Rave Review for Maria Schleuning and Jolyon Pegis!!!

“A turbulent Russian concerto grosso spoke to conflicted feelings
in Friday’s DSO ReMix concert” (January 20, 2017)

One could argue that Alfred Schnittke’s Concerto Grosso No. 2 was just the piece for the profoundly unsettled, conflicted national mood Friday night. Again and again, the solo violin and cello attempt to represent order, to spin out baroque figurations and weave hints of a melody suggestive of “Silent night.” But after an initial parody of a Bach Brandenburg Concerto, the orchestra repeatedly stirs up noisy, turbulent dissonance. Proprieties and pleasantries must battle with onslaughts of vulgar marches and fanfares and sheer noise.

The Schnittke was the centerpiece of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra’s more intimate and less formal ReMix concert at the Dallas City Performance Hall. At 35 minutes, in four nonstop movements, it was certainly one of the most challenging pieces of music heard around here anytime recently. The guest conductor was Courtney Lewis, a Northern Ireland native now music director of the Jacksonville (Florida) Symphony. His to-the-point introduction to the Schnittke, spoken in a crisp British accent, was exactly what such things should be but rarely are.

Schnittke (1934-1998), the most prominent Russian composer after Shostakovich, early on evolved a signature polystylism. The Concerto Grosso No. 2, from 1982, displays a characteristic mix of simple and complex, retro and avant-garde, high and low musical styles; it’s music Charles Ives might have composed if he’d been born 60 years later in Russia. The orchestra includes both harpsichord (synthesizer in this case) and electric bass guitar, as well as an array of tuned and untuned percussion; both strings and timpani execute woozy pitch slides.

Violinist Maria Schleuning and cellist Jolyon Pegis, two DSO musicians with considerable modern-music experience in the Voices of Change ensemble, played brilliantly–no small accomplishment–but also, when called for, subtly. The orchestra whipped up the requisite commotions. An audience conspicuously younger than at Meyerson Symphony Center concerts applauded enthusiastically.

The Schnittke had a logical companion in the Prokofiev Classical Symphony, an earlier 20th-century Russian piece also looking back at 18th-century music. Here, though, the allusions are affectionate rather than cynical, and more to Haydn than to Bach. It’s music tuneful and toe-tapping and utterly charming.

In a 750-seat hall, as opposed to the Meyerson’s 2,000, and with strings somewhat reduced from norms at the Meyerson, winds  were more prominent than usual. With energetic conducting from Lewis, they smartly dispatched their duties, as did the strings, although the latter scrambled to keep up with an unduly frantic tempo in the finale. And both the third and fourth movements wanted a lighter touch.  The program, performed without intermission, opened with a spirited account of Beethoven’s Creatures of Prometheus Overture.

Scott Cantrell, former classical music critic of The Dallas Morning News, has also written for The New York Times and numerous music magazines.

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“Rite of Spring” Concert Review

Rite Mind
Voices of Change offers up a typically fascinating program of rarities and newer work, with a piano four-hands arrangement of The Rite of Spring.

by Gregory Sullivan Isaacs
published Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Dallas — Voices of Change, an ensemble dedicated to the music of our time, presented a fascinating program of musical reconsiderations on Sunday, Jan. 8, at Caruth Auditorium on the campus of Southern Methodist University.  One of the selections, a piano four-hands arrangement of Stravinsky’s ballet The Rite of Spring, was revelatory when stripped down to its bare bones. We heard a new take on Witold Lutoslawski’s Bucolics for Piano in his later arrangement condensing the music to only two voices: violin and cello.
Another, Stop Speaking (2011) by Andy Akiho, was remarkable for its unusual instrumentation: a snare drum and pre-recorded voice. There was a rarity by Ravel. And then there was something completely new, Motion Studies by Mark Buller, the last movement of which was a winner in the Rapido! composition contest.

Let’s start with Buller’s Motion Studies. It received an admirable performance by clarinetist Paul Garner, violinist (and VOC artistic director) Maria Schleuning and pianist Gabriel Sanchez. Buller writes in a modernist take on traditional harmony with lots of virtuoso passages, use of extremes of the instrument’s range and negative space created by the strategic use of silences. The first movement, “Treatise on Friction,” introduced the technical abilities of the instruments. The next, “Jeux” (games) was suitably playful and slighted canted. The last, the prizewinner, “Regressive Variations,” is a contrarian take on the traditional theme and variations in that the theme assembles as the piece progresses.

Akiho’s “Stop Speaking” was the most memorable piece on the program because of its novelty. Percussionist Drew Lang played a complex part on the snare drum that utilized all of its special effects and ran a litany of rudiments. The recorded voice harkened back to the earlier era of the avant garde with its rapid-fire vocalizations, in sync with the drumming, of words in no particular order and random consonants and vowels. It would have been more fun if the balance was better, but the snare drum covered the voice most of the time.

The Lutoslawski was played by violist Barbara Sudweeks and cellist Jeff Hood. The piece was not harmed by the transition to string instruments but the percussiveness of the piano was missed.

Chansons madécasses (Madagascan Songs) by Maurice Ravel, a rarely heard cycle of three songs, was brilliantly performed by pianist Liudmila Georgievskaya, flutist Kara Kirkendoll Welch, cellist and mezzo-soprano Virginia Dupuy. The lyrics come from Chansons madécasses, a collection of poems by Évariste de Parny. “Nahandove” is an exotic meditation on love. “Aoua” is a call to arms to fight the “white people”, and “Il est doux” speaks of the pleasures of relaxing after a hard day of work.
It is a difficult work to pull off, even with such outstanding musicians on hand. Its minimal instrumentation deprives us of the lush harmonic extravagances of Ravel’s more familiar works. However, this performance made a good case for more performances of the piece.

Stravinsky’s ballet score, Le sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring) caused a sensation, some say a riot, at its premiere in 1913 for the Paris season of Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. Part of the hostile reception was the assault of its searing, highly colored and even barbaric in-your-face orchestration; a far cry from La Sylphide, a tutu-filled very traditional ballet, brimming with battements, which opened the program.

It was brilliantly performed by Liudmila Georgievskaya and Thomas Schwan. But, shorn of its stunning orchestral finery, it was hardly shocking at all, or even all that unusual and revolutionary for the time. What commentator Paul Rosenfeld wrote in 1920, “…pound[s] with the rhythm of engines, whirls and spirals like screws and fly-wheels, grinds and shrieks like laboring metal” was remarkably missing from this piano version.
Sacre on Prozac, as it were.

What this points up is the far-reaching influence of Stravinsky’s extensive study with Rimsky-Korsakov, who revolutionized the art of orchestration. His book on the subject is still, despite his self-aggrandizement in the text, a standard for composers to study and digest. You need only look to his most popular work, Scheherazade, to see the foundations of Stravinsky’s ballet. A piano four-hands arrangement of that tone poem is equally disappointing when deluded.

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Theater Jones Top Ten Concerts of 2016

North Texas Performing Arts News

2016 in Review: Music, Part 2
Classical music critic Robin Coffelt remembers her favorite performances of the year.

by J. Robin Coffelt

Larger ensembles in Dallas and Fort Worth had their share of victories in 2016, from the Dallas Opera’s triumphant staging of Jake Heggie’s Moby-Dick to the end of the Fort Worth Symphony’s three-month-long strike.
But smaller organizations had their share of glorious moments in 2016 as well. Here is a list, in chronological order, of ten of those wonderful moments.

In February, The Cliburn’s American Influence Festival concluded with a marvelous performance by baritone Jonathan Beyer, the Attaca Quartet, pianist Henry Kramer, and others in the Kimbell Art Museum’s Renzo Piano Pavilion. These exceptional musicians performed music of Barber, Ives, Copland, and Liebermann. The program demonstrated the diversity of 20th-century American music in spectacular form.
In April, Dallas’ Orpheus Chamber Singers and Houston’s Ars Lyrica collaborated on an appropriately timed spring Messiah. Orpheus was masterful in this sublime performance. As many times as many listeners have heard this work, a performance of this caliber can only make us fall in love with Handel’s oratorio all over again.
In May, Chamber Music International brought us a recital by clarinetist Jon Manasse and Jon Nakamatsu. This was one of the most delightful surprises of the year for me; this was no mere clarinet recital, but was instead an impressive display of both virtuosity and humor.

Also in May, Voices of Change, directed by Dallas Symphony violinist Maria Schleuning, brought yet another of its programs of contemporary chamber music to Dallas. May’s program featured the music of American composer David Dzubay as well as that of the comparatively familiar Krzystof Penderecki. These fine performances were representative of Voices of Change’s commitment to bringing new chamber music, performed at the highest level, to Dallas.

We often think of summer in DFW as being the “off season” for classical music, but summer festivals give us an opportunity to listen to live classical music all year long. One of these festivals is PianoTexas, which takes place in June and July at TCU. It features some major names in the piano world, performing solo recitals and chamber music concerts. This year in June, Davide Cabassi’s solo piano recital was exceptional, as was a chamber music concert featuring members of the Adkins Quartet, Cabassi, and pianist Vadym Kholodenko.
In July, the Mimir Chamber Music Festival, also at TCU, included an absolutely stellar recital by pianists Alessio Bax and John Novacek, along with cellist Brant Taylor and others. Shostakovich’s Cello Sonata received a fine reading by Taylor and Bax, while Taylor was joined by violinists Stephen Rose and Jun Iwasaki and violist Joan DerHovsepian for Schubert’s Death and the Maiden Quartet.

Jon Manasse and Jon Nakamatsu
Also in July, Dallas’ Basically Beethoven Festival offers a series of free concerts at Dallas City Performance Hall. These concerts are a magnificent gift to the community, and invariably fill the hall. This year, Dallas pianist Alex McDonald directed the summer festival. The highlight was an animal-themed program featuring McDonald’s own two-piano arrangement of Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite. This program, which featured mostly short, relatively accessible pieces, is just the sort of thing DFW needs: free or low-cost access to high-caliber, family-friendly performances of classical music.
In October, the Blue Candlelight Music Series, held in a private Dallas home, featured cellist Jesús Castro-Balbi and pianist Alexander Tselyakov in an utterly captivating, intimate recital of Bach, Brahms, Ravel, and Piazzolla. Castro-Balbi’s rich sound and Tselyakov’s pyrotechnics were especially impressive in such close quarters.
Also in October, the Cliburn produced one of the finest programs of the year, featuring the Brentano Quartet and Cliburn gold medalist Haochen Zhang. Since the Brentano Quartet will collaborate with Cliburn finalists during the 2017 competition, this program served as a teaser for what is to come. But it was far more than that: the Brentano Quartet’s performance of Beethoven’s eulogistic Opus 135 quartet was revelatory in its thoughtful brilliance.
Finally, a November offering: Dallas Bach Society’s series of house concerts in Flower Mound and Dallas featured, in the fall, cellist Eric Smith in authentic Baroque performances of Bach’s Cello Suites numbers 1, 3, and 5. Smith will perform the three even-numbered suites in March, which will surely be a treat for the lucky few who score tickets to these in-home concerts. Smith’s interpretation of Bach is an education and a delight.

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October 24, 2016 Nanguan Concert Reviews!

Theater Jones Review published Sunday, October 30, 2016

by Gregory Sullivan Isaacs

Voices of Change opens its season with an intriguing concert of East Asian music,featuring composer Shih-Hui Chen and Taiwan’s Lâm-hun-koh Nanguan Music and Theater Troupe.
Dallas — In its season-opening concert, Voices of Change, a much-lauded group dedicated to performing contemporary music, followed half of a phrase from a bride’s preparation: something old, something new.
We heard a string quartet by composer Shih-Hui Chen, Fantasia on the Theme of Plumb Blossoms. The composer, born in Taiwan, currently leads the composition department at Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music. The theme she borrowed from Plum Blossoms has an ancient heritage and comes from a form of Chinese music called Nanguan. It also describes the ensemble required to play it. It appears to have started in the Fujian Province in southern China and came to Taiwan via Fujianese migrants. Its character is gentle and usually at a slow tempo and originally was only played by the wealthy.

So that we could properly appreciate the source of her borrowed melody, Voices of Change brought an authentic Nanguan ensemble to play some selections from Plum Blossoms, members of Taiwan’s Lâm-hun-koh Nanguan Music and Theater Troupe. The instruments they used were paiban clappers, the lute-like pipa and sanxian, the bowed erxian (like a violin with only two strings), and the recorder-like dongxiao flute.

The clapper is the director of the ensemble, and uses some smallish rectangle wood blocks held together on one end like a fan. She started each piece and clapped on the beat to keep the tempo. This instrument is held on the knee. A slender fingerboard is mounted on a small drum and extends to about shoulder high. It is played with a bow. The Nangun erxian is slightly different than the Cantonese version.

The sanxian is a three-string instrument that is plucked. It is held like a guitar but doesn’t have similar frets.  It sounds like a banjo. The pipa is a Chinese version of the lute, also held like a guitar and plucked with a pick. Both of these instruments have been around for thousands of years and are commonly played in East Asia. Some soloists, such as Wu Man, are world-famous pipa players and tour internationally.
The Plum Blossom music they played was slow and repetitive, based on the pentatonic scale, much like new age music. What struck me was the similarity of cadences to western music with the dominant yearning for the home key. The physics of the overtone series, which defines these relationships, appear to be universal.
It was difficult to discern the Plum Blossoms music we heard from the Nanguan ensemble in the string quartet piece by composer Shih-Hui Chen. It would probably take a few more hearings to ferret out the gentle Chinese melody from her thick dissonant musical language. The middle movement was as roughly aggressive as some of Bartók’s music and she made frequent use of ostinato patterns.  A second work by Shih-Hui Chen, A Plea to Lady Chang’e, added the pipa to the string quartet.  Her musical style was different for this work and somewhat easier to follow. As is the tradition, the pipa player sang in the middle section of the piece.

After intermission, two female actors, Ming-I Wen and Ya-Lan Lin, joined the ensemble to perform a scene from a Nanguan opera. The instruction that was offered about what we were about to see was more than helpful—it was necessary to our enjoyment.  All of their motions were very smooth, almost slow motion, and even the smallest gestures conveyed emotions, actions and situations. They moved their feet with such small steps that they appeared to float.
The two portrayed two traditional characters: the lady and the maid. It was easy to tell the difference between the elegant lady and the saucy maid, although these characterizations were quite subtle.
We rarely hear East Asian music here, and it is very different and intriguing at the same time. After all, when Debussy heard the Javanese Gamelan orchestra at the 1889 Paris Exposition Universelle, the path of music in the 20th century was changed forever. Shih-Hui Chen’s music, as with other Asian composers working today, offers western composers a path to incorporate more world music influences in their own compositions. We will all be richer for it.
Texas Classical Review        http://texasclassicalreview.com/
Music of Shih-Hui Chen was performed by Voices of Change Monday night at SMU.

For nearly half a century, Voices of Change has introduced new music by leading contemporary composers to Dallas audiences. Monday night at Caurth Auditorium on the SMU campus, the chamber ensemble began its 42nd season with notably old music.
No, Voices of Change isn’t suddenly turning into a purveyor of early music. The music of Shih-Hui Chen, the Taiwanese-born head of composition at Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music, served as the keystone of the concert. Samples of Nanguan instrumental music and theater, a traditional Chinese form that heavily influences Chen’s music, preceded and followed two of her substantial chamber works.
Five instrumentalists of the Lam-hun-koh Nanguan Music and Theater Troupe from Taiwan opened the concert with an excerpt from the instrumental cycle Plum Blossoms. For ears conditioned to Euro-American classical music (and its commercial subsidiaries), one of the more striking features of this music is not so much its differences from that music but its resemblances–particularly from the perspective of our own eclectic era. Lean contrapuntal textures, pentatonic melodies, and the gentle tension of the plucked pipa and sanxian, the bowed erxian, the paiban clappers, and the dongxiao flute, have numerous parallels in western music, from Bach to Glass.
The core string quartet of Voices of Change, led by artistic director-violinist Maria Schleuning, followed with Chen’s Fantasia on the Theme of Plum Blossoms. In contrast to the serene, almost emotionless quality of the Nanguan music that inspired it, the first of the three movements at times felt more closely akin to the dissonant expressionism of Schoenberg. A motoric ostinato motif of twelve repeated notes, tossed from instrument to instrument, propelled the Scherzo-like second movement, while hints of Debussy floated through the adagio-like final third movement.
The pipa joined the quartet for A Plea to Lady Chang’e. Here, Chen relied on a more obvious melo while creating resonant harmonic textures reminiscent—at least to western ears—of Copland’s populist ballet scores. In keeping with the Nanguan tradition, the pipa player actually sang about seven minutes into the work, which closed by fading gently away. Chen’s original works clearly represent a unique, meaningful, and valuable link of the western art-music tradition to a significant Asian tradition.
After a brief intermission, singing actresses Ming-I Wen and Ya-Lan Lin joined the five-member Nanguan instrumental ensemble for the “Enjoying the Flowers” excerpt from the Nanguan opera The Lychee and the Mirror. A succinct explanation of the highly formalized traditions of Nanguan opera revealed an art form in which everyday emotions and actions take on a reverential level—and, interestingly, underline class stratification in the relationship of a lady and her maid.
The concert, certainly one of the most interesting events on the classical music scene in Dallas this year, closed with more sections from Plum Blossoms, including enticingly rhythmic, dance-like sections.



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