“Up, Running, and Polished”: Eastman Musica Nova’s 2016 Winter Concert Tonight

Brad Lubman conducting Musica Nova in Steve Reich’s Double Sextet, March 2016

Earlier this week, Dan Gross chatted with the four conductors on tonight’s Musica Nova concert at 8 p.m. in Kilbourn Hall. Associate Professor of Conducting Brad Lubman is the director, and will conduct Dry by Michael Gordon. Three students conduct the other pieces; visiting student in residence Vicky Shen will conduct… a mesuré by Jacques Hurel; DMA student and Institute of Music Leadership instructor Mark Powell will conduct Ophelia Dances by Oliver Knussen; and DMA student Edo Frenkel will conduct Seesaw by Georges Aperghis.

By Dan Gross

Brad, could you tell us about this concert in particular? This there an overall theme or common thread?

BL: Well, there’s always a common thread, even when you have pieces that are completely disparate from each other, I think, because there’s a common thread that runs through everything we do. Or should run through everything we do, on the planet, as human beings, as we try to become as intelligent and intellectually cultivated as possible.

So, on the surface, it would seem that the first three pieces on the concert, are related perhaps, the Hurel, the Knussen, and the Aperghis; and then the piece after intermission is Michael Gordon, and really stands out as being a different style. However, upon closer inspection, what we have are four different pieces. The common thread is simply that each of the pieces is elaborate and engaging on some level.

Musica Nova is a flexible ensemble, so is the instrumentation the same for each piece?

BL: No. The Hurel starts out with a smaller ensemble of violin, cello, flute, and clarinet, with piano and vibes. This is a piece which is very pitch-oriented, pitch-centered, meaning that the (its) pitch language as you would find in Bach, or Stravinsky for example, is very cultivated and “spun”, let’s say. The same could be said for the Knussen. It’s a different pitch world, and it’s a more fantasy-like type of thing.

MP: But the word “spun” works really well there, because of the way that piece spins out.

BL: Yes, that’s true.

MP: Because the way that piece begins, the idea of spinning a story works really, really well.

BL: And also with the title, Ophelia Dances, one thinks of Shakespeare’s Ophelia.

So Mark, this is the piece you’re conducting?

MP: Yes, I’ll be doing the Knussen. But I was just grooving on the word “spun” there, because the character of the piece spins forward from the moment you hear it to when it disappears at the end. And the fact that there is a suggested narrative to it.

BL: There is, and the instrumentation is quite nice, it’s a little bit more extended than the Hurel.

MP: Yup, string trio, horn, wind trio, piano off to my left in the back, and smack in front of me, as per the composer’s instructions, is a celeste, with an extended and magnificent cadenza at the end of the piece. When it was premiered, Michael Tilson Thomas was the celeste soloist and he conducted from the keyboard. I will not be doing that superhuman task for this concert, but the celeste is the center of all things on the stage.

Was that an adjustment, having that instrument so close to you?

MP: It’s a little close. The celeste that we’ve got was probably built in Howard Hanson’s garage in 1921, so yeah, it’s old and pingy. But it’s served well, though we will probably have a different one in Kilbourn Hall on the night.

But one of the really cool things about working with Musica Nova is the physicality of the setup, and how you as a conductor address that different physical space with every piece that you work on. I’ve come from a background of ballet orchestras, opera orchestras, and chamber-sized orchestras, but to have an opportunity to be that flexible in making this music has been just a fantastic thing to explore.

This piece seems to be a narrative piece, though you have done narrative-driven music before. Was this an adjustment for you?

MP: Not really. The Shakespeare quote at the beginning of the score is a suggestion.
[In his own handwriting, Knussen quotes from Hamlet, Act IV, Scene 7:
There is a willow grows askant the brook,
That shows his hoar leaves inn the glassy stream.
Therewith fantastic garlands she did make …
…Which time she chanted snatches of old tunes,
As one incapable of her own distress.

There’s no storyline through it per se that you’re illustrating, but it’s almost crystalline in its construction, and that part of the story is very evident in the music. It’s absolute music with a tiny little idea to get it started.

Vicky, you’re leading the concert off. Could you tell us a little bit about the Hurel?

VS: The piece in general is very energetic, it goes on forever, perpetually… It’s very dense, loud, lots of notes… And actually he wrote one of the hardest vibraphone solos for a percussion solo… I’m a percussionist, and I didn’t get to play that piece! It’s a little too hard!

BL: That’s a hard vibraphone part in this piece.

VS: It’s non-stop for twelve minutes.

You just came from a rehearsal, so the music is fresh. Vicky, what are some thoughts from you about the challenges of working on a piece like this, especially with a notoriously difficult part?

VS: Well, I have the easiest part, I just lay the beat down, and they have to line up with the beat! Some of it is hard, if you’re not used to doing that kind of music. [In other styles] you don’t have to count so much, and you (don’t) have to divide fives and sevens and nines… I just have to be clear, and out of the way, and trust them to do what they have to do.

Is this your first time working with an ensemble like this – modern music with a flexible lineup?

VS: No, back in Hong Kong I conducted the Hong Kong New Music Ensemble, and community orchestras. Sometimes I force (the community orchestras) to play new music, and they hate me, but I don’t care! We have to do it!

Edo, can you tell us about the Aperghis?

EF: I’m doing “Seesaw” by [Georges] Aperghis. Where to start? It’s a very intricate piece, like most of Aperghis’s music, and you asked a question earlier about the “common thread” between all of these (pieces). I think that all the pieces live in two spaces simultaneously. All of the composers are very interested in theater, in a certain sense, and that’s absolutely evident in the music of Oliver Knussen and Aperghis. They have both written a huge number of operas, but the same is true for Michael Gordon and Philippe Hurel in a different way… They have these theatrical dramas built into the way that they use musical systems, and they show you what the piece is about as it goes on. For me, that’s a huge appeal…

He has his own theater in Paris that is fully operational, and he’s very active and he’s a charming man. He’s one of these guys who smokes cigars, drinks a lot of espresso, and is a very lovely guy. And I think this piece exhibits some of the more sonic-oriented dramas that he’s come up with.

He wrote the piece for a group called “Klangform Wien.” As their name suggests, they’re in Vienna, and they specialize in doing really far-out stuff. When you hear the piece, as the title suggests, it emulates a seesaw, where you have a lot of these creaky and rickety sounds moving up and down, as you dig deeper into the piece, you see the obvious.

There’s an even number of people, we’ve split the ensemble into halves, they interact with one another in different groups all the time, and they play off of one another, sometimes they play loudly and the other plays softly. But always in a way that they’re interlocking, and the most pivotal thing, is feeling inside the sound, feeling like you’re inside a cavern, or you’re a unified body, expressing something.

That’s something that distinguishes the Aperghis from the other pieces in a certain way. I have to agree with Brad, everything is interconnected, but everything is very individual also.

How did you get in the mindset of preparing for this?

EF: Yeah, finding what is the same, finding those things that are similar, finding those characters… Similar rhythms, the way they interlock with one another, the way they pulse in one way, and finding the ones that are different… And feeling those at the same time, feeling those dissonances and the friction between the two characters.

In the same way, by the way, as a Mozart opera, a Britten opera, or a contemporary opera (like Don’t Blame Anyone). There is a natural built-in concept when you see something between sameness and difference. And you understand this music in the same way, you hear highs, lows, sames, differences… The nuanced part of it is how they relate, and you relate to the events unfolding on the stage in front of you. The thing that makes it really compelling is this sound world, you feel like you’re getting into your own head. That’s the thing that’s most exciting to me about this music.

Well, you have to follow that, Brad!

BL: I thought of something to add to your list, and we can apply this to all music, really. But it’s very important with contemporary music, because we still live in a time when people still aren’t sure what to make of certain things. I read something somewhere in which the writer said that the Prokofiev Fifth Symphony is not a piece that is accepted by most audience members. I checked the calendar to make sure we weren’t living in 1940.

But to add to what Edo was saying, there are things in the Aperghis piece which are very evocative and alluring, and then there are moments which are very aggressive and confrontational. I know that sounds very basic, but I think that’s the first way to approach getting into something like that. I thought of an example!

You were talking about Mozart, and the Jupiter Symphony. The very first two things that happen [in that work]; most people wouldn’t think of it this way, because many think of Mozart and Bach as two god-like figures to whom you’re supposed to bow and pray… The Jupiter Symphony starts with something that is very aggressive and confrontational, even though it’s kind of regal. And what’s the next thing that happens? [Something] very inviting and alluring. That’s the Aperghis! The Aperghis is very much like Mozart!

EF: I’ll take that as a compliment, and I’ll send him a message on Facebook right now and tell him you said that!

BL: After intermission we have this piece by Michael Gordon entitled Dry. The ensemble is an interesting spin-off of the various ensembles that will be on the stage prior to that. We have a violin, viola, cello, a double bass; we have a synthesizer set to an electric piano sound, we have an electric guitar with distortion, an alto flute, a clarinet, a trombone, and a percussionist who is playing pitched Taiwanese gongs, but they’re lying on a table, so they’re muted.

I say this on purpose, because the idea of gamelan is running throughout this entire piece. Not that it’s an imitation of gamelan, but you listen and you say this is very gamelan-esque.

It’s a very cool piece, it’s the piece on the program we could perhaps say it’s the dessert after the more serious discourse. It’s rhythmically engaging, like Michael Gordon’s music always is, and there’s something very intriguing about his use of the strings, because a lot of the time they almost sound like gamelan instruments because they do a lot of pizzicato things that double the muted gongs.

Oh, and the whole ensemble in amplified, which the other ensembles aren’t. This specific orchestrational device, the idea of amplification, started with Steve Reich, really. You use amplification not just to amplify and balance certain instruments, but also to get a different sound. When you have a contact mic on a string instrument, when an alto flute has a microphone amplifying it, it has a different sound than when it’s all-acoustic.

One more time, can we give the order from top-down?

VS: The Hurel.
MP: Followed by the Knussen.
EF: Followed by the Aperghis.
BL: Intermission, followed by the Gordon.

The appeal of this concert isn’t just the music, it’s that a different person, with three “students-in-residence” are conducting each piece. What have you learned from each other?

MP: It’s always a pleasure to see your colleagues work. We work in a rehearsal time slot, and so we change throughout that time slot. To watch your colleagues address issues in rehearsal, and to get a piece not just up and running, but up, running, and polished is always a pleasure and a privilege. It’s always great to see how other people do what you do accomplish a similar goal.

EF: … I agree. Look, it’s just downright fun. It’s fun to see how things that are self-evident, how one brings their own personality to a performance space, how we interact between pieces, how these little things change chemistry in the room.

I have to say, each of us has a very special and individual relationship with the players in the group. I think the individual relationship we have with the players of Musica Nova is really remarkable. I think we’re really lucky to be performing with these young musicians, and they sometimes show use new things; they make it better than we could ever have thought or imagined. They want it as badly as we do. That’s a really special thing.

VS: It’s different from conducting an orchestra, because we’re part of the ensemble as a chamber musician. It’s not just waving our arms and (saying) “You have to do that…” It’s more interaction with the players. Sometimes the players will suggest some stuff to you, and you follow it. Sometimes we’ll throw off ideas.

BL: It’s a more intimate setting than in an orchestra, though my feeling is that an orchestra should really just be like chamber music but on a large scale. I would just like to say as the person observing everything, that I’m deeply touched and deeply inspired watching these three guys – my students and the students in the ensemble – and to see the rapport that goes on.

Typically, instrumentalists don’t always like conductors. It’s just one of those things. I have to say that what I see that goes on in the room is very inspiring to me. There’s a great sense of support from everybody, everybody works together very well, the results are fantastic. The rehearsal we had today was exceptional, they’re playing like pros, and they’re conducting like pros, and that’s rare to have that across the board.