The highlight of Joélle Harvey’s concert at Weill Recital Hall on February 13 was the world premiere of Michael Ippolito’s song cycle Vanitas. Harvey and Ippolito have been friends since they were undergrads at University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, and Ippolito tailored the cycle to showcase Harvey’s flexible, crystalline, pitch-perfect soprano. A vanitas painting is a still life that incorporates tangible reminders of mortality, such as skulls, candles, feathers, decaying fruit, or over-budded flowers. Ippolito identified seven short poems that evoke these images, and his inventive, atmospheric and arresting settings illuminate the texts brilliantly, especially as rendered by Harvey. Intense chords of dissonant beauty frame the cycle, starting with the burning candle of “First Fig,” an epigram by Edna St. Vincent Millay, and ending with funeral ashes in Adelaide Crapsey’s “The Immortal Residue.” In “Luna Moth” by Cecily Parks, Harvey and pianist Allen Perriello alternated fluttering notes and sustained lines, representing the moth and the observer, and drawing an existential connection between the two. Ippolito zeroes in on the current of discomfort in Emily Dickinson’s “A Clock Stopped,” with an aggressive, disturbed restlessness that highlights the emotion lurking behind the imagery, rather than treating Dickinson’s words with an overabundance of reverence as so many composers do. Harvey brought focus and understanding to that song and to Hilda Doolittle’s inexorable “Night,” but the standout of the uniformly excellent cycle was Gertrude Stein’s “A Feather.” Ippolito turned this brief text into a kaleidoscopic fantasia by repeating each word before piggybacking cumulatively on the next, while Perriello plucked or dampened the piano strings. Harvey’s vocal slides and classical scatting created the effect of a feather wafting, and the song ended with the knowing phrase, “It is surely cohesive,” a sly commentary on the text and the cycle as a whole.
- Opera News
The climax of the recital was the world premiere of Ippolito’s Vanitas for Soprano and Piano, co-commissioned by Carnegie Hall as part of its 125 Commissions Project, a five-year undertaking during which it will commission at least that many new works. Harvey and Ippolito met as students at the Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. He is currently Assistant Professor of Composition at Texas State University and the recipient of important commissions. His bio says that his works fuse classical and folk music, but Vanitas defies classification of that sort, although I did detect musical references to earlier American composers in it.
In a brief program note, Ippolito provided insights into the concept behind what he terms a musical-poetic still life. A vanitas is a painting that depicts the transience of life, the futility of pleasure and the certainty of death. Skulls feature prominently in such paintings, but Ippolito chose to focus on the ephemera that appears in them: candles, moths, timepieces and picked flowers. The final poem is about a book, which contains the essence, or ashes, of a writer.
The seven poems are by American women poets. Emily Dickinson, Gertrude Stein and Edna St. Vincent Millay are household names, while Adelaide Crapsey and H.D. are a bit more obscure. Cecily Parks is his colleague at Texas State University. On the printed pages, the juxtaposition of poems of only a dozen or so words with multi-stanza ones is intriguing. The score is a complex mixture of sounds – unaccompanied vocal lines, passages for prepared piano, virtuoso solo piano preludes and postludes – all of which must be fascinating to see in the printed score.
The introduction and postlude are mirror images of each other, or a form of retrograde. The cycle begins and ends with the piano playing tone clusters in the highest ranges of the piano. It is as if the songs had dropped from the heaven, and after they are heard the listener is again transported skyward. They too are ephemera, but of the aural sort.
Harvey captured the subtle moods of the poetry and was fearless in meeting the vocal demands of the score: the huge vocal leaps were amazing, high notes were thrilling, and the soft, unaccompanied passages were sung in a clear, steady voice. The buildup had been slow, but finally her artistry and voice were on full display.
- Seen and Heard International
At roughly 25 minutes, Triptych is a feat in structure and thoughtful, large-scale orchestration. It is a celebration of Florida as an “artistic entity,” as Francis said in a pre-concert talk, a piece that takes its ideas not from the state’s tourist fare but from its natural landscapes and climate. Ippolito made the Florida connection via inspiration by literary works of Henry David Thoreau (conjuring swamps), Shakespeare (thunderstorms), and Wallace Stevens (beaches), resulting in a tripartite score that can still stand on its own, minus the extra-musical references.
Marked “Misterioso” in the score, “Cypress Cathedral,” inspired by a lecture by Thoreau, opens with a quiet chromatic melody for clarinet and subtle flute. Strings respond with similar gestures, playing with a cold articulation that eschews vibrato. By the time the brass joins in, the structure can be perceived as a series of ghost-like reiterations and variations of the opening phrases. There is constant ebb and flow, and a plangent, yet controlled, crash of sound. The movement is also inspired by Clyde Butcher’s black-and-white photography of the Florida wilderness.
A loud ascending chirp on two breathy piccolos and flute opens the centerpiece movement, “On the Curl’d Clouds,” after Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Dings from the triangle and sneaky violin glissandos create a surreal, frolicsome mood – the composer had in mind Ariel, the play’s trickster sprite. An insistent celesta in uneven rhythm carries forward the quick pace, as menacing timpani rolls with brass interjections depict the whorl of ominous clouds. There is charming flute work and a solo clarinet with trills, both evocative of something otherworldly. Piccolos chime in with rough accents, over a swirling harp, followed by strings playing close to the bridge to produce a pale tone. As the momentum rises, there is a cluster in the lowest register of the piano, and the sudden crash of a thunder sheet – perhaps the most theatrical among Ippolito’s adroit orchestral maneuvers.
The finale, “Barque of Phosphor,” takes inspiration from Florida snowbird Wallace Stevens. In “Fabliau of Florida,” the poet writes of a “Barque of phosphor / On the palmy beach” that sails off into a type of celestial voyage. Marked “floating” in the score, the movement opens with a high, delicate flute solo, followed by oboe over soft violins. There is a descending theme on the high woodwinds that recurs throughout.
A highlight is a solo violin passage (played by concertmaster Jeffrey Multer) that plumbs the lower register. Murmurings from the strings and woodwinds meditate on the journey, until low woodwinds come forth with a theme of their own. Material that seems familiar by this point returns in waves, expressed in a short-long two-note brass motif. There are subtle tempo changes, including a specific reference in the score to the timeless flow of Debussy’s La cathédrale engloutie. Piano and harp presage a final statement by the cellos, as if the journey has taken us to some ineffable, preternatural realm. Eerie pizzicato scrapings on the violins conjure the remains of the rich imagery that has eddied, transmogrified, and finally subsided over the length of the score.
- Classical Voice North America
"The concert opens with Triptych, the orchestra’s major commission in its 50th season. Ippolito, who addressed the audience at a pre-concert talk and just before the performance, has likened its three movements to panels at an art gallery. All show deliberation and restraint. The first, Cypress Cathedral, evokes the photographs of Clyde Butcher, from which is was partly inspired.
The violins in particular create a combination of mystery and even fear, a canoe trip with unexpected sights lurking around the bend. Percussionists in a wide variety of instruments weigh in more in the second movement, which brilliantly captures a storm’s build-up, from a pesky piccolo and the warning clash of a triangle to stinging raindrops of flute to cymbals and a bass drum. A violin solo highlights the third panel, which Ippolito has described as a narrative about "the moon reimagined as a luminescent ship" sailing in the sky. But it also summarizes the other two by eulogizing a quiet beauty about Florida that could only come from a native."
-The Tampa Bay Times
"Michael Ippolito’s Nocturne for Orchestra was inspired by Joan Miro’s painting of the same name. The composer wrote the work in 2010 for flute, violin and piano, orchestrating it the following year.
In his program note, Ippolito says he was inspired not just by the languid evening atmosphere suggested by the title but by the more wild and unhinged aspects reflected in Bartok’s “night music” and Miro’s painting.
Ippolito’s Nocturne packs a lot into just ten minutes, beginning in a relaxed pastoral vein with two flutes warbling against tense pedal points in the strings. The music’s flowing, Impressionistic style leads to plaintive piano notes from a distance, as if a hazy nostalgic memory.
The pace accelerates and the music becomes more sharply rhythmic and aggressive with a jagged motif for trombones, which builds to a resounding climax. The tempo slows again and the music quietens with a gentle melody for solo violin before the sound ebbs away to nothing.
Nocturne is scored for a large orchestra, and the 30-year-old Tampa native—currently teaching at Texas State University—writes with confidence and great skill for vast forces. De Waart and the CSO gave Ippolito’s work a fine local premiere, and the delighted young composer took the stage to share in the applause."
- The Chicago Classical Voice
The concert began with a vibrantly orchestrated tone-picture titled “Nocturne,” composed by the young Florida native Michael Ippolito. On his website, the composer cites a 1940 painting of the same name by Joan Miró – with their “fantastical figures and swirling lines” – as the inspiration for “Nocturne.”
Ippolito also acknowledges obeisance within the work to Debussy, Bartók and Chopin. All of that is quite evident in a 10-minute piece fashioned with impressive flair from a very conservative harmonic palette. De Waart and the CSO gave Ippolito’s music a colorful go, and the composer was present to share in an appreciative ovation.
- Chicago on the Aisle
"Inspired by the earthy humor of the Middle Ages, Mr. Ippolito’s “Feast of Fools” is structured in three movements, the first based on the cheeky marginalia found in some monks’ manuscripts, the second on the oxymorons of a Gilles Binchois song (“Sad Pleasure”) and the third on drinking songs of the period.
The polished orchestration — Mr. Ippolito is very much the student of his Juilliard teacher John Corigliano — glitters, from big-shoulders brass to eerily floating strings. In the second movement, the harpist (here, the excellent Katherine Siochi), as a modern echo of the lute, plucks out Binchois’s sinuous melody. This leads to the strings and the flute handing a genially twittering melody back and forth.
The third movement begins with rising phrases, as if the orchestra were awakening, before the dance begins, tipsily uncertain of its meter and increasingly lively before growing frantic by the end."
- The New York Times
"With its simmering, Stravinksyesque discordance, Michael Ippolito’s moody score for string quartet is a counterpart to the minimalist choreography."
- Wall Street Journal (Speakeasy Arts Blog)
"The concert opened with Michael Ippolito's "Nocturne, for Orchestra," with the composer on hand to take a bow.
The piece is broader than the soft, hazy passages one usually expects from a nocturne. From its sighing, contemplative opening bars, it expands into agitated, colorful statements that demand attention, before thinning out to gentle violin and flute lines as it ends.
Part of the piece's significant fascination lies in the broad spectrum of colors and textures it contains. De Waart and the orchestra gave it a focused, decisive performance, full of context and meaning."
- The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
"Nocturne for Orchestra by 28- year-old Michael Ippolito is an attractive, colorful, innovative work that conjures both whimsical dreaminess and a near-nightmare wild ride. Here is a young composer who works with the traditional orchestra in new ways and still retains audience appeal."
"De Waart opened the program with the Midwest premiere of Michael Ippolito’s “Nocturne” for orchestra. The 28-year-old composer writes in his notes that he was inspired by Joan Miro’s 1940 painting of the same name, and the music matches the painting it its dreamy delicacy. There’s a mood of gentle settling in the first part of the piece, with quiet glissandi in the strings and fluttering woodwind figures. The low strings play a steady walking bass figure as percussion and harp color the upper register. It crescendos into brass bell tones, and a rumbling that gives way to big majestic chords. And it eventually quiets with a playful dialogue between solo violin and the flute (which quotes a figure from one of Chopin’s Nocturnes), then fades out to a whisper of echo-ey string sonorities."
"They gave composer Michael Ippolito a warm welcome, too, after his Nocturne for Orchestra. Ippolito, a doctoral candidate at Juilliard, composed this piece for flute, violin and piano in 2010 and orchestrated it in 2011. Ippolito states in his notes that Miro's Nocturne, with its charged, mysterious atmosphere and whimsical lines and forms, inspired him initially. But that prompted a broader interest in artistic things nocturnal, from Bartok's night music to nocturnes by Debussy, Chopin and Field.
You can hear all of that -- not to mention the influence of John Corigliano, his principal teacher -- in this beautiful 10-minute piece. The long opening section lives very much in the sound world of Debussy, even as it embodies Miro in sound. Swirling figures in harp and piano, snaky lines in the strings and widely disjunct -- almost hocketing -- lines in the woodwinds glide and dart like so many fish trained in counterpoint.
They swim through low drones in the bass instruments until the brasses break into an antic, staccato, shifting-meter bit that reminded me of the "Shrovetide Fair" in Stravinsky's Petrouchka. Ippolito's middle section climaxes grandly as it brings back some of the opening material. But before we go home again, takes us on a side trip into some charmingly surreal and intimate glosses on Chopin for solo violin and a pair of cellos. De Waart and the MSO gave Ippolito a commanding, committed reading with a lot of nuance in the exposed solos, especially in Frank Almond's reading of the melting Chopin."
- Tom Strini (striniwrites.blogspot.com)
"Michael Ippolito's quirky "Nocturne" created a rarefied atmosphere. Precision by Orchestra players prevented blurring of his lilting, overlapping musical lines in this somewhat too-resonant venue. Imaginative, lively forays ventured far from the traditional sense of a nocturne, but the work's final, slightly skewed Chopin quote brought the mood to one of restful repose.
Once again, Marin Alsop and the Festival Orchestra have presented an astounding variety of fresh orchestral works, played with the utmost musicianship."
- Santa Cruz Sentinel
"Michael Ippolito’s concise “Nocturne” after a Miró canvas was exuberant, effusive tone- painting, bursting with beautiful, sensual sounds, whether on alluring flute runs, or hitting the highest and lowest notes of the compass."
"The concert began with Michael Ippolito’s Nocturne for flute (Sue-Ellen Hershman-Tcherepnin), violin (Gabriela Diaz), and piano (Yukiko Sekino). From its initial chromatic rise and fall to its sparkling conclusion, his Nocturne traversed the various moods of night, from tranquility touched by dark dissonance to a scurrying, striving activity, accented by trills, and back to a heavy melancholy."
- The Boston Musical Intelligencer
"First up was Michael Ippolito’s “Vivaldi’s Bicycle,” Concerto for Cello and Baroque Orchestra, played exquisitely by cellist Dane Johansen, an Alaska native.
Ippolito said he tried to capture impressions of Vivaldi’s music as “wild and irregular” by bringing his spinning lines and sense of drama into his music, and he was successful. The first movement even gave a sense of bumps in the road.
Johansen had ample assignment for displaying his musicality, particularly in a plaintive mini-cadenza in the second movement."
- The Saratogan (Saratoga Springs, NY)