Jewish Journal features Defiant Requiem

‘Defiant Requiem’: They Sang to the Nazis What They Could Not Say


In 1943-44, at Terézin, a hybrid ghetto/concentration camp in the Czech Republic, 150 Jewish prisoners, led by a remarkable conductor, sang Verdi’s “Requiem” as a private act of defiance against the Nazis. 

Two separate performances of “Defiant Requiem: Verdi at Terézin,”— on April 16 at Segerstrom Concert Hall in Costa Mesa and on April 17 at UCLA’s Royce Hall — paid homage to those prisoners and to Rafael Schächter, the man who led the choir at Terézin, where the Nazis imprisoned many Jewish cultural figures, including classical musicians. 

“Defiant Requiem: Verdi at Terézin,” which has been presented nearly 50 times around the world, performs Verdi’s Christian funeral mass in its entirety. The music is intercut with film clips, narration and taped testimonies from survivors. Much more than a concert or musical event, it’s a soul-wrenching testament to the power of maintaining one’s humanity in the most inhumane circumstances. 

In a phone interview with the Journal, Murry Sidlin, 78, who created, crafted and conducted “Defiant Requiem,” said that 25 years ago, when he was conductor of the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra, he wandered past a table of used books. “I walked over and pulled a book from the middle. It was sticking out, almost beckoning me,” Sidlin said. “It was called ‘Music in Terézin.’”

The book, by Joža Karas, deals with music and the Holocaust. Sidlin was drawn to it because he is a noted orchestra conductor and music educator, and his grandmother was killed during the Holocaust.

“That book is about musicians at Terézin,” Sidler said. “I opened the book at random to a chapter called ‘Rafael Schächter.’ It said he had grown up in Romania and had excelled in music. In the last paragraph, it said that [at Terézin] he put together a volunteer choir of 150 singers and taught them Verdi’s “Requiem” by rote, because there was no score other than his own, and they performed it 16 times between September 1943 and June 1944.”

Read the whole feature at this link.

National Sawdust Log profiles composer Jeremy Gill

Jeremy Gill: 
Whitman, Pascal, and 
Varieties of Variations

Words: Christian Carey
Images: Arielle Doneson

While Jeremy Gill is best known as a prolific composer, he is a musician who wears many hats. An accomplished pianist, active conductor, and lecturer, Gill is a staunch advocate for new music in all of these contexts. Born in Pennsylvania and currently based in New York City, he has strong connections to Boston and the Chautauqua Institution in upstate New York, as well.

Several recordings of Gill’s work have been released. His first chamber music disc for Albany dates all the way back to 2008; the label also released Book of Hours/Helian in 2011. More recently, Boston Modern Orchestra Project released a portrait disc of Gill’s orchestral music, and the Parker Quartet documented his hour-long Capriccio for Innova.

While there is a some vocal music on the BMOP CD, more of Gill’s vocal music is yet to be committed to disc. An upcoming portrait concert at National Sawdust, on April 7 at 7pm, affords its audience the opportunity to hear this compelling side of the composer’s output. The program sets two significant vocal works alongside pieces for chamber forces. Variant 6, a mixed vocal sextet, performs Gill’s Six Pensées de Pascal and, in celebration of the bicentennial of Walt Whitman’s birth, the composer’s Whitman Portrait.

Also featured on the program are a formidable Duo for Violin and Piano and the premiere of Lascia fare mi, a duo for two violins. In a recent conversation, Gill discussed his upcoming activities.

NATIONAL SAWDUST LOG: What inspired you to set Walt Whitman’s poetry? How did you come to work with Variant 6?

JEREMY GILL: If I had to pick a single favorite American poet it would be Whitman. I wanted to set his poetry for many years, but I always ran into trouble when I tried. Whitman is so expansive and all-inclusive that I never felt I could adequately address his breadth via a single singer, say—his poetic persona is too multi-faceted, and his attempts to encapsulate the whole of what he understood to be the American experience too wide-ranging.

However, when I was a fellow with American Opera Projects’ Composers & the Voice program, I was tasked with composing one song for each of AOP’s six resident singers, and these ran the gamut from bass-baritone through high coloratura soprano. This wealth of vocal personalities allowed me to explore Whitman’s many faces, moods, and proclivities.

Read the entire article at this link.

New York Amsterdam News previews Port Mande at National Sawdust

Duo Port Mande uses music to bring many worlds together

by Nadine Matthews 

Although both clarinetist Mark Dover and pianist Jeremy Jordan in the past lived in Los Angeles, it took moving to New York City for them to meet. The move for each was serendipitous, as it allowed them the opportunity to meet and collaborate. Explains Jordan, “New York is big but everything is easy to get to unlike say, Los Angeles, where the city is a geographic sprawl. Because of that, different little sects and pockets form. In New York, you can get on the train and experience whatever you want to.” The opportunities to travel from their Inwood Manhattan and Astoria Queens neighborhoods gave Dover and Jordan a chance to develop a collaboration borne of a similar vision of the world.

The duo’s name, Port Mande, is their take on the French word portmanteau which is the combining of multiple other words. Jordan elaborates, “We’re encouraging the breaking down of boundaries in music and the breaking down of boundaries as a whole.” He points to a lack of communication and collaboration in the music community that he would like to see disappear. “Jazz musicians don’t interact with gospel musicians who don’t interact with classical musicians, who don’t interact with orchestral classical musicians, who don’t interact with Broadway musicians. Music is not supposed to be about that. It’s supposed to be about collaboration.”

Jordan and Dover’s experiences as musicians had a much more interactive, diverse flavor. Recalls Dover of their early New York years, “There was kind of like a collective of musicians that were coming mostly out of the Juilliard School and a little bit out of Manhattan School of Music. They would put together these like cabarets almost, and it would be in some apartment in Brooklyn or Inwood, or a warehouse. There would be shows where it would be classical musicians coming together, jazz musicians, hip-hop artists, stand up comedians—kind of like a variety show.”

Their collaboration, which the public will be able to enjoy this April 6 in concert at National Sawdust in Williamsburg, is marked by each of the musicians’ extensive experience and broad musical tastes. The duo will be joined by a host of guest artists for a program that ranges from 21st century classical, to jazz, to hip-hop. Selections include original and traditional works, music by Schumann and Ragonese, and more.

They’ve both worked in jazz, hip-hop, classical, pop and gospel. Michigan native Dover grew up on the Motown sound. “I grew up,” he says, “listening to Smokey Robinson, The Temptations, Four Tops, Marvin Gaye, Martha Reeves. I think naturally that drifted into 90s R&B and hip-hop.” Jordan, who hails from Chicago and began playing piano as a toddler, was heavily exposed to gospel as a child. “Both of my parents were music ministers at different churches. I guess in a way they were like Bach, modern day choristers.”

As to what he wants audiences to take away from hearing them, Dover says, “We want to show people that this music that we all celebrate is actually more similar than it is different. And that our real joy and love for all types of music can be combined into something unique that respects the individual genres, but also celebrates them.” For Jordan, it’s also about shifting the perspective of the audience’s experience. “There’s now this invisible curtain between the audience and the musicians. We want the audience to feel they’re as much a part of it as we are. Before recording music, people could only hear music by making it themselves or going somewhere to hear it.”

Jeremy Gill interviewed by David Osenberg on WWFM The Classical Network

On Tuesday April 2, 2019 composer Jeremy Gill spoke with David Osenberg of WWFM about his recent compositions, including Six Pensées de Pascal and Whitman Portrait, both of which will be performed in his composer’s portrait concert at National Sawdust on April 7.

Listen to the interview at this link.

Complete details about Jeremy Gill’s portrait concert at National Sawdust at this link.

Insider Interview: Assaff Weisman of Israeli Chamber Project

On Tuesday, April 16 at 7:30 pm, the acclaimed Israeli Chamber Project returns to the Baruch Performing Arts Center with works including Mozart/Andre's Clarinet Quartet in E-Flat Major, Bartok's Contrasts, Brahms' Piano Quartet in C minor, Op. 60, and more. In this Insider Interview we spoke to ICP pianist Assaff Weisman about programming choices, performing at BPAC, and more.

Classical Music Communications - In an ensemble with a modular instrumentation, how do you go about choosing programs for individual concerts, tours, etc.?

Assaff Weisman - This is a pretty intricate ballet, as you might imagine, and requires balancing artistic and aesthetic goals with quite a bit of logistics. In each of our programs we try to weave together different works that have a common thread running through them, in a way that might reveal something about the program as a whole. Our three New York programs this season are good examples of this. We opened with a look at Debussy and his influence on French music in the years following his passing. Coming up this month is a program of homages, and we conclude the season with a tribute to several Jewish composers, each from a very different background. Our clarinetist and Artistic Director, Tibi Cziger, takes repertoire input from the members of the ensemble but he is ultimately responsible for programming decisions. The logistics challenges come into play when he have to consider which of our very busy musicians are available for any given program. This determines the instrumentation available, which is where things get complicated. Luckily, we built the ensemble with this kind of flexibility in mind, so have been able to make it work with some creative thinking.

CMC - What inspired you to choose the repertoire for this “Homages” tour?

AW - One of the recurring themes in our programming is the question of musical influence. What influences a composer's language or serves as inspiration - in a specific work, or in their overall style - is a fascinating topic that we have enjoyed exploring. This program of homages enables us to examine this question through the work of four composers with whom we feel a special bond. Each of these homages came to be through very different circumstances. Bartok's Contrasts pay homage to his native Hungary's folk music and to American jazz by way of the two musicians who commissioned the work - Hungarian violinist Joseph Szigeti and jazz great Benny Goodman. Brahms' C minor Piano Quartet, has its roots in both Beethoven and Goethe and can be seen as a personal letter to his the composer's unattainable muse, Clara Schumann. And there are equally interesting threads in the Mozart and Leef.

CMC - What is it about the Leef piece that attracts you to it? 

AW -  We have performed Yinam Leef’s Triptych several times over the years and think it's a fantastic piece! It evokes a Middle Eastern flavor, especially in the rhapsodic second movement, with its cantorial viola solos, but still retains a strong, clear structure, with all the instruments beautifully balanced. The three movements are quite varied in character, making for great contrast, but the whole work still feels as though cut from one cloth. The rather unusual instrumentation: string trio, piano, and clarinet fits our ensemble to a T.

CMC - What do you like about the Baruch Performing Arts Center and what does this venue mean to the ensemble?

AW - This will be our third season at BPAC, and we are feeling quite at home at Engelman Hall. From Director Ted Altschuler to the backstage crew, everyone does their part to put the music at the center and allow it to shine. We appreciate this so much, and it seems that the audience does, too! We are very much looking forward to being back on that stage. 

Musical America Praises Brian Mulligan at Baruch PAC

Two Song Cycles, One a Post-minimalist Premiere, One an Argento Classic

by Clive Paget March 15, 2019

To read review, click here.

New York Classical Review: Brian Mulligan at Baruch PAC

With a pair of song cycles, Mulligan offers an Argento tribute and New York premiere

By David Wright March 14, 2019

Dominick Argento, the superb American composer of vocal music who died last month at age 91, was remembered Wednesday night in the best way possible: with a stirring performance of one of his most significant works.

In recital at the Baruch Performing Arts Center, baritone Brian Mulligan and pianist Timothy Long boldly went where no man had gone before—or few, at any rate—with a passionate rendition of Argento’s 1974 cycle, From the Diary of Virginia Woolf.

Crafting his setting of the intimate thoughts of a great English woman writer for a great English woman singer—mezzo-soprano Janet Baker—Argento said his goal was to create a Frauenliebe und -Leben for the 20th century. He aimed, like Schumann in that work, to trace a woman’s life through many stages, in this case from the opening question, “What sort of diary should I like mine to be?” to the final song, “Last Entry,” composed to a text written three weeks before the author’s death by suicide. The resulting work earned Argento that year’s Pulitzer Prize.

It took more than the usual suspension of disbelief to appreciate a performance of this about-and-for-women work by a burly, bearded six-footer with a powerful bottom register that would qualify him as a bass-baritone in the book of most listeners. But interpreting a song is about inhabiting a character, and after a few minutes Mulligan and his piano partner had one believing that this big hearty American guy was a frail and depressive, but keen-eyed, Englishwoman.

Less of a leap of faith was required for the work that preceded Argento’s on this program, Gregory Spears’s Walden—five eloquent settings of Thoreau’s prose composed for Mulligan and Long last year, premiered last September in Washington, D.C., and making its New York bow Wednesday.

Both cycles set extensive texts by master prose stylists, crafting a vocal line of considerable range but natural phrasing, in a piano environment that tended toward tintinnabulating textures. Both dealt in ear-friendly polytonal harmonies; Argento’s was subtly unified by a twelve-tone row woven through it, which a listener would probably not notice without having read up on the piece.

A big difference was in the texts, Thoreau’s being carefully crafted and polished for publication–though with an easy American gait–while Woolf’s private thoughts came tumbling out in an even more untrammeled stream of consciousness than one finds in her experimental novels.

In both cycles, musical contrasts of fast and slow, loud and soft between the songs were subtly drawn, and so the spotlight fell squarely on the singer and his English diction to convey the meaning of the texts. 

Fortunately, Mulligan proved an eloquent orator and actor, pointing up the passion and the irony of Thoreau’s thoughts on nature and society, and evoking Woolf’s observations of herself, her home life, the pity and privations of war, a Roman street scene, and a very public British occasion, the funeral of the novelist Thomas Hardy. (It was in the wry comments on this last that one most missed an actual female voice in this recital.)

For his part, pianist Long shaped Spears’s minimalistic repeated figures to support the text, and easily took the ball and ran with it in expressive preludes and interludes. Even the seemingly-simple chordal sections in the Woolf songs contained many subtle variations and inflections crucial to the meaning of the text, and Long made those moments tell.

The second Woolf song, “Anxiety,” proved a tour de force for the duo, the pianist doubling the singer’s agitated line in precise unison, amidst constantly-changing meters, while executing a presto toccata himself.

Mulligan brought a wide variety of timbres and articulations to his part, especially in the emotionally-fraught Woolf songs. Besides a remarkably clear and projected lowest register, which he dipped into sparingly throughout the evening, his high notes ranged from a trumpet-like burst to the most ghostly pianissimo. Expressive turns in the text prompted various shades of whispers, growls, and mezza voce, as the moment required.

In sum, the evening offered much to reflect on: two great writers, an American living out his philosophy in the woods, and an Englishwoman vibrating like a string in sympathy with life in peace and war; and two American composers, one newly gone and remembered by his classic song cycle, and the other newly on the recital boards with a cycle of his own.

And also dessert: an encore selected from Mulligan’s latest CD of old baritone songs, Wolseley Charles’s gleefully macabre, tongue-twisting ballad “The Green-Eyed Dragon.”  It could hardly have been less relevant, or more entertaining.

The next music presentation at Baruch Performing Arts Center will be the Aaron Diehl Trio in classical, jazz, and third-stream selections, 8 p.m. March 28.; 212-352-3101.

Insider Interview: Jeremy Gill, composer

On Sunday, April 7 at 7:00 pm, at National Sawdust (80 North 6th St., Brooklyn), composer Jeremy Gill showcases his compositions inspired by the words of Whitman, the philosophy of Pascal, and the film The Last Tango in Paris.  In this Insider Interview, we spoke with Gill, whose upcoming composer portrait concert is presented by Chris Grymes' Open G performance series.  More info online at

Classical Music Communications: What led you to a career as a composer?

Jeremy Gill: I started composing shortly after I started playing, and my first composition was performed publicly when I was 12 years old. My first instrument was saxophone and I played in a lot of concert bands, so my first pieces were written for the large ensembles in which I played. I only started playing piano later, and didn’t study piano at all until I was about 16 years old (I taught myself, and was playing a lot by then). By the time I enrolled at the Eastman School for my undergraduate degree I was certain that composition would be my main focus (oboe was my main performing instrument by then) as it has remained. Composing was a natural extension of my music making, and performance and composition have both continued in tandem.

CMC: How would you describe your composition style, and what other composers do you draw inspiration from?

JG: It’s impossible to describe one’s style, but I can say whose work I admire and emulate in one form or another. Among recent composers, George Rochberg and George Crumb were both teachers of mine and are important influences. György Ligeti is extremely important for me, particularly his earlier and later works (the middle, experimental music is less interesting to me). Bartók is hugely important, and I admire Stravinsky. Benjamin Britten is extraordinarily smart and there are several pieces of his I love (the Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings above all; Turn of the Screw is nearly perfect). Arthur Honegger’s symphonies are fabulous and I return to them often. The classical period is the one for which I feel the greatest affinity – I never, ever tire of discovering a new Haydn menuet, and Beethoven is the most important composer for me of any period. Of romantics, Brahms is probably the dearest, although Schumann’s Lieder are central for me and I feel his symphonies are underrated (the second is perfect). I love Borodin – almost every note he wrote! I love much early music, too, particularly Monteverdi and Machaut, but there are many other gems that I come across by composers I’ve never known before (Tromboncino, for example).

CMC: How does your work as a pianist and conductor inform your compositions?

JG: All music making informs all music making, for me. When I am playing or conducting I am discovering things that will help with a compositional problem, or provide a model for a particular work. I am also a regular concert-goer. I think it’s very important to be listening to other people’s performances, new works, etc. Recordings are wonderful but some pieces do not work in real life acoustics and it’s important to hear that (for a composer, at least). I also perform my own music, and I learn how to clarify my works when I encounter problems conducting or playing my music.

CMC: How does literature inform or inspire your vocal and instrumental compositions?

JG: I am a big reader, and on some level I’m always looking for texts to set, but I’m inordinately picky. When I wrote my chamber opera I read 80 short plays before I found the one by Don Nigro that I used. I enjoy dense poetry – setting Hart Crane’s Voyages II in my Before the Wresting Tides was one of my greatest text setting joys – there was so much to find there and in his life. Georg Trakl’s poem Helian was a thrilling discovery – as I read it I knew it would be a song cycle. But novels can also inspire me and do. I am particularly interested in early 20th century European novels – the novelistic tradition that Milan Kundera is always promoting and defending.

CMC: What do you look for in a text?

JG: If I’m setting a text I generally need to have a moment – a point of revelation that is the text’s raison d'être. I also respond well to a narrative arc that can translate into musical form. And I really need to love the words, their rhythm and sound. I hate verbose texts with no innate sense of music and don’t understand the current mania for setting political speeches and “found” texts – even well-written prose that doesn’t have a musical affect generally won’t work for me.

CMC: In writing for a specific artist, how do you tailor your work to their character and style?

JG: Some players have very strong personalities that I respond to. I remember writing for pianist Peter Orth; I would listen to him perform and then go home to my sketches and try to imitate his playing with my music, imitate how I thought he might approach the ideas, and this helped me form the piece for him. I’ve written for the Parker Quartet a lot, and I love the way they approach music of all types, so just try to write them music that I think will fire their imaginations, based on what I know of their proclivities. For singers it’s generally quite straightforward – I find the sweet spots in their voices and write to those points. Many singers even have single notes that are particularly shimmery and expressive: I wrote some songs for Sarah Wolfson years ago and I loved her high A-flat so much that structured the songs so that she had a beautifully expressive high A-flat in each song.

CMC: What projects are you focusing your attention on lately?

JG: I am nearly finished with a four-hand piano concerto, which has been occupying me for over a year on and off. This current incarnation of the work (which is the final version!) was begun when I moved to NYC in September. I have three opera projects in mind, in various states of development. One, in collaboration with a London-based soprano and choir, may have a scene ready by the fall. I’m playing a lot lately, which is nice – this spring its some Elliott Carter with Lucy Shelton (she’s the best person to do that rep with!), lots of art song repertoire on a National Opera Center Emerging Artist Recital; conducting music by Carlos Carrillo, and playing my own Whitman Portrait at National Sawdust in April. My wife and I will be in Prague and Brno in June, where I’ll perform some recitals.

Pianist Orli Shaham Premieres David Robertson’s “A Goldberg Conjecture”

On Sunday, Feb. 24, pianist and host of Pacific Symphony’s Café Ludwig, Orli Shaham performs the world premiere of David Robertson’s “A Goldberg Conjecture.” This new version of Bach’s Goldberg Variations re-imagines this famous solo harpsichord work for piano and string quartet.

The pianist Orli Shaham, curator and host of the popular chamber music series in Costa Mesa, said she was looking for a different kind of entry point into this seminal work by J.S. Bach. “It’s such an incredible piece,” she said. “Every pianist wants to perform it. And, pretty much every pianist has performed it.”

Shaham felt that the combination of piano and string quartet was one of maximum versatility, and so she turned to David Robertson to create this new adaptation for her and selected members of the string section of Pacific Symphony. Why him? While Mr. Robertson is internationally known as a conductor, he has long had an interest in writing music – even before he triple-majored in composition, conducting and French horn at the Royal Academy of Music in London. Over the past few years, he has created a number of transcriptions for the interactive concert series for children, Orli Shaham’s “Bach Yard” (formerly “Baby Got Bach”).

“A Goldberg Conjecture” is beyond a mere transcription of Bach’s music, says Robertson. “It is actually a hybrid form. There are places where I allow Bach to be just him, and then there are moments where I really get in there and mess things up. It’s an enlargement of elements that I feel are fascinating within the piece.” Robertson’s title is a play on words of the “Goldbach Conjecture,” an 18th century mathematical treatise.

Orli Shaham is delighted with the way David Robertson takes advantage of the modern keyboard and its reach in this music. “He’s taken into account how different sounds and timbres affect each other. In some cases, he’s put variations on top of one another to be played simultaneously. He has created a fascinating sound world employing various string techniques in combination with the piano.”

The premiere on February 24 includes just half of the variations from Bach’s original music. Robertson is still working on his ‘conjecture’ of the entire Goldberg Variations, so Café Ludwig audiences have something to look forward to.

Performance Details
Sunday, February 24 at 3:00 p.m.
Pacific Symphony’s Cafe Ludwig
Samueli Theater at Segerstrom Center for the Arts

Orli Shaham, piano and host
Dennis Kim, violin
Bridget Dolkas, violin
Meredith Crawford, viola
Timothy Landauer, cello

PERLE: Classic Suite, Op. 3
BACH/MOZART: Fugues transcribed for String Quartet from Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 2, K. 405
BACH-LISZT: Prelude and Fugue in A minor, originally for organ, BWV 543
J.S. BACH /D.E. ROBERTSON: “A Goldberg Conjecture” (World Premiere)

Lucid Culture Reviews Washington Heights Chamber Orchestra

Darkly Compelling, Lushly Relevant Orchestral Works in Washington Heights

This past evening a string subset of the Washington Heights Chamber Orchestra played a lush, majestic, sweeping, potently relevant program of works by 20th and 21st century composers. The performance validated conventional wisdom in real estate bubble-era New York: the fringes are where the most cutting-edge artists are supposed to be. Ask yourself how many members of the Philharmonic actually walk to work: it’s a fair bet that a good percentage of this talented ensemble did.

The group echoed Music Director Chris Whittaker’s poise on the podium, at least with as much poise as a string section can maintain playing distinctly troubled music. The central theme was Japanese, comprising works by composers with Japanese heritage, setting up a harrowing look back at the aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Fukushima wasn’t addressed, but it might as well have been, considering how plaintive and elegaic the overall ambience was.

Both the opening and concluding pieces, Kenji Bunch’s Supermaximum and Christopher Theofanidis’ A Thousand Cranes opened with percussive rustles from the bass section, a neat pairing. The former was an alternately kinetic and stark interweave of 19th century gospel-inflected pentatonic melody and more distinctly Asian motives. Permeated with the call-and-response of chain gang chants, it spoke for itself as a reminder of how little has changed in over a century.

The showstopper was an understatedly aching, enveloping take of Toru Takemitsu’s Requiem For String Orchestra. Moving gracefully from an austere pavane to stabbing close harmonies that foreshadow Julia Wolfe’s work, and then to to cellular Glass-ine phrasing, the group locked in on its relentless, overcast atmosphere.

Karen Tanaka’s Dreamscape suite often had a similarly circular but more distinctly nebulous effect, their group parsing its starry pointillisms and sparely memorable hooks with delicacy to match their lustre, harpist Tomina Parvanova and concertmaster Mark Chien tracing lively comet tails and deep-space bubbles.

Theofanidis’ piece was inspired by the Japanese tradition of making paper cranes. As the myth goes, producing a thousand of them allows for a wish to come true. That activity became a meme among those stricken with radiation poisoning and all kinds of other horrible illnesses after August of 1945.

The triptych is a hard piece to play, partly because it covers so much ground, emotionally speaking. There was unexpectedly calm jubilance in the opening overture of sorts, which disappeared as reality sank in. The group nimbly tackled the precisely dancing pizzicato section and then let the mournful washes afterward linger. The steady procession up to a decidedly unresolved ending was just as poignant.

The orchestra are staging monthly concerts  this spring: the next one is March 23 at 3 PM at at Fort Washington Collegiate Church, 729 W 181st St. just up the hill from the 1 train, with works by Korngold, Britten, Anna Clyne and Michael Torke. Admission is free; $25 gets you into the reception afterward and for the rest of the season as well.

Admiral Launch Duo's debut CD reviewed by The WholeNote

“Launch” may be described as a way to introduce something new, which is precisely what the US-based Admiral Launch Duo is achieving with their uncanny/intriguing instrumentation. Since their 2013 Fresh Inc Festival debut, saxophonist Jonathan Hulting-Cohen and harpist Jennifer R. Ellis have spent years working together. Their debut 10-composition release features wide-ranging stylistic commissions, transcriptions and premiere recordings.

Five Admiral commissions are included. Patrick O’Malley’s three-movement Thaumaturgy is a current day exploration of harp and sax effects. Amazing how the performers can match colours on two such diverse instruments in an arpeggiated ripple section, while the loud programmatic final meteor movement stuns with harp glissandos and high pitch sax notes. More wailing sax extreme high dramatics with mournful contrasts appear in Christine Delphine Hedden’s  Amhran na Casca, while dark low and high tones emulate emotional distress in Angelica Negron’s  Still Here. Close atonal interchanges and tight playing are heard on Jasper Sussman’s …nice box! “Oh So Square”  and  Natalie Moller’s nature-inspired starshine & moonfall.

The other works include changes of sonic pace. Highlights include traditional Romantic harmonies and melodies in the duo’s arrangement of Marcel Tournier’s  La Lettre du Jardinier, and a contemplative lyrical harp part against sensitive saxophone phrasing and surprising flute-like tone fluttering on composer Ida Gotkovsky’s own arrangement of her Eolienne.

Musical common sense assumes that it just won’t work but like anything different, the Admiral Launch Duo’s talent, balance and sonic experimentation blossoms with repeated listening.

Tiina Kiik

Cleveland Classical reviews "Launch" by the Admiral Launch Duo

by Hannah Schoepe

As the month of Valentines Day and love, February is abundant with hearts and couples of all kinds. The Admiral Launch Duo’s new album Launch could be seen as an “opposites attract” type of situation. Not many musicians had thought of bringing the saxophone and harp together until Jonathan Hulting-Cohen (saxophone) and Oberlin and CIM grad Jennifer R. Ellis (harp) came along. Released by Albany Records in December 2018, the album showcases 18 tracks of uniquely crafted music.

The sense of ensemble is wonderfully exacting throughout as the duo creates contrasting moods with exceptional poignancy. The album has excellent sound quality — the only shortfall is the different dynamic capabilities between the instruments combined with the harp’s inability to sustain notes at length, making the saxophone the dominating force.

The repertoire was mostly commissioned by the duo, including Natalie Moller’s Starshine & Moonfall, Patrick O’Malley’s Thaumaturgy, Christine Delphine Hedden’s Amhrán na Cásca and Kitchen Dance, Stephen Rush’s Whirlwind, Angélica Negrón’s Still Here, and Jasper Sussman’s …nice box! “Oh So Square.” The remaining tracks are arranged from previously existing works for harp and either flute, voice, or oboe. Clearly the newcomer in this genre is the saxophone, but Hulting-Cohen embraces the role whole-heartedly, making the instrument shine in a bright new light.

The playlist is wrought with a vast range of emotions, beginning with Ida Gotkovksy’s five-movement suite Eolienne. The first movement, “Lyrique,” is mysterious and scintillating. The second, “Intermezzo,” brings warmth and playfulness, reminiscent of children playing in the park on a sunny day. In the final movement, “Declamatoire,” Ellis brings out her harmonies with striking clarity and precision.

Starshine & Moonfall is magnificent, introducing an abundance of intriguing harmonies. The saxophone carries the melody throughout, occasionally taking on the chord arpeggiation from the harp. In the liner notes, Moller describes the inspiration she drew from nature, calling the piece an “evensong that charts the waning of a day through a horizon embraced by sunset, the unfurling of twilight, and the radiance of a star-speckled midnight.”

The duo breaches new territory with Whirlwind, an inventive composition the composer characterized as a “Funk-Indian Toccata plus a slow cadenza.” Hulting-Cohen whirls through his many notes with captivating enthusiasm, propelled along by the jazzy rhythms he shares with Ellis.

After Negrón’s heartbreaking Still Here, which explores conflicting and contradictory emotions in abusive relationships, comes Sussman’s …nice box! “Oh So Square,” the wackiest track on the album. Wackier than a “Funk-Indian Toccata plus a slow cadenza,” one might ask?

The answer is yes. Hulting-Cohen explores a tremendously wide range of sounds — even creating a very real-sounding scream. Sussman marks the opening of his score with this message: “think Moody Dinosaur…you’re a baby dinosaur, you’re upset—are you sad? Angry? You can’t decide!” More concretely, he describes the work as exploring “the excitingly personal space between fixed and free, a space where experimentation, storytelling, and a unique state of presence are all embraced and celebrated” — and the duo play it with gusto.

The Classic Review: "A fascinating, highly engaging album"

Review: “Launch” – The Admiral Launch Duo

Tal Agam - February 15, 2019

The oldest pieces in this highly original album of the saxophone and harp duo “Admiral Launch” is Marcel Tournier’s ” La Lettre du Jardinier”, published in 1912. Save for Ida Gotkovksy’s wonderful “Eolienne” from 1969, the rest is literally contemporary music, with wonderful discoveries. Saxophone player Jonathan Hulting-Cohen and harpist Jennifer R. Ellis present a full album of original, some commissioned pieces for these two instruments, and some highly successful transcriptions, some made by the original composers of the pieces.

Patrick O’Malley’s “Thaumaturgy” (tracks 7-9) is indeed full of magic tricks, incorporating any conceivable effect of the two instruments yet never sounds self-indulged, with the musical line clearly articulated. Christine Delphine Hedden’s “Amhrán na Cásca” (Track 10) is heartbreaking, with the middle, violent outburst giving a true meaning to the composer’s intent to ”…expresses the desolation of loss that wracks your being…”, as she explained in the nicely organized booklet.

The programming is highly effective, moving from the lyrical to dramatic, from the western to the eastern influenced. And there is some Jazz too; Listen to the fun ”Whirlwind” (Track 11), by composer Stephen Rush. Maybe less successful, to these ears at least, is a piece where studio effects are being incorporated, as in Angélica Negrón’s “Still Here” from 2017. The piece, says the composer… “explores the idea of trespassing from the perspective of emotionally abusive relationships…”. Programmatically this piece may be intriguing, but is unfortunately thin in musical material.

Yusef Lateef’s “Romance for soprano saxophone and harp” is perhaps the best performance in this album, full of relaxed, inner conviction and superb duo playing by Hulting-Cohen and Ellis. This multifaceted piece can hardly get a better representation. Originally written for either oboe or soprano saxophone, after listening to this performance I wouldn’t want to hear it in any other way, or in any other instrument.

A fascinating, highly engaging album, then. Nice recording quality too, though the production clearly favors the saxophone over the sometimes backward harp. Recommended.

WOSU celebrates President's Day with Victoria Bond's "Soul of A Nation"

Celebrate Presidents' Day With New Recording Of Four Fresh Concertos Inspired By U.S. Presidents


Democracy has been called the worst form of government except for all the others. In the United States, democracy is inextricably linked with the presidency, that august office which votes fill, which pundits punch and where the buck famously stops for the commonweal. 

Presidents’ Day officially honors the lives and legacies of two former U.S. presidents in particular – George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. But the holiday has come to stand as a day of appreciation for the service of all of the nation’s presidents, past and present.

In her recording Soul of a Nation: Portraits of Presidential Character (Albany Records), composer and conductor Victoria Bond brings the words and ideals of four illustrious commanders-in-chief into the limelight as spoken texts in four new musical works.

Listen to the interview here.

Each work is a concerto for solo instrument with string or wind ensemble and augmented by spoken narration that, in librettos written by Dr. Myles Lee, resound with the spirits of Washington, Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

“Each of these presidents had such an important role in shaping our American history,” Bond said in a recent phone interview. “For each of the presidents, I wanted to find the quintessential instrument that would represent his – and they’re all men – his personality and his time.”

To that end, the flute gives voice to Washington in Bond’s Pater Patriae: Concerto for Flute and Wind Ensemble.

“Because of the Revolutionary (War) era and fife and drum tunes, I figured the solo instrument for Washington would certainly be the flute,” Bond said.

The solo violin represents Jefferson in Bond’s Soul of a Nation: Concerto for Violin and String Ensemble

“Thomas Jefferson was himself a violinist,” Bond said. “Even though he didn’t perform in public, he played almost every day.”

Bond cast the exuberant Teddy Roosevelt as a solo trumpet in The Crowded Hours: Concerto for Trumpet and Wind Ensemble. Roosevelt’s distant cousin Franklin Delano Roosevelt is represented by a solo clarinet in The Indispensable Man: Concerto for Clarinet and Wind Ensemble.

“Franklin Delano Roosevelt lived, of course, in the era of big band and Benny Goodman,” Bond said. “So it was a natural to have a clarinet solo and to reference music of the 1940s big band era, kind of jazzy work.”

The concertos on Soul of a Nation: Portraits of Presidential Character aren’t Bond’s first compositions inspired by the U.S. presidency. Bond earlier composed the opera Mrs. President, about Ohio native Victoria Woodhull who, in 1872, became the first woman ever to run for the highest office in the land.

In an era in which women were expected to occupy roles closely circumscribed within the domestic sphere, Woodhull’s presidential campaign and its coverage in the public sphere were nothing short of extraordinary.

“The epithets that were hurled at Victoria Woodhull make you cringe when you hear them,” Bond said. “She was actually called Mrs. Satan.”

“She was pictured in Harper’s Weekly with horns on her head and a demonic expression,” Bond continued. “She was the wrecker of the family. And there’s still plenty of that sentiment going around. We have not overcome that yet.”

However, Bond says that, as demographics and opinions shift in America, she believes someday a woman will come to occupy the U.S. presidency – sooner or later.

Says Bond: “It is a glass ceiling, and it is going to shatter. There’s no question about that. It’s just a question of when.”

Baruch Performing Arts Center: NYC premiere of Gregory Spears' "Walden"

March 13: Baritone Brian Mulligan and pianist Timothy Long perform the New York premiere of Gregory Spears' Walden

Program also includes Dominick Argento's Pulitizer Prize winning From the Diary of Virginia Woolf

“a voice that is rich, secure, and really, really big” –The New York Times

On Wednesday, March 13 at 7:30 pm, straight from its world premiere at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., the Baruch Performing Arts Center presents Brian Mulligan and Timothy Long performing the NYC premiere of Gregory Spears' song cycle Walden. The program also includes Dominick Argento's From the Diary of Virginia Woolf, winner of the 1975 Pulitzer Prize for Music.

Tickets are $36 for general admission ($16 for students) and are available at Baruch Performing Arts Center is at 55 Lexington Avenue (enter on 25th Street between Third and Lexington Avenues), in Manhattan.

Gregory Spears' opera Fellow Travelers was a sensation at the 2018 Prototype Festival. His latest work, Walden, composed for Brian Mulligan was heralded as "a gripping performance" (The Washington Post) at its world premiere in the Fall. With texts drawn from Henry David Thoreau's classic 1854 book, Walden "speaks with a naked intimacy that’s almost painful" (The Washington Post). The cycle is paired with Dominick Argento's From the Diary of Virginia Woolf, written for Janet Baker in 1974.

Praised for his "velvety, evenly and effortlessly produced baritone and nuance-rich phrasing" (Opera News), Brian Mulligan frequently appears with the world’s leading orchestras and opera companies including the Metropolitan, San Francisco, and Houston Grand Operas. He is joined by pianist Timothy Long, whose "collaboration at the piano [with Mulligan] was so sympathetically symbiotic that it seemed...that a single musical intelligence was at work (The Washington Post)."


March 13, 2019 at 7:30 pm

Baruch Performing Arts Center presents:

Brian Mulligan (baritone) & Timothy Long (piano)


Gregory Spears: Walden *NYC premiere*

Dominick Argento: From the Diary of Virginia Woolf

Baruch Performing Arts Center

55 Lexington Avenue in Manhattan

(enter at 25th Street between 3rd and Lexington Avenues) 

Tickets are $51 for premium seating, $36 for general admission, and $16 for students, and are available at

CineMusical reviews Admiral Launch Duo's "Launch"

The Admiral Duo:
Jonathan Hulting-Cohen, saxophones.  Jennifer R. Ellis, harp.
Albany TROY 1752
Total Time:  75:24
Recording:   ****/****
Performance: ****/****

The combination of saxophone and harp seems a rather odd one with each instrument more associated with different musical genres.  In this new Albany release, the Admiral Duo makes the case for the combination through a variety of works both newly-commissioned and transcribed as they explore ten works for this unique combination.

Two works are transcription of previous material.  The album opens with Eolienne (1969) by Ida Gotkovsky (b. 1933) which was originally composed for flute and rearranged by the composer in 1978.  It is an early example of this unique combination of saxophone and harp which is explored across its five movements.  The attention to line and how this color is shaped has one foot in Impressionism, but the music’s aesthetic is modern.  The opening “Lyrique” has a rather sensuous beginning.  The music is tonal with interesting harmonic shifts that move us beyond traditional harmonic motion while the solo line floats above these arpeggiated chords in the harp.  The following “Intermezzo” is a wonderful waltz with beautiful flowing lines.  A somber “Intense” movement provides nice contrast.  The “Perpetuum Mobile” gives Hulting-Cohen to show off his virtuosic ability in rapid passagework that seems to spin out of control.  This is matched in the harp as well making for a nice contrast.  The piece ends with the beautiful “Declamatoire”.  This is a strong work with wonderful lyrical writing.  The character does not seem to have changed as much in the translation to saxophone, though it would be great to hear the flute version some time.  The other transcription is Marcel Tournier’s (1879-1951) work originally for voice and harp.  This penultimate track, Le Lettre du Jardinier (1912)  is based on poetry by Henry Bataille (1872-1922).  Its theme connects a bit with the garden theme that begins with a brief work by Christine Delphine Hedden.

A great number of the pieces here have been composed over the last four years.  Most of these are single-movement works.  Natalie Moller’s (b. 1990) starshine and moonfall (2014) uses an undulating harp line under a lyrical sax idea that grows in intensity until it shifts into the arpeggios while the harp plays its own version of the expanded material.  It is a rather fascinating little work.  Four additional works are grouped together exploring unique themes and approaches to emphasize the potential of this combination.  Amhran na Casca (2014) has biblical connections to the death and resurrection of Christ in Luke 20 and Mary’s discovery there in Christine Delphine Hedden’s (b. 1990) brief piece creating some excellent dramatic flourishes from the harp.  Her Kitchen Dance (2015) uses electronics and bowls in an improvisatory way to create interactions between the players and sounds for an ethereal finale to the album.  An interesting toccata of sorts with blends of Funk-Indian music appears in Stephen Rush’s (b. 1958) Whirlwind (2015).  The most recent work on the album is Still Here (2017), Angelica Negron’s (b. 1981) musical exploration of abusive relationships and trauma.  Small motivic ideas are looped and repeated in often incessant patterns against more reflective lines.  This darker work exploring feelings and boundaries is followed by the much more avant-garde  …nice box! “Oh So Square” (2014) by Jasper Sussman (b. 1989) with unusual sounds and fluctuations attached to both instrumental sounds which ends in a vicious saxophone scream.

Patrick O’Malley’s (b. 1989) Thaumaturgy (2015) is one of two other recent multi-movement works.  The well-balanced three movements each present different “spells” reflecting the magical implications of the title.  The piece has a few more intriguing explorations of each instrument using special effects to add intriguing sounds to the texture (most striking in the opening “Cast and Bend”).  The exploration of sound straddles a sense of traditional and contemporary music.  The other multi-movement work here is Yusef A. Lateef’s (1920-2013) Romance for Soprano Saxophone (or oboe d’amore) and Harp (1991).  It opens with a rather beautiful reflective movement, “With Love” and then explores more upbeat emotions in “Cheerfully”.  There are moments here where one can hear how Lateef was shaping lines in ways that would work for either instrument.  The piece is an opportunity for exploring long, drawn-out phrases requiring great breath control.  It is an overall gentle piece with an almost ancient modal feel in its harmonies.

The album features a lot of fascinating music for this combination that explores the capabilities of this duo and celebrates this important musical partnership of the Admiral Duo itself.  The saxophone tends to shine a bit more here, but the harp has plenty of opportunity to stand out as well which allows us to hear the excellent musicianship of both players.  The performances here often seem so effortless that they invite the listener into these various musical explorations.  The dramatic and narrative possibilities of the pieces also is laid out well here.  Most of the pieces here are tonal with angular writing often showing more contemporary approaches to composition.  It is an overall impressive album with a wealth of fascinating new work to discover.  The pieces are sequenced well to balance those of differing lengths making for an engaging program.

Cutting Edge Concerts: February 11, 18, 25

Cutting Edge Concerts New Music Festival 

Victoria Bond, Artistic Director

Cutting Edge Concerts' 22nd season features music by Philip Glass, Paul Chihara, Hannah Lash, Amy Beth Kirsten, Victoria Bond and more

February 11, 18, & 25, 2019 at Symphony Space's Leonard Nimoy Thalia in New York City

"...a gift to New Yorkers thirsty for new sounds" - Time Out New York

Victoria Bond's Cutting Edge Concerts New Music Festival celebrates its 22nd Season with three programs in February 2019 at Symphony Space.

Inspired by Pierre Boulez's series, "Perspective Encounters", the composer and conductor Victoria Bond founded Cutting Edge Concerts in 1998. With more than two decades of concerts, Cutting Edge Concerts has presented over 300 new works by nearly 200 composers. Each program highlights the music of living composers, all of whom attend the concert. Along with performances by world-class ensembles and soloists, each program features on-stage discussions between host Victoria Bond and the composers. CEC has been called "a full-throttle commitment to contemporary music" by Chamber Music America.

February 11, 7:30 pm | Cutting Edge Concerts: Dream Forms

New York-based piano trio (Kurt Briggs, violin; Matt Goeke, cello; Renee Cometa Briggs, piano) performs Steven Burke's Dream Forms (composed for the trio), inspired by clairvoyant, lucid and epic dreams. Additional works include Victoria Bond's Other Selves, commissioned by the Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival as a ballet based on sculptures by Marjorie Michael; and "Piano Trio No. 2" by Jim Lahti.

February 18, 7:30 pm | Cutting Edge Concerts: New Visions of Cherished Classics

Acclaimed Philip Glass interpreter, pianist Paul Barnes joins forces with Scott Hosfeld (viola), Maria Newman (violin), and Laura Hamilton (violin) for Glass's Byzantine chant-inspired work Annunciation Quintet. The first half also includes the NYC premiere Victoria Bond's Simeron Kremate as well as Maria Newman’s Pennipotenti.

The evening also features a workshop performance of The Adventures of Gulliver, a new opera based on the classic Jonathan Swift tale, with music by Victoria Bond, libretto by Stephen Greco and design and direction by Doug Fitch. The cast includes:

Daniel Klein, baritone; Ariadne Graf, soprano; Sean Christensen, tenor; Yoojin Lee, mezzo-soprano; David Charles Tay, tenor; Jonathan Hare, baritone; and Mark Peloquin, piano.

February 25, 7:30 pm | Cutting Edge Concerts: The Poetry of Places

The Horszowski Trio (Jesse Mills, violin; Paul Wiancko, cello; Rieko Aizawa, piano) is joined by clarinetist Alan Kay, flutist Elizabeth Mann, and soprano Sophia Maekawa for a performance of Paul Chihara's Amatsu Kaze ("heavenly wind"). The work is based on seven Haiku, and Chihara's songs are happy, sad, sexy, witty, and always very lonely.

The evening also features pianist Nadia Shpachenko performing selections from her recently released CD, “The Poetry of Places” - works composed for her by Lewis Spratlan, Harold Meltzer, Hannah Lash, Amy Beth Kirsten, Jack Van Zandt, Victoria Bond, and James Matheson.

Cutting Edge Concerts New Music Festival concerts are on Mondays, February 11, 18, and 25, 2019 at 7:30 pm at Leonard Nimoy Thalia at Peter Norton Symphony Space (2537 Broadway at 95th Street in Manhattan). Tickets are $20 in advance ($30 day of show) and are available online.

Victoria Bond: Conducting a Life at the Cutting Edge

Words: Susan Brodie
Images: Daniel Gonzalez (banner)
and courtesy Victoria Bond

In a long and multi-faced career as composer, conductor, and concert presenter, Victoria Bond has created a legacy not only of her own compositions, but also of works by other composers via her annual new music showcase, Cutting Edge Concerts. The 21st season opens on April 9 at Symphony Space with the world premiere staging of Eric Salzman’s opera Big Jim and the Small-Time Investors. Each of the four programs, on consecutive Monday evenings in April, features a different performing ensemble, and includes at least one world premiere.

Bond’s own substantial body of work incorporates many genres, including several operas: Madame President (about the first woman to run for president in 1872), Miracle of Light, and Clara, which will be premiered in 2019 at the Baden-Baden (Germany) Easter Festival.

During a recent interview in the living room of her Greenwich Village home, which was set up for rehearsal, Bond spoke of her musical beginnings, life as a composer, and the origins and inspirations for her annual new music series.

NATIONAL SAWDUST LOG: I was going to start with your Pierre Boulez connection, but the Harry Partch connection sounds intriguing. How did you encounter him, and at what stage of your career?

Actually this is very fascinating. Eric Salzman, whose opera I’m conducting right now, was going down to San Diego, that area, to interview Harry Partch. I’ve known Eric since I was in school in Los Angeles; that was my undergraduate at USC. And he said, “I’m going to interview Harry Partch and I think you might like to come along.” And I did, and he was a fascinating person.

And then, I think it was probably several months later, UCLA was putting on the first staged performance, even though he had written it far earlier, of Delusion of the Fury, and I got cast as the Old Goat Woman. I think I was about 20 at the time, so it was not type casting [laughs]. But as you know, Harry Partch’s operas are not at all realistic. They are like the exact opposite of verismo; they are much more ritualistic. Originally he had wanted the dancer-singer to be the same person, but he found out that the person who was doing the dancing couldn’t really sing. So he had the singers, and I think there were a small group of soloists, and I believe an ensemble, he had us in the pit, and the dancers onstage. It was absolutely a fascinating process, and it has totally influenced me forever since that time.

I like the idea of theater as ritual. Because to do a film… I mean, it’s better to do something realistic on film, whereas theater gives you that sense of abstraction, which I like very much. Plus, his instruments were so fascinating. The sounds were not electronic, as you know. They were all acoustic sounds, and the range, all the way from the marimba eroica all the way up to pitches so high that only dogs could hear them. Fascinating, and the timbre of them. It was familiar, and yet it was original.

Have you incorporated any of these acoustic-sonic principles in your writing?

Well, I wrote a piece for the group Partch in Los Angeles. How that came about was, I was having a rehearsal in L.A. in the studio of the percussionist, and he had all of the Harry Partch instruments. And I said, oh, wow, this is familiar—they were not the originals, these were reproductions, but they were still familiar. And then I found out that there was this Los Angeles group called Partch, and [I thought] Ah! The next commission from the Los Angeles County Museum, I want to write for this group. So yes, those sounds really deeply influenced me.

I would say an instrument like the Cloud Chamber—they used to be water coolers that were made of glass, and Partch had cut them off at various levels so that they had distinct pitches, the kind of complex pitches that bells have, and they had a bell-like quality, but there was something very unearthly about them, and they were played with large, soft mallets. So I wrote a piece for the called Falling Clouds. It was such a happy moment, because I don’t think another instrument could reproduce that kind of effect. It was a very suspended effect. So yes, those instruments have influenced me for sure.

Have you branched into using electronic instruments at all?

I haven’t. A friend of mine, back when I was in L.A., was one of the people who brought the Moog synthesizer into usage. And he spent so much time just researching the acoustics of sound, the overtone series, that it was almost like a scientific exploration. And at that point I decided I love acoustic instruments, I love working with people, rather than working with machines. It’s fascinating, and I appreciate it, but one lifetime is too short to explore everything.

I felt that way about Indian music. I had to, in my former life as a singer, sing some Indian music for a recording, and I thought, this is fascinating. I started to study it, and I realized that this is a lifetime study. This is not something that you go into superficially and say, oh well, I’ll take a year and learn this. No. It really takes a lifetime. I want to devote myself to the things in which I’m most interested. The central artistic musical priorities of my life. Electronics at this point is not within that parameter.

I’m fascinated by your transition from singer to composer. You began studies as a singer?

Well, actually, composition was first and foremost in my life. I come from a family of musicians. My mother was a concert pianist; my father was a singer. My grandfather was a composer and conductor; my grandmother was a singer…all the way down, parents, grandparents, it was so inevitable that I become a musician that for a while I fought it.

I always knew I wanted to make things, and I made what I called “pictures” at the piano, just improvising as a child—I didn’t know it was called “composition” at that point. But it was what fascinated me the most. And my parents, both being professional musicians, said, “You have to have an instrument; you can’t just be a composer.” So my first instrument was piano, and I studied with my mother. And then, because my mother had done so much by the time she was 10 years old…she was a child prodigy. I mean, I knew that that was not my instrument because she had been there, done that, and there was no competing with that.

But they discovered that I had a voice, and I took singing lessons – and yes, my father was a singer – but there was something there that I could do. And so my double life was going to be as a composer and singer, and my role model in that was Samuel Barber, because he was such a wonderful composer, and also of course a very fine singer. So I thought, that’s going to be my performance instrument.

And then I had the occasion to take conducting lessons from what seemed like a very happenstance meeting with a well-known conductor, whose younger brother went to school with me at USC. The younger brother being Freddie Zlatkin – he now goes by Zlatkin, but at that time it was Slatkin – and his older brother of course was Leonard Slatkin. The three of us were in Aspen at the same time, and Leonard said, “Well, if you’re going to be a singer” – I was there to study singing with Maria Stader and Jennie Tourel – “you really need to know what conductors do, because you’re going to be doing opera and you should know what conductors do.” So he said, “I’m teaching for the first time in Aspen, teaching conducting, and I think you should study with me.” And I did. And it was wonderful. And it opened up a door to me as a composer that was wider than the door had been as a singer. Because it really was more of a global sense of what was going on.

So when I came back to Los Angeles, my mother, as a musician, knew many conductors, and one of her friends had the Senior Citizens Orchestra of Los Angeles, and I had the opportunity to conduct them in a rehearsal. And it was a life-changing experience. They said, “You know, you’re talented. You should pursue this.” And this was as a woman at a time when there were…I won’t say none, but there were very few [women conductors], and they were not high profile. But they said, you ought to pursue this. And so I was going to go to Juilliard (that was my mother’s school), and I was going to go as a composer. But I thought, hmm, I’d like to go as a conductor, too. I wanted to have a double major. Everybody said, Oh, forget it, you’ll never get in, you’ll never get in the conducting department—which was exactly what I needed to hear, because it was a spur rather than a deterrent.

I was accepted as a composer, got there and discovered I couldn’t have a double major, so I audited the conducting class the first year, and then I auditioned and got in, and then I had to drop my major as a composer. But I needed a lot of catching up in terms of learning repertory as a conductor. So I spent my masters and doctorate years at Juilliard as a conducting major and graduated with a degree in orchestral conducting.

I got my first job with the Pittsburgh Symphony as an Exxon conductor, so then the conducting took off, and left not as much time as I would have liked as a composer. So at a certain point I said, well, we’ve got to reverse the horse and the cart, and I’m really still a composer who conducts, not a conductor who sometimes composes. It’s always a juggling act—time, plus somebody else’s music is always in your head when you’re conducting a lot. The wonderful thing, of course, is you work with the great repertory all the time. You work with musicians all the time. You’re really in there, in the trenches, not just looking at it in the distance, but really being a part of a musical life. Whereas being a composer can be somewhat isolated, so it gives you that sense.

The conducting you do now is primarily contemporary music, is that right?

No, no, every year I do Amahl and the Night Visitors [laughs]—I guess one can call that contemporary. I’ve done basically most of the standard repertory, orchestral repertory, operatic repertory. I love the standard rep as well as contemporary.

What were the circumstances of your beginning the Cutting Edge series?

Well, I had been away. My husband has always lived in New York, he’s a born and bred New Yorker, but I have lived in different places, as I said: in Pittsburgh, in Virginia—I was music director of the [Roanoke] symphony and the opera there. And so when I left those jobs and came back to New York, I wanted to reconnect with my friends here, with the musical community. A friend of mine said, “Why don’t you do a concert at Greenwich House; they have a composer portrait series, and I think they would be interested in doing a portrait of you.” So that’s what I did, and I invited all my friends to perform on it. I had a bunch of chamber music I had written, and I wrote a few more pieces. And that was a very successful concert. The people at Greenwich House said, well, what do you think about starting a series? It would not only be your music, it would be other composers, and we would have a three-concert series every year. And that was how it got started.

It was originally called “Close Encounters,” because Greenwich House is a very intimate space—it’s a wonderful space, but it’s like being in a large living room with wonderful acoustics. And then I got a Cease and Desist letter—not from who you would think, but another music group that was called “Close Encounters with Music.” Cease and desist means “you cannot use this name ever again or we will pursue you and your relatives!” [laughs] So I decided I needed to change the name. And after a search,”Cutting Edge Concerts” appeared. You know, titles are very mysterious: sometimes they just drop in, and sometimes you search and search and search and can’t find the right one. This was a happy drop-in. The series became Cutting Edge Concerts, and it moved from Greenwich House to Symphony Space, a larger space with a little bit more professional ambiance and more of a destination for contemporary music.

We started in 1998. The Boulez connection is because when Boulez was music director of the New York Philharmonic, he also did concerts at Juilliard, which is where I met him and became his assistant for the Juilliard concerts, and of course attended all of his contemporary music concerts. He was – in addition to being a great general musician, composer, conductor, etcetera – also a great teacher. And these Perspective Encounters that he did in New York at Cooper Union, and Rug Concerts [at Avery Fisher Hall], were so intelligently put together. He would not just put the composer up and let him say a couple of words, because not all composers are particularly articulate about their own music. Boulez was extremely articulate, and also able to zero in on one or two salient points about the piece which he was able to extract from each composer, even the most recalcitrant composers, he was able to get them to talk about that particular detail.

Because for an audience, encountering a new piece of music is a whole world unto itself. Where [do] you begin, particularly if you only hear it once and if you’re not familiar with that composer’s language? And very often what he would do would be talk to the composer, play the piece, and play the piece again after intermission, which was also very intelligent. So after the initial first impression of the piece, you had a chance to listen deeper. And it was very, very meaningful. It had this wonderful kind of conversational, casual ambiance, but the performance of the music was at a very high, not at all casual level. So it had that wonderful complete picture of inviting you into his musical living room and yet giving you a performance that was of the highest caliber. I said, hmm, that’s what I want to be when I grow up [laughs].

So when this series presented itself I wanted to structure it the way he had, with the conversation with the composers, focusing on a couple of important moments for the audience to listen to. It wasn’t so much of a didactic as an introductory entree into the composer’s mind.

Do you also repeat a new work?

I haven’t, just in the nature of time. I don’t like to have concerts that last more than 70, 80 [minutes] at the max. With the length of the piece, and conversation beforehand – which should not be lengthy, but still adds time – and I like to have usually about four pieces per concert. So it has not allowed at this point for doing it twice. But something to think about in the future.

It’s something I regret in most new music concerts, that you don’t get a second chance at a new work.

Yes, indeed.

How do you find your composers?

My ear is always to the ground. I know it may seem strange, because I’m sitting up right now [laughs], but I have so many friends in this profession, and I’m always listening to new composers, to composers that I know, their new works… I have a lot of repeat offenders, as it were, because I know them, I like their music a lot. I also have evolved into working with existing new music ensembles. That was something that evolved over the years of the series, where first I would choose the composer, and then put together musicians. Which was extremely difficult because musicians in New York, if they’re good, are busy. And to schedule rehearsals between three or four busy musicians who don’t play together all the time is a nightmare. So I decided, best to work with new music groups who already know each other and play together, and they help shape the repertory. Because I always refer to what pieces they have in their repertory or they’re interested in adding to their repertory. I make suggestions, and they make suggestions, and it becomes a collaborative effort to put together a program.

It’s almost participatory curation.

Yes, indeed! I feel it’s very valuable for players to let me know what they like to play. That’s extremely important.

Victoria Bond interviews composer Zosha Di Castri
during Cutting Edge Concerts 2017
Photograph: YouTube

Diversity in programming has become a hot topic. Has that become part of your considerations?

Yes, very much. And I’ve been criticized for it, strangely enough. I’ve heard criticism: “Well, this is ‘Cutting Edge Concerts’ and this piece is very kind of old fashioned, even though it’s by a living composer.” The only prerequisite of music on my series is that the composer be alive. I’ve even broken that not-hard-and-fast rule when we did a concert of Jacob Druckman and his influence on younger composers, and we performed some of his works, and he was no longer alive at that time. But by and large, and within the past five or six years, it’s only been living composers.

I don’t try and dictate the style that I accept. We’ve had everything from Philip Glass to very conservative, to electronics—Judith Shatin had a piece called Penelope’s Loom for electronics and viola. We’ve had the stage filled with equipment. And we’ve had some very conservative pieces. I think it’s a very rich time musically in which we live. I do remember a time when there was a strict canon of 12-tone music, and should you veer from that, you were not considered a composer at all.

When do you think that faded away?

I think minimalism had a lot to do with it…From the very intellectually rigorous restrictions of 12-tone there was minimalism, which was at the complete opposite end of the spectrum. It sort of opened up everything in between [laughs]. So I think that we’re a lot more inclusive now, and we have a larger palette, which I’m very happy about. I do love tonal music, and there’s a lot of great tonal music that’s being written today. And why not? I know that Schoenberg said that tonality was dead, but somehow it’s sprung up again—just like spring! [laughs]

Another aspect of diversity, of course, is the gender and ethnicity of the composers. Is that at all part of your…

Well, we have a wide net. As a woman, the gender issue is never a problem. We’ve certainly had a very large number of women composers. Ethnicity is never a barrier; I always find it fascinating to include composers of different nationalities who include their own backgrounds and enrich our repertory. Of course we’ve had a lot of Asian composers – Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Southeast Asian – North African, Swedish…you name it, we’ve had them as part of Cutting Edge Concerts.

What’s your perception of your audiences?

The audiences? I have a core of loyal followers and sponsors, to whom I’m very grateful. And then we add. One of the ways we add audiences is by the groups we have, the new music ensembles. Because they bring their own following and their fan base to the concerts, which is great! So opening it up to new groups and of course to new composers—because now with social media, it’s very easy for the groups and the composers to contact their fan base and let them know about the concerts. So every year there’s a whole new crop of people who come to the concerts as a result of the ensembles and the composers.

Tell me about a piece, or several pieces, on the upcoming series that you’re particularly proud of.

All of them! But I’ll start with the first concert, because that’s Eric Salzman’s Big Jim and the Small-Time Investors, a piece that was written before Madoff, but very, very related, because it’s about a charming, charismatic con man who gets investors to plunk down their life savings. It ends up that this is all just a big Ponzi scheme and they lose everything. It’s done in a very abstract way—it’s not cinematic at all. I would say that Eric’s forebears are more related to Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill and music theater than they are to Verdi and Puccini.

We had rehearsal here yesterday, and the singers were saying, “This is a very quirky work.” That’s used as a compliment, because Eric had a real style, a real music profile. We’re so sorry that he’s not going to be with us for these performances… [Salzman passed away last November] We were supposed to do this work two years ago, but the funding was not available at that time. When it was planned for this year, he was so excited, and I met with him many times—he had a home in Quogue, and the director and the producer and myself met with him out there and talked about the work. This was his last opera, and it had never been staged—it had been in a concert reading, but this is the first staged performance, and he was very excited. As you know, opera is many moving parts, and it’s a big deal. It’s not something that you put together in three or four rehearsals. We’re rehearsing all of this week, all of next week, and there’s a lot of people involved. So that’s on the first program.

On the second program, we’re working with Sybarite5, an extraordinary string quintet. Two of the pieces are going to be for shakuhachi and string quintet: one of them by Paul Moravec, a shakuhachi concerto, and the other by James Nyoraku Schlefer, a Grand Master of the shakuhachi. This will be a new piece that he’s written for them, for shakuhachi and string quintet. And I have written a piece just for the string quintet itself, called The Voice of Water.This will be the premiere, and I’ve written it specifically for them.

Then on the third concert we have Hub New Music, which is a quartet. I’ve written a piece for them, an arrangement of a piece called Bridges, originally written for a [clarinetist] in the Chicago Symphony, John Bruce Yeh, of Chinese descent. He had a group called Bird in Phoenix, and he wanted a piece for Western instruments and Chinese instruments. I wrote it for clarinet, bass clarinet, erhu, and pipa. He performed it many times, and it was subsequently orchestrated and done by a couple of different orchestras. I also made a trio version for violin, clarinet, and piano.

Then, when Michael Avitabile, the head of Hub New Music, heard it and liked it, he said, ooh, can you make an arrangement for us? So it’s been arranged yet again: flute, clarinet, violin, and cello. I really enjoy doing that. I love to make different arrangements of existing works of mine—I find it very interesting to think of how things can be reimagined sonically with different combinations of instruments. Inspiration for that is Bach, who of course [laughs] took so many of his works and made them into works that you would think, oh, that’s so idiomatic for the instrument, how could it have been anything else?

Well that poses the question, do you as a composer begin with a theme, a melody, a harmony, or a sonority…?

You know, it comes in differently at different times. If I could predict it, maybe it would take the mystery out of it.

It would take the fun out?

Maybe so. You see, my parents as performers, they could not necessarily understand: “You know, if you don’t know what you’re going to do before you do it, why do it?” But for me, it’s the adventure, it’s the journey. The way a piece comes in is always a big mystery. Sometimes it’s the thematic idea, sometimes it’s a rhythm, sometimes it’s a literary subject. It’s different daily. I put the time aside, and I think I have enough craft that I can make things work. But that’s not the point. It’s the ideas that come in, and making those work. And knowing the difference between an idea that’s just sort of put together and an idea that has sprung up naturally. There is a big difference and I think we all can tell…we know when something is, “Oh! That’s so inevitable! It couldn’t be any other way!” And you just are grateful when those things happen. They don’t happen all the time, and yes, you can cobble something together that will work, if we have to. But it’s wonderful when something is real and then you follow the material itself, and the material tells you where it needs to go. So I can’t say it’s ever one way. Things will always make sense; there’s always going to be a certain logic. But as to whether it’s inspired or something that works…

Oh, and I forgot the last concert, because we have four concerts this year, every Monday in April. The last one is the group Cygnus, which is plucked instruments, and they add woodwind players and singers. This is the third or fourth time I’ve worked with them, and they’re a wonderful ensemble.

Tell me about some of the musical highlights over the years of the series.

We’ve included opera, by the way, as part of what we’ve done from the very beginning. We did a preview performance of my opera Mrs. President, before it was performed in concert with the Anchorage Opera. We did scenes from William Bolcolm’s McTeague. We did a work of Robert Sirota [The Clever Mistress], we did a work of Ted Wiprud [My Last Duchess]. As I mentioned, we did Eric Salzman’s The Last True Words of Dutch Schultz. We did a workshop of my opera Clara, which is going to be done in 2019 in Baden-Baden, Germany, the premiere. So opera has always been a part of the series, a very important part.

I wrote the majority of the Clara Schumann opera at Brahms’s house, in Baden-Baden, with a wonderful picture of Brahms looking down, and a Bechstein piano—which was not his, but another wonderful Bechstein like the one he had in his home. This was not his home: they were rented rooms. Clara Schumann had a home in Baden-Baden, and she would come there every summer, and for several summers Brahms came there just to be with her and the family, and rented rooms in this particular site, which is now a museum, with one or two guest artists every month. And so I’ve been there quite a number of times, and I wrote all of the Clara Schumann opera there, with my librettist Barbara Zinn Krieger. The place holds fabulous memories and real inspiration.

I have to tell you a story: I’m in Baden-Baden, the first time that I’m there, a little bit jet lagged, had trouble sleeping, woke up at 5 in the morning with a voice in my head—and I should preface this by saying that I was planning to write a piece based on a theme of Brahms based on the first string sextet, the andante movement. I had worked out the basic plan, the form and all of that, and I was going to end with the theme, a la Sibelius, have all the disparate pieces come together and end with the theme. And I had also read about Brahms’s daily habits, that he got up early in the morning, took a walk, had his coffee. So I’m there for the first night, jet lagged…bang! Five o’clock in the morning I hear a voice in my head that says, “Don’t reinvent the wheel, start with my theme.” And I look around – any ghosts here? No, no ghosts – what was that? And I try and fall asleep. Can’t fall asleep. So, I get up, and start with his theme. Then, lo and behold, things start to come in.

A couple of days later, a woman from the Badische Tageblatt comes to interview me. “So, how do you like staying at Brahms’s house? Tell us your impressions.” So I thought, why not? So I tell her the whole story and she’s writing down, and she looks up at me and she says, “You mean, Brahms spoke to you in English?” [laughs] It’s like, “Of course his spirit is here, doesn’t everybody know that?”

Will you again be interviewing the composers during these concerts?

Always — that’s an integral part of everything I do. No, I think that’s important for the audience to see the living presence of the composer and to just hear — I chat, I don’t necessarily have a list of things that I ask about, but I’m always there in rehearsal so I know the pieces beforehand, and things that strike me as important (and of course I discuss it with them beforehand—“is this an important moment, what would you say?”). Then it’s just casual conversation, with the parameter of what to listen for in his or her work.

The 21st season of Cutting Edge Concerts opens on April 9 at 7:30pm at the Leonard Nimoy Thalia, Symphony Space, and runs on consecutive Mondays through April 30;

Susan Brodie has written for print and online outlets including American Record Guide, Classical Voice North America, Early Music America, and Opera News. When not on deadline she can often be found planning a trip to see unusual opera productions.

Feb 23: Defiant Requiem performance at IUP

Defiant Requiem: Verdi at Terezín

Saturday, February 23

at Fisher Auditorium, Indiana PA

Complete live performance of Verdi's Requiem as performed in the Terezín Concentration Camp, interspersed with historic film, testimony from survivors and narration tells the moving story of courageous performances by the prisoners of a WWII concentration camp

Praised by The New York Times as "Poignant...a monument to the courage of one man to foster hope among prisoners with little other solace," Defiant Requiem: Verdi at Terezín will be performed on February 23, 2019 at 7:30 pm at Fisher Auditorium(403 S. 11th Street) in Indiana, PA. 

The "extraordinarily beautiful and moving" concert/drama commemorates the courageous Jewish prisoners in the Theresienstadt Concentration Camp during World War II who performed Verdi's Requiem 16 times, as an act of defiance and resistance to their Nazi captors. Defiant Requiem is a complete live performance of Verdi's Requiem interspersed with historic film, testimony from survivors and narration that tells this tale of audacious bravery. This performance features the full Verdi Requiem with the chorus and soloists accompanied by a single piano, as it was in Terezín.

Defiant Requiem: Verdi at Terezín features pianist Arlene Shrut with Colleen Ferguson on violin, the IUP Chorale and Penn State Altoona Ivyside Pride Vocal Ensemble, as well as soprano Annie Gill, mezzo-soprano Bonnie Cutsforth-Huber, tenor Tim Augustin, and bass Joseph Baunoch and actors Richard Kemp and Michael Schwartz. It will be conducted by Maestro Murry Sidlin, president of The Defiant Requiem Foundation and creator of this powerful concert/drama.

This performance of Defiant Requiem is presented by The Defiant Requiem Foundation, Indiana University of Pennsylvania Department of Music, and the Penn State Altoona Department of Arts and Humanities, with funding from the Gretchen M. Brooks University Residency Project.

Tickets for Defiant Requiem: Verdi at Terezín are $10 general admission, $8 for seniors and $6 for students, anyone with a Military ID, and children under 18. Tickets are available online or in person at the The Lively Arts Ticket Office (in the lobby of the IUP Performing Arts Center, 403 S. 11th Street, Indiana, PA). 

Murry Sidlin and The Defiant Requiem Foundation also produced an Emmy-nominated documentary film narrated by Bebe Neuwirth that has been praised as a "gripping documentary" (, with "a very powerful message" (CNN). More information is at

Orli Shaham featured on KUSC Arts Alive

Listen to Orli Shaham's interview at this link.

Picture this: you’re driving down the 5 Freeway in the Central Valley. All of a sudden, in your rear view mirror you see two 30-foot stretch limos. As they pull up beside you, you notice that these limos aren’t your average everyday limos. They are, in fact, the world’s longest Steinway grand pianos, traveling at 90 miles-per-hour on the freeway.

That scene has never actually happened, but it was the inspiration for a piece of music by composer John Adams. The piano/limousine hybrids appeared in a dream that Adams had years ago and that dream inspired his Grand Pianola Music, a piece Adams wrote in 1982 and one that he says, “seems to have something to offend everybody.” There’s all sorts of noisemakers in the percussion section, three female voice parts, and the two piano soloists often play their parts just slightly out of synch with one another.

One of the soloists is Orli Shaham. She tells me she’s a big fan of the music of John Adams.

“I fell in love with the music of John Adams when I first heard his Century Rolls piano concerto. I had heard other pieces of his that I had liked quite a bit, but maybe because it was for piano, it suddenly spoke to a part of me that was much stronger. Since then, I’ve had the great pleasure of meeting him many times. We’ve become quite good friends. I’ve worked with him as a conductor and also recorded some of his music. That close collaboration you have with a composer when you are recording his or her music is very personal and intimate in that way.”

Shaham tells me she has performed Adams’ Grand Pianola Music with Adams and pianist Marc-Andre Hamelin, as she will this weekend with the LA Phil.

“Reliving an older piece of [Adams’] with him as a collaborator and seeing him, through the rehearsal process, figure out the sounds in the way that he intended them, I mean, this is the dream. We all want to know exactly what did the composer intend here? And here’s your chance: the composer is right there five feet away from you! You can know exactly what the composer intended. I find it so creatively satisfying to work with a composer of his intellect and just creative energy.”