Monday, May 11, 2015

New (and old) music in a new place

Justin Lepard graduated with a Bachelor's degree from UNL this weekend, but he's already had a positive influence on the Lincoln Classical music scene. Last night, he held his senior recital at The Pilgrimer, a unique coffee house supporting the Lincoln community. Earlier this year, he performed a concert featuring new and exciting pieces which you can read more about here.

Justin Lepard
photo by James Dean
Last night's program featured a variety of styles of music from the Romantic time period to serial music and concluding with Jazz.

The setting was intimate. Just a few rows circling the small stage. Sounds from next door, a pub, were audible through the wall and several times, bass was heard thumping from traffic going by outside. It's not what we're accustomed to in our usual concert-going experience of sitting in a still, quiet, and expansive concert hall. It makes you think that this is how so much music has been experienced over the centuries from chamber ensembles in the 18th-19th centuries and before to the start of so many "garage bands" in the past decades. We're not just passive listeners, we're active participants in the musical experience.

Each piece was exciting and provoking in its own way. Brahms Cello Sonata in E Minor, performed with collaborative pianist, Emily Tidd, was an example of Romantic music, and it was exciting and emotional--especially in that intimate setting. Le Grande Tango of Astor Piazzolla, also performed with Tidd, was a flashy and fun piece showing more modern and Latin inspired Classical music.

While the intimate experience could've been put to even better use by Lepard sharing more thoughts about each piece or by drawing attention to the musical structure or themes to give a sort of listening guide to the audience, he did share one thought that was thought-provoking.

Lepard was about to perform the last three movements of the serialist Six Pieces for Violoncello by Roger Sessions, the first movements of which he had cleverly interspersed before and between the Brahms and Piazzolla, when he started talking about the Beatles. That reference had to get people's attention. Lepard said that the music of the Beatles is more musically complex and creative than you would expect, but when Paul or John would be asked about why they had chosen a specific chord, they wouldn't always even know what that chord was--they just liked it. Why bring this up in reference to a serial piece? Even though serial music is so organized that it is composed using "algorithms" and a matrix, it too is for our experience. Basically, listen; experience. Whether it's the Beatles or Roger Sessions, you can experience music or marvel at the mathematic organization of it--and there's always something to stretch your ears a little.

The cello-bassoon duo was certainly a piece that required an open mind and ear. A piece originally composed for two bassoons by Sofia Gubaidulina, Lepard transcribed the second bassoon part for cello (and had to tune the cello down in order to play it). Performing on the bassoon was Jeffrey McCray, bassoon professor at the School of Music. With two very different instruments, it was fascinating to see and hear the way in which Lepard used his cello--creatively finding techniques with which to perform almost bassoon-like passages.

At the end, Lepard had some fun in store for the audience as Kurt Knecht and Eric Hitt joined him on the tiny stage for some jazz. Evident here was not the concentration and effort seen earlier in the young performer, but the simple and unadulterated joy in creating music.

Lepard is promoting some great ideas: bring art music (of all kinds) to the community in coffee houses and unconventional venues and perform new music and compositions.

These ideas are growing and are awesome to see gaining momentum among Lincoln musicians.

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Tuesday, February 10, 2015

A Night of Cello: Featuring the freedom and fun of contemporary Classical music

Justin Lepard, a cellist in the Lincoln area, was the driving force in putting together the program and concert for Tuesday, February 3, 2015 at St. Mark’s-on-the-Campus. Lepard has a passion for contemporary Classical music and hopes that this is only the first of many more performances of contemporary Classical music in Lincoln. 
Cellist Justin Lepard
courtesy of Myles Jasnowski and Justin Lepard

The Night of Cello concert featured the works of three contemporary composers: Nels Drue Daily, a Lecturer of Music at the University of Nebraska—Lincoln, Jason Eckardt, a composer and musician residing in New York City, and our oft-featured Lincoln resident and composer, Kurt Knecht who was also the pianist for the concert.

Works of Nels Drue Daily

The program opened with Freight Train, a work by Nels Daily that was commissioned by Justin Lepard as the opener for this concert. The composer describes it as “an incessantly motoric and rhythmic piece that requires a firm hand from the performer.” That “firm hand” is certainly evident as the cello digs into the music with driving rhythms and harsh, energetic bowing. The piece is for solo, unaccompanied cello and certainly requires a virtuosic performance by the cellist. You can hear the endless energy even as the freight train seems to run into the distance and then approach again as the dynamics and range of the cello are explored. 

With something that is always a fascinating facet of contemporary Classical music, this piece enjoys the freedom of modern music to explore new harmonies and tonalities (or lack thereof) while focusing on rhythms and harmonies that serve their own unique purpose be it a mood, a picture, a scene, or even a color. Rhythm becomes the organizing and driving force above all else—and aptly so in a piece such as Freight Train.

Composer Nels Drue Daily
courtesy of Justin Lepard
Daily was also the composer of the second piece featured on the concert, Daydream. Here, the audience is treated to a different set of emotions and technical challenges for the performer. Much more legato than the first work performed, the audience member hears varying intervals in the melody, perhaps the wandering thoughts of a daydreamer. The piano accompanies, entering in slowly and then joining in for change of scene and color midway through the piece. The composer explains that this piece “is a meditation on two cradle songs. The first is mine, and the second is from Brahms.” 

The piano features almost an ostinato, a recurrent rhythm and shape to the chords—that suddenly stops, and a new rhythm, harmony, and color emerges. There is a certain repetitious feeling—but the energy and pitch continues growing to a climax! Then, a pause, a peace returns. The piano with mostly single notes and a return to a legato melody played on the cello. Quietly, and beautifully, it fades away.

Featured Piece of Kurt Knecht

The third work on the program was entitled El CafĂ© Iridiscente and is the work of Kurt Knecht which was commissioned by NMTA and LMTA for their 2014 NMTA Conference. When LincolnCMN spoke with Knecht before the premier of this work for cello and piano at the conference, he shared that he thinks it should be “super fun music” and that “most of it is not too heavy or serious. I think there is a problem amongst composers now with this issue. Beethoven wrote a lot of light music, but we never think of that because his ‘light’ works haven’t survived history as well.”

Regardless of whether this work “survives history,” audiences can certainly enjoy it today as Knecht interweaves his love of Latin rhythms, Ginastera, Milhaud, and Latin charts he played in jazz bands. The work is broken into four movements titled, “Rojo, Azul, Perla, and Morado.” 

Composer and pianist Kurt Knecht
courtesy of Justin Lepard
Rojo (red) is fast and fun. The sound is vibrant and features exciting Latin rhythms. Both the piano and cello exude rhythm and color. The cello has both legato and pizzicato moments and the piano features rhythmic chords that make you want to dance along. The music doesn’t slow down, but rushes along excitedly right to the very end. 

Azul (blue) is a little calmer than the first movement and gives a smoother Latin feel, featuring more legato in the piano. A sliding sensation is created—perhaps this blue movement reminds the listener a little of the waves of the ocean as we relax on a sunny, southern beach. There is still a rhythmic energy running throughout—an excitement that makes the audience smile throughout with the happy azul waves. This movement has a sort of aching ending with a slight ritardando as the cello’s melody reaches up and then sinks down for a gentle conclusion.

Perla (pearl) is another slow movement, the slowest of the four, in fact. The cello begins with single notes plucked—and the piano begins with sustained, arpeggiated chords. Can you see the pearl gleaming—round, smooth, and still? After that intro, the bow returns to the strings in a beautiful legato melody, still evoking the smooth, gentle color and shape of a pearl. It is the most reflective of the movements, but with an abrupt ending that reminds you of the fun that is at the heart of this work.

Morado (purple) brings a faster tempo—a more vibrant color. The piano and cello both dive in with driving rhythms from the very start. Still more legato in texture than Rojo, the movement is aptly named: purple is a vibrant and deep color—but exciting and energetic all the same. Once more, the rhythms and harmonies are driving and invigorating. The Latin rhythms are still clearly visible as the driving force as the movement carries the listeners forward to a fast and forte finale.

Are the descriptions apt? What do you hear in the pieces? At Knecht’s blog, you can find the recordings and video of this piece. Listen for the colors yourself!

Work of Jason Eckardt
Composer Jason Eckardt
courtesy of Justin Lepard

The last programmed piece of the concert was the work of Jason Eckardt. His interesting bio describes him as a jazz and metal band guitarist until, upon hearing the work of Anton Webern, Eckardt “immediately” devoted himself to composition. On this program, the audience was treated to a work entitled, A Way (tracing). A more serious piece than the one preceding it, Eckardt’s work has a very modern sound—once again featuring the driving rhythm and creative harmonies made possible by the freedom of contemporary Classical music. The solo cellist has his work cut out for him with the strenuous bowing and multiple stops required. The harmonies are harsh and rushing—and then a brief moment, they stop, another moment and the melody suddenly rises above for a moment of clarity and serene beauty before rushing back into the incessantly driving rhythm. The motion slows down, a few notes here and there…a rush back into rhythm…a pause…a note… The rhythm and notes coming and going require the listeners to keep their ears tuned — you have to sit at the edge of your seat. 

Think that modern music is awful or that you need tonality? No! Just open your ears and enjoy the freedom and blend of sounds and techniques that are influenced by history, by modern music, by the emotions and lives of those who write and perform them now!

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Monday, January 26, 2015

Chamber Music: Personal skills to a new level

The Lincoln Music Teachers’ Association (LMTA) provides many wonderful opportunities to teachers and students in the community and features in many past interviews and articles. On January 17th, LMTA hosted a Chamber Music Festival featuring members of Lincoln’s Symphony Orchestra, Lincoln Suzuki Talent Education members, members of the Home School Orchestra, and Nebraska Chamber Players (NCP).

Students of LMTA teachers working on their ensemble performance.
photo courtesy: LMTA

Kathleen Nguyen, a student who participated in the event, shared that she put in “a lot of practicing for the festival song” and worked hard “trying to perfect it.” Kathleen enjoyed “learning to play in a group, making new friends, and see[ing] lots of instruments and talented students.”

A string ensemble rehearses.
photo courtesy: LMTA
Parents commented on the opportunity it gave their children to learn to work, like Juanita Trexel put it, as “part of a team,” another mother, Kristen Plock, appreciated the opportunity it gave her daughter, a piano student, to “be exposed to chamber music and meet others who enjoy playing this type of music.”

Besides learning to work together to create music, students had the opportunity to be coached by NCP members and learn a little about conducting. NCP also gave a performance for the students—a chance to hear professional musicians who work together in chamber groups on a regular basis.

This was the second time that NCP participated in the Chamber Music Festival. Becky Van de Bogart, a member of NCP, says that they are “fortunate to be asked to participate.” Because of the level of work and effort that the LMTA teachers and their students have put into preparation for the festival, NCP is able to contribute a lot to the event:

“The Nebraska Chamber Players have the opportunity to coach the chamber ensembles the teachers in LMTA have put together and offer our insights as professional chamber players and soloists/teachers. The young musicians are completely prepared and have spent time working together before the festival so we are able to offer valuable suggestions about playing as an ensemble, tuning, communication and style.  The LMTA teachers are to be congratulated on getting these groups prepared.”

It was the beginning of the day when participants were able to hear NCP’s performance, “before the kids broke into the small groups.” That weekend, all of the participants were also given tickets to attend an NCP concert.

Van de Bogart’s comments are certainly complimentary to the work of LMTA in our community and also describe a little of what goes into performing as an ensemble at any level:

Clark Potter, a member of LSO and NCP,
coaches a trio at the Chamber Music Festival.
photo courtesy: LMTA
“LMTA has created a wonderful opportunity for young musicians to take their personal skills to a new level in the chamber music environment.  Each player must have total command of their own part, no matter how young they are, in order to be an equal partner in a group.  Then they have to be willing to compromise and be a productive ensemble musician with the goal of creating a quality ensemble performance.  There is quite a level of maturity needed to make this all happen.  The fantastic studio instruction the kids receive make this possible.  There are not enough kudos for the teachers and the kids!”

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