Corigliano: Pied Piper Fantasy
John Corigliano: "Alexa Still IS the Pied Piper!
The combination of her supreme virtuosity, lyricism, and stage charisma is unbelievable."
December 06, 2013
Corigliano: Pied Piper Fantasy
… But the crowd was in store for its biggest surprise. John Corigliano is one of the most prominent of all living composers. He has a Metropolitan Opera commission, an Oscar-winning film score, and most importantly, instant name recognition throughout the classical world.
The "Pied Piper Fantasy," one of Corigliano's best-known works, was the centerpiece of the season finale program. The performance included the composer's lighting effects, along with all of the quasitheatrical elements indicated in the score and then some. Flutist Alexa Still, a longtime University of Colorado faculty member, made a fantastic return, playing the extraordinarily difficult solo part from memory, clad in "pied" attire for effect.
In this work, the soloist cannot simply stand on the stage. The flutist must enter from the rear, step off the front of the stage for the theatrical effects, and actually be an actor. This is clearly a signature work for Still, who played with the ease of the mythical piper himself.
The children are represented by actual drum-- and flute-playing children, the rats by dancing girls moving along the aisles. Corigliano's score has many indeterminate elements, adding to the difficulty in choreography, but the young performers knew precisely where to place their motions. Still leads the children away, exchanging a flute for a small tin whistle (which she plays with equal abandon).
ASO, guest flutist and rats shine in 'Pied Piper Fantasy'
ALBANY — It’s wonderful when music can spin webs of magic and fantasy that can make children of us all. On Saturday night at the Palace Theatre, the Albany Symphony Orchestra did just that for a large crowd with the help of New Zealand flutist Alexa Still and a host of rats and flute-playing children.
The feature was John Corigliano’s “Pied Piper Fantasy” (1982), a wonderfully theatrical concoction that involved 13 mostly young dancers from Darlene Myers’ Northeast Ballet Company as the rats and an adult as the Rat King. Then there were 14 young flutists and two young snare drummers as the children that Still, as the pied piper, leads away. The production included changes of lighting on the orchestra (for more mystery), the flutists marching down and up the aisles and the rats hopping and clawing their way across the stage. Under conductor David Alan Miller, everything seemed to go off without a hitch. Still was dressed in a gold coat with huge red diamonds, black tights, black high boots and a red feathered cap. Her flute part was a tour-de-force and Still was remarkable as she played the almost 50-minute piece from memory.
Although she has performed the work so many times that she’s become almost identified with it, Still was almost casual as she walked about the stage, sometimes in soliloquy, or in battle with the rats. The work is written in seven continuous segments and Still played a tin whistle for the final two.
The music often floated in eerie and ethereal tones. Special effects such as bent notes, scratchy strings or string glissandos provided music that seemed to come out of the mist. The piper’s tune was often plaintive but when the action heated up, Still’s technique dazzled with frenzied technical passages and extreme high notes. There was a lot of brass in the battle scene and a Tudor-sounding march in the brightly celebratory section. The end of the piece was as it began with dim lights and eerie sounds. It was great stuff.
ASO program was playful, engaging
…First up was John Corigliano’s “Pied Piper Fantasy,” a theatrical concerto written in 1982 for James Galway, who’s famous for performing it while wearing a grad robe. Soloist Alexa Still went in the opposite for her attire, appearing in knee boots and smart tunic. A large red feather rode askew on the top of her head.
Performing on flute as well as piccolo and tin whistle, Still never rested during the nearly 40 minute piece. While projecting into the cavernous hall, she maintained an attractive tone, excepting some moments in the “War Cadenza” when, in accordance with the score, she deliberately delivered more lung power that her instrument could handle.
The piece suggests the old legend of a musician who rids a village of vermin and then steals away with its children. The rats were played by fourteen young ballet dancers from Northeast Ballet. Wearing simple costumes borrowed from “nutcracker” duty, they clawed and climbed about the apron of the stage before being subdued by sound. Later, several tribes of high school flute players, plus a couple of drummers, processed from the back of the house onto the stage and then exited with Still in the lead. All the while they played a sprightly tune.
Corigliano is better that anybody at disguising modernist writing – whether delicate and eerie or dense and snarling—as programmatic fare.
The ASO gave a confident and assured performance, though it was frequently over shadowed by the merrier goings on happening in the front of the stage.
Joseph Dalton “Encore” Times Union, Albany, New York 20/04/2009
First Time in the Big City
…The first half consisted of John Corigliano’s Pied Piper Fantasy that featured a wonderful performance by flutist Alexa Still (imagine not only memorizing a 40-min. concerto but also having to move and act throughout the entire auditorium while you’re doing it!) as well as a very inventive staging by David Herskovits which included multitudes of actor-rats (complete with LED eyes) and throngs of costumed children - all of whom were also playing flutes and drums and playing by memory. The logistics alone - not to mention the actual performance aspects, which were many - must have been mindboggling and it’s to Christie’s credit that he took the risk to perform the work in such a way. The performance was passionate and nuanced and the visual aspects of the acting and lighting design added a extremely visceral layer to the work that the composer himself had not imagined when he wrote it…..
Ever since he became the Brooklyn Philharmonic’s music director in 2005, Michael Christie has been intent on restoring the thematic programming — and with it, the feeling that the orchestra’s concerts were events — that was the philharmonic’s calling card through the 1990s.
His program on Saturday evening at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, “Painters of Sound,” brought together John Corigliano’s “Pied Piper Fantasy” (1982) and Berlioz’s “Symphonie Fantastique.” Both works are painterly, but more than that, they are dramas without texts. Each tells an explicitly drawn story: Mr. Corigliano’s work, a flute concerto, is the familiar tale of a piper who rids his town of its rat problem; Berlioz’s symphony, a lovelorn artist’s opium-fueled nightmare. And each leans on virtuosic orchestration to make its characters and events seem to be unfolding in the listener’s imagination.
The program also did double duty as the main event in a minifestival devoted to Mr. Corigliano, who celebrates his 70th birthday on Feb. 16. For the occasion the orchestra commissioned a staging for “Pied Piper Fantasy,” directed by David Herskovits and designed by Lenore Doxsee.
The work has always been partially staged. It was composed for James Galway, the most theatrical of flutists, who generally performed it dressed in a long, colorful robe and followed Mr. Corigliano’s suggestion in the score, that the finale include the soloist leading an army of flute-playing children through the aisles of the hall.
The flutist Alexa Still honored that request as well, with a group of flutists and percussionists from Brooklyn and Manhattan high schools. What Mr. Herskovits and Ms. Doxsee added were lighting effects on a screen behind the orchestra, and a large number of people in rat costumes with glowing red eyes. The rats were amusing but also distracting. Mr. Corigliano’s score, full of tactile percussive effects and sliding strings during these scenes, paints the rat battle clearly enough. Better to let the music do its job. Ms. Still could not be accused of hogging the spotlight, but she played the solo line with sufficient agility and warmth to remind listeners that, story line aside, this is a virtuosic flute concerto. It is also a colorful orchestral score, and Mr. Christie drew a suitably eerie, atmospheric performance from his players.
Reviews (complete) of Pied Piper Fantasy disc (Koch 7566)
Fanfare Magazine Jan/Feb 2005
The main work is a cross between a vivid, almost Strausian tone poem and a huge flute concerto, written by Corigliano for a James Galway commission in 1981. It tells the familiar Pied Piper story in seven sections, but with an added dramatic twist, live: the flutist is in costume and does a certain amount of acting before making a slow moving retreat at the end, as the children are led away. Corigliano's expert scoring, with its teeming instrumental detail (beautifully projected here by Sedares and the soloist's old orchestra), supports a memorable melodic "hook" in the Pipers' song, which recurs and develops in the orchestra fabric. Attractive, indelible stuff, and a real discovery: the Galway recording is long-gone. It is an impressive and coherent piece of imaginative writing, enjoyable straight off, but with a logical sweep, right from the Sunrise opening to the final, insidious melody of the Children's March, for which Alexa Still lays down her flute in favor of the tin whistle. She certainly has her flute in hand for the central, solo War Cadenza, though. Anyone who doubts Still's dumbfounding technical ability or complete tonal control should hear these six minutes of staggering, unaccompanied story telling, or indeed, any part of Chen Yi's Golden Flute of 1997. Still creates a rainbow of colors within the range we might call "beautiful". You just won't hear better-sustained flute playing, on disc than this, or more subtle, characterful phrasing: real, warm, communicative musicality. Chen Yi's quarter-hour concerto is another Galway commission, and this is its first recording: confident orchestration, shimmering tonalities, and a beguiling palette of emotional and expressive gestures for the flutist, some derived from Chinese melody, or an evocation of the traditional instrument, the xun.
Katherine Hoover's Medieval Suite from 1983 stands apart from its lush companions. The composer is a flutist as well as composer/conductor. Her writing is obviously inside the instrument, but the music itself and orchestration engage closely with the 20th-centiry European mainstream, while evoking 14th-century France. Each movement establishes its own character, is sharply memorable, and stands up to repetition. Hear "The Drunken Friar, " complete with Sumer Is Icomen In (shades of Korngold's Robin Hood) for another fine instance of Still's ability to tell a story through tonal variety, and to convey a touching sense of her own humanity, especially in the succeeding piece, about a six-year-old bride-to-be. The economy of Hoover's writing is as admirable as her melodic aptitude. This is a modest work, but there is real talent, and unpretentious charm in these five sketches, none of them a second too long.
Recorded sound, a couple of very minor level drops apart, is really fine with warmth, dynamics, and clarity in the orchestra, and no nasty noises from the flute's workings. The Corigliano cadenza in particular is an excellent specimen of solo flute recording. Many flute discs can be recommended, politely, to fellow flutists. Thanks to the quality of the music here, and the amazing musicianship of Alexa Still, this Koch CD can be recommended to lovers of easily approachable contemporary music too. It's heart warming stuff: undemanding, but expert.Still's memorable Pied Piper, with its theme-tune hooks and invigorating dances, should be seducing commercial radio executives across the land and potential purchasers in droves.
American Record Guide review
This is a superb recording. Still plays with flawless technique. In three demanding works, she never loses the clarity and beauty of her tone. She maintains astonishing control, from moments of screaming brilliance to compelling pianissimos.
The first of the three, Katherine Hoover's Medieval Suite, is the premiere recording of the flute-and-orchestra version of a work originally scored for flute and piano. It was already a fabulous piece, and the new version is a fabulous update. The effect of each movement is further heightened by clever orchestration. The New Zealand Symphony does a brilliant job with this. Hoover enjoys a reputation for great flute writing, and I think she deserves credit for more.
The title piece, John Corigliano's Pied Piper Fantasy is best in a concert performance. Originally recorded by James Galway, David Effron, and the Eastman Philharmonia, this pieces is now one of the standard tests for true flute virtuosity. Still not only passes the exam, she puts her own unique stamp on this challenging work. Listeners not well acquainted with Corigliano should also check out his symphonies.
The final piece on this recording was also written for Galway, and I am puzzled why he premiered but apparently did not record it. Chen Yi is a Chinese composer with experience in both Chinese traditional music and European Art Music. She smashes the two worlds together in a way that reveals deep knowledge of both- an unusual skill in a day and age that celebrates musical and so-called cross cultural efforts of questionable merit. While others are dilettantes at best, Chen Yi shows that she knows both worlds from years of study and careful listening. Still's rendering of this pieces should convince even the most skeptical that musical syncretism is actually a good idea.
A pair of gold-medal winners here, featuring three American composers born respectively in 1937 (Glass), Corigliano Jr. (1938) and Ms. Hoover (1939), and a Chinese-American fourth (Ms. Chen) born in 1953, two years before her countryman Bright Sheng. The music of both ladies is new to me, but they are composers of individuality and great resource once their respective works have begun with metal percussion softly tintinnabulating. Of the two, Ms. Chen is the more dramatic and “modern” personality, although nothing in The Golden Flute of 1997 is arcane or off-putting, designed to evoke two Chinese flutes, one bamboo, the other clay. The first of three movements have no descriptive signature beyond “I” and “II,” but “III” is marked Allegro and builds to a whirligig climax. The writing for flute is (how to say?) idiomatic and virtuosic in the same frame, and Alexa Still is a plainly superb soloist, not only in The Golden Flute but in Ms. Hoover’s five-movement Medieval Suite from 1983. This is unexpectedly gentler music, inspired by Barbara Tuchman’s “A Distant Mirror” about violent 14th-century France. It opens with borrowed music from Guillaume de Machaut, and later on from Gregorian Chant, but the voice is Katherine Hoover’s, ever charming, ingenious, and a showcase for the protean talents of Alexa Still, who runs Emanuel Pahud a neck-and-neck race in the new century’s flute sweepstakes.
Corigliano’s first-featured Pied Piper Fantasy is the longest work at 37-1/2 minutes, which James Galway commissioned in 1981 and premiered a year later. Its seven movements, the most kaleidoscopic music on this disc, follow the tale of Hamelin’s rats, the Piper’s riddance of them, and his revenge on the ungrateful townsfolk by piping their children into legend. There is a wild “War Cadenza” for the soloist in his battle with the rats until he realizes they are hypnotized by his simple song heard at the start (and at the close). The Pied Piper is an audience-participation piece, semi-theatrical in structure, with the children in the audience leaving their seats and joining the piper as he leads them out of Hamelin. Their drums and flutes echo his as the sound fades, leaving the stage in darkness as it was when the piece began. With all respect to Galway and our appreciation for his commission, Ms. Still out-flutes him in this stupendously engineered performance, conducted with the mastery one has come to expect and treasure from James Sedares, and played to a fare-the-well by the New Zealand SO with which he’s made so many outstanding discs. I’ve played this one several times and its charm grows rather than palls, which so much 20th-century music tends to do after the first flush of surprise and sometimes pleasure.
There's a lot of talk during this political cycle about how America is outsourcing jobs ultimately at its economic peril, but as far as I've heard, no one on the campaign trail has mentioned the exile of American orchestral repertoire to foreign ensembles, which is now taken for granted by most people in the music community.
In what has to be one of the more bizarre statistics I've dreamed up recently, I wager I can prove that over the past decade, the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra has recorded more American music than the Boston Symphony, New York Philharmonic, Cleveland Orchestra, Chicago Symphony, and the Philadelphia Orchestra combined. I know it's not because the so-called big five American orchestras are busy recording tons of great music from New Zealand, so what is the cause of this unusual (one way) cultural exchange?
Well, part of it is the probing mind of American born conductor James Sedares, formerly music director of the Phoenix Symphony Orchestra, who has now recorded over 30 discs with the NZSO including complete symphonic cycles of Virgil Thomson and Randall Thomson, the first-ever recordings of many of Miklós Rózsa's concertos, and discs devoted to living composers ranging from Donald Erb to Daniel Asia and Ian Krouse. The other is the ever-resourceful Koch International Classics, who have been strong advocates for contemporary American orchestral music, but who, like everyone else including the so-called major record labels (remember them?), can't afford to record American orchestras. But luckily, we the listeners, are hardly losers in this.
The latest in their series is a disc devoted to flute concertos by three very different living composers: John Corigliano, Chen Yi, and Katherine Hoover which should forever dispel the myth that flute concertos are light fare. Chen Yi's The Golden Flute, like the majority of her work, explores the aesthetic meeting point between Chinese traditional music and extended instrumental techniques in contemporary Western avant-garde music. Here, the flute is made to sound like two ancient instruments, the bamboo dizi and clay xun. Very old music also serves as the inspiration for the concerto by Katherine Hoover, albeit music from a different geographical region, Mediaeval Europe. Inspired by characters in Barbara Tuchman's A Distant Mirror, a lucid history of 14th century France, the five movements of Hoover's Medieval Suite attempt to connect this turbulent period in history with today. Hoover weaves together source melodies from Gregorian chant to dances by the great Guillaume de Machaut to create extremely vivid sonic portraits of people of the time. My particular favorite is "The Drunken Friar" which probably speaks for itself.
The biggest work on the disc is John Corigliano's Pied Piper Fantasy which from its title, the requirement for the soloist to appear in a Pied Piper costume and prance around the stage, plus the fact that it had been previously recorded by Sir James Galway, might lead you to believe that this is pops concert material, but it's an assumption quickly dispelled by the clusters of quartertones that open the work. A wild postmodernist panorama that changes stylistic orientation as frequently as Imelda Marcos used to change her shoes, the Pied Piper Fantasy is crammed full of sonic surprises. And, with its seven movements clocking in at almost 38 minutes, it is a real marathon for its soloist in purely musical terms. Alexa Still, also a New Zealander, gives Galway a real run for his money on this concerto he commissioned as well as the other works on this disc (Chen Yi's Golden Flute was also his commission). But what to make of the rats crawling all over the cover of the CD, they initially made me want to run away. Apparently they have something to do with the Pied Piper theatrics which for this rat-o-phobic listener, are thankfully absent from this audio-only recording.
San Francisco Chronicle CD Review 11/7/04
John Corigliano is a marquee name, and so his "Pied Piper Fantasy" gets the headline spot on this attractive triptych of recent works for flute and orchestra, rendered with dash and vibrancy by flutist Alexa Still and the New Zealand Symphony under conductor James Sedares. But it's not clear that Corigliano's theatrical bonbon, a concert entertainment written for James Galway and based on Browning's poem, is the most interesting music on offer here. Sure, his writing is full of illustrative goodies -- you can hear the rats march in and out, hear the townsfolk react and even hear the children being spirited away by the piper's golden tones. But there is more musical substance in Chen Yi's "Golden Flute" -- a richly colored evocation of the Chinese bamboo flute -- and even Katherine Hoover's "Medieval Suite," for all its dramatic timidity, stays longer in the listener's memory.
The Arizona Republic
It's rare that one living composer lauds another unequivocally. More frequently, we get Igor Stravinsky dissing Richard Strauss, or Aaron Copland saying of Vaughan Williams' Symphony No. 5, "It's like staring at a cow for 45 minutes."
So it is with pleasure we report the following comments about American composer Katherine Hoover from one of her fellows: "Her music is fresh and individual. . . . I do not know why her works are not yet being played by the major institutions of this country, but I am sure that she will attain the status she deserves in time."
The writer is John Corigliano, Oscar-winning composer of music for films The Red Violin and Altered States, two symphonies, a bunch of concertos and the megaopera The Ghosts of Versailles.
Corigliano, Hoover and Chen-Yi - living composers all - are featured in a new disc from flutist Alexa Still, the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra and conductor James Sedares. The Kiwi-born Still plays with incision yet without edge. Sedares, former music director of the Phoenix Symphony, conducts with aplomb.
Pied Piper Fantasy, the title of Corigliano's 1981 flute concerto and the eponymous name of Still's disc, is a vivid blend of effects and tunes. Chen-Yi's work, The Golden Flute, is a sturdy composition with moments of intense color.
But Hoover's Medieval Suite is the real revelation here. There are two ways a contemporary composer can deal with the Middle Ages in today's terms: by evoking its strangeness, its antiquated Orientalisms, or by painting cinematic pictures of a fairy-tale Medieval, full of castles and monks. Somehow, Hoover has it both ways. Her music has a distinctive voice that sings at every turn of some deep, closely held vision. She makes us want to share in it.
By ROBERT BAXTER
Alexa Still surveys three cutting-edge scores for the flute in her latest Koch release (KIC 7566 ). Katherine Hoover’s Medieval Suite, John Corigliano’s The Pied Piper Fantasy and Chen Yi’s The Golden Flute for Flute and Orchestra comprise the challenging program undertaken by the New Zealand flutist.
Hoover’s suite, inspired by Barbara Tuchman’s history of 14th-century France, features five contrasting portraits that give a flutist the chance to display her artistry. Still finds an expressive range of color in her performance with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, led by James Sedares.
Corigliano wrote his fantasy for James Galway. Against a powerfully varied orchestral accompaniment, the flute soars and shimmers.
Still savors the technical challenges in this testing score. She also excels in the lyricism and virtuosity of Yi’s concerto, another work inspired by Galway.
The three flute concertos on Koch's CD by Alexa Still, James Sedares and the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra offers listeners three quite different musical styles, ranging from Kathleen Hoover's mellifluous "Medieval Suite" to John Corigliano's dramatic "The Pied Piper Fantasy" to Chen Yi's intense "The Golden Flute."
Each work is played with a self-assuredness by flutist Still, who shows remarkable artistry both in technique and in expression. She is accompanied by conductor James Sedares and the New Zealand Symphony, and the collaboration between soloist and orchestra is notable for its fine balance and articulate interaction.
Of the three works, Chen's is by far the most original. There is a subtle co-mingling between Eastern and Western idioms in "The Golden Flute," which gives the three-movement work its unique flavor.
"The Pied Piper Fantasy" shows Corigliano at his most colorful and descriptive in terms of orchestration and melodic inventiveness. Originally written for James Galway, the flute part is especially intricate, and Still shows off her technical mastery to the fullest.
Hoover's "Medieval Suite" is the most conventional of the three, yet it has moments of originality, as in the evocative opening movement. However, the work is quite clearly, and too directly, modeled on the music of Howard Hanson and Walter Piston.
Audiophile Audition Review:
An engaging trio of modern tonal works for flute and orchestra. Corigliano based his piece, commissioned by James Galway, on the story of the Pied Piper of Hamlin. The work has a scenario of seven scenes, and the rat music is highly interesting. Katherine Hoover is one of America’s leading women composers. Her suite was originally written for flute and piano and at the request of several performers was recast for orchestra and this is its first recording. The five movements were inspired by the characters and events in a history of 14th century France. It concludes with a desperate Demon’s Dance, intended to ward off the Black Plague. Chen Yi’s flute concerto is in three movements and synthesizes Chinese traditional music with western idioms. She was profiled in a recent documentary film, A Cantonese in New York. The New Zealand Symphony has been heard on a number of recordings, usually of worthwhile non-mainstream music such as is heard on this excellent CD.
Colorado Daily, "The Mix" 10/29/04
Alexa Still is one of Boulder's best-kept secrets, but she needn't be. This internationally renowned flutist, originally from New Zealand, and now happily ensconced on the faculty of CU-Boulder's School of Music, has released a remarkable output of performances on disc over the past 15 years, a vast majority of which are works by composers living, or of recent vintage. Discovering her work is a pleasure.
She is paired here with her frequent collaborators the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, under the baton of James Sedares. The centerpiece of this recording is John Corigliano's 1981 story-suite, "The Pied Piper Fantasy," but the disc also holds Katherine Hoover's 1983 "Medieval Suite" as well as the premiere recording of Chen Yi's "The Golden Flute," composed in 1997.
With the solid and sensitive collaboration of her fellow musicians, Still demonstrates why she is so highly regarded. Most of even the upper echelon of classical instrumentalists are more noted for its competence and precision, rather than innovation and individuality. Still's championing of unfamiliar yet rewarding material, as well as her command of line and nuance, is extraordinary. Her strong attack and control of dynamic gives her work an unmistakable stamp, whether she is negotiating the difficult passages of Hoover's moody suite, or galumphing merrily through the spirited, colorful passages of the disc's namesake piece.
Most impressive of all is the shimmering tone and pure expressiveness she gives to Yi's adventurous three-movement concerto. Note to Still: send us more, soon!
Like the guitar, the solo flute is an underdog in orchestral settings, lacking the major concerto repertoire enjoyed by its bigger orchestral cousins. Nevertheless, living composers such as John Corigliano have written highly idiomatic display pieces for the instrument, as this recording demonstrates.
Corigliano's Pied Piper Fantasy is a 38-minute, seven-movement tour de force for flute and orchestra. Commissioned by James Galway in 1981, a full decade before Corigliano joined the composition faculty at Juilliard, where he still teaches, it remains one of his most enduring works and shows him emerging as a master orchestrator. The piece also includes a theatrical component, requiring the soloist to don a Pied Piper costume and having the children in the audience leave their seats and join the piper as he leads them out of Hamelin. Indeed, a year ago this month, youngsters from Juilliard's Music Advancement Program (MAP) took on that role with Galway at a series of New York Philharmonic concerts. While lacking that visual touch, this recording, with the accomplished New Zealand flutist Alexa Still, happily captures the assorted gnawing and scurrying sounds, illustrated in sliding thirds, jittery repeated notes, and some high-pitched squeals of strings and woodwinds.
The other selections on this CD have their individual charms. Chen Yi's The Golden Flute is a colorful evocation of the Chinese bamboo flute, while Katherine Hoover's Medieval Suite takes its inspiration from the music of 14th-century France.
Mention this column at the Juilliard Bookstore to receive a 5-percent discount on this month's featured recordings. (In-store purchases only.) Brian Wise is a producer at WNYC radio and writes about music for The New York Times, Time Out New York, Opera News, and other publications.
Hawke's Bay Today (New Zealand), Music Notes Column, Dec 15, 2004
Former principal Flautist with the NZSO, Alexa Still has been living for the last six years in the USA where she is Associate Professor of Flute and from where she has continued a very successful international career. The youngest appointee to the principal's chair, she was very highly regarded and much admired as a flautist and an outstanding soloist in many NZSO performances. This same standard of performance is very much in evidence on this CD where extraordinary vitality, purity of tone, elegant phrasing and a sure sense of style, which were always hallmarks of her playing, are paramount features of the solo part.
The three composers represented are all American citizens and together their compositions make a fascinating kaleidoscope of contemporary American music in a variety of styles. The six movements of Katherine Hoover's Medieval Suite, originally scored for just flute and piano, are based on events in 14th century France as related in Barbara Tuchman's historical novel A Distant Mirror. Alexa Still brilliantly captures the character of each event in playing of exceptional expressiveness and clarity.
The major work on the disc is John Corigliano's The Pied Piper Fantasy, beginning with the evocative Sunrise and The Piper's Song and ending with The Children's March which vividly portrays the unhappy ending to the story. In between the scenes such as Battle with the Rats and The Burghers Chorale show Alex Still in full command and complete mastery of all the expressive and technical possibilities of her instrument.
The Golden Flute by Chen Yi successfully highlights the sound of traditional Chinese wind instruments, and that country's traditional music in combination with the sophisticated modern instrument, in a three movement concerto. Highlights here are the variations in the first movements and the expansive solo cadenza in the Finale.
Under James Sedares' direction the NZSO gives fine support to the soloist in quality playing that projects the style of each composition and its unique instrumental character, with stunning effect.
Alexa Still has recently been back in NZ and will return again in 2005 to play as soloist in concerts with the Wellington Sinfonia in Wellington and other North Island Centers.
Peter Mechen, August 2005
Among the latest recordings Alexa Still has made on the Koch International label are discs featuring John Corigliano’s “Pied Piper Fantasy”, and the complete chamber music for flute of Lowell Liebermann. Corigliano’s piece was written for James Galway, who premiered the work in 1982. Still regards it as a major work for flutists, and extremely challenging. “A lot of the stuff is borderline impossible to play” she said in a recent “Fanfare “ magazine interview, adding, in regard to the player having to dress up in Piper Costume and act out the story, “The first couple of times I wasn’t very good at the acting – but I think the piece is so dramatic, the drama is kind of written in there.” The disc also includes works by two women composers, American Katherine Hoover, and Chinese-born Missouri-based Chen-Yi. On the second CD, Lowell Liebermann's music, though largely conservative in outlook speaks with a surprisingly individual expressive voice in works such as the confident, muscular Flute Sonata Op.56, and the one-movement Sonata for Flute and Harp (1996), dark, somewhat disturbing music that provides a fascinating contrast with other pieces on the disc.
JOHN CORIGLIANO – Pied Piper Fantasy (1981)
One thinks of the flute as a bardic kind of instrument akin to the harp, one capable of conveying an astonishing range of nuance and colour apposite to the storyteller’s art. In the hands of Alexa Still, the instrument finds in certain pieces of music a richly studded vein of expression that illuminates those essences of thought, word and deed which make stories such compelling experiences. Each of the three works on this recording has its own story to tell, and Alexa Still proves in each case to be the ideal interpreter, bridging with ease the divide between different modes, and rolling words, images and sounds into utterances of potent expressive force.
While the centrepiece of the new CD is obviously the Corigliano work (given top billing on the CD booklet cover), neither of the accompanying pieces are negligible. Katherine Hoover’s “Medieval Suite” was inspired by the composer’s reading of a history of fourteenth-century France, which described a period of bitter, extensive wars, the author Barbara Tuchman drawing parallels between those and the present times. The opening movement “Virulai” uses music by a composer of the period Guillame de Machaut, and is a free folkish fantasia “after” Machaut, skilfully developed by the solo flute’s interplay with the orchestra (a piquant duet with the clarinet at one point) and evocatively coloured by scintillations of percussion. The next piece, “The Black Knight”, evokes the prevalent militarism of the period and the tragic circumstances of this legendary prince who fell prey to a wasting disease.
Another motiv of the times was the all-pervading presence of the Catholic Church, whose history had reached a low point at this stage of the Middle Ages with rival Popes at war between Rome and Avignon – the tipsy aspect of “The Drunken Friar” depicts the parlous state of things amongst the clergy, beset with worldly pleasures and preoccupations. In “The Betrothal of Princess Isabella” Alexa Still employs beautiful, melancholic tones to aptly paint a portrait of a French princess engaged to be married at the age of six. Finally, the suite’s final “Demon’s Dance” is almost exactly as one would expect – driving, obsessive rhythms, sharp accents and dark, sinister colours, with the solo flute at once conveying the dreaded Black Plague’s grimacing, ghoulish aspect, and the crazed antics of the dancers trapped in a vortex of fear and desperation.
Hoover obviously knows what she’s about as a composer – originally the suite was written for flute and piano, and according to the booklet note was rescored in response to requests by many performers. I can’t help feeling that the version for flute and orchestra as presented here would have won the work even more friends than would have been the case with the chamber version – Hoover’s orchestration is very assured, and though never over-indulgent, richly ambient in places, as in the opening “Virelai”, with its medieval-sounding fifths and variants of the “Dies Irae” plainchant. This is the premiere recording of the orchestrated version, and James Sedares and the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra support their soloist all the way with incisive playing.
As strongly characterised a work in an entirely different way is “The Golden Flute”, a 1997 work by Chen Yi, born in Guangzhou, China, and currently working as Professor of Music at the Missouri-Kansas City Conservatory in the USA. Chen Yi’s music has been performed by orchestras all over the world, and she has received many distinguished awards for her compositions, including the Lili Boulanger Award and the Charles Ives Living Award. She wrote “The Golden Flute” for James Galway in 1997, but Alexa Still’s recording is the work’s premiere on CD.
The composer wanted to write a concerto for a western flute speaking in the language of traditional Chinese instruments – she cites an instrument called the dizi, made from bamboo, and another called the xun, made from clay. Inspired by the skill of traditional musicians in playing variants of folk-themes using different speeds, fingerings and tonguings, and adding decorations on important notes from the melody, she constructed a three-movement concerto, applying the same kinds of techniques in developing the music’s course. The solo part is freely rhapsodic in the first movement, both stimulating and reacting to an ear-catching panoply of orchestral effects, while the slower, dreamier middle movement takes us into a world of kaleidoscopic sound-clusters, through which the soloist spins a filigree line, imitating the sound of the gentle, mysterious xun. The finale revisits the more virtuostic mode of the bamboo dizi, with the soloist’s swirling figurations stirring up all kinds of orchestral irruptions – a short, soulful cadenza-like interlude reintroduces the more reticent soloistic voice of the xun, but the fun-loving dizi has the last say, along with a final orchestral shout which delivers an extroverted coup de grâce.
John Corigliano’s “Pied Piper Fantasy” was commissioned by James Galway, and premiered by him in 1982. As conceived by its composer, the piece has a strong theatrical component requiring that the soloist dress up in Pied Piper Costume and act the story as well as playing the music, leading the children in the audience out of the hall at the end as the original piper in the story took the children away from Hamlin.
An attractive colour photograph of Still in Pied Piper costume (complete with live rats) in the booklet accompanying the CD suggests something of the flavour of the solo performer's dramatic role in the work.
It’s the kind of scenario that sounds like it could be a corny post-Prokofiev imitation – until one hears the music and realises just how much everybody involved means business. Corigliano pulls no musical punches with an eerie, impressionist opening that depicts the darkness before the dawn, and equally as vividly evokes the rising sun and the entry of the eponymous hero. Conductor James Sedares and the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra prepare the way for the Pied Piper’s appearance with playing of rapt concentration and striking power. And Alexa Still’s first entry is simply magical – the flute line floats in, suggesting the presence of a being with few earthly constraints, a creature of the air, and a force, though gentle, to be reckoned with.
The entry of the rats is graphically portrayed by Corigliano’s amazing scoring, and the orchestra’s no-holds-barred response. As for the battle which follows, Still on this recording produces some of the most jaw-dropping flute-playing one is likely ever to hear, and continues her momentum throughout the fiendishly lengthy and physically demanding “War cadenza” which follows. When the rats attack once again, the Piper manages to hypnotise them with his song, and rid the town of the pestilence completely. The wonderfully unctuous “Burghers’ Chorale” which follows portrays in no uncertain terms the Piper’s dismissal by the self-satisfied town officials, making the final denoument all the more tragic and disturbing, as to the accompaniment of a penny-whistle, the township’s children rouse themselves and follow the Piper’s hypnotic summons, never to return to Hamelin. Corigliano cleverly intersperses the Burghers’ pompous march theme in between episodes of the Piper’s merry tune, underlining the officials’ pomposity and stupidity in allowing their children to be taken away. The recording cleverly assists the music’s suggestion of the retreating youthful hosts leaving behind the bereft and emasculated township, as the darkness and emptiness of the piece’s very opening chillingly returns.
This is a disc that deserves to become a classic of its kind, if in fact it hasn’t already done so – certainly if the reviews I’ve read elsewhere are anything to go by, it’s accumulated plenty of critical acclaim since its release. Taking into account the visceral excitement of Corigliano’s storytelling, the exoticism of Chen Yi’s timbral explorations and the thoughtful resonances of Katherine Hoover’s “window-in-time” depictions, there seems something for everybody on the CD. And, of course, there’s Alexa Still, whose transcendent playing throughout informs and vitalises the music, aided and abetted by her fellow New Zealanders playing their hearts out under the expert direction of maestro James Sedares. Add to this a beautifully vivid recording from Koch International whose startling realism draws the listener into the heart of the matter in each of the works, and you’ve got a major issue whose purchase could hardly fail to enhance your life. Strongly recommended.
Fanfare Magazine interview
"My whole life I have been doing things that I never really thought might be possible, and I always had the feeling that no one really expected me to do them either. In a way, that is really liberating." New Zealand flutist and University of Colorado at Boulder professor, Alexa Still, is on a mission of her own, right now, to liberate little known or forgotten classics of the modern flute repertoire from the kind of obscurity she herself sprang from, down under. Her partnership with Koch seems born of mutual respect, and the latest fruit has real musical substance: the Pied Piper Fantasy, written by John Corigliano for James Galway in 1981.
"I really, really wanted to record the Pied Piper Fantasy. The Galway recording seems to be deleted: it's such a major piece, and we really need to have it out there." How did she rate Corigliano's stature? "I think I would actually have to credit him with making 'tuneful' music more desirable in the USA, if you know what I mean. I went through the piece with him a couple of times. A lot of the stuff is borderline impossible to play. A lot of the time when there are repeated notes, I was concerned I wouldn't play the right number. But it was more of a gesture in the notation, and he doesn't really care! And that was a great relief. I learned the tin whistle especially, by the way." The work also liberates the player from a strictly musical role, requiring Still to dress up in Piper costume for live performances and act! "The first couple of times, I wasn't very good at the acting. But I think the piece is so dramatic, the drama is kind of written in there."
This all suggests a real urge to communicate. "When I do a recital, I always make sure I have something that really goes to the heart of things. The end of the Corigliano is very, very moving, perhaps more so in a live situation because the audience is stuck between the sound of what is happening on the stage and this very faint sound in the distance. Reading people's accounts of the work on internet chat-lists, I find it interesting that when they can't remember the name of the piece or the composer, they always recall the experience. If someone comes to a concert and can forget about problems for a little while, that that's great."
Still's problems seem to have related more to being spoiled for choice, thanks to her talent. "I came here to study in the New York when I was a graduate student. I made that decision because I thought Americans made a pretty good job of playing what was on the page, and that might translate into good teaching; I may have been naive, then. I was here for four years doing my masters and doctorate; then I went back to New Zealand to play in the Symphony for 11 years." This was a post she landed at the tender age of 23. I wondered why she had changed course, given the apparently settled equanimity of her personality, but the questioning, sensible, self-aware, and determined side of Still is not far below the surface. "I got to the point where I really just wanted to get a life back. I looked for a teaching job and really liked the people here in Colorado. It has been a great move for me. I wanted to do solo work, and there were conflicts with the orchestral work. I don't think I was indispensable, but they thought I was! I don't regret a second of it, but actually I was quite anxious about leaving it. I've been able to do a lot more chamber music and exciting things like that than I ever managed to do when I was in the orchestra. My playing has developed too, quite a bit."
This seems uncommonly levelheaded, to a point not so common in the world of endless, solitary hours in the practice room. Having learned them all, though, Still teaches a whole range of techniques, yet feels the turn toward more melodic compositional styles to be generally a good thing, especially in terms of the flute. "I think some very great opportunities arise, perhaps as a consequence of the current challenge of finding an audience and the bottom line of making a living. I suspect that many of today's composers might approach what they write quite differently if they were hearing what goes on in the middle of an orchestra and were part of the rehearsal work! The flute is always challenged by balance issues; we have a very hard time competing with loud brass, or even full strings if we are scored in the lower register for instance, and while composers rightly assume that a flute is a facile instrument, fast moving lines can become blurred, especially so if the writing is generally too dense." Still has praise here for Shostakovish and Mahler, as well as Zwilich and Rouse among moderns. "I haven't played Corigliano's symphonic works, but I am a complete fan. His writing proves that he has obviously gone to great lengths to understand all of the instruments."
Which flutists were responsible for this instrumental renaissance? "It is actually very difficult to leave Sir James Galway out of this, simply because he has a great presence, and his commissioning has paid such wonderful dividends for us all. It annoys me when people are scathing about what he has achieved out of jealousy. A good deal of what he does is just sensible commercial presentation. And Jean Pierre Rampal was a very frequent soloist in the country, so he too contributed a great deal. To name just a few Americans, I think Paula Robison has a wonderful presence about her. Her vitality inspires any audience person to return to a concert. Carol Wincenc is also a very distinctive player, and has put together some wonderful commission projects."
Why is the notion of a woman flutist still more acceptable than a female composer or conductor, at least in some parts of the world? "The sadly realistic answer to this is that the common perception of a flute is a 'cute' and 'pretty' instrument, befitting what remains the common perception of a woman. Of course, I refuse to accept that as a definition of the flute! And I hope this continues to change, that women will become the norm in every arena, that gender will cease to be any issue at all. I have absolute faith that it will eventually."
The other two composers on the new Koch disc are women: Chen Yi and Katherine Hoover. Would they see their femininity as having any bearing on their work at all? "Yi would probably think the fact she was a woman was irrelevant. Katherine would say it's a very important thing. Yi lived through the Cultural Revolution. She does it because she has a strong sense of calling in her life. Katherine became a composer the hard way, and she's someone who hasn't had a whole lot of breaks: well-known in the New York area, but not very well known compared to the other two. She started out just being a flutist."
It was still a mystery how the girl from rural New Zealand had turned into such a matchless instrumentalist, and top-of-the tree academic, as well as notably sane-sounding human being. Most of us do not have the determination. "I grew up on a farm, and I used to climb out of my window in the morning, and do stuff around the place, while other people were still sleeping, and to some extent I still do that, do my own thing. I've never been one to follow in other people's footsteps, in a traditional way. My brother was intellectually handicapped, and my parents evidently decided to compensate, I needed to learn recorder at four, so I was ahead of the game by the time the other kids got recorders. They're great, cheap and indestructible. So there were all these recorders playing and God help the person who was standing at the front. But I was an ace recorder player, and though I would like to think that I am not motivated by that, I think the fact I was good at that felt nice. That's a basic part of me I'm sure, having something I can celebrate about myself."
But why the flute? "I think I probably wanted a saxophone, really. I didn't know what I was doing when I was a kid. Dad played sax in a jazz setting, but I got a flute pretty early on. I was sick a lot of the time when I was a kid, rather a pathetic weakling. I spent a lot of time in bed. A flute was something I could fiddle around on. My parents didn't have a piano."
And how has this upbringing translated into maturity? "Now, more than ever, I am personally influenced and inspired by a much more diverse world, and I think the pressure on creative people to make art essential has mostly produced better art. I think the bottom line of what I try to do is transport someone, even if only for a just a moment." So what can we expect, in the near future? " I am currently working towards a recording a disc of what I refer to as New-Agey new music, but I am quite sure that is not going to be the title of the disc! I'll be recording it with Stephen Gosling in January. I really appreciate Koch's classical producer and head of A&R Susan Napodano Del Giorno's enthusiasm for this project. Flute players will readily recognize the Carl Vine sonata. Other repertoire we are looking at includes works by Joseph Schwantner, Paul Schoenfield, John Corigliano (again) and British flutist/composer Ian Clarke"
To try and keep balance in her busy life, as well as working out, Still tries to stay involved with people who aren't necessarily musicians. "Sometimes in biking clubs. I drive motorcycles. The academic life here helps, but I may be in an exceptional situation: there is very little professional jealousy. The environment's great, so are the students, and colleagues are very supportive of what I want to do. No one gives me grief about anything." Does it help, being a Kiwi? "I think it does, in that it means I never have anything to lose! I have always been lucky in not putting too much pressure on myself. I feel I am along for a ride, and this is really, really fun. If it all crashes, I'll take up painting!"
No chance of a crash anytime soon, for this remarkable instrumentalist, and sane, warm, and witty human being, for whom most things, now seem possible.