Rachel Beetz and Jennifer Bewerse, also known as Autoduplicity, curated the wasteLAnd concert at Art Share L.A. on Friday, December 1, 2017. The duo presented six pieces by women composers, ranging from an electronic work by Pauline Oliveros to a premiere by Celeste Oram.
Bye Bye Butterfly by Pauline Oliveros was first. The lights faded to total darkness and the high whine of an electronic oscillator came from speakers hanging from the ceiling. The sound was reminiscent of an old heterodyne radio tuning in a far-away station. The pitches varied a bit, creating a somewhat alien feel. The oscillator was soon joined by a chorus of faint voices, and this served to add a human element to the mix of sounds. The piece proceeded with the voices overlapping the electronic tones so that it was hard to tell where one left off and the other began. The context shifted back and forth between alien and human, while the sounds themselves mixed together, blurring the distinction. Bye Bye Butterfly is classic Oliveros, inviting the listener to experience familiar emotions through unexpected combinations of sounds.
DiGiT #2, by Mayke Nas followed. Ms. Beetz and Ms. Bewerse both seated themselves at a piano and the piece began in dramatic fashion with a great forearm crash to the keyboard. The massive sound rang into the hall, slowly dissipating into silence. After a few seconds, a second powerful crash hit in a somewhat higher register. This continued, alternating between the ominously low and the anxiously high portions of the keyboard. The length of the intervening silences decreased as the crashes shortened, and this built up a definite feeling of tension. At about the midway point, the two performers began clapping hands just before they struck the keyboard. This happened briefly at first, but as the piece progressed the clapping sequences became longer and more intricate. By the finish, the clapping predominated, creating a playful feel that dispelled the previously menacing atmosphere. DiGiT #2 artfully illustrates how even the most sinister musical foreshadowing can be overcome by a simple expression of optimism.
2.5 Nightmares, for Jessie, by Natacha Diels, was next. Ms. Bewerse, with her cello, occupied a low riser in the center of the stage. Ms. Beetz and Dustin Donahue took their places on either side, sitting at tables with a ukulele, a sand paper block and other assorted percussion. The cello began by playing short, scratchy strokes while the wood blocks were drawn across the sandpaper. Silence followed, and a mallet striking a pie tin combined with bowed ukuleles to create a sequence of wonderfully strange sounds. The players also choreographed their movements and vocalized as the piece proceeded. Weaving together found sounds, cello, ukulele and choreography, 2.5 Nightmares, for Jessie nicely expresses that precise blend of the formal and the surreal that populates our dreams.
a…i…u…e…o…, a video piece by Michiko Saiki, followed. The opening scene simply showed a beautiful young woman alone in a room with red chairs lining an interior corner formed by two white walls. The soundtrack started with some vocal sounds which evolved into singing, often with lovely harmonies. The images portrayed a strong sense of loneliness mixed with a search for identity. There was also an element of the surreal to this – at one point the young woman was shown with several sets of arms, and again with something like sprouts of clover growing out of her skin. The technical effort was of a very high order, and none of the effects seemed contrived or forced. The powerful images and appealing vocals of a…i…u…e…o… made a strong impression on the audience.
The thin air between skins, by Annie Hui-Hsin Hsieh, was next. Ms. Beetz and Ms. Bewerse seated themselves back-to-back on the stage. A low trill from the flute began the piece and the cello entered with soft tones, creating an air of quiet mystery. Skittering flute sounds mixed with the cello to create a remote feel, as if hearing a breeze sweeping through a lonely forest. The flute occasionally became more agitated, but The thin air between skins remained consistently understated and sensitively played. A short, overblown blast from the flute ended this peaceful and reserved work.
The premiere of Machut: sanz cuer / Amis, dolens / Dame, par vous (Ballade #17), by Celeste Oram concluded the concert. Autoduplicity, clad completely in black, returned to the stage. The piece began with strong passages from the cello and a stately counterpoint in the alto flute. The feeling was very formal, a bit like early baroque music. The rich tones in the flute and cello made for an elegant combination, especially in the lower registers. Part way through, Ms. Beetz rose from her chair and walked behind a black screen at the rear of the stage. As she did so, an image of her – now dressed in a white top – appeared on the screen. The players traded off, walking back and forth from their music stands, an image of them appearing at the moment they walked behind the screen. At times there were scratchy or breathy sounds heard from the screen, at other times musical sounds, and sometimes silence.
The illusion of seamless, live action was very convincing and all the more remarkable as the images on the screen were prerecorded videos. The music was smoothly continuous and the comings and goings on the stage seemed to connect the players to another dimension. The complex choreography of movement by the players and the split-second timing of the images was remarkable. This flawless premiere of Machut: sanz cuer / Amis, dolens / Dame, par vous is even more impressive given the potential for a technical catastrophe. The skill of Autoduplicity and the ingenuity of the music and video combined for an engaging and entertaining performance.
The next wasteLAnd concert will be on February 10, 2018 at Art ShareLA and will feature new works by Ulrich Krieger and Sarah Belle Reid.
Mezzo-soprano Megan Ihnen and pianist Nadia Shpachenko performed original works by George Gianopoulos, Yuri Ishchenko, and Christian Carey, as well as a solo vocal piece by John Cage, at a new music recital titled The Truth in Simple Things at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Glendale on Saturday. The weekend audience made its way into the cavernous sanctuary of St. Mark’s and settled comfortably into the long wooden pews.
Based on the poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay, Three Songs of Shattering for Mezzo-Soprano and Piano, Op. 18 (2009/2013) by George N. Gianopoulos opened the program. The first movement, No. 1: The First Rose…, began with a haunting piano phrase and a strong vocal entrance by Ms. Ihnen that filled the large sanctuary space. There is a somber feeling in this music, aided by a trace of the blues in the piano accompaniment. Ms. Ihnen’s rich mezzo voice was powerful enough to be heard everywhere in the audience without a microphone or amplification – but the spaciously resonant hall tended to swallow up the words of the text. Even so, the smoothly strong vocal lines, offset by Ms. Shpachenko’s active piano passages, produced a finely balanced combination.
The brighter, jazzy feel of No. 2: Let the Little Birds Sing… included some lovely vocals in a high register that went soaring lightly over the piano line. Expressive and playful, this movement prompted a spontaneous round of applause as it concluded. No. 3: All the Dogwood Blossoms… began with powerfully dramatic chords in the piano and tightly drawn vocal phrasing that dialed up the tension. Forceful singing, blending nicely with an intricate piano accompaniment, went weaving in and out of the texture, adding some drama. A powerful crescendo from both performers filled up the hall and then pulled back slightly, enhancing the strong finish. The audience greeted Three Songs of Shattering with sustained applause.
A second Gianopoulos song cycle, this one based on the poetry of Sara Teasdale, followed. I. Dawn, the first movement of City Vignettes for Mezzo-Soprano and Guitar (or Piano) Op. 29 (2013), began with a solemn vocal line and a bustling piano accompaniment, similar in character to the first Gianopoulos piece. Strong, declarative lyrics followed, with further flourishes in the piano as if the rising sun were still over the horizon, a power more sensed than felt. A more relaxed II. Dusk featured an overarching vocal melody that soared smoothly upward, filling the big sanctuary space with sound. Ms. Ihnen’s power and range were on full display here and quite effective. III. Rain at Night gave a more cautious and tentative feel, especially in the piano, while nicely shaped vocal phrasings added to a sense of uncertainty. This movement captures the generally mixed feelings Southern Californians have about rain at night – especially on the freeways. City Vignettes for Mezzo-Soprano and Guitar (or Piano) further validates Gianopoulos’ pragmatic style of assigning technical embellishments to the piano, freeing Ms. Ihnen’s robust voice to rise impressively upwards, filling the space above the audience.
Piano Sonata No. 6 (2005), by Yuri Ishchenko began with a Fantasia. Its strong opening and quietly mysterious melody made for a gloomy feeling. A bit of agitation animated the texture, leading up to a series of resounding chords. This pattern of quiet tension followed by increasingly anxious passages continued, especially in the lower registers where deep rumblings added a sense of menace. A marvelous Ukranian bleakness poured grimly out of the keyboard under Ms. Shpachenko’s steady hands. The dynamics and tempo increased just as the texture thickened, the notes rushing out into the audience like a dark, flowing torrent. A very rapid run upward and a solemnly quiet chord at the finish carried Fantasia to its conclusion.
The second movement, Imperativo, arrived with a bright, almost waltz-like tempo invoking a feeling that is both decisive and purposeful. The active phrasing, while often complex, never felt timid or nervous. The precise and nuanced playing impressed, especially in the quieter stretches, and a hint of Prokofiev lyricism emerged in the melodies. A new line in the lower register rose up in a complex wave, making its way through the middle piano keys and accelerated to an almost fugue-like intricacy. This is engaging music, aided by the expressive passages and a profusion of notes that roared outward at the conclusion. The final movement, Epilogo, proved much more subdued, with tentative notes and a vague feeling of uncertainty. Although brief and fittingly restrained, this movement contrasted perfectly with the preceding fireworks. As the last notes died away, much cheering and applause arose for this most energetic performance
Aria by John Cage followed, a solo piece for voice. Ms. Ihnen explained that the score is fashioned from graphical notation with symbols, shapes and colors employed to indicate the vocal line. Aria began quietly, with a combination of musical notes and vocalese. Various languages comprised the text, the words mixing with sharp, spiky sounds and smoothly soaring musical notes. Hand clapping and breathy sounds scattered among the musical tones added to the variety. The dynamics and tempo frequently changed, often without notice, but skillful execution by Ms. Ihnen made for a graceful flow. The constant need to fit the various sound fragments into some sort of context proved challenging, and the sequences came as from a dream. Aria follows the philosophy of other Cage pieces – music is present everything we hear, as part of a continuous spectrum of sound experience.
Kenyon Songs, by Christian Carey followed, three pieces based on the poetry of Jane Kenyon and completed between 2007 and 2009. Song opened with soft chords and a simple melody in the piano. A settled, nostalgic feeling came through and the quiet lyrics spoke of the familiar and the mundane: “An oriole sings from the hedge, and in the hotel kitchen the chef sweetens cream for the pastries…” Subdued and straightforward phrasing in the vocals sustained a pleasant wistfulness. A bit of tension crept in as the lyrics turned to some threatening weather: “Far off lightening and thunder agree to join us for a few days down in the valley…” The vocals became stronger, but never evoked even a hint of menace in this charmingly peaceful portrait. Next was Otherwise, and the smoothly graceful opening extended the sense of serenity. Homespun lyrics persisted: “I ate cereal, sweet milk, flawless peach, it might have been otherwise” – that last phrase introducing just the slightest uncertainty, echoed in the piano line. More singing of benign, everyday activities followed, each phrase ending with “…it might have been otherwise.” The final line: “But one day I know it will be otherwise.” forcefully drove home the point of the poem. The carefully modulated vocals and accompaniment perfectly matched the intentions in the text. As Otherwise concluded the feeling turned poignant, reflecting the sense of impending loss.
Let Evening Come completed Carey’s song cycle. This brought a warmer feeling combined with a sense of completion – a welcome to the end of the day. The declarative phrasing in the voice added a bit of purpose, echoed from the text “To the bottle in the ditch, to the scoop in the oats. to the air in the lung – let evening come.” Kenyon Songs celebrates those small, prosaic parts of life that so often bring great contentment; the music and the nuanced performances capturing this exactly.
The final piece on the program was Three Songs for [Mezzo] Soprano & Piano, Op. 7 (2007/2010) – another song cycle by Gianopoulos. Based on texts by Dorothy Parker this consisted of three sections: I. Little Words, II. One Perfect Rose and III. Purposely Ungrammatical Love Song. A breezy, Manhattan feel that combines the wit and energy of Ms. Parker’s prose with a Broadway sensibility permeates all these pieces. The carefully balanced piano and vocal passages occasionally contained some impressive flash from the keyboard. The final section featured a nicely syncopated melody in the vocals joined with a light, swinging feel that animates the accompaniment. Three Songs for [Mezzo] Soprano & Piano perfectly expresses the elegant urban sophistication of New York at its height.
On Saturday, September 30, 2017 People Inside Electronics presented HOCKET along with special guests Vicki Ray, Aron Kallay and Derek Tywoniuk at the historic Throop Church in Pasadena. The varied program included a world premiere by Samuel Wells, a minimalist landmark work by Steve Reich from 1970, and an unusual piece for three toy pianos. The auditorium was filled to capacity for the first People Inside Electronics concert of the fall season.
The first part of the concert was given over to the world premiere of The Lacuna (2017), by Samuel Wells. HOCKET – Sarah Gibson and Thomas Kotcheff – were seated at the piano while the composer manned a computer behind the audience. Soft, dreamy electronics filled the stage to open the piece. A strong chord marked the entrance of the piano, followed by a series of sparse notes adding to the solitary, remote feeling coming from the electronics. The four hands of HOCKET soon began producing a great profusion of notes from the piano, accompanied by the sound of lapping water. As the piano went silent for a moment, a more tentative and uncertain feeling prevailed as if we were standing on some distant shore. A series of softly repeating arpeggios then began in the piano – reprocessed by the computer and echoed through the speakers – and this was very effective in creating a quiet, settled feeling. At length the piano became more rapidly active and a sort of conversation ensued with the electronic reprocessing of the acoustic sounds.
At one point a dance-like groove broke out, growing in volume and generating a pleasantly warm feeling, much welcomed after the prior remoteness. The cycle of emotions continued, sometimes animated and with counterpoint, sometimes hopeful and at other times dramatic and anxious. The piano and electronic processing were amazingly well-coordinated, each complimenting the other to generate a wide range of expressive sensations. The electronics became a natural partner to the excellent playing by Hocket, even in the fastest and most intricate stretches. The Lacuna is a cutting edge work that does much to validate the capability of electronic reprocessing when joined in real time with skilled piano playing.
qsqsqsqsqqqqqqqqq (2009) by Tristan Perich followed the intermission and three toy pianos equipped with three-channel 1-bit tones were occupied by Vicki Ray, Kotcheff and Gibson. They opened with an unexpectedly bright and vivid sound, full of rapid passages and precise counterpoint that filled the space with a pleasingly playful energy. The 1-bit electronics augmented the normally modest dynamics of the toy pianos, adding a whimsical arcade game sensibility. There was some minimalist DNA in all of this, but the phrasing was more compact and the harmonic changes more engagingly frequent. Intricate layers of notes poured forth from the players, with sudden stops and grand pauses sprinkled throughout. All of this was skillfully performed, a feat made more remarkable by the cramped postures necessitated by sitting at the small instruments. qsqsqsqsqqqqqqqqq is a surprisingly attractive and inventive piece for unlikely musical forces, delivered with precision and style by HOCKET and Ms. Ray.
Orizzonte (2004) by Missy Mazzoli for solo piano and electronics was next, performed by Gibson. A clear, slowly pulsing tone issued from the speakers to begin, followed by a series of single piano notes that were close in pitch to that of the electronics. Open chords were soon heard in the piano producing a somber feel and as the piece proceeded the phrases by Ms. Gibson turned more complex and darkly dramatic. The playing here was satisfyingly expressive as the texture gradually became more dense and colored by variations in the dynamics. The piano wove intricate passages in and around the electronic tone which remained more or less constant in pitch and timbre. The simple electronics proved to be surprisingly effective as the foundation for the strongly plaintive mood. Orizzonte artfully combines skilled playing with a straightforward electronic accompaniment in a way that augments each to the benefit of the whole.
Musique de Tables (1987) by Thierry De Mey contained three solid tablets equipped with contact mics on a narrow table. Ray, Gibson and Kotcheff were seated so that their hands, fists and fingers could easily contact the surface of the tablet. The auditorium was completely darkened and the players wore LED head lamps so that the motion of their hands was highlighted as they performed. All of the possibilities of hands and fingers on a flat surface were adroitly explored in this piece, often with striking results. There was, of course, drumming with all three players in unison or separately weaving complex passages and this was often reminiscent of a marching band drum line. There was the tapping of fingers and pounding with fists. There was rubbing of palms and scratching on the surface of the tablets as well as hands clapping, all making for an effective contrast with the more dominant percussive sounds. In the darkness it often felt as if we were witnessing some primal ceremony in a remote village. Musique de Tables is a wonderfully imaginative piece made all the more impressive by the simplicity of the materials, the staging and the ingenious lighting.
The final work on the program was Four Organs (1970) by Steve Reich. Vicki Ray and Aron Kallay joined HOCKET at keyboards on a table in the center of the audience. Derek Tywoniuk began the piece with a steady and continuous eighth-note pulse from two maracas. Four Organs is early Reich, and it was one of his first pieces to be performed for a large audience at a concert by the Boston Symphony in 1971. In his book Writings on Music, Reich wrote that Four Organs was “…composed exclusively of the gradual augmentation of individual tones within a single chord. From the beginning to the end there are no changes of pitch or timbre; all changes are rhythmic and simply consist of gradually increasing durations.” The process-driven feel of this piece is immediately apparent from the beginning and it slowly unfolds with an unrelenting rigor. As the pitches lengthened, the chord took on a sort of grandeur as the tones were allowed to ring out. The playing by all was both accurate and disciplined as Four Organs uncoiled along its deliberate course – a nice reminder of the early days of minimalism.
People Inside Electronics continues to explore the many possibilities of acoustic and electronic collaboration in ways that consistently create good music. Their concert will be Sunday, October 15, 2017 at the Throop Church and will feature cellist Ashley Bathgate.
MicroFest Records has released The Great Hunt, a new song cycle of chamber music pieces by Alex Wand. With a first-rate ensemble that includes members of wild Up and Partch, The Great Hunt explores the many aspects of mortality and death as seen through the lens of poetry by Carl Sandburg. Nine short tracks make up this collection, described in the liner notes as music that “weaves together folk and classical influences, microtonal guitars, improvisation, and speak-singing recitation.”
Cool Tombs is based on a poem about the burial of Abraham Lincoln and begins with a mysterious solo flute line followed by sustained cello tones and counterpoint in the bassoon. The poetry is spoken against a series of darkly mystical harp passages, soon rejoined by the flute. The feeling is solemn and grave, but not frightening. More spoken text about the burials of U.S. Grant and Pocahontas amplify the theme that, great or small, we are all equal in the tomb. The perfectly woven instrumental lines produce just the right combination of uncertainty and expectation that infuses Sandburg’s text.
Grass takes up a similar theme, but from the more overwhelming perspective of large-scale death in battle. Beginning with a quick percussive hit and followed by languid guitar strumming, the text speaks of the dead piled “high at Austerlitz and Waterloo. Shovel them under and let me work; I am the grass, I cover all.” The spare ensemble reflects the anonymity of mass casualties in war – the graves obscured by grass so that years later the resting places are forgotten. The feeling here is decidedly tragic, especially in a stark cello solo by Derek Stein as Grass rolls to a quiet close.
An unexpectedly brighter view of death is heard in Time Sweep, beginning with strong vocals, pleasing harmonies and an upbeat tempo that starts with the text “Since death is there in the light of the sun, in the song of the wind…” Death is artfully portrayed as a new and vivid experience, neither grim nor frightening, but rather occurring as a natural experience. A somewhat slower instrumental interlude is almost mournful, but never melancholy, with long, deep tones and thick harmony. The vocals take this up, bringing a warm and comforting color to the piece as it glides slowly to the finish. Time Sweep is an extraordinary musical and poetic statement on death as the natural consequence of life.
Under the Harvest Moon returns to the more familiar territory of Halloween spookiness and the sense of foreboding on a dark autumn evening in the graveyard. “Death, the gray mocker, comes and whispers to you…” A strong percussive presence, repeating guitar riffs and some discordant tutti playing add to the sense of dread. This pivots in the second half of the piece, however, becoming more of a summer reminiscence with less jarring harmonies and a softer beat. The ensemble here is very precise, leaving just a hint of the uncertainty, even as this track arrives at a smooth finish.
Not all of the album is focused so tightly on death. Jug is an engaging tribute to the simple clay vessel used to hold so many commonplace things: cider, maple syrup, vinegar. The relationship to human mortal insignificance is perhaps metaphorical, as the poem states: “There is nothing proud about this; only one out of many…” A strong repeating cello line, cleanly sung vocals and a catchy rhythm all serve to celebrate this ordinary but useful object. New Weather is a nicely nostalgic look at the highly personal way that climate and landscape were experienced in the last century. With a lilting, waltz-like melody the text seems to be a throwback to a time when we paid more attention to our surroundings. Passersby has a wonderfully breezy flute obbligato by Christine Tavolacci that floats above a determined vocal line, and this manages to impart just a hint of pop sentiment. The Great Cool Calm is even more nostalgically whimsical, with some lovely vocal harmonies and an excellent tutti ensemble section.
The Great Hunt, the title track, begins with a repeating guitar riff soon joined by the vocals of Alex Wand. The singing of Jackson Browne flashes briefly to mind here, but the exquisite harmony of Laura Jean Anderson along with sustained cello and flute lines clothe the pop sensibility with a dignity equal to the text. This piece is just two minutes long but manages to be both beautiful and captivating. The entire album, for that matter, has been carefully crafted around the touching Sandburg texts with just the right balance of the simple and the formal – all superbly performed.
The Great Hunt is available for high resolution download at prostudiomasters.com/album/page/15460.
Cold Blue Music has announced a new album, River of 1,000 Streams, by composer Daniel Lentz. Written in 2016, this is a single track of solo piano music inspired by a visit to the Yellowstone River and performed by Los Angeles-based pianist Vicki Ray. From the liner notes, “…River of 1,000 Streams is a virtuosic piano piece in which a live/solo part is expanded by the addition of hundreds of ‘cascading echoes’ (reappearing fragments of music) that appear kaleidoscopically in up to 11 simultaneous layers, creating a thick texture of primarily tremolos that gradually gains in density and volume as rich harmonies climb, in a great arc, from the very bottom to the very top of the keyboard.”
Although simple in concept and consistent in texture, River of 1,000 Streams is always changing and begins with a deep rumbling in the lower registers – almost like the roar of a distant flight of old bombers. There is a strong flowing sensation to this, as if unseen waters are roiling just out of sight. At 2:00 the rolling phrases rise just slightly in pitch, adding a new sense of expectancy. While still very dark and ominous, the expressive playing by Ms. Ray creates a powerful surging sensation; the texture and dynamics here are expertly shaped, and the result is like listening to a restless tide. The repeating patterns move slowly up the piano keyboard and each new set of pitches adds to a sense of evolving motion.
By 6:30 the notes are high enough in pitch to become a bit more distinct in the hearing – less like a roar and more like a patter. The flowing feel remains as the piece proceeds, but the small variations in pitch and the artful shaping of the dynamics keep the listener engaged. By 11:00 the register has moved high enough that there is a greater sense of drama in the notes, even as the passages and textural density remain consistent. At 14:24 a short melodic fragment is heard – like the cresting of a wave – marking the transition to the middle registers. The same pattern of tremolos and trills persist, but the new pitches feel more introspective and less menacing here. By 17:30 the pitch register is high enough to spark a sense of tenuous optimism – as if a ray of the sun is emerging from behind a dark cloud. At 19:00 another short melody fragment is heard, followed by dramatic surges of the low and ominous notes from the opening. The many subtleties in this piece rely on the perceptive playing of Ms. Ray, who manages to perfectly articulate the slight variations in density and texture from moment to moment.
By 20:00 the piece has arrived at the higher reaches of the keyboard with the notes sounding crisper and more distinctly percussive, as if a climax is approaching. At 21:54, another short melody fragment appears while the trills in the upper registers sound like an alarm going off. Middle and lower register trills roll by in accompaniment, adding a sense of layered depth to this section. At 23:30 the high register texture is now very animated and a wash of middle register trills fill in nicely below, adding balance. At 25:00 another short melodic fragment appears and the mix of pitches becomes somewhat more calming. By the finish, the very highest notes on the keyboard trill anxiously but are accompanied by a series of lower surges that offer a comforting sense of closure. At the end, the sound simply ceases, the last notes ringing out and slowly dying away.
River of 1,000 Streams is a prodigious work, in its vision as well as the realization. The subtle variations are always engaging, even as they unfold slowly, and the intricate layering of the various passages is precisely formulated. The performance by Ms. Ray deserves special credit – River of 1,000 Streams will only add to her deserved reputation as one of our premiere interpreters of contemporary music.
On Saturday, June 10, 2017 the Jack Rutberg Fine Arts Gallery on fashionable North La Brea Avenue in Los Angeles hosted a Music & Conversations concert featuring the Lyris Quartet and vocalist Moira Smiley. An overflow crowd packed the venue, sampling Casa Torelli fine wines and previewing works of the upcoming “Artists of Mexico” exhibition. Contemporary music by Moira Smiley and Jane Brockman was on the concert program as well as String Quartet No. 15 by Franz Schubert.
Selections from the Mikrokosmos, by Béla Bartók – as arranged by Moira Smiley – began the concert, with Mikrokosmos #148 – 1st Dance in Bulgarian Rhythm up first. This opened with a strong repeating cello line accompanied by clapping. The violin took up the repeating figure and Ms. Smiley entered with an active vocalese that had a bit of an edge to it, much like scat singing. The hard consonants and clipped delivery was reminiscent of an Eastern European language and proved to be very expressive. At times Ms. Smiley’s voice soared eloquently over the tutti strings, weaving in and out of the busy texture. This is a nicely rhythmic piece with a good vocal presence. Mikrokosmos #75 – Summer Has Come followed and for this Ms. Smiley supplied the lyrics in English. This began with slow, sustained tones in the upper strings followed by counterpoint in the cello. The vocal melody entered with “Summer has come” and was smoothly sung as the strings portrayed a pastoral, organic feel matching the sense of the lyrics. A nice contrast to the opening piece.
Mikrokosmos #74 – ‘The Hat’ was next and opened with a series of pizzicato figures in the upper strings that gave this a fast start, matched by lively vocals. Ms. Smiley had a small accordion and this added to the exotic feel. A violin duo – ‘Bagpipes’ – commenced and this filled the performance space with rapid fiddling that sounded more like twice as many players. The insistent vocals added to the energy as a second violin duo – ‘Mamaros’ – emerged without pause. Mikrokosmos #75 proved to be a rousing portrait of what might have been a Saturday night in any rural Hungarian village square.
Silverlake followed, an original work by Moira Smiley adapted from a text by Charles Wesley that, according to her website, describes “ the wakefulness that comes in the early AM – as the mind wrestles with the questions of fate & divinity.” A repeating pizzicato figure in the cello opens Silverlake, with slower tones in the upper strings. Ms. Smiley’s soprano voice entered above with a beautiful legato melody.
This was completely unlike the previous pieces with their vocalese and sharp edges. The singing here was clear and pleasingly fluid, recalling Judy Collins. Towards the finish a bit of anxiety crept in, but the strings took up smooth tutti passages that created some lovely harmonies with the voice. With the strings and voice perfectly complimenting each other, Silverlake is an exquisitely charming work.
Time Cycles, by Jane Brockman was next, a song cycle in three parts for string quartet and voice with lyrics by Lois Becker. Hurricane Housekeeping was first, and this began with a rapidly repeating tutti figure in the strings, soon taken up by the voice, producing a palpable tempus fugit feel. Quick pizzicato passages added to the sense of breathlessness as Ms. Smiley sang “Time is on the wing…” Later, cyclic rhythms in the strings brought briefly to mind certain sections of Different Trains by Steve Reich. “We are swept along…” fittingly, was heard just before the finish. To anyone who has tried to prepare for company, Hurricane Housekeeping is the perfect musical metaphor.
The Mayfly Rag followed, and this was a more playful and somewhat less harried piece. “Carpe Diem” was heard in the vocals at the start and the brisk pizzicato in the strings gave Mayfly Rag a buoyant, yet purposeful feel. The mayfly, of course, has a very short lifespan and you might expect that this would make for a darkly fatalistic outlook. This music, however, is appealingly upbeat and confident, happily trying to cram all the experiences of life into a single joyous moment. The tag line at the ending was also brightly amusing: “A mayfly lives for just a day… Don’t snooze!”
The Turning of the Seasons completed the three-movement cycle and this, of course, took in a much longer view than The Mayfly Rag. The Turning of the Seasons has a more serious and introspective tone, especially for autumn. An echo of Vivaldi could be heard in the winter section with its flurry of sharp passages. The balance of strings and voice was excellent and the precise playing of the Lyris quartet throughout made for a well-crafted performance. At the finish Ms. Smiley’s expressive voice again soared over the texture, dramatically proclaiming “The cycle does not end…” Time Cycles is an engaging and stimulating look at the way we experience time from three different perspectives. The applause that followed was sincere and enthusiastic.
The balance of the evening was given over to the sprawling String Quartet No. 15 in G Major by Franz Schubert. The Lyris Quartet was on familiar historical footing here, with the phrasing, balance and dynamics all carefully calibrated. The acoustics of the Rutberg Gallery came through once again – even the delicate pianissimo passages were clearly heard in the back row. The 1st movement, Allegro molto moderato, unfolded with all its variety of forcefulness and subtlety intact. The active sections filled the space with sound, as if two string quartets were present. The smooth Andante un poco moto ambled along at just the right tempo, revealing some lovely harmonies and the occasional bit of drama. The lively Scherzo: Allegro vivace was precisely played and the dynamic contrasts all strictly observed. The catchy melody in the recapitulation was particularly well done. The final Allegro assai, although taken at a brisk tempo, was light and nimble and the syncopated sections artfully negotiated. Intense at times, but always under control, the 40+ minutes of non-stop Schubert in the warm gallery was quite a workout for the Lyris Quartet, whose efforts were repaid with a standing ovation.
The success of Music and Conversations concerts comes from just the right mix of an interesting venue, a sociable atmosphere, and good music. Credit for this must go to Jane Brockman and Jack Rutberg who have worked hard to prepare these concert events. The attendance is invariably standing-room only, and the thoughtful programming is always accessible and enlightening, combining exciting new music with familiar classics.
On May 12, 2017 the Boston Court Performing Arts Center was the venue for a memorial concert marking the 100th anniversary of the birth of Lou Harrison, presented by MicroFest. No less than seven Harrison works were programmed – curated by Bill Alves – including rarely and never-performed pieces. The stage was packed with all sorts of instruments and found percussion, including authentic recreations of two conduit xylophones designed by Harrison and tuned to just intonation. The musicians of Just Strings and Varied Trio were on hand and a fine crowd filled the theater in anticipation of an evening of music by one of America’s most influential composers.
Suite for National Steel was first and this four movement piece was written for steel-body guitar re-fretted for just intonation. The first movement is based on a whimsical sculpture by the artist Nek Chand, and several other Harrison pieces compiled by guitarist John Schneider complete the suite. Accordingly, Suite for National Steel opens with a rapid melody and precise counterpoint that had a lively, dance-like feel. The second movement, Jahla, was more relaxed and reflective, the longer notes accentuating the tuning. Music for Bill and Me, movement 3, was slower still and had that Asian flavor so typical of Harrison. Heartfelt and lovely, this was played by Schneider with great feeling. The final Serenado movement was just that: upbeat and optimistic, with a sunny and active feel. Suite for National Steel was beautifully played by John Schneider from memory, and nicely summarized many of Harrison’s most identifiable musical traits.
Solo (1972) followed and this was performed on a carefully reconstructed metal tube instrument first built by Harrison using aluminum conduit tubes tuned to just intonation. Often called a “tubulong”, it resembles a xylophone with resonator tubes. The sound, while distinctly metallic, is rich in overtones and two of these instruments were built by Kathryn Jones specifically for this concert. Solo was played by percussionist-extraordinary Yuri Inoo and the mysterious, exotic feel was immediately evident. The melody was nicely matched to the tuning and pleasant to the ear – a tribute to the composition as well as the playing and construction of the tubulong.
Suite from Young Caesar, consisting of four short movements was next, and there was percussion, a harp and a violin in addition to the conduit tubulong. Lullaby, the first movement, opened with a nice mix of percussion and long, sustained tones in the violin. There was a quietly beautiful Asian feel to this, and an exceptionally fine ensemble between the confident violin playing of Shalini Vijayan and the assorted percussion. The second movement, Prelude to Scene ii, felt stronger and more assertive, with Alison Bjorkedal’s harp trading passages and playing counterpoint to the violin. Shadow Scene and Processional, movement three, again featured the harp and violin; with just the slightest presence of percussion this managed to convey an exotic and mysterious presence. The final movement, Whirling Dance, had an uptempo melody in the violin with counterpoint in the harp and some lovely, deep sounds in the percussion. All of this was skillfully played with intricate, yet even textures throughout. Suite from Young Caesar is a convincing demonstration of Harrison’s ability to find just the right combination of percussion and instrumental pitches, each complimenting the other for just the right balance.
Variations (1936) followed with Aron Kallay at the piano and Shalini Vijayan on violin. Variations is the earliest work in this concert – Harrison would have been just 19 years old when it was written. The score for this piece was discovered by Bill Alves among Harrison’s papers, and was apparently never performed. This piece dates from the time Harrison was a student of Henry Cowell, whose signature keyboard gesture at the time was the tone cluster. Accordingly, Variations begins with a series of these in the lower registers, dark and ominous, like an advancing storm. Each crash increases in volume and menace, and Aron Kallay managed to extract all of it from the grand piano on stage. When the violin enters, there is a subdued and sorrowful melody, while the piano softens with single chords underneath. There is no trace here of the sunny Asian optimism or interest in alternate tuning – these would come later in Harrison’s career. More tone clusters are heard in the higher piano registers, further unsettling things, and when the violin joins in again there is a bleak and angry feel that almost boils with intensity. A final series of roaring crashes and chords are heard accompanied by somber violin passages, and the piece ends, as if on a question. Variations is an intriguing glance at Harrison as the young composer: confident and expressive, yet untouched by his later influences and interests.
After a short intermission the stage was reconfigured and there was much moving and placing of various found percussion objects. Omnipotent Chair (1940) followed, and this was performed in five short movements. Harrison was inspired by Henry Cowell and John Cage to create a percussion ensemble fashioned from items found in old shops and junk yards. Omnipotent Chair opens with an exotic melody in the violin accompanied by the striking of flower pots and drums. The blend is surprisingly balanced and even: the typical Asian feel of Harrison’s work was clearly heard, especially in the delicate soundings of a small triangle. As the suite continued, Aron Kally was heard playing an elaborate sequence of bells, and turned in a nice performance. In another section, Yuri Inoo tapped out the beat on the body of a double bass. In the fourth movement, rapid violin passages and the lively rhythms in the wood block recalled Harrison’s many compositions for dance ensembles. Throughout Omnipotent Chair the profusion of unusual percussive elements never overwhelmed Shalini Vijayan’s confident violin, and the overall texture felt comfortable and familiar.
Air from The Scattered Remains (1988) followed, and this was the result of a commission by filmmaker James Broughton for a film score. Harrison’s approach was to provide a series of repeating figures in order to insure that the feel of the piece would survive the inevitable cutting in the film editing process. This piece opens with a simple solo melody in the conduit tubulong that extends for a bit, followed by bass drum and wood block that add some variety to the texture. The harpsichord enters in a repeating counterpoint that brings a sense of purpose as the work proceeds, with a triangle contributing a light embellishment. A nice groove developed and the ensemble was controlled and precise. According to the program notes Air from The Scattered Remains “.. was perhaps the closest he ever came to the then-popular minimalism, a style Harrison sympathized with and which influenced his students of the time.” This performance was the first since the original recording of the film score.
The final piece of the concert was Varied Quintet (1987) and for this concert the original orchestration with just intonation was used, including two conduit tubulongs, a harp, violin, re-tuned harpsichord and assorted percussion. Varied Quintet proceeds in five movements and the first of these, Gendhing, began with the harp and the conduit tubulongs entering in sequence followed by a simple but strongly expressive melody in the violin. With its exotic feel, Gendhing is clearly influenced by Harrison’s continuing interest in Javanese gamelan forms. The harpsichord joins in and some lovely counterpoint develops. As the program notes point out: “…the interweaving just intonation bell instruments sparkle with an entirely different texture than what can be coaxed from the conventional piano.”
The second movement, Bowl Bells, quickly turned into a percussion tour de force by Yuri Inoo, whose rapidly accurate playing on a set of bowls dazzled the ear while generating a solid groove. Elegy, the third movement, featured a simple, yet sorrowful melody in the violin aided by thick chords from the harpsichord underneath. The percussion was mostly tacit for this solemn movement, with only a few quiet notes from the conduit tubulong. Rondeau in Honor of Fragonard followed, written as a tribute to one of Harrison’s favorite painters, and the buoyant optimism was in complete contrast to the previous Elegy. Some lovely interweaving of violin and harpsichord added to the cheer. The final movement of the piece, Dance, looked back to Harrison’s extensive experience writing for dance companies and the active, whirling feel and rapid passages were precisely executed by the entire ensemble.
Varied Quintet, with its unorthodox instruments, just tuning and exotic character was performed in this program for the first time since it was premiered. The musicians of Varied Trio and Just Strings – as well as the scholarship of Bill Alves – combined to produce a unique concert to hear important works by Lou Harrison that have been too-long neglected.
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.
Los Angeles-based experimental opera company The Industry workshopped the much-anticipated contemporary opera Bonnie and Clyde for their Second Take program on February 26, 2017. Written by Andrew McIntosh – with libretto by Melinda Rice – the performance was given at the spacious Wilshire Ebell Theatre with a large crowd in attendance. More than three years in development, the full musical score of Bonnie and Clyde was realized by a cast of soloists, a small chorus and wild Up, a 17-piece instrumental ensemble, all under the direction of Christopher Rountree.
Yuval Sharon, Artistic Director for The Industry, explained in his welcoming remarks that the Second Take preview was designed to give a complete performance of all the music in the opera. There is no acting, costumes or scenery, but the full musical forces are all present. The program notes explained that “[Second Take] showcases the new piece in a nascent and pure state; production concerns and directorial interpretation have not yet put this composition to the test.”
The six vocalists comprising the cast stood on one side of the stage, four choristers were placed on the opposite side, with wild Up in the center. A large screen above and at the back of the stage helpfully displayed the libretto as it was sung. As all the singers were stationary and dressed in formal black, the performance feeling a bit more like an oratorio than an opera. The presence of wild Up at center stage tended to emphasize the accompaniment over the singers at times, but the instrumental texture throughout was generally transparent enough that there was no compromise to any of the vocal elements.
As librettist Melinda Rice observed, “When a story is familiar, there is hardly any question of how it will end.” This perspective informs almost everything about Bonnie and Clyde, and from the opening moments the feeling is one of a somber sadness. The libretto is always on a personal and emotional plane, with much of it taken from the reminiscences of the surviving players in the real-life drama. The libretto draws material from the published autobiography of Ted Hinton to form the narrative thread. Hinton worked as a delivery man and personally knew both Bonnie and Clyde. He later became a police officer and was a member of the posse that finally caught up with the fugitive pair.
Bonnie and Clyde unfolds in 24 scenes over two acts. Act I serves to introduce the many characters: Ted Hinton (James Onstad), Clyde’s mother Cumie (Sarah Beaty), brother Buck Barrow and his wife Blanche (David Castillo and Lauren Davis), as well as the titular Bonnie and Clyde (Justine Aronson and Jon Keenan). Given the static nature of the staging, it took a few scenes to get the sense of these relationships – the acting and costuming in the final production will be helpful here – but the music and the singing were both sensitive and precise, clearly sketching out the emotional terrain. Early in Act I Cumie, portrayed by Sarah Beaty, sings a beautiful aria in the form of a letter asking the governor to parole Clyde as he “is needed here on the farm.” There is a palpable sense of pathos in the music; the hard-scrabble life of an East Texas farming family is distinctly heard and felt. When Clyde returns home from prison he arrives in a new Ford V8. Rather than return to his family and the difficult life of a farmer, Clyde is completely bewitched by the power of the automobile and the freedom this represents; you can hear this tension in the music and it marks a decisive point in the story.
The final scene in Act I is masterfully done – Bonnie and Clyde are on the run and crash their car near a washed out bridge in the country. Bonnie is severely burned and they seek shelter at a nearby farmhouse. The family there offers to call for help, but Clyde refuses and announces that he will steal their car to continue the flight. The frightened family begins to sing a hymn – as heard in the chorus – and this immediately connects with the audience on a spiritual level, much like a chorale in a Bach Passion. Act I thus concludes with Bonnie and Clyde renouncing everything that is good in their past for an uncertain freedom in the future.
Act II opens with a spoken soliloquy by Ted Hinton, and this helpfully brings the narrative forward, putting the audience squarely in the middle of the most familiar part of the story. Bonnie and Clyde are now public enemies with brother Buck Barrow and Blanche also members of the gang. In a dramatic duet, Buck is asked to renounce Clyde and return to the quiet life. The music poignantly captures the heart-rendering choice that turns on a brother’s loyalty. When Buck is killed in a police ambush, Ted interrogates the captured Blanche in a tense scene accompanied by a steady tone in the woodwinds that heightens the emotional impact. “Your husband is dead” announces Ted – and the story gains its full dramatic traction.
After a brief orchestral interlude, Bonnie and Clyde return to the stage for a duet – having been absent since the end of Act I – and the story gathers momentum toward the inevitable finish. Another soliloquy by Hinton tells of how Bonnie and Clyde ran a roadblock on Easter Sunday, killing a rookie policeman in the process. The young man was just two weeks from his wedding and there is a very touching aria sung by Marie, his intended bride, lamenting her loss. Hinton now sings of how he has ‘gotten into their future’ and believes he can predict the couple’s next move. Hinton devises a trap for the pair and at this point the music turns very dark, the solemn toll of piano chords ringing out like church bells. A final epilogue scene is unexpectedly quiet with none of the violent histrionics of the more popular accounts. Clyde is simply heard repeating: “Freedom is driving and driving and driving…” as the opera fades to its finish. After a respectful silence, the audience responded with an extended and enthusiastic applause.
This performance of Bonnie and Clyde, although limited to just the musical elements, was nevertheless a powerful experience. The singing and playing was of a very high caliber throughout and the conducting by Christopher Rountree was flawless. The music and libretto were well-matched and artfully performed by all. The eventual staging, scenery and costuming will be an important element in portraying the relationships and motivations of the characters, especially in Act I. The singing was hauntingly beautiful, with the arias and duets more or less evenly distributed throughout the cast. The premiere of the finished production of Bonnie and Clyde is sure to be an extraordinary event.
On February 3, 2017 wasteLAnd presented the second in a series of four concert appearances – titled 4:7 – by master violinist Mark Menzies. A long time presence on the Los Angeles new music scene, Menzies was in town on a visit from his native New Zealand and the four concerts also marked the violinist’s 47th birthday. The spacious downtown Art Share venue was filled to capacity despite a rainy Friday night on the local freeways. Three solo pieces were heard, by Ching-Wen Chao, wasteLAnd resident composer Erik Ulman and the Italian utopian Luigi Nono.
Elegy in Flight by Ching-Wen Chao was first, inspired by Buddhist sacred texts and the ‘wheel of life,’ as described in the program notes: “This piece starts with a statement of a 59-note set, which is derived from a 59-syllable mantra used in recitation for the dead. The set subsequently expands itself through the multiplication of its own intervals… This expansion/compression process is stated 6 times over the course of the piece with variations of speed and emphasis.” Elegy in Flight opened with a strong, declarative statement followed by a series of softer runs. Menzies is extremely adept at dynamic contrast and this added to the underlying sense of anxiety and building tension in the complex passages. A stretch of soft, sustained tones followed that changed the feeling to one of a quiet remoteness, only to change again with a series of rapid runs full of spikes and squeaks. In all of this Menzies was in full command of the intonation and expressiveness pouring out from his violin. Some lovely playing was heard in the lower registers while several short, stabbing phrases marked the finish. Elegy in Flight is a dynamic, evolving work that makes many demands on the soloist; all artfully met in this performance.
The world premiere of Lake, by Erik Ulman followed, and this solo viola piece was dedicated to Mark Menzies. Soft, sustained tones in a rich viola register filled the space, making for an elegant contrast to the preceding work. Lake has an introspective feel, nicely conveyed by the series of long tones that decrescendo to pianissimo. High-pitched phrases added a rhythmic movement that evokes a more alien feel, but this changed yet again to an active bubbling propelled by the pop of rapid of pizzicato notes. All of this was managed adroitly by Menzies, and as the final notes faded quietly away, sustained applause filled the room. Taking full advantage of the viola’s range and timbral possibilities, Lake is a worthy contribution to the solo repertoire.
After the intermission, La lontananza nostalgica utopica futura by Luigi Nono was performed by Mark Menzies along with Scott Worthington at the controls of the electronics. This piece was seemingly inspired by a stray piece of graffiti that Nono happened to see while visiting Toledo: “Traveler, there is no pathway, there is only traveling itself.” Accordingly, several music stands holding copies of the written score were scattered throughout the venue – on stage and in or around the audience – and Menzies traveled, as it were, from stand to stand during the performance. Speakers were also positioned in various places effectively filling the space with the recorded electronic accompaniment.
La lontananza nostalgica utopica futura began with Menzies at a music stand on stage, violin at the ready, while the speakers filled the room with the ambient sounds of what seemed to be string players warming up or tuning. There was a few odd words heard, then some thumps and squeaks before a strong upward glissando unleashed a series of complex runs that established an air of mystery and tension. Menzies then added short bursts of high, anxious notes and rapid passages that increased the ominous feel. The recorded sounds often came from single speakers in opposite corners of the space, and this added spatial perception to the overall experience. More rumbles and rattles came from the speakers as if large cases or cabinets were being moved. Menzies walked slowly and thoughtfully across the stage, settling at another music stand, and began playing a new set of quietly anxious tones along with the electronics.
The piece proceeded in this manner – the sounds from the recording continuing, full of riddles, while the soloist contributed variously fast phrases or slow, sustained tones. There was little form or structure evident – at times the sounds were fast and intense while at other times slower and softly atmospheric. The overall result was a remarkably good blend of electronics and live playing, with excellent fidelity from the speakers that perfectly matched the soloist. The dragging and thumping sounds in the recording were most convincing and the violin playing was controlled and precise throughout. Menzies made his way around to the various music stands at certain defined points in the score, but not in any preset pattern. There was a microphone at the final music stand and the piece concluded with a strong, steady violin pitch that persisted for a moment, then faded away as Menzies slipped offstage. La lontananza nostalgica utopica futura is a journey unto itself, full of mystery and uncertainty, yet always inviting the listener to formulate context from multiple combinations of sonic clues.