Makrokosmos Project II: Joyously crazy music

In both Eugene and Portland, New York piano duo Stephanie & Saar's second annual festival goes American Berserk!

Photos by Adam Lansky

Editor’s note: OAW writers and composers Jeff Winslow and Daniel Heila each saw Stephanie & Saar’s Makrokosmos Project 2 last month, in Portland and Eugene. The programs differed somewhat, and so did their respective experiences.

Portland— As I sipped wine in an intimate side gallery, a sudden crash radiated from the main exhibition space at Portland’s Blue Sky Gallery like thunder rolling through the concrete canyons of Manhattan. Stephanie & Saar had just started New York composer Philip Glass’s Four Movements for Two Pianos from 2008, yet another in a long line of works mining the sound that brought him millions of fans over a generation ago. I’ve never been one of those millions, and yet there was something glorious in the way the two lidless pianos echoed around the reverberant space. A recording wouldn’t be able to match it. In the hands of husband and wife team Saar Ahuvia and Stephanie Ho, the work emanated a sheer joy of piano sound that reminded me of a very different composer. A century ago, Sergei Rachmaninov penned work after work that, however much today’s fans and detractors may argue about faults and merits, nevertheless undeniably overflow with that same exuberance.

DUO Stephanie & Saar created and performed in the Makrokosmos Project2.

DUO Stephanie & Saar created and performed in Makrokosmos Project2

Glass’s work was just the first in June 23’s evening-length series of piano concerts, the Makrokosmos Project’s second annual installment, “American Berserk!” As it turned out, the planned climax of the evening, Frederic Rzewski’s massive set of 36 variations on “The People United Will Never Be Defeated!”, never quite materialized because one of the six pianists who were to play it had last-minute health problems. The remaining pianists gave a rich sample, interspersing Saar’s and Stephanie’s lively commentary with about a quarter of the variations. They will all regroup to give the entire work in a free concert at Portland Piano Company this November 13th.

There was plenty of other joyously crazy and crazily joyous music to make up for it though. The world premiere of Gerald Levinson’s two-piano work Ragamalika: Ringing Changes, a Makrokosmos Project commission, was a firehose spewing colorful harmonic and contrapuntal confetti inspired by bell overtones and music of the Indian subcontinent. The John Adams composition that gave the evening its name (without the exclamation mark) came across like Claude Debussy’s etude For Chords on hallucinogens. Recent Baltimore-to-Portland transplant Lydia Chungwon Chung almost made us believe people could really fly under their influence, even if it turned out it was “only” her hands.

FearNoMusic pianist Jeffrey Payne at Blue Sky Gallery.

FearNoMusic pianist Jeffrey Payne at Blue Sky Gallery.

But nothing could match the utter strangeness of John Zorn’s Carny. New music maven Jeff Payne’s deadpan performance let the New York avant garde composer’s sprawling, herky jerky work, loaded with allusions to fragments of others, speak for itself, but I’m not sure what its message was exactly. Maybe I would have gotten more from seeing the choreography of the FearNoMusic founder and pianist’s hands, but seating was all around the edges of the room and I happened to be sitting on the opposite side from the keyboard in play. An idea for future Makrokosmos Projects: project video of each keyboard on the wall behind it, so everyone in the room can see the pianists’ hands in action.

Another mixed message was sent by local mezzo-soprano powerhouse Angela Niederloh, accompanied by Ho in songs by contemporary American composers Jake Heggie and a teenage George Crumb. Niederloh has a voice that can rattle the back of the largest opera houses, and it’s really not a good match for these works, especially Heggie’s lightweight settings. But for once I, who get so frustrated at voice and piano partnerships that fail the composer and fail the audience because of misguided fears that anything above mid-volume from the piano will lead to musical disaster, was abundantly gratified by Ho’s gutsy and well-judged accompaniment.

Pianist Stephanie Ho accompanies her old classmate, Portland soprano Angela Niederloh, at Makrokosmos Project 2.

Pianist Stephanie Ho accompanied her old classmate, Portland soprano Angela Niederloh, at Makrokosmos Project 2.

All the pianists on hand for Rzewski got chances to strut their stuff. Portland new music stalwart Susan Smith poured out a jazzily off-kilter Etude from the ‘80s by Nikolai Kapustin, and I would have liked to hear the other two listed in the program. But Eugene composer and pianist Alexander Schwarzkopf has just been named Oregon Music Teacher’s Association Composer of the Year, so instead we heard him reprising his Recycled Wheels, premiered just this January at a Eugene Cascadia Composers concert performed in near darkness. It sounded just as good in the light of day. In context, Ryan Anthony Francis’s restrained Digital Sustain and Doppelgänger, both from 2008, seemed a Pythonesque “lost lamb in an abattoir,” but Deborah Cleaver’s sensitive performance let the music stand up for itself.

Alexander Schwarzkopf performed at Makrokosmos.

Alexander Schwarzkopf performed at Makrokosmos.

In the end, the full Rzewski work was not much missed, thanks to Saar and Stephanie’s masterly performance of the last two movements of George Crumb’s recent (2005) work Otherworldly Resonances. In particular, the second movement, “Celebration and Ritual,” scintillated with dense tintinnabulations reminiscent of Olivier Messiaen’s battiest religious ecstasies. The work is for two amplified pianos, but in that space, with the piano lids completely off, the softest details were absolutely clear without any electronic help, and the loudest were as clear as they needed to be. It was American Berserk! at its best, making a glorious noise in the world.

Jeff Winslow

Jeff Winslow is a Portland composer and pianist, and serves on the board of Cascadia Composers.

Eugene— In a cavernous industrial storefront in Eugene, a kaleidoscopic whirlwind of sensuous textures and prismatic sonorities writhed and danced above two lidless concert grands. Close by, wine fed new music fans sat weak-kneed in a circle around the pianos or lay supine on stacks of opulent oriental rugs; at the keyboards, masterful pianists exposed rich veins of commonality in contemporary American art music.

The brainchild of New York duo pianists Stephanie Ho and Saar Ahuvia (Duo Stephanie and Saar), the Makrokosmos Project is a Portland-based new music festival that brings “cutting-edge contemporary American music to chic, accessible urban settings.” The festival’s program—subtitled American Berserk!—showcased two- and four-hand piano compositions that shared fundamental similarities.

Motoric rhythms and arithmetic forms (add-something, take-something-away) are hallmarks of late twentieth-century American music and were present throughout the evening. In Four Movements for Two Pianos (2008) by Philip Glass, the duo performed relentless arpeggios and shifting meters with electrifying intensity. There is a little bit of Glass in every piece of Glass and I found myself taken back in time all the way to my first swooning listen to Einstein on the Beach (the composer’s seminal 1976 operatic work) as a young composer. A sweet pop-inflected second movement and a wonderful melo-rhythmic section in the last movement (non-notated melodies arising from rhythmic accents) breathed new life into Glass’ iconic minimalist style. More varied phrasing of the melo-rhythm would have been the icing on the cake.

Lydia Chung performed at Makrokosmos.

Lydia Chung performed at Makrokosmos.

Gerald Levinson’s Ragamalika: Ringing Changes—commissioned by the Duo in 2015—explored, with motoric intensity, a “garland of ragas” played slightly out of sync. The rushing river of Carnatic melodies made my skin prickle. John Adams’s American Berserk! (2001) is a pell-mell romp through angular, additive/subtractive rhythmic textures. Lydia Chungwon Chung played with technical precision and her grip on the tail of this schizoid, caterwauling beast was steely throughout. I couldn’t keep myself from chuckling during the performance and hooting at the finale.

Several pieces explored extended harmonic fields—not entirely within or outside of tonal harmony. The sonic brilliance of the two pianos—each having its own resonant quirks—seemed to make the music hover above the soundboards. I found myself more than once glancing at that space as if I could see the music. Glass’ Four Movements exposed complex harmonic progressions: colliding chords brandished sharper dissonant edges. In Berserk!, Adams produces dissonant, gestural peel-outs that leave the listener in shimmering upper partial dust. Levinson’s Ragamalika features the ringing of closely spaced chords that create shimmering, decaying harmonic tapestries.

The alternation of kinetic and drone elements with sculptural, static textures was an integral aspect of several pieces. Ryan Anthony Francis’s Digital Sustain (2008) employed “glitch” gestures (“glitch” is a random momentary fault in a system, and a name for a genre of electronic music ) to create a stuttering chorale. Pianist Deborah Cleaver struggled briefly with the form but maintained a sensitive, cautious touch on Francis’s second piece, Doppelganger.

Deborah Cleaver performed at Blue S

Deborah Cleaver performed at Makrokosmos.

David Lang’s glorious Orpheus Over and Under (1989) juxtaposed stasis and movement and employed sculptural statements to great effect. In movement one, “Aria,” repeated single notes create a static resonance that supports a beautifully phrased, time-stretched song. “Aria” decayed softly into the second movement, “Chorale,” which shifted to repeated intervals (two notes sounded together); hence, the chorale. The two-piano piece moved with glacial speed to a deeply moving low-range climax, brutally truncated by a crisp, sculptural, malfunctioning homophony (tune and accompaniment). I am a child of rural America, and DUO Stephanie & Saar’s performance of  Lang’s expansive piece had me conjuring aural textures from my youth: wind in trees and fields, hammering rain, trilling of toads and cicadas, the chortling of a frozen creek.

Folk and pop materials inflected several pieces including Francis’s Doppelganger with its sweet Broadway lyric suspensions (consonant tones held over into dissonance). Adams so packed his Berserk with musical Americana that I could barely hold on to a grumbling boogie-woogie bass and unrelenting, angular bebop rhythms.

Third Angle pianist Susan Smith gave a sensitive and multidimensional performance of Excursion # 1 by Samuel Barber—the evening’s second tribute to boogie-woogie. Barber’s treatment of the boogie bass is more refined and sensitive than the muscular Adams version, and in Smith’s hands, the rondo form that unfolds above it was joyous and dance-like. Smith returned for a stellar performance of Nikolai Kapustin’s Etude No. 1 from Opus 40. Her nuanced playing and light touch (still capable of hard punches) invoked Oscar Peterson giving directions to An American in Paris.

Susan Smith performing at Makrokosmos2.

Susan Smith performing at Makrokosmos2.

Between bookend movements (“The Run,” “Contours”) of claustrophobically dense counterpoint (played dispassionately, almost aimlessly), Alexander Schwarzkopf turned to pop material in his Perspectives (2015). Movement two, “Looking Back Around,” is a tribute to a Joni Mitchell tune, and three (“Get to the Point!”) is a beefy blues with a nice balance of strictness and misbehavior. George Crumb’s Otherworldly Resonances made hauntingly beautiful use of the traditional tune “Bringing in the Sheaves.” Stephanie and Saar performed Crumb’s inside-the-piano extended techniques with graceful theatrics that caught and held my attention.

The evening’s crowning performance, Frederic Rzewski’s 36 Variations on “The People United Will Never Be Defeated” was cancelled due to illness. Stephanie and Saar made a good effort to assuage the disappointment with an informal discussion and performances of a few movements. But the performances suffered from unpreparedness and the effect was lackluster.

Throughout the evening, Stephanie gave brief, seemingly off-the-cuff introductions to each section of the program. Her enthusiasm was infectious but the generalized statements about the American psyche were disconcerting: Is there really such a thing as an American psyche? Can one psychology be applied equally to Mississippi Delta Creoles, North Boston Italians, and high plains Native Americans? I don’t believe so.

Moreover, in introducing Rzewski’s The People United, Saar stated that the performance was about the music only, not the political element. The timidity of this statement was surprising given the evening’s ferocious virtuosity. The piece is a tribute to the Chileans who struggled under the oppressive, murderous Allende regime supported by the American CIA. To suggest that this political impetus could be removed from the piece bordered on disrespect for the composer and the Chilean people.

The festival’s performers were a remarkable selection of talented pianists whose varied styles deepened the evening’s aesthetics. Informative program notes about the composers and each piece’s relation to American Berserk! could have enhanced the production. However, the print out contained two and a half pages of the ubiquitous and sadly uninteresting litany of who studied where, with whom, how many degrees, etc. without a word about the composers or pieces.

Alexander Schwarzkopf deserves kudos for encouraging Duo Stephanie and Saar to bring the Makrokosmos Festival to Eugene. The selection of pieces was masterfully curated—underscoring common techniques, while presenting varied styles—showcasing an American musical heritage that deserves more exposure. With improved musicological presentation and more informative program notes on composers and pieces, the Makrokosmos Project will be a valuable performative and educational resource for the Eugene new music audience, indeed for Oregon’s concert music community as a whole. Once they experience this exhilarating, vital music they will want to hear more and know more about our contemporary musical heritage.

— Daniel Heila

Daniel Tapio Heila is a composer, video artist and flutist in Eugene.

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