"Bienen Concerts Honor Zappa and Varèse" Preview- two Memorial Day weekend concerts

 The iconoclastic work of self-taught guitarist and composer Frank Zappa will be performed alongside the work of the innovative French-born composer Edgard Varèse, one of Zappa’s earliest musical influences, in a pair of Memorial Day weekend concerts presented by Northwestern University’s Henry and Leigh Bienen School of Music. 

Alan Pierson; photo by Ros Kavanaugh

Events information:

Northwestern University Symphony Orchestra and Contemporary Music Ensemble
Friday, May 26, 7:30 p.m.
Pick-Staiger Concert Hall, 50 Arts Circle Dr., Evanston

Conducted by Victor Yampolsky, Alan Pierson, Ben Bolter, and Taichi Fukumura, the program includes Zappa’s “Pedro’s Dowry” and “G-Spot Tornado” as well as Varèse’s “Amériques” and Bienen School alumna Augusta Read Thomas’ “Hemke Concerto: Prisms of Light” for saxophone and orchestra, featuring Bienen School Associate Professor of Saxophone Taimur Sulliivan.

Augusta Read Thomas; photo by Anthony Barlich

Northwestern University Symphony Orchestra, Contemporary Music Ensemble and Percussion Ensemble
Sunday, May 28, 6:30 p.m.
Millennium Park, Jay Pritzker Pavilion, 201 East Randolph St., Chicago

Composer Edgard Varèse’s emphasis on timbre, rhythm and emerging technologies inspired a multitude of musicians who came of age during the 1960s and ‘70s, among them guitarist and composer Frank Zappa. This program, conducted by Alan Pierson, Ben Bolter and Taichi Fukumura, includes Zappa’s “Dog Breath Variations/Uncle Meat,” “Pedro’s Dowry” and “G-Spot Tornado” as well as Edgard Varèse’s “Intégrales,” “Ionisation” (featuring the Northwestern University Percussion Ensemble) and “Amériques.” Between ensemble changes, the performance features Zappa as “virtual emcee” through audio recordings in which he introduces Varèse and his music.

Ben Bolter; photo by Liz Linder

Electronic music pioneer Edgard Varèse:
Although Edgard Varèse only has about 12 surviving compositions, he is regarded as one of the most influential 20th century musicians. Born in Paris in 1883, Varèse studied music in Paris and Berlin before moving to the United States in 1915. Influenced by Debussy and Ferruccio Busoni, Varèse’s first American work “Amériques” showcases his boundless ambition. Over the years, he became one of the first composers to blend percussion, electronic music and taped recordings, creating great walls of noise. Varèse’s work, frequently described as “organized sound”, received much attention in the 5 years before his death in 1965.

Contemporary Music Ensemble; photo by Todd Rosenberg

Monolith of modern musical talent Frank Zappa:
Frank Zappa stands alone, a monolith of modern musical talent. Born in Baltimore, Zappa moved frequently as a child due to his father’s work in the defense industry after World War II. His style was a hybrid of rock, jazz and modern music overlaid with satirical and abstractly humorous lyrics. Eventually Zappa joined singer Ray Collins, bassist Roy Estrada and drummer Jimmy Carl Black to form the Mothers of Invention. Their first album “Freak Out!” was a success, spending 23 weeks on the charts. Zappa disbanded his group in 1976 and went solo, continuing an illustrious music career until his death in 1993. He released 62 albums during his lifetime, and the Zappa family trust has released 43 albums posthumously since 1994, for a total of 105 albums. Zappa is an inductee of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and is the recipient of a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.

Northwestern University Symphony Orchestra; photo by Noah Frick-Alofs

About conductors Alan Pierson and Ben Bolter

Alan Pierson has been praised as "a dynamic conductor and musical visionary" by the New York Times, "a young conductor of monstrous skill" by Newsday, "gifted and electrifying" by the Boston Globe, and "one of the most exciting figures in new music today" by Fanfare. He is the artistic director and conductor of acclaimed ensemble Alarm Will Sound, which has been called "the future of classical music" by the New York Times and "a sensational force" with "powerful ideas about how to renovate the concert experience" by the New Yorker. Pierson served as the artistic director and conductor of the Brooklyn Philharmonic. The New York Times called Pierson's leadership at the Philharmonic "truly inspiring," and the New Yorker's Alex Ross described it as "remarkably innovative, perhaps even revolutionary."

Percussion Ensemble; photo by Todd Rosenberg

 Ben Bolter joined the Northwestern University Bienen School of Music faculty in 2014 as Co-Director of the Contemporary Music Ensemble and is the newly appointed Associate Director of the Institute for New Music. He devotes his career to both traditional and new music while constantly exploring new ways to conduct and perform. Ben made his conducting debut in 2008 with the National Symphony Orchestra to critical acclaim in the Washington Post: “Bolter spotlighted the showiest aspects of Enensco’s Romanian Rhapsody #1 and made it look easy.”  Ben has also been widely recognized for his dedication to advancing youth orchestras.

Taimur Sullivan; photo courtesy of the artist

In the words of Conductors Alan Pierson and Ben Bolter

This reviewer had the opportunity to interview conductors Alan Pierson and Ben Bolter on the importance and influence of the music of Zappa and Varèse, as well as on the upcoming concerts. Both men were very knowledgable about the composers as well as extremely enthusiastic about the upcoming performances, and they shared their erudite remaks, paraphrased in pertinent part as follows:

Pierson stated, “The appeal of Zappa’s music is that it is incredibly fun, inventive, creative and original. It hits a sweet spot that I really love.” Pierson noted he’s “Long been intrigued by the connection points between avant-garde classical and popular music interface and by the the Zappa/Varèse connection in particular. “Zappa”, said Pierson, “knew just what he wanted to say; he had an innate and extraordinary clarity of vision in what he wanted to express with his music”.Pierson commented further, ”Two of the Zappa pieces to be performed at these concerts, ‘Dog Breath Variations’ and ‘G-Spot Tornado’, are from the ‘Yellow Shark’ album, which was pivotal in introducing Zappa to the art music world”. Pierson pointed out “Zappa has a diverse following, and he was an omnivorous composer: so aware of and engaged with what was happening all through the musical world. And he drew on it all. It’s music that has a great surface area”.

Edgard Varèse; photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Bolter advised, “Varèse is an incredibly fascinating figure. He was born in 1883, less than a year after Wagner died. In his early years, he was influenced by Satie, Strauss, even Debussy.” Bolter explained how the French-born composer lost most of his works in a warehouse fire after he fled Berlin for the United States. “His music was completely different after that. The first piece he wrote here, ‘Amériques’, is one of the centerpieces of our concert. This work is, in part, a reflection of his first impressions living in New York City. It uses actual sirens in the percussion section.”  Bolter added, “Varèse took risks to explore music in a completely new and original way”. He went on to explain that Varèse thought, “What is music if not an organization of noise?” Bolter enthused, “Varèse sought to dispel the normal notions of melody and harmony in music and instead looked at timbre as a narrative throughout- an exploration of darkness, light, color and texture. He was much more interested in physical phenomena than he was in sounding like any kind of music that came before him”.

Frank Zappa; photo by Heinrich Klaffs

For more information, call the Bienen School of Music Concert Management Office at (847) 491-5441 or visit concertsatbienen.org.

The Bienen School of Music is a member of the Northwestern Arts Circle, which brings together film, humanities, literary arts, music, theater, dance and visual arts. Search for events across all artistic disciplines at Northwestern Arts Circle.

 Both concerts are free and open to the public.

 

 

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