Category Archives: Chamber Music and Recital

Vocal Arts Atlanta makes its debut

by Mark Gresham | 15 SEP 2018

The Vocal Arts Atlanta team: (l-r) Jose Caballero, Chaowen Ting, Valerie Pool.

The Vocal Arts Atlanta team: (l-r) Jose Caballero, Chaowen Ting, Valerie Pool. (Photo courtesy of Vocal Arts Atlanta)

Atlanta’s newest performing arts organization, Vocal Arts Atlanta, makes its public debut this weekend with “Opera for Everyone: Who Has the Worst Day?” Hosted by the Kellett Chapel Recital Series at Peachtree Presbyterian Church in Buckhead, the free 75-minute performance takes place this Sunday, September 16 at 4 pm.

Comprised of a clutch of operatic favorites, the repertoire is sewn together by a modern, relevant comic premise about how everyone has a bad day now and then, with the all-too-common assertion among friends of how “my bad day was worse than yours.” The competition for “worst day” is played out between a pair of complaining couples drawn from two highly popular traditional operas: Bizet’s Carmen and Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro. The expostulating pairs are portrayed by soprano Adelaide Boedecker, mezzo-soprano Kaitlyn Costello, tenor Nathan Munson and bass-baritone Calvin Griffin. Chaowen Ting conducts the semi-staged concert’s accompanying 10-piece chamber orchestra, with stage direction by Brenna Corner, who directed the Atlanta Opera’s production of Carmen this past spring.

Vocal Arts Atlanta was founded earlier this year by a trio of musicians who are active in Atlanta’s music scene and all have a foot in the world of opera. Co-artistic director and music director Chaowen Ting is director of orchestral studies at Georgia Tech, was a conducting fellow with Dallas Opera’s Hart Institute for women conductors in 2016, and was recently named music director of NANOWorks Opera (North America New Opera Workshops).

A native of Marietta, Georgia, co-artistic director and general director Valerie Pool, is an alumna of the Atlanta Opera Studio Program. She completed her second season as resident pianist and vocal coach with The Atlanta Opera in May 2018, has been a rehearsal pianist and surtitle coordinator with Cincinnati Opera since 2014, and was recently appointed music director at St. Benedict’s Episcopal Church in Smyrna.

Director of media and public relations Jose Caballero, is an active performer and teacher, and is beginning his third season as a member of the Atlanta Opera Chorus as well as his engagements in performances by Capital City Opera.

The story of how Pool, Ting and Caballero came together as a team to create Vocal Arts Atlanta in the first place was as much a matter of old-fashioned serendipity as anything, each being in the right place at the right time, with mutually compatible ideas on their minds.

Pool and Ting were introduced last November by composer Carrie Magin, when Ting led the Georgia Tech symphonic band in a concert of music by all-female composers, in which one of her works was performed. Magin was already friends with Pool, who provided her a place to stay during her visit. Once connected, Pool and Ting started talking about a mutually perceived need within Atlanta’s operatic and classical vocal community for expanded local opportunities for performance.

Primarily involved with symphony orchestras, Ting found her experience with Dallas Opera opened a new professional door for her. “There is a whole lot of repertoire and a real cool world for me to be exposed to,” says Ting. “I felt like we should bring back to the general public as well. So I had the idea , I think we should do something together think about it and she started talking to people and then she came up with this really cool idea of Vocal Arts Atlanta.”

Pool: “I would only talk to one person, one singer that I was working with. Jose happened to talk to that same person. He was in the Atlanta Opera Chorus and I was playing piano for that rehearsal. Jose came up to me at the break and he said ‘I hear you’re starting a new company. I want to be involved and I’m really excited about this’ and so we had a team. So that’s how we got together.”

In an e-mail, Caballero told ArtsATL of that encounter, “It was just meant to be. I had been thinking about starting a performance company and started asking my colleagues at the opera if they knew anything about how to start a non-profit. One of them mentioned that Valerie was thinking about starting something similar. That’s when I approached her and we realized our goals were aligned. When I first talked to her it was still just an idea, she had already met Chaowen. We started meeting regularly and creating a vision and figure out our purpose. Things just snowed-ball from there.”

The process moved quickly, incorporating Vocal Arts Atlanta as a non-profit in April, obtaining their 501(c)(3) tax exempt status by summer, and at last the organization’s first public presentation, the afore-described “Opera for Everyone: Who Has the Worst Day?” scheduled for this Sunday afternoon.

The mission of Vocal Arts Atlanta, as described by Ting and Pool in an informal meeting with ArtsATL last month, “is to expose under-served groups, including singers professional musicians and the audience member to a large variety of vocal arts repertory that includes song cycles, art songs, lieder, to operatic excerpts, or semi-production of operas or even orchestra songs. We deliberately made the name really broad. We’re not just another opera company here in town. We want to include a great variety of anything involving classical singing featuring classically trained singers.”

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Composer’s Notebook: Have Geezer Card, Will Travel

Overlooking the dam on Lake Allatoona, Cartersville, Georgia. [photo: Mark Gresham]

Having turned 62 back in March, I finally got my National Parks Service “America the Beautiful” Lifetime Senior Pass card yesterday, but I had to drive to Cartersville to buy it first hand.

Since I knew the in-town Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Park didn’t sell them, I’d gone to Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park visitor’s center to buy one, only to find that they didn’t sell them either. The park ranger at the desk pointed me to two closest choices, Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area off State Hwy 400 and the Allatoona Lake Visitor Center & Museum, which is run by the U.S. Army Corps of Enginners.

I chose the Cartersville location, since I was already just off U.S. 41, and felt like taking a nice drive in that direction. It was an easy process. I struck up a conversation with the receptionist who sold me the card, and she suggested I take a short walk up to dam overlook, not many yards away from the building, because they were releasing water from the dam at that moment. Monday’s record breaking rain for the day had raised the pool a little much, so they had to open the gates release some of it. That made for a great photo op, this one being the best of the group taken with just the camera of my Kindle tablet.

The Allatoona Dam was completed in 1949. Lake Allatoona (rarely called by its official designation, Allatoona Lake) is supplied mostly by the Etowah River, one of the rivers featured in my string quartet, Four Rivers. Below the dam, the Etowah River passes by the Etowah Indian Mounds, west of the city, before joining the Oostanaula River to form the Coosa River at their confluence in Rome, Georgia.

Composer’s Notebook: SoundNOW 2017 kicks off a big week for new music in Atlanta

by Mark Gresham | 6 APR 2017

This is a big week for new music in Atlanta. A lot of things have come together to make it so. The SoundNOW 2017 Festival – an umbrella moniker for a number of independently programmed contemporary music performances – began on Sunday and continues through this coming Sunday. SoundNOW is only in its second year, but making its presence known.

I was able, so far, to attend the first two of these concerts, and fortunate to have one of my own works performed on Monday evening, and also to attend Sunday afternoon’s opening concert. Both were downtown at the 400-seat Kopleff Recital Hall at Georgia State University.

Olivia Kieffer performs excerpts from her "Texture of Activity."

Olivia Kieffer performs excerpts from her “Texture of Activity.”

Sunday’s concert was presented and performed by Terminus Ensemble, which performs music by current or formerly Atlanta-based composers. Olivia Kieffer opened the program with seven excepts from her ”Texture of Activity” (2016) – 55 short minimalist pieces which were originally for toy pianos, but in this instance performed on the hall’s concert grand piano. Kieffer would play four more selections from the book on Monday’s concert, but on a pair of amplified toy pianos, one toy piano per hand as part of neophilia Ensemble’s portion of that concert. On Sunday, though, she had a second piece on the program, “Hot Work,” in a new transcription for alto sax and viola, performed by saxophonist Brandyn Taylor and violist Michael Brooks. Originally for bass clarinet and tenor sax, the combination of viola and alto sax worked surprisingly well – something worth consideration by other composers.

Brooks also gave an impressive performance of “Lattice I,” a well-stenciled three-movement work for solo viola by Terminus co-artistic director Brent Milam, a composer with a background in physics and mathematics, which he readily applies to his compositions. Pianist Ipek Brooks (spouse of violist Michael) performed another work by Milam, “Quiet Spaces,” the third of his “Five Movements Anachronique.”

An Atlanta native who now lives in Greensboro, North Carolina, Lowell Gerard Fuchs was represented by a vocal piece, “The Voices in Maximilian’s Head,” inspired by a true story of a man, diagnosed with schizophrenia in his early twenties, and which ultimately consumes him. Percussionist Brandon Dodge played vibraphone and tuned tom-toms as a fully collaborative part to the musically astute voice of guest soprano Carolyn Balkovetz.

Members of Terminus Ensemble perform Curtis Bryant's "Trio" for flute, cello and marimba.

Members of Terminus Ensemble perform Curtis Bryant’s “Trio” for flute, cello and marimba.

Sunday’s concert concluded with a mellifluous “Trio” for flute, cello and marimba by Curtis Bryant. Brandon Dodge returned to the stage to play the marimba part of the three-movement work, joined by flutist Amy Caputo and cellist Erin Cassel Idnani.

The stage for Monday evening’s concert was shared by neoPhonia ensemble and the Atlanta Chamber Players. The first half was presented by neoPhonia, and as it was partially funded by the GSU Center for Hellenic Studies it was not surprising to see works by living composers of Greek heritage on the program.

The concert opened with “Prosody,” a solo flute work by Yiorgos Vassilandonakis, who is currently on the faculty of the College of Charleston in South Carolina. Performed by flutist Matthieu Clavé, like many post-WWII works for unaccompanied flute, “Prosody” made use of a handful of extended techniques.

Likewise drawn from contemporary Greek repertoire was “Two Songs” 92007) by Thessaloniki-based composer Sotiris Despotis, performed by soprano Kyriaki Ioakeimidou and cellist Daniel Green.

In addition to Kieffer’s aforementioned toy piano pieces, the other work on neoPhonia’s program segment was “She Sings, She Screams” for alto sax and fixed media electronic audio by another Greensboro-based composer, Mark Engebretson, performed by saxophonist Joshua Heaney.

After intermission came the Atlanta Chamber Players – in this instance, violinist Helen Hwaya Kim, clarinetists Ted Gurch and pianist/artistic director Elizabeth Pridgen.

Changing the order of the printed program, Helen Kim and Liz Pridgen opened with “Study: Music, Pink and Blue No. 2” by Alan Fletcher, written for violinist Robert McDuffie and himself as pianist, inspired by Georgia O’Keeffe painting “Music, Pink and Blue No. 2.”

My own work was up next: “Genshi” for E-flat clarinet and violin, performed most splendidly by Helen Kim and Ted Gurch. They had premiered the piece in 2011 as part of the summer Sonic Palooza marathon, held in the Galleria in front of Symphony Hall at the Woodruff Arts Center. So I was thrilled to have them perform it in this concert as part of SoundNOW 2107.

The obvious reason for changing the printed order was so as to end the concert with Mark Buller’s “Motion Studies,” the completed chamber work that was one consequence of winning the 2016 Rapido! Composition Competition with what became the work’s challenging final movement, “Regressive Variations.” It was a thrilling performance, especially that final movement. This was the second time I’ve heard he completed “Motion Studies,” the first time was upon its premiere last September. The Rapido! Win also won Buller a chance to write for the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. That work, “The Songs of Ophelia,” will be premiered by Robert Spano and the ASO on this season’s subscription series closer, June 1st and 3rd.

SoundNOW 2017 continues through April 9. Check out the SoundNow 2017 event page on Facebook. •

[Photos by mark Gresham.]

Atlanta Chamber Players perform Mark Buller's "Motion Studies."

Atlanta Chamber Players perform Mark Buller’s “Motion Studies.”

Fractured Atlas LogoThis post was made possible in part by funds from Fractured Atlas. Donations supporting the Fractured Atlas “Mark Gresham” project may be made online by clicking the linked logo on the right. Fractured Atlas is a 501(c)(3) public charity; all donations are tax-deductible to the extent permitted by law.

Breaking News: Atlanta Chamber Players Seeks New Executive Director

by Mark Gresham | 29 MAR 2017

Atlanta Chamber players at Atlanta Shakespeare Tavern, October 7, 2014. (credit: Mark Gresham)

Atlanta Chamber players in concert at the Atlanta Shakespeare Tavern, October 7, 2014. (credit: Mark Gresham)

On Tuesday, the Atlanta Chamber Players announced it is seeking a new executive director. Current executive director Rachel Ciprotti is relocating to Seattle, Washington. A search for her replacement will begin immediately, with a goal for the position to be filled by May 1, 2017. A complete job description can be found online here.

One of the city’s premiere chamber music ensembles, Atlanta Chamber Players was founded in 1976 by pianist Paula Peace and has continuously brought high-caliber performances and innovative programming to Atlanta audiences for over 40 years. ACP is currently under the artistic leadership of pianist Elizabeth Pridgen, performing mixed-ensemble chamber repertoire ranging from traditional masterworks and virtuosic salon works, to world premieres by American composers. The group founded and directs the national Rapido! Composition Contest to foster the creation of new chamber music. •

Review: Helen Kim and Julie Coucheron offer up a delightful recital on the first day of spring

by Mark Gresham | 28 MAR 2017

Helen Hwaya Kim and Julie Coucheron perform Beethoven's "Violin Sonata No. 1 in D major."

Helen Hwaya Kim and Julie Coucheron perform Beethoven’s “Violin Sonata No. 1 in D major.” (credit: Mark Gresham)

I’ve stated on previous occasions that Atlanta’s suburbs and exurbs are offering up some excellent classical chamber music programs for aficionados, if only the audiences will take the time to discover them. One of the consistent venues for that experience is the Bailey Performance Center’s 691-seat Morgan Hall, located on the main campus of Kennesaw State University in Kennesaw, Georgia, about 25 miles from midtown Atlanta, straight up I-75 and hang a left at the Chastain Rd. exit and you’re right at the edge of the campus. Hang a right at the next intersection, Frey Rd. then follow the signs to Bailey – easiest (at least what I do) is to turn left at the last light before the bridge (Campus Loop Rd.), and when you get into the roundabout, the Bailey parking lot is at about 9 o’clock.

Just over a week ago, on Monday, March 20, I drove up to KSU to hear a delightful recital by violinist Helen Hwaya Kim and pianist Julie Coucheron. They opened with an early Beethoven work, his Violin Sonata No. 1 in D major, Op.12 No. 1, which gives a little more precedence to the piano part, but is still a good vehicle for both performers. Kim and Coucheron gave it a crisp, energized performance that suited its classical demeanor.

They followed the Beethoven with Suite in the Old Style (1972) by Alfred Schnittke, a 20th-century Soviet-German composer. The keyboard part of this Suite may be performed on either piano or harpsichord. In this instance, Coucheron played piano, but the music’s charming “modern-antique” character shone forth even when played on modern instruments.

After intermission came a cluster of smaller works with a more “popular classics” flair. First came Romanza Andaluza, the first of the two Danzas españolas, Op. 22, by Pablo de Saraste, a notable Spanish violinist-composer of the Romantic-era. It was followed by Méditation by Jules Massenet, originally an orchestral entr’acte from Act II of his opera, Thaïs. The tune became immensely popular on its own and remained a canonical part of “popular classical” repertoire as late as the 1960s, thus many transcriptions, like this one for violin and piano, are readily available.

Kim and Coucheron concluded the concert on a Latin-American theme with Le Grand Tango by Argentine composer Astor Piazzolla. Originally for cello and piano, it exemplifies Piazzolla nuevo tango, and works just as well in this version for violin and piano. The title is most commonly seen in French, rather than the Spanish (El gran tango), because it was published in Paris. Although a single movement, the music is in three sections. In the first, strong tango rhythms are dominant, while the second is freer and song-like. The final section is more eclectic, with some humor, and offered up many challenges – handily addressed by the performers – as it rollicked to its conclusion.

It may feel like a long drive from Atlanta, given the traffic typical of I-75, but the trip is worth it. If you want to avoid the expressway, or if you are coming from Marietta, you can take US 41 and (again simplest) turn right on McCollum Parkway. When McCollum turns left at Duncan Rd., just keep going straight and you’re on the west end of Chastain Rd. From this direction, turn left on Frey Rd. just before I-75 and you’re good.

If you can’t get away for the evening for a live concert, KSU also streams live a number of concerts on the internet. During previous week, that’s how I “attended” chamber concerts by the Summit Trio (violinist Helen Kim again, with cellist Charae Krueger and pianist Robert Henry) as well as a recital by flutist Christina Smith with Robert Henry as pianist. What I’ve seen so far of KSU’s streaming is of high quality, both audio and video. In absence of being right there in Morgan Hall, it has proven a rather credible next best option. •

Fractured Atlas LogoThis post was made possible in part by funds from Fractured Atlas. Donations supporting the Fractured Atlas “Mark Gresham” project may be made online by clicking the linked logo on the right. Fractured Atlas is a 501(c)(3) public charity; all donations are tax-deductible to the extent permitted by law.

In Search of the Ideal Companion

A conversation with Spivey Hall’s Sam Dixon about the artistic choices behind their campaign to obtain a piano that will be the true soul-mate to their beloved “Clara.”

by Mark Gresham | 14 Mar 2017

Ever since Spivey Hall opened its doors in 1991, the 400-seat hall on the campus of Clayton State University has garnered increasing national and international fame for the high artistic quality of its presentations, its renowned guest artists, its superior acoustics, and its Albert Schweitzer Memorial Organ.

For years, the Hall’s pair of resident concert pianos were “Emilie” and “Walter” – both Steinways, named after Emilie Parmalee Spivey and Walter Boone Spivey, prominent citizens of Atlanta’s suburban “Southern Crescent” whose vision and major financial gift made Spivey Hall possible.

Sam Dixon and "Clara" - just after she arrived in 2012. (photo: M.G.)

Sam Dixon and “Clara” – just after she arrived in 2012. (photo: M.G.)

Then in February 2012, “Clara” arrived: a notable Hamburg Steinway of exceptional clarity and elegance. Now Spivey Hall has begin the process of seeking a companion piano for Clara, to be name “Robert” – with obvious allusion to the historical musical couple, pianist-composers Robert and Clara Schumann.

Composer and music journalist Mark Gresham sat down for an extended conversation earlier this year with Spivey Hall’s executive director, Sam Dixon, about the rationale behind finding and purchasing another new piano to serve as both a compatible and complementary instrument to their beloved Clara. The following Q&A is drawn from that conversation.

Mark Gresham: Spivey Hall launched its new “Clara Seeks Robert” piano campaign this past September, simultaneously with the solo recital by Inon Barnatan that opened the current season. That “Clara” made her debut in 2012 as a new piano, just five years ago, can you explain the rationale for buying yet another high-end concert grand as a “companion” instrument?

Sam Dixon: When pianists I engage to perform show up at Spivey Hall the first thing they want to do is rush to the stage and sit down at the pianos. They rely on us, the presenter, to supply them with a piano that will enable them to do the work that they’ve prepared very very diligently to do. They have a plan for every piece they have researched, rehearsed, and for every thought they’ve cultivated. They’ve spent a great deal of time polishing and perfecting how they want their interpretation of this work to be understood by the audience.

Not every venue has a choice of pianos, but we do and many do. Professional music organizations that are revered, not just by audiences but by artists, have a choice of pianos.

It’s long been my premise here that we need not just “a choice of pianos” whereby you know Piano A could be really quite good and then Piano B is not really in the running. Having a choice itself is not necessarily wonderful unless the choices are really attractive and serve the purposes of the music making that the pianists wish to embark upon. To have a choice per se is sort of nice but if the pianists always take the same piano then obviously there’s not really a valid or meaningful choice at work.

Gresham: Had that become the case at some point for Spivey Hall?

Spivey Hall, from the a side of the stage. (

Dixon: We found, before we even searched for Clara, when we had Emilie and Walter on stage, Emilie was by far the preferred piano for recitals by almost all pianists, whether they were solo pianists or collaborative pianists. That led me to believe that Walter is a wonderful instrument in his own way but he’s not being used for the purpose for which he was purchased, so we really needed a different combination of pianos at Spivey Hall. That led to the acquisition of Clara.

It was a very exciting event for us because it was the first major acquisition of a piano for Spivey Hall since 1998. Clara arrived in early 2012 and Leif Ove Andsnes seized on it and immediately played it the day after it arrived. That was the beginning of Clara’s life with us. It took about 18 months to find Clara, going to various places.

Clara is a beautiful instrument. She was chosen because her sound, the sound that the pianists want to produce, the repertoire they’re playing and the acoustical properties of Spivey Hall are all well-matched. However, not every pianist has the same technique or the same approach to playing, and there’s a gigantic range of repertoire that requires different types of color, texture, and different qualities of sound. It’s rare that one piano will have all of those capabilities within it.

Then there’s always the question of how does the artist, the pianist, try to extract those qualities from the piano if they are there? That’s one of the great mysteries of piano manufacturing. If you live in home and if you’re an amateur pianist you can tell some differences between pianos, but the professional, world-class pianists who show up at Spivey Hall, have an acute sensitivity to the most minute differences between pianos.

Gresham: But since her arrival, Clara has demonstrably been a highly desirable instrument for an artist to play, yes?

Dixon: Yes, Clara is a very high style, gorgeous instrument and we’ve heard her under the fingers of many pianists. When pianists arrive at Spivey Hall, they want to sit down at the piano. They immediately start playing passages of what they’re going to be performing in the recital program. You can tell what their preoccupations are. Can I get this incredibly nuanced, finely-voice chord to sound pianissimo? Can I execute this upward run with brilliance and have it just sing and burst into stars? Is there going to be a thunderous bass at this moment? Can there be tremendous contrast of character in the space of milliseconds?

If they have a choice they typically play both instruments using the same musical concerns on their mind at the moment. This rarely takes more than 10 minutes and then they’ve made a decision and then that is probably going to be the instrument that they will perform on for the recital. What goes on in those very few minutes is a very personal thing. One pianist whom we had many times here, who is familiar with all of our instruments, has used one piano in one circumstance and another piano in another circumstance. When I asked this pianist why, he would say, “I can do more on this instrument.” That’s sums it up in a nutshell: I can do more on this instrument.

We’re always wanting to enable them to do more and to give their most personal interpretation, their best possible performance. If possible we would love for the combination of the audience, the instrument, and the acoustics to actually inspire the artist to go somewhere that will be absolutely heaven. That can happen because we know it happens. It’s really the artist, the pianist, that makes the most critical difference. At the same time we want them to feel good about coming into the experience of performing here. That’s where having instruments that are slightly different in valuable ways makes the choice more interesting and more valuable to them.

Robert and Clara Schumann

Soul-mates, namesakes: Robert and Clara Schumann

Gresham: It seems like you are looking for a specific character, because you know the repertoire and artists that already work very well with Clara. What are you really looking for in terms of character for Robert?

Dixon: Robert is the name of our next piano, the partner piano to Clara. I love Clara. Clara is a magnificent acquisition. She has a gorgeous tone, tremendous evenness of touch. She responds very evenly. You don’t have to manage Clara when you’re playing her because she’s a quality instrument who will respond.

We found that she has changed a bit, as pianos do as they get played in. They settle in just like a house will settle in after it’s built. So Clara’s bass has opened up really significantly, which is great because of bass is something that can be controlled. If there’s a resource there that can be controlled, then that’s valuable. It’s almost impossible to make an ugly sound out of Clara and that’s a virtue, because the beauty of great acoustics, which we’re privileged to have, is that they make everything sound better. The source of the sound is what matters most, but if the source of the sound isn’t what the artist wants then the artist isn’t getting the performance that he or she wants.

I think it’s important to acknowledge as well that what the pianist hears sitting on stage in front of the piano is often different from what the audience hears. The pianist is trying to listen simultaneously to the sound that comes immediately out of the instrument and the sound that he or she is hearing coming back from the hall. The psychology and science of that are miracles to me, but they do happen and they happen every day.

In Robert we’re looking for a piano that has a somewhat darker bass and that has more of a growl to it sometimes and has a different sense of touch. Clara is weighted in a very particular way, and the production of tone that we so loved about Clara is in fact a result of this weighting. You can change a lot of things about pianos. You can’t change the sound board. You can change the way it strung if you put a new strings. You can change everything about the action. But when you find a certain combination that produces value you don’t want to fuss with it. It needs to be honored for what it is. The beauty of the tone in Clara which we so love for Mozart, Schubert, early Beethoven – that is where she’s she’s just sublime. She’s wonderful with Impressionist music, too, because of the ability to get beautiful soft colors and textures at every dynamic level. That’s something we very much want to honor and keep.

Say, for instance, Yefim Bronfman is coming to play three movements from Stravinsky’s Petrushka this season, which he is, or Alexander Gavrylyuk playing Etudes tableaux by Rachmaninoff. They are pieces that are, quite frankly, a little more masculine in character and have more bite to the sound. To what extent is it the piano that provides this and to what extent it is the artist’s technique and musicality providing this? That varies in every instance. What doesn’t change are the physical properties of the piano.

Spivey Hall

Spivey Hall, a view from the audience. (

We’re trying to buy, in Robert, a piano whose intrinsic valuable characteristics complement, but at the same time are contrasting, to those of Clara, so that when the moment comes when a pianist sits down and plays Clara for five minutes and plays Robert for five minutes the choice will be made by the pianist on the basis of the artistic benefits to the composer, to the pianist and to the audience.

I know that’s very lofty. It’s a little hard to explain that in just a few words, but that’s what we’re aiming for. This is an appeal to idealism, if one wants to have something so beautiful realized so fully in real-time. The piano is only one but a major component of that.

Gresham: I know there have occasionally been pianists, like Horowitz, who would carry their own piano on tour with them. That’s rare, of course, and a logistically difficult thing to do, but in the old days that might have been the best option where halls, say in small towns of the day, had no viable option in place that would be even remotely usable by an esteemed artist. But we’re not talking even remotely about that kind of situation with a high-end venue like Spivey Hall. That a piano is “resident” seems highly important here.

Dixon: Last season we had a visit from a piano that is owned by Dr. Michael Koch who is avid anglophile and also the chairman of the piano campaign. He went to Vienna and chose a Hamburg Steinway there, came back and has his beautiful piano at his home. Michael called him “Hans.” Hans is of the same generation as Clara so that they’re sort of cousins. Hans came to Spivey Hall to pay a visit to cousin Clara for a few months last season, our 25th anniversary season. Hans was chosen by several pianists because of what the pianist perceived to be a better fit between what Hans could offer and what the pianist was seeking from their repertoire in performance.

Once again, that underscored the need for a piano of contrasting qualities that are of value to the musical objectives we’re trying to achieve. This came across a couple of cases. Angela Hewitt preferred Hans. Angela is a marvelous pianist. She has a very different approach to articulation, to the production of tone. She has one of the most efficient energy saving techniques at the piano I have ever witnessed. It’s extraordinary how calculated but how expressive her technique is.

However, she plays the piano differently than, say, Grigory Sokolov does, to cite another vast contrast in the world of pianos and pianists. Her needs are different than the needs of Imogen Cooper; are different from the needs of Yfrim Bronfman; are different in ways than the needs of Paul Lewis; or of any number of pianists you can name.

Upcoming solo piano recitals for the remainder of this season at Spivey Hall:
  • March 19: Bertrand Chamayou
  • April 2: Louis Lortie
  • April 8: Fred Hersch
  • April 29: Yefim Bronfman

See Spivey Hall’s current calendar for more details and additional performances.

Spivey Hall’s complete 2017-’18 concert season may be downloaded as a PDF file here.

The real challenge there, though, is that a piano be voiced for its space. When Clara came to live permanently at Spivey Hall she was chosen and then voiced for the space. You don’t re-voice a piano the way you change your shoes or your tie. It’s essentially trying to change the basic character the instrument, within a very narrow range, to bring out the best quality sought in this instrument.

Michael Koch’s piano Hans is voiced for his home, it’s not voiced for Spivey Hall’s acoustics or the size of the hall. Therefore Hans, while incredibly valuable and a gorgeous instrument and chosen by pianists, it’s not the ideal solution because Hans should not be voiced to Spivey Hall, because Hans is owned by Michael Koch and he takes huge pleasure in playing his piano in his home, where he enjoys its gorgeous tone and touch.

Gresham: That brings us to the question of raising money in this new campaign. How’s it going?

Dixon: We have made a good start. You were at Inon Barnatan’s recital in September when we when we announced the “Clara seeks Robert” piano campaign. So far, we’re just over a third of the way to our goal of $225,000 for the search and acquisition of Robert. We only had one piano recital this fall but this winter and spring we have a series of piano recitals which will give us more opportunities to make our case to people about why Clara so desperately wants her soul-mate and what they can do to make this possible.

By later this season I fully expect that we will be at least halfway through our campaign. There’s no crushing need to rush out and buy a piano but we do need to raise the money before we can shop for piano. Different manufacturers have different policies about how you acquire a piano and what comes first, the selection or the money. And you have to get in line. Steinway never makes more pianos than it can sell, and new Steinway pianos never go down in price, ever. So one has to expect the bark of realities: Steinway is not required to sell a piano to anybody.

If we want to find the right contrast of character, touch and tone and all those wonderful things that are involved in the selection process, then we need to do some looking, and not be rushed, and probably do some traveling and use the wisdom, experience and recommendations of pianists who know the hall really well, and Ulrich Gerhart, our technician from Steinway London who also knows Spivey Hall and Clara extremely well, so that we come up with a good partnership.

Gresham: The right combination.

Dixon: Exactly. We’re the matchmakers. We can’t start dating until we have some cash in her pocket.  ■

Fractured Atlas LogoThis post was made possible in part by funds from Fractured Atlas. Donations supporting the Fractured Atlas “Mark Gresham” project may be made online by clicking the linked logo on the right. Fractured Atlas is a 501(c)(3) public charity; all donations are tax-deductible to the extent permitted by law.

Review: Riverside Chamber Players debut Michael Kurth’s engaging “Some of a Sudden” [ArtsATL]

by Mark Gresham | 7 Mar 2017 for

Riverside Chamber Players (photo:  David Hedges

Riverside Chamber Players (photo: David Hedges)

On Sunday’s pleasant afternoon, the Riverside Chamber Players performed a concert of music by Jean Françaix and Michael Kurth at the Unitarian Universalist Metro Area North (UUMAN) congregation in Roswell. …

Composer’s Notebook: Cellos, wines and the music of Curtis Bryant

by Mark Gresham | 27 FEB 2017

Pianist Ben Leaptrott and cellist Jean Gay performing wine-inspired music by Atlanta composer Curtis Bryant. (credit: Mark Gresham)

Pianist Ben Leaptrott and cellist Jean Gay performed wine-inspired music by Atlanta composer Curtis Bryant. (credit: Mark Gresham)

I met Atlanta composer Curtis Bryant in the fall of 1974. One of the things quickly learned about Curtis was, in addition to being a composer of considerable craft, that he had a particular fondness and knowledge of wine, both rare and common. He also made wine in his cellar, and I remember co-investing in a shipment of Zinfandel grapes from southern California from which we (mostly Curtis) made a rather robust red Zinfandel in 1975. We wound up with 42 bottles of it when all was said and done. Unlike its paler white and blush cousins, this red Zinfandel was not sweet and took several years to even begin to mature. It did, however, win first place against some commercial wines in some kind of taste test in New York that Curtis had taken it to — though I recall no details of who passed judgment upon it. Supposedly the negatives were for sediment, which is typical characteristic of home-made wines absent the commercial filtration process. But indeed, it was a mighty fine wine for its humble pedigree.

The composer at work: Curtis Bryant. (courtesy of

The composer at work: Curtis Bryant. (courtesy of

It was likewise a fine reminder of these things when just over a week ago (the afternoon of Sunday, February 19, to be exact) I attended a concert which included The Wine Lover’s Guide to the Cello. Curtis had written it in 1991 for cello-piano duo Dorothy and Cary Lewis. In the performance on February 19 at Emory University’s 260-seat Performing Arts Studio (PAS), it was played by cellist Jean Gay and pianist Ben Leaptrott, who also performed another cello-piano work Curtis had written for the Lewises, his simply named Sonata for Cello and Piano (1987). That latter piece had found its way onto the Lewis’s CD, “Music of Southern Composers,” issued under the now-defunct Gasparo label. To round it all off, Leaptrott also gave the world premiere of Bryant’s complete “Sonatina” for solo piano — which had been patiently awaiting a performance in its entirety since it was composed in 2004.

The concert reminded me of how Curtis Bryant has always stuck to his stylistic guns, counter-rebelling against the more edgy musical rebellions of the 20th century, opting instead for a kind of clean modernism that’s well-crafted and lyrical in its aesthetic. Certainly the vocal element informs Bryant’s music, not only his choral octavos and solo songs, but certainly also in his two full-length operas: the three act Zabette — which won him an American Prize this year — and the more recent two-act thriller The Secret Agent.

Those vocal qualities, built on solid harmonic and formal foundations, permeate his instrumental music as well, as evidenced by the performance at Emory, even when he peppers it on occasion with ethnic, folk, blues or jazz elements. It does not become merely “eclectic” in the kind of shallow way one so often encounters these days, but is well underpinned by his sense of mainline Euro-American craft. It was a pleasure to become aquainted and reacquainted with these particular pieces. •

Curtis Bryant’s website can be found at

Music of Cody Brookshire featured in Eyedrum’s fourth Composer’s Series concert

by Mark Gresham | 28 DEC 2016

Composer Cody Brookshire in festive seasonal attire.

Composer Cody Brookshire in festive seasonal attire.

On Friday, December 23, as many people wee rushing to finish last-minute holiday shopping runs, Eyedrum Arts & Music Gallery hosted a concert of music by composer Cody Brookshire for the fourth installment of its recently established Composer’s Concert Series.

In advance of Brookshire’s music was a set by electric guitarists Justin Tolan and Se’nam Palmer, who traded a few looping, effects-laden solo numbers back and forth then played a final duo, after which came a brief intermission.

Brookshire introduced his part of the program, decked out in casual attire for the occasion in a red t-shirt and Santa Claus hat replete with leopard-spotted fur lining – appropriate given both the event date and Eyedrum’s signature hyper-informal environment.

First up among Brookshire’s six featured compositions was Kindlemusik, a momentum-driven piece for marimba duo, performed by Ethan Strickland and Olivia Kieffer (who also curates the Composer’s Series). Electronic music on stereophonic fixed media followed: three selections from Harmonic Meditations: I. Siddhartha, III. We Could Live Forever Tonight and V. Wasting All My Precious Time.

Although similar in style and character to many contemporary compositions for unaccompanied flute, Brookshire’s Whispers, Secrets and Codes is nonetheless a respectable contribution to the genre, ably performed in this instance by flutist Matthieu Clavé.

Trumpeter Victoria Bethel performs From Afar, Drawing Near.

Trumpeter Victoria Bethel performs “From Afar, Drawing Near.”

Most interesting among the evening’s offerings was From Afar, Drawing Near, for trumpet and electronics, performed by trumpeter Victoria Bethel. Spatial effects involving the performer turning left and right while playing, and the extended use of a Harmon mute in the beginning, gave this piece a menacing character, like a siren in the midst of an air-raid warning-inspired texture, including the thunderous sounds of drones. Electronic elements were also affected by the GPS location of the composer’s cell phone.

One more electronic work was next on tap: META11UR6Y, based on manipulation of pre-recorded screaming “metal riffs” on electric guitars. On the one hand, it mentally connected back with Tolan and Palmer’s opening set, but also took the the listener out into a conceptually fragmented world of great sonic contrasts, with fortissimo clips often coming in bursts to interrupt vague background textures.

The concert closed with Triple Helix, another work for multiple marimbas – in this case a trio (as the title implies). It was performed by Lineage Percussion – Wesley Sumpter, Lauren Floyd and Trevor Barroero. The performers used headphones and a click track to coordinate the piece, which Brookshire described succinctly as “a web of multiple tempos.”

A bit of good news for concerts like this one, Eyedrum itself appears to have cleaned up its act in the literal sense over past months. The space far, far less junk-and-trash riddled than experienced on previous visits, though it is still lacking in decent, sufficient lighting by which performers can both see and be seen. Even so, things are clearly in a process of improving for the small performance space at 88 Forsyth Street. •

Fractured Atlas LogoThis post was made possible in part by funds from Fractured Atlas. Donations supporting the Fractured Atlas “Mark Gresham” project may be made online by clicking the linked logo on the right. Fractured Atlas is a 501(c)(3) public charity; all donations are tax-deductible to the extent permitted by law.

Pieces of Eight: Georgian Chamber Players perform eight-handed piano music, Mendelssohn’s Octet

by Mark Gresham | 21 NOV 2016

Julie Coucheron, William Ransom, Elana Cholakova and Elizabeth Pridgen perform Mozart's Overture to Don Giovanni, transcribed for two pianos, eight hands. (all photos: Mark Gresham)

Julie Coucheron, William Ransom, Elana Cholakova and Elizabeth Pridgen perform Mozart’s Overture to Don Giovanni, transcribed for two pianos, eight hands. (all photos: Mark Gresham)

On Sunday afternoon, November 20, the Georgian Chamber Players performed a concert of music by Mozart, Saint-Saëns, Ernst Bach, Sousa and Mendelssohn at Peachtree Presbyterian Church’s Kellett Chapel, located in Atlanta’s uptown Buckhead neighborhood.

The first half of the program was mostly comprised of transcriptions for two pianos, eight hands performed by pianists Julie Coucheron, Elizabeth Pridgen, Elena Cholakova and William Ransom. The original order of the first two were swapped from that in the printed program, with W.A. Mozart’s Overture to Don Giovanni taking the opening slot, followed by the devilish Danss macabre, Op. 40, by Camille Saint-Saëns.

Ransom, Coucheron and Pridgen get cozy in Ernst Bach's "Das Dreyblatt."

Ransom, Coucheron and Pridgen get cozy in Ernst Bach’s “Das Dreyblatt.”

The exception was a curiosity, Der Drayblatt (“The Threesome”) by W.F. Ernst Bach, a grandson of J.S. Bach, for one piano, six hands – performed by Pridgen, Couchette and Ransom. It’s a clever work, if perhaps scandalous for its day, as the composer called for it to be performed with one male pianist in the middle and two petite females on either side of him, with the gentleman stretching his arms around the ladies’ waists to play the outside-most parts. Whether or not Bach’s suggested genders are heeded in our day, the player seated in the middle would preferably have long arms.

Cholakova returned to join the other three pianists for Mack Wilberg’s transcription of John Philip Sousa’s march, The Stars and Stripes Forever. It’s a genuine transcription, in that among other flourishes, Wilberg takes the final statement of the trio, the grandioso, up a half step. The march wrapped the first half of the concert on an upbeat, cheerful note.

Mendelssohn's Octet in E-flat major concluded the concert.

Mendelssohn’s Octet in E-flat major concluded the concert.

The concert concluded with a vibrant, engaging performance of Felix Mendelssohn’s Octet in E-flat major, Op. 20, written when the composer was 16 years old — a musically mature composition for someone that age. The performers were violinists David Coucheron, Justin Bruns, Jun-Ching Lin and Mark Huggins; violists Reid Harris and Paul Murphy; and cellists Christopher Rex and Daniel Laufer. All are prominent members of the Atlanta Symphpny Orchestra with the exception of visiting guest violinist Huggins, who is associate concertmaster of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.

All in all, it was an interesting, consistently delightful concert for a late Sunday afternoon.

Fractured Atlas LogoThis post was made possible in part by funds from Fractured Atlas. Donations supporting the Fractured Atlas “Mark Gresham” project may be made online by clicking the linked logo on the right. Fractured Atlas is a 501(c)(3) public charity; all donations are tax-deductible to the extent permitted by law.