“Talent to burn.” That’s how Barnaby Rayfield referred to UW’s Laura Schwendinger, composer of contemporary classical music, in his January 2013 feature story about her in Fanfare, the classical music magazine. And that was before her new CD had come out.
Now, with its debut on Centaur Records, the advance reviews are in, and very positive. While Rayfield had referred to Schwendinger’s music as “not girly music” (meant as a compliment), Fanfare’s Colin Clarke said: “I would go further and add an emphatic this is ‘so not girly music.’ Punchy, imaginative, subtle, stirring, evocative … all these terms apply. She studied with John Adams, which doesn’t seem to have harmed her much. Schwendinger’s music is worth more than anything Adams has churned out so far.”
Schwendinger’s CD, “High Wire Acts,” is comprised of a five-movement chamber work of the same name performed by the Oklahoma-based ensemble Brightmusic, as well as “Nonet,” performed by the Chicago Chamber Musicians;“Sonata for Solo Violin,” played by Katie Wolfe; and “Two Little Whos,” performed by husband and wife team Beth Ilana Schneider-Gould and Matt Gould. “High Wire Acts” was composed in 2002, and also has been performed by eighth blackbird, the Grammy-winning new music ensemble, among many other groups.
In his Fanfare review, Rayfield offered his views of why “High Wire Acts” works so well. “…It is her unusual pairing of instruments that intrigues; flute and cello, violin and guitar. Poise, structure, lyricism. ‘Nonet’ is a riot of colorful trills, with Schwendinger’s demonstrating a wonderful ear for clarity of texture and balance. The second movement (suitably tagged ‘Tenderly’) is an assured and poised work of beauty and color that really ought to be better known.”
In a review of eighth blackbird’s performance, Chicago Tribune music critic JohnVon Rhein wrote: ” ‘High Wire Acts’ achieved more by attempting less. Inspired by the wire circus figures of sculptor Alexander Calder, the four character portraits, with their high twitterings, undulating arpeggios and rippling figurations, evinced an acute sonic imagination and sure command of craft. The piece was beautifully played by eighth blackbird.”
The Washington Post’s Joe Banno also enjoyed “High Wire Acts,” performed in Washington D.C. at a Kennedy Center concert of the Left Bank Concert Society. He wrote, “[Schwendinger’s] harmonically free-ranging, tintinnabulary scoring — with its canny use of violin harmonics and flute phrases played directly into the open piano, to suggest aerialists in flight — evokes Stravinsky’s early ballets.”
Schwendinger, who came to UW from the University of Illinois-Chicago in 2005, is savoring this moment, which dates to 2002 when she first wrote High Wire Act. “It’s taken ten long years but it has left me with a sense of accomplishment. I’m proud and honored to be in such company.” she says. Over the years, she’s won many awards, including a Guggenheim Fellowship, the American Academy in Berlin Prize (she was the first composer ever awarded the prize), and a Romnes Faculty Fellowship from UW-Madison. In 2010, her music colleagues nominated her for a Pulitzer Prize in composition.
Many iconoclastic chamber groups have performed Schwendinger’s music, including the Europe-based Arditti Quartet, which premiered a string quartet in 2003, and now the “alt-classical” JACK Quartet out of New York City, frequent performers at (Le) Poisson Rouge in Greenwich Village. With JACK, she’s now recording two quartets, financed by two grants from NewMusicUsA and Ditson.
At UW, Schwendinger directs the Contemporary Chamber Ensemble, which offers UW musicians opportunities to play newer music; at last spring’s concert, the program included a performance of Schwendinger’s “The Violinists in My Life” by Eleanor Bartsch, a 2011 SOM grad and current member of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, to whom the first movement was dedicated. Bartsch will return to UW this fall as a Collins Fellow, working toward her master’s degree.
It’s not the first time UW-Madison has been featured prominently. Last year, Albany Records released “Three Works,” a CD of three concertos for, separately, cello, violin, and flute, performed by a student and faculty Sinfonietta and the UW-Madison Chamber Orchestra conducted by James Smith. The soloists were Matt Haimovitz on cello, Curtis Macomber on violin, and Christina Jennings on flute.
Future UW collaborations include a recording of “Song for Andrew” (a quartet performed in 2010 by the New Juilliard Ensemble and premiered by UW’s Sally Chisholm and Young Nam Kim in Minnesota) with professor/pianist Christopher Taylor, plus a recording of the song “Sudden Light” with the JACK quartet and soprano alumna Jamie Van Eyck.
Schwendinger also sponsors visits by other notable performers of contemporary classical music; for this next year, those will include two appearances by musicians from the Center for New Music at the University of Iowa as well as Michael Norsworthy, clarinet professor at the Boston Conservatory and another champion of new music. (The CNM is scheduled to perform at Mills on September 21 and April 11; Norsworthy on October 20.)
Working on “The Violinists in My Life” was an “amazing experience,” says Eleanor Bartsch. “I feel a special connection to the piece, not only because the first movement was written for me, but also because through Laura’s unique musical language, I feel I am easily able to express my own personal voice.”
Learn more about Laura at her website: http://www.lauraschwendinger.com/
Listen to clips of her music: https://mywebspace.wisc.edu/lschwendinge/web/soundfiles4.html
In 2008, a profile of Laura was published in Isthmus. “Composer at Work” by David Medaris, Isthmus, 2008.
In this YouTube video about the American Composers Orchestra, Schwendinger contributes her thoughts on new music and the “reinvention” of the orchestra.