Tara Helen O’Connor’s Versatile Flute



As soon as I heard the CD reviewed below, I knew that I wanted to interview the artists, Tara Helen O’Connor and Margaret (a.k.a. Peggy) Kampmeier, because not only was the music interesting and challenging but their playing was so exciting. It isn’t often that I go out of my way to contact an artist, but I did so in this case, and I’m glad I did, because they are just as lively and interesting as the music they play.

Between performing and teaching, O’Connor is one of the busiest musicians on the scene today. She performs at the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival, Chamber Music Northwest and the Spoleto Chamber Music Festival of Charleston, South Carolina; she is a member of the New Millennium Ensemble, Windscape, Andalucian Dogs and the Bach Aria Group; and she teaches at Purchase College at the State University of New York. Her musical partner on this disc, pianist Peggy Kampmeier, is Artistic Director and Chair of the Contemporary Performance Program at the Mannes College of Music and Studio Instructor at Princeton University’s Department of Music. She performs regularly with the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, Sherman Chamber Ensemble and (believe it or not!) Peter Schickele’s P.D.Q. Bach concerts as well as numerous new music ensembles, so as you can see, this is a busy and versatile duo.

I caught up with them via e-mail to ask a few pertinent questions about this CD project and their approach to music in general.

Art Music Lounge: Tara, let’s start with you, but Margaret can jump in any time she wants. My initial reaction to your CD was twofold: one, I not only liked the music I heard but found it interesting and well constructed, something that not all modern music is; and two, I was absolutely blown away by the intensity of your playing. Clearly, for you music is not just a job but a personal mission. Would that be a fair statement?

Tara Helen O’Connor: Absolutely. I approach all music in the same way.  I search for the emotional, physical and spiritual motivation that lays behind the notes.   This could manifest as tone color, articulation, inflection or any of countless nuances of sound and rhythm. The main thing is to be authentic to the aesthetic of the composer.

AML: Peggy, I’m guessing that it’s much the same for you as well. I reviewed one of your previous CDs, a recital of songs by Kaikhosru Sorabji sung by Elizabeth Farnum on Centaur, and I was struck as much by your playing as by Farnum’s singing. I suppose that you specialize in contemporary music for a reason, right?

Peggy Kampmeier: That’s a great question. It’s so important to me to be involved with the music of our time. As a performer, that means giving voice to new and unfamiliar works, both in performance and in recording. Interpreting contemporary music has much to do with learning the languages of individual composers – “cracking the code,” so to speak, and this is forever fascinating to me. By the way, when I first moved to New York, I became known as a new music specialist, but I’ve always played all kinds of music.

AML: Tara, one of the things that impressed me about your CD was the no-holds-barred approach you take to flute playing. This is not to say that you don’t have perfect control of your instrument, rather that you take it to the limit at all times. I’m wondering if you take the same gung-ho approach to the music of Bach, Mozart, etc.?

THO: Absolutely. Again, I take the same approach to all music. I like to know the conventions of performance practice in all periods coupled with my instinct and my taste. I don’t try to play on the edge for its own sake, but rather I follow the music where it takes me. It’s an informed process that I hope brings me as close as I can be to the composers wishes. After all, we as performers are the vehicles of expression for the music of the past and our contemporaries.

AML: This question is for both of you. When I survey the classical scene today, what seems to me to be most popular—or at least most often performed and bought into by the larger general public—is what I call “classics lite” or “ambient classical,” music that is soft and relaxing, that doesn’t challenge people’s minds and emotions. Since both of you are so obviously dedicated to the exact opposite in music, what do you see as an antidote for this? In other words, is there any way you can see a future in which interesting music, emotionally played, once again becomes the norm rather than what young people refer to as “neo-classical chamber”?

THO: I am not a huge fan of labels, and it is especially impossible to label the time in which we are living. The music of all eras always contains works of great lasting meaning as well as shallow entertainment. That question has been with us throughout history. We have Bach vs. the lesser known Baroques, we have Beethoven vs. Spohr and Hummel, we have Schumann vs. Liszt and “the beat goes on.”

PK: For us the most important thing is to focus on music we find interesting and challenging, play it as well as we can, and put it out in the world. We rely on our instincts, training and experience to accomplish this. What happens afterwards, hmm…, well we can’t really control that, can we?

AML: I noticed that most of the works on this CD were either written for you, Tara, or commissioned directly by you. Yet I’m assuming that, because of your strong musical approach, you pick and choose the modern composers whom you approach to write for you. Is that correct?

THO: This CD was an evolutionary process. It stared with the idea of recording one of the first works Peggy and I performed together while we were finishing our graduate degrees at Stony Brook University. I then began to ask colleagues that I had worked with previously if they would be interested in writing pieces for us. These were composers whose work I fell in love with and really wanted to champion. They all said yes! We actually wound up with more pieces than we could fit on this CD and we hope to be doing a second one soon.

AML: Peggy, I can’t help but ask…how on earth did you get involved with the P.D.Q. Bach concerts? As busy as you are, I would think that you’d take a pass on something that is really a big musical joke! (I should mention that I love Schickele’s P.D.Q. Bach stuff and actually attended one of his concerts once, so I’m not speaking as someone who disapproves.)

A: Take a pass on working with Peter Schickele? The man is a total genius! I met him when I was performing some of his music here in New York. The rest is history, as they say. On the surface, P.D.Q. Bach concerts are entertaining and hilarious, but Peter Shickele’s underlying craft is impeccable. He is one of the finest musicians I know, and I have had a great time working with him and his incredibly talented musical cohorts.

AML: With both of you being so very busy, I wondered if you have much time, outside of a recording project like this, to perform together?

THO: We are both extremely busy, but we have played a lot together over many many years and always enjoy it.  We will soon be starting on a new project with another colleague. Additionally, we have a chamber music group together that has recorded a few CDs. Having gone to school together, we share a similar background in our pedagogical studies. This makes the collaboration even more fun and rewarding.  Having “grown up” together and honed our reflexes, I feel that we are really well matched. Additionally, we are great friends. It’s really fun!

PK: We are both extremely busy, but our paths cross often. Whenever we get a chance to play together, it’s like old friends meeting up. We just pick up where we left off and go from there.

AML: Thanks a million for your time! In closing, I would only say that I wish a record like yours would be nominated for a Grammy or a Pulitzer Prize in music, but I know better…it’s not commercial enough. But good luck to both of you in your future endeavors!

PK: Thank you so much for reviewing the CD so thoroughly and thoughtfully!

*                      *                      *                      *                      *

THE WAY THINGS GO / Righteous Babe (Randall Woolf); Crystal Shadows (Steven Mackey); Gaze (John Halle); All Sensation is Already Memory (Eric Moe); Share (Belinda Reynolds); The Way Things Go (Richard Festinger); Duo for Flute and Piano (Laura Kaminsky) / Tara Helen O’Connor, flautist; Margaret Kampmeier, pianist / Bridge 9467

A music critic friend of mine can’t understand my strong liking for many modern works. To him, great music pretty much ended in the 1920s, and any changes since then are just steps backwards. But I run into this attitude all the time. People either ask me how I can like the modern stuff since I so obviously love Monteverdi, Buxtehude, the Bachs, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Berlioz, Schumann, Verdi, Wagner, Brahms, Debussy etc, or—which to me is just as strange—they ask me how on earth I can listen to the “old stuff” if I enjoy so much music from Schoenberg and Stravinsky on forward.

The answer, of course, is what I listen for: 1) the music’s structure and, in the case of orchestral or choral works, texture, and 2) whether or not it communicates anything to me. The shape of the music doesn’t matter to me. I can get just as much out of the string quartets of Segerstam as I can out of Beethoven’s, and just as much out of the operas of Messiaen, Orff and Hindemith as I can out of the operas of Mozart and Verdi—in fact, probably a bit more. But if you don’t know music (and it embarrasses me to admit how many serious music lovers can’t read a score and don’t even know, for instance, that there are no high Cs in “Di quella pira” from Verdi’s Il Trovatore), you can’t tell if a piece is well written or not, because regardless of the style, the principles remain the same. The rest of it is simply whether or not the music moves you. If it sounds like an intellectual game I’m not much interested and I’ll write it off, but if it connects emotionally I’ll go out of my way to understand it.

Such is the case with this CD, admitted by flautist O’Connor on page 4 of the booklet as “a labor of love…recorded over several years with my dear friend Peggy Kampmeier.” And you can tell this from the first note of the first selection, a sort of bitonal tango-boogie (they come together in A for the main theme, but start to split around 2:04) titled Righteous Babe. Randall Woolf, the composer, studied privately with David Del Tredici and Joe Maneri. Most classical folks know who Del Tredici is, if only from his 1976 surprise hit Final Alice, but Joe Maneri is not so well known. Maneri (1927-2009) was a jazz composer, saxophonist and clarinetist, well known for his enthusiasm for the avant-garde. Righteous Babe is sort of in between jazz and classical, but decidedly leaning more towards the former in rhythm and drive. Woolf writes that it was composed for O’Connor and “chiefly concerned with avoiding the flowery and dainty side of the flute.” That’s putting it mildly. There’s a bit of Lew Tabackin and a touch of Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson here, and I found the whole piece exhilarating from start to finish.

The next several works are generally more abstract and less jazz-tinged in style, although the last movement of John Halle’s Gaze is marked “Rag: Raucous.” This is exactly the kind of music my tonal-loving friends don’t understand me liking, but as I’ve told them many times, listen for the structure. If the structure makes sense and is original in design, it’s good. If it’s original but poorly structured, it’s bad; if it’s neither original nor well structured, it’s rubbish. One need also keep in mind that some of these pieces, particularly Mackey’s Crystal Shadows, rely as much on the use of space between the notes as on the note sequence itself. There is also a certain amount of syncopation within this piece; it’s just not jazz syncopation. Halle’s Gaze is divided into three movements: “Always moving forward,” “Homage: Slow tango/Habanera” and “Rag: Raucous.” Halle uses rhythmic shifts here the way other composers might use thematic shifts; his theme keeps on developing throughout the first movement, but it rarely stays in the same rhythm or tempo. There is a certain amount of jazz “feel” around the 3:25 mark. The second movement, like the first, relies on tempo shifts which mirror the changes of dynamics and/or mood, but it is more playful and less serious-minded. Despite the allusion to ragtime, the last movement sounds to my ears more like something by Marius Constant than Joseph Lamb; even thought it stays mostly in A-flat, the piano part in particular plays around with the tonality (now playing a loud downward gliss, then playing crushed chords or altered chord positions) as the flute “gets lost” rhythmically before they “find” each other and come back together again.

I’ve had occasion to praise some of Eric Moe’s work in past reviews. All Sensation is Already Memory is a good piece—I liked it for the most part—although, to my ears, it’s not one of Moe’s most original works. Indeed, in style it closely resembled parts of Gaze, particularly the second movement. But as I say, it’s not a bad work at all, the piano part in particular having some very clever things to say. The work is in two parts, titled The Ungraspable Advance of the Past” and “Devouring the Future.” By contrast, Belinda Reynolds’ Share is an almost elegiac piece built around a repeated modal motif played by the piano whle the flute hovers above it playing a sparse but attractive melodic figure. I was not surprised to learn from the notes that Reynolds is an educator who helps children create music. The elegant simplicity of this piece may elude the listener who, so far in this recital, has been bombarded with interesting and novel effects, but my only (small) complaint about Share (which is played on the alto flute) is that I felt it went on a bit too long.

Richard Festinger, we are told, has led groups as a jazz musician in addition to his composition studies at the University of California in Berkeley. That being said, I enjoyed The Way Things Go tremendously for its clever working-out of short phrases, knit together in an almost awkward way that is strangely fascinating, but I heard no allusions to jazz in the score. The last of the three short movements has a quasi-Latin feel about it without really crossing over into that style of rhythm. Flutter-tonguing is used to enhance the mood as it was in Righteous Babe but also moments where the pianist plucks the strings. Festinger uses motor rhythms—but again, not jazz rhythms—to propel the music towards its conclusion.

The recital ends with Kaminsky’s Duo, which is the last piece written for this disc (2006). Curiously, the first of the three movements puts us back in the same kind of mood as Woolf’s opening piece, except that the rhythm is a bit more fractured here and there and not consistently moving forward. Indeed, the first movement comes to a standstill about a minute in so the solo flute can play an a capella solo for a few bars at a slower tempo, then the music is deconstructed when the piano returns, slowly unraveling and fragmenting itself into little 16th-note swirls alternated by the two instruments, then staccato notes which introduce an extempore section with greater fragmentation of the already minimal theme. This stops in the middle of nowhere before moving on to the more lyrical second movement, which sounds to me to be in an A mode, later shifting to B-flat. The last movement is all buoyant, nervous energy, once again using a stuttering ostinato rhythm in the keyboard, the music being “bound” thematically by the flute.

All in all, this is a fascinating recording, one well worth exploring, played with love and enthusiasm by two musicians who obviously enjoy what they’re doing.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

Return to homepage OR

Read my book, From Baroque to Bop and Beyond: An extended and detailed history of the intersection of classical music and jazz


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s