All posts by Brendan Fox

Music Events Fall 2019–Spring 2020

I’m stoked about the variety of performances I get to participate in so far this season. Another outing with Ives, an orchestral premiere, and a couple other things. All events are free admission except Festival City Symphony.

Sunday, September 22, 2019
Festival City Symphony
playing piano/celesta on Rimsky-Korsakov’s Pictures at an Exhibition and de Falla’s Three-Cornered Hat Suite No. 2
2:00 pm | Pabst Theatre | 144 E Wells St, Milwaukee, WI

Sunday, November 10, 2019
Milwaukee Chamber Choir
Brahms: Requiem
piano duet accompaniment with Jessi Kolberg
2:30 pm | All Saints Cathedral | 818 E Juneau Ave, Milwaukee, WI

Thursday, February 20, 2020
Alverno Guest Artist Music Forum
playing selections from Charles Ives’ Concord Sonata
12:15 pm | Lampe Recital Hall at Alphonsa Hall
3441 S 39th St, Milwaukee, WI 53215

Friday, February 21, 2020
Lecture-recital of Charles Ives’ Concord Sonata at Alverno College
6:30 pm | Lampe Recital Hall at Alphonsa Hall
3441 S 39th St, Milwaukee, WI 53215

Saturday, May 16, 2020
Milwaukee Philharmonic
Premiere of my new piece Collapse for orchestra; program also features Beethoven Symphony No. 5
time TBD | location TBD | Whitefish Bay, WI


Performance News for 2018

This year I’m bringing back my Charles Ives Concord Sonata lecture-recital program, with one date officially scheduled so far:

Thursday, June 14, 2018
7:30 pm
Jazz Gallery/Riverwest Arts Association
926 E Center St
Milwaukee, WI 53212
$5 suggested donation

I’ll be playing Ives in Milwaukee again soon, as well as in some other cities in southeast Wisconsin. Also expect some contemporary chamber music outings later in the year.

21st Century Music: A Listening Guide

Contemporary classical music is not getting enough love from performers or listeners. Many musicians and enthusiasts still tend to gravitate toward familiar twentieth century composers like Ravel or Prokofiev instead of exploring the outer reaches. So I’ve decided to make a list of my favorite pieces from the twenty-first century. That’s right. We’re only 16 years in, but some pretty great art has been created already. And as I turn 27, I realize that all I really want for my birthday is for more people to listen some of this incredible music and tell me what they think about it. It gets lonely, you know? So here it is, in no particular order, to keep it suspenseful.

Eric Wubbels – Viola Quartet (2007)

This is a viola showcase unlike any other. Wubbels examines nearly every conceivable string technique and the full range of the instrument, and it’s all at the service of a truly thrilling piece of chamber music. The opening two minutes are challenging to listen to, but the more times I listen I perceive an abstract sense of celebration or commencement, with lots of earthy open strings and double stops. This gives way to a section based on a sustained major third, which masterfully evolves into running thirty-second notes: just great hearty string action [3:50]. There’s a later quiet section based on just a single note that still manages to be compelling and wonderfully serene, and Wubbels’ re-examination of previous materials (the chaotic opening and the running-note ostinatos) creates an intellectually and aesthetically satisfying conclusion. By the end of these fifteen minutes, we’ve been on a journey. I’m looking forward to the days when an adventurous viola studio at a university decides to tackle this piece. If you like the piece more than you expected, definitely check out more from this guy. Everything I’ve heard from him is excellent, particularly This Is This Is This Is and the children of fire come looking for fire.


Alex Mincek – Pendulum VII (2011)

I first became familiar with Alex Mincek by playing his piece Poco a poco in the Ithaca College Contemporary Ensemble. His music is rhythmically idiosyncratic, full of color, and sometimes contains extremely gutsy compositional choices (like a marimba piece that is mostly played under the instrument). Pendulum VII begins with some funky false starts, but once it enters a groove, it flows in a delightful, wacky way. Gestures from different instruments seem to land on each beat, with the saxophone subverting the felt pulse with a weird undulating figure. At a certain point the groove subsides into a more sustained, melancholic mood; it feels like we’ve crossed a threshold or passed through a membrane.


Andrew Norman – The Companion Guide to Rome (2010)

Andrew Norman is doing really great things with orchestral music, and I was really tempted to instead include his piece Play on the list (still really worth checking out). Instead I’m featuring this string trio, which is a great set of miniatures inspired by historic churches in Rome. The first movement is a great encapsulation of Andrew Norman’s style: crazy exuberant gestures and abrupt shifts between meters and textures. It feels like a roller coaster. All of these sketches are compelling and often quite elegant. It’s fun to look at pictures of the different churches while listening to each one. The ten-minute final movement, Sabina, is just absolutely cathartic and disarmingly beautiful. The Companion Guide to Rome was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and I think it was largely because of this movement. The Sabina movement has been adapted for solo string instruments, but I like the full trio version the best. In this video, Sabina starts at 21:44. Be patient and let it build and wash over you.


Thomas Adès – Totentanz (2013)

This is quite an impressive piece of work: an honest-to-goodness long-form secular cantata with two soloists. The text comes from an inscription under a fifteenth-century German frieze that depicts the figure of Death dancing between humans in all classes of society, from the Pope to a baby, inviting them to join. A baritone soloist represents Death, while a mezzo-soprano has the overwhelming task of giving voice to every figure of society. The vocal lines are angular and expressive, while the orchestra interludes make masterful use of simple materials. There are two extreme high points in this piece: a moment where the entire orchestra plays a tortured motif in not-quite-unison for almost a full minute, reflecting the ultimately futile struggle of all humanity against death, and the finale where Death approaches the baby, in which the music lapses into an eerie evocation of Mahler. I hope this piece finds a permanent place in the repertoire. Any mezzo or baritone should be thrilled to take on these tour-de-force solo parts, and the orchestral writing is diverse and generous.


David Lang – The Little Match Girl Passion (2007)

In his program notes for this piece, David Lang talks about how he loves Bach but feels slightly alienated by the Passions because as an atheist he can’t fully engage with the religious content. This piece is his attempt to write a secular “passion” that shares some common themes with the Easter story. The story of the Little Match Girl seems to fit. The music is spare, intimate, and stark: just a vocal quartet and some auxiliary percussion played by the singers. This is chilly, depressing music, but it has a unique beauty that keeps bringing me back. My favorite movements are the outer ones: the opening “come, daughter” that immediately draws you in when all four voices have entered, and the closing “we sit and cry,” which conjures a bleak winter landscape with the simplest of means. Unfortunately there isn’t really a good full performance of the original quartet version on YouTube, but here’s a version with full choir, as it is often performed today. Shoutout to Tabitha Burchett from Wheaton who’s in the choir!


Martin Bresnick – My Twentieth Century (2002)

I’ve always been fascinated with pieces that combine spoken text with music (Frederic Rzewski’s De Profundis may be the ultimate example of this) and this piece is also notable for instrumentation that’s close to a Pierrot Ensemble, which is starting to become a reliable new instrumentation to meet twenty-first century demands. What I like about this piece is the pairing of simple but effective materials, well-judged changes of color, and a text that becomes more meaningful through repetition. Every line of the poem places a memory in the grander context of human history, including the recurring line “My brother died in the twentieth century.”

Wolfgang Rihm – Jagden und Formen (1995-2001)

It’s a lot to ask to expect someone to listen to a 51-minute piece in high-minded, modernist style, but this is just really impressive stuff. Anyone who has tried composing realizes quickly that it’s really hard to write large amounts of non-repeating fast music that sustains interest. Surprise: almost the entire duration of Jagden und Formen is made up of fast, relentless music. Rihm is an interesting figure because he seems like one of the last major composers pursuing rigorous, studied art that has a clear line all the way back to Beethoven. Somehow he makes this torrent of complicated music seem effortless. It’s a delight just to behold the profuseness of his invention. One of the many wonders of this piece is an English horn solo that’s probably the longest and most expressive I’ve ever heard. Check it out, double reed players! [starts at about 7:37]


Esa-Pekka Salonen – Insomnia (2002)

Some of you may know Esa-Pekka Salonen as a conductor, but he is also quite a skilled orchestral composer. Insomnia is a cinematic, exciting ride with some breathtaking moments. I analyzed the formal design and harmony of this piece in grad school, and I guess it’s a testament to the solidity of the piece that I never got tired of it even while taking it apart. Some of the harmony here is reminiscent of French impressionists, but the driving percussion and lively sequences bring us into the present.


Kate Soper – Voices from the Killing Jar (2010-12)

The Wet Ink Ensemble is probably the greatest collective of stratospherically talented composer-performers in the world right now. Case in point: I’m featuring pieces by three members (the others being Eric Wubbels and Alex Mincek). Kate Soper is an avant-garde vocalist who explores some techniques that many other singers would find unapproachable or even unacceptable (like repeated vocal fry or quarter tones). Voices from the Killing Jar is her magnum opus, a chamber song cycle that picks texts from mentally tortured female protagonists including Emma Bovary (Madame Bovary) and Daisy Buchanan (The Great Gatsby). If you want to get a sense of this piece at its most mind-bogglingly wild, set the playhead to 25:20.


John Adams – Absolute Jest (2012)

This isn’t John Adams’ best piece. It’s not even my favorite Adams piece. But I’m putting it here because the concert in which I heard it was one of the best musical moments of my life. It was spring semester of senior year at Wheaton, and I was in Chicago hearing the San Francisco Symphony play an all-American program that consisted of Henry Cowell’s Synchrony, Absolute Jest on its world premiere run, and Henry Brant’s orchestration of Charles Ives’ Concord Sonata. For anyone who knows me, you can understand that this was a big deal. And after hearing this energetic, witty, mad-genius concerto for string quartet and orchestra that quotes from the Beethoven string quartets, I was on such a musical high. I felt a conviction that pursuing composition was going to be a fun road in the years to come. Anyway, the piece is just pure fun. If you love Beethoven, you’ll love how Adams reshapes the material into a new, kaleidoscopic entity. If you love Adams, you’ll enjoy how he fits Beethoven into his post-minimalist aesthetic. I dare you to get through the seventh (final) movement without smiling and bobbing your head to those infectious rhythms.

Corning and Elmira: Central New York’s Finest

Another long delay. I’ll try to update this blog more frequently!

The two most recent concerts on the Ives tour marked a notable step in my musical journey. For the first time I was playing not for family friends back in Wilton or fellow students at Ithaca College, but for a general public that had no clue who I was. Luckily I found two wonderful, supportive venues: 171 Cedar Arts in Corning and Lake Street Presbyterian Church in Elmira. It was fun to venture out to these two cities and interact with storeowners as I tried to hang up flyers advertising the concerts. I spread my flyers far and wide, hoping for a good crowd.

In the end, attendance at both concerts was quite sparse, but it was a good reminder of how far I have to go and it got me thinking of new, better ways to promote the Concord Sonata. Despite the small audiences, I did meet one woman at the Corning concert who had the enthusiasm and encouraging power of 20 people! Her name is Barbara, she’s 84 years old, and she loves modern and dissonant music. She seeks it out. How rare is that? Barbara stayed to talk for a while after the recital and was just completely enamored with the piece and how Ives really captured a moment in American history and portrayed it in music. The next day she sent me an email with even more effusive comments about the recital. All it takes is one special person to make an impact!

Throughout all my travel through Corning and Elmira, I discovered a gem of a dive bar: Brady’s Pub (248 W Water St, Elmira). After a long day of hanging up flyers I thought I’d stop in somewhere for a drink and get a sense of the local flavor, and I was not disappointed. The beer taps were that rare combination of diverse and cheap, and Brady himself was bartending. Eventually a group of friendly regulars walked in, and I had some good talks about living in that area, the issue of gas fracking, and beer. I wish I had taken a picture, but I know I’ll be back. If I lived in Elmira, it would be the perfect place to watch sports, play darts, and just hang out.

Corning is also a charming place, from what I saw. These pictures were taken on a quiet Sunday with almost no pedestrians, but there’s a really nice downtown area with restaurants and shopping.

Corning street


So now that these two concerts are over, the tour is on a bit of a hiatus until January, when I will venture out to Wheaton and Chicago. Until then, I’ll stay current with musical news and random thoughts.

Ithaca Happenings and Tour Update

After a rather long silence since the last post, here’s an update. My first performance of the Concord, on October 4 at Ithaca College, was a fun night. It was really satisfying to be able to share both my thoughts about the music and to play the music itself for a community of musicians that have become close friends. Attendance was surprisingly high, and included visits from Dr. Timothy Johnson, a great mentor and Ives scholar (check out his book Baseball and the Music of Charles Ives), and Dana Wilson, my composition professor. I even saw some students from the music theory labs I teach! My friends and acquaintances seemed genuinely enthusiastic about the music, the lecture, or the whole package. That was encouraging to hear as I look ahead to future dates.


I’ve been a witness to some musical highlights since then. On Wednesday the 8th I heard a concert of faculty/student musical improvisation. It was the largest, most diverse improv program I had seen, and each ensemble, whether trumpet and piano, voice and jazz combo, solo viola, or other, offered a unique and thoughtful musical moment. The overriding feeling of the concert was a spirit of newness and freshness. Improvised music has the benefit of being developed on the spot, coming from intuition and gut reactions to other musicians. It is not overthought or overworked. It seemed to me that everyone left that concert happy and satisfied.

On Saturday the 18th I had the privilege of attending another significant musical event. My friend Lynn Craver has put together an opera company, Opera Ithaca, and their inaugural production is Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle. I enjoyed experiencing this music live for the first time, in a production that made good use of limited resources, anchored by extremely strong singers, and appropriately full of dread.

Then on Sunday I drove to Elmira to see Hal Holbrook’s legendary one-man show Mark Twain Tonight! The script is comprised solely of quotations from Twain’s writing, but I was amazed at the scope and consistent brilliance of the man’s thoughts. Some of his statements on politics, religion, and human behavior seem totally fresh and hilarious. I found myself wondering if Twain’s work had the same effect on Charles Ives as the Transcendentalists referenced in the Concord Sonata. Apparently Mark Twain was a close friend of Ives’ wife, to the point that she even called him “Uncle Mark”. With that in mind, I can imagine a few interactions between Charles Ives and Mark Twain, with those two bold, independent men cracking jokes and talking about America.

Speaking of Elmira, I’ve added a new tour date:

Thursday, October 30, 7:30 pm
Lake Street Presbyterian Church
300 Lake Street
Elmira, NY

Announcing the Concord Sonata Tour

Have you ever discovered a piece of music that then became an indispensable part of your life? A piece that marked a turning point in your study of music itself? A piece that you wanted to study, reflect and obsess over?

Charles Ives’ Sonata No. 2 “Concord” is that piece for me. Since my first listening back in high school, I’ve become fascinated with unraveling its mysteries and living with it as a piece of repertoire. As I face the end of my graduate education and the question of What To Do Next, I’ve decided to take this music on the road and see what happens.

As I travel from Ithaca to parts of New York, the Chicago area, and Toronto, I will be starting my recitals off with a lecture to introduce the themes (both musical and philosophical) that inform the piece. This is dense, weighty music that really requires some explanation. Ives himself addressed this concern by writing his Essays Before A Sonata, but I will be adding my own thoughts and insights.

There’s another important reason that I’ve chosen this piece for my first attempt at a recital tour. Ives grew up in Danbury, Connecticut, just a stone’s throw away from my own hometown. I’ve climbed the mountain where Ives used to sit and compose (in a shack he built himself), and I’ve followed his paths through the quiet woods. I connect deeply with the New England nostalgia in the Concord Sonata and the sense of something great hiding just beyond the clouds, the electricity of inspiration and the beautiful terror of life.

Finally, since I have now been studying this piece in some capacity for about five years, I think it represents my truest musical self. It was the piece that made me want to take composition seriously, and I love it more than just about any other music. My only hope with this tour is that some seasoned fans will get an opportunity to hear it live for the first time, and that curious newcomers will have an unforgettable encounter with this tour de force.

Here’s the list of dates so far. I may be announcing more soon, and I’ll post links to the venue sites as the dates draw closer.

Saturday, October 4, 8:15 pm
Nabenhauer Recital Room, Ithaca College
953 Danby Road
Ithaca, NY

Sunday, October 26, 3:00 pm
171 Cedar Arts
171 Cedar Street
Corning, NY

Monday, January 12, 7:30 pm
College Church
332 E Seminary Ave
Wheaton, IL

Wednesday, January 14, 8:00 pm
Fine Arts Building, Suite 825
410 S Michigan Ave
Chicago, IL

Friday, February 27, 8:00 pm
The Firehouse Space
246 Frost St
Brooklyn, NY

Thursday, March 12, 8:00 pm
Gallery 345
345 Sorauren Ave
Toronto, ON