“ Interestingly, the work that tried to please the least was the most compelling. Hayes Biggs’ piece Ave Formosissima harkens back to the dance-mad, melismatic and slightly raucous music of the Middle Ages. But the score, with its zig-zagging lines and pungent dissonances, is genuinely contemporary.”—New York Times
“ A Consuming Fire, a short, zesty trio by Hayes Biggs, led off the evening. The piece is framed by some engagingly angular rhythmic writing, with a lyrical nougat at the center.”—San Francisco Chronicle
“ [The] most convincing and coherent performance [was] Hayes Biggs’ homage to his composer/pianist colleague Eric Moe, E.M. am Flügel, a short piece with romantic gestures and echoes of Berg and Stravinsky.”—Aufbau
“ The Mass for All Saints would be an exciting challenge for those choirs skilled in precise intonation and rhythmic agility. Biggs writes with knowledge of and respect for the expressive capabilities of the human voice.”—Choral Journal
“ Hayes Biggs’s wedding motet Tota Pulchra Es, here being sung for the first time, impressed by its quiet solemnity and neat working of its expressive opening motif: not empty fanfares but a reminder of the seriousness and privacy of love.”—New York Times
“ Mass for All Saints by composer Hayes Biggs releases shadows transformed into tendrils of light by the arabesque of the vocal line. Contrapuntal procedures are used to their utmost expressive effect. [It] is a work of a melodist of talent in the manner of Puccini, or better yet, Respighi.”—La Liberté
“ The Biggs song, Northeast Reservation Lines, is a real party piece... the sneakiness of the changes, the liveliness of the music and the verve of the performance worked handily... a potential recital hit in the vein of Bernstein’s I Hate Music cycle.”—The Village Voice
“ All the works tried a return to tonality typical of the decade; the most successful made the return oblique and ambiguous. Hayes Biggs’ O Sacrum Convivium took off from the motet of Tallis, yet it handsomely reconfigured early modes in a modernistic scheme of free tonality.”—New York Times
“ Hayes Biggs’ To Becalme His Fever... is a vivid evocation of anxiety, fits and repose. The language embraces pointillistic colors, romantic lines and prickly episodes when the demons hover. Biggs claims a forceful and subtle dramatic hand, along with a keen command of instrumental resources.”—The Plain Dealer
Once again I am very late in posting anything here lately, much less this piece about a couple of very significant milestones, which I have had on my to-do list for months now. I can only hope that some of what I say here may elicit some small measure of forgiveness for my extreme tardiness!
March 4, 2014, was the 80th birthday of one of my most important teachers, Mario Davidovsky. It was celebrated in truly fine style that evening on a concert at New York City’s Merkin Concert Hall, featuring the Cygnus Ensemble (guitarists William Anderson and Oren Fader, cellist Susannah Chapman, flutist Tara Helen O’Connor, oboist James Austin Smith, and violinist Calvin Wiersma), along with soprano Elizabeth Farnum, conductor James Baker, pianist Aleck Karis, violinist Curtis Macomber, flutist Barry Crawford, violist Lois Martin, viola and cellist Christopher Finckel. William Anderson masterminded this project, and it was a superb program.
It is difficult for me to believe that it has been over 30 years since I met Mario. It was the summer of 1981; I had just completed the first year of my Master’s degree in composition at Southern Methodist University, and I had been accepted as a fellow in composition at Tanglewood, where Mario himself had been invited by Aaron Copland in 1958. My first encounter with Mario’s music took place in an electronic music course in which I had been enrolled at SMU during my first semester there in the fall of 1980. Part of the course curriculum consisted of listening to pieces that had by that time already become “classics” of the electronic repertoire, including seminal works of Stockhausen, Varèse, Berio, and of course, Davidovsky. I was especially taken with Synchronisms No. 5 for percussion and electronic sounds (1969), part of the innovative series of works Mario began writing in the 1960s combining live instrumentalists with tape, or “fixed media,” to use today’s terminology. For all the timbral variety and subtlety to be found in his deployment of the percussion ensemble itself, what was—and remains—remarkable is how elegantly and unobtrusively within it the electronic sounds are embedded. Another noteworthy aspect of the percussion writing is that it completely defeats the expectation one might have of constant loudness and bombast. The percussion writing is itself almost, one might say, lyrical at times.
For all the richness and complexity of his pitch language and the depth and originality of his sonic imagination, I recognized immediately that Mario was at his core a composer who relished vivid, superbly timed dramatic contrasts. It certainly was no surprise to discover that Beethoven was (and continues to be) one of his touchstones. Others I’ve heard him invoke over the years include—again, not surprisingly, once you know Mario’s music—J. S. Bach, Purcell and Haydn. All are rigorous in their construction, all are masters of dramatic pacing, and all have an astonishing knack for keeping listeners on their toes.
That summer at Tanglewood, I found Mario to be possessed of a formidable and penetrating intellect, but also very kind, down to earth and often very funny. This was my first real exposure to the larger musical world, and I was about as green as they come. I’d grown up in a small town in Arkansas, and Dallas, where I was based at the time, was the largest city I had yet lived in. I think Mario sensed my naïveté and awkwardness, and did his best to encourage me. The music I had produced up to that point was nothing like anything that I would have thought would interest him, but he listened carefully, took it on its own terms and, to my surprise, found things in it to admire. I looked forward to our lessons; Mario’s enthusiasm was palpable. As soon as he looked at whatever bit of music I brought in on a given day, he could, off the top of his head, come up with what seemed to be fifty plausible ways it could be continued or expanded. What I loved about this the most was that very often I would return the next week with my own fifty-first way of proceeding that I likely would not have discovered had it not been for his ability to home in on the possibilities inherent in my material.
Prior to that summer, I really only knew Mario as a composer of electronic works, some of the finest, most exquisitely made and most absorbing ones I had ever heard. On the strength of those alone—as well as my initial experience of his teaching that summer—I would have sought to go to New York to study with him at Columbia, which of course I ultimately did. This is saying something, as I really never saw myself as a composer who would pursue electronic music as a primary or even secondary medium. That has continued to be the case. Even so, the music of Mario’s I already knew was compelling enough that I was convinced I could learn a great deal from him. But I was soon to be even more bowled over than I already was. At Tanglewood one day he played for us a recording of a cantata, Scenes from Shir ha-Shirim (1975), a setting in Hebrew of passages from the Song of Songs, a text that had fascinated him since he was 17, and that he would continue to engage with over the decades. This is a very significant work for Mario, the first vocal work of his compositional maturity, and the first of his works to directly address his Jewish heritage. He would continue similar explorations of his religious tradition in later vocal works: Romancero (1983), the Biblical Songs (1990), Shulamit’s Dream (1993) and the recent Ladino Songs (2009).
I was mesmerized by Shir ha-Shirim, from the first electrifying unison D in the opening passage to the desolate, austere beauty of the final page. The work’s incipit was a kind of wild neo-Medieval-cum-ancient Middle Eastern synthesis, replete with ecstatic roulades in the vocal solo lines and two tenors wailing away in countertenor register. No trace of an oscillator or Klangumwandler (younger composers, ask your older colleagues/teachers about these ancient artifacts) to be found, just voices and an instrumental agglomeration that Mario himself later described as, at first blush, seeming more redolent of a “Viennese café orchestra” than the parched desert landscape he was evoking. But evoke it he did, and, as different as it appeared on the surface from the electronic compositions, it was at the same time all of a piece with them, because he had been absorbing the lessons painstakingly learned in the tape studio and was now making conventional instruments do many of the same things: he was synthesizing, creating composite instruments by carefully calibrating attacks, dynamics, the envelopes of the sounds and other acoustic properties, extending the possibilities of what instruments can do—the very stuff of sound. At the other extreme, the final movement is about the voices themselves, and the last thing you hear in the entire piece is a lone soprano voice, every bit as magical as any of the dazzling, dizzying instrumental and timbral virtuosity of the opening. Of course, the cantata also shares with the Synchronisms (and his other vocal and purely instrumental works as well) the penchant for vivid dramatic contrasts that I mentioned earlier. What I realized when I heard the cantata was that, fundamentally, the animating impulse in so much of what he does, in whatever medium, is a lyrical and, yes, even a vocal one. This was borne out as I got to know him better over the years and heard him speak of the early counterpoint studies that were so crucial to his musical development, as well as his having sung Medieval and Renaissance music in a chorus as a student in Argentina. I came to realize over time, too, that the electronic music was itself lyrical, in the sense of there being a through line, no matter how it might be challenged or interrupted by a disjunct surface.
This summer Mario’s 80th birthday year has also been honored by the Composers Conference and Chamber Music Center, of which he is the Director and with which he has been associated for the past 46 years. By happy coincidence the Conference is celebrating its own 70th Anniversary this year as well. The Conference provides emerging composers with an intensive two weeks of composition seminars with a different guest composer each week. This year’s guest composers were Steven Mackey and Augusta Read Thomas. In addition, each of these young composers has the opportunity to hear one of his or her works thoroughly rehearsed, publicly performed and recorded by one of the hottest new music ensembles in the country, comprised of some of the finest new music specialists, drawn mostly from the New York City and Boston areas, led by the Conference’s superb Music Director, James Baker. Concurrently with the Conference, the Chamber Music Workshops are offered for amateur musicians who are given the opportunity to be coached by the excellent staff, many of whom are the same people who perform the new works. One of the best features of this arrangement is that the composers and the amateur chamber musicians get to know and interact with each other. The “ammies” attend the concerts and hear the young composition fellows and the guest composers discuss their music, and there is much informal contact as well, at meals and post-concert parties. Another point of connection between the composers and the amateur chamber musicians is the annual commission awarded by the Chamber Music Center to a Fellow for a new work specifically tailored for amateur players.
Having been a Fellow myself in 1987, I can readily attest to the boost in confidence that a young composer can receive from this experience. Since 1983 the Conference has been based at Wellesley College, and my wife Susan and I drove up a little over a week ago for a dinner and concert marking the two auspicious anniversaries. It was great to see so many friends and colleagues. There were terrific performances of some powerful and beautiful music by the late Lee Hyla, a former Fellow and guest composer at the Conference, as well as works by this year’s Fellows Andrew Watts and Diego Tedesco, the most recent commission for the amateur instrumentalists by Michael-Thomas Foumai, and Mario’s most recent electronic work, Synchronisms No. 12 for clarinet and electronic sounds (2006), consummately performed by Benjamin Fingland. As is customary on these concerts, some older music was also included: Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber’s Sonate tan aris quam aulis servientes and the magnificent Wedding Cantata of J. S. Bach, Weichet nur, betrübte Schatten, with sublime solo work by soprano Tony Arnold and oboist Peggy Pearson.
Mario’s dedicated leadership of the Conference is but another example of his generosity to his colleagues, particularly his younger ones, with whom he continues to engage as teacher and mentor. It is of course a cliché to say that he is kept young by his contact with younger composers, but it also is no less true for that. His enthusiasm for his interactions with them is undiminished, as is his passion for and seriousness about the art of music. I know of no one who can articulate more eloquently and—again—passionately than Mario the ethical responsibilities of the artist. I’m afraid that such notions are too often and easily viewed as being rather quaint these days, but he makes a compelling case for them to all who are fortunate enough to encounter him. A few years ago I had the opportunity to write liner notes about three of his major vocal works, including Scenes from Shir ha-Shirim, for a recording on the Bridge label, Mario Davidovsky: Three Cycles on Biblical Texts (Bridge 9112), and the following passage, I hope, will summarize some of what I have come to know and appreciate about Mario’s music, teaching and philosophical outlook:
One of Mario Davidovsky’s most strongly held convictions is that art has a greater purpose than entertainment or indulging in clever aesthetic games. He has spoken of the “transcendental, profound wish that someone is served.” In other words, he wishes to engage the listener in the deepest and most powerful way, and to give him or her something of real value.
By that standard Mario has served all of us who possess willing ears very well, and then some. As I write this, the Composers Conference and Chamber Music Center, 2014 Edition, has come to an end, with the final concert and party having taken place last night and, if things are still as they are when I was a Fellow, the last breakfast/brunch having been enjoyed and lingered over together this morning, before the participants who remain say their farewells and go their several ways. So let us say:
Here’s to many more years for him, his music and the Composers Conference!
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