Wednesday, July 31, 2013

I Am Not A Rock Star

The film's director Bobbi Jo Hart and pianist Marika Bournaki

"I am not a Rock Star,” says 22-year-old Canadian-born pianist Marika Bournaki, heroine of the recently Film Society of Lincoln Center released movie that shares its title with that very quote. Soulful, dedicated Director Bobbi Jo Hart follows Marika’s idiosyncratic search for personal meaning and struggle with the day-to-day difficulties of becoming a legendary performer. Hart details Marika’s early travels from home in Montreal to her weekly piano lessons at New York’s Juilliard Pre-College Division, as well as her subsequent move to New York at age 16. The film documents Marika’s coming-of-age as she travels the road to international recitals. Hart’s film manages to vividly become Marika’s visual diary from her developing teenage years, touching on her mood swings, hopes, and fears with great affection, yet keeping a non-judgmental objective point of view reserved for an onlooker.

Hart explores all the hardships encompassed in pursuing a pianistic career, which have impacted the synergy of Marika’s entire family. Marika’s father, a former classical trained violinist himself, took on much of the young star's managing and escorting chores on tour, while Marika's mother stayed at home with the younger siblings. While she has a very close relationship to Marika, she felt the impact of the seperated roles on the family's life. Marika’s younger siblings seem to have learned early on that Marika’s career would take precedence over their lives and relationships. It is the piano that has taken center stage in Marika’s life, a fact with which she comes to terms throughout the film, expressing how her outlook towards the piano’s role in her life continually transforms her. “We all just want the best for our children,” says Pierre at the movie’s New York premiere, which included a taste of Marika’s talent at the piano, which was hauled into Indies, the restaurant adjacent to the movie theater, for the reception following the screening. The film encourages the movie viewer to critically analyze the legitimacy of this very notion, asking them to think about what truly is and was best for Marika and her career, and allowing them to identify with her growth and self-actualization.

The documentary reveals that Marika’s self-doubt and refusal to adhere precisely to her father’s counsel ultimately allowed her to find her own voice and destiny within her career. “I should play Rachmaninov instead of Bach, to impress the jury of the YCA, exactly how? You must be f…ing kidding me!” she argues, trying to validate the legitimacy of her own thoughts on what would best capture her talent, and finally deciding to forego the audition because of her lack of complete preparation. While a music career may have been pushed onto her unconsciously, ever since she innocently stepped out on stage as a child, Marika has managed to take control of her direction, and identify her love for music, which has become her “religion.”

Photo:Marika Bournaki and Pierre Bournaki

Marika finds support in the tutelage of Veda Kaplinsky, her dedicated teacher and head of the piano faculty at Juilliard, as well as in David, the handsome and caring “other star” in her life, who is a talented pianist himself. Playing four-hands at the piano in sweet harmony, may have helped Marika find her place in the music world; but mostly it is her communicative ability at the piano that connects her strongly to her audiences, and has motivated her to get involved in outreach programs that bring music to schoolchildren. Marika shines on stage and off, rock star or not.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Miranda Cuckson - violinist with verve

Photo credit: J. Henry Fair
As part of this year's Golandsky Institute's Summer Symposium and International Piano Festival at Princeton, violinist/violist Miranda Cuckson appeared on stage with pianist Yegor shevtsov at the lecture of eminent composer, princeton's own Steven Mackey, and the evening's concert performance.
Although the method is in its origins is designed to cater to pianists, the Symposium has recently succeeded in its efforts to expand the use of the principles of the Taubman Approach,to other instruments. Thanks to the active engagement of faculty member, British violinist Sophie Till, in cooperation with the Institute’s co-founder and artistic director Edna Golandsky, the approach has been innovatively implemented for violinists.
While the festival focuses predominantly on traditional classical performance and repertoire, Edna Golandsky presents a strong Jazz section, featuring this year’s performers from the  Berklee Global Jazz Institute, under the artistic direction of Danilo Perez, as well as some new music from contemporary composers; Golandsky, an open-minded musician, stands behind the inclusiveness of her programming choices.  The main emphasis is on excellence in performance, no matter the musical genre. Miranda Cuckson’s participation combines all of these qualities, in a particularly remarkable way.  Her ability to perform the traditional repertoire on violin is quite convincing, and with great splendor, Cuckson manages to connect to the audience effortlessly with her virtuosic presentation of the Sonata for Violin and Piano written by Steven Mackey in 1996.
The personable Steven Mackey introduced his work prior to its performance at the Golandsky Institute’s presentation; the lecture was a wonderful opportunity to experience a personal encounter with the Grammy-award-winning composer and current chair of the Princeton Music Department. Mackey, assisted by Cuckson and Shevtsov, referred to the differences between a classically trained performer’s approach to the written score and its performance, and the emotional response of a musician used to improvisation, like a musician with a background in Rock, such as himself.
Shevtsov, who was committed to providing a sensitive and elegant pianistic accompaniment for Cuckson, did not intuitively catch on to Mackey’s musical concept at first, as far as some of the quirkier parts of the music were concerned, but ultimately came around in a big way. Coming from traditional, score-oriented music, the excellent and versatile pianist was confronted with a musical line, but lack of melody in Mackey’s music. His meter was almost “too good, too accurate,” to allow for the mellowing of tempi and pitch conceived in Sibelius, the computer generated composition software, to translate into the composition’s performance, according to Mackey. Mackey’s jovial attitude reflected on advice by his own theory teacher, who had told him, when wrestling with perfection: “You need to go have a drink.” After their first run-through of the piece, Shevtsov had no difficulties then to absorb the material, and make it his own, as he himself showed great flexibility and rythmic sensitivity in performance.
The composer’s presence seemed invaluable to the conception of the piece, which after all, he sees as an individually conceived conglomerate of musical styles, tweaked into his own highly personalized musical ideas through a long process of composition according to structural principles.  Also noteworthy is Mackey’s understanding of his role as a facilitator across the divide of two worlds of music, one traditionally bound by its score, a world he first entered at the age of 19 when he, an improvising musician playing in rock bands, became fascinated by classical music.
For Cuckson, who grew up with a passion for music in the home of a pianist and a composer/pianist, the dialectic between traditional and contemporary vocabulary never seemed to have impacted her broad musical spectrum; she feels equally comfortable in both worlds.  “I was always aware of music that’s created at the time, but especially during my Graduate studies at Juilliard; my teacher Robert Mann’s passion for new music that he championed with the Juilliard Quartet had a great impact on my interests,” says the young artist.
Cuckson busily performed with several different chamber groups, one of them ACME, which prominently features a special interest in contemporary American Music. “There were so many opportunities developing at the time, a boom of new Ensembles that lately have been invited by bigger institutions, making it viable to have a life in music and still making a living. People also gradually lose the ‘angst’ of new music…there are so many ways to write music, which are worth exploring.” Photo: Cuckson, Mackey and Shevtsov
There seems to be an air of natural assurance around her, which helps her to convey the message of any music she tackles, taking the material to virtuosic heights.  Cuckson sees her continuous role in music as an influential force: as a performer, both as a soloist and chamber musician on viola and violin, as a facilitator, commissioning new works, and as a teacher. She already gives back to the younger generation in her position on the Mannes College faculty.
During the evening’s performance at the Princeton McCarter Berlind Theater, Cuckson, situated in front of the grand piano, just slightly away from the keyboard to ensure her a close rapport with Shevtsov, connected firmly with the audience with her stage presence. In rehearsal, she remarked on the negative result of the stage light’s excessively blinding effect: “I like to be able to see at least part of the audience!” This artist-audience communication is tangible in her playing, which is thoroughly alive.
Cuckson is already involved in the production of two CDs set to be released on the new Urlicht Audio Visual label.  The first one, Melting the Darkness, is a compilation of works by living composers for solo violin and electronics.  Cuckson plays works using microtones, which she feels are especially expressive, technically challenging, and refining for the ear. The electronic music involves various software programs and different approaches. Featured composers on this album are Iannis Xenakis, Georg Friedrich Haas, Oscar Bianchi, Christopher Burns, Alexander Sigman, Ileana Perez-Velazquez, and Robert Rowe, almost all of whom Cuckson has worked with over the last two years.
The second compilation is an American Composer-themed disc with pianist Blair McMillen featuring both “Roger Sessions: Sonata for Solo Violin,” his first serial piece from the 1950s, and Elliot Carter’s “Duo,” a large work written in the 1970s; the CD also features Jason Eckardt’s “Str√∂mkarl,” which was commissioned for this recording and premiered live in May 2013.  All of these selections are a welcomed opportunity for Cuckson to display her mastery of the works’ intricate organization and musical complexity.

Friday, July 12, 2013

The Blind – Lera Auerbach’s A Cappella Opera Provokes a Ritual Experience

“I am not a cheerleader,” Auerbach says in our meeting, the day after The Blind premiered on July 9th as part of Lincoln Center Festival.(until July 14th) “I am not trying to please anybody, which, by the way should not be the goal of any artistic endeavor. Yet, art should give you something you have not yet experienced in the same way and you want to be changed by that experience.”
Despite Auerbach’s artistic intentions, critical voices have emerged which attack the political correctness of the core metaphor of The Blind, giving rise to a debate about a symbol largely removed from the context of the work.
I ask her, “Why the blindfold? Why the potentially sensational effect?” She explains: “I am not about shocking; The Blind is not a gimmick, but aims to fulfill to Maeterlinck’s (the playwright) call for a symbolist breaking of barriers, and attempts to provide a deep psychological understanding. It also pertains to a religious, meditative state of being, which entails a certain unearthing experience of disorientation, facilitated by the absence of the visual element. The Blind brings the audience away from the material state, exploring mental communication with the music’s ritualistic elements, and hopefully lets the audience come away with an individual learning experience that will stay with them, potentially changing who they are.”
Directed by John La Bouchardi√®re, the New York production of the work, which Auerbach for lack of a more precise description refers to as “a cappella opera,” has omitted the traditional stage setting used in the 2011 Berlin Konzerthaus and Moscow Stanislavsky Theatre productions of her score and libretto. This new, innovative production takes The Blind a step further, eliminating the darkened stage of former productions in favor of the extremely isolating effect of blindfolding the audience; this theatrical method addresses our extreme reliance on visual effects, and aims to challenge the audience’s capacity for hearing, listening, smelling, and feeling temperature, thus evoking a heightened sensory and emotional experience. “Part of Maeterlinck’s conception is a distinct religious connotation, and includes elements of randomness, which, in this production led also to the separate placing of women and men,” says Auerbach, and adding that the experience of the piece also differs slightly for each participant, depending where they are seated. “Every staging demands different elements; in this particular one, timing and positioning was essential to the flow and the individual impression of each audience member.”photo: Artwork by Lera Auerbach
The physical experience of The Blind’s staging is truly unique, and remarkably executed. Checking all personal belongings along with their sense of control at the door, audience members enter the performance space of the Rose Penthouse blindfolded, feeling an increasing lack of certainty as one by one, they are ushered to their seats by solemn personnel. It is only after the silence following the 60-minute performance that the audience, having realized that they may remove their blindfolds, is able to gain any sense of their own positioning within the unconventional performance space. As applause slowly sets in, hesitantly at first, audience members glance around at the unconnected clusters of chairs positioned back-to-back, recognizing that even if they arrived with a partner, they had found themselves seated alone.
Auerbach composed The Blind for 12 voices with no instrumental accompaniment (a cappella) with some supporting liturgical voices chanting in Latin, which serve practically to build the harmonic base for the vocal ‘soloists’ to find their pitches. She explained that the soundtrack played as a prelude to the a cappella performance, her 1992 electronic work ‘After the End of Time,’ provides a separation between two differing genres that start to interact towards the end of the electronic tape, allowing the audience to transition into a new sonic realm to supplement the visual atmosphere created by the blindfolds. The singers interact in constantly changing musical constellations, which grow in large tutti crescendos and culminate and diminish over extended periods of time, leaving the listeners eager for more. Auerbach’s tonal and atonal structures constantly search to renew themselves, creating a desperate unity in the midst of chaos.
The singers’ meticulously choreographed movements through the audience allow each patron to be given utmost individual attention; the performers leave different scents and produce noticeable, specific sounds in association with their movements, playing to the “spectators’” heightened senses and causing them to wait urgently for the next passing singer.                                                                                                                                                                                        
At times one could make out sounds that meant to imitate walking on gravel. Sometimes a rather unsettling slight touch from seemingly out of nowhere signified the touch of leaves in the wind. These details further personalize the symbolist mood of the 1890 one-act play by Maurice Maeterlinck for each audience member. The atmosphere is quite chilly; I was cold, just like the characters in the play who lament about the cold, a metaphor, of course, for the deeper chill they must wrestle with: the desperation of isolation, physical and psychological abandonment, and death.
“Dialogue in the Dark,” an exhibit and workshop at a Global Leadership meeting in Davos, Switzerland, was the inspiration for Auerbach’s perception of The Blind’s presentation. The exhibition involved an experiment of communication in a completely dark environment, which made it impossible to see other participants in the workshop. The state of feeling “suddenly unsure about how to communicate with each other, being aware of how little we listen to each other, and noticing many nuances of visual impact,” left a strong impression on Auerbach. The Blind at Lincoln Center Festival expresses these experiences in a cohesive if unsettling manner, sensitively paying homage to Maeterlinck’s formal language and is, like everything in Auerbach’s works, executed with personal conviction and enthusiasm.