On April 8, 2017 the Pasadena Conservatory of Music was host to Richard Valitutto along with gnarwhallaby, Arpeture Duo and a subset of wild Up – all in a concert from wild Up’s WORK series, which focuses on single members of the group. Several new pieces and arrangements by Valitutto were heard, as well as reference works by Messiaen, Feldman and Wolfe. Soprano Justine Aronson made a special appearance and the elegant Barrett Hall was filled almost to capacity on a quiet Saturday evening.
The program opened with Papier Mâché, an original piano work by Valitutto. This began with a slow, mysterious feel and just a hint of tension in the chords that increased as the piece progressed. The density and complexity slowly built up, adding to a sense of uncertainty, just as the dynamic crested and fell back, fading at the finish. Papier Mâché has a sophisticated sheen and a solid, well-crafted construction that made for a fine opening to the concert.
Polichromia, by Zygmunt Krauze, followed, and this was performed by gnarwhallaby, the Los Angeles-based new music group who have made a mission of performing works by Polish avant-garde composers active in the mid-20th century. Polichromia begins with sustained tones in the cello, muted trombone and clarinet while the piano counters with rapid one and two note figures separated by silence. The highly chromatic tones in the instruments make for some intriguing harmonies and the sharper piano licks offered a fine contrast. After a few minutes this sequence finishes and there is an extended silence by all. This process restarts twice more, with the tones in the instruments becoming more active in each new sequence. Polichromia creates an environment filled with many varied tone colors, vividly portrayed by gnarwhallaby.
Next was an arrangement by Valitutto of two piano works: From the Cradle to Abysses by the Romanian-French composer Horațiu Rădulescu and Hungarian Passacaglia by György Ligeti. As Valitutto explained, these pieces felt like piano reductions of some larger instrumental work and the purpose of his arrangement was to fill out the parts that seemed to be embedded in the original scores. Two Arrangements for gnarwhallaby was the result, and this was played continuously as a single piece of music. The brass, woodwind and string components present in the gnarwhallaby ensemble was ideal for this sort of exploration.
Two Arrangements for gnarwhallaby began with solitary piano notes followed by a sharp sforzando from the trombone and quietly sustained tones in the cello and clarinet. Something like a melody materialized from the piano and cello while the trombone continued to emit loud sforzandos at various intervals. The dynamics of the piano chords increased rapidly and soon joined the trombone in making unsettling statements as the cello and clarinet continued with their smoothly understated response. The contrasts here were very effective – the more so because of the difference in instrumentation.
A soft cello solo appeared and seemed to tiptoe around the dramatic piano crashes. This melody was soon passed around to the clarinet and trombone. The piano calmed down to a series of steady two-note chords as the clarinet took up the melody in a higher register. Eventually all three instruments joined in together and some lovely harmonies emerged. The passages in the instruments gradually increased to a rapid tempo just as the piece concluded.
Two Arrangements for gnarwhallaby is an inspired expansion of the works of two 20th century masters, and confirmed Valitutto’s sharp instincts for orchestration. This arrangement creates a seamless connection between the two source pieces and the vivid colors brought out by the expanded instrumentation were matched by the coordination and precision of gnarwhallably’s playing.
Shadow (2013) by Rebecca Saunders followed. This is a solo piano piece that explores the sympathetic vibrations of the piano strings that occur after a loud chord is played. An acoustic ‘shadow’ is heard, and with the sustain pedal depressed, the soft tones are allowed to ring out and decay in the subsequent silence. Accordingly, Valitutto struck a series of crashes, tone clusters and sharp chords – often with maximum force – so that the resulting acoustic shadow was clearly heard, even up in the top row of Barrett Hall. These effects were amazingly varied – from lightly hovering and insubstantial to menacingly ominous to warm and welcoming. After a few minutes of listening you begin to ignore the initial impulse and focus instead on the quiet shadows that follow. The process is something like hearing a loud crash of thunder and then listening to the rolling echo as it dissipates into the distance.
The playing became more complex, loud crashes alternating with softer ones, multiplying the contrasting character of the various shadows. The interactions between the shadow tones themselves, although very understated, were also intriguing to the ear. Shadow is an instructive piece that points to the importance of listening for nuance, even when confronted by repeated dynamic outbursts. Valitutto’s sense of timing and the application of energy was perfect, allowing this piece to unfold with all of its subtlety intact.
Another solo piano piece was next, The Black Wheatear, by Oliver Messiaen, from Catalogue d’oiseaux (1958). This began with strong, crashing chords reminiscent of a booming surf; the breeding grounds of the black wheatear include the rocky sea cliffs of the Iberian peninsula. A series of short and rapid runs in the upper registers portray the brief but rich warble of the species. These skittering phrases regularly recur, nicely suggesting the chattering of birds wheeling high above a coastal meadow. The quick and spiky passages were accurately played by Valitutto, fully realizing Messiaen’s unconventional vision.
Voice, Violin and Piano by Morton Feldman followed, and for this Valitutto was joined by Adrianne Pope on violin and – naturally – soprano Justine Aronson. All the familiar Feldman virtues were present – the soft, airy voice of Ms. Aronson hovering lightly over a quiet violin and gentle piano chords. Each sound seemed independent of the others, but the sequences often produced memorable moments despite the spare texture. The intonation, especially in the voice, was impressive as there are almost no landmarks for pitch; even so, there was no hesitation or tentativeness in the many entrances. Voice, Violin and Piano is counted as a miniature in the Feldman canon, but this performance contained everything that makes his music so distinctive.
Valitutto’s Another Spring was next, based on poetry by Denise Leverton and with violist Linnea Powell joining the other players on stage. The opening piano chords of this were bright and sunny while the strings played very high, thin pitches that brought to mind wisps of wind. With the entrance of the soprano voice, Another Spring gained its focus and produced some lovely passages; the strong vocal part giving Ms. Aronson some room to stretch after the restrained Feldman piece. The seemingly disparate piano chords, airy strings and lovely legato vocal parts came together in a fine balance that nicely captured the optimism of a radiant spring day.
In his final remarks Richard Valitutto explained that the composers of his generation have spent their artistic lives working in the shadow of 9/11, and this burden has only increased since the November election. Accordingly, the last piece selected for this program was Compassion (2001), by Julia Wolfe. This begins softly, with an ominous slow trill that steadily builds tension, followed by a series of strong chords that become progressively more chaotic. The roiling chords roll in like a booming surf, freighted with powerful emotions. The rumbling continues to build in intensity, especially in the lower registers, until there is an explosive silence – and the roar slowly dies away. After a short silence, a new trill is heard, now filled with a quiet sorrow. Compassion is destined to be a landmark of our era and was played to perfection by Valitutto, whose efforts were received with extended applause.
The impeccable playing by all the performers made Work an engaging evening of contemporary music that ranged from forceful and complex to the soft and subtle. This concert was a good benchmark reading of Valitutto’s varied musical influences as well as pointing to his continued artistic growth.