Last week, the Eastman School of Music welcomed distinguished British composer Sir Harrison Birtwistle to Rochester for Musica Nova’s performance of his “Secret Theatre.” Birtwistle is a composer of international acclaim – conductors such as Pierre Boulez and Oliver Knussen have performed his music. In 1986, he received the Grawemeyer Award, and in 1988, a British knighthood. Currently he is the Director of Composition at the Royal Academy of Music in London.

Eastman Professor of Conducting Brad Lubman conducted Musica Nova’s performance of “Secret Theatre” in Kilbourn Hall on Feb. 2. One unique element of this piece is the relationship between the music and its staging. At various points in the music, ensemble members would stand and leave the “continuum” to form the “cantus,” or ensemble, located on the side of the stage. I found myself often listening in relation to who was positioned where.

Lubman said in his notes that proportion is important. “The sense of proportion and dramatic narrative is such that one is taken most effectively from moment to moment with great interest, never realizing quite how the time is passing,” he said.

The staging produced a heightened awareness of these moments and enabled the listener to easily discern each instrument’s role in the musical texture.

The program also featured the world premiere of Lubman’s “String quartet No. 2,” composed in 2004. He used amplified strings and tape playback in this four movement exploration.

Lubman’s music immediately reminded me of Charles Ives’ music because he seemed fond of overlaying diverse elements, and of John Cage’s music because of the philosophical ponderings that inspired the music.

The strings had a simple homophonic part that was contrasted with a heavily distorted tape part with snippets of barely comprehensible words buried in the texture. My personal favorite of the four movements was the third, “my art has no meaning.” The string quartet plays a catchy pop-like tune, with the occasional odd and “unfitting” violin obligado, a repeated motif. The tape part in this movement begins with what sounds like television static.

The concert began in almost total silence. Lauren Radnofsky performed Ligeti’s “Concerto for Violoncello and Orchestra (1996).” The piece begins at a dynamic marking of “pppppppp,” which instructs the player to play extremely softly. Listening for an almost inaudible tone requires a type of listening that is rare in the concert hall – a strained listening that creates mounting tension.

“It’s so quiet I’m going to ask that you don’t breathe,” Lubman said.

Radnofsky might have given a great performance, but it’s hard to say because in this piece the cello rarely rises above the orchestra. As an audience member, it’s hard to know how to respond to a piece where the “soloist” seems barely more than a featured ensemble player.

It is music that breaks with tradition and makes us question basic principles of classical music. Although I barely heard Radnofsky – or perhaps because I barely heard her-I thought her interpretation was very convincing.

In addition to the Feb. 2 concert, the Composition Department hosted a symposium and masterclass with Birtwistle.

Thursday’s symposium was held in an interview format. Eastman Professor of Composition Carlos Sanchez-Gutierrez introduced Birtwistle and asked him questions relating to his music. Birtwistle made some interesting remarks about how other people’s perception of his music influenced his later compositions, but on the whole, he was somewhat vague in his responses to Sanchez-Gutierrez.

On Friday, Eastman student composers were given the opportunity to present a piece to Birtwirstle in the masterclass. He heard and commented on music by graduate student Christopher Brakel, freshman Oliver Hagan, graduate student Vera Ivanova, junior Jonathan Graybill and graduate student Jairo Duarte-Lopez.

Birtwistle prefaced the masterclass by asking what useful comments could be made about students’ music in such brief sessions. Then he went on to provide each student with a helpful critique on the piece they presented.

The Musica Nova concert, as well as the symposium and masterclass, proved to be an enlightening experience. Not to let Birtwistle leave empty-handed, Eastman Professor of Composition Allan Schindler gave Birtwistle Ziploc bags, at the request of Birtwistle’s wife, as a parting gift.

Aresty can be reached at

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