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Region I Conference Review

Connecticut College
November 19-20, 1998
Noel Zahler, host

University of Iowa New Music Ensemble Is Impressive at Connecticut College

The ensemble from the Center for New Music at the University of Iowa established itself as one of the leading proponents of recent music with a stunning performance at the Society of Composers, Inc. Region 1 Conference Friday, November 20, at Connecticut College in New London, CT. The Center for New Music, a vital force in decades past, had fallen on lean times and relinquished, at least in part, its leadership role. Under the able guidance of David Gompper, the Center and the ensemble appear ready to fill the void of recent years with precision performances of works by established and emerging composers. If Friday's concert was any indication, the ensemble, especially, is back with a vengeance!

Flashbacks (1995) by Mario Davidovsky provided an engaging beginning. The work exhibits the language of his Synchronisms series (for which he is most revered) updated and expanded. The allusion to music of his past is relevant for Flashbacks, in the composer's words, “is a musical fantasy attempting to make an intelligible musical narrative out of an apparent chaotic landscape:” a landscape of musical images recalled during the composition process. The resilience of the work lies in adept manipulation of rapid textural changes signaled by striking and forceful ensemble gestures and extreme sensitivity to timbral nuance. Virtuosity was a major aspect of this work and one wonders why the composer's large chamber and orchestral works are not performed more often.

Composer/conductor/pianist David Gompper's Finnegan's Wake (1997), for violin and piano, is a transformation of two Irish fiddle tunes via rhythmic manipulations evoking a playful dialogue between the performers. Gompper's ability to fluidly move between disparite styles was impressive. At one moment the Irish idiom predominated which was followed by a style more reminescent of ragtime which led to a section in a thoroughly modern mode; at one moment quasi-tonal and the next invoking abstract tonal relations. The work does not make a direct, dramatic statement, and is probably not intended to do so. It does provide an enjoyable stylistic excursion not unlike recalling contrasting musical moments in rapid succession. The success of this effort was amplified by impressive performances from both Gompper and violinist Andrew Carlson.

Gompper's Don't Go There (1998) was composed for those performers who appeared in only one other work on the concert. It's style was significantly different from Finnegan's Wake which underscores a fact which became evident as the concert progressed: David Gompper is a composer and performer of unquestioned talent and considerable range. The combination of bassoon, horn, violin, viola, double bass, harp, percussion and piano is not easy to manipulate but the composer produced impressive music. Particularly engaging was the middle section with its ostinato interplay between viola (with the strings delicately struck with a metal rod) and double bass which transformed into a dialogue between double bass and marimba. The ostinato eventually manifested itself in a multi-part counterpoint shared by the entire ensemble. The work once again displayed the composer's ability to connect highly contrasting and adroitly shaped events with apparent ease.

Highly regarded for intricate contrapuntal manipulation and sensitive orchestration, Bernard Rands' Concertino for Oboe and Ensemble (1998) carried these trademarks to new heights. But the Concertino exhibits a more subtle declamation than is usual for the composer. Its apex is achieved through a masterful reflection of materials between soloist and ensemble often in a multi-part stretto. Its lyric melodic materials ultimately transform into a breathtaking section of delicate, intricate, yet intense flourishes. Rands' use of multi-timbral octave or unison articulations of selected pitches in a melodic line provide an orchestrational and, at times, harmonic complexity which is seductive in its beauty and engaging in its intricacy. Soloist Mark Weiger's virtuosic abilities were a perfect fit for this difficult work. His playing was smooth and lyric. He approached even the most difficult passages with absolute precision and ease: no gesture was labored. Not since Heinz Holliger in his prime have we heard an oboist with his control and mastery.

Conference Director Noel Zahler's Agarttha (1998), which drew extra-musical influence from the book Foucault's Pendulum by Umberto Eco, was written for an ensemble of 17 performers. At the beginning, a very mysterious soundscape develops (not unlike that of the opening of Le Bon Pasteur from Debussy's Le Martyre de Saint-Sebastien) with focal points being crystalline chordal articulations in the upper ambitus of the ensemble set against a low rumble characterized by the contrabassoon. This was followed by contrasts between flights of figuration and near massive sonorities: sometimes eery and mystical and at other times irritated and edgy. While the work was highly impressive in its performed state, it is a "work in progress." It will be interesting to hear the completed version for it suggests not only satisfaction, but also intense engagement.

Perhaps the most controversial work on the program was Sinatra Shag by Michael Daugherty. The work was inspired by a postcard from 1966 of Nancy Sinatra sitting on a motorcycle, wearing, among other garments on would presume, a pair of knee high white boots. It is a high energy work with quotations from rock and roll which has become a Daugherty trademark. Even though it was extremely well performed (solo violinist Takuya Horiuchi was particularly impressive), the work fails to capture the imagination beyond providing a diversion. It has its pleasing aspects but does not possess the degree of structural elegance and depth which is expected in works for the concert stage.

Performing William Albright's Abiding Passions (1988) for Woodwind Quintet at the end of a concert for mostly larger ensembles could have been anti-climactic. But this fact was overcome not only by the marvelous performance, but also by the memory of Albright's demise on September 17, 1998. The final movement, entitled “Stage Four: Loss”, was strongly felt by an audience aware of Albright's lifetime contributions to education, research, creativity and the elevation of his art. Abiding Passions is in four short, subtle and strongly contrasted movements displaying a wide range of characters. The first movement featured rapid, agitated repetitions of pitches, the second a mesmerizing ascending and then descending broken chordal texture and the third short, fast figuration separated by silences of varying lengths.

Gerald Gabel, Texas Christian University

Region I Conference Review - Pierre Boulez

by John Deredita

I spent much of last Thursday, Friday, and Saturday not listening to opera but attending the Society of Composers Incorporated Region I Conference, held at Connecticut College in New London. The main events were a series of eight concerts of new music (I heard six) and the Saturday devoted to Pierre Boulez, who received an honorary degree. I found the three days immensely refreshing. We are continually subjected these days to recent music of the "new neo-Romantic" variety, with what Andrew Porter once called (referring to Philip Glass) its "Victorian harmonies." None of that was in evidence at SCI. The great variety of pieces played and sung took me back to my happy days in the sixties with atonality and serial organization of tones, rhythms, and dynamics-harder-edged music than Glass, John Adams, the (other) minimalists, and current tonalists choose to produce.

I had got in the mood for Boulez by exhuming my LP of his 1953-55 Le marteau sans maitre, and despite the passage of the decades, I felt that most of the new pieces I heard last week were in the tradition of that highly organized, exciting piece that sets poems by the surrealist Rene Char to instrumental and vocal music. Boulez was quoted in the Conn. College program as saying, "I think that music should be collective hysteria and magic, violently modern." I heard works by his successors that engage in that kind of hysteria, and in other, more sedate forms of interesting expression.

Rachel Rosales, whom I know from her repeated participation in our local Connecticut Early Music Festival, showed her versatility by reciting (not singing) Steven Gryc's Dream Vegetables, set to poems that describe the inner life of yes, corn, tomatoes, and four other vegetables, and Jan Krzywicki's Nocturne II, a setting of a poem by Walter de la Mare. I missed Rachel's third contribution on Friday morning, which I spent in court waiting for an Italian interpreting job that didn't happen-Grrr.

On Friday afternoon James Taylor, baritone, sang Gerry Gabel's Cantos de Lorca, and Andrew Childs, tenor, Brian Field's Tres canciones de amor, three of Pablo Neruda's love sonnets to his wife. Both Taylor and Childs have solid, powerful voices and good resumes, with fine opera credits. Neither had the best diction for Spanish, but the expressive songs came across anyhow.

Composers Mario Davidovsky and Bernard Rands, both Harvard professors, were also featured in the events (ed. see Region I review), but Saturday was dominated by the huge personality of Pierre Boulez. The morning began with a dialogue with the audience (which had grown considerably from the two earlier concert days; I had often felt I was the only non-composer there then). Boulez gave lengthy, fascinating, broadly allusive answers to questions about such matters as music and color (Messaien saw his music in terms of color, but couldn't clearly discuss that; his favorite painter was truly substandard), the relationship of French poets to music (minimal among contemporary poets, but the best writing on Wagner he has found in earlier writers, not strictly poets, such as Proust and Claudel). It was clear then and throughout the day that Boulez is a talented lecturer (in fine English) and teacher.

After the session I privately asked him my questions: how does he view the "reactionary" music of today (he considers it "entertainment" and agrees with me that there is some affinity between the political reaction of the last thirty years-Thatcherism, Reaganism, Clintonism, Blairism-and the neo-Romantics) and will he compose an opera (he had discussed it with two potential librettists--Jean Genet and a German writer whose name escaped me--but both had died; he has not abandoned the idea of composing an opera).

Boulez then played conductor at an open rehearsal of works of his that were to be played at the evening concert. He listened to the Connecticut College Chamber Players under Michael Adelson, then came down to advise the group and lead them through passages.

The first part of the afternoon was devoted to a panel discussion with the three featured composers and NYTIMES critic Paul Griffiths that focused on the beleaguered state of music today, particularly in the United States. The solution proffered was education, with Davidovsky suggesting that the utilitarian US might be sold on the proven ability of musically trained youngsters to perform math and reasoning better than those deprived of music, and Boulez suggesting the use of cybermedia as the access to musical education.

Andrew Gerzso of Boulez's institute, IRCAM, demonstrated in a 1 1/4-hour talk the electro-acoustic (computer-induced) component of Boulez's Anthemes 2, a piece for solo violin, computer, and six loudspeakers. Gerzso provides the computer element for Boulez's electro-acoustical music. "Anthemes" was to have received its US premiere Saturday night, but both it and "Le marteau sans maitre" were dropped from the program because the Chamber Players' violin and viola, a married couple, were called to Boston because their daughter had had a serious automobile accident on Friday. They were replaced in one piece that was retained, by their counterparts in the crack University of Iowa ensemble that played the concert with pieces by Davidovsky, Rands, and others on Friday night.

When the tragically necessary defections were announced on Friday night, Boulez with his characteristic energy offered to lengthen the concert, which all of a sudden looked twenty-some minutes long, by explaining the two ensemble pieces still scheduled. He produced an ideal situation: the two pieces, "Derive" and "Memoriale (...explosante-fixe...originel)" were played, then Boulez discussed them with musical examples from the instruments, and finally the ensemble played them again. All of us came away with clear notions of how these pieces are put together. The third piece was played brilliantly by Gary Chapman, solo pianist: Boulez's earliest published work, Notations (1945, written when he was 20).

It was not an operatic experience, but those three days have rekindled my enthusiasm for the "real" music of our time and whetted my appetite for that putative opera Boulez may write.

Formerly a professor of Spanish and Latin American literature, John Deredita now works as a translator and interpreter and is editing a casebook on Verdi's libretti and their sources to be published by Toccata Press.