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Jonathan Salzedo in Conversation with Christian Baldini

Christian Baldini: This Saturday and Sunday (June 11 and 12, 2022), I will have the pleasure of collaborating with the Chamber Music Society of Sacramento conducting two unusual works: Frank Martin’s Petite Symphonie Concertante, featuring Jonathan Salzedo (harpsichord), Kerstin Allvin (harp) and Dmitriy Cogan (piano) as our three soloists, plus a string orchestra led by legendary violinist Bill Barbini (one of the youngest members ever of the New York Philharmonic, and longtime concertmaster of the former Sacramento Symphony). The other work on the program that I will be conducting is Claude Debussy’s Danses (Danse Sacrée, and Danse Profane), for harp and string orchestra, also with Kerstin Allvin as our soloist.

I had the pleasure of asking each of our soloists a few questions about this performance and about the Frank Martin. Below are the answers by Jonathan Salzedo regarding his own impressions about the piece. I asked him to include anything including those things he enjoys, and also what he finds surprising, its context, the end of World War II, and his thoughts about Frank Martin himself.

Jonathan Salzedo: I have known about Frank Martin’s Petite Symphonie Concertante for as long as I have been interested in the harpsichord, at least 55 years. Being somewhat rooted in the 17th and 18th centuries, I never expected that I would get to play it, so this engagement came as an unexpected pleasant surprise.

The harpsichord disappeared from fashion around 1800 and only returned to the concert stage after 1900 with a resurgence of interest in ancient music. While mainstream orchestral instruments evolved, the harpsichord had completed its development by 1800, and the piano took over the role of the keyboard of choice. When the harpsichord was revived by Arnold Dolmetsch, the initial intention was not that it should evolve or that new music should be written for it – keeping the ancient music in museum mode was all that was needed. But by 1945, the harpsichord had not gone unnoticed, and already there were new concertos by Manuel de Falla, Bohuslav Martinu and Francis Poulenc, and it was finding its way into film scores.

The harpsichord Frank Martin had in mind for his 1945 Petite Symphonie Concertante was not the equipment of the 18th century. Between pioneering harpsichordist Wanda Landowska and the Paris piano maker Pleyel, a far more robust harpsichord emerged, able to withstand the demands of the modern concert hall. Martin’s score is marked with specific instructions for effects only possible on that instrument. Pleyel’s robust model did not stand the test of time, and by the 1960’s makers were following Dolmetsch’s lead and basing instruments on 17th and 18th century models. While the “revival” harpsichord still has a few champions, the harpsichord and early music community is almost exclusively using traditional types of harpsichords again. So the first dilemma for the harpsichordist is whether to try to rouse a Pleyel for this piece, or to use today’s equipment, ironically the same equipment that the 18th century player would have used. Pleyels are not so common today, and my choice is to use what I own, built in 1974 by Ted McKnight and styled on a Pascal Taskin instrument from 1769. While I can’t follow all of Martin’s registration recommendations (the equivalent of an organist having different stops available), I have all the tonal variety I need to make the music work.

Did Martin consider the problem of balance with a harpsichord of any kind in an ensemble? Back in the heyday of the harpsichord, its role was to play solos or to have a background role in ensembles. Only a few experimentalists dared to bring the harpsichord into the foreground with a chamber group or orchestra, notably Johann Sebastian Bach and Jean-Philippe Rameau. Even with Pleyel’s robustifications, the harpsichord is not able to come over the top of orchestral sound like a piano. It is an open question whether the harpsichord needs amplification for this work. Had Martin been thoughtful about balance, I would expect to find the harpsichord always accompanied by light instrumentation, and the piano and harp soloists to have soft effects in the trio work. This is not the case. I will be using discreet amplification.

When I tell people I am playing this piece, I am often asked whether I like atonal music. I find myself considering whether this work is atonal. The first twelve notes of the piece form a tone row, rather a communist concept, each of the twelve notes appearing just once. The early sections of the piece fall under the spell of this idea, and one might expect the piece to have the angular qualities we associate with Arnold Schoenberg, the creator of the tone row composition. While this was not an easy piece to get to know, once I became accustomed to its musical ideas, I did not find it atonal. There are always tonal centers to be found. Martin does not necessarily like to stay for long in one key – the music is restless, always moving somewhere. And at times, it is dissonant too, and keys co-exist in a disturbing way. But it never loses the sense of going somewhere, and when it arrives, even fleetingly, one does enjoy the moment. My 50-year career has had a lot to do with exploring the rhetoric of the 17th and 18th centuries, and new music for the harpsichord that I encounter does not always follow those old rhetorical guidelines. But here I find a surprising amount of that kind of rhetoric that references the former age. Among his accomplishments, Frank Martin was a harpsichordist, and it is clear that he knew the idioms of the 18th century.

What else is there in this music? As well as finding a warm version of Schoenberg and fragments that resonate from the 18th century, there is more. The piece can be read as a survey of all that was happening, both in music and in the world outside, at the end of World War II. The world order was in flux, so the piece is restless. The chordal clusters and rhythms of jazz were finding their way into art music, and they too are here. And while the music reflects the ideas of predecessors, it also foreshadows what will come. The March that opens the final section anticipates Henri Mancini’s Pink Panther, and later I hear in embryo Edwin Ashley’s Danger Man theme. And perhaps the biggest surprise of all is that the last page of my part is entirely pentatonic (just using five notes that are pleasant sounding in any combination) and ends with a brisk G major scale. When we reach that point, I am reminded that the first part I play ends in an F minor scale. So there appears to be an over-arching trajectory from the darkness of F minor through many musical trials to the simplicity of a pentatonic mode and finally the brightness of G major; perhaps a reminder that bleak times always contain a seed of hope for a less confused and better future.

Christian Baldini: Why is music is important to you? Is there any advice you want to share with young musicians?

Jonathan Salzedo: What to say to a young musician? It’s not an easy career, many frustrations, a lot of self-doubt, terrible comparisons – but also great joy and the best community you could imagine, because musicians are the only people who will really understand you. When I moved to the USA from England at age 31, I was ready to give up music – I thought I had played out that youthful dream. But if music wants you and you have a bit of willingness, you and music will somehow find each other and have to put up with each other. Now that I am 71, I can’t imagine a life better than the one I have had, mixing music with a whole lot of other interesting stuff, including technology. Having an artistic outlet really does make you a better person, less likely to buy guns and shoot people, more likely to be intrigued by the world and its infinite possibilities. Follow your nose; don’t let anyone else suggest that you should grow up.

Jonathan Salzedo (courtesy photo)

British born harpsichordist Jonathan Salzedo is a frequent Freeway Philharmonic contributor in the San Francisco Bay Area. He was an active and occasionally prizewinning pianist in his youth, then planned to study harpsichord with someone famous, but ended up learning what he knows from working with fine musicians with good ideas. With his wife Marion Rubinstein and daughter Laura Jeannin he runs The Albany Consort, a group with a long and impressive track record, though only one (accidental) recording. Jonathan also plays new music with violinist Karen Bentley Pollick, including compositions written for the duo. He actually likes moving and tuning instruments, and considers these to be an important part of the whole harpsichord experience. When not on the road doing gigs, he sings at Congregation Etz Chayim, Palo Alto, and runs a software consulting business.

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]

Beauty, Christian Baldini, composer, Concerto, Conductor, piano, Soloist, Uncategorized

Oscar Strasnoy 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 brief interview with Oscar talking about his music:

Christian Baldini: Dear Oscar, it will be so wonderful to conduct the US Premiere of your Piano Concerto Kuleshov with the excellent pianist Ryan McCullough as our soloist. Tell me, how did the genesis of this piece start? And how did you come up with the concept of Kuleshov as a source of inspiration?

Oscar Strasnoy: As is almost always the case, the piece was born out of a soloist’s desire to receive a piece by a specific composer. In this case, Alexandre Tharaud was the generator of the project. Mauricio Kagel had promised him a piano concerto, but he died before finishing it. So Alexandre asked me. I am a sort of post-mortem-ghost-writer for Kagel, a position I enjoy very much assuming.

The idea of relating the work to the first film editing techniques of the Soviet cinema of the 1920s-1930s comes from further back, it is something that has always interested me. The name Lev Kuleshov came up at the end of the composition, when it occurred to me to close a very heterogeneous form, made mostly of fragments, using his concept of alternating still and moving images, a kind of big rondo around a more abstract central movement.

CB: Your music is surprising, refreshing, it probably cannot be easily labeled or contained. What is your goal with each new piece? What do you try to “communicate”, and/or what are some priorities to you in your music?

OS: For years, my activity as a composer was principally around opera and musical theater. And the fact of frequently working with texts created in me a quasi Pavlovian reflex for generating musical images, something like ideograms that could be associated to concepts. A kind of program music without a program. I feel very close, not necessarily in style, but in the way of approaching the heterogeneous formal assembly of the works, to the thought of Eisenstein or to Liszt, Wagner, Pierre Schaeffer and Messiaen. My interest is not focused on the so called “musical material” (new sounds) but on how acoustic ideas are associated with each other and form a kind of story board or, perhaps better, a Japanese kind of emakimono scrolls. That Japanese art is the one that fascinates me the most among all types of art. A kind of cinematography avant la lettre, still cinema, frozen time.

CB: You have worked with many of the world’s greatest artists. You’ve written concertos for Isabelle Faust and Alexander Tharaud. Does this make your life easier when writing a concerto with a performer in mind? How do you approach the process, is it very collaborative or do you deliver the piece once it’s done?

OS: I like working with friends, first of all, spending time with them exchanging food, jokes and ideas. That’s how I learned the most. I send them my ideas in sketch form, sometimes I tell them over the phone, and I complete them with their technical advice.

CB: What would you recommend to someone who has never heard your music before? What should they listen for?

OS: I would recommend looking at emakimonos in a museum or on the internet. I would also recommend to look at a wonderful eighty-meters long work that David Hockney painted with an iPad during the pandemic, “A Year in Normandy” is its title. And I would recommend watching Soviet cinema from the 1920s.

CB: Kuleshov seems to make some references to piano music of the past. I hear a lot of (even possible quotations) Rachmaninov, Debussy and Ravel. How did you approach these connections or recollections? How do you manage to make all these voices fit into your own language?

OS: My main source for this work was silent film accompaniment music from the 1920s. Surely those musics were influenced by certain features of those composers, so my references are surely second hand.  

CB: Do you have any advice for young composers?

OS: Forget about the so called “musical material”. Music is immaterial, it consists of heterogeneous sounds disposed on a given time. Any sonorous thing can fill that time with whatever you can think of. I would recommend them also to forget the obligation of artistic homogeneity that we inherited from the Enlightenment. The world we live in is heterogeneous and the art of our time has to reflect the world we live in. I would also recommend them to avoid as much as possible emulating the contemporary musical currents taught in universities, which turn almost all students into epigones. Being an artist means being free to do whatever you want with whatever ideas, material or media you want. If you don’t achieve that degree of independence, you will not be an artist, you will be a craftsman, which is not bad in itself but was probably not your initial plan. But one has to be patient, it’s a process that can take some time, probably the whole life.

CB: Thank you very much for your time, I very much look forward to once more conducting your beautiful music.

OS: Thank you, dear Christian. It’s a big pleasure and an honor for me to be here in Davis.

Oscar Strasnoy, Photo by Heidi Specker

Biography

Oscar Strasnoy was born in Buenos Aires and studied piano, conducting and composition there at the Conservatorio Nacional Superior de Música (with Aldo Antognazzi and Guillermo Scarabino), at the Conservatoire de Paris (with Guy Reibel, Michaël Levinas and Gérard Grisey), where he won in 1996 a Premier Prix à l’Unanimité (first prize) and the Hochschule für Musik, Frankfurt (with Hans Zender). He was the Music Director of the Orchestre du Crous de Paris (1996–1998). He was one of the founding recipients of the Grüneisen Foundation (Mozarteum Argentino) conducting scholarship, and of the French Government Scholarship. In 1999 he was invited by Peter Eötvös to Herrenhaus-Edenkoben in Germany.

Luciano Berio awarded him the 2000 Orpheus Prize for his chamber opera Midea produced at the Teatro Caio Melisso in Spoleto in 2000 and at the Rome Opera in 2001.He was also artist in residence at the Akademie Schloss Solitude in Stuttgart, in 2003 at the Villa Kujoyama in Kyoto (Institut français), and in 2006 at the Civitella Ranieri Foundation in Umbria, Italy. In 2007 he received a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship for Music Composition. Radio France, in association with the Parisian Théâtre du Châtelet, featured Strasnoy as the main composer of the Festival Présences 2012, a retrospective of most of his works in 14 concerts in January 2012.

Compositions

Oscar Strasnoy has composed twelve stage works, including operas performed at Spoleto, Rome, Paris (Opéra Comique, Théâtre du Châtelet), Hamburg, Bordeaux, Aix-en-Provence Festival, Teatro Colón of Buenos Aires), Berlin State Opera; a live-accompanied silent film score for Anthony Asquith’s Underground which premiered at the Louvre in 2004 and was subsequently played at the Cine Doré in Madrid, the Mozarteum Argentino, Kyoto, and Tokyo) and a secular cantata, Hochzeitsvorbereitungen (mit B und K). He also composed several pieces of chamber, vocal and orchestral music, including his song cycle Six Songs for the Unquiet Traveller which premiered in 2004 performed by the Nash Ensemble and Ann Murray in a concert to inaugurate the newly refurbished Wigmore Hall in London.

In January 2012 a retrospective of his work in 14 concerts has been presented at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris as part of the Festival Présences of Radio France. Strasnoy’s works are primarily published by Universal Edition (Vienna) Chant du Monde (Paris) and Billaudot (Paris). His opera Midea is published by Ricordi (Milan).

Concerto, Conductor, Experimental, Music, Soloist, Symphony Orchestra, violin

Miguel Farías in Conversation with Christian Baldini

[to read the original version of this interview, in Spanish, click here]

Christian Baldini: On March 5 I will have the pleasure of conducting the world première of the Violin Concerto “Kuyén” by Chilean composer Miguel Farías, featuring the wonderful violinist Rachel Lee Priday. Miguel Farías is a superb Chilean composer, and we have been colleagues and friends for about fifteen years, when we met in France at a festival where we both had our works for orchestra performed by the excellent Orchestra National de Lorraine. I was immediately captivated by his music because of his great use of the orchestral palette, his imagination and his expressiveness, and his great ability to write motifs that are very memorable without trying to be. It is a pleasure to present this world premiere that was our commission and that received the prestigious support of Ibermúsicas. Miguel, tell us, how was the genesis of this piece? What could you share with us about how you started writing it, what plan you originally had and what changed in the process (if that did happen)? Are you happy with the final results?

Miguel Farías: First of all, thank you very much dear Christian for your words, and I would also like to tell you that it is a great pleasure to be able to collaborate with UCDSO and with you, especially after fifteen years of friendship!

Composing Kuyén was somehow quite intuitive. I like to write narrative (fiction), and during the last year I wrote a book that contains stories that speak of the night, from different perspectives. One of these is one that has to do with mythology. Perhaps that is why I had in mind some sonorities that were related not only to the night, but also to beings that inhabit it. This is how it occurred to me to “ground” this sound speech that was haunting my head, basing it on the narrative of the Kuyén myth. The idea, in addition to having a soloist and an orchestra, reinforced the discourse based on dialogue, which ended up being essential to give shape to the piece.

CB: How were your beginnings with music?

MF: Initially, when I was about 10 years old, I taught myself to play the piano. Then I really liked rock and jazz and I studied electric guitar. I quickly realized that more than playing other people’s music, I liked inventing music on the guitar. So at fourteen I went to find out how to study composition at the conservatory, and at fifteen I was already in my first formal year.

CB: Who were some of the people in your life that have most positively influenced you to be the composer you are today?

MF: It may sound cliché, but first of all my family. In general, I am interested in a type of music that does not question itself, but dialogues with its surroundings. In my family there are no musicians, so they have been an influence not only emotionally, but also creatively and thoughtfully. In the art world, I have generally been much more influenced by literary narratives than by composers. The speech and thought of Raul Ruiz has been important in my way of thinking about the discourse and the musical form. In the construction (or attempted construction) of my own musical discourse, I believe that several writers have influenced me, some examples are the Cubans Guillermo Cabrera Infante and Pedro Juan Gutierrez, the Chileans Christian Geisse and Hernán Rivera Letelier, or the Mexican Juan Rulfo, among several others. Honestly, without literature in my life, it would be difficult for me to continue growing artistically.

CB: Being a young composer is not easy. Opportunities for your works to be commissioned by or performed by an orchestra don’t come very often (or at all). What advice would you give to young composers who are looking for opportunities?

MF: Go forward with a lot of work and confidence. It is difficult to have commissions or works performed by orchestras these days, but my experience has shown me that if one is capable of presenting artistically interesting ideas and projects, there is interest from the institutions.

First of all, in order to present interesting projects, I think you have to work hard to develop a correct and personal way of orchestral writing. You have to understand the sonorities of the orchestra as well as its relationship with musical time. Then, the exercise of the trade itself provides the tools to bring ideas to the score.

On the other hand, composition contests and courses are very useful, not only to have visibility, but also to be able to hear what is written above all. In competitions, the most common thing is not to win, but to keep trying; on the one hand, it serves to develop a high-level orchestral writing, tolerance to frustration, and above all a handling of writing and ease in bringing abstract ideas to life on the music sheet. Contests serve as a kind of exercise in this.

CB: You are also an opera composer. In your opinion, are there any (or many) differences between writing chamber music, symphonic music, vocal music, and dramatic music for the stage, such as opera?

MF: Very much so, in my opinion. The starting point in dramatic and instrumental music is very different. In the first we start from quite tangible and literary narrative resources. In the second, at least in my case, one starts from a blank sheet of paper, where we have to build the sound objects with which the ideas we have in mind will be represented. Both worlds are exciting, and difficult to master.

On the other hand, in dramatic music for the stage, at the time of writing there are many factors to consider that influence each note we write. The narrative, the visual, the temporal; and other more complex factors that have to do with the context of the text being worked on. I’m not saying that instrumental music doesn’t contain these riches and difficulties, but I do say that opera, for example, begins from a space heavily charged by a tradition that has these factors as its starting point. In the opera, our blank page at the beginning is quite lined.

CB: For someone who has never heard your music before, what advice would you give them? What is important in your music? What should they try to hear in your works? (and in this Concerto for violin and orchestra, specifically?)

MF: I find it difficult to answer something like that, since I would like to say that they can hear what they want and how they want when listening to my music. But if we think specifically about Kuyén, I would like them to try to feel the colors and nuances of light with which I tried to impregnate the sonorities, both of the solo violin and of the orchestra. Kuyén for me is a dialogue between colors, lights, brightness and darkness, and I would like to suggest that in this work, they start by letting themselves be carried away by intuition to hear it as an abstract conversation between these elements.

CB: Thank you very much for writing this beautiful work for the UC Davis Symphony Orchestra and Rachel Lee Priday. I am very happy to be able to share your music with our public and our community.

MF: Thanks to you dear Christian, to the UCDSO and to Rachel. It has been amazing working with you and Rachel. I have learned a lot, and I have enjoyed it even more. Rachel has given an impressive voice to each of the notes I wrote. I am very excited and grateful. And of course, I hope that this first collaboration after fifteen years of friendship is not the last.

Miguel Farías (Photo by Max Sotomayor)

Composer and PhD in Latin American Studies, Miguel Farías (b. 1983) studied in Chile, Switzerland, and France.

He is the winner of several international prizes and beneficiary of commissions and residences in Chile and Europe, including Injuve, 2007 (Spain); Luis Advis, 2007 (Chile); Frederic Mompou (Barcelona, Spain); Joan Guinjoan, 2013 (Barcelona, Spain); Manuel Valcarcel, 2013 (Santander, Spain); the sponsorship prize at the BMW Musica Viva competition of the Bavarian Radio (Munich, Germany); and he was a laureate of the Isang Yun Music Prize, 2007 (Korea); Tactus, 2008 (Belgium); the prestigious Queen Elisabeth Competition, 2009 (Belgium); and the Reina Sofía (Spain), among others. He was a finalist in the “Composer Project” and “Roche Commissions” programs of the Lucerne Festival, with Pierre Boulez as a member of the jury.

In June 2012, Farías won the 2012 “Art Critics” Prize in the National Opera category and the National Arts Prize “Altazor” in 2013, for his opera Renca, París y Liendres, premiered by the Chilean Symphony Orchestra. In 2018, his second opera, El Cristo de Elqui, was premiered by the Chilean National Opera at the Municipal de Santiago, directed for the stage by Jorge Lavelli. In 2019, he won the Beaux-Arts Chilean Academy prize for the premiere of this opera.