Jun 16 2013 ·
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by Michael Strickland
San Francisco is in a golden age for contemporary music. Its current ecostructure of composers, performers, funders, writers, venues, and adventurous audiences is probably unrivaled in the world right now. Many of the artists live and work in the East Bay and Marin, though not so much the Peninsula where the major focus seems to be acquiring wealth while creating the sci-fi future that is bleeding into the present.
These thoughts were prompted by two different concerts on Monday and Tuesday at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. When the school moved from 19th Avenue into Civic Center in 2006, the institution initially seemed frightened of the neighborhood, but they have relaxed and become an integral piece of the Performing Arts Center that now stretches from their campus at Market and Van Ness to the Opera House five blocks north.
The recent closing of the Veterans Building and its Herbst Theatre for retrofitting has been something of a blessing, forcing musical groups to venture further afield in the neighborhood. The Left Coast Chamber Ensemble (including left to right above Anna Presler, Kurt Rohde, Tanya Tomkins, and Leighton Fong) has long played in the second-story Green Room at the Veterans Building, which is a great site for a party but terrible for music due to the crappy acoustics. On Monday evening, they presented one of their mixed concerts of contemporary music with 19th century classics in the small (approximately 130 seats) Recital Hall downstairs at the Conservatory, and it was a delight.
The concert featured cellists Leighton Fong and Tanya Tomkins above in various configurations, starting with three wild “decimations” by Kurt Rohde of Bach Chorales for Odd String Quartet and Electronics, odd in this case meaning that the usual second violin is swapped out for an additional cello. The odd quartet, minus electronics, finished the concert with the 1894 String Quartet #2 by Anton Arensky, a disciple of Tchaikovsky and a teacher of Scriabin and Rachmaninoff.
The highlight of the concert was violist Kurt Rohde playing his own composition, …maestoso…misterioso…for Amplified Violin, Viola and Assorted Objects with Anna Presler above. The Assorted Objects were tuned gongs, harmonicas, Chinese paper accordions, along with the players’ own voices. There were also moments of live electronic looping, which seemed fraught with danger since there was a lot of unintended feedback in the first of the Bach chorales, and the tech guy had to re-plug and reorient the microphones on Rohde and his viola before he started playing the piece. I was close to the stage and started laughing, at which point Rohde broke the fourth wall and said to the audience, “You have NO idea.” Even with all the electronics and Assorted Objects, the 12-minute piece was mostly soft and delicate while sounding simultaneously rich and complex. Rohde strikes me as one of the best composers in the world right now, and his performance with Presler was fearless.
Jun 16 2013 ·
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by Be’eri Moalem
The Left Coast Chamber Ensemble presented a cello-centric program Monday, June 3, 2013, at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. Rather than the normal double violins of a string quartet, this time it consisted of double cellos (Tanya Tomkins and Leighton Fong) paired with violin (Anna Presler) and viola (Kurt Rohde).
The difference is mostly in timbre; the resulting sound is reedy and warm, and the configuration is every bit as viable as a normal string quartet, due to the cello’s wide range and the viola’s versatility.
The best-known Romantic-era piece for such an ensemble is Anton Arensky’s second quartet, made famous by its second movement variations on a theme by Tchaikovsky, which has been arranged for string orchestra. This piece, by far the longest (28 minutes) of the concert, closed the evening in an energetic and beautiful reading.
Left Coast Chamber Ensemble concerts typically integrate new music into their programs and situate the classics in terms of the contemporary, instead of the other way around. It was Kurt Rohde’s Three Decimated Bach Chorales, for the Odd Quartet and Electronics that dominated the concert, receiving its world premiere. The three movements were interspersed throughout the program, as opposed to the usual practice of grouping all three movements of a piece together. In effect, the “decimated” chorales framed the entire evening.
The chorales sounded as if they were pulverized into fine dust — small sound bites of Bach chopped almost beyond recognition, but the harmony was still there. Chorales are more about harmony than melody: the vertical and horizontal intervals between the voices. Rohde took these beautiful intervals presumably straight from the chorale and dispersed them among the cellos, viola, violin, and electronic sounds so that the harmony could still be perceived, though through a granulated texture. This texture is achieved through electronic filters and extended technique employed by the live players (for example, playing on or near the bridge, or over the fingerboard to produce raspy or hollow sounds). Instead of any clear melody, the intervals were stretched out with whiny glissandos. Despite the permutations, it still sounded like angels were singing.
This led seamlessly to another piece by Rohde, his …maestoso…misterioso… for amplified violin and viola and assorted objects. Presler joined with the composer to play the mesmerizing piece with a devotion and loving lyricism rarely heard in contemporary music. Violinists are trained on 19th-century music, the epitome of which is late Beethoven quartets. Whereas in the odd quartets he channeled Bach, here Rohde channeled late Beethoven, achieving the same ethereal, almost mystical ambience with slow lines and electronically enhanced textures. In addition to beautiful string playing, the duo also played harmonicas, struck melodic gongs, and even sang. Rohde’s rhythmic surprises and avoidance of a steady meter keep his music sparkling and full of vitality. The high reverb feedback loops in the electronics can sometimes come off as cheesy, yet here it was tastefully done, well-maintained by soundman Sam Nichols on a laptop and a mixing board. Nichols always urged the acoustic violin and viola sound to the forefront.
After almost 20 minutes of Rohde, the ears are altered, so Chopin’s Introduction and Polonaise Brillante suddenly didn’t sound like the gorgeous miracle that it would appear to be in a different context. The well-tempered tuning in the piano sounded jarring after all the glissandos in the previous pieces. With such a drastic realignment of styles, my own ears took a while to adjust to normal tonality. Tomkins joined pianist Eric Zivian in an exuberant performance. The introduction took featured hearty melodies by Tomkins, the Polonaise clicked with virtuosic flourishes by Zivian, and the musical dialogue passed back and forth with an easy joy.
After intermission, bassist Michael Taddei joined Fong and Tomkins in another world premiere: Matt Schumaker’s Nocte Lux, inspired by the graininess of night photography. Schumaker also used granulation in the electronics to produce tiny sound fragments — a technique that’s all the rage in composer circles these days. The live players responded in tight counterpoint with some otherworldly sounds from the computer processing.
In a surprise not mentioned in the program, two youthful composers from the John Adams Young Composers Program at the Crowden Center for Music in the Community were featured: Theo Haber, whose Jazz Parody turned out to be a bright, light romp with a bluesy progression and effortless playing by flutist Stacey Pelinka; and Anaïs Azul, whose Cascades and Canyons came across as a fun piece with a Latin dance feel. These youngsters are lucky to have musicians of such caliber playing their pieces with so much enthusiasm.
Throughout the concert, it was humble music-making on stage, rather than egos on display, as is often the case with important touring performers who swoop into town, play, and dash off. These were local musicians playing at a small venue for an appreciative and familiar crowd — not that the Left Coast players shouldn’t also tour. Indeed, Europe and the East Coast could stand to enjoy the collegial and innovative attitude of musicians here in the Bay Area.
Be’eri Moalem (www.beeri.org) is a violist, teacher, writer, and composer.
Mar 19 2013 ·
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by Darren Robinson
Kurt Rohde is a violist and a self-taught composer currently residing in San Francisco and the recipient of a number of fellowships and awards. This is Rohde’s debut CD on Innova, featuring his works performed by Axel Strauss, Genevieve Feiwen Lee, the Left Coast Chamber Ensemble, and the Empyrean Ensemble.
Concertino for Violin and Small Ensemble is a modern take on an old form; Rohde bases the work on the old “concerto grosso” style, but uses his own modern musical vocabulary. The first movement hints of Stravinsky’s’ Le Sacre du printemps, some influences from the second Viennese’s school, and I even thought I heard a little Philip Glass. The first movement (moto) is the second longest on the CD next to the second movement (sotto), but seems shorter because it is broken up into two sections. The second movement, the longest cut on the disk, starts slow and low. In dramatic contrast to the first movement, the violin is using double stops and the melody is more lyrical and almost tonal like. Rohde also switches from the violin’s high range to using the lower range, gives the movement a feeling of warmth compared to the crystalline first moment, which reappears later on in the movement. The third movement (rotto), in the tradition of concertos is a fast flying affair. While the melody returns to the more frantic feeling of the first movement, the third has a sense of playfulness as the style is borrowing a page from the violin’s fiddling tradition.
Double Trouble for Two Violas, a three-movement work featuring names like “Obsessive Compulsive” and “Spazoid,” uses the same soundscapes as the earlier Concertino for Violin. While this piece also has a high degree of technical and virtuosic writing, it did not intrigue me as much as the “Concertino” did. One of those factors could be the greater emphasis on the viola duet and the sparser accompaniment, which is less prominent than in the other work.
ONE for speaking pianist on texts of Jakob Stein: These poems are about “…Judaism and the nature of being”, and the fifteen poems that are used are broken into three unequal parts. The poems themselves are short and sparse, well-suited to Rohde’s treatment of them; there is a haunting quality to this work. The performance by the pianist/speaker was well executed; however I found the declamatory and measured performance of the poems not exactly what I wanted to hear. That is just my preference; I was expecting a more naturalistic and relaxed delivery, but that is a personal taste and does not reflect on the quality of Ms. Lee’s performance nor Rohde’s artistic decision. [No need to apologize, some of us run from any piece that says “speaker” in the title—myself for one.] Again, what I found extremely interesting about this work was the use of the prepared piano accompaniment. If you are not aware, prepared piano is when the piano is physically manipulated to produce different sounds. One of the ways this can be done is by putting different objects in the piano: putting a metal chain across some of the piano strings or using an eraser to mute particular ones.
Four Remixes for Piano Trio: This was my favorite piece on the CD. On this piece Rohde takes four pop songs Joni Mitchell’s Night Ride Home, the B52’s Funplex, Elton John’s Rocket Man, and the Beatles’s Maxwell’s Silver Hammer reworks them into something different, and pulls it off. These are a far cry from those “Hooked on” albums or muzak renditions. These pieces are well arranged and blend both the kernel of the original songs with Rohde’s voice to create something familiar but new. Each movement is crafted to it unique and individual self. They range from ethereal and nocturnal soundscapes to cold and angular rhythms with hectic, accompaniment figures, to the most tonal, and warm sounding works on the CD. I especially like Looped Trip based on Elton John’s Rocket Man, which is stunningly beautiful. Again it is Rohde’s wonderful use of sound in all of the movements that grabbed my ear and imagination.
I found this to be a very interesting but very challenging CD to listen to. Rohde’s composition style uses aggressive rhythms; it is highly dissonant with disjunct and abrupt melodies. A listener looking for lush melodies and a secure grip on a tonality might not like most of this recording. This music is cold and crisp as a glacier morning, with a few exceptions found in one or two movements. I know it’s in a style I don’t always want to listen to, but I do enjoy it in the right quantity and quality. This is what Mr. Rohde has delivered; it is a challenge to listen to, but it doesn’t threat or overwhelm due to the duration of the movements. What really won me over on this CD were Rohde’s writing and the sounds he invokes. The inclusion and use of the different strings, wind, the wide variety of percussion instruments and the prepared piano; was for me the highlight of the listening.
Mar 06 2013 ·
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by Laurence Vittes
This CD from Innova introduces this composer with a variety of 15- to 20- minute musical entities that follow no identifiable musical stream but can leave no listener undisturbed.
Instead, each piece, as the notes imply, follows its own uniquely arresting course with determined intensity and a concentrated use of resources. Nothing seems to happen casually, so the influences that permeate Rohde’s music – from the Baroque to the Beatles, Elton John and Joni Mitchell – become indivisible parts of a dynamic, energetic, occasionally noisy, and sometimes turgid flow.
The Violin Concertino, with its use of traditional tune types and rhetoric, is the most immediately accessible music on the disc. Its slow, haunting middle movement makes the perfect bridge between the outer movements’ virtuoso displays for 1998 Naumburg Award-winner Axel Strauss.
Read the full review here.
Mar 05 2013 ·
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by Filippo Focosi
Kurt Rohde is a young, eclectic, and exuberant composer, who on this CD by Innova, shows a personality that may yet still develop, but is already defined and confident. This confidence is primarily communicated in two concertos on the CD; one for violin and small ensemble, the other for two violas (it is worth remembering Rohde, who is a violist and plays as a co-soloist here). These two three-movement works are in the Classical form of allegro-andante-allegro, but the internal development is far from obvious, based on the polyphonic mold of Ligeti (Ligeti in the 1980’s was influenced by the music from Sub-Sahara Africa), and are rich in micro-motives that are intertwined and overlapping, chasing each other wildly, on the edge of derailing but held together by vibrant polyrhythmic patterns and dynamic power. The longer ONE is next, a piece fitting into the American-repertoire of works for speaking-pianist where the pianist, in addition to playing, reads a text. In this experimental genre, Rohde gives a story about life divided into a number of pieces, some of which are gestural and lively, others more rarified and exotic, which all flow together smoothly and are, like the text, individually consistent. The CD ends with Four Remixes, a quite imaginative re-workings of famous pop songs (Elton John, The Beatles, B-52s, Joni Mitchell), usually unrecognizable in the music played by piano trio by this writer, but a valuable melodic source for the wild wanderings, perhaps a little cerebral, of this American composer.
Read the full review here.
Mar 05 2013 ·
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by Grego Applegate Edwards
Kurt Rohde is that most precious of commodities, the self-taught composer. I say precious because to develop as a productive practitioner of the compositional arts, it becomes increasingly rare that one does not go through the conservatory/university system, at least in the areas of chamber and orchestral music.
Kurt Rohde has done just that. It goes some distance in explaining his originality. ONE (Innova 839) is a recent volume devoted to his chamber music. The Left Coast Chamber Ensemble, the Empyrean Ensemble, and soloists (including Kurt on viola) do a fine job teasing out the intricacies of Rohde’s style, which is neither strictly modernist nor post-modernist in the usual senses.
Four works are presented, together giving a good aural picture of the spectrum of musical sounds that comprise the Kurt Rohde universe.
The title work, ONE for Speaking Pianist on Texts of Jacob Stein, combines nicely a complex kinetically-charged piano part and a rhythmically parallel chant-recitation of the poetic text. Genevieve Feiwen Lee performs her role convincingly.
There are two chamber concerto works, Concertino for Violin and Small Ensemble and Double Trouble for Two Violas and Small Ensemble. The former manages to be lyric, complexly modern and filled at times with a dramatically charged rhythmic energy. Double Trouble further accentuates the rhythmical contrapuntal element in masterful ways.
Four Remixes for Piano Trio is a rather zany yet quite formidable work. There is lyricism, rock-pulsating insistence for one movement, and a quote from the Beatles’ “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” all convincingly woven together into a four-movement tapestry.
Thank you to Innova for making this vibrant music possible for us to enjoy. The San Francisco concert scene is lucky to have Kurt Rohde as a resident. He has much talent. I hope we can hear more of his work. For now this volume is a keeper.
Read the full review here.
Jan 31 2013 ·
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by Dominy Clements
The description on the Innova website sums this release up as the place “where visceral music artfully meets the insightful.” This is San Francisco-based composer and violinist Kurt Rohde’s debut CD on the Innova label, and from the start gives the impression of well-written music, played with verve and skilled commitment.
The Concertino is a central work in the programme, performed by Axel Strauss who commissioned the piece, and the ensemble Rohde founded, the Left Coast Chamber Ensemble. A brief look at Rohde’s scores shows the attention to detail he gives to notation, and this clarity of communication is a quality which transfers into transparency of instrumental colour and sonority. The solo part of the Concertino is virtuoso without being overbearingly showy or extrovert, and the equal partnership formed by the nervously active accompaniment from the ensemble in the opening moto movement creates an impression of dynamism and irrepressible energy. The Baroque concerto grosso form is cited as a starting point for this piece, but other than a Schnittke-like connection with old and new worlds I doubt a blind listening would have given rise to this association in my mind, with the soloist clearly defined rather than there being a soloistic group amidst larger forces. The middle sotto movement is a beautifully sustained and ultimately quite dramatic arch around a middle C related to the Bach solo violin sonata in the same key, the final rotto or ‘broken’ movement is full of driving ostinato rhythms and tonal surprises, the double-stopping of the violin at times taking us into folk-dance territory.
The title track ONE uses texts from Jakob Stein, printed in the booklet, which are uttered in various ways by the performer, in this case pianist Genevieve Feiwen Lee. This sort of thing has its own lineage, and if pressed to describe the general impression I would invoke the names of John Cage for the prepared piano sounds, and perhaps a very soft-edged Frederic Rzewski for the relationship between voice and piano. One is pretty far removed from the sprechtstimme of Schoenberg and entertainments of Walton’s Facade, and while the piano writing and vocal delivery can be emphatic and dramatic there is more that is attractive about this piece than aversive. The voice and piano join hands rhythmically at times – drama to contrast with intimate moments elsewhere in which the piano creates atmospheric spells to provide a special aura for the words.
Double Trouble is a veritable “tour de force” which brings us back somewhere near to the tumult and dynamic momentum to be found in the Concertino. This is not to say that there are no lyrical passages, but quieter moments are never far away from pointillist plucked strings or nervously interjecting accents. Two solo violas form the focus point, with Kurt Rohde proving his chops in one of these parts. As with the Concertino there is plenty of air between the instrumental sonorities, creating an impression of technical good health and artistic logic. If you only sample one track from this CD then make it the third movement of this piece, which is a standard bearer for Rohde’s restless explorations in harmony and counterpoint and ‘never a dull moment’ intensity, with opposing tensions and a vivacious sense of imagination.
The final piece, Four Remixes, takes pop songs from Rohde’s youth and “reframes them through the lens of [his] memory.” Often powerful music in its own right, you might be forgiven for not always being able to recognise The B52s, The Beatles, Elton John and Joni Mitchell in this piece. The addition of external starting points does however deliver extra dimensions to what we have already heard, as well as creating some intriguing quasi-arranged moments which perhaps expose more sentimental and jazzy sides to Kurt Rohde. The piano sounds as if it could do with a tune in a couple of the upper notes, but this also adds to the bar-room qualities in Rohde’s treatment of ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer’.
Well recorded, superbly performed and with substantial booklet notes, this is a fine addition to the innova catalogue, and a programme which meets all of the promises announced by its publishers.
Read the full review here.
May 10 2012 ·
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by Joshef Woodward
Violinist Shalini Vijayan, a lucid dynamo, proved a captivating soloist on Kurt Rohde’s Concertino for Violin & Small Ensemble, a three-movement piece with shimmering textures and churning, rolling tensions. The visceral meets the cerebral, artfully.
Apr 13 2012 ·
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by Theodore Bell
Southwest Chamber Music’s LA International New Music Festival
San Francisco native Kurt Rohde described his Concertino for Solo Violin & Ensemble as a sort of Baroque concerto grosso. He is a veteran of Southwest Chamber programs, and his music presents as somewhat traditional, although still engaging and keenly organized. Vijayan’s violin solo was of virtuosic proportions, and the rich tone of her instrument complemented Rohde’s accessible melodic lines, especially in the breathtakingly elegant double-stopped counterpoint of the Sotto movement. The third movement roared as the ensemble pumped the motorific percussive presto to a stirring finale. Rohde is a rising star in West Coast new music and has found a uniquely personal voice among his contemporaries.
May 25 2010 ·
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by Janos Gereben
From Rome, With Love and Music
Says San Francisco composer Kurt Rohde of his Concertino, which will receive its world premiere June 3 (in Mill Valley) and June 7 (in San Francisco) with the Left Coast Chamber Ensemble:
Just completed, this is the last piece I began in Rome. There is an odd tinge of sadness and closure about the fact that all the music I began in Rome is now finished, that the year there really is over, and whatever changes happened to me while in Rome are up to me to maintain and nurture at this point.”
Along with Rohde Rohde, the violist/founder of the Left Coast Chamber Ensemble, and a prolific composer, two more San Francisco musicians have been benefiting from artistic residence in Rome. While Rohde’s Rome Prize stay recently concluded, San Francisco–raised composer, Lisa Bielawa, who now lives in New York, is a current Rome Prize winner; and ODC Dance Company founder/artistic director/choreographer Brenda Way. Brenda Way was a Resident in the Arts, and served as a senior advisor to the Rome Prize winners, including Rohde.
Rohde recalls his “Rome pledge”:
I made a promise to myself when I went to Rome that I would write only pieces I wanted to write; that I would be brave and do things in the music I had been wanting to do for some time, but was too preoccupied and distracted by concerns of what people might think. Also, I wanted to compose works that were more collaborative and less tied to traditional genres. All in all, I did what I wanted and set out to do, and it was definitely for the best.”
Rohde describes the Concertino for Violin and Small Ensemble as “an odd piece.” It contains a virtuosic, solo violin part, and the ensemble writing is highly intricate and interrelated throughout. While not a full-fledged violin concerto, there is no doubt that the solo violin is the heart of the piece. It is dedicated to Axel Strauss, whom the composer calls “fiercely patient while awaiting a piece from me over the last five years,” who is also the soloist.
Cast in three movements, the Concertino is “modeled on the Baroque concerto grosso technique. In these early ensemble works, the concertino was a subset of solo instruments drawn from a larger ensemble. They would play elaborate versions of the full ensemble’s music, and the solo sections would alternate with the full ensemble (ripieno) passages, giving an impression of the grandiose and public alternating with the intimate and private.” Says Rohde: “In my piece, there are never any ripieno passages: It is all concertino.”
Brenda Way collaborated with Rohde on the composer’s major project during the Rome residence: a puppet theater work, based on the myth of the founding of Rome by the brothers Romulus and Remus. “We spent a huge number of hours in rehearsal, and I have every intention of working with Kurt back in San Francisco — his work is wonderful,” she says.
Reached in Hanoi last month, on a U.S. State Department tour of concerts, Rohde said the Rome residence gave him a big break:
… not having to work and keep all the plates spinning atop the numerous poles; not having to keep track or to portion a part of my brain to multitask all the time in order to be on time, to schedule this and that, be prepared, plan ahead, execute, and constantly be moving, moving, moving…”
Rome does not move. It accumulates: Some things stay longer than others, some things disappear entirely; it spins in place. It has a lot of motion, but goes almost nowhere. I really loved it and was frustrated by it; it is so not Berlin (which I love to the point of wanting to live there).” [Rohde had a Berlin residence in 2003.]
By the time I was getting ready to leave Rome, I knew that if I stayed there much longer, I would not be able to get back to S.F. It was getting under my skin in a way I did not anticipate. In part, I am sure, that was because the American Academy is such a tremendous and accommodating resource for those who go there to work. And my term there was filled with the most lovely, remarkable people, all of whom I have come to adore and respect without reservation. My time there was the gift of a lifetime, and gratitude does not begin to express my feelings about it all, even now, nearly half a year after the fact.”
What did Rohde accomplish during the Rome residency?
I went to Rome with one goal — to do things with my music I had never done before, either because I was too frightened to do them back in my home environment or had not had the time to execute them in the way I would have liked, given my limited time, energy, and resources here back at home. I am happy to report that the year was a huge success all around. I composed my puppet theater piece, have ideas for a full-length puppet opera, and composed a piece for a speaking pianist, a large ensemble work, and part of the Concertino.”
That’s a lot of inspiration and unblocked creativity. No wonder artists have been making the trip to Rome for centuries.