Miami: All Keyed Up

As anyone who has ever been there knows, Miami is a pleasantly surreal place where all things trendy flirt with the seedy, all wrapped up in a schlock of glitzy panache. You can surround yourself with Paris Hilton clones while sipping Manhattan-priced cocktails at the Delano any night of the week—that’s a given. But it’s only once a year that you can check out the New Music Miami ISCM Festival. I did both.

My whirlwind experience begins with a hasty shuttle bus ride from the airport—”Somebody Told Me” by The Killers blasting over the radio while we whip around crisscrossing freeway overpasses. With just enough time to throw my bags into a hotel room, I board another shuttle. This one provided by the festival. Thankfully this driver is more Hoke Coburn than Jeff Gordon, and I arrive safely at the festival’s inaugural event: a concert of solo piano music served well-chilled, thanks to Wertheim Performing Arts Center’s overzealous air conditioning.

And really this was the gestalt of the entire weekend: shuttle vans, air conditioning, and lots of solo piano music. It didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out the raison d’etre behind this year’s festival. It was spelled out in hot pink and pastel yellow across the cover of the sexy program brochure that outlined the five concerts that took place over the course of three days: “Beyond the Piano Keys—New Music for Piano.” Despite the tight focus on a single instrument, the music presented over the weekend embodied a broad range, from straightforward notated solo piano performances to elaborate interactive electronic setups and forays into video.

No particular approach to composition seemed to dominate the overall programming. Aside from the de rigueur pre-concert talks, audiences were left to their own devices to parse out any trends that might emerge from the panoramic vista of more than 40—that’s right, 40!—compositions showcased during the festival. Do the math: these were long concerts, and the absence of intermissions made things borderline excruciating at times. But then again, there was no other way to cram all this music into five concerts. Still, I got the feeling that lower back pain sufferers or those with a nicotine addition, like myself, were on the verge of boycott.

After opening night, which featured the delicately balanced choral-like Mano a mano by festival director Orlando Jacinto Garcia, beautifully performed by Cristina Valdes, the festival switched locales to the Steinway Piano Gallery. In typical Coral Gables fashion, the intimate venue was flanked by a Ferrari dealership and Rodin International, where you can drop $60 million on a bronze cast statue—yeah, that Rodin—in hopes that it will fit in the trunk of your F430 Spider. The Friday afternoon concert kicked off with my own Detail of Beethoven’s Hair performed by the infallible Jenny Lin, but the most gripping work came from Francis Schwartz. During his piece The Headless Glory of André Chenier, the composer growls, shouts, and whispers odd decrees like “I love clusters!” as he gleefully jabs at the keys, eventually leading the audience in chants to send various people and concepts to the guillotine—it was fun and unexpected, if not a bit kooky.

My favorite piece of the afternoon was article 1 to 3 by Rozalie Hirs. Her idiosyncratically titled suite (article [the], article [aleph], and article [a]) only hints at this Dutch composer’s eccentric approach. The bulk of the piece featured a small intricate lick towards the high end of the keyboard relentlessly repeated, always with just the slightest variation. It was as if pianist Dante Oei was exploring the infinite ways that this interesting little figure could fit under his hands. I was totally fascinated, both by the intricacy of the music and how it brewed feelings of frustration inside me. It was like being chafed by a feather.

The evening concert featured the U.S. premiere of Evan Ziporyn’s finger twister In Bounds performed by Valdez, and the world premiere of Tzu Ling Sarana Chou’s Quadro Parlante played by Lin. The nightcap to this first full day of concerts was a spellbinding performance by Stephen Drury. The pianist seamlessly segued from Helmut Lachenmann to Morton Feldman to Paul Elwood to György Ligeti, pausing only to position the score of Toshio Hosokawa’s Nacht Klänge before finishing with John Zorn’s frenzied Carny. Drury’s meta-collage was so riveting that I didn’t even think about all those precious minutes that were carved off the evening until after the applause and bows ended. Ah, time for a cigarette.

The Saturday afternoon concert focused on works involving new technologies. Rocco Di Pietro performed his Deconstructed Fountain from Ravel with Derrida Watching and Wave Fugue with Electronic Lost which proved to be a blurry accumulation of prerecorded electronics with the composer’s musical responses, both notated and improvised, stored in a Yamaha disklavier, all presented simultaneously with the composer’s live reactions on keyboard. Jeff Herriott’s beautiful Velvet Sink used interactive electronics to delicately blend the piano’s quiet timbres with lightly processed sounds originally created on a tattered soundboard in the composer’s apartment. The final, almost blues-like sonority that ends the piece seems to come out of left field, yet it isn’t a complete head-scratcher. Somehow it just fits perfectly, so I’m bestowing Mr. Herriott with the best final chord award. But in the end, the only technology that seemed overtly “new” to me was the weird electronic pitch-bending device wielded by pianist Todd Welbourne for Joseph Koykkar’s piece Interfacing. It was very Mr. Wizard, as in I wish someone could explain to me how the damn thing worked.

With no time to sojourn at the beach, I grabbed some Cuban food at Versailles with pianist Cristina Valdes. Of course our impressions of the festival crept into our conversation. Besides the marathon length of each concert and the occasional mediocre piece here and there, we felt something else plagued the festival: really low attendance, despite the fact that all of the events were free of charge. The sheer size of the concert hall—gargantuan!—only served to mock the fact that there were so few spectators. It was nice to see university students peppering the aisles, but the sheer amount of text messaging during the music was a clue that they were only there to get their programs signed by the appropriate professor for class credit. But perhaps our ideas concerning appropriate audience size were imbued by New York City standards.

And speaking of New York City, the festival finale looked as if the Big Apple were magically transplanted to South Florida. I wandered into the concert hall a little bit late, only to find NYC-based pianist Anthony de Mare posed seductively atop a disklavier as he theatrically reacted to the phantom pianist. It was appropriately surreal. Also in de Mare’s Manhattan-inspired set was Meredith Monk’s Gotham Lullaby, Jason Robert Brown’s Mister Broadway, and Little Midnight Nocturne by Fred Hersch. Being in a New York state of mind, I snuck out of the theater and chain smoked during Dinu Ghezzo’s performance.

When I returned, fellow Brooklynite Kathleen Supové was gearing up to perform Dan Becker’s Revolution. The piece used a few strategic preparations inside the disklavier, allowing for some interesting timbral and rhythmic interactions that gave it a sort of Trent Reznor edge. Supové concluded the festival with Orlando Jacinto Garcia’s Feldman-referencing Why References? (featuring unfortunate cell phone interruption), and Carolyn Yarnell’s electronic/video hybrid The Same Sky.

I ran into one of the festival regulars after the concert, who was kind enough to offer me a ride back to the hotel. I was happy to circumvent another shuttle van ride, and in turn he was thrilled to attend the entire festival, claiming that “there are no other opportunities to hear music like this performed in such concentrated doses.” The 2005 New Music Miami ISCM Festival certainly delivered its city a hefty dose. My kind driver added that he had tickets to a big recital the following evening, but expressed some doubts about going. Turns out it was an entire program of compositions for two pianos.