Jahrzeit

One year ago today, April 19, Freddie Gray died while in police custody. His death inspired protests in Baltimore; in the following days, these protests would combine with escalating tensions, eventually resulting in the Baltimore Uprising of April 27.

12523941_1744113299166935_2710351836599900511_nOne year ago today, April 19, an extraordinary piece with an extraordinary text was being
performed: Rise. With music by Judah Adashi and poetry by Tameka Cage Conley, the work “bears witness to America’s civil rights journey from Selma to Ferguson” [composer’s program notes].

This evening, Baltimore citizens remembered Gray’s death through words, music, and images as Rise received a full performance in Mt. Vernon Place United Methodist Church.

 

The Statue Next Door

Mt. Vernon Place UMC is a commonly used venue for events that have a connection to the Peabody Conservatory (Adashi is on faculty at the school), as it is located across the street from the institute’s front entrance. A beautiful, neo-gothic building, the church is also mere steps away from the statue of former Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger B. Taney.

Laura Kigweba, pastor at Mt. Vernon Place, called attention to Taney’s stony presence in her pre-concert remarks, noting that his rulings continued to deny people of color the human rights that should, indeed, be inalienable. But things do not always remain the same. “Have you ever felt transformation?”, she asked: “This is transformation…you are in the midst of it.”

Art and Activism

Race, activism, and transformation were all key topics in the panel discussion that preceded the concert itself. Moderated by Brittani McNeill, the panel included former pro-Football-player-turned artist Aaron Maybin, actress (of The Wire fame) and screenwriter Sonja Sohn, writer and activist Tariq Touré, and writer, educator, and speaker D. Watkins. Sohn emphasized that “it is the responsibility of artists…to evolve humanity,” and Maybin noted the “symbiotic relationship between art and social movements.”

Integral to the discussion was the question: “How can I help?” This is a complex issue, which the panel readily accessed. All too often, reports surface of would-be helpers swooping into a situation without contacting local advocacy organizations and lacking research and context, potentially leaving suspicion and confusion in their wake. How to reach out, then, when privilege and thoughtlessness have aggravated, as Sohn aptly put it, the pervasive “ancestral trauma” caused by hundreds of years of racism? Watkins emphasized the importance of bridge-building: the answer is not in one-off instances of palliative care, but in fostering relationships, and breaking down our individual egos. Touré advocated acknowledging common cause, but also emphasized the need for continued artistic creation in minority communities: once there are a diversity of artists and a diversity of experiences being represented in poetry, prose, film, and other art forms, then creators and enactors needn’t follow the appointed roles assigned to them by outsider privilege.

Bridges

Rise is a beautiful example of the potential for such artistic bridge-building. Conley’s texts are potent and expressive, yet crafted with clockwork accuracy to deliver an emotional blow, splitting open a wellspring of empathy to which everyday tragedy has inured us. Adashi’s music is simple (not simplistic); organicism combines with developed subtleties to create a humming harmonic and formal palette. Together, the artists—who met at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts—have crafted a work which upholds the legacy of civil rights and, by creating a community around it, have built a bridge leading towards a better world. As Conley states in the last movement of Rise: “Heaven, a bridge beneath their feet.”

The Beauty of the Protest

The concert itself began with The Beauty of the Protest, a recent work by Adashi for amplified ‘cello, performed by Lavena Johanson. Meditative, but with a slow, thrumming intensity, the work was inspired by photographer Devin Allen, who captured black and white images of the Baltimore Uprising on Instagram. Johanson’s focused and lyrical playing (and voice) combined with Adashi’s modal unfolding to provide a harmonic cornerstone for the evening. A reading of a new poem by Tariq Touré followed, reminiscent in its structure of the Gospel-style rhetoric of King’s “I have a dream” speech, summoning the visage and memory of Freddie Gray. As Conley pointed out following his reading, regarding Gray and the all-too-many young Black men who perished in similar circumstances: “They are here,” in the memories, words, and invocations of the evening.

Rise itself is organized in seven sections, an Invocation and six numbered movements. The work is for chamber ensemble, double choir, and soloists, performed tonight (as well as last year) by the superb group Afro Blue. Conley read the text aloud at two-movement intervals, providing verbal touchstones in the progression of musical events.

Several harmonic progressions and textures act as unifying elements for the work, offset by individual “character pieces.” Movements 1 (“Edmund Pettus Bridge, March 7, 1965”), 3 (“O Light (From Troy to All the Cities)”) and 5 (“Remains”) hint at an undergirding choral texture, homophonic with chromatic-third-relations that provide both stability and color. Movements 2 (“A Blues, in the Light of Overcoming”), 4 (“Alpha & Omega”), and 6 (“MericanAnthem”) each provide a distinct character, though without seeming derivative. Movement 2, certainly Blues-y, has a harmonic richness and verve that engage the listener in the overall arc; Conley’s text in “Alpha & Omega” reveals a keen sense of rhythmic and formal flow, which Adashi skillfully realizes; and “MericanAnthem” gently weaves in triadic hints at our National Anthem, but in a wistful, hopeful strain that effaces any blatant Nationalism.

For me, “Remains” is the dramatic heart of the work. A roughly ten-minute long movement, it incorporates the Invocation’s chaconne-like chordal repetition in the piano and soulful flugelhorn (provided by Roderick Demmings and Christopher Shiley, respectfully) and redolent of the thrumming mass of both The Beauty of the Protest and “O Light (From Troy to All Cities),” replete with ever-so-slightly sour notes between the melodic lines and harmonies. “Remains” examines the heart of loss, the occasional miracles of hope, and the fervent plea: “Nation, can we rise like air?” This question becomes a command in both the title of the work, and in the choir’s fervent chorale that closes the movement:

“Rise,

Rise,

Rise.”

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Now Hear This: Music of Steve Reich

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This 2015-2016 season, a new ensemble appeared on the block of East Mount Vernon Place—Peabody’s new contemporary chamber ensemble, Now Hear This. It is appropriate that the name of this flexibly-configured group approaches a command rather than a mere suggestion—the programming of just this first season, consisting of a fall and a spring concert, is gripping. The fall concert featured music of Donnacha Dennehy (with the composer in attendance), Gérard Grisey, and Julia Wolfe; the spring concert, which occurred on Friday, April 15, focused on music of Steve Reich.

The ensemble is directed by violinist Courtney Orlando of Alarm Will Sound and advised by Peabody Faculty member David Smooke, both highly imaginative and invigorating members of the new music community—and, importantly, inspiration mentors to their students. Smooke recently was awarded the Johns Hopkins Alumni Association Excellence in Teaching Award for 2016, and, when Orlando and Smooke invited their student performers to speak prior to the concert, each spoke with passion, eloquence, and experience regarding their commitment to new music.

As the Nation’s Oldest Conservatory undergoes a variety of renewals—from new paint in the parking garage to streamlined administrative relations—it is beyond satisfying to witness these institution-sponsored performances of living composers. A number of other new music ensembles exist at Peabody (and even more outside of it), including the Camerata and the Peabody Modern Orchestra. The former tends to present bastions of the 20th Century—a recent outstanding concert featured Lisa Perry in a performance of Schoenberg’s Erwartung—and the latter, conducted by Dr. Harlan Paker, recently presented works of Nico Muhly, Libby Larsen, and many other living composers. The opportunity to present cutting-edge chamber works of the 21st century (or close to it) was ready to be seized—and thus we Now Hear This.

The April 15 concert opened with Music for Pieces of Wood, performed by members of the Peabody percussion studio. Notably, this occurred in the foyer of the Grand Arcade as a unnamedpre-concert performance. This proved immensely satisfying: for one, the Mondrian-like symmetries of the foyer paired well with the pulsing, interweaving lines of Reich’s music. Further, this inspired an informal, yet focused, vibe—the audience was here to hear Reich, and they stood, sat, leaned in, leaned back, and grooved along with the percussionists and their mallets. This last is important: the grooving was infectious. Watching the audience listen, one witnessed the varying scales of individual entrainment as audience members latched on to different beat patterns: large scale, small scale, behind or in front of or around the beat. Our individual/collective rhythmic impulses resonated Reich’s musical statement, as the audience ourselves demonstrated the malleability of time and silence, and the amalgamation of the piling on of pulse.

These piled pulses were on full display in the supple clarinet lines of the second pre-concert work, New York Counterpoint, for tape (with ten recorded clarinet and bass clarinet lines) and solo clarinet. The work was artfully and accurately performed by Mellisa Lander, who confidently navigated the treacherous clarino-register passages that ended the composition. In the front row, two groovers in the form of children laughed and smiled along to the pinball-like lines that bounced between registers: the stage was set, not just for a high level of musical performance, but for the child-like sense of wonder that new beauty should inspire.

The concert proper consisted solely of Music for 18 Musicians. One of Reich’s masterworks, this hour-long composition cycles through a series of chordal and rhythmic transformations that, though rigorously planned (in his pre-concert remarks, Smooke reminded the audience that Minimalism was, after all, a brand of Modernism and that this work was “as rigorous as any Modernist piece), seem ultimately natural. The concentration necessary for the performers to navigate this harmonic labyrinth is staggering. With so many layered units, the work also has a flexible, mobile-like existence, as audience members interpret it individually: “Everyone hears it a little differently,” percussionist Christina Manceor mentioned in the pre-concert remarks. However, under the watchful eye and gentle gestures of Orlando, the ensemble seemed to pulse as one organism, clockwork cells whirring and spinning at once independently and in tandem. Reich’s straightforward titles and compositional processes that straddle the simple and complex demonstrate an abstract removal from representation that allows for a blank but visceral palette—the performers grasped this, and lived it.

As Smooke mentioned, this concert was presented just nine days shy of the 40th anniversary of the premiere of Music for 18 Musicians. The work was not published until 1999, but it has taken some time for it to filter into the repertoire of conservatory performance: students of the San Francisco Conservatory performed it in 2013, and both Juilliard and the Oberlin Contemporary Music Ensemble in 2010. This creative and invigorating programming is precisely right for Peabody as it looks to its future, granting students, performers, and audiences the opportunity to Hear This: Now.

The Bridge Ensemble @ Light City

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On April 1 at 7 pm, the Bridge Ensemble, Baltimore’s newest early/modern choral group, will perform at the inaugural Light City Festival, occurring in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor Area. The Bridge Ensemble joins a wonderfully diverse lineup of musical acts, the “classical” side of things including Convergence Maximus – another must-see occurring under the auspices of the War Memorial Arts Initiative and featuring the Concert Artists of Baltimore and the Baltimore Rock Opera Society – as well as Symphony No. 1. I had the opportunity to listen in on Bridge’s dress rehearsal, and I heartily recommend you hear their sumptuous program.

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Gilbert Spencer, Bridge Ensemble Artistic Director

The Bridge Ensemble is directed by Gilbert Spencer, a Baltimore native (his parents are both prominent musicians in the area) and graduate of Northwestern University – though before his college years, he sang in the renowned male treble choirs of St. Thomas, New York and the American Boychoir. The tonal clarity of the Anglican choral tradition infuses the Bridge Ensemble’s sound, which, aptly, bridges older works (specifically those from the Medieval and Renaissance Eras) to contemporary compositions.

The hour-long cappella program (no easy feat – especially as it is to be performed in the dark with only illumination on music stands) includes a wealth of early-versus-modern pairings centered around the theme of Light. Opening with Renaissance composer Louis Bourgeouis’ O Gladsome Light, based on the c. 4th century Greek hymn Phos hilaron, one immediately warms to the group’s balanced tone and responsive, unified interaction with its conductor: it is clear that the homophonic style of this work gels with Spencer’s Anglican choral training. Following this are two contemporary works, O Oriens by Philadelphia-based composer Melissa Dunphy and Lithuanian composer Vytautas Miškinis’ Lucis creator optima. Dunphy’s motet unfolds with a chant-like opening, creating

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Melissa Dunphy

an organic link between the modern and ancient, and expanding into lush diatonic clusters and triads. Shimmering seconds in the upper register frequently give way to strong harmonic pillars and a few change-of-mode surprises. In a similar harmonic vain, Miškinis’ work offers unique gestural content to bookend his composition, with invigorating, upward rushing gestures setting off a high-versus-low antiphony, revealing homophonic chords pitted against taught, tenor pedal points. Miškinis’ setting was followed by a Tomás Luis de Victoria work based on the same text, sung with a fluidity that once again showed off Spencer’s Anglican training – this is no stodgy Latin motet, but a living, breathing work with relevance.

For me, the jewel in this program is undoubtedly a new composition by a member of Bridge’s bass section, Michael Rickelton‘s setting of Rage Against the Dying of the Light, based on Dylan Thomas’ “Do not go gentle into that good night.” I may be biased, but Rickelton’s approach to text-setting reveals a composer who is astutely aware of poetic content, musical form, and vocal timbre. The work opens with terse statements of “rage,”

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Michael Rickelton (Photo Credit: Amber Dawkins)

followed by men’s voices settling lower while the treble lines provide licks of flame that reveal the scope of the work’s musical canvas. Rich harmonic and timbral progressions demonstrate Rickelton’s sensitivity to text, voice, and the interaction thereof–particularly poignant are his settings of “gentle,” alternatingly weeping and nostalgic, clinging and pleading. Echoes of the “rage”-ing opening occur throughout the work, hinting at far-reaching structural elements that weave throughout the piece, a trait which calls to mind music of Michael Hersch and the fraught organicism that undergirds his musical forms. (Rickelton and I both studied with Hersch, and I find one of the long-reaching effects of such study to be a focus on the form and ritual of a composition.)

One of the most impressive aspects in Rickelton’s work is his fusion of personal style and idiom. Though the diatonic clusters that are now almost a given in contemporary choral compositions are certainly present, they feel integrated into the work; likewise, triadic pillars are no mere artifacts, but are part of a spectrum within the complex harmonic palette. The organic, utterly non-formulaic structure of the work ultimately returns to the opening material before gently fading – hoping? dying? transcending? – into the choirboy tones of a soprano duet, weaving between thirds and seconds that ring clearly and truly.

The remainder of the program includes Anglican touchstones by Byrd and Tallis (Christe qui es lux et dies and O nata lux), a motet by Guilluame du Fay, Ebb Tide by Latvian composer  Ēriks Ešenvalds, Joby Talbot’s Wishing Tree (Talbot’s Path of Miracles was recently performed by the Handel Choir of Baltimore – their soloists Sara Woodward and Claire Galloway Weber are members of Bridge), and a setting of Star in the East (Brightest and Best) from Southern Harmony, redolent of Anonymous 4’s treatment of 19th-century American. In all, a choral festival to light up the night, and your aural imagination – don’t miss it.