David Toub’s Ataraxia, a unique compositional vision


ataraxia

World Edition 0029

David Toub is a composer whose name is known to perhaps relatively few right now but whose star is clearly rising.  Born on the east coast he studied at Mannes College and at Julliard with Bruce Adolphe and others but his musical education reached maturity when he was studying at the University of Chicago and running the contemporary music programming at the college radio station.  While he had written some twelve tone and freely atonal music it was his encounter with a 1979 WKCR broadcast of Einstein on the Beach that changed his compositional vision.  The musics of Philip Glass, Steve Reich, Terry Riley, and protominimalist Morton Feldman would henceforth infuse his style.

drtoub

David Toub

He is also what I have termed a composer with a day job.  Like Charles Ives (who sold insurance) and Alexander Borodin (who was a chemist, physician and surgeon) he makes his livelihood in the decidedly non-musical world of gynecologic surgery.  Another analog for people like David would have to be William Carlos Williams, a pediatrician whose place in American letters is assured by his poetry and novels.

I personally discovered David’s music via his website where one can find a great deal of his scores and (very helpful) sound files of many of his works.  It is definitely worth your time to browse these scores and sounds if only to get an idea of the scope of the composer’s visions.  By his own admission his music resembles that of Philip Glass, Steve Reich and Morton Feldman but perhaps it is more accurate to say that one may be reminded of these composers since his music is anything but derivative.

Some of his music has been championed by the fabulous Monacan pianist Nicolas Horvath whose You Tube Channel is a feast for new music aficionados.  In fact Horvath’s reading of “for four” (2012) can be heard and seen there.  David also has a You Tube Channel with some live performances that are well worth your time.

Many of David’s scores do fit the more conventional (ca. 20 min) time frame of most concert music but some of his most interesting scores lean toward the extended time frames common to Morton Feldman’s late work (in the liner notes he refers to a recent piano piece which lasts four hours).  These require a bit more concentration and multiple hearings to be able to perceive the compositional unity but, having done that, I can tell you that my time was well spent.

ginsburgh-de-face

Stephane Ginsburgh (from the pianist’s web page)

Stephane Ginsburgh is a Belgian new music pianist whose repertoire traverses some of the work of Morton Feldman as well as Frederic Rzewski and others.  He, along with Alessandra Celetti and Louis Goldstein were the dedicatees of the “quartet for piano”.   Having been already familiar with Toub’s work I was pleased to find that Mr. Ginsburg’s interpretive skills both do justice and provide insight to these scores which on paper (or in a PDF file) are difficult to grasp.  In fact these performances are mesmerizing.

“quartet for piano” (2010) comes in at 46:48 and the second track “for four” (2012) comes in at 22:58 but the timings are ultimately superfluous once the listener allows themselves to be taken by the collaborative adventure of this composer and performer.  I don’t think I can do justice speaking of the structure of this music except to say that, in this listener, it was like listening to the slow ringing changes of Zen Temple bells in a distant dream.  I have had the opportunity to play this CD without distraction a few times and each time found it transporting with the music taking on almost symphonic dimensions despite it’s outward simplicity.

This is a crowd funded effort in which I was a willing participant.  The lovely graphic design is by faberludens utilizing detail from a mysterious photograph by Richard Friedman (long time host of Music from Other Minds) and provides an apt visual metaphor for the music therein.  The conversation between the composer and Udo Moll dominate the liner notes and provide very useful insights to the origins and intents behind the composer’s work.

The sonorous piano is a Bösendorfer 225 and the recording was done by Daniel Léon with mastering by Reinhard Kobialka.  CD production curated by Udo Moll on Maria de Alvear’s World Edition label.  Soon to be available on iTunes and Amazon.

The other supporters named include: Maria de Alvear, Sergio Cervetti, Carson Cooman, Chris Creighton, Kathie Elliott, Paul Epstein, Sue Fischer, Alex Freeman, Richard Friedman, Stephane Ginsburgh, Louie Goldstein, Matthew Greenbaum, Hazem Hallak, Barnabas Helmajer, Christian Hertzog, Robert Kass, Harry Kwan, Steve Layton, Connie Lindenbaum, Richard Malkin, Shadi Mallak, Leah Mayes, Kirk McElhearn, Juhani Nuorvala, Rebecca Pechefsky, Lou Poulain, John Prokop, Simon Rackham, David Reppert, Larry Roche, Larry Rocke, Dave Seidel, Kel Smith, Beth Sussman, Eliyahu Ungar-Sargon, Samuel Vriezen, and Ann Wheeler.  The composer also includes his family, Debbie Bernstein, Arielle Toub and Isaac Toub for their emotional support and (in his typical self-effacing humor) “tolerance” of what he calls his “odd compositional habit”.  As habits go this one appears to be a winner.

 

Jennifer Koh, Putting Tchaikovsky in Context


tchaikoh

Cedille CDR 166

Let me start here with a confession:  I have never been a real big fan of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto.  However I am a huge fan of Jennifer Koh and of Cedille Records in their intelligent productions which place music like this in a more proper context.  The usual pairings of this concerto with Brahms or Beethoven only seem to highlight the distinct difference in style rather than a context more conducive to the appreciation of the music. Another problem with Tchaikovsky is that his reputation tends to hang on the 1812 Overture, the Violin Concerto, the first Piano Concerto and the last three Symphonies.  He wrote a lot more than that (including ten operas and three string quartets).

Now with that bit of whining out of the way let’s take a look at the recording at hand.  Jennifer Koh is one of the shining lights of contemporary violin soloists and that alone should be sufficient recommendation to listen to any of her recordings or performances. She holds a special place in this reviewer’s heart for her attention and expertise with contemporary music and for having performed the solo violin part in the most recent production of Philip Glass’ Einstein on the Beach.  In costume with a shaggy wig she brought new and highly virtuosic life to that obbligato violin part.

It is her virtuosity and her perspective as one of the more recent generations of artists to wield this classic string instrument that holds the main interest here.  The Tchaikovsky concerto has been the darling of all the great violinists from Heifetz and Kreisler to Milstein and Stern. I suppose that every violinist must confront this work at some point and it is a genuine challenge as well as a showpiece for virtuosity.

The other works on this disc (which are presented chronologically) are the Serenade Melancolique Op. 26 (1875), the Valse-Scherzo Op. 34 (1877) followed by the Concerto Op. 35 (1878) and finally the Souvenir d’un lieu cher Op. 42 (1878, originally for violin and piano orchestrated by Alexander Glazounov and published in 1896).  Hearing this concerto in the context of the composer’s other works for violin and orchestra does more clearly delineate the composer’s process.

In addition to providing a complete accounting of Tchaikovsky’s violin and orchestra music listeners are able to hear the interpretation by this wonderful artist.  Indeed she does truly grasp the grand romantic sweep of the concerto and the more intimate shorter works. Let me say too that if you like the concerto you will also find much delight in the shorter works which frame it on this disc.  Her virtuosity shines and Koh’s ability to handle romantic as well as modern repertoire certainly mark her as a versatile modern master.

Of course one can’t miss the powerful contribution of the orchestra in considering these performances.  The Odense Symphony Orchestra (Denmark) is absolutely stunning in its clarity and drive.  The conductor Alexander Vedernikov is of Russian musical royalty (both his parents were accomplished musicians) and was the conductor of the Bolshoi from 2001-2009.  He is definitely a name to follow and his feel for this music of his homeland is most genuine and exciting.

This truly excellent recording is produced by Grammy winning veteran producer Judith Sherman.  Session engineering is by Viggo Mangor with post-production and editing respectively by Bill Maylone and Jeanne Velonis.  Audiophiles might even want to have this disc for the sound alone.  It’s that good.

Impossible, you say?


einsteintrain

The first scene

 

I had the pleasure of seeing the recent production of the Philip Glass/Robert Wilson “opera” ‘Einstein on the Beach’ in Berkeley on October 28th.  I had seen the production at the Brooklyn Academy of Music 20 years ago and have loved the music since I first bought the recording issued on the short-lived Tomato record label (this is the performance now available on Sony).  It is clearly a work which compels me and has insinuated itself into my world view.

The production was beautiful.  The musicians as always played well under the precise and confident direction of Michael Riesman who has apparently conducted every performance of the opera (that alone is an astonishing feat).  The dancers were spectacular in their execution of Lucinda Childs’ unusual choreography.  And the solo violin played in this production by violinist Jennifer Koh breathed a new virtuosic life into the familiar solo part.

Dance with spaceship

The set design and lighting were about as good as it gets and the performers appeared to be well rehearsed and operated as well oiled parts of the unified whole of the machine that is Einstein on the Beach.  It was a production that was loving and well received by the audience (a genuinely appreciative standing ovation followed the performance) in this, the west coast premiere of this landmark piece from 1976.   It is certainly worth noting that it took 36 years for this to be produced in even this most liberal of musical places.

I have hesitated to write about this performance partly because I didn’t want to simply report my attendance and geeky satisfaction.  I wondered if everything has already been said ad nauseam about this piece and adding yet another adoring review would be pointless and dull.  But the performance (all 4.5 hours of it) left me with a renewed appreciation for the music and the visuals.  It reinforced my belief that this is a truly significant work of art and that it will continue to be revived.  However it is likely that this is the last revival we will see which has been supervised  by the original creators.  Philip Glass is 75 and Robert Wilson is 71.  Lucinda Childs is 72.  And there is at the time of this writing no heir apparent for the Philip Glass Ensemble.

The vaguely apocalyptic themes provide a sort of commentary for our times.  Like any great work of art it continues to take on meaning for subsequent generations.  It is both a response to the milieu in which it was created and a mirror in which is reflected the present time of its performance.  Don’t get me wrong.  This avant-garde masterpiece is hardly easy listening or easy viewing.  In addition to its length it is non-linear, devoid of plot and devoid of most of the conventions by which we normally judge and appreciate both theater and music.

But it has been embraced by many.  Mark Jacobs’ Spring/Summer 2012 Fashion Show featured models walking up and down the runway to the sound of the opening “1, 2, 3, 4…” of the solo chorus which opens the work.  A Pepsi commercial from 2008 titled ‘Einstein’s Choice’ also featured that same chorus.  And the incidental music to any number of nature programs are frequently infused with the now familiar arpeggios endemic to Philip Glass’ compositional style.

Spaceship scene

Combine these things with the fact that revivals of this opera play to nearly or completely sold out houses in New York, France, Berkeley, Mexico City, Amsterdam and Ann Arbor, Michigan.  Granted the revivals are infrequent, the last being 20 years ago, but the draw of this work apparently remains strong suggesting that it is now and will likely remain in the repertoire.

I came away from this production with a sense of exhilaration that I feel when I encounter a great performance of a masterpiece by Mozart, Beethoven or John Coltrane, a sense of connection to a greater meaning such as one finds in all great works of art be they music, theater, painting, literature, film, etc.  And I don’t think I am alone in having felt that.

When I first began listening to this piece in the aforementioned Tomato recording I was both fascinated and perplexed.  I felt compelled to listen again and again and was perplexed at what I was hearing.  But history tells us that few seem to fully appreciate great art at the time of its emergence, that such appreciation takes time.  With time and repeated listenings I began to find the work grow on me, become familiar.

Seeing the 1992 revival in Brooklyn only further reinforced my sense that this is a very significant work and it remains one of my favorite pieces of music.  It is one of the pieces of music that feels to me like a personal discovery, one which I seem to have appreciated to some degree from my first encounter with it.  And my understanding as well as my affection for this work has only increased with time.

What remains to be seen is whether this work can continue to be successful in subsequent productions done by people whose connection to the work is less direct and whether it can continue to speak to subsequent generations.  The majority of the crowd at Zellerbach hall for this performance appeared to be in the 40 to 50+ category which may be in part due to the cost of a ticket.  I hope that it is not lack of interest.

For years, until the new recording was released on Nonesuch Records in 1993, I listened to the 1979 release which, due to the length of the music, abbreviated some of the repetitions to allow the recording to fit on 4 vinyl discs.  It is this recording which I know best and is most deeply imprinted on my memory.

Of course the experience is quite different with the accompanying visuals.  I had learned to appreciate the music alone with just of few still photos to kindle my imagination as to how the full production would appear.  And, not surprisingly, my first encounter with the full production in 1992 exceeded my expectations and provided a new and richer perspective on the meaning of this opera.

When I say “meaning” I am referring only to the meaning which I experience.  I don’t lay any claim to any special knowledge here.  And I think that this and all great works of art sustain their worth through their ability to mean and be associated with a variety of things.  Einstein has different meanings and associations for each individual and perhaps no ultimate “meaning”.

Even the texts associated with the piece are intentionally non-linear, make few concrete references to culture as a whole.  There is no story here, there are only visual images, sonic images and a variety of spoken words which, while in English, have mostly vague meanings.  The issue here is the emotional impact.

Epilogue (Knee Play 5)

‘Einstein’ has clearly affected me emotionally and I am witness to the its effect on the audiences of which I was a part.  When I tell people anything about the meaning of the work I invariably refer to it as “post-apocalyptic” metaphor which ends quite simply with a poignant little love story, if you will, a bedtime story for our times.  After some 4 hours of having presented it’s audience with a plethora of images the opera ends with two lovers on a park bench who sit silently while the bus driver, his vehicle moving slowly from stage right to stage center, narrates the scene.  The lovers sit quietly until, we are told, one speaks up and asks, “Do you love me, John?”  This other’s answer speaks from the throes of youthful optimism and love at first affirming his love and then, when asked, “How much do you love me?”, he answers, “Count the stars in the sky.    Measure the waters of the oceans with a teaspoon.  Number the grains of sand on the seashore.”

This epilogue seems to suggest that, in the end, all that matters is how we experience each other, how well we succeed in communicating on a one to one level.  And perhaps that is also a metaphor for the work’s ability to communicate with subsequent generations.  While we try to communicate we succeed only sometimes.  Great art succeeds only sometimes.  The salient issue is having tried.  Despite the difficulties in communication, in love, in life, we try.  The opera ends in that 1979 recording with the chorus, two speaking voices, violin and organ all ending softly and definitively at the same time as the narration,  “Impossible, you say?”