Monday, May 26, 2014

Aurora Borealis meets Hiatus Pitch meets "'orgueilleux — in the Garden

The long-awaited concert of works by Wesleyan alumni composers took place over the weekend. Attendance was good, and the performers outdid themselves. I heard the first version of this concert last October. On Saturday, I was delighted how well the pieces hold up seven months later, and how much the performances had matured. I could write a substantial article about this concert, of course, but this is a blog. So I will limit myself to brief comments about each piece.

"Gathering Light" by Benjamin Broening — This piece exists in two versions, for violin solo and for violin with live electronics. The constraints of the concert were: no electronics. Sarah Washburn played the piece beautifully. It is a very strong work indeed, and got the concert off to a great start.

"Companion" by Ed Jessen (two speaking/singing pianists at two toy pianos, violin and cello) made a much stronger impression in Crowell Concert Hall than it did in the Trinity Chapel. It was possible to separate the two toy pianos quite a bit more. One was on each of the downstage corners, on a sculpture stand; violin and cello were upstage center, next to each other. The spatial separation liberated the drama of the piece. It starts as a quiet, if perplexing dialogue, but works itself into something of a miniature fury. Just as you think you may have figured it out, the piece is over...

Theme and Mutations for oboe and piano, by Brett Terry, benefited from having a better piano, and from the clearer acoustics of Crowell Concert Hall. Ling-Fei Kang (who is a superb oboist with the sweetest tone imaginable) and Elisabeth Tomczyk (a superb pianist who seems capable of playing just about anything, so long as it is new) played with clarity and elegance. I appreciated the spacing between the movements, which was longer and more pronounced than at Trinity.

Speaking of Brett, he kindly videoed the entire concert. I'll keep you posted as we get the various pieces uploaded to YouTube.

mensural canon for tri-partitioned body by Brian Parks is indeed a mensural canon, but with a twist. The three male voices sing a rising major scale, followed by a descending octave, in different rhythms. Janet Simone Parks, a beautiful dancer with technique to burn, dances the three parts as they are sung. One part goes with the legs, one with the arms, and one with the head. It is a tour-de-force. I thought it was just about perfect. I checked with the composer, and he informed me that more than "just about perfect," it was exactly correct. A sort piece, but a brilliant one.

Every time I hear "The Lonely Chant" by Walter Frank the stronger the impression it makes on me. It is exactly postminimalist, that is, it uses minimalist techniques in ways that minimalist composers would not use them. It is repetitive, but not systematically so. It is modal but ends ambiguously. It has clearly delineated sections, but they are unpredictable in their proportion. It uses the minimalist apparatus for an emotional end. Most importantly, it's not long! It also had the great virtue of being controversial. I spoke to people who enthusiastically said it was the best piece on the program, and to people who thought it was the worst. (No names, of course.) That's hard to do these days —write a piece of music that stirs up real contention.

"hiatus pitch" is a virtuoso piece for solo saxophone by Keith Moore. In this case "virtuoso" means "brutally difficult." Alto saxophonist Geoffrey Landman was more than up to the task. Extremes of register, extremes of speed, and above all, extreme dynamics — nothing seemed to phase him. I had heard this piece before, played by Taimur Sullivan. Geoff did it just as well! And Keith's elusive sense of rhetoric was well-communicated. A strong performance of a strong piece. (This work replaced Keith's organ piece, "Diary of an Organaut," which Brian Parks performed at Trinity. Crowell no longer has an organ, alas.)

"Aurora Borealis" by Liang Liang is a sumptuous work for violin, viola, cello and piano. It is the only work on the program that I felt did not benefit from the acoustics of Crowell, as opposed to the acoustics of Trinity Chapel. It was still a gorgeous, expressive work, and it was played with great authority and a sure sense of color. But the dryer, clearer hall worked to the disadvantage of some of the more complex sonorities.

I am a great fan of the work of Judy Dunaway, and the performance of "The Sound of Skin" only increased my admiration for her originality. Making music for balloons is no easy task. At Trinity the performance was a duo plus: Janet Simone Parks and Anne Rhodes getting wet in a kiddy pool and Orion Parks helping deliver balloons. (Orion is Janet and Brian's first child. She is four years old and growing up surrounded by avant garde art. Not a bad life.) The stone floor of the Trinity Chapel and all the beautiful dark wood was a great frame for what Janet and Anne did. But Anne, who now has her own first child, was not available, so the Crowell performance became a solo. At Trinity the balloons were in a large basket. In Crowell they were placed inside our beautiful Dowd harpsichord. A stunning visual effect, and a nod to early music that subtly reinforced some of the other pieces on the program.

"Frolic" by Anne Lemos Edgerton was the oldest and newest piece of the program, simultaneously. The oldest because it was originally written when Anne was in the GLSP program at Wesleyan, back in the 1970s. The newest because the revival of the piece last October inspired her to write an introduction, which was completed only two weeks before the concert! A lively and engaging work from start to finish, "Frolic," like other pieces on this program, has the great virtue of not being too long. A note to composers everywhere — oboe and cello together might not sound like an ideal combination, but believe me it is a great sound. Especially if you handle it as well as Anne does!

"L'orgueilleux" by Chris McDonald is a tour-de-force of wit and complexity for flute, viola and piano. Chris's career after Wesleyan has taken him more and more in the direction of pop music, mixed media and video art. (He left the day after the concert to supervise the installation of one of his most recent works in Bilbao — details to follow.) But he started off as a hard-core Tanglewood composer of twelve-tone music, and this example of him writing in that style (completed when he was an undergraduate student, not that long ago) holds up very well with the passage of time. I asked him if he was interested in writing more music in this style, and he replied "I'm thinking about it."

Last but not least, a chunk of Chris Jonas's monumental "Garden" for string quartet concluded the program. It's a sprawling, compelling work. You can hear the whole thing on the internet, and see the gorgeous video that accompanies it. "Garden" is a strong piece of music as well as a strong piece of mixed media, and it holds its own on the concert stage. The West End Quartet shone in this performance as well as the others on the program (Frank, Liang). I hope they keep all of these excellent pieces in their repertory!

After the concert Elena and I had dinner at Haveli India with Judy, Sarah and her family, Brett, Chris, Max and Gabriel. Conversation was lively and far-reaching. A high point was Chris's contention that all of the composers, and all of their pieces on this concert, were to some extent exemplars of modernism. That sparked a discussion that is another topic, for another time...

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