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Iyer & Student Orchestra at REDCAT Sunday

May 9, 2010

Vijay Iyer talks with students after his "Math & Music" lecture at Idyllwild Arts

By Marcia E. Gawecki

Internationally-acclaimed jazz pianist and composer Vijay Iyer will play with the Idyllwild Arts student orchestra at the REDCAT Theater at Disney Hall on Mother’s Day this Sunday, May 9 at 5 p.m. Tickets are $25, and proceeds go to Idyllwild Arts.

Iyer, who is an old college friend of Peter Askim, the music director and composer-in-residence at Idyllwild Arts, performed one of his compositions at the concert last night at the IAF Theater.

His piece, entitled “Interventions for Improvised Piano, Electronics & Orchestra,” was met with some skepticism at first.

Connor Merritt was skeptical of Vijay Iyer's composition at first

“It’s really hard to play,” said Conner, a trombone player. “It’s not the kind of music that we’re used to.”

During an interview on You Tube, Iyer discussed that same concern with his “Interventions” piece.

“Classical performers are trained in interpreting musical notes on a page,” Iyer said. “They have lots of ideas on how to do that, and it’s what they’re good at.¬†With this piece, I hope to draw from that expertise.”

But this piece called for certain instruments to improvise, something that jazz musicians are used to, but not classical musicians who play in an orchestra.

To be ready for their performances, each of the sections had extra rehearsals–in addition to their regular orchestra rehearsals. The list was posted on the cafeteria door, and other students knew they wouldn’t be seeing much of the music students during “orchestra week.”

Well, their hard work paid off. Last night’s concert was a success, according to James Duval, a classical flute player and the former head of the Music Department at Idyllwild Arts.

At 10:30 p.m. Saturday night, the concert was over, and Duval was overseeing several students as they loaded up the truck with all of the instruments, including the bass drum. The truck is set to head down the hill Sunday at 9:30 a.m. in plenty of time for the 5 p.m. show at the REDCAT.

“There were a lot of people there tonight,” Duval said. “And they really liked Vijay Iyer’s piece.”

Charles Schlacks, Jr., a former Russian History professor at Berkeley, was among those who attended Saturday’s performance on campus. He has amassed a classical record collection in excess of 40,000, but continues to enjoy live performances.

“The student orchestra always does a nice job,” Schlacks said. “The new music was different than what I’m used to, but it was very nice.”

In another interview on You Tube, Iyer said that he’s used to comments like that about his music. As background, Iyer earned a bachelors degree in math and physics at Yale. Although he studied jazz piano in high school, it wasn’t until after he graduated from college that he became a full-time performer and composer.

“In America, they don’t always support certain arts,” he told an Indian reporter shown on You Tube. “Even if music not commercially popular, it gets out there somehow because it needs to. In the end, music is the healing force, the force of change.”

Iyer mentioned that other musicians, even popular ones, do improvisations too.

“I saw a video of the guy from the Black Eyed Peas who took a speech by (President Barak) Obama and turned it into a piece of music,” he said. “It was his concession speech in New Hampshire. And it had all the rhythms and candances associated with music.”

Iyer taught a "Music & Math" class at Idyllwild Arts Friday

Not surprisingly, much of Iyer’s compositions are based on math principles. In fact, he gave a lecture on “Math and Music” to about 75 Idyllwild Arts students and faculty on Friday, May 7. There, he explained how math is integrated into music.

“Usually, I don’t like music to be too hard, contrary to what you might believe,” Iyer said, amongst laughter from the music students.

He outlined rhythm phrases that crossed over the beat in rhythmic progression, and gave the “A, B, A, B, A” pattern variables.

“As you can see, it is taken on a linear shape,” Iyer said. ‘But this is not music.”

He said that the challenge of being a composer today is to remain fresh, and always learning something new.

“But it helps me to start with something artificial,” Iyer said. “That way, you’re not always starting from the same place each time.”

Then he played some of his improvisations from an amplifier attached to his laptop.

However, Iyer wasn’t the only one with an orchestra piece that was performed Saturday night. Askim, too, featured one of his pieces, a trombone concerto.

“His piece was hard to play too,” said Connor.

Ieseul Yoen, shown at her recital, is looking forward to playing at RedCat Sunday

Senior pianists Ieseul, Linda and Daphne “Kitty,” each got to play different pieces with the orchestra.

Ieseul said that she’s looking forward to playing at the REDCAT.

“Any chance we get to go down the hill and perform before a live audience, is a good thing,” she said.

Another good thing for the Idyllwild Arts student orchestra also happened this weekend.

“Our recording of Tchaikovsky’s 5th Symphony came out Friday, May 7 (Tchaikovsky’s birthday),” Askim said. “It is a CD/DVD set, and I think it will be good.”

To hear that recording, visit iTunes at

For tickets and more information about the RedCat performance on Sunday, May 9, at 5 p.m., visit, or call (213) 237-2800. Tickets are $25 for the general public and $10 for students with I.D.

Copyright 2010 Idyllwild Me. All rights reserved.

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