The reviews are in
A rebuttal to the crazy art slashers: Three Houston concerts illustrate why it'sessential for "old" folks too
And I quote: "It's fine to teach art appreciation in public schools. Just don't use any public money to subsidize any 'artists.' There's plenty of old art already in existence to promote whatever degree of appreciation is necessary."
When I read that, I felt like polishing off a
pint quart gallon of ice cream and pickles and wallowing in a dark self-pity party with an all-night karaoke sing-along of George Crumb's greatest hits. Dark Mother Always Gliding with Soft Feet and La noche de las Luna immediately came to mind.
But alas, I remembered something I had overheard recently that brought things in perspective. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, not their own facts.
JReynolds left this comment on a Houston Chronicle op-ed post written by Musiqa founder and composer, and Shepherd School faculty member, Anthony Brandt, who eloquently and convincingly advocates that music's basic attributes — bending, blending and breaking — are essential to develop young minds with full human capabilities.
One day, this will all be history. What will our legacy be? An artistic dark hole? George W. Bush?
Such engagement creates a networked brain able to parse anything heuristically — environment, data, ourselves. The creation of new art, and the discourse around it, does that. And that's survival. Not a luxury, but a necessity.
Abandoning art would be the equivalent of halting cancer research, teaching Ptolemy's geocentric model as truth and denying future generations of evidence or our own era's ethos. One day, this will all be history. What will our legacy be? An artistic dark hole? George W. Bush?
Music education, and education in general, doesn't end when school is out. Our world isn't static and neither should our exposure to anything that keeps up with an ever-expanding fountain of information and sensory experiences.
Serendipitously, Houston responded in kind with many world and city premieres, aka first-time experiences for an art nut that help keep minds nimble.
A first and possibly a last: Da Camera of Houston's premiere of Tobias Picker Piano Quintet
Composer Tobias Picker was initially baffled by the piano plus string quartet combo, and he wasn't the only one. Schumann, Elgar, Shostakovich, Carter and Dvorak only devoted one work each to the genre and given their respective prolific output, that conveys much about the difficulty in approaching such instrumentation.
When Picker was born, his parents did not name him immediately, he told the audience. They waited until they had an inclination of who Picker may be before doing so. Similarly, it was at the premiere Friday night that the composer christened the chamber work "Live Oaks" as an homage to Houston.
Inspired by the green canopy along the contour of Rice Boulevard, the piece adds to his opus honoring Texas, like Old and Lost Rivers commissioned and premiered by the Houston Symphony in 1987 where Picker was composer-in-residence from 1985-90.
Commissioned by Da Camera of Houston and dedicated to the Brentano String Quartet and pianist Sarah Rothenberg, the nonprofit's artistic director, the 25-minute work is of robust proportions, exhausting Picker's material for that combination of instruments.
The Brentano String Quartet was nothing less than brilliant, finding and bestowing meaning to every note and silence.
The quintet opens with clear representational imagery, with bird chirps emerging from call-and-response patterns in the strings, but then morphs into almost caricature-like abstract sketches with descending lines and rhythmically complex fragments, often containing a healthy dash of humor. The second movement resembles the opening of Copland's Appalachian Springs — slightly gone to the dark side — with open chords that rise creating incomplete arches that yearn for completion.
There is a strong American consciousness in Picker's work, evoking aural illustrations of the frontier experience.
The composer describes the work as a musical drama with the piano taking center stage. He writes a highly difficult score, which at the hands of Rothenberg was given zest, vibrancy and full artistic support. The Brentano String Quartet — in this and the rest of the concert — was nothing less than brilliant, finding and bestowing meaning to every note and silence.
The concert also included Mozart's Clarinet Quintet with Anthony McGill, principal clarinetist of the Metropolitan Opera in New York. His playing clearly exemplified why he holds such a coveted position.
Repighi's Il tramonto with mezzo-soprano Susanne Mentzer was also featured. Mentzer's interpretation of love-found love-lost earned quite the response from listeners.
A birthday surprise: Musiqa Miniatures
If you have an image of contemporary composers as dry, think again. The fivesome that comprises Musiqa's artistic board — Karim Al-Zand, Anthony Brandt, Pierre Jalbert, Marcus Karl Maroney and Rob Smith — decided to outwit listeners by each composing a variation to a "well-known theme" which was premiered on Saturday night.
No other clue was given.
As the piece unfolded, it was clear that the audience, one attentive listener at a time, was having "a ha" moments deciphering the works' code. Appropriately, "Happy Birthday" appeared as Musiqa Miniature's raison d'être.
The writing was deliciously waggish, tongue-in-cheek, per se, but not at all colloquial. There was serious technique behind the familiar tune with musical passages that tested the musicians' virtuosic abilities. Scored for flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano and percussion, the piece unfolds beginning with the melody's opening interval in dialog between the violin and clarinet. Taking on a "mission impossible" quality, the miniatures built momentum to a cacophonous ending filled with nearly-impossible piccolo runs, virile cello double stops and ridiculous violin passages.
Taking on a "mission impossible" quality, the miniatures built momentum to a cacophonous ending filled with nearly-impossible piccolo runs, virile cello double stops and ridiculous violin passages.
The short piece was performed twice which allowed guests another try at picking out the main subject. More chuckles, laughter and a rousing reception followed. Leading the charge was conductor Robert Franz (Houston Symphony's go-to maestro for all education and outreach programs) making his debut with Musiqa.
Also making its Houston premiere was Corigliano's Mr. Tambourine Man, a work inspired by Bob Dylan's lyrics, featuring soprano and contemporary music goddess Karol Bennett. To prep the audience, guitarist Robert Wolf joined Bennett for the original, sentimental setting of "Blowin' in the Wind." Corigliano's aural environment juxtaposed a layer of meaning and gave justice to the otherwise unsupported text at the hands of simplistic music.
Bennett delivered an emotionally rich performance. For those familiar with the the songs — "Masters of War," "All Along the Watchtower" and "Forever Young" were also a part of the set — listening was more than just a mere nostalgic journey. Filled with text painting and heavy imagery, Bennett managed to embrace the vulnerable role and act as an intermediary between the text, music and audience.
Building with music: Pierre Jalbert's 9/11 memorial for the Houston Symphony
When composer Pierre Jalbert, on faculty at Rice University's Shepherd School of Music, was approached by the Houston Symphony to craft a piece commemorating the 10th anniversary of the attacks that toppled the twin towers at the World Trade Center, he was somewhat stuck by the request.
Jalbert hadn't experienced direct personal loss and like most Americans, he knew others who experienced the loss of a loved one. Shades of Memory started to take shape as a musical representation of what we typically imagine as a memorial. Though the work isn't directly representational, there's no mistaking his majestic use of sonorities as a symbol for physically putting something significant together.
For thematic material, Jalbert decided on two Gregorian chants. Dies Irae (Day of Wrath) first appears in antiphonal chimes placed on either side of the stage. As the piece develops, the toll of the bells metamorphose into the melody associated with Agnus Dei (Lamb of God) which contains the words Dona nobis pacem (grant us peace). At its conclusion, Shades of Memory offers hope, healing and repose.
The efficacy of a composition can always be assessed by the audience attentiveness during and after a work. No coughs, nor candy wrappers, nor whispers nor unnecessary sounds interrupted the highly emotional experience. Jalbert did chose an atonal and modern language, one that intelligibly and comprehensibly shifted listener's paradigms to one of quiet introspection.
After silence that extended the work itself, the audience responded in-kind with overwhelming applause and a standing ovation, a rare occurrence for the overture of any concert.