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An Ecstatic Entourage – and a talk with Timo Andres

Being in a state of ecstasy, according to the American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, means being joyful or also enraptured.This accurately describes the vibrant atmosphere at Merkin Concert Hall’s “Ecstatic Music Festival” that opened on Martin Luther King’s Day, Marathon on January 17t.h.

Many of the participating artists of the festival who will give individual concert performances at Merkin Hall throughout March 28th were mixing with the audience during the 7-8 hours continuum of performances. And integration was a keyword, igniting sparks of enthusiasm and instilling excitement. The crowds spilled over into the lobby and out into the street, in front of the Kaufmann Center’s Upper Westside performance hub. As announced by the New Yorker, the festival “…provides a window into {the} movement in music {established during} the past decade, where a critical mass of young New York based composer/performers {has} been blurring the boundaries between classical and popular styles.”

But being there actually felt much more emotionally charged than the above description even comes close to. The festival’s curator, Judd Greenstein, created a very personal feel, by choosing from what seems like a conglomerate collaboration of his own entourage.

As managing director of the (also included at the festival) NOW Ensemble, a chamber music quintet with unique instrumentation (flute, clarinet, electric guitar, double bass, and piano) and as a composer in his own right, Greenstein has also successfully figured out new music marketing possibilities and, in the process, created a revelation.

He also co-directs New Amsterdam Records, a record label and artist’s service organization based in New York City.  According to his own mission statement, he is committed to making: “music without filters, made by musicians who bring the breadth of their listening experience and the love they have for many different kinds of music into their own playing, writing and producing. It is music without walls, without an agenda, and without a central organizing principle…opening doors for artists to enter, creating new spaces for them to fill, and touching new outer edges where musics meet.”

At the festival, pianist/composer Timo Andres performed his “Everything is an Onion” from his 2010 composition: “It takes a long time to become a good composer”, as well as Charles Ive’s “The Alcotts” from Piano Sonata No.2, at the Marathon.

He is one of several performers who studied composition at Yale University. Like many of the festival participants, he is active in a broad spectrum of activities which make for a lifestyle of music. He, like many of his colleagues, likes to share his thoughts, articulated on his blog, as well as in person. We shared a coffee and a conversation in between performances.

“Like for any musician, my musical impulse is a result of many different influences. I attribute it as much to the open-mindedness of some of my mentors who guided me, as to things I discovered on my own. I grew up with my paternal grandfather listening to – then – cutting edge music of Bartok and Shostakovich and I never have to worry about the mechanics of the piano, thanks to my wonderful teacher Eleanor Hancock, who taught me during eleven years the principals of a natural piano technique, based on the research of Dorothy Taubman.“ He later also studied with Frederic Chiu and has performed avidly, specializing in contemporary music series, such as the wordless Music Series that was initiated by (le)Poisson Rouge music director Ronen Givony, as well as giving solo recitals with the momentum-gaining Metropolis Ensemble, which prompted Boston Globe critic Richard Dyer to assert:  ”New music cannot be intimidating when played with this degree of skill and zest.”

Andres’ debut album, “Shy and Mighty” released in May 2010 by Nonesuch, features ten interrelated pieces performed by Andres and co-pianist David Kaplan, another Yale graduate, who also attended the ‘Ecstatic’ marathon performance. Alex Ross in the New Yorker described the composition: Shy and Mighty “…achieves an unhurried grandeur that has rarely been felt in American music since John Adams came on the scene…more mighty than shy, {Andres} sounds like himself”. Sections of Shy and Mighty will also be performed by Andres with pianist Bred Mehldau at Carnegie Hall’s Zankel Hall in March.

Andres is fully aware that his generation has re-enacted a long history of composers who were also performers from Mozart onwards. These artists were not only creative as musicians but also creative in managing their own careers and bringing their music to new audiences.

When he tells me he is “self-published”, he points out his knowledge of typographical work and how it helps to design a readable score. His engagement with Bookbinding and page layout has made his individual score production process, an A-Z reality. His composing and performing are two sides of the same coin.

“I could not ever give up one for the other – they inform each other; it’s a continuum”, he says. And for influential impact on his compositions he explains, “A lot of music I listen to is all electronic or integrates electronics. My music is very influenced by these musical techniques, with structures and forms looking back to Minimalism and based on repetition. Looping patterns to build musical structure always fascinated me, from the first day I heard Steve Reich’s music.”

Describing the festival and his relation to Greenberg as its curator he says: “The festival represents some of the best trends in the experimental music tradition. In a sense it is a laboratory for trying out new things in a collaborative environment, where people are open to be surprised and the only boundaries are one’s own taste. The festival represents Judd’s taste, whose compositions and general intelligence I already admired as a freshman, when he was a graduate-student. All my friends have records on his label today which certainly brought some definition to the New York musical scene.”

What the festival seems to offer in particular is a home based scene for its involved artists, creating somewhat of a new music milieu.

There is a remarkable overlap of festival- participating artists who, at the same time, are some of today’s most passionate and significant entrepreneurs of current music-business ventures.

Vicky Chow, is the classically trained pianist for the New York based eclectic contemporary sextet Bang on a Can All –Stars.

In 1987 three young composers, fresh out of Yale, made their first concert into an inspiring 12 hour -marathon of new music, testing the market for their programs. In 2000 they founded the “people’s commissioning fund” that encouraged audience members to participate in the commissioning for new works. Chow also produces and curates a new music series at the Gershwin Hotel in New York City, and Bang on a Can runs a summer ‘educational’ festival for young composers, located in the Berkshires.

Neurotic and Lonely,” a title from composer/performer Gabriel Kahane’s acclaimed “Craigslist Lieder” album recorded in 2006, brilliantly plays on this generation’s neuroses. Cynically insightful, the modern day bard presents his charming and diverse artistry, time and again putting classical Schumann or Schubert -Lieder presentations in direct rapport with contemporary ones, to great effect. In Kahane’s compositions, traditional music rings new – promoting a timeless feel for both –the old and new genres. Son of acclaimed pianist Jeffrey Kahane, the “piano chops” may fall naturally not far from the tree, as David Kaplan points out to me.

That he is a child of his own time, Gabriel shows with his curatorial creativity, promoting a particular sensitive strand of music making DNA. For a commission, as part of the MATA festival held in November of 2010 at Brooklyn’s “Issue Project Room”, Kahane curated and presented contemporary compositions, including his own, as well as Schubert’s “Dichterliebe”, in German Diction at the piano.

“I am certain that we can all agree that the phrases “genre-bending” and “genre-defying” are not long for this world….The plan is very simple: create a static frame – in this case the pianist who sings – and then offer a varied repertoire..” says this protagonist of music who simply seeks musical inclusiveness, showing what new and old have in common. “I defy you not to hear Pop music in {Schumann’s} “Ich grolle nicht”, says Kahane. And perhaps our focus should indeed not be on differentiations within the performance culture and stylistic distinction but should instead embrace the festival’s “constructive narrative” as Greenstein, Andres and Kahane – amongst others- are ecstatically pitching for.

Kahane concludes: “ …the listener will come to the conclusion that distinctions of genre can be done away with, leaving us with Duke Ellington’s oft –quoted nugget: “There are only two kind of music: good music, and the other kind”.

Kahane, himself a Brown graduate, had commissioned a piece by Andres for the MATA project.  He and the young Yale-trained composer do share a lot of common interests, says Andres. They will perform together at the Merkin festival’s March 5thconcert, exploring the composer Charles Ives and dissecting various musical influences on Ives’ music and their own compositions.

This concert will include a wide trip throughout music history, starting with Bach- arrangements by Kurtag as well as some songs of Ives, performed by Kahane.

“I am arranging “Conneticut gospels” – for piano and Hammond organ with the influence of Ives in mind, so to speak from one Connecticut composer to another”, says Andres acknowledging, not without a certain kind of pride, that Ives, like him, went to Yale and was recognized as the first genuine “American” composer.

Ecstatic Music Festival at Merkin Concert Hall until March 28th

For a complete schedule and more on all the other participants of the ecstatic music festival go to:



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