Today’s Feature – June 10-11: Basso Moderno Duo

June 11, 2008 at 9:05 pm (Today's Feature)

Dr. Allan Von Schenkel, the bass soloist side of the Basso Moderno Duo and counterpart Kristen Williams, a talented pianist and soprano soloist, are a musical match to be embraced and by all means enjoyed. Schenkel has been a part of some amazing work, dedicating himself to “virtuosic bass performances to museums, embassies, private gatherings, and other select events.” He also has commissioned nearly 100 well-known composers from around the world to create new works for the bass, to truly showcase the power of the instrument. Williams is the executive director of the Great Noise Ensemble, Washington, DC’s premiere contemporary classical chamber music group, as well as a soprano soloist with St. Patrick’s Catholic Church Choir in the district. Needless to say, these two have the chops to do as they please.

Their mission is “to promote the works of living composers from all over the world by educating nontraditional audiences about contemporary music.” Brining new styles to the bass and piano has been quite the task, but it seems every day brings another world-renowned composer to their side. They have commissioned over 100 lyrical works for solo bass and piano from 33 countries already.

Their work hasn’t gone unnoticed, playing once for the United Nations as well as receiving the “2007 Steinway Award” from the Smithsonian American Art Museum. You can see them for yourselves in Washington, notably on June 11th at the Harman Center for the Arts for the Antony & Cleopatra Recital. They’ll also have six composers visit the Basically Modern Arts Sanctuary this summer from Armenia, Turkmenistan, Romania, Denmark, Spain and the USA. To learn more, get into the XXQ’s.

XXQ’s: Basso Moderno Duo (PEV): Tell us how “the duo” first came together? Was an instant connection or did it take a while for the band to really form?

Allan Von Schenkel (AVS): We met during a rehearsal for the Great Noise Ensemble (a Washington DC new music group). I had begun commissioning new pieces in 2003 and was seeking a pianist who had a shared interest in contemporary music. Kristen was looking for performance opportunities of new music and helped to create the Great Noise Ensemble. We met during a rehearsal for their second concert and began playing together, giving our first performance two months later. We had an instant connection. Kristen has a unique ‘touch’ on the piano and it matched perfectly my individualized manner of playing. We began by first playing once every two weeks, then every week, then two or three times a week and we realized that we needed to play every day.

PEV: How have your abilities or style as musicians changed since your earlier days of playing music?

Kristen Williams (KW): For me, there have been two things. Since I was a young, I have always had to play. Also, my work has always had to have a deeper purpose than just giving people my interpretation of standard repertoire… otherwise I get restless in my playing. For me, fulfilling our mission gives me great satisfaction. New experiences, working with composers, have given me new insight into my own playing.

AVS: My musical vocabulary continues to grow as I age, but what has remained a constant is my curiosity and desire for new experiences. An important change is our perception of ‘why’ we play. Our mission now is to help composers and to have a meaningful experience with our audiences.

PEV: Growing up, what kind of music were you listening to?

KW: I studied the recordings of piano works by composers of whom I was studying. When I was 15, I fell in love with Glenn Gould – for the next 3 years I listened to every recording and video I could get my hands on. Of course I listened to popular music as well. Growing up in the Hudson Valley, I was exposed to great classic rock. And finally I loved listening to David Bowie. I am inspired by the progression of his artistic vision over the past 30 years.

AVS: Like others of my generation, I listened to music on the radio. When I was 14 I discovered Sarah Vaughan, Pink Floyd and Beethoven. I was obsessed with music from the beginning and my earliest memories are of music. My normal habit after being exposed to a piece of music is to learn everything I can about that composer, style or genre. After my late teens I gravitated towards contemporary music but am still easily seduced by Sarah Vaughan.

PEV: Tell us about the earlier days in the music business for the Basso Moderno Duo before you were playing regularly.

AVS: I have led a great many ensembles in a variety of genres. When we formed the Basso Moderno Duo, I was ready to go full speed ahead. We worked diligently in order to give concerts every week and we began partnering with as many organizations as possible.

KW: When we formed, I was very busy with several other performance initiatives. However, after reading the music and knowing a successful collaboration, I quickly made the BMD my top priority.

PEV: Having worked with several top artists, who have you not collaborated with so far that you would like to?

KW: I would like to work with David Bowie. When I first heard “Outside” -particularly the piano parts, I realized I wanted to meld my background with other forms to create new work. Allan and I have done that in our performance art pieces.

AVS: We enjoy working with composers with vastly different backgrounds than our own. It is exciting to play new pieces and to introduce audiences to new experiences. Our goal is to give recitals on all 7 continents and to commission composers from as many countries as possible. I hope we can commission a piece from David Del Tredici and Billy Joel.

PEV: Having played places like Hirshhorn Smithsonian Museum, Smithsonian American Art Museum and United Nations, in all your travels, which city do you think offers the best scene for music?

AVS: What is interesting is how each city has its own subculture, leaders and local celebrities. It is very stimulating experience to enter for a short time into these ‘musical worlds’, becoming temporary members of a community, and to ultimately be exposed to a working environment that enriches our own lives. New York is wonderful place because we live here.

PEV: How has “life on the road” been for the Basso Moderno Duo? Good parts? Bad parts? Any favorites spots to hit on the road?

AVS: We are fantastic travelers and each new place feeds our desire for new experiences. After a good rest at home it is exciting to visit new countries and parts of North America. The main obstacle when traveling is food, comfort and money. The ‘bad parts’ are almost certainly a result of those three factors not going well.

KW: Music touches people in ways we can’t even imagine. We are able to introduce people to new composers. We are able to open people’s mind to new ideas. Students who are looking for ways to have a career, men and women who are turned onto “classical music” for the first time. For me, the best part about being on the road is meeting and making friends. We have met the most generous, giving, talented people from all walks of life. I also love collecting new recipes which I get to put to use while hosting people at the Basically Modern Arts Sanctuary. The most inconvenient part about traveling is the fluctuating dollar – enough said on that topic.

PEV: What can fans expect from a live Basso Moderno Duo performance?

KW: From my view, a recital should create a special experience for the listener. I think by our presentation, announcing pieces, giving background and history of the composer and their culture, we enable the audience to have an active listening experience.

AVS: Our program is designed to take a trip around the world. Our goal is to make each concert as unique and enticing event as possible. To do so we have a variety of piece which embrace the audience such as ‘Secret Piece II’ by Yoko-Ono Lennon and ‘Pa-Alulung’ by Jonas Baes. Our programs are carefully put together in order to keep the interest of even the most impatient audience member. In order to enhance the concert going experience, we speak between pieces, and enthusiastically educate audiences by telling them the story behind each piece. Our hope is that they will leave a concert feel good about being exposed to virtuosic music that reaches across borders.

PEV: Is there an up and coming artist out right now that you think we should all be looking into?

AVS: Ultimately, we are advocates of living composers. Each of the composers we work with have something beneficial to offer. If I had to name one artist, I would have to choose Spanish composer Sonia Megias Lopez because after over 100 performances of her ‘Tango No.2’ each performance consistently delivers enjoyment on behalf of listeners. We are also great admirers of visual artist Heather Levy. She works in a variety of mediaÕs and we enjoy working with her. Her work can be viewed at

KW: I am particularly fascinated with the choreography of Isabel Gotzkowsky. For me, Isabel is able to communicate human experience through her works – her solo and ensemble works touch audiences acutely. It’s as if she says, “Hello everyone – this is a picture of happy…” and one is happy. I also admire the fact that as a performer and an educator, she works to bring modern dance to people who have not had much exposure to the art form. You can see her work at

I am also a great admirer of the writer Jason W. Prokowiew. I am fortunate to have read excerpts of his first novel – the biography of his father, Vladimir, who was a second cousin to the great Russian composer, Serge Prokofiev. Vladimir was orphaned during Operation Barbarossa. This is a story of terrible loss and redemption. You can learn more about his soon to be published novel at

PEV: Is there one performance that has stood out over the others as the most memorable?

KW: In Almansa, Spain, we forgot our recording of birds for the Yoko Ono’s “Secret Piece II, ” so we asked the audience to make bird sounds. It was like playing in an aviary.

AVS: Last summer we premiered our performance art piece ’69 Ways to Fall in Love’ at the Capital Fringe Festival in Washington DC. During the second performance which took place at 10:30 pm we had a very lively and somewhat intoxicated audience (not so typical for a contemporary music recital) and they were incredible. There are several audience participation moments in the piece and the audience participated 100 percent. That night the stage came alive and everyone present had the time of their life.

PEV: On the other side, any embarrassing performances you wish you could forget?

AVS: One of the most difficult performances for me took place at the Smithsonian American Art Museum where we premiered 11 new pieces. It was a hot and humid July day and my instrument was literally dripping with condensation. In addition to the technical difficulties associated with premiering new pieces and the stress of performing a work before presence of the composer, my instrument was so slippery and sticky that I could barely play. It was a careful reminder to do the best you can in all situations no matter what the circumstances are.

KW: I’ve been pretty happy in most of our performances together. However, I can think of plenty of auditions I would like to forget.

PEV: Before a show, are there any pre-show rituals you do or is just go out there and perform?

AVS: We often take a quiet moment before we play in order to ‘connect’ and to calm our thoughts before walking on stage.

PEV: What is one thing we’d be surprised to hear about the members of Basso Moderno Duo?

AVS: We are both left handed.

KW: We both have curly hair

PEV: When you sit down to practice, what kind of environment do you surround yourselves in?

KW: We have a studio dedicated to our practice and performance. The studio can seat 40 people, so we are able to get used to a larger environment.

PEV: If we were to walk into your practice studio right now, what would we find?

AVS: We are recording several new pieces so the studio has a variety of microphones and cables strung through the room. We also have several small piles of scores É each different programs we are learning. You would also find a cat sleeping on a chair.

KW: You will find a pair of heels on the floor by the piano – I like to practice in my concert shoes

PEV: When you are not touring or performing, what can we find you doing in your spare time?

KW: Since moving to NY, I have taken an interest in gardening. I hope to have a fairly successful patio garden this year, so I can have fresh salad whenever I wish.

AVS: We are constantly writing letters and researching new possibilities. A professional musicians career includes much more than just performances and rehearsing. A great deal of our energy is spent setting up opportunities for ourselves, other artists and composers.

PEV: In your opinion, what does it take to remain successful in today’s music scene?

AVS: It takes energy and optimism to begin with. Having a successful career also requires fulfilling a need with in society. Through commissioning over one-hundred new pieces from composers in over countries and all seven continents, we are able to bring fresh new music to audiences who hunger for unpredictability. Our dynamic concerts bring life into a room and we enjoy bringing joy into there’s lives. To remain successful in today’s competitive world performers need to do more than just play well, they need find an audience who needs what they have to offer.

KW: Yes, I agree with energy and optimism. I also believe that we have to be focused. As long as we are focused and remain true to the mission of the BMD, we will be successful. Our mission is to help other composers and artists and educate audiences.

PEV: In one word, describe Basso Moderno Duo.

KW: Energy.

AVS: Lightning.

PEV: So, what is next for Basso Moderno Duo?

AVS: We have several concerts in Washington DC soon. We will have 6 composers visit the Basically Modern Arts Sanctuary this summer from Armenia, Turkmenistan, Romania, Denmark, Spain and the USA. This week we recorded four pieces, which gave been posted on our website.

KW: We received a new piece this afternoon… to the piano!

For more information on the Basso Moderno Duo, check out


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