Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Fresh-sounding Concertos for the New Century

From A to Z: 21st Century Concertos
New Century Chamber Orchestra
Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, violin and director

This new release presents four violin concertos written in the 21st Century from Clarice Assad, William Bolcom, Michael Daugherty, and Ellen Taaffe Zwlich. Two of them -- the Bolcom and the Dougherty -- were commissioned by the ensemble. All benefit from the outstanding musicianship of the group and their talented music director, Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg.

Clarice Assad's "Dreamscapes" is meant to evoke the ethereal half-conscious world of dreams, and does so effectively. This isn't a violin showcase type of concerto. Rather, the solo instrument seems to travel through soundscapes conjured up by the ensemble.

"Romanza," by William Bolcom is more straight-forward work. Bolcom's fascination with American musical forms manifests itself in the finale's cakewalk. "Romanza's" post-romantic construction allows for plenty of expression, and Salenro-Sonneberg rises to the occasion. Her violin practically sings, wresting every bit of emotion out of Bolcom's music.

Michael Daugherty treats the ensemble as a large string quartet in "Fallingwater." The work divides the ensemble into four parts, similar in structure to a string quartet. Daugherty's music often has pop inflections, and "Fallingwater" is no exception. But those influences are understated, providing a freshness and energy to the score without being obvious.

The final work on the album, "Commedia dell"Arte" by Ellen Taaffe Zwlich is in many ways the most traditional (if one can use that term for 21st Century music). As the title suggests, Zwilich uses the characters of commedia dell'arte as her point of inspiration. Each movement presents a musical portrait of one of the stock characters. There's an Italianate light-heartedness about this score, and Salerno-Sonnenberg's bow fairly dances across the strings.

These concertos aren't necessarily about virtuosity; but they are about musicianship. Each one is a partnership between the soloist and the ensemble. Both halves need to be fully committed to deliver successful performances of these works; and there's no question that Nadja Salerno-Sonneberg and the New Century Chamber Orchestra delivers.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Kenner Sky Rail Project Part 5 - Making Connections

I've been tasked with getting my old Kenner Sky Rail set back into working order. It has to be ready for an event my dad's hosting, so time is short. Can a toy be brought back to life after a half century of neglect?

Read all the posts about this project here.

The layouts in the Kenner Sky Rail construction book all looked pretty attractive. I chose one with two closed loops. A point-to-point layout requires operator attention. I would have to stop the cars when they reached the end of the line, back them up through the line, stop them at the other end, send them forward and repeat. With closed loops, I could (in theory), just set the power level, and let the sky cars travel in endless circles around the track.

Building the model was great fun -- and frustrating. I discovered that Kenner had cheated a little with their beautiful photos. I could indeed match what was shown in the photographs, if I left the unphotographed sides incomplete. In the end, I modified the design slightly to get something that would look good at all angles.

Then came the test -- would the sky cars travel merrily along their rails?

Yes. No. Almost.

As the cars traveled along the rails, the shifting weight causes some of the contact pins to wiggle slightly. And that broke the circuit. Plus, with the longer, more elaborate loop there seemed to be some voltage drop in the far reaches of the layout.

I had carefully cleaned the track and the contacts on the sky cars with a number of cleaners. I started with Brasso, which took a lot of the grime off, then switched to DeoxIT Liquid, which is designed to improve conductivity as well as remove tarnish. The before and after video below shows the results.

So yes, it kind of works -- and with the presentation just days away, the only question remains is this: will it work well enough, and long enough?

Monday, July 21, 2014

Diabelli Project 049 - Piano Piece in C major

The Diabelli Project is about offering my weekly flash-composition sketches freely to all. Like Antonio Diabelli's theme these sketches aren't great music. But perhaps (as in Diabelli's case) there's a Beethoven out there who can do great things with them.

The flash composition sketches from the past three weeks have shared some similarities -- one being a buildup in the final two measures as increasingly complex chords are added on the way to someplace. This week I start with that idea. The right hand builds on its simple 3-note motive, while the left hand ranges far and wide with its melody. (click on image to enlarge)

Instead of a 2-bar crescendo, this piece starts building right from the beginning. But building towards what? That's up to you. As with all Diabelli Project sketches, it's available for you to finish, rearrange, or just use part of (for free, of course). All I ask is that if you do something with this music, that you'll let me know. I'm curious to see how it turns out..