Maelstroms of Modern Music

Just departed: the Da Capo Chamber Players, who swept through the University of Southern Maine as the second elite NYC-based new music ensemble to grace our concert hall this semester, the first having been the excellent and often electric string quartet, Ethel. Both ensembles came to play student compositions written expressly for their visit, and enacted for the aspiring artistes that rare act of sorcery: bringing a complex piece of modern music into intelligible and emotionally meaningful form in a manner of minutes.

Ethel’s trip to USM was a bonus, a special add-on to their Portland Ovations-sponsored visit to town for a fabulous concert at USM’s Hannaford Hall (no USM sponsorship of that concert, just the rented space). We were offered a short reading session (2 hours) and I was asked if I could come up with 6-8 student pieces for the reading. Could I ever. My students leapt at the opportunity, writing complex, ambitious and idiomatic pieces that prompted Ethel to stay for an extra half an hour, shredding through the newness with aplomb. Man that was a fun day, back in January. I just had the opportunity to revisit the pieces, editing the audio and sending the wave files to Ethel founder and violist Ralph Farris for a grant app and possible other exciting uses. The admiration we felt for them was, apparently, reciprocated.

 This more recent visitation, that of Da Capo, was a longer affair. Thanks to the largesse of the Gorham Cultural Affairs Committee, who offers an annual grant on an alternating basis to music, theatre and art, and the National Endowment of the Arts, who bestowed a grant upon Da Capo, we were able to invite them to USM for a three-day residency, that was to include an open rehearsal, concert, two reading sessions of student works, a master class, a public lecture on art and music, and a visit to the USM Composers Ensemble. With the dates set a year in advance, there was much waiting and eager expectation among the students AND myself – I was tapped to write a new piece for the Da Capo concert. Of course there was a major snow storm on the first day of the residency (because why would anyone think a Tuesday in late March is “safe” in Maine?) but more on that…

 The Da Capo Chamber Players were founded way back in 1970 by my first composition teacher, Joan Tower, who conceived of the group as a vehicle for her own compositions and that of her peer composers. Through the years, they have commissioned and premiered countless works from basically all of the important composers of our time, and since the early 1980s they were installed at Bard College – where I first encountered them – to coach student performers, perform, and most importantly, read student works. As a young composer at Bard, all of my early pieces were rehearsed and performed by these experts, and the pieces sang to life with a greater intensity and purpose than, really, they had any right to.

Over the years, the make-up of the group has changed of course. Today, the only founding member left is the indefatigable flutist Pat Spencer, whose zeal for new music, all these years later, remains undiminished. After I sent Pat my piece for the concert, she asked if Da Capo could play it on their annual Celebrate Bard concert a week before the Maine trip. Of course I agreed, and as a result I had the pleasure of heading down to Pat’s Upper West Side apartment for a first rehearsal. Sitting practically in the laps of the performers, I had the pleasure of reacquainting myself with the working intensity of Da Capo, their accuracy, their commitment to understanding the piece on a deep level, the lines, the groove, the world of emotion that simmers inside the notes and rhythms. It is business, rehearsing with them, because time is at a premium. They work quickly and with discipline, but they are ever welcoming of the composer’s presence. Slight suggestions from me yielded instant results. My at-times vague musical instructions were translated perfectly into technical realities. When my piece was humming along quite nicely, and only then, I was dispatched into the welcoming arms of sunny Broadway and Zabar’s.

The opportunity to share this treasure of a group with my students at USM thrilled me. My student composers are well advanced over where I was as a Bard undergraduate (granted several of them are graduate students, and even many of the undergraduates are so-called “non-traditional” students, with quite a bit more life and musical experience than I had at that time). I knew they would make the Da Capoistes sing for their supper, so to speak, and so they did. Seven composers composed nine pieces, and every moment of the five allotted hours for readings was productively spent.

The Da Capo concert was spectacular. After being snowed in on their first day in Maine, conducting rehearsals in a conference room at the Clarion Hotel with a digital keyboard, and cramming two days’ activities into a marathon Wednesday, they arrived full force on the stage, with a first half featuring Valerie Coleman’s Portraits of Langston (2007) (including wonderful readings of Hughes’ poems by USM theatre major Nathan Lapointe) and my new Delve (2013) (which will probably get its own blog post), and a second half comprised entirely of the best performance I have ever experienced of Schoenberg’s seminal masterpiece Pierrot Lunaire. Soprano Lucy Shelton, who essentially owns that piece these days, came for the concert, stayed an extra day due to snow, and then spent 40 or so minutes demonstrating to the students and other audience members what an expressionist, terrifying, hysterical, soulful, and more than anything, unique piece of music that truly is. If skeptics among my students weren’t necessarily entirely won over (and many were), no one left doubting the potential of Pierrot as a singular work of theatrical music.

 In a two-hour master class (also on Wednesday), Da Capo members coached two student chamber ensembles. First, the USM String Quartet performed, playing my 2008 string quartet Sirens of Sombor, which they have been working up all semester. What a treat to see Curtis Macomber quickly understand the piece and deftly guide the musicians toward a realization that was not just consistent with, but really superior to my original conception. And then, to watch guest artist pianist Chris Oldfather leaping around the room to help Roy MacNeil and Mark Rossnagel bring Messiaen’s Theme and Variations for piano and violin to life was entertaining and exhilarating.

On the last day, Pat Spencer gave one of the better slide lectures you’ll see – a consideration of the relationship between Paul Klee’s paintings and music, replete with musical demonstrations from the Da Capos (special favorites: Bach’s augmentation fugue, and Klee’s Ad Parnasum). 

I sensed a genuine buzz amongst my students after Da Capo left town. It was as if the friendliest of tornadoes had wound its way through the building, shaking up everyone’s conception of what it was to make music, and what it was to love modern music. Speaking personally, I love great new music groups more than anything. They approach new work with a sense of commitment and responsibility, as if it is their duty to realize not only the composer’s conception, but also the piece’s utmost potential. They tackle difficult rhythms and harmonies like child’s play, and still have the ears to hear when something doesn’t sound right within the context of the piece’s world. Having both Ethel and Da Capo visit during the same semester has widened many an eye, and warmed many a heart. It has also sent many a pro musicker traveling back to Gotham with an enhanced view of the music-writing going on in sleepy Gorham, Maine.