My weblog ELECTRON BLUE, which concentrated on science and mathematics, ran from 2004-2008. It is no longer being updated. My current blog, which is more art-related, is here.

Mon, 30 Apr, 2007

Composer Harold Shapero Birthday Concert

My father's eighty-seventh birthday concert took place on a drizzly grey Sunday, April 29. It has been chilly, wet, and grey almost all week here in the Boston area, and even at the end of April the leaves have barely budded on the trees. Nevertheless, more music lovers than expected made their way to a church in Arlington, Mass., to hear the Lumen Contemporary Music Ensemble (in an older review here) play new music, including some pieces composed specially for my father's birthday. The Lumen Ensemble is a group of composers and performers, most of whom are music professors, who organize concerts of their own work and pieces they have commissioned. This is an independent, self-starting group not connected with any university or music institution. "Lumen" is a way new classical music can be developed and played when there is no traditional "patronage."

The Congregationalist church was a fine example of the austere Yankee Protestant style, all off-white and rectangular, though there was a grand pipe organ and three stained-glass windows at the front. The organ wasn't played during the concert, though. All the pieces were for single players or small groups. The concert began with a solo saxophone piece, played by the sax virtuoso Ken Radnofsky, composed by Lumen-ary Pasquale Tassone especially for Shapero's birthday. It was a set of variations on, of course, the familiar "Happy Birthday" tune. This was followed by another dedicatory piece, "Harold in Italy" (sharing only a title with the famous Berlioz work) for saxophone and piano. This piece, composed by Lumen leader James Ricci, had some nostalgic and poignant moods, though it finished with a rollicking tango. After Ricci came a new piece by Shapero, "For Two Clarinets." This clarinet duo had been a commission that was rejected by its original designatees, so this was its first performance.

The first half of the concert concluded with a longer, and much more somber piece by Lumen member Armand Qualliotine. a setting of a Italian poem by the tragic twentieth-century writer Giuseppe Ungaretti. It was sung, in an Italian and English version, by the powerful soprano Lucy Tucker Yates, accompanied by Radnofsky's saxophone as well as cello and piano. This poem of sadness, loss, and pathetic hope and memory, also served as a memorial to one of Lumen's founders, the composer Donald Martino, who died in 2005.

After the intermission, Harold Shapero himself took the stage and after a short introductory talk, performed some of his current project, the "Bagatelles" for piano. These short pieces are ways to explore musical ideas in a small "sketch" form. There was also an intriguing excerpt of one of these pieces transcribed for electronic percussion. More Shapero followed with a solo cello piece originally written in honor of Harvard's finest piano professor, the late Luise Vosgerchian. "For Louise" was a clever set of variations on the old Maurice Chevalier show tune "Every Little Breeze Seems to Whisper Louise."

Next came ilLUMENated composer Betsy Schramm's "Light Excelleth Darkness," a sonata for trumpet and piano. This was played by Mark Ponzo on trumpet and JeongSoo Kim on piano. This was a strong, bracing piece in three movements. Schramm was followed by another piece by Qualliotine, a piccolo solo called "My Little Muse," played by Jill Dreeben. Its piping had a haunting lilt, reminding me of what an ancient Greek shepherd's flute might have sounded like. The concert concluded with "Ode," by Pasquale Tassone, which alternated instrumental with vocal movements. It was based on a verse by Wordsworth, again about grief and hope.

I enjoyed all the many and varied pieces in the concert, and was happy to hear new classical music played with enthusiasm and excellent skill. I am reassured that at least in some parts of the USA, new works by contemporary composers can still be heard in live performances. Despite what some doubters say, despite all the cultural pressures against it, new classical music continues to be made, by American composers of all ages, from up-and-coming young folk to my own father, still writing music at age eighty-seven.

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