Musicians At Top of Their Game with Canyonlands and Maurice Abravanel Visiting Composer Concerts

December 1, 2009
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Morris_RosenzweigThe Canyonlands New Music Ensemble was formed in 1977 as a joint venture between Composer Morris Rosenzweig and the University of Utah School of Music.  In 1993, the Maurice Abravanel Distinguished Composer Series was created to pair Canyonlands’ musicians with the music of contemporary composers, bringing new and challenging works to the Salt Lake City community. 

Today, Rosenzweig’s vision thrives and the talent that sustained the ensemble in its youth is now a seasoned group of tenured musicians who perform the works of such contemporary composers as John Harbison, Roger Reynolds, Fred Lerdahl, Leon Kirchner, Mario Davidovsky and John Corigliano.

In November, Composer Fred Lerdahl was honored as a Maurice Abravanel Visiting Composer. A composer since the early 60s,  Lerdahl, who recently won the CRF Composer of the Year Award  has also written two books.  His first,  A Generative Theory of Tonal Music, is widely credited with changing music theory.  When he published the book in 1983, his theories were not popular; 25 years later, they are now standard.

To understand and fully appreciate Lerdahl’s compositions, I suspect that you need to be a music theorist, a linguist, mathematician or poet, or a musician with years of experience beyond traditional classical music.  Sounds scary, right?  But the beauty of music is that it has the ability to speak and be heard by anyone who can hear its sound or feel its rhythm, and that pretty much means you and me. 


Before I attended the Canyonlands performance, I did my homework; I really needed to be prepared for this concert! Sometimes, I like to be surprised and not over analyze a performance, so I don’t familiarize myself with the works in advance.  But given that this was the first time I’d be hearing Contemporary works, I felt the more prepared I was, the better!

I researched, interviewed and wrote an article about Lerdahl.  When I asked Lerdahl what he hoped people would take away from his works, he said he hoped “his music conveys structural integrity and depth and a broad range of human expression, and that it proves to be enjoyable as well as demanding to play”.

I wanted to familiarize myself with the pieces that would be performed and I found and listened to Duo (for violin and piano) on YouTube.  I was even able to find Aaron Einbond’s  Temper (for bass clarinet and live electronics) and had a chance to listen to that as well.  After digesting what I had heard, what I had read, and what I had learned about Lerdahl, I had already decided what my opening statement to THIS article would be: “Well that was interesting…”

As prepared as I was to hear these new, different, complex and “odd sounding” contemporary pieces, I had basically set myself up for failure.  In a way, my research kept me from experiencing each piece with virgin ears, and it prevented me from being completely open to the experience.  While it was the first time I’d be hearing the works live, I still had preconceptions, had prejudged the works, and ultimately walked in to the performance with a negative bias. That said, I was still very much intrigued, and I was excited to see the musicians present these complex works to the audience!

Jed_Moss_Canyonlands Pianist Jed Moss performed two of Lerdahl’s works and said, “Lerdahl’s music is contemporary sounding and modern, using all of the compositional techniques available to him, especially the complex cross rhythms and bi-tonality — sometimes two different tonal systems going at once. For example, when playing Duo (for violin and piano), Lynnette Thredgold and I were playing in two different time signatures and two different key schemes, yet somehow making it all fit together.  His music has a very evident flair for the dramatic.”

Moss continued, Lerdahl’s works are approachable because, as in Marches, there are some very identifiable quotes. I think that makes it interesting for the listener. While trying to muddle through all the complexities, they can latch onto themes. Playing Lerdahl exemplifies much of what I like in playing contemporary or avant garde music; that is, the challenges of playing with multi layers of articulations and dynamics and rhythms — something you don’t have to deal with all at once with more traditional classical music. It’s more challenging for the musician performing it.”

I had expected Duo to be a bit unsettling to my ears, but I was wrong.  I was overwhelmed by Moss and Thredgold’s performance!  Their artistry was equal to Picasso; their canvas filled with brush strokes of angles, complexity and color.  It was emotional and thought provoking, and in its awkwardness there was clarity. I didn’t understand Duo for it’s compositional design, but it awakened my senses and I respected every note played on the piano and violin.  Such amazing talent!

I asked Moss and Thredgold if they enjoy performing new and complex works and Moss replied,I do!  It’s like working on a complex mathematical equation. It gets under your skin and you get so involved with it…it takes so much focus and it’s challenging! It’s music on a whole other level; it’s listening on a whole other level — listening more intimately. It’s about letting go, too. And it’s about being quite virtuosic in both hands; again, having different demands, articulations, rhythms and dynamics, all at the same time.”

Lynnette_ThredgoldThredgold said that as an artist, she wants to continually challenge herself.  Performing works like Lerdahl’s and other contemporary composers feeds her intellect.  It’s a major investment of time and energy to perform these works, but she is always excited about the process, even when confronted with the difficulties and challenges of compositions like Lerdahl’s.

Other pieces performed by Canyonlands were Lerdahl’s Three Diatonic Studies and Marches, Morris Rosenzweig’s Dah Lives ah dah Saints (for tenor banjo and electronics) and Aaron Einbond’s Temper.

Banjo player Joshua Payne performed Rosenzweig’s piece, which ended up being a bit fun.  Payne played an electric banjo and the piece included sound clips from people talking about the New Orleans Saints football team.  The audience laughed at a couple of the clips, and the piece was unlike anything I’d heard before from a banjo.  It was creative, inspired and enjoyable to watch and hear.

Marches was an ensemble piece with Rosenzweig conducting Moss on piano, Thredgold on violin, Laura Carmichael on clarinet, and Noriko Kishi on cello.  Lerdahl spoke about the piece and told us he wouldn’t spoil the surprise by telling us all the different (famous) composer quotes within Marches. There were, apparently, quotes by Mahler, Strauss and Brahms (among others), but I think that would-be spoiler was lost on all the non-musicians!

Not every piece performed was something I’d want to listen to on a daily basis.  But in each piece I found something to like, appreciate and respect.  I didn’t walk away understanding all the intricacies of Lerdahl’s compositions, but I did walk away with more than I expected.  I was exposed to 6 musicians, 3 composers and 5 contemporary pieces – and admission was free.  My hunger for education and inspiration was well fed!

For more than 15 years, Canyonlands and the Maurice Abravanel Distinguished Composer Series have presented and introduced the works of today’s contemporary composers to not only the students and faculty of the University but to the Salt Lake City community at large.  The musicians are some of the finest and most respected artists in the area, and year after year they continue to challenge themselves and each other.

Jed Moss has been performing with Canyonlands for nearly 20 years.  I talked with Moss about being part of this ensemble and he said, “Canyonlands is such a fine group of musicians with the same collective goal of really fine, highbrow music making. The biggest motivation for me with Canyonlands is to get to work and to rehearse these works with Morris Rosenzweig because I think his expertise in this field is unparalleled. To work under him and get to the level that one needs to be to actually do the performance, you’re just a much better musician for having gone through that.

The musicians all make it a high priority, so for the most part, they come into every rehearsal situation extremely well prepared. You kind of live with the fear of God; you’ve got to be well prepared.  It makes you so alert, so alive and so on top of your game.”

Moss continued, “For better or worse, there are definitely listeners who ask why we put so much time into it because they can’t identify with it. But in this case, it’s not about what we get from the audience. We want the audience to participate, but by the time we’ve endeavored to do any of the music that Canyonlands normally does, we’re so into it that it’s like we’re really in our own world. We hope the audience will participate with us, but it takes a bigger investment on both parts, on the musicians and on the audience. We’re performing it after having spent hours and hours learning and rehearsing it, but the audience is just hearing it for the first time. So for them, the challenge is, in a way, even greater.

This is a fine group of musicians. It’s really, I feel, the best of the best in the area. We certainly don’t want to do it just for kicks; you have to be really serious about it. It’s way too much work to take it lightly.

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