Tuesday, May 3, 2011

“A Community of Expressers”

Excerpt from Hudson Space Sonnet #1
© Dylan Mattingly.  By kind permission of Dylan Mattingly.

David Bloom walked into Bard Hall, where a recital of student work was to be performed, and did a double-take.  The place was packed out, with people standing all around the perimeter.  He hadn’t been expecting such a crowd.

I’d found out about the recital from contemporaneous, the ensemble for which Bloom and Dylan Mattingly are co-artistic directors.  They’d sent out an alert that the recital would include works by both of them.  I’d heard only a handful of recordings of Mattingly’s music and nothing by Bloom, so I didn’t want this to pass me by.

From outward aspect, Bloom and Mattingly couldn’t be more different.  Bloom is a study in precision; Mattingly fizzes from every pore.  But that’s far too reductive a portrait of these two talented young men.  No matter what else the recital included, it would have been enough for me to get a chance to hear their compositions live.  As it happened, the recital’s pleasures went far beyond that.

The recital included compositions by twelve students.  In introducing the program, composer Joan Tower, a professor at Bard’s Conservatory of Music, let us know some works were the first or second composition by the student, others the twelfth or fifteenth.  She was not about to tell us which were which.

The Da Capo Chamber Players, who have an association with Bard of over thirty years, were set the task of learning all twelve pieces for performance over the space of four days—no mean feat.  I assumed we should be prepared to expect rough spots and perhaps less polished works, but neither was the case.  While certainly the compositions demonstrated varying levels of experience and expertise, each amply earned its place in the concert as a whole.

Tower had each student provide an introduction, with the admonition to keep it short.  When Antonin Fajt looked for words to praise his professor, she waved them away with a laugh.  But the bond between Tower and her students was palpable throughout, no more so than when Tower closed her eyes in concentration during the performance of each piece.

The well-designed program interspersed works for ensemble and solo instruments.   The compositions, beautifully played by the Da Capo ensemble and guests that included Bard students, showed enormous creative range.  The concert opened with Rron Karahoda’s Dreamcatchers, for flute, clarinet, drum, and piano.  In the gorgeous chords of Richard Hagemann’s Vast Spaces for solo piano, I heard echoes of Debussy, though he made it all his own.

Robin Preiss contributed Two Minutes, a multi-dimensioned exploration for solo clarinet.  Barbora Cisarovska contributed Queen of Cups for piano trio and Max Robb Wandering Stream for solo piano.  The first half of the concert closed with Max McKee’s Double Helix for string quartet, captivating from the opening breath of violin played at the edge of its sound.

Bloom’s piece, Two Visions, for clarinet, viola, and piano, opened the second half of the program.  The piece would reward several re-hearings:  to hear again how he closed a clarinet solo with a single note over which the viola and piano re-emerged, or how he brought the percussive sound of the second vision to a full stop and segued to a lovely melodic line.  Kyle Baasch contributed Persistence for solo violin and Noah Firtel Mvmt 2 for solo flute.  Fajt contributed Thyme, for string quartet, a thoroughly engaging piece influenced by Czech folklore, and part of his “herbal series.”  Judging by Thyme, I want to hear them all.

Mattingly’s Hudson Space Sonnet #1, for solo piano, offered up a cornucopia of spilling notes and dense chords that suggested trains passing, birds in flight, bustling sidewalks, and a peaceful riverside walk, all absorbed into a soundscape that is uniquely his.  The program closed with Adam Zuckerman’s powerful Quintet.

Mattingly, in introducing his piece, remarked how proud he was to be part of this “community of expressers.”  He’s right to be proud.  Bard’s students may benefit by being at a remove from New York City, where the musical air, while enthralling, can get a little close, particularly for those just starting out.  There’s something extraordinarily fresh and open about the musical air at Bard, and it was a privilege to have the opportunity to breathe it in.


The Da Capo Chamber Players included Pat Spencer (flute), Meighan Stoops (clarinet), Curt Macomber (violin), and Blair McMillen (piano), joined by Michael Nicolas (cello).  Guest players also included Marka Gustavsson, Finnegan Shanahan, Leah Gastler, Scot Moore, Adam Zuckerman, and Ronald Joseph.

May 5, 2011, the Miller Theater will feature Joan Tower in the final of its Composer Portraits Series.  For a glimpse of how she thinks and talks about music, performance, and composition, view the vimeo here.  For a video of Tower speaking about teaching at Bard, click on the thumbnail of her image under "watch" and "select a video below" here.


  1. A lovely review. 'The community of expressers' carries the connotation of what emerges from a coalition of unique individuals which makes it neither aggregation nor isolation but the best of both.

    I love the new banner, extremely uplifting.

  2. Happy memories of Bard - such a beautiful setting, such admirable facilities; though the students were only beginning to trickle back when I was there for two of the annual composer focus fortnights. Would have been good to hear such core work in progress; many thanks for the vivid report.

  3. I'd like to add the names of two other teachers who were not mentioned: Kyle Gann and George Tsontakis. Their work with their students (I being the student of one them) has definitely helped to shape and bring out the creativity of those students.
    - Rron Karahoda

  4. Thanks to all of you who commented on the blog and to those who wrote to me directly.

    Suze: Such an interesting observation. (I note, from what you’ve written on your own blog, that this is a topic to which you’ve given a lot of thought.)

    David: Of course I’m keenly curious to know which composer portraits you attended. (For those who are not aware of it, I believe David is referring to the Bard Music Festival, part of its SummerScape program, which focuses on a particular composer. This year the composer featured will be Sibelius.) I see that, in 2008, Bard’s focus was on Prokofiev, so perhaps that was one you attended. I am right now reading your book about Prokofiev. Your knowledge is of course encyclopedic, yet you wear that knowledge lightly and the book makes for a fascinating read, even for someone who is what Milton Babbitt called a “lay listener,” as I am. Should you come back this way again, I hope you will let me know and perhaps there could be an opportunity to meet up for a cup of tea or some such!

    Rron: Thank you so much for writing and noting the professors that have helped you achieve what you have. While I knew a professor was sitting next to me, I only later learned from Dylan Mattingly that he was none other than George Tsontakis. I’m sort of glad I didn’t know that as I was busily trying to take notes of what I heard! I sit in awe of what reviewers like Alex Ross, David Nice, and Steve Smith can capture on a single hearing of a piece. I am, as I noted, but a “lay listener,” as Milton Babbitt would have it, but I wanted very much to try to convey to others the thrill of what I heard and saw. As to that, with regard to your piece, which opened the concert, I want you to know that, as I listened, I thought, wow, if this is the quality of what I’m going to be hearing, I’m in for a fabulous evening (as indeed I was). The story behind your piece alone was lovely, based as it was on a Native American myth. I hope to have the chance to hear more of your compositions in the future.


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