recordings are available on Albany, Bridge, Coviello, BMOP/sound, Mode, and EMF. Two recording projects were recently completed, both of Les Quatres Temps Cardinaux in surround sound, with one being released on BMOP/sound, and the other on Coviello Contemporary.

Beauty, California, Christian Baldini, composer, Concerto, Conductor, Experimental, Music

UC Davis Sinfonietta Debut: Ligeti, Wald, Catalan, Shirazi.

On Friday, May 13, 2022 I will finally have the pleasure of conducting the first public performance of the UC Davis Sinfonietta, a wonderful large ensemble comprised of some of the most advanced musicians at UC Davis. We will be performing an iconic work of the “large ensemble” repertoire: Ligeti’s Chamber Concerto. We will pair the Ligeti with three short works that were written for the exact same instrumentation by Aida Shirazi, Josiah Catalan and Sarah Wald. I asked these three excellent young composers if they’d like to write a companion piece for the Ligeti, and each of them came up with their own beautifulproposal and very distinctive style, which I find fascinating.

PROGRAM

Sarah Wald, Lavava y Suspirava: Fantasy on a Sephardic Romance (world première)

Aida Shirazi, Lament (world premiére)

Josiah Catalan, Cloudburst (world première)

György Ligeti, Chamber Concerto

UC Davis Sinfonietta

Christian Baldini, music director & conductor

Ann E. Pitzer Center, UC Davis

May 13, 2022, 7pm

UC Davis Sinfonietta rehearsing at the Pitzer Center

This performance was actually meant to take place in 2020, but of course we all know that the world was shut down, and this public debut the Sinfonietta was then canceled and it had to be postponed. The existence of this Sinfonietta is very important to me. I am a firm believer in the power of performing chamber music with friends and colleagues. The members of this Sinfonietta are almost exclusively leaders of the UC Davis Symphony Orchestra, which is in itself a powerhouse among University orchestras in the world. Offering our members a deeper dive into this repertoire is a very symbiotic experience, which promotes artistic growth of its individual members, and also of the whole orchestra. Promoting fluid communication, better understanding and even a closer familiarity among our members is very positive in every way. Seeing their commitment, their joy and their excitement in bringing these four works to life has been a real delight, and I look forward to sharing these premieres with our audience.

György Ligeti’s music always feels to me like visiting a dear old friend. I have been very fortunate to conduct several works by him such as Lontano, Atmosphéres, Mysteries of the Macabre, selections from his Requiem, his Violin Concerto (with the wonderful Miranda Cuckson, which was released on Centaur Records), and also chamber works of his. He was probably the most original musician of his generation (and this is not a minor accomplishment having been a contemporary of Luciano Berio). He was not only a perfectionist and a tremendous innovator, but he was very independent, never quite associated with any “schools” of composition per se. He clearly did not need to associate himself with any of them aesthetically in order to succeed: “I hate all these pseudo-philosophical over-simplifications. I hate all ideologies,” Ligeti said in a 1986 interview. “I have certain musical imaginations and ideas. I don’t write music naively. But I imagine music as it sounds, very concretely. I listen to it in my inner ear. Then I look for a certain system, for a certain construction. It’s important for me, the construction. But I always know it’s a second thing, it’s not a primary factor. And I never think in philosophical terms, or never in extra-musical terms.”

Composed between 1969 and 1970, the Chamber Concerto work utilizes Ligeti’s fascination with micropolyphony, creating textures that arise from many lines of gradually denser canons that move at different speeds or rhythms, and which result in complex sonorities, as described by Ligeti himself: “One clearly discernible interval combination is gradually blurred, and from this cloudiness it is possible to discern a new interval combination taking shape.” “This four-movement piece is a concerto inasmuch as all 13 players are virtuoso soloists and are all treated as equals,” Ligeti says. “In other words, we are not dealing with the usual type of concerto in which soli and tutti alternate, but with a piece for 13 concertante soloists. The voices always develop simultaneously, but in varying rhythmic configurations and generally at differing speeds.”

Here is also some very helpful information from Sarah Wald, Josiah Catalan and Aida Shirazi about their own works:

Notes by Sarah Wald:

I composed “Lavava y Suspirava”: Fantasy on a Sephardic Romance as part of my dissertation, which was a collection of seven pieces, for a variety of different ensembles, based on Sephardic folk songs. I was very excited to write this piece because the combination of instruments is really wonderful, and it was a lot of fun to write a companion piece to Ligeti’s Chamber Concerto. This piece was also an important precursor to my current, post-PhD work with Sephardic folk songs. It is one of only two in my dissertation collection that is based on a romance specifically. Romances—also known as narrative ballads—are a really special genre within the Sephardic folk repertoire. As my program notes mention, traditionally, they were very much a women’s genre: Sephardic women would sing romances to instill and reinforce important Jewish values. In my current work, I’ve pivoted towards focusing on the romances almost exclusively.

I’m very much looking forward to the premiere. I had originally planned and timed everything to have all of my dissertation pieces performed and recorded before receiving my PhD, but COVID threw a wrench into the works. While I was lucky to have some of my dissertation pieces recorded prior to graduation, it was a little disappointing to have a few performances/recordings still outstanding. So this upcoming premiere is highly anticipated and even cathartic, in a way.

My piece is based on the Sephardic romance “Lavava y Suspirava” (“Washing and Sighing”). Romances in Sephardic culture were traditionally associated with women and the domestic sphere: For example, mothers would often sing them to their children as lullabies. This romance is based on the tale of Don Bueso. At the beginning of the song, a captive woman washing clothes in a river spots a knight returning from war. The knight invites the woman to leave her washing behind and come with him. As the song progresses, the two recognize each other as long-lost brother and sister and are subsequently reunited with their parents.

In my piece, melodic fragments from the original song are altered and recombined constantly throughout the ensemble. I preserve the overall structure of the original song, including the surprising modal shift toward the end. The convergence on one note (Ab) during the last third of the piece serves to emphasize that modal shift and to represent a sense of suspended time, as the long-lost siblings’ realization sinks in that their family will be made whole again.

Sarah Wald holds degrees from Columbia University (BA in music), the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (MM in composition), and the University of California, Davis (PhD in composition and theory). Sarah’s music has been featured at festivals in the US and Europe and on WFMT’s Relevant Tones. Over the last several years, her pieces were selected from calls for scores for New Music on the Bayou (2016), women’s choir Vox Musica (2017), chamber group North/South Consonance (2018), and the Sewanee Summer Music Festival (2020). Sarah has also received a number of grants and commissions from organizations such as the Illinois Arts Council Agency, Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, the Saint Xavier University Flute Choir, the University of Tennessee Martin’s Contemporary Music Group, Keyed Kontraptions, and Access Contemporary Music.

Sarah Wald (courtesy photo)

Lament Program Notes (by Aida Shirazi)

Lament is based on the aria, Dido’s Lament from Henry Purcell’s opera, Dido and Aeneas. It revolves around the concepts of longing, death, and sorrow. I have tried to reimagine these concepts according to my personal experience of loss and the burden and darkness caused by it.

The core idea of my piece is a descending chromatic bass line which represents the traditional lament bass line and borrowed from the aria. The chord progression built on this bass line moves slowly and the bass line is mostly embedded in the overall texture of the piece. In time, the harmonic rhythm becomes faster and the bass line more recognizable. Towards the end of the piece, I have incorporated a melodic fragment of the aria, which is an homage to this heart-wrenching opera and Purcell.

I am thrilled about the premiere of Lament by the UC Davis Sinfonietta under the direction of Maestro Baldini. While working on the piece, I anticipated to be present at the rehearsals and premiere, like all other performances of my works at UC Davis since 2016. The idea of working with Maestro Baldini on yet another occasion and sharing the program with my dear friends, Sarah Wald and Josiah Catalan, for the inaugural concert of our Sinfonietta would give me enormous joy. However, the pandemic changed the course of everyone’s lives and sent all of us into a limbo. Thanks to science and, of course, the perseverance of our artists, we are finally able to get back to the halls and savor the beauty of live music-making. It is a pity that I cannot be present for this concert. I wish I could be there to celebrate the gift of my fellow composers and performers, but I thank all of them from the bottom of my heart and cheer them with a standing ovation all the way from Paris. Writing Lament was a rich and, at times, intense emotional journey for me. I hope I have succeeded in creating a similar experience for the audience

Born and raised in Tehran, Iran, Aida Shirazi (1987) is a composer of acoustic and electroacoustic music. Shirazi’s music is described as ”unfolding with deliberation” by The New York Times, “well-made” and “affecting” by The New Yorker, and “unusually creative” by San Francisco Classical Voice.

In her works for solo instruments, voice, ensemble, orchestra, and electronics, she mainly focuses on timbre for organizing structures inspired by Persian or English languages and literature.

Shirazi’s music has been featured at festivals and concert series including Manifeste, Mostly Mozart, OutHear New Music Week, MATA, New Music Gathering, Direct Current, Taproot, and Tehran Contemporary Music Festival in venues such as Maison de la Radio France, Lincoln Center, and Kennedy Center. Her works are performed by Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, Miranda Cuckson, International Contemporary Ensemble, Oerknal, Quince Ensemble, Ensemble Dal Niente, Left Coast Chamber Ensemble, Empyrean Ensemble, and Bilkent Symphony Orchestra among others.

Shirazi has earned her Ph.D. in composition and music theory from the University of California, Davis. She has studied with Mika Pelo, Pablo Ortiz, Kurt Rohde, Yiğit Aydın, Tolga Yayalar, Onur Türkmen, and Hooshyar Khayam as well as participating in workshops and masterclasses by Mark Andre, Claus-Steffen Mahnkopf, Riccardo Piacentini, and Füsun Köksal, among others. Shirazi holds her B.A. in classical piano from Tehran University of Art (Iran), and her B.M. in music composition and theory from Bilkent University (Ankara, Turkey). She has studied santoor (traditional Iranian hammered dulcimer) with Parissa Khosravi Samani. Shirazi is a class 2021-22 participant in IRCAM’s “Cursus Program in Composition and Computer Music.”

Aida Shirazi (courtesy photo)

Catalan: Cloudburst

For flute, oboe, clarinet in B♭, bass clarinet, horn in F, trombone, piano, celesta, and strings
Composed 2022

Duration about 6 minutes

Cloudburst explores a couple simple ideas throughout this piece: the accumulation and release of movement and energy. Over time, the keyboard instruments with ostinato lines become slowly distorted through countering waves of sound that cause subtle to intense degrees of rhythmic and harmonic dissonance. Eventually, this progressive accumulation of energy reaches a breaking point where all that momentum is released, leaving the aftermath of incessant ostinatos behind to slower-moving masses and trickling of sounds. I would like to thank Christian Baldini and the players of the UC Davis Sinfonietta for their work in performing this piece. 

Josiah Tayag Catalan (he/him) is a Filipino-American composer born in New York City and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area. Recently, his compositional interests have become centered around the intersects of merging alternative modes of temporality and harmony by fusing elements that stem from influences in traditional, avant-garde, popular, and Southeast Asian musics. He has been awarded prizes from NACUSA, the Sacramento State Festival of New American Music, the Megalopolis Saxophone Orchestra, and the American Prize, has been a finalist in the Thailand International Competition Festival and ASCAP Morton Gould Young Composer’s Awards, and has served as a Fromm Foundation Composer Fellow in the Composer’s Conference. Josiah’s music has been commissioned and performed internationally by individuals and groups such as the Left Coast Chamber Ensemble, Earplay, Empyrean Ensemble, Lydian and Arditti String Quartets, the MANA saxophone quartet, The Megalopolis Saxophone Orchestra, violinist Miranda Cuckson, percussionist Chris Froh, and soprano Helena Sorokina. His music is published by BabelScores.

Currently, Josiah is a Bilinski Fellow at the University of California, Davis researching the music of composers in the Philippine avant-garde movement and teaching as a lecturer in Music Theory and Composition at Sacramento State. He is a tennis and baseball nerd who plays competitively, enjoys riding road bikes on scenic California highways, and often hikes around Northern California with his partner and adopted mutt. 

Josiah Catalan (courtesy photo)
Beauty, California, Christian Baldini, Concerto, Conductor, Music, piano, Soloist

Ryan McCullough in Conversation with Christian Baldini

On April 21, 2022, I will have the pleasure of conducting the US Première of Oscar Strasnoy’s Piano Concerto Kuleshov with Ryan McCullough as our soloist, together with the phenomenal UC Davis Symphony Orchestra at the Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts in Davis, California. Below is a very engaging interview with Ryan talking about Strasnoy, and other interesting topics:

Christian Baldini: Ryan, it will be a pleasure to have you with us for this US première of a composer that I admire and like so much, and which requires a soloist just like you. What can you share with people about Oscar Strasnoy’s Piano Concerto Kuleshov? What is unusual, different and/or attractive about it?

Ryan McCullough: Thank you so much for having me here, Christian, and for your kind words. What I find so interesting about concerti written in this century (and the end of the last) is how much they operate like musical jukeboxes. John Adams’ Century Rolls (1996) is a perfect example of this, a kind of musical survey of piano music in the 20th century, but from the perspective of listening to recordings: of contemporary jazz, stride, bebop, Stravinsky, Satie heard through Art Tatum… the piano is a kind of distant object, a fixture of the past filtered through the intimacy of listening to old recordings in the present. Adams’ more recent piano concerto Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes (2018) is another stylistic grab bag (specifically taking a foray into funk), and there are many other recent pieces I can think of that do this—Julian Anderson’s The Imaginary Museum (2017, also a stylistic grab bag), George Benjamin’s Duet (2008, even more of a throwback to the concerto pre-Beethoven), and Jonathan Harvey’s Bird Concerto with Pianosong (2001, a reimagining of Olivier Messiaen’s birdsong piano music, almost comically from the perspective birds imitating human music). More broadly, the idea of the piano concerto has been ‘broken’ for a while now. Luciano Berio said in 1973 that the concerto, with its 19th-century notions of competition and super-human strength on the part of the pianist, had no meaning anymore, especially in a society where recording technology had effectively replaced the piano as the central hub of domestic music-making. This is even more so the case today—one could easily argue that the true descendant of the piano is a streaming service like Spotify!

Oscar Strasnoy’s Kuleshov definitely explores this idea. It’s almost like a playlist of six or seven songs on random shuffle, where the piano and ensemble snap in and out of different points in each song. Similarly to the Benjamin I mentioned earlier, this isn’t a concerto in the Lisztian sense, where I’m fighting with the orchestra to see who’s faster, louder, better… we’re inseparable. The ensemble floats in and out of the resonance of the piano, and the piano imitates instruments in the ensemble. If you can’t really tell who’s who, then we’re doing a good job! Virtuosity in this case is like a magician performing sleight of hand—“where’d my card go?!”

CB: Who are some other composers you admire, and why?

RMC: There are so many, this is such a hard question. There are many incredible composers doing really wonderful work today, and I feel very lucky to have many friends who are such composers. One is Christopher Stark, who has been writing really powerful, metaphysical works that address climate change head-on. On the opposite end of the spectrum is Tonia Ko, who has a tremendous talent for enlarging the very smallest, most intimate sounds we experience in casual everyday life. Elizabeth Ogonek, who I’m co-teaching a course with on instrument building at Cornell this semester, has an ear that can bend reality (e.g., “there is no spoon”), her music is full of sounds that are truly unreal. Jesse Jones is another friend whose music is just so freaking honest, you feel like you’ve had an unbelievably engaging conversation with an old friend. Dante De Silva is a very close friend who has been exploring alternative tuning systems recently, and writes music that is so personal, almost auto-biographical, but in a way that’s light-hearted and often self-effacing. I could go on… these folks are all in their 30s and 40s, it’s really inspiring, the future of new music feels secure.

In terms of old music, I’ve really fallen in love with the music of William Grant Still recently, there is so much clarity in the writing balancing his rich, resplendent use of harmony and texture. Also the British composer Adela Maddison, a woman known primarily (and erroneously) as Fauré’s lover, who wrote some absolutely magical song cycles and chamber music. Like many women composers in the late 19th century, she has disappeared into the patriarchal fabric of history.

On the other hand, I was just practicing a Mozart concerto for a run of concerts this summer, and ****, how could one person have been so inventive…

CB: You’ve also been composing lately, especially for yourself and your wife (the wonderful soprano Lucy Fitz Gibbon). What do you look for in your own compositions? What defines your aesthetics, your choices, your imagery?

I haven’t really had any time to compose this semester, which has been a real shame, and something I plan to rectify this summer. Composing as a performer is (I imagine) a bit like cooking when you’re a professional chef—you spend all this time making incredible dishes for someone else, but when you get home and only have a few hours left to sleep, you barely manage to throw some instant ramen in the microwave and wash it down with a shot of bourbon. Composing is almost like satisfying a craving—you need certain sounds, and aren’t getting them anywhere else, so you go searching for them.

Most of what I’ve written recently has been vocal music. I began setting some poetry by Emily Dickinson (Indeterminate Inflorescence) in March 2020, born from a need for spiritual peace by exploring the reassurance of eternity. Most of the songs play games with infinite loops, where (like the flower structures they’re named for) beginnings and ends are effectively mirror images and can be repeated ad infinitum. Perhaps appropriately, there are still a couple of songs in that cycle that need to be finished and engraved so Lucy and I can finally perform it as a set…

The second set (Argumentum e Silentio), based on the French-German-Jewish poet Paul Celan, is considerably darker, and has renewed meaning to me now. The poetry, which I set in German, is also thinking about eternity, but from a more cynical perspective, a sense that history constantly repeats and everything that is beautiful must be balanced by something that is ugly. One line in particular—from the second song in this cycle, Espenbaum (“Aspen Tree”)—has been on repeat in my head recently: “Löwenzahn, so grün ist die Ukraine. / Meine blonde Mutter kam nicht heim.” [Dandelion, so green is the Ukraine. / My blonde mother never came home.] Celan was born in what is now Ukraine, and both of Celan’s parents perished in the Holocaust in what is now the Russian-backed breakaway state of Transnistria, between Ukraine and Moldova. Historically, Ukraine as a nation has always been more of an ideal than a reality, and so the double-edged imagery of birth and death from the same soil is uncomfortably poignant today. This cycle was hard to write, because such pungent poetry doesn’t need “help”, more a platform to express itself.

The last set (Mister In-Between)was a different kind of coping mechanism, all arrangements of jazz standards by the American lyricist Johnny Mercer, written for and performed with mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe. If you don’t know who Mercer is, then the titles “Jeepers Creepers” and “Ac-cent-tchu-ate the positive” will help. This ended up being an exercise in “creative nostalgia”—since these songs are so well-known, it’s easy to mindlessly fall into clichés, or completely drown them in sauce and obscure the extraordinarily creative structures. Stephanie is a force of nature, and composing these arrangements for her was unbelievably inspiring. We’ll be recording the whole set this summer.

CB: How were your beginnings with music? How did it all start for you?

RMC: It was bit by bit. My mom and grandmother both played piano, my grandfather (who was a master woodworker) had stripped the black paint off their Grinnell Brothers baby grand piano and refinished it to reveal its gorgeous mahogany veneer. I started piano when I was 5, but around the time I was 11 there was a confluence of forces—I started composing, I started playing clarinet in various ensembles, was singing in a children’s choir (then subsequently a jazz ensemble and barbershop choir). Suddenly music was everything, and everything was music, and that’s hard to undo. I guess it was a bit like that old piano—there was something underneath that just needed a little time to reveal, then it was off to the races.

CB: What would be your advice for your musicians starting out and/or struggling to find their path? How does one deal with adversity, bad days or rather, what can help find more hope to keep working hard?

RMC: I’m not gonna lie, if I was unsure about encouraging students to pursue a professional career in music before the pandemic, I am even less sure now. This is not an implication of the art itself, which will survive anything, but a testament to the reality that so much of our professional development is non-linear. You give what feels like an amazing performance in a big venue as part of a major festival… nothing comes of it, straight into the void. You phone in a concert at a school… suddenly people are asking you to play that piece again and again. This is even more pronounced with digital content production, which is now a significant part of the job. You spend hours and hours carefully crafting a video recording, edits and color grading and audio mastering… 27 people watch it. Or you make an audition video for someone in an afternoon and… 40k views. It makes no sense. You spend so much time as an admin, leveraging what you’re doing or about to do in order to get more work, it feels like the work itself is secondary.

On some fundamental level we are all conditioned to seek positive feedback—you want to know that what you’re doing is good, and we learn to rely on that external input from the time we’re little. This is useful for training and education, but you eventually must shut it down. You can only learn to develop a specific voice by listening to your inner ear and trusting your own instincts. As a teacher, I know half of what I’m advising students to do is ********, or at least not 100% perfectly suited to every person, and so I work to get them thinking about their own wishes and desires as soon as humanly possible, and to learn to be curious problem solvers.

If you know that music is your life, and there are no other paths that will satisfy you as much, then you will find a place for yourself, but only if you listen honestly to your inner ear and match those genuine desires with external expectations. If you only focus on what other people tell you is good, you might get somewhere in the short term, but in the long term you will cease to exist, and at that point you are eminently disposable. Know thyself, as the ancient maxim goes…

CB: Thank you so much for your wise words, beautiful musicality and time, and I can’t wait to make music with you!

RMC: It has been such a pleasure, the ensemble sounds great, the piece is amazing, California in the springtime is gorgeous… Looking forward to the concert!

Ryan McCullough

Born in Boston and raised behind the Redwood Curtain of northern California, pianist Ryan MacEvoy McCullough has developed a diverse career as soloist, vocal and instrumental collaborator, composer, recording artist, and pedagogue. Ryan’s music-making encompasses work with historical keyboards, electro-acoustic tools and instruments, and close collaborations with some of today’s foremost composers. In a performance of Chopin “his virtuosity was evident and understated, his playing projected a warmth… that conjured the humanity of Arthur Rubinstein,” (Eli Newberger, The Boston Musical Intelligencer) and in a performance of contemporary music, his playing “found a perfect balance between the gently shimmering and the more brittle, extroverted strands… and left you eager to hear the rest.” (Allan Kozinn, NY Times).

Ryan’s growing discography features many world premiere recordings, including solo piano works of Milosz Magin (Acte Prealable), Andrew McPherson (Secrets of Antikythera, Innova), John Liberatore (Line Drawings, Albany), Nicholas Vines (Hipster Zombies from Mars, Navona), art song and solo piano music of John Harbison and James Primosch with soprano Lucy Fitz Gibbon (Descent/Return, Albany), and art song by Sheila Silver (Beauty Intolerable, Albany, also with Ms. Fitz Gibbon). He has also appeared on PBS’s Great Performances (Now Hear This, “The Schubert Generation”) and is an alumnus of NPR’s From the Top.

As concerto soloist Ryan has appeared frequently with orchestra, including the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Toronto Symphony Orchestra, Sarasota Festival Orchestra, Colburn Conservatory Orchestra, Orange County Wind Symphony, and World Festival Orchestra, with such conductors as George Benjamin, Gisele Ben-Dur, Fabien Gabel, Leonid Grin, Anthony Parnther, Larry Rachleff, Mischa Santora, and Joshua Weilerstein. Mr. McCullough has collaborated with the Mark Morris Dance Group, contemporary ensembles eighth blackbird and yarn/wire, and has performed at festivals including the Tanglewood Music Center, Token Creek Chamber Music Festival, Sarasota Festival, Nohant International Chopin Festival, and Methow Valley Chamber Music Festival. Highlights of the ‘21-‘22 season include an original cabaret collaboration with mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe, three separate tours with the Mark Morris Dance Group, a residency with the UC Davis Symphony Orchestra, Brahms’ Die Schöne Magelone at the Harvard Musical Association with soprano Lucy Fitz Gibbon, and performances of Stockhausen’s MANTRA at Notre Dame and Syracuse Universities as part of ensemble HereNowHear.

Ryan lives in Kingston, NY, with his wife, soprano Lucy Fitz Gibbon, and in his time off can be found brewing beer, building and modifying audio equipment, or photographing the sublime Hudson Valley. For additional information and curios, visit www.RyanMMcCullough.com.

[current as of March, 2022]