January 31, 2017

On Sunday I had the pleasure of attending the first performance in the Bakery Concert Series at Lake Flower Landing in Saranac Lake, NY, which turned out to be one of the most enjoyable new music events I've attended in some time. I found out about it thanks to Alphonse (Tom) Izzo, whose brand-new Tango Subterráneo was featured on the program. I've admired Tom's work since I first heard his piece Wunderkammer when we were both students at the University of Hartford's Hartt School of Music, and the Tango exemplified the deft humor and finely-wrought harmonic detail I associate with his music.

In fact, with the exception of guest artist Brian Donat, all of the featured composers and performers were Hartt School folks. The wonderful Robert Carl was my first composition teacher at Hartt, and the concert opened with his piece Garland -- a gorgeous and long-breathed cello duet whose angular, rugged eruptions only heighten the impression of an infinitely patient, slowly unfolding lyricism. It elicited in me new and welcome thoughts about time, melody, and the interplay between them.

This concert series is the brainchild of Esther Rogers Baker and Gene Baker, whose thoughtful programming and passionate musicianship were key to its success. I remember hearing Esther play a composition by Michael Schelle -- I believe the title was Prayer -- about a decade ago at Hartt, and was deeply moved and impressed: I don't know that I've ever heard a more radiantly beautiful example of a tonal work by a contemporary composer.

I hadn't met Gene before, but I immediately connected with his piano pieces, which had a transparency of process and a jazz-infused language that I found very rewarding. I joked with him afterward that, listening to his music, I suspected that we'd grown up listening to many of the same records! Something in Gene's approach -- particularly his piece titled almost nothing -- reminds me of the long hours my childhood friend Morgan Packard and I spent making music together as, like Morgan, Gene has an exquisite ear for delicate harmonies that ring out, Feldman-like, into the silence.

Seeing a great concert reinvigorates the ears, and when the following day we discussed Arnold Schoenberg's Op. 19 No. 6 (the sixth of the Kleine Klavierstücke) in my analysis class, I found myself hearing the piece with a renewed freshness and clarity. As my students and I listened to it together, I was struck by several details I hadn't noticed before, like the gentle chiming of the major sixth and ninth that make up the very first chord. A church bell very often has a prominent overtone at the major sixth; take a moment to imagine the Westminster Chimes and I suspect you'll hear those parallel sixths in your mind. If we sense intuitively that Schoenberg's piece is filled with bells bidding adieu to Gustav Mahler, who had died the previous month, then perhaps it's that opening sixth -- evoking the spectral profile of a tolling bell -- that informs our response.

While Robert Carl was my first teacher at Hartt, my friend and colleague Allen Shawn, with whom I studied at Bennington College, was my first composition teacher ever (!). In his book Arnold Schoenberg's Journey, Allen notes that while "it is not known if Schoenberg had seen the score of Mahler's Ninth Symphony when he wrote [Op. 19 No. 6]", there are intriguing parallels between the two. These include some subtle motivic and harmonic similarities, and closing measures marked pianississimo and even pianissississimo: just on the edge of silence.

Though Mahler's Ninth begins in the key of D major, it famously ends in D-flat major, thus enacting the structural descent of a semitone -- like a slow sigh of resignation, or acceptance -- over the course of 80+ minutes. So too does Schoenberg's piece descend a semitone over its (much shorter) length, when the opening major ninth, A-B, becomes the closing interval Ab-Bb (with the Bb coming first) as two notes in the bass, marked wie ein Hauch -- "like a breath". And as Allen observes, those same two pitches -- Bb, then Ab -- are also the last two in the Mahler, marked ersterbend, or "dying".

Perhaps scholarship will someday affirm these intuitions; that they could be mere coincidence seems impossible. Still, with or without footnotes, the deep connection between these pieces is surely real.

Phil Salathé







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